Did Paul write all his letters in the bible?

by K.W. Leslie, 13 June 2019

There’s a type of ancient literature called pseudepigrapha su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fə which means “fake writings.” Basically it’s stuff which claims it’s written by someone, namely someone from the bible… and it’s not; it’s Jewish or Christian fanfiction. It’s like the book of 1 Enoch, which was supposedly written by Enoch ben Methuselah, and obviously wasn’t. (Couldn’t have been. Dude didn’t speak Hebrew!) And yet people knew of the book; Jesus’s brother Jude straight-up quoted it. In the bible. In our bible.

Why did people write such things? Well like I said, fanfiction. They wanted to teach their ideas, and figured the best way to do it was with a book supposedly written by an Old Testament or New Testament saint. Sometimes they wanted people to really believe it was written by that saint, so they’d take the book seriously. Sometimes they were okay with people knowing better. Problem is, people would believe that saint wrote that book… and might change their beliefs accordingly. After all if an archaeologist dug up a book which Christ Jesus himself appears to have written, and you believed Jesus literally wrote it, you’d follow it, right? If I believed it, I certainly would. (But I’m pretty sure he never did.)

So when the ancient Christians determined which books they consider scripture—which books are now part of our New Testament—some of their favorite books were actually pseudepigraphal books. Like the Gospel of Peter. Yep, there’s a gospel of Simon Peter! Egyptian Christians knew of it, which is why both Origen of Alexandria and Titus Flavius Clemens wrote of it. But Peter didn’t write it, and once the ancient Christians figured this out, they stopped treating it as scripture.

Anyway because such books exist, sometimes we get bible scholars who wonder whether some of the books which are in our New Testament… aren’t actually pseudepigrapha. Maybe some of Paul’s letters aren’t really Paul’s letters, but written by some overzealous Christian who wanted people to think these were Paul’s letters, and get Christians to take their ideas more seriously because they were “Paul’s.”

Of course it’s just as likely we got a bible scholar who wants to make a name for themselves by questioning the authenticity of a book of the New Testament.

Paul’s letters in particular.

The gospels don’t tell us who wrote ’em, and neither does Acts, Hebrews, and the letters of John. The rest of the New Testament consists of letters, and letters usually include an author’s name: Paul and his co-authors, Simon Peter, and Jesus’s brothers James and Jude.

Of those letters, the most influential were written by Saul of Tarsus, whom we call Paul. He’s the guy who explained the link between ancient Hebrew religion and Christ Jesus; the role of grace, faith, and the irrelevance of good works, in salvation; the plan to include gentiles in God’s kingdom; the use of spiritual gifts and good fruit; the use of proper Christian leadership; and all sorts of religious topics and foundational Christian thinking. Jesus teaches us how his kingdom works, but left a lot of blanks for Paul to fill in. So Paul’s kind of a big deal.

Stands to reason certain people would wanna kick the legs out from under Paul. Jesus too, for that matter; but a lot of ’em find Paul easier to go after. After all Jesus is infallible, but Acts reveals Paul certainly wasn’t. So sometimes they impugn Paul’s motives and character… but it’s actually way easier to claim Paul didn’t even write the letters with his name on ’em. That way they can claim, “No, Paul’s a good guy; I would never say anything against him. But you do realize he didn’t really write [book he actually wrote], so you can totally ignore it if you’d rather.”

And there are pseudepigraphal books with Paul’s name on ’em. Like letters he supposedly wrote to Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca Jr., or 3 Corinthians (a letter Paul hinted at elsewhere 1Co 5.9, 2Co 2.4, 7.8-9), 2 Ephesians (also hinted Ep 3.3-4), or Laodiceans. Cl 4.16 Christians noticed those references to other letters… so they invented the letters. But did Paul write the letters which claim to be 3 Corinthians, 2 Ephesians, or Laodiceans? Nope.

Because these letters are pseudepigrapha, scholars speculate some of the New Testament’s letters might also be pseudepigrapha. They look to four in particular: Ephesians, 1–2 Timothy, and Titus. And sometimes they also wonder about Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.

On what basis?

STUFF THE LETTERS LACK. Some scholars insist if Paul didn’t write enough personal info about himself, it might not be him. Fr’instance he spent a few chapters of Galatians on his backstory… whereas he shared very little about himself in Ephesians. Their guess is Paul should always share personal info; he’s that kind of guy, right? So if the letter lacks personal info, it’s not really Paul.

Likewise some scholars figure all Paul’s letters oughta sound alike. If one letter has a better logical flow, better sentence structures, better vocabulary, it’s probably because one person wrote the better-written letter, and another person wrote the not-as-well-written letter: One’s by Paul and the other’s not. (They don’t take into consideration any of the other factors which might create such differences: Paul having a bad day, a lousy secretary, or that he wrote one letter in the 40s and another in the 50s—and your writing style can change a lot in a decade, especially if you’ve been developing those ideas by preaching on them every week.)

Likewise some scholars figure all Paul’s letters oughta have precisely the same theology in them. In their minds, Paul’s not allowed to mature as a human being and a follower of Jesus; he’s gotta believe all the same things, in the very same way, throughout his life and ministry. So if Paul’s description of salvation in Galatians is more mature in Romans, and even more mature in Ephesians… well, they only care for Paul to grow so much, and Ephesians reads as way too advanced to them, so they posit he probably didn’t write it; some second-century disciple must’ve done it instead.

As you can tell, I personally don’t consider these differences to be significant enough to claim another guy wrote the disputed epistles. Because I’m a writer. I know from personal experience my writing style has certainly changed over the past 30 years… and the last 20, and the last 10. It’d be naïve to assume Paul “arrived” at a fixed theology and fixed writing style. Especially since he strived to be all things to all people, 1Co 9.22 and sometimes that’d mean mixing up your style to adapt to a new audience.

DID ANCIENT CHRISTIANS QUOTE IT? Here’s a more valid reason to doubt whether Paul wrote a particular letter: If we can’t find any references to it by other first- or second- or third-century Christians… it might not have existed yet. And it’d better have existed if it was written by Paul himself.

’Cause ancient Christians quoted bible like crazy. Sometimes big huge passages. Full psalms, full lessons from Jesus, chapters of the apostles; they loved to proof-text everything they were teaching. Yeah, they’d frequently quote bible out of context, but they’d still quote bible. And quote lots and lots of Paul; it’s good stuff.

So when second-century Christians quoted Ephesians—like Polycarp of Smyrna, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, Ignatius of Antioch, Titus Flavius Clemens, or Irenaeus of Lugdunum—it means the letter was in existence by the 100s. Doesn’t automatically mean the letter wasn’t in existence before the 100s, but it does mean we can’t claim it was a 4th-century forgery invented by the Council of Nicaea, fr’instance. And just because we don’t currently have first-century testimonies of Ephesians, it doesn’t mean we might one day find some: There are gaps in the historical record, after all. Lots of Christians wrote stuff that’s been totally lost, and that’s a shame.

DOES THE SCHOLAR LIKE THIS LETTER? Yeah, let’s get honest: Sometimes a scholar pitches the idea Paul’s letter isn’t authentic, solely because they just don’t like this particular letter. It doesn’t jibe with the ideas of Paul they’ve composed in their minds. They imagine Paul one way; the letter reveals he was another way, or taught some stuff they don’t agree with. So they’ve decided this letter must not be legitimately Paul’s.

Or we’ve got a scholar with a boneheaded theory they’re trying to propagate. I’ve heard one guy who claimed Paul’s letters were really composed by Marcion of Sinope. That’s the second-century ">heretic who claimed the Old Testament doesn’t count anymore, and the New Testament should only consist of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters—edited, of course, to match Marcion’s beliefs. Anyway this guy claimed Marcion wrote Luke and the 10 letters from scratch, then 200 years later “the Catholics” tweaked them to suit their theology, and put ’em to the bible. What’s his claim based on? No real evidence; just his own conspiratorial imagination.

Well. Can we absolutely, without any doubt whatsoever, say Paul wrote all the letters with his name on ’em? Not absolutely; there’s always a chance one of his co-authors wrote a letter and, with Paul’s permission, put his name on it. But even so, Paul approved of these letters, and their teachings are consistent with one another, with the other letters in the New Testament, and with the teachings of ancient Christianity. Trying to claim they’re forgeries is simply trying to stir up notoriety for yourself… or trying to pick a fight with the bible ’cause you don’t feel like following it.