Back in the early 1990s while pastoring in a mainline denomination, I attended one of their liberal seminaries. It was there that I first encountered the idea that some of the books of the New Testament were not written by the authors that they said they were written by. At the time, I thought that this idea would never be more than an academic concern–an annoying issue among Biblical scholars but of little concern to most people. I was gravely mistaken. New Testament scholar, skeptic and best-selling author Bart Ehrman has totally changed that with his book Forged: in the Name of God— Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.
In his book, Ehrman alleges that there are several forgeries in the New Testament. While much of what will be discussed in this article will be applicable to the arguments for other alleged forgeries in the New Testament, this article will focus on the pastoral letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus).
1. THE BASIC ARGUMENT
What is the basis of the idea that the pastoral letters were written by someone other than Paul? Are there textual variants giving other names? Are there manuscripts lacking Paul’s name? Is there a statement against their authenticity by an early church father? Does someone in the early church even question their authenticity or hint that Paul may not have been the author? No. Nothing of the sort. On the contrary, these letters were used approvingly and recognized as part of the canon at a very early date. More than that, they are always included among Paul’s letters in all canonical lists and manuscript collections; and they were never among the disputed letters.
Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians (4:1) says: “But the love of money is the beginning of all troubles. Knowing therefore that we brought nothing into the world neither can we carry anything out, let us arm ourselves with the armor of righteousness, and let us teach ourselves first to walk in the commandment of the Lord”–clear allusions to 1 Tim 6. See also 5:2 which quotes 2 Timothy. Polycarp not only quotes from both 1 and 2 Timothy, but he indicates that he knows they are from Paul. Polycarp is an important witness to Pauline authorship because he was a disciple of the apostle John and also the most important church leader of the early 2nd Century (following the death of John, the last living apostle).*See the excellent online article by Polycarp scholar Kenneth Berding of Biola: http://thegoodbookblog.com/2012/jul/02/polycarp-of-smyrna-tells-us-who-he-thinks-wrote-1-/
The letters to Timothy in particular are cited approvingly by Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon, Origen, Eusebius, etc. (and also quoted disapprovingly by the heretic Marcion). And Titus is quoted by Iraneus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon, etc. (and quoted disapprovingly by Marcion).
So why is there any question that Paul wrote them? The primary reason given by the Bible’s critics is that the vocabulary and style of the pastorals seems to be different from that used in the other ten letters that bear Paul’s name.
Carson and Moo summarize the argument as follows:
A strong argument is produced from the vocabulary differences between the three Pastoral epistles and the other ten epistles usually attributed to Paul. P. N. Harrison, building on the work of previous scholars, compiled some impressive statistics. He pointed out that the three Pastorals make use of 902 words, of which 54 are proper names. Of the remaining 848 words, 306 (more than a third of the total) do not occur in the other ten Pauline letters. Of these 306, at least 175 occur nowhere else in the New Testament. The argument is then developed in two ways. First, it is pointed out that this leaves 542 words shared by the Pauline letters and the Pastorals, of which no more than 50 are characteristic Pauline words in the sense that they are not used by other writers in the New Testament. Of the 492 words that are found in three bodies— the Pastorals, the rest of Paul, and the rest of the New Testament— there are, of course, the basic words without which it would be impossible to write at all, and words that every Christian writer would necessarily use (e.g., “brother,” “love,” “faith”). Again, some words have different meanings from book to book. Paul, for example, uses (antechomai) with the sense “to support,” “to aid” (1 Thess. 5: 14); the Pastorals, with the meaning “to hold fast” (Titus 1: 9); (koinos) means “Levitically unclean” in Paul (Rom. 14: 14) and “common” (as in “the common faith”) in the Pastorals (Titus 1: 4). Second, it is argued that many of the words in question are found in the apostolic fathers and the apologists of the early second century. Of the 306 words in the Pastorals that are not in the Pauline Epistles, 211 are found in these second-century writings. This kind of reasoning leads many to the conclusion that the author of the Pastorals was not Paul but probably a writer living at the end of the first century or toward the beginning of the second century. It is held to be unreasonable to think that in his old age Paul would suddenly produce a wealth of new words— moreover, words that are found in a later period. Third, scholars point out that of the 214 Greek particles found in the ten Pauline letters, 112 do not occur in the Pastoral Epistles. From this many infer that there is a comparative poverty of style in the latter: the connective tissue of the Pastoral Epistles is apparently very different from that of the Pauline ten. (Kindle Locations 14222-14242).
At first glance, this may seem like a very reasonable–perhaps even overwhelming–argument against the authenticity of the pastoral letters. When examined closely, however, this argument crumbles and is found to be illegitimate. In fact, the more closely I examine this argument, the more astounded I am that this argument has gained such widespread acceptance among Biblical scholars–even among many evangelicals.
Brad Cooper is a pastor and apologist with more than 30 years of experience teaching the Bible and apologetics. His passion is to see God’s people grow stronger as their faith is firmly grounded and they grow deeper in their understanding of God’s Word. His teaching focuses on the New Testament, the cumulative case for Christian faith, and various apologetics issues related to the New Testament–including the integrity of the New Testament canon.
Brad is available to speak at events in northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
He earned a B.A. in Bible and Pastoral Ministry from Taylor University, Fort Wayne and an M.Div. from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is a moderator for the Christian Apologetics Alliance Facebook group and blogs at “To Be Sure.” He has pastored several churches over the years but is currently taking a break from pastoral ministry. Brad, his wife Jodi, and his daughters Samantha and Becca are currently attending the Ligonier Church of Christ.