Authorship, Authority and the Epistles of Saint Paul

At the Council of Trent, many things that had been long held by the Church were clarified and/or given more authoritative articulation for the first time, as a response to the Protestant polemics which challenged them. One of the things stated in this way was the canon of Scripture, which had already been listed at the councils of Rome (382 AD) and Carthage (397), and was formally approved closer to Trent at the Council of Florence in 1442. In April 1546, the Council of Trent re-approved and sanctioned this canon, which, as well as confirming the canonicity of various Old Testament books rejected by Martin Luther, listing:

…fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, (one) to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, (one) to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, (one) to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews…

Thus Trent did not only confirm the books of the New Testament affirmed by the councils of Rome and Carthage (a list also affirmed by an Easter letter written by Saint Athanasius in 367), but it also precisely identified (as did Carthage) the author of those letters commonly attributed to Saint Paul as being…Saint Paul! The question of whether or not Paul actually wrote the letters that he has been traditionally understood to have written therefore has quite a lot of authoritative weight behind the opinion that he did indeed write them. For someone to question such a conclusion then, they had better have some jolly good reasons for doing so.

Over the course of the past century this position has increasingly been called into question, with Paul’s authorship of First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians widely discredited, and also Colossians and Second Thessalonians often queried. The Epistle to the Hebrews is almost unanimously thought not to have been written by Saint Paul. Whether these conclusions are valid ones, and whether the voice of the Church on this matter has been undermined for good reason, is another question altogether, and one that I shall try to address here, identifying some of the criteria used to support these decisions (in general, rather than on a case by case basis), before looking at Hebrews as a case in and of itself.

The main criteria that are used to determine whether or not a biblical epistle was genuinely written by the author traditionally said to have done so are as follows:

  1. Writing style and vocabulary – based on how the author writes in letters known to be by them, does the style here ‘fit’ that pattern?
  2. Theological and/or ecclesiological outlook – does this letter share the same vision laid out in other, authentic, epistles?
  3. Chronological references in other New Testament documents – is there a contradiction between what Saint Paul is said to have done in Acts and what he says in Titus (for example)?
  4. The use of pseudepigraphia – the practice of using the name of someone more famous than oneself to lend a document authority and authenticity, which was sometimes practised in the ancient world, and not dishonourably. This is not used as a criterion for judging Pauline epistles to be inauthentic, but to show that it wouldn’t have mattered to the early Church if Paul hadn’t actually written them.

The first issue, that of a difference in writing style and/or vocabulary, seems to me to be the easiest to discount. If one were to take a look at the writings of any given person during different stages of their life, they would find there many different styles of writing, based on who they were writing to, what they were writing about, where they were in life personally, as well as taking into account the ways in which life experiences shape us and our outlook, sometimes from one day to another, let alone over the course of months and years.

When we consider that Saint Paul wrote his epistles over the course of somewhere between ten and fifteen years, the wealth of changing circumstances he lived through (including facing imprisonment and death), and the wide variety of people and situations he was writing to in his letters, it becomes very easy to see why his writing style may have changed a bit during that period! He wrote to churches in different situations, to people he was mentoring (Titus and Timothy), and he is not by any means systematic in his approach to either.

This leads to the question of Paul’s theological development. This issue is brought up most often with respect to Ephesians and Colossians, which represent a Christology which is supposedly too ‘high’ and therefore at odds with what is presented elsewhere. However, there is no explicit contradiction between what is written in these two epistles and what we find in Paul’s other writings, and what he does write in Ephesians and Colossians is so complementary to the Christology of other epistles that it could be said to represent a natural development of his thought on the matter, especially given that the Christology of the earlier letters is by no means lacking in christological significance and potential.

Given that they are commonly dated roughly five years after the Epistle to the Romans, this is more than sufficient time for Paul to have been able to reflect further on the significance of what he had been preaching and writing about Christ earlier on. There is also the fact that he was under house arrest when he wrote these epistles (c.f.; Acts 28:30-31) and so would have had the sort of time for reflection not available to him during his previous incessant travelling around the Mediterranean world. Consider how our own thinking changes over the course of five years, how periods of sustained reflection can facilitate this, and just how deeply in contact Saint Paul was with the mystery of Christ (c.f.; Galatians 2:20), and we can have good reason for seeing any development here as completely authentic.

The issue of supposedly advanced ecclesiologies can be dealt with similarly – the emphasis on church officials and structure in the Pastoral Epistles can be seen in light of the fact that Paul, now an older man, nearing the end of his life, would want to make provision for the future. In writing directly to those who he had coached and readied to continue his work later on, he would be bound to emphasise the need for order in the Church so that they too could make similar provisions and correctly pass on the apostolic teaching authority.

Add to this the fact that Philippians (an ‘accepted’ epistle) is addressed to the ‘bishops and deacons’ there, and that the ‘advanced’ ecclesiology presented in (e.g.) First Timothy is reflected in a generation that not only succeeded Paul’s but in writers who external testimony tells us knew him (Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch), and we have some very compelling reasons not to use this as evidence against Pauline authorship. Furthermore, the ecclesiology in Ephesians (c.f.; 4:1-16; 5:21-33), which is also taken for granted by Saints Clement and Ignatius, is plainly a fuller expression of what we find in First Corinthians 12, so I don’t think we need to see any contradiction there.

The principal chronological clashes cited in this debate are as follows. Firstly, Paul writes at the end of Romans (15:28) that he plans to visit Spain, and so it is claimed that he wouldn’t have had time to go there as well as to other places like Crete (which he says that he visited in Titus 1:5), and also no mention of this visit is given elsewhere. The most sensible answer to this is to point out that neither Acts nor any of the Epistles claims to give a comprehensive account of Paul’s life, including every place that he visited. If Titus 1:5 says he visited Crete, then we have other good grounds for believing that he did, and we do not require this to be backed up by other citations.

Furthermore, what Paul writes in Romans 15 is only that he wished to visit Spain – we do not know whether he did or not, and to take someone’s wishes to go somewhere as proof that they did is just as tenuous as to suggest that they can ever only write in one style and with one mode of thought. Another chronological issue suggested is that in Ephesians (1:15; 3:2; 4:21) the author seems unfamiliar with those he is writing to, whereas we know Saint Paul to have visited Ephesus for a long period (c.f.; Acts 19:10). This can be explained by the fact that Ephesus included a wide range of satellite villages ranging up to 30 miles from its centre (something alluded to in Acts 19:10, which says that Paul’s preaching radiated out far from the places he actually visited).

Because of this, Saint Paul would not have been personally acquainted with many of those he was writing to, simply because his preaching had reached so many other people, over so far an area. In fact, upon reflection, it seems obvious that this would often have been the case, regardless of how big an area it was Paul was writing to – each city church would almost certainly have contained members that he may not have had the chance to meet, let alone new believers who had come to the Faith after he had left. I do not have the space here to address each and every case of this type, but I believe that they can all be dealt with just as adequately.

As for the matter of pseudepigraphia, this is a theory that I find to be particularly problematic, as all the epistles listed by the Council of Trent, except for Hebrews, are signed by Saint Paul or in some way explicitly claim to be written by him, and the idea that someone could pass off their own writings as that of an Apostle, thus invoking their authority, seems to be to be downright disingenuous and contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Contrary to this, many have pointed to the fact that in the ancient world it was common to use a pseudonym in writings, and so Christians may have done the same.

The problem with this view is that although this was a common practice in ancient times, it was not common when writing personal letters (such as the Epistles are). Moreover, this practice was explicitly rejected by the early Church (c.f.; The Muratorian Fragment 64-67, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3, and 2 Thessalonians 2:2; 3:17 – it is particularly damning that the latter, one of the disputed epistles, unambiguously writes against such a practice!). Tertullian (On Baptism, 17) also writes of a priest being removed from their office for falsely using Paul’s name, and all the Pauline Epistles (again, bar Hebrews) were accepted as authentic, something which it would not likely to have done if they were not of apostolic origin.

Finally then, we come to the case of Hebrews itself, which as we can see above, did not enjoy the same level of external corroboration or acceptance by the early Church. I only take this as a special case because it is a.) so widely discounted as being of Pauline origin, and b.) does not enjoy the same patristic support, and I shall not be able to do full justice to all the issues involved in the debate. However, I should start out by mentioning that the Epistle did find much patristic support in the Eastern Church, and the Church in the West came into full agreement with the East by the end of the fourth century (c.f.; the councils of Carthage and Rome). So despite its authorship not having as much support as other Pauline epistles, it does indeed have much weight behind it.

The main early endorsement we have of Hebrews (and its endorsement carries with it a tacit assumption that it was therefore of apostolic origin) is from Saints Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus – so very early, and very significant figures. The main voice presented against its Pauline origin though, is that of Origen, who is often quoted as saying that ‘only God knows who’ wrote Hebrews. The context of this quote is less often given though, and is much more illuminating, as Origen actually says:

…as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle’s, but that the style and composition belonged to one who called to mind the apostle’s teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said. If any church, therefore, holds this epistle as Paul’s, let it be commended for this also. For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows. Yet the account which has reached us [is twofold], some saying that Clement, who was bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, others, that it was Luke, he who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.

Eusebius, 6.25.11-14.

            The Epistle’s being written by a companion of Saint Paul’s (either Saint Clement or Saint Luke) would easily explain the marked difference in style found in Hebrews (it is written in much more elegant Greek than Paul’s other epistles, something which Luke is well known for), and allows us to still posit Paul’s mind behind the writing. The thought of the letter seems to me perfectly consonant with Pauline thought as expressed in other epistles, and differs only insofar as it deals with subject that is not dealt with elsewhere – namely the Jewish Temple, and the Sacrifice of Christ.

This latter point is an important one, as all the other Pauline epistles are written to Gentile audiences, where these issues would not be pressing ones, to say the least. Writing to a Jewish audience (which the title of the Epistle, its content, and the increased use of Old Testament citations strongly suggest) would necessarily require this change of emphasis, which would itself result in a change in theology – but the mode of arguments employed can certainly be seen to fit the methods Paul employs elsewhere. The only other main issue here is that the Epistle nowhere claims to be written by Saint Paul (or anyone else for that matter).

A possible explanation for this could be that Paul was not exactly popular with the Jews since his becoming a Christian – something well attested to by the Acts of the Apostles – and he felt that the message laid out in Hebrews would not have been as well accepted (especially if it were written to a church at Jerusalem) if he had attached his name to it, or that the Jewish Christians receiving it may suffer increased persecution because of an association with him. Another possible reason is that his name did not carry as much weight with the Jewish churches – Saint Peter and Saint James were better known amongst them, and he could not write it under their names, for reasons discussed earlier.

So, we have strong (albeit not unanimous) testimony to Hebrews’ Pauline authorship, a perfectly sensible reason for its change in style and theology, and sufficient possible reasons as to why it was not signed by Saint Paul. Yet, as mentioned already, there is widespread rejection of Pauline authorship amongst scholars, a point of view shared by many non-scholars and lay persons. This to me, is an excellent example of how far the academy has allowed a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ to infect their thinking – given even the smallest reason to doubt something, they will; and also as to where it is many in the Church really look for guidance in such matters.

The authorship of Hebrews, as well as all the other epistles commonly attributed to Saint Paul, has been, whilst not infallibly stated, affirmed by the Church in successive councils since the fourth century – a decision informed by even earlier patristic testimony. Yet so many today prefer to ignore the Church’s voice on this matter, preferring to believe the views of biblical scholars, many of whom conduct their studies through secular lenses, and who have no authoritative weight behind them other than their own personal (and temporary) prestige. Personally, I find it much safer to trust the Church in this matter, as her authority does not come from any accumulation of temporal acclaim, but from divine sanction.

Furthermore, as I hope to have shown here (although only in part, as there is so much more to say on the matter, and individual case studies that it is beyond the scope of this post to address), it is also perfectly reasonable to do so. I asked the question at the outset of this post whether there were any good reasons to doubt what the Church has said regarding Pauline authorship, and I do not think there are any weighty enough to doubt her. Not only is it safer to listen to the Church rather than the world, here as in most matters, but her claims continually prove justifiable – which is as one would expect, given whom it is that guides her.

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One thought on “Authorship, Authority and the Epistles of Saint Paul

  1. Pingback: In God We Trust | Journey Towards Easter

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