By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Unlike Jesus, with Paul we can actually read his own words to see what he thought and get glimpses through some autobiographical comments about what he did. But there are certain problems with Paul’s writings that may not be evident at first glance. There are reasons for thinking that Paul did not write all the books that go under his name.
Are These All Paul’s Writings?
The most important figures in history are also often the most controversial. Not that they are controversial in their own day, although that’s usually true as well, but they are also controversial among scholars trying to understand what they actually said and did. This is the case with Jesus, and it’s also the case with Paul, but for very different reasons.
Writing books under a false name still happens today, but it was more common in the ancient world. We know that because the ancients talk about it. We also know that it’s a fact that some books claiming to be written by Paul were not written by him because there are books outside the New Testament that claim to be Pauline, that claimed Paul as their author, even though there is no way that Paul wrote them.
For example, in the New Testament, we have First and Second Corinthians. Outside the New Testament, we have Third Corinthians, and nobody thinks Paul wrote that one. The letter to the Laodiceans, which claim to be written by Paul, was not written by him either.
Even within the New Testament, there are reasons for thinking that Paul did not write six of the books that claim to be written by him, as scholars have recognized since the 19th century. These books are: Second Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, First and Second Timothy, and Titus.
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What Scholars Are Almost Certain Of
The reasons for suspecting these are highly complicated, but arguments did involve detailed analyses of the Greek texts of these books, which use a different vocabulary and different writing styles from the undisputed seven letters of Paul.
Of course, different writing styles aren’t decisive in themselves, but these books also set forth theological views and presuppose historical situations different from those of Paul’s. The payoff is that critical scholars who study Paul’s own writings, more or less restrict themselves to the seven letters that they call the undisputed letters of Paul.
Of course, with scholars, everything is disputed, but almost everyone agrees that Paul almost certainly wrote these seven books: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon.
Discrepancies in the ‘Book of Acts’
The second problem involved with studying Paul is the book of Acts. Even though Paul is the hero of Acts, there are reasons for thinking that its account is not always historically accurate. We wish it were because it gives us chapter after chapter about Paul’s activities and teachings.
But whenever there is a clear overlap between what Acts says about Paul and what he says about himself, there are almost always differences. And sometimes these differences are very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. This applies to the sort of things that he says in his missionary preaching, and it applies to what he did with whom and when.
For example, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes a very big point saying emphatically that he is not lying about it, that after he converted, immediately afterward, he did not go to speak with the other Apostles in Jerusalem—Peter, James, and the rest. He tells us that in fact, he did not go there for three years. He insists on the point because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s simply borrowing the ideas of others.
However, in the book of Acts, when Paul is converted, in Chapter 9, he makes the trip right off the bat. So, which is it? Scholars tend to think that since Paul is actually taking an oath that he’s not lying about it, then he probably isn’t, and that Luke, the author of Acts, writing years later, doesn’t know that he hadn’t gone to Jerusalem right away.
This kind of problem occurs again and again in the narrative of Acts. If there are frequent conflicts, whenever their accounts overlap, it’s hard to know if Acts is accurate; and when there is not any overlap, that matters because a good deal of alleged common knowledge about Paul actually comes to us from Acts, when Paul says nothing about it.
Common Questions about Paul’s Writings
Though many books are claimed to have been written by Paul, there is reason to suspect that not all have in fact been written by him. The reasons for suspecting this are highly complicated, but arguments have involved detailed analyses of the Greek texts of these books, which use a different vocabulary and different writing styles from the undisputed seven letters of Paul.
Though many of Paul’s writings are suspected to have not actually been written by him, almost everyone agrees that Paul quite certainly wrote the following seven books: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon.
The book of Acts includes many accounts of Paul’s missions and his life. The problem appears when an account in the book of Acts lines up with an autobiographical account in Paul’s writing. In many cases, the accounts don’t match up and are sometimes nearly impossible to reconcile.