The New Testament contains 13 letters identifying Paul as author. However, in the scholarly community and beyond, there is little consensus about whether Paul did, in fact, compose all these letters. The traditional view is that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him. The contemporary view is that the apostle only penned 7 of those epistles, namely, Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The implication is that the remaining 6 letters—Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, and Titus—were authored by unnamed admirers and imitators of the apostle. These are often called the disputed letters or deutero-Pauline letters (lit. ‘secondary letters of Paul’).

The reasons for doubting that Paul penned the letters include so-called theological inconsistencies (e.g., Paul referring to the Apostles and Prophets as foundation of the church in Eph 2:20 vs. Christ as foundation of the church in 1 Cor 3:11), biographical discrepancies (e.g., missionary activity mentioned in the pastoral letters that are not corroborated in Acts or the other letters), and historical anachronisms (e.g., the Pastoral Letters’ discussions of church polity, which, some argue, only became institutionalized after Paul) (Powell 2019, 243–244) [1]. The biggest objection to Pauline authorship is the issue of language and style. In other words, some of the letters simply do not match the so-called Pauline style and could, therefore, not have been written by the apostle.

Whilst non-Pauline authorship is one explanation for the above, there are many viable alternatives proffered by adherents to the traditional view. Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College, Stanley Porter, discusses the issue of Pauline authorship in his forthcoming commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy and Titus) [2]. In a recent presentation at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Porter summarizes this discussion, arguing for authentic Pauline authorship. He holds that linguistic variation does not necessarily imply variation in authorship, but rather variation in genre, context, occasion, and more. The same author can use differences in language and style to speak to different audiences (see 1 Cor 9:22), to express a different message, and to convey a difference in tone and type of relationship. For example, whilst 1 and 2 Timothy are written to a close friend of Paul, the letter to the Romans was written to a wider audience, largely consisting of people that Paul had not personally met. Even in the modern era, one ought only once to accidentally post a private message to a group chat to learn that there is a difference in what and how one communicates to these distinct groups. Moreover, as the Pauline letters span almost 2 decades, variation in thought, language, and style are inevitable as Paul was not frozen in time.

In addition to the contemporary and traditional view, Scott McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, highlights a third hypothesis in a recent OnScript interview [3]. In view of McKnight’s recent NICNT commentary on Colossians and Philemon (Eerdmans, 2018), he is asked to which letters he attributes Pauline authorship. In response, McKnight called into question the entire methodological basis around which the conversation is conducted, especially as it relates to a so-called ‘authentic Paul’ versus an ‘inauthentic Paul’. He questions whether Paul singlehandedly wrote any of his letters, challenging the depiction of the apostle as a solitary figure hunched over a table cluttered with sheets of papyrus or parchment, producing one theological masterpiece after another in just a few hours. Admittedly, there are some letters where the apostle said he used a writing instrument to append an autobiographical postscript with his own hand (e.g., 1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17; Philem 1:19), but the purposes for doing so included authenticating the epistle and/or sending a personal greeting.

McKnight also doubts whether Paul dictated any of his letters privately to a scribe (or amanuensis) in one abbreviated session. Instead, he supports the view proposed by other scholars—especially E. Randolph Richards on Paul and first-century letter writing [4]—that the apostle and a team of his trusted associates carefully composed an epistle in a particular setting over a span of time (possibly involving days or weeks). The imagined scenario, then, would involve Paul putting forward one way of making a statement. Then, other conversation partners who were with him might suggest alternative, better ways to articulate the same thought. It is easy to imagine that within the patriarchal context of Greco-Roman society, Paul’s various coauthors would have included prominent male believers such as Timothy (see Col 1:1; 2 Cor; 1 & 2 Thess; Philem), Silvanus (see 1 & 2 Thess), and Sosthenes (see 1 Cor).

Even so, the research undertaken by Cynthia Long Westfall about gender issues within the Pauline corpus incentivizes expanding the horizon of consideration [5]. After all, the apostle’s correspondence was intended for the spiritual benefit of both male and female believers. Accordingly, well-known women such as Priscilla, Chloe, and Phoebe could have also been collaborators with Paul and other Christian leaders in the exercise of letter writing. Regardless of how extensively interpreters—whether egalitarian or complementarian—either agree or disagree with the above-envisioned scenario, it is reasonable to maintain that Paul remained the consistent, authoritative voice throughout the letter-writing process. Also, aside from the apostle, the male and female members of his ministry team could change, depending on who was available where and when the epistle was being produced. It remains to be seen whether the above view, called the committee view, garners increasingly widespread acceptance among New Testament scholars. Regardless, it is an intriguing perspective that deserves serious consideration among specialists within the academic guild.

Whilst the conversation around Pauline authorship is far more nuanced than the short discussion proffered here, the reader can take heart that there are many viable alternatives to the view that the six disputed letters are not Pauline. The starting point, perhaps, is interrogating our oft-simplistic perceptions of ancient letter writing—whether it be challenging our criteria for authorship or our individualistic definition thereof.

Short bio: Dan completed his doctoral studies at North-West University. He is widely published and has a particular interest in intertextuality between the testaments, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings. Dan has extensive experience in tertiary education and a passion for scholarly excellence.

Short bio: Cornelia obtained her PhD in New Testament from the University of Stellenbosch in 2018. She is currently the Associate Editor of Conspectus and works for the South African Theological Seminary as a lecturer and postgraduate supervisor. Her research interests lie primarily in the Letters and Gospel of John.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.

Works Cited:

[1] Powell, Mark A. 2018. Introducing the New Testament. A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker.

[2] Porter, Stanley E. (forthcoming) Pastoral Epistles. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker.

[3] Accessible at the following website: http://onscript.study.

[4] Richards, E. Randolph. 2005. Paul and first-century letter writing: secretaries, composition and collection. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.

[5] Westfall, Cynthia L. 2016. Paul and gender: reclaiming the apostle’s vision for men and women in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker. An OnScript interview (April 2018) involving the author is accessible at the following website: https://onscript.study/podcast/cynthia-long-westfall-paul-and-gender/.