What do we know about who wrote the letters attributed to Paul?
There are thirteen letters in the New Testament which begin by naming Paul as the person (or one of the people) responsible for writing the letter. A fourteenth letter, written “to the Hebrews”, was long considered to have been written by Paul, even though he was nowhere explicitly identified in this letter. The opinion of the overwhelming majority of scholars, for some time now, has been that Hebrews was not written by Paul. What about the other thirteen letters? Did all of those thirteen letters attributed to Paul actually originate with him?
Authentic Letters from Paul
There are seven letters which virtually all scholars say were written by Paul. But look carefully! The earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, declares at the start that it was written by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (1 Thess 1:1). A latter letter to the Philippians, states that it was written by Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:1), and so does the letter to Philemon (Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, Phlm 1:1).
Of the two letters to Corinth, 1 Corinthians is identified as coming from Paul … and our brother Sosthenes (1 Cor 1:1), whilst 2 Corinthians comes from Paul .. and Timothy our brother (2 Cor 1:1). So joint authorship of letters was a common practice.
Only Galatians and Romans actually claim to have been written solely by Paul (“Paul an apostle”, Gal 1:1; “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God …”, Rom 1:1). To underline that, the author of Galatians declares near the end, “see what large letters I make when I am writing with my own hand!” (Gal 6:11).
By contrast, in the last chapter of Romans, as Paul is sending his characteristic greetings (from Timothy, Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, Rom 16:21), his words are abruptly interrupted: “I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22). Clearly, Paul was using a scribe to write down this lengthy letter, which he most likely was dictating (and, if the state of his Greek sentences are any indicator, at times he was speaking with great rapidity!).
Disputed Letters, written in the name of Paul
Many scholars have come to doubt that all of the thirteen letters were authentic letters of Paul. They have been able to come to this view because of what is known about the widespread practice, in the ancient world, of circulating letters and other documents in the name of an eminent person from an earlier age—a great scholar, or philosopher, or religious leader, or teacher. This was done by a writer who wished to “borrow” the authority of the older figure, believing that this would give greater weight to the views and teachings included in their work.
The suggestion is that members of the church in the later decades of the first century did this, using the name of Paul, because they regarded him as a teacher of note and an apostle of the church. There were already many works like this in Jewish circles, and a number amongst the gentiles also; so this was a well-known practice. And the ancient world did not have the strict laws of copyright and intellectual property which characterise the twenty-first century!
Colossians begins with a claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2).
However, it was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.
The situation envisaged in Ephesians is quite different from that of Colossians; we know little, if anything, about it. The letter does begin in the expected manner, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). However, the phrase “who are in Ephesus” is missing from some significant manuscripts of this letter, raising the possibility that it was more of a general circular letter for early churches, than a letter to a specific community.
This is supported by various observations. The letter does not move immediately to a thanksgiving to identify the key characteristics of the community to which the letter is sent, as Paul’s letters inevitably do. Instead, there is a lengthy blessing in which a grand theological statement is developed (1:3–14), before a brief thanksgiving is offered for the faith and love of the (unspecified) recipients (1:15–16).
These are generic qualities, and the prayer veers off almost immediately into further theological exposition (1:17–23). The end of the letter simply replicates some of the greetings of Colossians in shortened form, suggesting a later writer imitating the style of an earlier letter. The body of the letter indicates only that Paul is a prisoner (3:1; 4:1) and that the recipients are Gentiles (2:11; 3:2), while the final prayer and grace (6:23–24) is likewise entirely generic.
For all these reasons, it is unlikely that Paul himself wrote this letter.
2 Thessalonians concludes with an insistence that it was written by Paul: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (2 Thess 3:17). At first glance, this looks similar to the reference to Paul’s “large letters” in his “own hand” at Gal 6:11; but this is a brief passing comment, whereas the claim is laboured in 2 Thessalonians by the addition of extra phrases (“this is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write”). So much so, that I start to have a sense of “methinks he doth protest too much”.
The first twenty words of the opening address of 1 Thess 1:1 are repeated exactly in 2 Thess 1:1–2a; this is unusual amongst the seven authentic letters of Paul, for in every other case there are variations of both minor and major significance in this opening section. (See Rom 1:2–6; 1 Cor 1:2b; 2 Cor 1:b; Gal 1:1 and 1:4; Phil 1:1b; Phlmn 2.) So 2 Thessalonians bears many marks of being a rather unsubtle “copy” of 1 Thessalonians.
Whilst Paul’s authentic letters reflect the dynamic nature of the community of faith, the three Pastoral Letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus) reflect a move towards a more developed organisational structure. They point towards the institutionalised church of the second century and beyond, in which the way of Jesus would become determined by the authority of the apostle and his local representative, the bishop.
Each of these letters follows the standard formula for a letter from Paul, and they each identify only Paul as the author (1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit 1:1). And yet, the format of the letters and the distinctive vocabulary used throws doubt on the claim that Paul was the author. Whilst they each have a traditional framework for a letter, the body of the letters often read more like a sermon or a moral treatise. Over one third of the words found in these three letters are not found in the authentic letters of Paul. Many words found frequently in the authentic letters do not appear anywhere in these three letters.
In addition, the situations addressed, the theology of the letters and the ecclesial structures envisaged reflect many differences between each of these three letters and the seven authentic letters of Paul.
Together, all of these elements point to the conclusion that the author wrote these letters after the lifetime of Paul. He reaches back in time to the figure of Paul in order to validate the teachings given to the community of faith in his own time. The figures of Timothy and Titus represent the leaders in the communities of faith in this later period.
John Squires is the Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) for Canberra Region Presbytery. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith.