A brief thought on questions of Pauline authorship

I’ve finally made my way through Paul’s undisputed letters in Greek and am now aiming to read all the epistles this summer (having already read 1-3 John, James, 2 Peter, and Jude — the latter two because of the recent discussion of sodomy). This has been an excellent exercise for shoring up my Greek skills, but the main intellectual result has been to soften or nuance some of my views on Paul. First of all, I realize that I went into this project believing that I would find some clear overarching “Pauline system,” but that ran aground in Galatians — there’s something about having to work through a text in agonizing detail that makes it very difficult to breeze over things, which I was predisposed to do whenever I came across the clear contradictions in Galatians.

The solution, it seems, is to recognize change and development in Paul’s thought, which seems a sensible enough position in retrospect but which was apparently unavailable to me initially because of an unreflected-upon “scriptural authority” that Paul the man, if not all the letters under the name of Paul, still had for me. Once it is permissible to assume that Paul’s position is evoluving, though, I wonder how much the question of authorship matters.

I agree with Elliott’s claim in Liberating Paul that, methodologically, it makes no sense to start with the disputed letters and that the tendency to do so has been guided by ideology — but that only becomes a big deal if you assume Paul has one unitary view throughout his career anyway (an assumption that Elliott shares with his conservative adversaries, even if he doesn’t accept all the texts they do).

I also agree that there are very good reasons to question the authorship of the disputed letters. I just worked my way through Colossians today, for example, and after spending a solid month or more immersed in the undisputed letters, the difference in style and vocabulary was pretty clear even to a relative amateur like me. I also find it difficult to come up with a plausible scenario in which 1 and 2 Thessalonians were both written by Paul — I tend to take Gerd Lüdemann’s more radical view that 2 Thessalonians was a deliberate forgery meant to discredit 1 Thessalonians (the “letter as if from us”) and its embarrassing apocalyptic views, though I suppose that it may be remotely possible that 1 Thessalonians is the fake — and the idea that Paul would put together a “greatest hits” collection like Ephesians just doesn’t strike me as his style.

A thought experiment may be in order here, though. Let’s assume that Romans is the latest of the undisputed letters. Starting from a radical apocalyptic position (1 Thessalonians) that leads him to view the law as completely suspended (Galatians), he arrives at the position that the parousia is being delayed until the full number of the Gentiles is brought in (Romans). So what do you do then? We know from 1 and 2 Corinthians that his communities could become very disorderly and that he doesn’t like that — so why not start in on a project of creating durable structures of authority for the churches? More broadly, wouldn’t a receding of the apocalyptic horizon more or less naturally lead to a more “conservative” stance? (A daring hypothesis: Paul himself was the “forger” of 2 Thessalonians, trying to distance himself from his earlier apocalyptic views!) The differences in writing style would still be difficult to account for, but perhaps not insurmountable.

If this were the case, Paul the man would not wind up being very “cool” in my opinion, but the writings that I find most valuable (now defined as a kind of “middle period” of his work) would remain just as valuable — and the “cautionary tale” of the direction Paul wound up taking, which is in any event the direction (at least some of) the Pauline communities wound up taking, would help provide a lens for investigating their internal inconsistencies and weaknesses.

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