Epistles, Part 6: So Which Letters Did Paul Write?
by Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 12, 2018
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.