In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that seven letters of Paul (Romans, the two epistles to the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are directly from Paul. Every serious writer on the New Testament has to take into account the possibility that the other seven (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews) do not have direct Pauline authorship.
While the question of the letters Paul did not write might have begun as a radical one, it is now common in all biblical circles. As far back as 25 years ago Fr Raymond Brown pointed out that ‘about 90 percent of critical scholarship judges that Paul did not write the Pastorals (1-2 Timothy, Titus), 80 percent that he did not write Ephesians, and 60 percent that he did not write Colossians’ (p.47 The Churches the Apostles Left Behind). Those percentages have increased significantly today and have added 2 Thessalonians to the number.
Hebrews – a case in point
In the case of Hebrews our own lectionary recognises its non-Pauline authorship. This work gained acceptance into the canon only after a slow and halting passage, as an epistle of Paul.
As early as the third century the church father, Origen, noted that its elegant Greek was quite different from the awkward style of the apostle. After 1800 years of being called a letter from Paul, it is now widely admitted that only God knows who wrote it.
The issue is not as clear cut with the remaining six letters which are still introduced as ‘epistles according to Paul’.
The meanings of authorship
It is important to recognise that the works of the New Testament were accepted as contributing to the building of the faith community; they were ‘the word of God in the words of human beings’ and were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The content is not questioned when we raise the issue of authorship! The issues of authority of the text and then its authorship raise different questions.
There has been a long history of what is called pseudepigrapha (false writings) written in the names of ancient worthy characters without any claim to their authority: Apocalypse of Adam and Eve, Books of Enoch, Gospel of Peter…Thomas…James… The question of where on the continuum of authorship a given work ought to be placed can only be answered by its careful examination.
The first level of authorship is the actual writing of a work; the seven letters I have begun with in Wel-com as coming from Paul; the second level which also applies to these seven, is the dictation to a secretary. The third level is the request for someone to write on one’s behalf, followed by the letter being written for someone. Paul himself did not ‘write’ any of his letters in the sense of putting quill to parchment; he used a secretary (eg Romans 16:22).
It is when we move to a letter being written ‘as if’ one was Paul’, or written by a disciple or follower, that we are into the area of the Deutero-Paulines. At the far end of the spectrum is a forgery, and while church history produces some interesting examples, the letters of Paul are never so blatant.
A disciple writing in the name of his master was a common and expected tradition in the ancient world. In the ‘Prophets’ we find later additions by their followers; even a book such as ‘Daniel’, from the second century is ascribed to an ancient fourth century worthy.
Tertullian reports that he caught someone red-handed in the act of writing 3 Corinthians out of ‘love of Paul’. The author wanted to show what Paul would have written from beyond the grave, had he been able to address the problems that had arisen in the later church.
In the wake of the apostle Paul we have a feature common to the world of that time, the desire to keep the man and the message of Paul alive for a new era and a new set of challenges to the church community.
Given disciples who knew the man and his message, inspired by the Spirit, and wishing to keep Paul alive for a new age, a number of the letters long ascribed to Paul are more in his spirit than from his pen.
As the issue features in the best of contemporary New Testament introductions, including our own New Jerome Bible Commentary and Collegeville Commentary, both works with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, it is important for educated Catholics to know of the issues surrounding the Deutero-Paulines.
According to Paul
When we proclaim these letters at Mass as ‘letters of Paul’, we can announce them as in his spirit and as legitimate and accepted (then as now) by the community of the faithful as attempts to keep the message and meaning of Paul alive for a new day.
They have stood the test of time as conducive to the health and building up of the community of God’s people, though not always without the need for careful explanation.
What the Holy Office said of dogma in Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), that any definition is limited by the language in which it is expressed and the historical situation in which it arose, applies equally to parts of these letters.