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April 12, 2009

Who wrote letters of St. Paul?

By Sister Anne Flanagan, FSP

CONTRIBUTOR

Who wrote the letters of St. Paul? It sounds like a trick question, but Scripture scholars today spill much ink in discussions about the authorship of the Pauline epistles. Why would such a question arise? What are the most important things for ordinary Catholics to know about St. Paul as a biblical author?

Pauline scripture

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Philippians
  • Galatians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • Philemon
  • Colossians
  • Ephesians
  • Hebrews
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

Until about 150 years ago, it was taken for granted that all the epistles with Paul’s name on them were actually written or dictated by the Apostle himself — that is all the New Testament letters except for 1 and 2 Peter, James, Jude and the three letters of John. (Ancient scholars also had their reservations about the letter to the Hebrews, which does not have Paul’s name on it).

But when scholars began analyzing the Bible with the tools of literature and history, they noticed that some of the Pauline letters seemed to have a different voice, used different vocabulary and seemed to reflect different, possibly later historical situations than what occurred in Paul’s lifetime. Experts suggested that some of the epistles were written after Paul’s death by close disciples and collaborators who wanted to apply his thought to new circumstances and questions.

Others noticed that parts of the letters did not flow naturally — thoughts are broken off and seem to be picked up later. These scholars proposed that what we have today (For example, the Second Letter to the Corinthians,) is a patched-up document put together from two or more letters by an editor.

These are not farfetched ideas. The ancient world was not as hygienic about authorship as we are. (The book of the Prophet Isaiah seems to reflect not one, not two, but three distinct authors writing as the prophet.)

For a while a hermeneutic of suspicion dominated, so that one was hard pressed to claim that Paul wrote anything himself. Today, seven of the New Testament’s 14 Pauline letters are almost universally recognized as Paul’s own work (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon). As to the rest, scholars have a good time arguing about it back and forth.

Was it Paul in a different mood? In a different frame of mind or stage of life? Was it someone else using Paul’s name? Questions like these provide universities with professorial chairs and publishers with book deals, but the Pauline corpus is still very Pauline. For the most part.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a story in itself. It doesn’t claim to be by Paul. It doesn’t take the form of a letter at all. And while it resembles Paul’s thought, it seems to be much more radical than Paul ever was in his presentation of the Jewish law.

For 300 years, the Catholic Church in the West did not consider Hebrews to be Paul’s at all. The Catholic Church in the East also had a lot of similar suspicions even though, by then, his name was attached to it. Among candidates for authorship are Barnabas (the leader of the mission band for Paul’s first evangelizing voyage) and Apollos (whom we know was remarkably eloquent and well-instructed in the law, prophets and writings). The jury is really still out.

What if we found more letters of Paul? We know he wrote other letters because he mentions them (see 1 Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 7:8; Col 4:16). And there may have been letters going around that claimed to be from Paul (see 2 Thes 2:2) that were actually false messages.

He went so far as to draw attention to his distinctive signature as the mark of an authentic letter from him. Supposing that other letters could be identified with complete certainty as being by Paul himself, we would certainly be delighted to have them, but they wouldn’t be added to scriptures. Scholars would probably prefer to find the letters other people wrote to Paul, such as the letter he mentions from the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 7:1).

In the end they all proclaim the faith as given to Paul. “According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the church’s heart rather than in documents and records” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 113).

So, whether the writer was Paul, Apollos or another, the Pauline letters express the faith not just of one man, but of the church itself, and do so in a definitive way under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Flanagan, a Daughter of St. Paul, writes from above her community’s bookstore on Michigan Avenue. Her published works include religious education programs and books for children.