"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.
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
1 Corinthians may be a blending of at least two letters.
2 Corinthians appears to be made up from at least three separate
Philippians may have originally been two or three separate letters.
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.
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
Most liberal scholars of New Testament theology believe that:
Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and 1
Thessalonians were written by Paul.
Colossians may have been written by Paul.
2 Thessalonians and Ephesians probably were not.
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 Hehas expressed his
beliefs concerning the authorship of these epistles:
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.
Agreement that he did not write:
1 & 2 Timothy and Titus is about 90%
Ephesians is about 80%
Colossians is about 60%
2 Thessalonians is a slight majority.
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.
Comparison of the beliefs of conservative and liberal theologians:
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.
S.M. Gilmour, "The Letters of Paul," essay in C.M.
Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN
J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament
Volume," Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1990)
H.R. Willmington, "Bible Handbook", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1997)
P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL
C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible,"
Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)