Supposed Forgeries in the New Testament

I heard a professor recently say that if you were a student at Duke University and claimed that Paul wrote Ephesians, you would be laughed out of the classroom. This is because many scholars believe that some of the writings in the New Testament are actually forgeries.

A forgery is a work of literature that is attributed to someone who didn’t write it. This means that only 18 New Testament books would count as forgeries since they name their authors. There are many reasons that scholars doubt the authorship of the New Testament documents. The primary reasons have to do with style and content, such as vocabulary, grammar, and theology.

Almost all scholars accept 7 of Paul’s letters as authentic (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon). This means that many scholars dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and the Pastoral Epistles.

If one of the New Testament letters is a forgery, then the actual author lied about his identity and the Scriptures contain false information. Let’s look at some basic objections against the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians and how one might respond to them.

Ephesians

Objection: Paul’s theology in Ephesians is very different from his undisputed letters. Paul sees the church as having a cosmic function (3:10), which is something that is foreign to his other writings. Also, Paul says that followers of Christ are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (2:20). This contradicts Paul’s teaching of Christ alone being the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11).

Response: Paul’s theology may be more developed in Ephesians, but it still contains some of the usual Pauline material such as the importance of grace (1:6-7), the depravity of man and sinfulness of the flesh (2:1-3) and justification by faith (2:5-8). Also, Paul states that Christ is the cornerstone of the church (2:20), which goes right along with the teaching of 1 Corinthians.

Objection: The language and style of Ephesians appears nowhere else in Paul’s writings. He uses the word “church” for the universal church instead of referring to the local congregation as he usually does. He uses several words not found elsewhere in the New Testament such as “citizenship” (politeia). Additionally, Paul uses very long sentences (1:3-14; 3:1-7), which doesn’t match his style in his other letters.

Response: The idea of Paul using the word “church” in a universal sense isn’t a problem when you consider that some of Paul’s letters were meant to be circulated to more than one congregation. Scholar P.N. Harrison points out that Paul’s use of unique words is on par with his other books. In Ephesians, there are an average of 4.6 unique words per page compared to 2 Corinthians (5.6 words) and Philippians (6.2 words). The long sentences in Ephesians are unique, but it could be due to the “lofty doxologies, prayers and sweeping theological themes” (Carson, 484). Also, Ephesians contains many things that are characteristic of Paul’s style such as him bursting into worship (compare Eph. 3:20-21 to Rom. 11:33-36).

Objection: Ephesians is too similar to Colossians in vocabulary and various themes. No author would produce such similar works so close together. It is best to infer that a different author used Colossians to produce Ephesians.

Response: In my mind this is the easiest objection to overcome because of its subjectivity. Why couldn’t we say that Paul is writing similar material to two similar audiences? It seems to be a catch-22: either Paul’s letters are too different or too similar to be authentic! As we will see below, both of these arguments are used against the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians.

Colossians

Objection: Colossians also contains many words that occur nowhere else in the New Testament. Also, the author’s style is different. He puts together synonyms like “teach and admonish” (3:16), which is something Paul never does in his undisputed letters.

Response: A simple response to the first part of the objection is this: all of Paul’s letters contain unique words that aren’t found anywhere else in the New Testament! Epistles are also occasional in nature, meaning that they were written to various audiences for specific purposes. For this book, Paul uses unique words to correct a new heresy that was springing up in the church. Also, Colossians contains traditional material. For example, some scholars argue that 1:15-20 was originally a part of a Christian hymn. If Paul quoted traditional material, we would expect his vocabulary to be different in those sections.

Objection: Paul has a more developed view of Christology than in his other letters. This is seen in phrases such as “all things were created through him and for him” (1:16) and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (1:19). Clearly this was too developed for Paul’s early teachings on Jesus’ deity.

Response: Many scholars respond by pointing out Paul’s high view of Christ in his undisputed letters. For example, Paul makes statements such as “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Additionally, Philippians 2:5-11 has some of the highest Christology in the New Testament, including the claim that Jesus “was in the form of God” and that “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

2 Thessalonians

Objection: The wording in 2 Thessalonians is too similar to 1 Thessalonians. One obvious example is the salutation of each letter. They are closer in wording than any of Paul’s other letters. The only difference between verse 1 of each book is the phrase “in God the Father” versus “in God our Father.”

Response: Most of the similarities occur in expected places, such as the formulaic opening and closing of the letter. If Paul is writing this letter shortly after the first letter, then surely we would expect some similarities. Also, the second letter has nothing in it that parallels Paul’s long interaction with the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:1-3:13). Upon a closer examination, they aren’t as similar as some make them to be.

Objection: Paul’s view of eschatology is drastically different in the two letters. In the first book, Paul claims that Jesus’ return is imminent (“us” in 4:17). In the second book, however, Paul says that certain events must take place before Jesus will return (2:1-4).

Response: Paul here is reflecting the teaching of Jesus on the End Times. In the Gospels, we find that the end is both imminent (Matt. 24:33) and unexpected (Matt: 24:44). In the first letter, Paul tells the Thessalonians to be ready at any moment for Jesus’ coming. But they took that too far in thinking that the end had already happened (2 Thess. 2:1). Paul assures them that they haven’t missed it yet even though the signs are apparent. Also, Paul still thinks he could be alive during Jesus’ return in 2 Thessalonians (“us” in 1:7 and “our” in 2:1).

4 Points to Remember

I don’t believe that these arguments prove that these letters couldn’t have been written by Paul. Many of these objections seem very subjective and can be interpreted in different ways. In my next post, I will discuss the role of amanuenses (scribes) and how they contribute to stylistic differences in the Pastoral Epistles. But for now, here are some things to remember.

  1. A forgery is a work of literature that is attributed to someone who didn’t write it.
  2. The stylistic differences between Paul’s letters shouldn’t negate their similarities, since all of his letters include basic Pauline material and his usual writing characteristics.
  3. The differences in vocabulary between Paul’s letters can be explained by the occasional nature of the letters (audience, purpose, etc.), the use of traditional material and the fact that Paul uses unique words in all of his letters.
  4. Paul’s theology may be more developed in some of his letters, but it remains consistent, specifically his high view of Christ.

Sources:

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Reid, Daniel G. The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-volume Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. Print.

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