Paul’s Stature Beyond Letters He Wrote
Published: May 14, 2009
The author of the Second Letter of Peter had this to say about Paul’s letters: “In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort” (2 Peter 3:16b). Many experts on Paul in our day might agree.
Paul’s training in Pharisaical Judaism, his personal encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, his zealous personality and commitment to evangelization and the cross of Jesus Christ—all these factors make Paul’s correspondence rich and hearty. They also create a theology and spirituality that were influential long after he was physically present in a community.
Timothy and Titus surely found his teachings challenging, but there is no doubt they were shaped by strong bonds with the great apostle to the Gentiles. Their travels with him, and on his behalf, are attested to not only in the New Testament books that bear their names, but also in the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters we know as 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Philippians.
Paul refers to Timothy as his spiritual child (1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:22). About Titus, Paul notes the young man’s initiative in seeking funds to help the local church (2 Corinthians 8:17). They were trusted companions and co-ministers of the Gospel with Paul.
Naturally, then, letters of pastoral concern addressed to Timothy and Titus would have enjoyed a certain status in the early Church. The concerns, as in so many of Paul’s letters, are practical. They stress the need for unity, clear understanding of the Church’s teachings, and appropriate forms of leadership.
It has long been assumed that Paul himself wrote the letters to Timothy and Titus. If so, this would have occurred sometime after his first imprisonment (Acts 28:16) and before his death in the mid-60s.
However, a growing number of scholars believe that because the structure of church leadership seems to be more advanced than would have been typical in Paul’s time, they may have been written at a later date.
This question about Paul’s authorship allows us to consider two points: the nature of authorship in the ancient world, and the value of letters attributed to Paul but perhaps written by someone else.
It was quite acceptable in the ancient world to attribute a written work to someone under a variety of circumstances: It could be written personally by the individual whose name is provided, or written by a secretary at the person’s direction, or written by a secretary or follower on behalf of the person. It would even be considered intellectually honest to write something in the spirit of another person’s work and attribute it to that person.
The name of a respected person gave the work credibility and if it was accepted in that spirit from the beginning, it would have been legitimate to use the name. Consequently, even works attributed to Paul but not actually written by him would have been considered Pauline in spirit if not in fact.
These may not meet the literary standards of our day and time, but they were perfectly acceptable during the centuries when most of the Bible was written.
It should come as no surprise then to discover that of the 13 letters commonly attributed to Paul, several may be the work of an author writing in Paul’s name or assumed to be Paul because of the subject matter or writing style.
Scholars refer to these New Testament writings as “Deutero-Pauline”: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastoral Letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
So, if some of these letters are not actually the work of the apostle Paul, why are they in our Bibles and what is their value? Simply put, they reflect Pauline ideas and concerns and could even demonstrate the level of his influence as the early Church developed its theology and practices.
And most importantly, they communicate what the early Church saw as a valuable witness to Jesus Christ crucified and are inspired by God, as is all of Scripture.
Paul was essentially a pastor who felt a firm responsibility for those he could influence. His letters not only give testimony to his beliefs but to his concern that the churches be shaped to reflect the core message of Jesus Christ. That pastoral concern is found in all 13 letters at one time attributed to him, and it is the mark of insightful leadership even in our day.
Letters from an apostle or his followers to communities of faith remind us that Christianity is lived out in relationships between people. Paul’s legacy demonstrates that such relationships rooted in Christ continue to bear fruit long after one’s death.
This article is the twelfth in a series of 13 articles written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, May 9, 2009. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. The final article in the series will be published when the Year of St. Paul concludes on June 29.