Paul and His Co-Authors


Rembrandt’s Timothy and his grandmother, 1648

While studying 1 Thessalonians for a college class, I was forced to deal with the critical issues regarding the authorship of the two letters to the churches in Thessalonica. The problem is fairly simple. The syntactical differences between the two works are substantial, as is the tone of the two letters, purportedly sent within a fairly short span of time from one another. The imminence of the Jesus’s return seems to be the focus of the first letter (so say those who question the authenticity of the second epistle) whereas the point of the latter appears to be to dissuade the Thessalonians of its imminence, even including a verse that may be an entreaty for the churches in Thessalonica to ignore the first epistle (2 Thess. 2:1-2).

The latter objection is a stretch. It was common for others to send pseudepigraphal letters in the names of the apostles. The early Church fathers were at least as relentless as, if not more than, the critical scholars of the 19th and 20th century in their efforts to snuff out forgeries and pseudepigrapha.  Bishop Serapion of Antioch (d. AD 211) once said “we receive both Peter and the other Apostles as Christ, but pseudepigrapha in their name we reject.” His statement appears to be representative of the sentiments of the early Church. Some of the earliest Church Fathers may have actually known Paul and all of them were immersed in the world into which he wrote. With all of this in mind, 2 Thessalonians went nearly unquestioned until Baur walked on the scene and decided, quite arbitrarily, that only Romans, Galatians, and the two letters to the Corinthians could be confidently called Pauline. The objections involving the supposedly conflicting eschatological visions of the two epistles reflects a weak reading of the Pauline corpus on the part of the Baur school more than any real dissonance between the works.

The dissonance in tone and syntax is not so easily dispensed with. A multitude of explanations have been offered, but the simplest and most probable may be that Paul often did not write alone. The argument goes as such. Paul’s utterly undisputed works consist of Romans, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians. The rarely disputed works are 1 Thessalonians, Phillipians, and Philemon. The ‘somewhat doubtful’ epistles are Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, the ‘very doubtful’ are Ephesians and the Pastorals. Those considered doubtful are often dispatched on the grounds that they appear to teach a ‘higher’ ecclesiology or have a ‘more developed’ eschatology than those works that are undisputed. This is especially true in the case of 2 Thessalonians.

It is noteworthy that two of the six disputed letters explicitly purport to be ‘from’ Paul and at least one other associate. Colossians names Timothy with Paul in the greeting establishing the sender. It is no stretch to imagine that Timothy was involved in the authorship. Both epistles to the Thessalonians name Silas and Timothy as co-senders. It is again no stretch to assume a shared role in authorship. They are at the very least prime candidates for authorship. Ephesians also merits mention. It does not mention a coauthor in the greeting. However, the greeting itself is suspect on account of the textual variants found within it. The phrase “to the Ephesians” is missing from the earliest manuscripts of the letter, suggesting that it was originally a general letter that was copied and circulated throughout the churches in the Roman Empire. Today, it is known as Ephesians solely on the basis of tradition. Given the uncertainty regarding the greeting, it is possible that the original greeting mentioned a co-sender. Plenty of ink has been spilt on the similarity between Ephesians and Colossians and it could be that both emanate from collaboration between Paul and Timothy.

All of this brings us back to 2 Thessalonians. Without a doubt, the two evangelists had some sort of input in the writing process of both epistles, but only God knows precisely what the input consisted in. If I had to take a guess on the source of the radical departure in tone and style in the second epistle, I would hypothesize that Silas played the primary role in the authorship. Silas seems to have been either a prophet or an exhorter (Acts 15:22), either of which may explain the rather sharp tone of the work in contrast to the warmth of the probably Paul-penned first epistle.

It’s not likely that the “pseudepigrapha” hypothesis is going away anytime soon. Since the early 19th century, it has been the dominant narrative in the field of Pauline studies, and as a result it has been, in a sense, canonized into the orthodoxy of contemporary scholarship. However, if some or many of the letters commonly attributed unilaterally to Paul by conservative scholars are actually the products of collaboration, then much of the basis for the “pseudepigrapha” hypothesis disappears.


One comment

  1. ryantheellington · February 9, 2016

    Reblogged this on Ryan Ellington.


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