Epistles, Part 7: Disputed and Undisputed Letters…What’s the Difference?

by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on July 19, 2018

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.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+