Bible readers are often surprised to find out that a large group of modern biblical scholars do not believe that the apostle Paul wrote all of the 13 Pauline epistles in the New Testament. There are different reasons for this, but the question remains as to whether opponents of Pauline authorship have proven their case.
Part I and Part II of this series has considered the issue and several of the reasons why many scholars would deny Pauline authorship. This third and final installment will look at what is the strongest argument in favor of their case and apply it to each of the disputed Pauline epistles to see if the argument is sound. Readers who are interested in exploring this issue more deeply should find the works An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo and An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown to be most helpful.
The differences in theological emphases between the acknowledged Pauline epistles and the "Deutero-Paulines" account for the strongest case against Pauline authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). We would all acknowledge that it would be hard for one author to speak so differently about certain theological matters from letter to letter. But do the Deutero-Paulines differ so significantly from the acknowledged Pauline epistles to have been composed by a different author. We will now consider each letter individually to see whether the elements of biblical scholarship that are against Pauline authorship of the Deutero-Paulines have made their case that their teaching is different than that of the theology of Paul the apostle.
This is the least disputed of the "disputed" epistles, and the main issue for some representatives of biblical scholarship is that 2 Thessalonians is too similar to 1 Thessalonians in its subject matter, particularly in regards to eschatology - the teaching about what will happen at the end of the world. Scholars cannot understand why two letters written within the same period of time would deal with the same problems, so they answer the issue by positing a gap of time between the Thessalonian letters and a different author for each of them. This "argument" against Pauline authorship does not hold real weight. In our own lives we have seen that people do not always "get it" the first time. Why then would it be impossible for Paul to write a second letter to the same audience going over the same problem again? If the Thessalonians were just like us and apt to miss truths on the first go-around, then it is not impossible for Paul to have written them a second letter covering much of the same ground. So 2 Thessalonians should not be seen as having an author other than Paul.
Critical scholars question the authenticity of Colossians based on the concept of the "cosmic Christ" that they say is not a prevalent theme in the undisputed Pauline letters. Colossians 1:16 is a good example of this cosmic Christ theme, as the verse speaks of all things being created by Christ. Yet the cosmic Christ idea is not wholly absent from the undisputed Pauline epistles. First Corinthians 8:6 contains a strikingly similar statement - "through Christ all things were made." The main difference in the cosmic Christ idea between the undisputed Pauline epistles and those whose authenticity is questioned is more in the level of development of the idea than its presence. Later epistles like Colossians deal with the idea of the cosmic Christ more concretely than the earlier Pauline letters, wherein the idea is more implicit. The idea is present in both, for it is an essential part of the theology of Paul the apostle; thus, there is no good reason to believe Paul did not write Colossians.
When it comes to the book of Ephesians, many critical scholars believe the church is too developed in Ephesians for Paul to have been the epistle's author. Such thinkers point out the "seeds" of Catholicism - the conception of one universal church that looks back on a closed group of apostles as its foundation (Eph. 2:20). A closed group of apostles, they say, is a later conception, since the early church had a much more fluid leadership. It is difficult to understand why scholars find this theme to be such a problem for Pauline authorship. Acts 1 and the casting of lots for Matthias seems to indicate that the group was always closed. Furthermore, Paul's defense of his apostleship based on a personal vision of Jesus in 1 Cor. 9:1–2 implies that the circle of apostles was always open only to those who had personally seen the risen Christ. Therefore, there is no real difference between the conception of the apostolate in Ephesians and the conception in the undisputed Paulines, and we should not question whether Paul actually wrote to Ephesus.
The Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)
One of the main issues with the Pastoral Epistles is the difficulty of placing them chronologically within what we know of Paul's life. The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, and it makes no mention of some of the events Paul narrates in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Many critical scholars take this imprisonment in Acts 28 to be the final imprisonment of Paul's life, after which the apostle was martyred. According to those who use this as a basis to deny Pauline authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, since the events of the Pastorals cannot be fit into Acts and it ends with Paul's last imprisonment, the Pastorals must be fictional records made up after his death.
How do we respond? First, the objection just mentioned works only if we assume Acts gives us every single detail of Paul's life. Of course, there is good reason to believe that it does not, so even if the imprisonment of Acts 28 is Paul's final time in jail just before his death under Nero, the Pastorals can still be authentic because they may describe events that the book of Acts does not record. Secondly, it is conceivable that Paul was released from the imprisonment of Acts 28 and that Luke ends his narrative before this occurred. Many early church fathers, who had information that is not available to us today, say that this is exactly what happened. If so, Paul wrote the Pastorals after his release from the Acts 28 imprisonment and before his death. Third, since many critical scholars take a rather dim view of the historicity of Acts, it is really not fair for them to use the book to argue against Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. It seems they only want Acts to be reliable when it allows them to argue against Pauline authorship of the Pastorals.
A second problem many critical scholars have with seeing the Pastoral Epistles as being written by Paul is that they believe the church structure in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus is too developed to have been in existence in Paul's lifetime. The Pastorals, then, are believed to be letters written in Paul's name to those who lived after him. Evidence for this more developed church structure is often found in the mention of officers like "overseers" and "deacons" in 1 Timothy 3. Yet it should be noted that the highly developed structure some scholars read into the Pastorals seems more to have been read into the letter than to have actually been present. There is really no structure evident in the Pastorals that is not also seen in the undisputed Paulines (Philippians 1:1 also mentions "overseers and deacons"). Paul may also be addressing church structure more specifically in the Pastorals since that was the problem that he needed to focus on.
Ultimately, the burden of proof must be on those asserting that Paul did not write 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles. Early church history knows of some pseudonymous gospels and historical books like Acts, but very few if any letters. Moreover, the church was quick to abandon any work known to be pseudonymous, hence the rejection of other gospel-like writings and so on. Only works known to be associated with the apostles were accepted because these were known to be authentic. Furthermore, there is nothing in the disputed Pauline epistles that is inconsistent with the theology of Paul the apostle found in the undisputed letters. Therefore, all of Paul's letters in the New Testament should be accepted as being from him.