According to many experts, half of ‘Paul’s letters’ in the New Testament aren’t actually by him at all. They conclude this because Ephesians and the Pastorals (the letters to Timothy and Titus) are very different to the style of Paul’s other letters. Some scholars go as far as whittling down what they believe to be Paul’s ‘genuine’ letters to only four (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians), leaving more alleged ‘forgeries’ than ‘genuine’ letters. The most common explanation given for these ‘forgeries’ is that they were based on Paul’s known teaching, but written in his name by his followers after his untimely death. That’s why scholars tend to refer to these letters as ‘Pauline’ – they agree that they are ascribed to Paul, though not necessarily written by him. The term may be a convenient label, but it can also be a way to disguise or ignore the problem.
We used to think that writing in someone else’s name was something the ancient world accepted as normal, and it was only us modern readers who had a problem with it. But recent studies have pointed out what should have been obvious: the early Church did care who the author was, because the author gave the letter its stamp of authority and authenticity. For example, the so-called Third Letter of Paul to the Corinthians was rejected by the early Church, not because it was heretical (it helped combat some Gnostic heresies) and not because it was written later (about 160 AD); they rejected it because it clearly wasn’t written by Paul, as it claimed. Although there are ancient Roman examples of writings in the name of a dead person, few pretended to be genuinely by that person. As well as being misleading, writing a letter as someone else was illegal. The Roman law of forgery (originating in 81 BC) proscribed falsely signing a letter or testimony, or reading it out in public, and forgers were punished with the same severity as assassins. In this climate, the Church would certainly not have been happy about pretending letters were by Paul.
Was accepting Paul’s letters as genuine simply a mistake by the early Church? After all, there do seem to be obvious differences between the ‘genuine’ letters and the disputed ones. Ephesians, for instance, often mentions concepts such as ‘the heavenly realms’ which Paul never refers to elsewhere. And it omits other subjects – such as‘justification’ – which he usually includes. Similarly, the Pastorals refer to Church ‘elders’ (a form of governance absent from all of Paul’s other epistles), and seem to lack Paul’s concern about Jesus’ imminent return. Also, statistical studies have identified differences in style – for example, one-fifth of the vocabulary found in the Pastorals is never used by Paul elsewhere.
But perhaps these differences in the letters can be explained. For instance, the fact that Paul wrote to the Ephesians to deal with the religious beliefs that were prominent in their area helps explain the unique matters that this letter concentrates on. Likewise, when Paul wrote the Pastorals later in his life, he recognised that Jesus’ return was clearly delayed; and perhaps he didn’t refer to ‘elders’ in previous letters because this title wasn’t yet in use in his churches. Also, our style of writing changes with time and according to whom we are addressing. Finally, when the same statistical tests are applied to Shakespeare’s works, we find that Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth do not share the same author as the other plays.
Nevertheless, most scholars can still see obvious differences, and do not accept these explanations as entirely satisfactory.
The best explanation, in my opinion, is that Paul used a secretary – except for personal letters such as those to Timothy and Titus. We know that he used secretaries because he frequently adds a personal postscript: ‘I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand’ (1 Corinthians 16:21), ‘See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand’ (Galatians 6:11), and others (Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Philemon 19). These personal additions would be superfluous had he written the whole letter himself. And, on one occasion, his secretary added his own personal greeting (Romans 16:22).
Confession time: the words written here are not my own. My writing style is the kind of prose commonly found in scholarly tomes with a very small readership. Several years ago, an editor said to me: ‘You can preach well, so why don’t I summarise your sermon as the first draft of an article?’ It worked. I’m getting better at articles now, but my pre-edit style is still comparable to Eric Morecambe’s inimitable rendition of Grieg’s piano concerto – ‘all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’.
Paul probably didn’t need as much help as me, but most ancient writers used secretaries. And although we don’t know how Paul used his secretaries, we know how others did. A century before Paul, the orator Cicero had secretaries who summarised his speeches, wrote his letters (which he checked before sending), and occasionally took dictation. Although highly skilled people can be hard to find, I’m sure that Paul would have been able to locate some. Many slaves and freedmen with these skills lived in Roman cities, and Paul specifically says that some believers worked in the palace (Philippians 4:22), so perhaps he used the emperor’s secretaries.
Paul’s letters often summarise his preaching – something that a competent secretary would have been able to do – but they also contain more personal material which needed careful instructions, or even dictation to his secretaries. The letters to Timothy and Titus were different because they were Paul’s personal letters to pastors he was mentoring. Even important people such as Cicero, Seneca and Julius Caesar wrote to personal friends in their own hand, so we would expect Paul to write these letters himself. This is confirmed by the fact that theydon’t mention secretaries and they display a different style to the others – the style that was actually Paul’s own.
Were these biblical secretaries and editors inspired? Jesus claimed that every letter of the Law was eternal (Matthew 5:18), and presumably this includes editorial comment such as: ‘Moses was the most humble man in all the earth’ (Numbers 12:3) – Moses certainly didn’t write that verse. The Old Testament is full of editorial work – David’s song in 2 Samuel 22 was later edited for liturgical use (compare it with Psalm 18), and the prophets depended on secretaries such as Baruch to compile their work. It’s clear that Jesus regarded every letter as inspired, which included all this editorial assistance.
God didn’t dictate the Bible (like Muslims claim for the Koran) – heinspired it. And God can inspire editors and secretaries just as he can inspire authors. Additionally, God’s inspiration continues to work when we read his words, so that his message communicates directly to us. The message does not come from the person who authored or edited it, but from the God who inspired it and continues to inspire us through it. This is what makes the Bible special.