Reasons why Paul is so confusing (part 1)

Pauline Authorship

There is consensus in modern scholarship that the letters to Timothy and Titus were written in Paul’s name but long after his death. 1

There is also a strong consensus among much of modern scholarship that there is a second set of letters –  Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians that were not written by Paul, but came later after Paul is no longer with us. These are historical conclusions and not strict suppositions. One of the reasons why historians believe that Paul did not write these second set of letters is due to the style and subject matter contained within them. As Marcus Borg writes, “In Ephesians, as in Colossians, many of the sentences are very long, unlike the commonly short and energized sentences of Paul’s genuine letters. 2

It is not just that we have factual and fictional letters of “Paul” or that those 13 letters are mixed between an actual historical Paul and a Pseudo-Paul that came years later. 3 It would seem to many historians that after Paul’s death, Christian followers imagined him in situations that didn’t necessarily exist in his day and had him respond to these situations in ways that they envisioned him responding.

The problem we come to see and understand is that those post-Pauline or Pseudo-Pauline letters are largely counter-Pauline and anti-Pauline. What happens across these three sets of letters is that the radical Paul of the authentic seven letters scholars say Paul actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) is slowly but steadily transformed into the conservative Paul of the three probably imitation epistles (Ephesians Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and finally into the reactionary diehard Paul of those certainly counterfeit letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus).

In other words, the extremist Paul is being deradicalized, cleaned up and made to sound more Roman. His radical views on slavery, over the course of the 13 epistles are being reconstructed in order to mesh with the Roman cultural and social expectations of the second century A.D. We will begin with Paul’s views as he sets us up with the classic New Testament text on his views regarding slavery.

The radical and historical Paul sent back to his master the Christian convert Onesimus and told the owner that a Christian could not own another Christian because that would set up an unequal relationship and Christians cannot own each other. Paul reminds him “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,” to free Onesimus, and to consider him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother — especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (RSV Philemon 1:8,16).

Years later we come across another version of Paul. This later, conservative counter-Paul takes Christian owners with Christian slaves absolutely for granted, addressing both slaves and owners, reminding them of their obligations to each other in this social order. It is as if the Paul in Philemon never existed. This is one reason why the Antebellum South in the Americas had such a struggle letting go of slavery – they read Paul, and each side picked their version of his writings to bolster their own views. But I digress. Back to Paul. He says: “Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters… fearing the Lord” and “Masters treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (RSV Colossians 3:22, 4:1 & Ephesians 6:5-9). Christians owning Christians is all good, but with a twist – the master is asked that he be kind to the human being that he owns!

Finally, the still later and reactionary anti-Paul never mentions mutual duties of slaves and masters, rather this Paul addresses only masters, telling them to “bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory” (RSV Titus 2:9).

What are we seeing here in this progression from early Pauline writings to later epistles is important for many reasons. Modern readers can read Philemon, Colossians, and Titus, and see that something happened. Views changed. Through these texts, we can see for ourselves that at least when it comes to what these texts are saying about slavery, that the revolutionary views Paul has that no human being should own another as contained in Philemon are being changed back into normal societal Roman slavery, something that was accepted by the masses as their reality. To me, this is evidence of later authorship of Colossians, Ephesians, and Titus. We can see evidence of this in other ways that I will address later.


  1. Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the order the books were written. Harper-Collins, 2012, p. 563. Borg writes, “Though all three letters (1-2 Timothy and Titus) claim to be written by Paul, most modern scholars see them as written long after his death in the first decades of the second century. There is a consensus that they were all written by the same person. But was that person Paul? For more than one reason, authorship by Paul has been rejected: The vocabulary and style are very different from those seven letters we are sure that Paul wrote. The “tone” is very different. The passion that marks Paul’s genuine letters is absent. Not just the passion of conflict, but the passion of insight, brilliance, and radiance. There are echoes of Paul’s language in the pastorals, but they are just echoes. The issues in the pastorals seem to belong to a later generation of early Christianity, the beginning of the process of “institutionalization.” Institutionalization was greatly to increase over the centuries, so we see it here in nascent form. This includes the delineation of leadership roles (qualifications for “bishops” and “deacons”), an emphasis on “official” teaching (what 2 Tim. 4.3 calls “sound doctrine”), and even directives for discerning which widows deserved the financial support of the community. All of this suggests a later period of time.”
  2. , p. 353-354.
  3. This is also referred to in scholarship as “pseudepigraphy.” As Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler summarize in their analysis of Ephesians, “The similarity of this text (Ephesians) to the letter to the Colossians, which is also of uncertain Pauline authorship, suggests a false attribution of authorship (known as pseudepigraphy); in addition, its theology and vocabulary do not reflect Paul’s concerns, especially in presenting resurrection as a current rather than a future event (2.1-2.6; cf. Rom. 6.5-8; Phil. 3.10-11). It mentions “heavenly places” (1.3,20; 2.6; 3.10; 6.12) and speaks of Christ as “the head” of the church, which is “his body” (1.22-23; 4.11, 15-16), key theological expressions absent from the undisputed Pauline epistles. Nor does it deal with the relationship of the community to Torah, a major focus of Paul’s writings in Galatians and Romans. The text’s connection to Ephesus is also problematic: the words “in Ephesus” (1.1) are absent from some of the best early manuscripts. Defenders of Pauline authorship argue that the letter was written late in Paul’s ministry for a different audience (Marcion, a second-century Christian thinker, later condemned for heresy, suggested the Laodiceans). Without the opening and closing sections (1.1-2 and 6.21-24) the letter reads more like a sermon or exhortation addressed to Christian communities in general, rather than a letter specifically dealing with the problems and concerns of one community in particular. Levine and Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 345.

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1 Response to Reasons why Paul is so confusing (part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Messiness of Scripture | LDS Scripture Teachings

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