What if I were to tell you that one of these two portraits had been painted by the famed painter Rembrandt and the other by someone else? Which one would you identify as the authentic work of the Dutch master? How would you decide?
The Rembrandt, according to art historians, is the one on the right, and their determination is made by analyzing a series of factors, like lighting, brush strokes, and the paints, colors, and forms. In addition, many art historians would say that a true Rembrandt will just stand out as a work of artistic genius when put beside one of a lesser painter. Such determinations work from assumptions that pair observations of difference with the judgment that comes from experience.
A similar set of intellectual operations governs longstanding debates about the authorship of Paul’s letters. Of the thirteen letters ascribed to Paul, scholars have long recognized seven as “undisputedly” Pauline: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. This designation, however, does not mean that some scholars have not seen evidence of tampering. Some suggest that 1 and 2 Corinthians and Philippians have been stitched together from shorter fragments. Like art historians looking at a Rembrandt, biblical scholars tend to see something that stands out in these letters, a sense of Paul’s brilliance that differentiates these writings from others.
Beyond these undisputed Paulines are two classes of texts: the disputed letters and those generally thought to be forged. Among the former, one generally finds 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians, while among the latter are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastoral Epistles.
Let’s look at the disputed letters first. Many scholars challenge the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians because it looks like a deliberate attempt to rewrite 1 Thessalonians. Second Thessalonians quotes from and follows the format of 1 Thessalonians while offering an alternate plan for when the end of time will come. While some scholars dispute whether there is any contradiction between the two texts, these considerations are what frame the debate about 2 Thessalonians. Colossians and Ephesians present a different problem. Both texts seem to differ from the undisputed letters about concepts like baptism and the resurrection, while they also possess a very dissimilar writing style and vocabulary. Added to this is the fact that Ephesians copies large chunks of Colossians.
The Pastorals present a different set of issues. Few question that these letters represent a time period distinct from that of Paul because they present a more elaborate set of church offices and services and new concerns about doctrine and practice. Vocabulary, style, and even key Pauline concepts have been either ignored or changed to represent the church as a rigid hierarchy modeled on the patriarchal household.
This is just a sketch of the issues that are involved in deciding authorship, and the curious reader can dig further into the details. Just like determining the true Rembrandt from the false, scholars of Paul must make use of what we would call subjective criteria—standards based to a degree on perception instead of on only empirical facts.
To call this process subjective is not to demean it; rather, it is to put it in its proper frame. Historians, either of art or the Bible, have developed, through long practice and observation, sets of dispositions and experiences that help them to see things that the rest of us might miss. This does not mean that these observations cannot and should not be challenged (what would be the fun in that?), but that even the challenges would themselves be subjective. Ultimately, the question should not be just “Did Paul write this or not?” Rather, we should ask ourselves, “What does it matter if he did?”
- Friesen, Steve. “Second Thessalonians, the Ideology of Epistles, and the Construction of Authority: Our Debt to the Forger.” Pages 180-210 in From Roman to Early Christian Thessaloniki: Studies in Religion and Archaeology. Edited by Laura Nasrallah, Charalambos Bakirtzis, and Steven J. Friesen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Theological Studies, 2010.
- White, L. Michael. From Jesus to Christianity. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins, 2004.
- Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.