Why does it matter whether Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles, or whether Peter wrote 2 Peter? Can a bogus letter be a genuine word from God?
Acclaimed critical scholars such as C. F. D. Moule, J. N. D. Kelly, Joachim Jeremias, and Luke Timothy Johnson have defended the authenticity of Timothy and Titus. 2 Peter has had a tougher time in the critics’ den, both ancient and modern. It was a latecomer to the canon, and had few defenders even in the 3rd century. Even Calvin was skeptical of the book. The best critical defense of the book is E. M. B. Green’s 2 Peter Reconsidered, who cites allusions to the epistle by Clement of Rome (95 AD) and Barnabas (130 AD) as evidence that it was widely circulated at an early date.
2 Peter is the best example of the implications of fraud in a book regarded as Scripture. Not much depends on whether Ecclesiastes is a work of fiction. But if 2 Peter does not come from the apostle Peter, we might as well chuck it in the trash, because the writer claims to have been an eyewitness to the Transfiguration.
The standard defense of pseudonymity in Scripture is by David Meade in his book Pseudonymity and Canon. Meade argues that the use of a name like Paul’s by another writer is “primarily an assertion of authoritative tradition, not literary origins.” He claims that there was no intent to deceive, and that the audience was not deceived. Meade’s argument begs the question, “What if an apostolic authority is asserted falsely?”
The leading refutation of Meade is Terry Wilder’s recent book Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception, a book that presents his dissertation done at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Wilder cites abundant evidence that the early church did not knowingly accept books produced under a false name. The Muratonian Canon (ca. 180 AD) rejects letters to the Alexandrians and the Laodiceans because they were forgeries (it says “gall ought not to be mixed with honey”). The writer of the Acts of Paul and 3rd Corinthians was condemned by a bishop after the writer confessed his works were fiction. The very reason the canonicity of Hebrews, 2 Peter, and James was disputed was because they were believed to be bogus. The early church freely quoted Jewish pseudepigraphal writers, but distinguished them from the books they considered to be canonical.
Wilder also points out that it was not necessary to write under a false name to speak with authority in the early church. The Gospels themselves are technically anonymous, as is much of the Old Testament, and the Letter to the Hebrews (which never claims to be by Paul). Mark and Luke were not even apostles, but the church accepted their writing (along with Hebrews, eventually) because it recognized the apostolic content of their teaching. It was never necessary for apostolic authorship to be falsely asserted.
It may be argued that pseudonymous writers were writing “what the apostle would have written if only he had been here.” But such a possibility has no evidence to substantiate it. Ralph Martin theorizes that a writer may be so convinced that he is writing someone else’s words, that he believes it would be dishonest to claim those words as his own. But the writer of 1 Timothy boldly insists, “I am telling the truth! I am not lying!” (1 Tim. 2:7) If this writer possessed a genuine unpublished message from Paul, there were better ways to get it published that would have enhanced its credibility.
So the notion that pseudonymity was an accepted literary convention in the early church all but evaporates, which leaves intentional deception as the only logical motive for such a text. Wilder uses the image of a thief who steals a Picasso painting, reproduces it in the finest detail, and sells the imitation as it were an original. He says, “The copied work is a fraud, not primarily because of what has been painted on its canvas, but because of who has painted it.”
In the case of the Pastoral Epistles, C. F. D. Moule writes that while the non-Pauline language in them is compelling, he thinks it is even harder to believe that the personal allusions in these letters were faked than to believe that they are genuine. “What would a posthumous pseudepigrapher want with the cloak left at Troas, or (still odder!) with an expectation of speedy release?…It seems gratuitously ironic – not to say callous – for an imitator of a deceased master to say, in his name, that he is hoping soon to come and visit the recipient.” And in a “last words” setting suitable to a pseudepigraph, “the effect is gratuitously ruined by the introduction of those extraordinary snippets of trivial detail, about the cloak and the books.” Why should a pseudepigrapher “invent details so little consistent with an idealized scene of martyrdom”?
Gordon Fee points out that one problem with a post-Pauline date for the Pastoral Epistles is that its advocates fail to locate these letters in a specific, identifiable (and believable) historical context, such as Ephesus or Crete at the end of the 1st century. They don’t fit. Where is the concern for martyrdom in 1 Timothy and Titus? Why is the author so supportive of the Roman government? And why does Ephesus appear to be such a hotbed of heresy, when we know it from Revelation 2:1-7 as a place of dead orthodoxy that knows how to screen out false teachers? Fee writes, “…what a giant of the sub-apostolic age this admirer must have been, to pull off such a triple forgery and remain unknown!” He writes that it is “highly unlikely that a pseudepigrapher, writing thirty to forty years later, would have tried to palm off such traditions as Paul’s evangelizing Crete, the near capitulation to heresy of the Ephesian church, or a release and second imprisonment of Paul if in fact they had never happened.”
Pseudonymity was an issue unique to Christianity. It did not matter who wrote a Greco-Roman religious text. Nor does it matter who wrote any of the Buddhist texts, because all that matters is that they contain Buddhism. For Christians, however, the issue of whether a text is apostolic in its origins is foundational. We need to know whether a text is an authorized word from Jesus. The early church needed desperately to know, because it was barraged with false claims of words from Jesus that led to a false theology. We who are even further removed in time from the historical Jesus as they were, for us, it matters all the more.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 27 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill.