Ehrman on Paul, Part 1 Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians

Darrell L. Bock's picture

I am splitting this chapter into two parts. In this entry, I will look at Ehrman's handling of Paul, especially the Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians. Ephesians and Colossians will come separately.

As was the case with Peter, Ehrman first looks at the issues of forgery outside of the New Testament. He covers the Acts of Paul, especially the Thecla accounts. He correctly notes that this account is a fabrication and not a forgery, since the writer does not claim to be Paul. Ehrman also reports on the response of Marcion to Paul, including inconsistencies in Marcion's position on Paul (Marcion's rejecting the Old Testament but failing to appreciate how Paul used it to make many theological points). Marcion and his followers also forged books in Paul's name, namely, the letters to the Alexandrians and Laodiceans. These letters are named in the Muratorian Canon. 3 Corinthians is a letter written to oppose views mostly like those of Marcion, except for the view of those rebuked in the letter that the creation was by angels. Marcion saw God as the Creator. The Letters of Paul and Seneca are noted next. Everything said here is presented clearly and reflects the consensus of opinion on these matters.

Ehrman then turns his attention to Paul and the NT. He notes 7 letters are generally accepted by most scholars today as sent by Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Six are debated: the three Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. This division on authorship for the most part emerged in the 19th century, as different scholars began to raise issues of style and theology in order to suggest Paul did not write certain works. It is also interesting to note that Marcion's canon of Paul contained ten letters (all but the Pastorals). This suggests that most of these letters were well accepted as Pauline by the mid-second century. The Marcionite list also points to another point in this discussion. The Pastorals are the most doubted of the Pauline letters. 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians are debated but with a larger split of opinion than the Pastorals. In fact, detailed work on views of authorship by Harold Hoehner in his commentary on Ephesians shows that opinion of the authorship of Ephesians is very divided and more hold to Pauline authorship than often is left as the impression in recent discussion. We discuss the Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians in this post.

THE PASTORALS: Doubt about these letters surfaced, as Ehrman, notes, with Friedrich Schliermacher in 1807, who argued that the style was not Paul's and that the heresy treated was Gnostic and too late for Paul. Recent scholarship has added to these positions arguing that the style and vocabulary is not Pauline with these letters (1) sharing expressions the other Paulines do not possess and (2) these letters using terms in ways distinct from Paul. Here he lists terms like faith, works, the views on marriage, the term saved. Statistics, appealing to the 1921 work of P. N. Harrison, are cited. The most famous is that of the 848 different words the Pastorals use (and that excludes names), 306 (or more than a third) are not in any other Pauline letter, by which is meant the other 10 letters, not the Pauline scholarly short list of 7 letters (p. 98). A third argument is that the organization of the church with offices is late in comparison to the more charismatic approach of Paul in 1 Corinthians and the expectation of the imminent return of Jesus that was so pervasive early on in the church. Such a strong hope led to no pursuit of church structure. In fact, these arguments can be combined so that the lateness of the church structure also reflects the fact that many church fathers of the second century used much of the unique vocabulary found in these letters, implying a similar time frame that is too late for Paul.

I work with the statistics and issues of words first and then consider the charismatic-imminent return versus office and less expectation view.

Everyone agrees that there is a lot of unique vocabulary in these three letters and that the style is somewhat distinct. The question is--what does that actually show about authorship?

Style and vocabulary are a function of several factors in writing. The topic can change the vocabulary. Who I write to and for what purpose can change how I write. A personal letter has a different feel than a piece written to a community. What I use in the piece can also impact the style and vocabulary of a work. Whether I write alone or use a stylist or editor can impact how I say what I write. I note these things because I write for that kind of a variety of audience. Such factors are in play in the Pastorals. 

(1) These letters are to an individual, not to a community. That impacts what gets said and how. It may also impact style. I do not write to my family, friends, and wife like I do to my church, in a book, or even to you on this blog.

(2) These letters use a lot of traditional materials for some of their doctrinal points. Scholars point to several embedded traditions in these letters, indicated by phrases like the appealing to the sure saying in 1 Timothy 3:1. This impacts vocabulary and style. Now one might object here that Paul is such an independent that he would never resort to using such materials en masse. But the scenario of these letters suggests a man looking at reality as he presents his advice. He is in prison. He does not know if or how long he will live. The time for his appeal to personal authority alone is passing. So he gives advice and uses traditional church materials to argue that not only is this his position, it also reflects that of the larger church.

(3) The statistics cited do not stand alone. The New Testament introduction of Don Carson and Doug Moo notes work by Donald Guthrie on statistics and the Pastorals. 542 words are shared with the other epistles of Paul and of those 50 are uniquely Pauline (Not used elsewhere in the NT). 306 unique words in the Pastorals represent just over 10% of the 2,177 words that appear in these letters total. Most of the words found in the Pastorals that are unique are also first century Greek words, that is, they are also used in the first century, not alone in the second. Of the 306 unique words in the Pastorals, 127 are only in 1 Timothy, 81 are only in 2 Timothy, and 45 are only in Titus. Of these 75 words are only in 1 Timothy, while 52 are elsewhere in the NT. The numbers for 2 Timothy are 48 and 33 respectively, while Titus has 30 and 15. In other words, much of the unique vocabulary is unique to each book (and remember the claim is that the same author wrote all three books). These numbers show that whoever the author is of these books, his vocabulary varies in significant ways from book to book, showing how much vocabulary is a function of topic and context. What about the numbers on Greek particles? Harrison argues that 112 particles are unique to these letters. Guthrie responds that 93 other particles show up in the New Testament and all but 1 are present in the Pastorals and all but 7 are in Paul's letters. So of 205 particles total, 112 uniquely appear in the Pastorals, 92 are shared. Shared particles in Romans numbers 131, 113 in 2 Corinthians, and 86 in Philippians. In other words, these distributions are like other books. All of this shows the statistics are not as one sided as Ehrman suggests. 

(4) It is simply fallacious to argue that the use of a term must always bear the same meaning from a writer and to use a term with a fresh meaning means a distinct author. Even if we have a series of such terms, linguists know what generates meaning is context and circumstance. So where setting change or sources change, meanings and usage of words can change. Not only that but in some cases Ehrman exaggerates the significance of the differences he sees. Yes, Paul urges singleness in 1 Corinthians in light of the burden it adds to life and ministry in light of the prospect of Jesus' return. But he does not treat marriage as sin. He does not forbid marriage (as is complained about in 1 Timothy 4:3). He urges fidelity in his moral calls to avoid immorality. And he surely recognized by the way he said things in 1 Corinthians 7 and by noting people will marry that most people did marry and that what he was saying was an unusual position. Nor do the qualifications for leaders require one be married. That reads in too much. What the husband of one wife most likely indicates is that if one is married one has to have shown fidelity to the marriage to lead the church. For example, we do not even know if Timothy or Titus are married (and they clearly have a leadership role).

(5) If we have an amanuensis (or writing secretary in play) who worked with Paul, then there is yet another person to factor into all of this. This factor we can neither appeal to (given such a figure is not named) nor exclude (since it was common to write a letter through such a figure). Some have proposed Luke for such a role (2 Tim 4:11). Or we can turn the argument around. If the letters to the churches used an amanuensis, but these letters are Paul's directly, then that can explain some of the difference in style.

All of this shows how complicated arguments get both for and against a particular author. Add to all of this the general distaste for such pseudonymous activity as immoral among church leaders. So you have a "truth" dimension to even entertaining a full scale creation by someone else that the church would have been sensitive to. One other factor is important. How would we get to a Pauline collection of letters to begin with? Letters likely would have been verified before circulating as a text as belonging to someone like Paul and being placed in a recognized collection as a result. Verification would have come in association with the person delivering the letter who would have known where it came from. This is why Paul sends people with the letters he wrote. This practice is not noted by Ehrman, at least not up to this point in his book.

So we are left with the charismatic versus office argument in light of differing takes on the imminence of Jesus' return. What are we to make of this argument?

Simply put, Ehrman makes far too much out of the difference he sees here. Philippians 1:1, one of the authentic Paulines, notes church leaders are present in the community to which Paul writes. Acts 14:23 shows Paul leaving behind leadership. Acts 20:17-35 notes elders in Ephesus, a church Paul had a major role in structuring. Now one could handle Acts with skepticism on such points, but once we start doing that with any counter evidence, I can defend any position. To do so, by arguing that offices are late is to argue in a circle, proving what I want to show by making appeals based on a yet to be established premise with counter evidence possibly in place. Romans 16:1-16 also gives some indications of functions in the church with deaconesses and apostles. Romans 12:7 also notes teaching gifts. We also have prophets and teachers alongside apostles in 1 Corinthians 12:28, as well as more visible and less visible members in that larger discussion, clearly alluding to more public roles for some. Galatians also indicates the church had leaders and a leadership structure, given how James and Peter are described there and Paul's engagement with them in that light. 2 Corinthians is all about Paul's own authority and how the church should respond to his role and leadership. These are all authentic Pauline letters. So Ehrman has painted a world for the earliest church that is more virtual than real. I do not need to choose between gifts of the Spirit leadership and the presence of offices. The early church, even in the midst of its expectations about the possible return of Jesus, had leaders and offices. 

All of this suggests that the case of who authored the Pastorals is far more open than Ehrman's portrait argues. One can acknowledge this book and its unique elements open the door for such a discussion and debate, but that does not mean the door is shut on Pauline authorship.

2 THESSALONIANS: Here the argument focuses on one feature, the claim that 1 Thessalonians defends an intense imminence, while 2 Thessalonians argues that certain things must first happen before that return. Two points here suffice.

(1) 2 Thessalonians does point to events associated with the return, that precede it and indicate the return has not yet come (as some are arguing, see 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). Namely, we can anticipate an intense kind of political uprising and surfacing of the Antichrist. However, there is no indication such events preclude a soon coming alongside these events. In fact, the impression is that a return comes on the heels of these events which trigger the return in such a way that these intervening events do not supply a long interruption or road block to the return, but simply come with it as it comes quickly. The absence of these accompanying events simply means the Day of the Lord has not yet come, but says nothing about how close it is. Again Ehrman exaggerates the difference here.

(2) The tension between "soon" and "not so soon because other things will occur" is built into the eschatology of the early church. One can compare Matthew 24:33 (when you see these things you know he is near) with 24:44b (you must be ready; the Son of Man comes at an hour you do not expect). Luke 21:9 gives signs of pressure on Jerusalem but notes the end is not "at once". Yet the same author can declare in Luke 18:8 that the vindication of the saints will come soon--and in the very same breath note that when the return comes the delay will be long enough that the question can be raised will the Son of Man find faith when he returns. All 1 and 2 Thessalonians does is deal with the opposite elements in this inherent tension in eschatological teaching. The swing this represents for the Thessalonians may only suggest that the reaction to Paul's initial letter became an overreaction in the other direction that also needed to be treated. 1 Thessalonians says that they have not missed the day yet and those who died have not missed it; it is still coming anytime, even soon. 2 Thessalonians says that they should not think the day has come yet, even though there are signs of judgment all around. Both of these teachings live in the tension of what the early church and Jesus taught, namely, the end could be at anytime but alongside major desecration.

Let me give a contemporary example of how such tension works.  As I write, Japan has upgraded the danger status from their damaged nuclear plant at Fukushima from level 5 to level 7, now making it equal to Chernobyl and the highest danger level possible. Headlines read "Japan raises nuclear crisis level" (BBC) and "Japan nuclear disaster tops scale" (CNN) or "Japan nuclear crisis on par with Chernobyl disaster" (also CNN) and "Japan Declares Crisis at Level of Chernobyl" (Wall Street Journal). A reading of the story tells us that with the upgrade Japanese officials have noted the radiation level is about 10% of what Chernobyl was emitting. So the event is described in terms both like and unlike Chernobyl. It all depends whether one is looking at the warning level or the emissions level. Both perspectives are relevant and valid to raise. Headlines can highlight one or the other. So the danger is already at the level of Chernobyl, but in another way not yet as serious (if we can believe the reports). My point is that the report has an inherent tension and one could easily in the same breath say, our situation already is like Chernobyl and our situation is not yet as serious as Chernobyl. Both would be accurate (assuming both sets of measurements are right). The same person or source could even make both points (as the upgrade in status shows). Examples like this help us see what can be going on in a context that works with a complex set of ideas.

So we see that the case for "forgery" for the Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians is not as transparent as Ehrman contends. A better fit is to regard the ascriptions of these letters as reflecting their authorship. His case for the Pastorals is stronger than for the other epistles, but even it falls well short of demonstration. That leaves two more Pauline epistles to discuss, Ephesians and Colossians. The claim there is of a distinct theological emphasis as well that will engage the early church's kingdom theology of already and not yet. That is the one subject of our next posting and review. It may be a few more days before the next posting comes, as I am off to guest lecture the rest of this week.

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