Should the Disputed Pauline Letters Be in the Canon?

Icon of St. Timothy

Icon of St. Timothy

Every term, not long before final papers are due, my students in the NT survey course are thrown a curve ball. We come to the letter to the Ephesians and the so-called Pastoral Letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). Most of my students discover for the first time how many scholars doubt these letters were written by Paul. They wonder how they can trust these documents as canonical Scripture if they were penned by some anonymous author using Paul’s name. And I think these students are rightly suspicious of how quickly many scholars brush aside their worry. Even if that kind of pseudonymous writing was socially accepted in the ancient world, even if the writers were not being deceptive, it still matters who was doing the writing. I agree with my students that authorship matters for canonicity. It’s not the only factor, but the books were originally canonized because they represented the faith and practice of what I call the “apostolic circle”: the apostles themselves and the co-workers, teachers, and churches that were nurtured and corrected by those apostles during their travels. So the authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters can’t be so neatly separated from the question of their reliability and authority.

To say that it matters who wrote the books, though, isn’t to say that the author had to be Paul himself. We have other books in the New Testament that are anonymous and whose author is unknown (e.g., Matthew, Hebrews). So canonicity doesn’t necessarily depend on Pauline authorship, or even on knowing who the specific author was. Rather, the canonicity of the NT books was originally linked with the author’s being part of the apostolic circle. What was authoritative and inspired was the understanding of Jesus developed together by the apostles and their co-workers. So Matthew can be regarded as canonical, even though it’s anonymous. Why? Because (a) we know it originated in the apostolic circle of communities, and (b) we know that the first and second-century churches regarded it as a good representative of that apostolic circle’s understanding.

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna

So if we were to decide that Ephesians and/or the Pastorals weren’t written by Paul, the question would be “Is there still reason to think that these letters are good representatives of apostolic faith?” I think there is. First, they were accepted and circulated along with Paul’s letters from the early 2nd century, if not earlier. Ephesians in particular was likely circulated with Paul’s letters already in the late 1st century. So they almost certainly originated in the churches of the apostolic circle in the 1st century. I don’t find the arguments for a 2nd century dating of the Pastorals at all convincing. These letters seem to be quoted by Polycarp (died 155 AD) and perhaps even Ignatius of Antioch (died 107 AD). The 2nd century dating is usually based either on questionable connections with later Gnosticism or on the 19th century Protestant view that institutional structures were a corruption of an earlier more “authentic” Christianity. Not only were they written in the 1st century, but all of these letters were also regarded by the early 2nd century as representative of apostolic faith and practice. This general picture of their origins would be enough on its own, I think, to grant these books canonical status and recognize in them God’s voice to later generations.

Moreover, there’s good reason to think that even if they weren’t written directly by Paul, all of these letters had a close connection to him. Some have suggested that Ephesians and/or the Pastorals were actually conceived by Paul and delegated to an assistant who did the actual writing in his name. This could account for all of the differences in style, word use, theological emphasis, etc. between these letters and the ones we all agree are by Paul. Such delegation isn’t usually how we think of “authorship” in a biblical book, but it has always been a common practice. When my wife worked as a legal assistant a lawyer would often ask her to “Write to the client and tell him X, Y, and Z.” She would then draft the letter in her own words, based on her understanding of what her boss thought about X, Y, and Z. Then the lawyer might (or might not) read the final letter before it was sent. I think we can imagine a number of reasons why Paul might work this way. Maybe he was imprisoned, or seriously ill, or just too busy with crisis management to dictate a letter himself. If either Ephesians or the Pastorals were written this way, that would simply strengthen those letters’ claim to represent the teaching and practice of Paul’s churches during his lifetime. It might not all be phrased the way Paul himself would, but it would be topics that Paul wanted addressed in generally this way. And it would be teaching given by someone Paul trusted, part of his arc of the apostolic circle.

Some might suggest that the Pastorals, in particular, can’t have been written in this way. They would argue that it’s too difficult to harmonize the events presumed by the Pastorals with the timeline of Paul’s other letters. I personally think that this assumes too much about our knowledge of first-century history. But many go this route. In that case, we might suggest that these letters were written immediately after Paul’s death, as a sort of posthumous testament to Paul and an application of his teaching to the current issues his churches were facing. That still provides good reason to view the Pastoral letters as representative of the teaching Paul helped to form in his churches and among his co-workers. That is enough, I would argue, to fit the early church’s criteria for inclusion in the canon.

Of course, some try to argue that the Pastorals, in particular, weren’t closely connected with Paul’s thought or communities at all. I think that would present a problem for their canonicity. But I think that these scholars have a hard time explaining the external evidence: that the 2nd century church universally regarded these as Paul’s letters, and that there was never any debate (even within communities Paul had founded) about them.

No, whether these letters were written by Paul himself, by a secretary or co-worker on his behalf, or in honour of Paul after his death, these letters most likely represent the faith and practice Paul nurtured in his churches. They give us a glimpse of the thought and life of the apostolic circle. They were also recognized and used widely and very early as a yardstick for evaluating whether other ideas were faithful to the apostles’ legacy. So they deserve their place in the New Testament canon.


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