Paul - Lesson 12

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 12 – History and Theology

By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

 Scope:  Most scholars today think that the three letters to Paul’s delegates (I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus) were written pseudonymously after Paul’s death and, when read not as real letters but as a fictional correspondence, reveal a stage of development in the organization of early Christianity.  The approach in this lesson is to entertain another hypothesis, namely, that they are real letters with separate purposes.  The lesson pays particular attention to I Timothy to show that the elements of organization found in these letters are fully consonant with the situations faced by Paul in the first generation, and resemble the structure of the church found in his other letters much more than they resemble the structure of the mis-2d century church.

I.                The three letters of Paul to his delegates, Timothy and Titus, usually designated the “Pastoral Letters,” are little read or appreciated, even by avid supporters of Paul.  They are regarded by most as written as much as a hundred years after Paul’s death.  Worse, they are seen as supporting a version of Paulinism that retreats from his radical egalitarian vision.

II.             The Pastorals were the first part of the Pauline collection to be challenged.

a.     Until the 19th century, these letters were regarded as having been written by Paul.

b.     In 1807, Friederich Schleiermacher challenged the authenticity of I Timothy.  By the end of the 19th century, the three Pastorals had become and have remained most widely regarded as pseudonymous.

c.     All the criteria used to “determine” inauthenticity apply in the case of these letters

                                      i.     They are difficult to place in Paul’s career, as described by Acts and the other letters.

                                    ii.     They have distinctive stylistic elements – a much more Hellenistic sound and vocabulary that is not often found in Paul’s other letters.

                                   iii.     They are seen to differ from the standard Pauline treatment of theology and ethics.

                                   iv.     For example, they discuss faith, hope and love, but these themes are treated with a slightly different tonality; Paul’s male/female egalitarianism seems to have vanished (Paul disapproves of women speaking up in the assembly and blames it all on Eve).

d.     The Pastoral Letters are regarded as 2nd century versions of a domesticated Paulinism.

                                      i.     They take Paul as their hero and carry forward some real Pauline themes.

                                    ii.     They represent an adaptation to a less eschatological, more worldly Christianity.

                                   iii.     In particular, they structure the church along the lines of a patriarchal household.

e.     The “Pastorals” are regarded not as genuine letters at all but as a single literary composition in the form of letters.

                                      i.     II Timothy provides a biographical setting for the handing down of tradition from a first to a second generation.

                                    ii.     I Timothy and Titus establish guidelines for a conservative version of Pauline Christianity.

III.           The three letters to Paul’s delegates can, however, also be regarded as real letters written under Paul’s authorization in his lifetime.

a.     The criteria used to determine authenticity are deeply flawed, relying on the device of treating all three letters as a single unit while ignoring the diversity in the “undisputed” letters.

b.     Once the letters are treated individually, they resemble other letters in the collection.

                                      i.     The most striking similarity is between II Timothy and Philippians.

                                    ii.     I Timothy deals with a range of issues most like those in I Corinthians.

                                   iii.     Titus deals with a situation that most resembles that in Galatians.

c.     The distinctive of the letters can be attributed to other factors, especially the particular role played by Paul’s delegates and the literary form of the compositions.

                                      i.     Paul is writing to delegates, who are trained in Greek rhetoric.  Thus, he uses language that they can relate to, including devices of Greco-Roman philosophy, such as medical imagery.

                                    ii.     II Timothy has the form of a personal paraenetic letter (a letter of advice) with elements of protreptic exhortation.  This literary form was available to Paul.

                                   iii.     I Timothy and Titus are perfect examples of mandata principis letters, known from the 3rd century B.C.E. and used to instruct delegates who represented a ruler in a particular region.

IV.           The question of community structure is a perfect test case of whether these letters are that much different from Paul’s other letters.

a.     The conventional position holds that the authentic Paul was completely charismatic, depended on his own authority to direct his churches, and saw no need for any structure in his communities apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

                                      i.     This view is held by those who would prefer early Christianity to not have institutions, which they consider to be bad.

                                    ii.     It is, however, naïve to suppose that a new community will last without some sort of structure.

                                   iii.     Because the “Pastorals” impose authority structures, they represent a “development” in early Christianity that is theologically unfortunate.

b.     A closer look at the three letters requires an adjustment.

                                      i.     II Timothy includes no reference to institutional structure, Titus has virtually none, and I Timothy provides so little information that we cannot reproduce the structure it assumes rather than imposes.

                                    ii.     The structure is simple, functional, and non-rationalized, resembling most the basic organization of Greco-Roman clubs and Hellenistic synagogues contemporary to Paul.

c.     A closer look at the undisputed letters also yields surprising evidence.

                                      i.     Gathering the scattered remarks Paul makes about local leadership, it is possible to state that he assumed such structure even in recently founded communities and that such organization was simple, functional, and non-rationalized.

                                    ii.     The organization of the “authentic” Pauline churches most resembles that in Greco-Roman clubs and Hellenistic synagogues and that sketched by I Timothy among the Pastoral Letters.

d.     The exercise neither proves the authenticity of the Pastorals nor demonstrates their overall consistency with the other letters.  But it shows the difficulty in studying Paul historically without theological bias and, positively, that even the earliest Pauline churches had some form of local authority.

Essential Reading:

I and II Timothy, Titus

Supplementary Reading:

J. Bissler, The Widow’s Tale: A Fresh Look at I Tim. 5:3-16.

C.F.D. Moule, The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles: A Reappraisal

Questions to Consider:

1.  What elements in the Pastoral Letters argue for and against the characterization of them as representing “bourgeois Christianity”?

2.   What portrait of Paul is given by II Timothy?

Next Sunday:

Paul’s Influence.

Review previous lesson outlines and notes.

Paul The Apostle