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Bible Q

Are all of Paul’s 13 signed letters authentic?

This is a serious question. There is plentiful evidence from the 2nd and 3rd centuries of forged letters and gospels in the name of the major apostles circulating in corners of the rapidly expanding Christian world. Such texts were excluded from the New Testament canons and were often successfully destroyed, but from those where copies survive we can usually see the hallmarks of strange teachings that contradict the New Testament authors.

Given this it is not an unreasonable question to turn to the 27 books of the New Testament and ask the same questions. This particularly applies to the 20 signed letters (leaving out of the discussion for the moment Hebrews where the author’s name is not openly given). It also applies to Luke, Acts and Revelation where the author’s name is given.

Forgeries of Paul’s letters already existed in his lifetime

Given the problems that Paul had with various groups – primarily Judaizers – and the position Paul had been appointed to by Christ to preach to the Gentiles, it is not surprising to find clear statements in his letters that some attempts had been made to forge his letters.

The two clearest statements of this problem are both found in 2 Thessalonians:

” not to be easily disconcerted or alarmed by any spirit or message or letter seeming to be from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has already come.” (2 Thessalonians 2:2)

“Here is my greeting in my own handwriting—Paul. I do this in all my letters to prove they are from me.” (2 Thessalonians 3:17)

Not surprisingly those two statements have focussed attention on 2 Thessalonians itself. In 1873  the Lutheran theologian  Johann Ernst Christian Schmidt was the first to propose that 2 Thessalonians was a forgery precisely because it twice claimed not to be.

The big difference between forgery and literary pseudepigraphy.

A related topic which is sometimes brought to bear on the letters of Paul is pseudepigraphy. Pseudepigraphy, rather than an attempt to forge and deceive is a legitimate device in literature. One of the most famous 20th Century examples remains ‘I, Claudius’ (1934) by Robert Graves which is an example of first-person historical fiction. Another more recent example is Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) a first-person perspective historical novel written by Tracy Chevalier. Similar examples of first-person fiction and poetry exist from Ancient Near East literature and Classical-Hellenistic era literature, and this includes too a body of Jewish literature, both Aramaic (some fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Greek (mainly from Jewish Alexandria).

There is also pseudepigraphy in the Bible. The least controversial example is probably Song of Songs, which without naming Solomon is clearly hinting strongly at a Solomon-like author and yet the Late Biblical Hebrew language used dates the book as exilic or post-exilic. Was this a deliberate attempt to deceive as  forgery?  In other words is Song of Songs similar to literary conman Clifford Irving’s attempt in 1972 to publish a forged autobiography of Howard Hughes (rather foolishly considering that Hughes, although a recluse, was still alive). It seems unlikely. The very absence of Solomon’s name is more likely to be a sign of respect to the real historical Solomon by the authors.

The difference between forgery and literary pseudepigraphy can be blurred, particularly when going back further than the Roman era. Roman concepts of authorship and intellectual property are – not surprisingly given the origins of modern western legal systems – not very different from ideas about authorship and intellectual property today. And remembering that Greek not Latin was the lingua franca of most of the Roman Empire, that means that Roman ideas about forgery, intellectual property and authorship apply just as much in Thessalonica or Ephesus as in Rome.

Sorting out forgery from literary pseudepigraphy is much easier in the New Testament era than in the gap between Old and New Testaments. There is already a range of genres in the Old Testament Apocrypha found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. But for a broader view of it is worth a visit to the library and a browse through the introductions of two standard double volume compendiums of literature in this broad category: Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha.  This is a generalization but generally the distinction between actual forgery as deception and tribute literature in the name of a respected dead figure is much clearer in Schneemelcher’s collection than in Charlesworth – by the changing nature from Jewish and Old Testament literature which is not generally eye-witness literature, to the New Testament where eye-witness accounts, personal authority and actual inspiration is everything. Peter himself explains very clearly the different mindset, or eye-set, of the New Testament writers:

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

Although Peter is comparing his experience at the transfiguration with false teachers current in the church we see there the difference between some Old Testament testimony and the very explicitly eye-witness based frame of the New Testament. Even Luke, while not in any sense an eye-witness of his Gospel, makes explicitly clear that he personally interviewed actual eye-witnesses in Luke 1:2.

So, a conclusion?

There are so many different avenues to follow for this question that it is hoped to expand this answer at a later date. This is only the opener and showing what the question means.

But as the first argument – one borrowed from Alan Hayward in God’s Truth, in a chapter entitled ‘The Ring of Truth’. Do you know when you are being lied to?

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