By Pete Brown | January 26, 2008
[Ed: Pete Brown is working on his doctorate in biblical studies at Catholic University of America. We thought this was interesting and that you might enjoy it, too.]
Today is the feast of Sts. Timothy and Titus. These two were known as early bishops in the Church—Timothy of Ephesus and Titus of Crete. But really, they are best known as recipients of three letters from St. Paul—letters that the Church received and ultimately incorporated into the Bible. These so-called “pastoral” letters are very interesting, but sadly have received very little attention by Pauline scholars wanting to understand his theology. Why? Many scholars think that Paul didn’t really write them.
In my judgment, though, this case has always been weak. It was based originally on assumptions about the early Church supposedly not having bishops in the time of Paul. Bishops, went the refrain, were a feature of “early Catholicism” and not a part of the New Testament Church. But practically no one anymore buys this dated nineteenth-century argument.
Today, advocates for pseudepigraphy usually base their case on the peculiarities in literary style and alleged differences in theology from the Paul who wrote Romans. Indeed, a sharp-eyed reader would see a few differences between the pastoral and other Paulines. So what? He would see far more similarities! Besides, the differences could be easily explained by the assumption that a) Paul is a versatile writer b) he’s writing to a sidekick to instruct a community rather than to a community directly, so he’s writing it differently or c) these letters were probably written in prison, and thus may have been written with the help of a secretary (like our beloved Tertius in Romans [16:22]) who may have put Paul’s basic thoughts into his own words. (Luke would be the leading candidate for this, since he did serve with Paul [2 Tim. 4:11] and there are lots of curious similarities in style between the pastorals and Luke and Acts.)
As for the alleged theological differences between Paul and the author of the pastorals, how, dare we ask, does anyone know what Paul’s theology really is? Well, of course, it’s the theology embodied in his undisputed epistles. Oh, okay. How do we establish which letters are “undisputed”? Well, that’s easy. They’re the letters that embody Paul’s theology. Only in biblical scholarship could such tail-chasing circular arguments be taken seriously by smart people.
Actually, not all scholarship! Mirabile dictu, the three most recent critical commentaries on the pastorals (two by Protestants, one by a maverick Catholic) all defend eloquently the tradition of Paul’s authorship. Our own not-exactly-conservative specialist on the pastorals here at CUA [Catholic University of America] makes a strong defense of authenticity. All this suggests to me that the tide is finally turning. And since all three letters explicitly identify their author as Paul, they would have to have been accepted as from Paul by leaders like Timothy and Titus and their churches who knew Paul very well. Could the early Church have been so easily deceived on such a matter?