I’m currently in Turkey, Greece, and Italy retracing the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. I thought this was a great occasion to include an excerpt from the chapter, “Who Really Wrote Paul’s Letters?” in my book, Making Sense of the Bible.
Paul wrote very few of the letters sent under his name. Now, that is a bit of an overstatement. Paul dictated the contents of many of his letters to others. Some of these people wrote in a style that indicates word-by-word dictation, while others seem to have taken his ideas and put them in the words that seemed best to them. Scholars believe that in a few cases other people took Paul’s teaching and thoughts and composed letters in his name after his death. Let’s briefly consider these various ideas for a moment.
We know that Paul used an amanuensis at times—a scribe who wrote down his letters as he dictated them—and he often lists a coauthor at the beginning of his epistles. The amanuensis who wrote Romans identifies himself in Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Paul ends 1 Corinthians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians saying, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand,” which would indicate that the rest of the letter was written by the hand of another, but the mark of authenticity was Paul’s greeting or signature at the end.
Scholars also believe that 2 Corinthians was a composite made up of at least two letters that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth at different times, edited together likely after Paul’s death. Why would someone have done this? It is possible that at least one of the previous letters had been partially damaged or a portion of it lost, hence the need to integrate the existing portion into another letter.
That leads to a discussion of what are sometimes called the Deutero-Pauline or “disputed” letters. Among Paul’s letters in the New Testament, five or six are thought by many mainline and Catholic scholars to have been written after Paul’s time. These disputed letters are, in the order they appear in the New Testament, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus.
These letters are questioned for various reasons. Some show a difference in theology and vocabulary compared to the undisputed letters of Paul. Since Paul used amanuenses, this does not guarantee that the letters were not in fact written by Paul. But the style and ideas seem sufficiently different from Paul’s other letters that it is not unreasonable to question the authorship.
The differences in the disputed letters involve both vocabulary and style, but the letters also contain theological ideas and guidance for the church that not only don’t show up in the undisputed letters but seem to come from a time when both the organizational needs of the church and the church’s theological convictions had matured beyond what is presumed of the period in which Paul lived.
This idea that several of Paul’s letters were written after his time, in his name, is disturbing to some Christians. But here’s another way to think about this idea. Tom Shipp was the founding pastor of the Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, back in the 1940s. The church grew rapidly under his leadership. His commitment to ministry with alcoholics was known across the city. Tom had served as the church’s pastor for thirty-one years when, one evening, he died of a heart attack while sitting in a church committee meeting. The church grieved his death and never forgot its founding pastor.
Twenty-one years after Shipp’s death, my friend Stan Copeland was assigned to pastor Lover’s Lane. He learned that Tom Shipp had dictated his sermons into a Dictaphone, and that the week he died he had left a sermon two-thirds finished on the Dictaphone. The tape was still around. Stan had a brilliant idea—he decided to preach Tom Shipp’s last sermon. He preached part of it nearly word for word but completed the last third of the sermon, which Shipp had never finished, and adapted it for the church of his time. He connected Shipp’s ideas to a new generation. The message was referred to as “A Sermon from the Other Side” by the Dallas Morning News. Though Shipp had died twenty-one years earlier, two thousand people showed up to hear the message. Was it Shipp’s sermon or Stan’s sermon? Well, it was Shipp’s ideas and many of his own words, but revised to address a new generation.
This is how I see the letters of Paul that may have been written after his passing. I approach them as if someone took Paul’s ideas and themes and prepared a new letter adapting his work for a new generation. That individual may have been Timothy, or Silvanus, or Sosthenes, or Tertius—some follower and associate of Paul who had traveled with him, who knew him so well that he could prepare a letter reflecting Paul’s thinking and ideas for a new generation.
I’m posting pictures and comments from my journey in the footsteps of Paul on my Facebook page each day. You can check them out here.
(The photo posted above is of a lake at the mountain pass Paul journeyed through on this way to Antioch, a 130-mile trip [a 2-3 week walk] Paul made on his first missionary journey.)