Determining the authorship of the Epistles

I was reading a blog post on Patheos yesterday (this one) which repeats the claim of academic scholars that some of the epistles attributed to Paul (e.g. Ephesians, Colossians) were not actually written by Paul.

The arguments he makes centre around things such as differences in vocabulary, for example. What I’d like to know is this:

  1. What methods are used to infer differences in authorship from differences in vocabulary etc.?
  2. How reliable are these methods? In other words, have they been tested against any controls?

I’d have thought that one’s style of writing would change significantly as one gets older. Certainly, it would be interesting to see how different writings by known authors compare when subjected to the same kind of criticism. For example, would we see similar amounts of divergence when we compared, say, the works of Shakespeare, or Roald Dahl, or John Grisham?

I thought Paul “wrote” his epistles frequently with a scribe–possibly because of his vision problems (“See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (Gal 6:11)

It would seem to me that the scribes would use their own vocabulary frequently, and the question is moot. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the question? Thanks.

(to clarify, I think it’s not a problem for accuracy of what Paul was trying to communicate, if he reviewed the vocabulary with the scribe and approved it. He was learned and knew what he wanted to say).

This was the case with Mohammad–not that he’s on the same plane–but one of the first to leave Islam was a scribe who felt that Mohammad couldn’t have been inspired because he agreed with the scribe’s suggestion of various words in place of his own.
https://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Sources/sarh.html

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I think it is also a modern misconception that Paul sat down at his desk and wrote the letters alone by the glow of an olive oil lamp. More likely lots of people were present and the writing of the letters was more of a group effort with an audience. This is something discussed in the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.

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I don’t know anything about the methods these scholars are using, but I have studied a bit of sociolinguistics and I’m skeptical that you can design a computer program or something that tells you a text was not written by the same person. (It might be possible to show it is likely that two texts were written by the same person, but absence of statistically significant correlation is not proof of the negative.)

A phenomenon called “code switching” is very common among people who live in multi-cultural, multi-lingual societies. It can be as drastic as switching from one language to another mid thought, or it as subtle as switching from Standard Midwestern Accent to a Southern or African-American accent depending on the topic. People who function in multi-cultural contexts are often very adept at code switching, and I would assume Paul, as an educated Jew, Roman citizen, who traveled and worked closely with Gentiles from several different cultural backgrounds did some adjusting on a regular basis.

Additionally, people commonly switch registers (how formal/informal) and use different vocabulary for sociological reasons. If a doctor was giving a lecture in a med school class he or she might talk of fetuses and gestational age and spontaneous abortion but if he or she was conveying the same information to a patient in the office it would be baby and how far along and miscarriage. Many people have religious registers (like they slip into using KJV English or Christianese when they pray, for example.). Paul wrote letters to churches in very different social and ethnic contexts and those churches often had their own internal diversity. It makes sense to me that he would seek to build on whatever common cultural ground he had with each unique church and use the language that would make him sound most trustworthy and authoritative in that context. He was supposedly a gifted orator, so I don’t think it is a stretch to assume he could fairly easily make those kind of audience adjustments.

I am under the impression that one of the biggest factors that goes into attributing authorship is early church tradition. I don’t think we should easily overturn that kind of thing because someone came up with an algorithm or something.

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Yes–I Cor 9: 19-23
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 19Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

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One fascinating comparison is to see if the same methods work in contemporary sources… consider the claim by Katherine Lindskoog that C. S. Lewis’s unfinished work “The Dark Tower” was a forgery. She claimed that the writings don’t comport or contain the similar literary styles and vocabulary or content as the “authentic” writings of Lewis.

Stylistic/statistical methods regarding vocabulary were further employed, concluding that “Overall then, it does appear that word usage in The Dark Tower is inconsistent with that found in Out of The Silent Planet and Perelandra…consistent with the claim that C. S. Lewis did not, in fact, write The Dark Tower.” Lindskoog’s own book, goes into great detail of the multiple and divers inconsistencies between The Dark Tower and Lewis’s other undisputed writings and she made a comprehensive case against Lewis’s authorship of said work, rather similar to the methods employed against Pauline authorship

It all sounded erudite, scholarly, well established and methodical. But all completely erroneous nonetheless. Not long ago, an aged British scholar (apparently unfamiliar with the dispute about authorship as I understand it) noted in passing that he was actually familiar with the work during Lewis’s lifetime, as Lewis had shown him the original draft manuscript, and he recalled various particular details of said work.

Not to mention, many of these conclusions depend tremendously on a certain confirmation bias. Just in the article you noted, for instance…

-2 Thessalonians is dubious as it “makes the specific claim not to be a forgery.” Just like Galatians?

-Colossians is dubious because of its “extensive theological development in the epistle compared to other epistles.” Like Romans lacks extensive theological development?

-Ephesians is dubious as it “contains no mention of charismatic gifts.” Just like Romans?

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Also, if interesting about the confirmation bias I mentioned, I recently posted this on another thread… regarding Bart Ehrman’s book where he similarly argues for pseudopigriphal/forged writings based in similar criteria. It certainly seems to me that his desire to arrive at a certain conclusion has significantly hindered his ability to fact-check or verify his own methods…

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Well said. There are all sorts of reasons some of an author’s works may well not correlate to other works of same author.

I certainly see a radical divergence in the style of J. R. R. Tolkien, even alongside a thematic unity.

I would love to take The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and subject them to the methods used. From changing terminology (using the word “goblin” to “orc”), to changing the Runic alphabet, to the overall darker tone, to the higher vocabulary, to the sentence length, to the various lighthearted narrator’s commentaries to the reader in The Hobbit that are entirely absent in LOTR (e.g., “Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.”)… all these observations are the very sort used by NT scholars to conclusively demonstrate different authorship among Paul’s letters.

E.g., The article you linked notes a common argument about sentence length and vocabulary. Again, for comparison, consider the line in LOTR… “Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air.

You won’t find language nearly so advanced or such complex sentence structure in The Hobbit, nor such high vocabulary (I searched… The Hobbit doesn’t use the words “luminous,” “demented,” “sickening,” “odour,” “rottenness,” or “charnel.”).

These are exactly the kinds of arguments and observations used to prove Paul didn’t write said disputed epistles. Keeps me very skeptical of how effective any such methods could ever be. (And I didn’t even bring The Silmarillion into the discussion. If I trusted the methods of these NT scholars, I would have to conclude that Tolkien’s corpus was composed by no less than 3 authors.)

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Look’s like I have another book to put on my bucket list of books that I will plan to read in the future. Checked it out and it looks like a great read. Thanks for suggesting it. @Christy I always try and keep an open mind to expand and learn more of the Bible and its historical-cultural contexts.

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Any good commentary will include a discussion of authorship, audience, purpose, genre, etc., in its introduction. For instance, here’s a link to the authorship section of I. Howard Marshall’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: The Pastoral Epistles, “7 - Authorship & Recipients”

For those without the time or interest to read it, the case basically still rests on a 1921 book by P.N. Harrison. It was actually a stunning achievement in the days before computers. He parsed the vocabulary of the pastoral letters (1&2 Timothy, Titus) and compared it to the other 10 letters attributed to Paul. Essentially, many words Paul frequently uses are missing from the pastorals; the vocabulary of the pastorals includes a large number of unique words (hapax legomena); and the unique words found in the pastorals occur more frequently among 2nd century authors. Second, the historical situation described in the pastorals cannot be reconciled with Acts. The majority of scholars accept these facts as conclusive evidence against Pauline authorship.

The positive case for Pauline authorship includes the fact that Paul used a secretary, but what I find more persuasive is the large amount of quoted material in the pastorals, such as doxologies, creedal confessions, and hymns, usually introduced with “this is a trustworthy saying” or “knowing this.” By its nature, such material is not “Pauline,” so a simple count of non-Pauline terms is somewhat deceptive.

On the historical front, the early church historian Eusebius offered the simplest explanation. Paul was released from the Roman imprisonment that Luke recorded in Acts and continued his missionary activities until he was arrested again, tried, and executed. We really have no reason to doubt that traditional account.

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I was going through some old notes I had from over a year ago when I was looking at some of this, and I had written down a quote from N.T. Wright (sorry I don’t have a reference to where he said it):

It has been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey.

Word usage differences between the pastorals and the books written to whole churches make sense to me also. I do not subscribe at all to the idea that Paul didn’t write the books attributed to him in the NT canon. They are in that canon for good reason, based on what people in the early centuries after writing knew.

One book that I found helpful in studying this was Geisler and Nix’s “A General Introduction to the Bible”.

You might also check the thread about why Bart Ehrman is wrong. He’s one of the biggest proponents of these ideas.

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Excellent summary. I have not read that original work but have read countless works that reference it or present the same basic arguments about the Pastorals. One particular aspect I to this day find completely baffling:

It should be beyond obvious that if someone took a few letters (or extended email or private Facebook messages) I’ve written to a former schoolmate and fellow minister from my theological seminary, and compared them to messages (or public Facebook posts or church-wide emails, or posts on the Biologos forum!) I’ve written to a group of devout yet lay Christians from more diverse backgrounds, there is no doubt whatsoever that we would find that I would use some more specialized words with my friend. I would use some terms in a more specialized way with my colleague, there are some things I wouldn’t cover with him in detail since I already know that he knows, etc.,etc.,etc. How can people make serious arguments on these grounds??

(“Wow, authentic Daniel-Fisher often writes carefully constructed arguments defending intelligent design on Biologos… But pseudo-Daniel-Fisher, purportedly writing to a conservative ministry colleague who shares all his beliefs in origins, never expounds similar detailed arguments on intelligent design to his friend.

On the other hand, pseudo-Daniel-Fisher uses such terms as “supralapsarian,” “Federal theology,” “cessationist,” and “Heidelberg” in his “pastoral” correspondence, which are never found in the true Daniel-Fisher’s authentic Biologos posts.

Clear evidence of a forgery, that.”)

If Paul was writing these letters to fellow ministers, rather than to churches, we would expect differences in language, vocabulary, technical terms, main themes, etc.

Now, it is one thing if the critical scholars acknowledged this obvious fact, engaged with it, refuted it, and argued why this otherwise obvious fact is unpersuasive in this case. Now it has been a while, but I do not remember in all my significant earlier study ever running into any critical scholar even acknowledging this point, much less attempting to refute it. They simply appeal to the different words and vocabulary as you described above, and never even seem to recognize the obvious ramifications entailed if the “pastorals” were in fact written to “pastors.” (Certainly Ehrman did not address this dynamic in Forged., only book on the topic I’ve read recently.)

Consider, for instance, the observation I found here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/1timothy.html

Paul writes a characteristically dynamic Greek, with dramatic arguments, emotional outbursts, and the introduction of real or imaginary opponents and partners in dialogue. The Pastorals are in a quiet meditative style…

And no discussion or recognition whatsoever that this is exactly what we would expect to find in a letter to a fellow like-minded missionary in contrast with a general letter to a church. Why in the world would Paul write to a fellow pastor, likeminded friend, devoted follower, his “true child in the faith,” using the “dramatic arguments, emotional outbursts, etc” that he used when trying to convince the general population of churches to embrace his position?

The fact that this argument can even be put forward and considered meaningful is extremely problematic to me.

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This is very insightful. If by chance you can find the reference, please share, I’d love to follow up more.

It reminds me, I once spent a mere two weeks in Solomon Islands on a mission trip of sorts… they speak a generally understandable but unique Pidgin English. And in a mere two weeks I was able to catch some of it, and managed to speak a few sentences in Solomon Pidgin English during my final message there.

If I can do that in two weeks, it is completely reasonable to see a well travelled missionary adapting his language and themes to the particular subcultures he is addressing in cities where he had spent much time.

This wouldn’t by itself explain differences between Galatians and Ephesians/Colossians? however the subject matter (a very specific and personal response to a particular crisis, verses two very general letters of broad teaching) could also be relevant factors. I’d love to hear more about Wright’s take if by chance you can find that reference.

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Actually just found a reference to it. The article below references that observation… Also, I thought the whole article good for this discussion…

Plus an additional observation of Wright I’d never considered before, but I think was also very insightful:

In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians.

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I was cribbing from John Stott, but don’t let anyone know. Psuedo-Jay carries all that stuff around in his head ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice.

Here is my summary of your post:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Hmmm. I don’t know. This Paul sounds a little too liberal to be authentic. The real Paul is angry and tribal. I’m officially calling One Corinthians into question as an authentic Pauline letter. Someone let the scribes know!

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This posting may be news to some butI came across this kind of scholarship abour 30 years ago. It depends whether Paul wrote or dictated his letters or gave secretaries a certain amount of license to phrase things on their own while governing their content,But there is of course the possibiility that they where written buy some other. The question then is how much people feel it matters and if they could still be considered the Word of the Risen Christ to His churches.

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The author of Hebrews is anonymous, and technically so are the gospels and almost all of the OT. Speaking for myself, which is my specialty, I find the history of how the Bible was composed and assembled fascinating, but it makes no difference in my faith. I trust that the Holy Spirit was guiding the process, and the end result was what God intended. Simple, I know, but that’s how I like things.

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The only issue to me would be the honesty and trustworthiness of the author, and/or his hypocrisy. If Paul used a secretary, dictated his message, wrote with others’ assistance, or even if someone wrote it independently but under Paul’s supervision (like the president or a commanding officer signing a letter that someone else drafted), I would find there is nothing inherently dishonest about claiming it is still essentially a letter “from Paul.”

However, if someone who is not Paul, nor authorized by him in any way, says, “I, Paul [fingers crossed behind back], an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus… having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another…”

Then there’s something about this I find problematic and innately hypocritical. I would have trouble taking this author very seriously when he tells me to put away falsehood and speak the truth.

Right, the person who lies about his identity proceeds to tell me to put on the “belt of truth”?

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I meant to comment on this earlier. This is also a common argument, and would be an interesting observation if Paul was not uniquely and tremendously influential on the language of Christians in the 2nd century. Once Paul had used whatever words he did, and everyone started collecting, reading, studying, parsing, copying, and preaching from his letters, including the pastorals, is it odd that their language would pick up language and vocabulary used by their authority?

One scholarly study I read said it this way…

Of 848 words (excluding proper names) found in the Pastorals, 306 are not in the remainder of the Pauline corpus… Of these 306 words, 175 do not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, while 211 are part of the general vocabulary of Christian writers of the second century.

Christian writers picking up Paul’s words and using them? Never.

What would be odd indeed is if we discovered that 2nd century Christian writers, studying, copying, preaching from, quoting, commenting on, and basically immersed in Paul’s letters (including the Pastorals) somehow managed to refrain from using, incorporating or assimilating Paul’s language into their own. Paul was their guide and template. Is it really strange to find Paul’s ideas, much less his words, in the writings of those who were so deeply influenced by him?

This whole argument strikes me like trying to argue that Kimberlé Crenshaw could not have written a work attributed to her in 1989, as it used the term “intersectionality,” and that word is far more common in the 2010s. It was her influence that caused the term that she coined to become more widespread. The fact that the term is more common in the 2010s is irrelevant, as her use in 1989 is what influenced the term to become more widespread in the 2010s.

If Paul wrote the Pastorals, and Christians throughout the late 1st & 2nd century copied, collected, distributed, studied, preached from, referenced, and were immersed in said letters, we would expect the language of Christians in the 2nd century to sound similar to these letters.

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The obvious test would be to take a portion of similar length from Paul’s undisputed letters and see if the same holds true for it.