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Bible Q

What are, according to some scholars, the spurious letters of Paul and Peter?

What are, according to some scholars, the spurious letters of Paul and Peter?

Several letters in the New Testament bearing Paul’s name are disputed as spurious by some scholars, particularly:

  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

Among these it is principally Ephesians – due to the similarities and differences with Colossians – and the three ‘pastoral epistle’s to Timothy and Titus which attract most criticism.

There are also two examples of pseudonymous (or forged) letters written in Paul’s name outside the New Testament: the Epistle the Laodiceans (a late Latin attempt to supply a supposedly missing letter of Paul) and 3 Corinthians – a part of the 3rd Century Acts of Paul.

At the same time  many scholars reject both the epistles of Peter as spurious:

  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter

The reasons marshaled for such rejection vary and are debatable. The main ones argued are based on vocabulary and style. Before the technical debate on vocabulary and style, however, comes the big question of whether if not by Paul and Peter then whether the presumed pseudonymous authors writing letters in the name of revered authors (such as Paul and Peter) was deliberate deception?


1. The difference between pseudepigraphy and forgery

Pseudepigraphy – writing in the name of an honoured person – can be an acceptable literary form. Evident examples of this in ancient texts include late Jewish poetic and philosophical texts written from the point of view of Solomon – notably Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon (both 5th-3rd Century BCE), and Wisdom of Solomon (1st Century CE). Commentators generally take the view that the intention of Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon is not to deceive the reader into thinking that these are literally works of Solomon. However it is difficult to be so generous with some of the genuinely pseudepigraphic words gathered in editions of “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”; such as the exorcist’s compendium Testament of Solomon (probably 1st Century CE), which is neither poetry nor art literature but in large part a collection of magical legends.

Forgery – a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader to gain the authority of an honoured person to promote the ideas of an author who wishes to remain anonymous, is not the same thing. Typically in the ancient world writing a letter in the name of a recently deceased person was regarded not as a form of tribute, but as deception. As it would be today.

To illustrate the difference. The novels I, Claudius by Robert Graves, or Burr by Gore Vidal, are not attempts by the authors to deceive anyone that these are actually the works of a Roman emperor or the third president of the United States. Artistic hoaxes such as the famous poems of the Caledonian  bard Ossian published by the poet James Macpherson from 1760, probably come nearer to the Song of Solomon kind of tribute pseudepigraphy than any malicious attempt to deceive.

Most literary forgery is malicious – examples being the spurious memoir ‘I Married Wyatt Earp’ (1976, exposed 1994), and the infamous Hitler Diaries (1983) which defrauded one of Germany’s biggest publishers and landed the forger in prison.

Early Christianity and spurious letters and gospels

The history of the 2nd and 3rd Century establishment of the New Testament canon is large part a history of the attempts of the early church to stamp out and keep out spurious materials. A representative selection of spurious letters and gospels can be found in a 2-volume edition of the ‘New Testament Apocrypha’ by Schneemelcher. Exposure to how bad these rejected letters and gospels are is good preparation before making any attempt to evaluate the New Testament letters.

Were forgeries of Paul circulating even in his lifetime?

An interesting side question to the issue of false epistles is the reading of 2 Thessalonians 2:2 that suggests some people were misrepresenting Paul even when he was alive.

“not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” (2 Thessalonians 2:2 ESV)

A forged letter is not the only understanding of “a letter as from us” here, but in any case it shows Paul’s concern about being misrepresented. It makes the point that Paul would not take someone writing letters in his name.

Personal details in Ephesians and the pastorals

The problem with advancing Ephesians and the pastoral epistles as artistic tribute pseudepigrapha is illustrated by the sample excepts below.

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in[b] God, who created all things (Ephesians 3:7-9)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, (1 Timothy 1:1-2)

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:13) 

These are not artistic pseudepigraphy. They are either genuinely by Paul or deliberate deceptions, forgeries.

Likewise Peter:

12 By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. 13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:12-13)



2. The technical argument; vocabulary and style

This answer does not go into the arguments of vocabulary and style. Mainly because it is a rabbit hole that depends on assuming the literary critical methods used to establish (e.g.) the genuineness of a lost text by Shakespeare or Goethe can apply to such small and diverse samples as short NT letters against other short NT letters. In not going into the detail, we cite the reasons of N.T. Wright:

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul’s writing, hardly an adequate database for definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul’s style come up with more ‘conservative’ results than we might have expected. In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A.T. Robinson pointed out from personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for Sunday school. It has not be unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction [in fn.135 …Among NT scholars who have written children’s fiction we might mention C.H. Dodd and R.J. Bauckham]. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful. –Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 1, pg. 60

There is also another argument against Ephesians being forgeries – the way Paul is portrayed in the letter. For this see Portrait of an Apostle: A Case for Pauls Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians 2013 by Gregory S. MaGee

Links to other resources on the technical arguments. (This section of the answer needs to be expanded).


3. Conclusion

The introduction above (1) and (2) simply answers the question “What are, according to some scholars, the spurious letters of Paul and Peter?”

In (1) we set out the difference between an artistic first-person writing such as I, Claudius, and a deliberate forgery – such as most of the New Testament Apocrypha. For most readers the best approach to this question will be to simply re-read Ephesians and 1 Timothy and Peter and refresh themselves with what the letters say and how they are said.

Regarding  (2) the vocabulary and style analysis of some scholars; We have not attempted a detailed response for the validity of applying these methods to the NT corpus, nor the results. For two reasons, the first given above (as per N.T. Wright), the second that there are competent scholars such as Daniel B. Wallace who have addressed that.

Here in (3) conclusion we conclude the same as N.T. Wright and Daniel B. Wallace. That the epistles of Paul and Peter are different from the largely heretical forgeries written in the apostles’ names later and can be treated as genuine. But again if someone has doubts on this the best way to test it is to test it; i.e. get a copy of Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha and put the later forgeries and the New Testament letters side by side and ask ‘which of these speaks to me?’



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