Questioning the Skepticism about Some of Paul’s Letters

A little skepticism of the skeptics might be in order in questioning the rejection of the authorship of some of the “questionable” Pauline epistles.

Old Engraving of the Conversion of Paul

I first learned that some of the “Pauline epistles” were not written by Paul in my religion courses in college. That was the scholarly consensus then, as it is now, among the elite New Testament scholars in colleges and universities around the world. This consensus grows out of the “school of higher criticism” that began in the 19th Century in Tubingen, Germany.

The so-called “school of higher criticism” is textual criticism with a heavy emphasis on the text. (I will explain that comment below.) Not that textual criticism, itself, should be suspect. Textual criticism is “a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification of textual variants, or different versions, of either manuscripts or of printed books…. The objective of the textual critic’s work is to provide a better understanding of the creation and historical transmission of the text and its variants.” (Wikipedia)

And by the way, there are differences among the New Testament manuscripts. Many differences. That fact shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone in this information rich age. If you aren’t aware of that fact, you would do well to consider the work of Daniel Wallace on the subject. I have addressed this issue before (Can We Trust the Bible?). But, I digress….

I have no issue with textual criticism applied to the Scriptures. We have learned much about the Bible from the method of study called textual criticism. “Criticism” here doesn’t mean, necessarily, rejection or doubt, but is more of a method of study that recognizes textual differences between manuscripts and attempts to identify the text that is most true to the original text, among other things.

Because we have so many manuscripts, well over 25,000 of them in various languages, there are variants that need to be addressed and understood. Textual criticism helps us with this understanding. (I should add that we have such a high degree of certainty about what the original text says precisely because we have so many manuscripts. If you want to dig in to the topic of textual criticism as applied to the Bible, I recommend The Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism.)

Some people take the fact that there are many differences among the manuscripts as a reason to reject the New Testament as Scripture, believing it to be inherently unreliable, questing whether we even know what the original authors wrote. This is an extreme view, in my opinion, though one that skeptical intellectuals seem to like. Perhaps, their fondness of this view is that it eliminates the need to take Scripture seriously or to apply it to their lives (to apply a little skepticism to the skeptics).

The fact is that we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts (5800 Greek, 10,000 Latin and 9800 Syriac, Coptic, etc.) that we can know with a very high degree of accuracy precisely what the original text was (like 98.5% per Dr. Wallace). Even if we didn’t have a single manuscript left, there are some 36,000 quotations of New Testament text by the early church leaders. Wallace observes that we could assemble the entire New Testament from those quotations alone, without the need for a single manuscript of the text.

But, I digress. Only a little. The point is that we should be as skeptical of the skeptics as they are skeptical of the text. In fact, Skepticism is the hallmark of the higher school of criticism. Skepticism is their starting place. They assume a skeptical approach. They don’t just wipe the slate clean, and start from neutral; they assume that the plain meaning of the text, the authenticity of the text and the reliability of the text has the burden of proof. And for this reason, we have good reason to be skeptical.

This form of skepticism is the flip side of what some might call blind faith. There is a danger in being skeptical that will not admit a positive result. There is a commitment to skepticism that is counterfactual. We can be as “committed” to skepticism as we are to belief to the exclusion of the facts and reality. I believe this is the case with the Pauline epistles that scholars reject.

Dating back to the school of higher criticism, a consensus has grown among scholars (about 80% per Wikipedia) that Ephesians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy and Titus are pseudegraphic (not written by Paul). This position is based primarily on the assessment that these letters do not read like the other letters in their style and content. This position can be traced back to the 19th Century and the school of higher criticism.

This relatively modern view of the epistles that carry Paul’s name focuses on the literary style and content of the letters to the exclusion of (to counterbalance) the weight of historical evidence that suggests Pauline authorship. These same scholars, by the way, agree that all the other letters bearing Paul’s name were actually written by Paul, the once persecutor of Christians who became a follower of Christ in dramatic fashion within a few years of the death and reported resurrection of Jesus

When I say that the emphasis is on the text, I mean that they rely on their assessment of the text sometimes to the exclusion of other outside evidence and even to the exclusion of the actual meaning of the text. In short, they trust more in their own assessment of the text than in the express meaning of the text or in the centuries of historical scholarship that preceded them.

Of course, I should add that, if Scripture can’t stand up to textual criticism, we should question our reliance on those texts as Scripture. But we shouldn’t throw out centuries of consistent understanding dating back to the generation after Christ died. Not that we should be blind in our confidence in that understanding, but what can a 19th, 20th or 21st century person know that was not available to 1st, 2nd and 3rd century scholars on the subject?

Though we have a wealth of manuscripts, some of which survive from within a generation of the death of Jesus, many other manuscripts have been lost to the ravages of time, decay and other causes – manuscripts that early Christian scholars had. Beginning with people like Polycarp, who was personally mentored by the Apostle John, and other contemporaries of his, people have maintained the authenticity of the Pauline letters that became part of the New Testament.

At the same time, we see in the writings of the early Christian scholars much concern about the authenticity of the writings that were to be considered Scripture. Many were the writings that were consistent in their content, but were rejected by doubt about authorship. Not so with the Pauline letters.

Doubt about the authenticity of the Pauline letters didn’t arise until more than a millennia after the First Century. With that introduction, I encourage you to read the work by Eric Manning, FORGERY IN THE BIBLE: WERE 1 AND 2 TIMOTHY REALLY FORGED?

Eric is a former skeptic, an atheist, who has changed his tune. Not that him being a former atheist means that he is more accurate in his understanding of truth and reality than other believers (or atheists). But, there is a certain unabashed confidence that former atheists have when addressing these things that is refreshing. They have seen the other side. They have been on the other side. They have a healthy skepticism of the skeptics that aids them in seeing the weak points, perhaps, better than the believer who may be afraid of his own bias.

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