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The Christian scriptures

The 13 "Pauline" epistles

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Meaning of "epistle":

"Epistle" simply means a literary letter which was intended to be published and read by the general public. This was an established literary style as early as the 4th century BCE. The "Pauline" letters in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) did not start out as epistles. They were apparently letters to churches and individuals written to handle specific problems at a church location or with a religious leader. The former were initially intended to be read aloud during a single service of public worship, at a single church.

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Distribution of the Pauline epistles:

Most New Testament theologians believe that the churches who had received the letters then shared copies with each other. Gradually, the epistles became circulated within the mainline Christian movement, and were often read during services, at churches throughout the known world.

This gradual dispersal of Paul's writings must have taken many decades. The earliest indication that a writer is aware of multiple epistles by Paul dates to circa 96 CE - perhaps 3 decades after Paul's death.

In the early 1930's E.G. Goodspeed suggested that Paul's letters initially rested in the archives of individual churches, where they were not known by the Christian movement generally. The publication of the Gospel of Luke and of Acts in the mid 80's CE then motivated some individual to tour the early churches, to assemble copies of the letters, and then to write Ephesians as an introduction to those letters.   Goodspeed estimates that this collection contained 7 of Paul's epistles.

By whatever route they did become available, many of the epistles became well known by the middle of the 2nd century CE. They formed part of public worship in all the churches, and eventually accepted into the canon of the New Testament in the 4th century CE.

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Letter style:

It was common in ancient times for a writer to dictate an outline of their ideas to a secretary who would then compose the actual letter. The letter would thus reflect the style of the secretary more than that of the writer. It is doubtful if this practice was followed by Paul. The letters, for which there is a consensus that Paul was the author, have a similarity of style that indicates that he must have dictated his letters, word by word.

Paul's epistles typically begin with mention of his name and an appeal to his apostolic authority. A prayer follows. Some personal references to individuals is often next. After the body of the letter, he often concluded with a reference of people to which he wished to send greetings, and a grace or benediction.

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Unity of the epistles:

Some scholars believe that certain of the Epistles are not single letters, but rather made up of two or more texts which were merged together:

bullet Romans 16 may have been a separate letter to the church at Ephesus to introduce the deaconess Phoebe. It was tacked onto the end of the letter to the Romans at an unknown date.

bullet 1 Corinthians may be a blending of at least two letters.

bullet 2 Corinthians appears to be made up from at least three separate letters.

bullet Philippians may have originally been two or three separate letters.

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Collecting the epistles into a New Testament:

The first attempt at creating a canon of Christian Scriptures was made by Marcion circa 140 CE. His "New Testament" consisted of a modified Gospel of Luke (which he believed was written by Paul), Galatians, Corinthians (treated as one epistle), Romans, Thessalonians (as one epistle), Lacodiceans (his name for Ephesians), Colossians, Phillipians, and Philemon. He did not include 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus or Hebrews. One source indicates that he may have not known of their existence, or regarded them as not authentic writings of Paul, or because he disliked their theology. 1

Circa 200 CE, the church at Rome added the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) to Marcion's collection. Also about 200 CE, another church (probably in Egypt) included Hebrews, but rejected 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Thessalonians, and Philemon as invalid.

Later collections of epistles included the full set of 13 letters that are traditionally associated with Paul and are now included in every Bible.

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Did Paul write all of the epistles attributed to him?

Most conservative theologians accept the Pauline authorship of all 13 epistles. The main reason is that each epistle states that the author is Paul. Since conservative Christians generally believe in the inerrancy (freedom from error) of the entire Bible, the matter of authorship is settled! Paul wrote all 13. Thus, conservative Christians date all of Paul's epistles before his death circa 65 CE

Many theologians believe that there is some material embedded in some of Paul's epistles that is actually much more recent material from other Christian sources - e.g. hymns, creedal formulas, confessions of faith. They seem to date from as late as the middle of the second century CE, some 85 years after Paul's death.

A.Q. Morton completed an analysis of these Epistles. 1 He assumed that Galatians was written by Paul, and did a computer study of the style of the remaining letters using that epistle as a reference. His computer found that only Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Philemon matched the precise writing style of the author of Galatians. He assumed that the remaining 8 were written in the name of Paul by persons unknown.

Most liberal scholars of New Testament theology believe that:

bullet Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians,  Philippians and 1 Thessalonians were written by Paul.

bullet Colossians may have been written by Paul.

bullet 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians probably were not.

bullet 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were definitely pseudonymous (written by a unknown person, passing the writings off as Paul's.) They were written 35 to 85 years after Paul's death. Although such a writer would be considered a forger today, the practice was quite common in the 1st century CE, and was considered acceptable behavior.

Fr. Raymond E. Brown, is a member of the Vatican's Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, and was described by Time magazine as "probably the premier Catholic scripture scholar in the U.S." 6 He has expressed his beliefs concerning the authorship of these epistles:

bullet In his opinion, of the thirteen epistles which say that they were written by Paul, critical scholars have reached a near consensus that seven are Paul's: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans.

bullet Agreement that he did not write:
bullet 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus is about 90%
bullet Ephesians is about 80%
bullet Colossians is about 60%
bullet 2 Thessalonians is a slight majority.

bullet He notes that the emphasis in Colossians and Ephesians is on ecclesiology -- concern with the church itself as the body of Christ. This differs from epistles that are certain to have been written by Paul; the latter writings dealt largely with Christology; they focused on Jesus.

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Comparison of the beliefs of conservative and liberal theologians:

    Conservative Christian Beliefs Liberal Christian Beliefs
Epistle Group of Epistles Date Written (4) Author (4) Date Written (5) Author (5)
Romans Major 55-56 CE Paul 55-59 CE (Ch.1-15) Paul
1 Corinthians Major 54-55 Paul 55+ Paul
2 Corinthians Major 55-56 Paul 55+ Paul
Galatians Early 48 Paul 48-62 Paul
Ephesians Prison 61 Paul Before 95 CE Unknown
Philippians Prison 62 Paul 54-62 Paul
Colossians Prison 61 Paul 54-90 Probably Paul
1 Thessalonians Early 51 Paul 50-51 Paul
2 Thessalonians Early 51 Paul 75-90 probably Unknown
1 Timothy Pastoral 62 Paul 100-150 CE Unknown
2 Timothy Pastoral 64 Paul 100-150 CE Unknown
Titus Pastoral 63 Paul 100-150 CE Unknown
Philemon Prison 61 Paul 59-62 Paul

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Are some Pauline epistles forgeries?:

Most conservative Christians believe that all 13 epistles were actually written by Paul; they would answer this question with a "no."

Liberal Christians generally believe that many of the epistles which say that they are written by Paul were actually written up to 85 years after his death by anonymous authors. By today's standards, they would be considered as forgeries -- much as would a modern day writer composing a letter in the style of George Washington, forging Washington's name, and promoting the letter as having been written in the 18th century.

But that is judging 1st century CE traditions by today's ethical standards. As stated in the New Jerusalem Bible 1:

"The best explanation may be that the Pastoral Epistles are letters written by a follower of Paul, conscious of inheriting his mantle and seeking to give advice and instruction for the administration of local churches. This adoption of a revered name in such circumstances was a literary convention of the times."

The authorship of the epistles is of particular importance when studying what the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) have to say about the role and status of women. One might assume that Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus and 1 Peter were not written by Paul and Peter. One of the main criteria used by the early Church to consider books for inclusion in the Bible, was whether they were written by Jesus' disciples and the apostles. Under this standard, it could be argued that those four books should not form part of the Bible. Then, the only references left in the New Testament that negatively affect feminine roles and status would be found in Paul's 1 Corinthians. If one considers that some of the 1 Corinthians anti-equality passages in may have contained later forged insertions, then one might argue that the valid Christian Scriptures promote gender equality.

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  1. S.M. Gilmour, "The Letters of Paul," essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)
  2. J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament Volume," Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1990)
  3. H.R. Willmington, "Bible Handbook", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1997)
  4. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL (1990)
  5. C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)
  6. Raymond E. Brown, "Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible," Paulist Press, (1990), Pages 49 - 51. Read reviews or order this book safely

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Copyright 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-SEP-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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