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Hi friends, last week our epistles series continued by focusing on the question, “Which letters did Paul write?” A refresher on that question: there isn’t much dispute about whether Paul wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon. Therefore, we call these seven letters the undisputed letters of Paul. There is, however, dispute about whether Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus. We call these letters disputed letters. Today, I want to demonstrate two ways we might distinguish a disputed letter from an undisputed letter.
The first way we might distinguish between disputed and undisputed letters is that undisputed letters of Paul tend to address very particular situations, whereas disputed letters that were likely written later tend to be more general. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses a very specific kind of sexual immorality (5:1), a question regarding whether or not women should prophesy with their heads covered (11:1-16), and concern over food sacrificed to idols (chapter 8). Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes at length to persuade the Corinthians to participate in a specific project: the collection of material support from churches in Macedonia to benefit the mother church in Jerusalem (chapters 8-9). The specificity and sheer ‘messiness’ of these situations suggest that this is a single author addressing concerns in a specific community.
Compare these examples to a disputed letter like Ephesians. Ephesians contains ethical and theological instruction as well, but these instructions have a more general feel. For example, in Ephesians 4, our Pauline author advocates living with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2-3). Our Pauline author then directs his audience to “[put] away falsehood…be angry but do not sin…do not make room for the devil,” and says that “thieves must give up stealing” and that “no evil talk [should] come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up” (4:25-29). Our author condemns “fornication and impurity of any kind” and says not to associate with folks who “deceive…with empty words” (5:3-6).
All of this is good stuff and worth reflecting on—but unlike instructions about collecting monetary support for another church, these instructions could be addressed to any church in the first century Mediterranean world. Thus, it’s more likely that Ephesians is the work of one of Paul’s followers, and that this follower is trying to preserve and disseminate ideas like Paul’s to a broad range of recipients. Finally in this ‘specificity’ vein, whereas the best ancient manuscripts of letters like 1 and 2 Corinthians include an address specifically to the Corinthians, the same is not true of Ephesians. The best (but not all) ancient manuscripts omit the specific words “in Ephesus” from Paul’s opening greeting. This is further evidence that perhaps the text we now have as “Ephesians” did not begin as a specific letter from the apostle Paul to one community in Ephesus, but as a more general writing of one of his followers.
The second way we might distinguish between a disputed letter and an undisputed letter is the way they discuss household relationships. For example, Ephesians 5-6 offers instruction on how different kinds of relationships should work: husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters (5:22-6:9). Ephesians advocates (mostly) traditional hierarchies of husband over wife and master over slave, hierarchies which were typical in the 1st century context. Titus, another disputed letter, argues for similar relationships.
Compare this view of household relationships with an undisputed letter like Galatians or Philemon, written by Paul himself in closer historical proximity to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Undisputed letters tend to make more radical claims about household relationships: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). In Philemon, Paul tries to persuade the master of a household to welcome back an escaped slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (v.16).
We see, then, that disputed letters tend to argue that Christian household relationships should look similar to the household relationships of non-Christians living in the 1st century: wives be subject to husbands, slaves obey your masters. However, in undisputed letters, we see that the gospel disrupts the traditional forms of those relationships: greater equity between male and female; slave and master might become brothers.
Why would that be the case? One answer is that the historical Paul was waiting expectantly for the return of Jesus. Thus, we might say that his understanding of how the gospel impacts the inner workings of a household was more extreme than that of later generations of Christians. In simplistic terms, if Jesus is coming back really soon, why not let the gospel disrupt everything?! However, a later disciple of Paul’s would have had to reconcile the expectation of Christ’s return with the Church’s ongoing need to live life in their historical context. In other words, the longer the Church is around without experiencing Jesus’ apocalyptic return, the more Christian writers like that of Ephesians discern and adopt ways for Christians to live peaceably with the world around them.
More next week as we continue through Ephesians.
Hi friends, it’s back to basics this week as I continue our series on the epistles. Today, I want to address the question of authorship: which letters did Paul write?
There are twenty-one letters in the New Testament. Of these, thirteen are attributed to Paul. When I say “attributed to Paul,” I mean that the letters themselves bear Paul’s name. The attribution forms part of Paul’s opening greeting. For example, 2 Corinthians begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth….” (1:1). The attribution is up front: “I, Paul, am writing to you….”
These are the thirteen letters attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. This is where it gets tricky: just because an epistle is attributed to Paul doesn’t mean that Paul himself actually composed or wrote it.
For us 21st century folks, it’s odd for a text to bear one person’s name if another person wrote it: “Wait, if Paul didn’t write it, then why is his name on it? Isn’t that a kind of plagiarism?!” But in the ancient world, this would not have been quite as problematic.
A hypothetical example might help here. Mary Magdalene followed Jesus of Nazareth in person. (That part isn’t hypothetical!) After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, let’s say that Mary Magdalene becomes part of a missionary team to Sidon. She preaches the gospel there, and a Sidonian man named Gaius comes to believe in Jesus and is baptized. Gaius, in turn, becomes a missionary and joins Mary Magdalene in her work. Perhaps as they travel, Mary Magdalene composes a letter to the Sidonians. Gaius helps her write it. This letter would likely contain an attribution to Mary of Magdala and might begin like this: “Mary of Magdala, an apostle of Jesus Christ, with our coworker Gaius, to the church of God that is in Sidon….” The Sidonians cherish this letter and spread it around, and Mary Magdalene’s authority grows in the early church.
Years go by. At some point, Mary Magdalene dies, but Gaius, who is a good deal younger, is still out there preaching. Let’s say Gaius travels across the sea to Athens. He’s ministering to Athenians, and uses Athens as a sort of home base for his missionary journeys in the area. Gaius gets older, so before he dies he decides to preserve the teaching he has received and heard over his years, the teachings of and about Jesus Mary Magdalene gave him. Gaius records this teaching in a letter to the Athenians.
In that letter, Gaius might command the Athenians to make copies and circulate the letter to the other churches in the area. After all, this letter contains the gospel as witnessed by Mary Magdalene! This is the key: because of her importance, Gaius would probably attribute his letter to Mary Magdalene. The gospel Gaius received came through her; none of it is really his own stuff, so to speak. Mary Magdalene was the original witness of Jesus, not Gaius. So, the letter Gaius writes to the Athenians might actually begin like this: “Mary of Magdala, friend and apostle of the Lord Jesus, with our brother Gaius, to the church of God that is in Athens: grace to you and peace….”
Do you see how similarly the two letters begin? Yet one was written by Mary Magdalene herself while the other was written by Gaius years later.
Something similar is going on with Paul’s epistles. Paul is a bit different than Mary Magdalene because he never followed Jesus in person—indeed, Paul at first persecuted Christ’s followers! (See Acts 8:1-3, Galatians 1:13-15.) But Paul did have a powerful vision of Christ that converted him irrevocably (Acts 9), a vision that sent him out into the world as an apostle. He traveled extensively, founding and caring for churches across the Roman Empire. He worked with helpers and missionary partners, and just like Mary Magdalene in our example, over time, Paul’s authority grew (though, as we saw repeatedly in 2 Corinthians over the past few weeks, his authority was rarely unchallenged).
Thus, of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, Paul himself wrote or composed some, but it’s likely that Paul’s disciples composed the rest. Like Gaius’ attributing his hypothetical Athenian letter to Mary Magdalene’s authorship, Paul’s disciples would’ve seen themselves as acknowledging Paul’s rightful authority and continuing his work when they attributed their own compositions to him.
Now, to answer the question with which we began: which of these letters did Paul write? The historical Paul wrote or composed seven of the thirteen New Testament letters attributed to him: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. We call these seven letters the “undisputed letters” because there is no real dispute amongst biblical scholars that the historical Paul wrote them. The remaining six—2 Thessalonians, Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, Colossians, and Ephesians—are called the “disputed letters” because there is still dispute as to whether Paul or one of his followers wrote them. There is more dispute about some letters than others.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching on 2 Corinthians, an undisputed letter. This Sunday, we start on Ephesians, a disputed letter. Next week in this series, I’ll try to lay out some of the characteristics that distinguish a disputed letter like Ephesians from an undisputed letter like 2 Corinthians.
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