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.

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