Glad You Asked: Did Paul write all the epistles?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Ferdinand Okorie, C.M.F. talks about the authorship of the Pauline epistles.

The apostle Paul was a busy man. As well as traveling, preaching, arguing, getting imprisoned, and surviving shipwreck, he also wrote a lot of letters. Over half the books in the Christian scriptures are commonly attributed to him, and anyone involved in an argument over matters of Catholic teaching is likely, at some point, to quote Paul. 

This can make things complicated, since some statements attributed to Paul appear to contradict each other. For instance, one passage from 1 Timothy says that women should not exercise authority over men. But elsewhere Paul commends women deacons and leaders, such as Phoebe and Prisca. This raises all kinds of questions, including questions about the origins of these books. Did Paul really write all the letters in the Bible that have been attributed to him—the letters to the Romans, to the Hebrews, to the people of Corinth, and so on?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Ferdinand Okorie, C.M.F. talks about the authorship of the Pauline epistles. Okorie is editor-in-chief of U.S. Catholic, a member of the Claretian Missionaries, and vice president and academic dean at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he is also an assistant professor of New Testament studies. He is the author of Favor and Gratitude. Reading Galatians in Its Greco-Roman Context (Fortress Press, 2020), as well as numerous scholarly articles. 

You can learn more about Paul, and read some of Okorie’s writing, in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Emily Sanna: And I’m Emily Sanna, the managing editor of U.S. Catholic. When looking for answers to questions about the Catholic faith, we often check to see what the Bible says—and often, if we’re looking for a specifically Christian angle on a topic, the part of the Bible we look to is the epistles in the New Testament. 

Rebecca: And it’s pretty common for us to reference many of these epistles as the writings of the Apostle Paul to the early churches. But is this accurate? Did Paul really write all the letters in the Bible that have been attributed to him—the letters to the Romans, to the Hebrews, to the people of Corinth, and so on?

Emily: And don’t forget the letters to particular individuals, like Timothy and Titus. Our guest on today’s episode of Glad You Asked is going to help us clarify the authorship of the “Pauline epistles,” as they’re often called. 

Rebecca: Ferdinand Okorie, C.M.F. is a member of the Claretian Missionaries and vice president and academic dean at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he is also an assistant professor of New Testament studies. 

Emily: He is the author of Favor and Gratitude. Reading Galatians in Its Greco-Roman Context, as well as numerous scholarly articles. He has been the editor-in-chief of U.S. Catholic since July 2020.

Rebecca: Ferdinand, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Ferdinand Okorie: Thank you for having me.

Emily: So to start off with a little background, who was Paul? What do we know about him?

Ferdinand: So what we know about Paul comes from sources that includes what he said about himself in the letters that we have in the New Testament, what the author of the Acts of the Apostles said about Paul, and what we know from other sources about Paul, like the Acts of Thecla. What we know about Paul is that he is Jewish, both of his parents are Jewish. But he grew up in one of the provinces of the Greek or Roman world. He grew up in Asia Minor, in a city called Tarsus, which is in present-day Turkey. But at some point in his life, his parents sent him to Jerusalem so they could get some Jewish education in Jewish religion. And he ended up studying Pharisee Judaism under Gamaliel as we know from Acts of the Apostles. And we know from what he said about it, he said that he’s a very strict, observant Jew.

And as a strict observant Jew, he was not particularly happy with what his fellow Jews in Jerusalem, for instance, are saying about Jesus Christ. And he wanted to bring them to order. And bringing them to order means arresting them and dragging them down to Jerusalem, even if it means going outside of Palestine to do so. Like the story we know about him going to Syria, and on his way to Damascus, his life changed. But when his life changed, he became a very, he transferred the same energy of an observant Jew into how he started talking and preaching about Jesus Christ all over the provinces of the Greco-Roman world. And we know him also to be a good preacher and a very good letter writer.

Rebecca: So a large portion of the New Testament does consist of letters that are attributed to some of the leaders of the early church, and many of these letters were attributed to Paul. How many of these were originally claimed to have been written by Paul?

Ferdinand: You are right Rebecca to observe that a lot of the books in the New Testament are letters. And Paul, as scholars have identified, assigned seven letters to Paul, as scholars in the modern period call the undisputed letters of Paul. Scholars believe that these letters are indeed written by Paul himself. There are other letters that have been attributed to Paul, but scholars do not think that Paul actually wrote them as they stand in the canon of the New Testament scripture. And those letters are identified by scholars as disputed letters of Paul.

Emily: So which letters do we think that Paul actually wrote, and how do scholars try to tease out which were actually by Paul and which weren’t?

Ferdinand: Very good question, Emily. The letters that scholars call the undisputed, that fall into the category of the undisputed letters of Paul are Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, One Thessalonians, and then Philemon.

Why do scholars think that these seven letters that I just itemized for you are undisputed? Internal evidence in the letter. And some of these letters contain statements from Paul that Paul said, I wrote this in my own hands. And signing off that he is not using a scribe, he’s writing in his own hands. And these letters are his letters.

And part of that internal evidence is consistency in both theology, in both Christology, and also in ecclesiology. In these seven letters, that is consistency in the way Paul conceives of God and understands how God is present in the world. These letters also contain a degree of consistency in what Paul thinks God is doing with Jesus Christ as the savior of the world in whom Christian faith depends. And these letters contain a degree of consistency in what Paul thinks that Christians should be doing and how Christian faith is integral to their hope of salvation. And these letters contain one of those consistencies, especially in the way that Paul conceived the Christian life, is a section in these seven letters that we call the dissertation section that is consistent in the way Paul invites Christians to live a value-filled life as followers of Christ who have faith in Christ. So this internal evidence gives us enough strength to argue and maintain that Paul actually wrote these letters. And he is consistent in the way that he named people in his letters. And these are people that he has personal relationships with, and he mentioned them in the letter. And the way also that he speaks about himself, that are places in the letter where he probably said, tell this story, he’s autobiography. He gives us his autobiography in order to make a point. And these letters contain some degree of Paul’s own personal life that are consistent. So we use this internal evidence to support the position of many scholars in the modern period that these letters are undisputed. And one thing to keep in mind about these letters is they are ancient. There is a degree that they are indeed written during the first century period. But the person that we have all agreed is the author, in this case Paul. And this circulated during the first period of the Christian era between the so-called Eastern and Western churches. So the wide range of circulation of these letters in the first-century times are part of the evidence. This is external evidence supporting the fact that these letters are authentic and indeed written by Paul.

Rebecca: So as far as the letters that scholars think were not written by Paul or might not have been written by Paul, why did we have this idea that they were? Did people claim that Paul had written the letters?

Ferdinand: Rebecca, you ask two very important questions here. One of the reasons that scholars think that these other letters are disputed. I choose to use the word disputed and undisputed because there’s still a lot of scholars who think that the so-called disputed letters are Pauline. And one of the reasons why they fall into the category of disputed letters of Paul is that even though many scholars do not think that the final version of these letters and as they stand in the canon are Pauline, there are passages, theological perceptions, Christological propositions and ecclesiological beliefs that are very Pauline.

So some of these letters are often seen as perhaps letters that Paul started but did not finish. And one of his disciples, one of his followers, finished it later. Or many scholars see that even though there are theologies or perceptions of who Jesus Christ is in Christian faith, or how Christians should live their life as followers of Christ, that does not look like what Paul would say when we compare them with the other seven letters that we call undisputed. Many scholars believe that as Paul grew older, his position about church life changed. For instance, in the undisputed letters, Paul will hardly talk about women not being in service of the church. After all, in Romans, he praised women who were leaders of the church, like Phoebe in Cenchreae in Romans chapter 16. But when you get to some of these undisputed letters, women begin to lose their place of leadership and ministry in the church. So we are concerned how suddenly Paul changes position about church ministry and leadership. So these are some of the internal reasons that many scholars, these are many other examples, are some of the internal reasons that many scholars conclude today that these letters may contain something that is peculiar to a Pauline perception about God, Jesus Christ, and Christian life. But there are still many parts of the letters that are not Pauline, so they remain in the category of the disputed letters of Paul.

Emily: So you mentioned that in some of his letters, Paul kind of slips in autobiographical information, right? We can tell something about his life. Does that happen in any of the other letters? Do we know anything about the people who might have written some of these other epistles?

Ferdinand: No, some of, and that’s a good question, Emily, because some of these letters that we call disputed do not have a section about autobiography. But some we say, you know, like in One Timothy, especially pastoral letters, which we feel that their final section is not written by Paul. In some of the pastoral letters, you hear, you know, my former life, you are my child, Paul, and it sounds like what Paul will say to Timothy. But they don’t contain the same degree of autobiographical information about Paul like you find in Philippians, for instance, or you find in Galatians, for instance, that we support the belief that as they stand in the canon of the New Testament, that Paul actually wrote them.

Rebecca: So many of us are used to just approaching the Bible in a translation and kind of taking things at face value. But you’ve touched on this a little bit, but could you talk a bit more about how scripture scholars figure out all of these details about texts that were written so long ago?

Ferdinand: Yes, the way scripture scholars figure out texts that are written so long ago is about authority and also about how ancient, how old is the text and also the range, the wide range of circulation. But as it stands in the canon, they are closed. And this was the end of the second century, beginning of the third century, closed in the canon as it stands. But part of the evidence that led to that is people believing that these letters, everything in the New Testament is ancient, is written way closer to the time of the life of Jesus and has authority. Someone who knew Jesus or someone who knew the apostles of Jesus and who have heard about the life of Jesus from the apostles of Jesus. In the case of the letters, they are written, those who are written by Paul are written by Paul because he has the bandwidth to write, articulate his own belief about Jesus Christ. Those that we think are not written by Paul, we believe that are written by someone who is close to Paul or who knows Paul and is now drawing for Paul’s authority in order to strengthen the letter that he has written so that the community that will read that letter will see the letter as coming from authority. For the ancient people, authority is very important. And a good example here is the dialogues of Plato. So this is a great authority. So, and using the name of Socrates in the dialogues, it gives a lot of credibility to Platonic philosophy. And we know that ancient people, there are evidence across the board that the use of a famous person, either as a dedicatee to your work or as a pseudonym to your work gives credibility to the content of the material that you want to circulate to the wider audience.

Emily: So I think you might have started to get at this, but why were letters so important for the early Christians? I mean, so important that they were compiled and ultimately considered part of the Bible, divine revelation.

Ferdinand: Emily, that’s an excellent question. And, and, unlike today that we could just call somebody on the phone, or jump into the plane and go solve the problem in a community, or drive, there are many things that, we have a lot of options about getting from point A to point B today, or reaching somebody thousands of miles away today that the ancient people do not have. And the letters both, we know that not only in the Christian tradition, soldiers who are deployed across the provinces of the Greco-Roman world communicate with their families and friends through letter writing. So when it’s going back home, you give the person a letter. So in the case of the New Testament, when Paul, for instance, when Paul begins a community, spends some time with the community and leaves, and then down the road, that is a question that the community has. But Paul has gone. And he probably, for instance, during winter, traveling is very treacherous in the wintertime. Because most of the travels are by sea. And since Paul cannot make the travel, or it could be in the summer, but still is preoccupied in another part of the province and cannot make the travel. And there is someone, a merchant, sometimes a merchant or sometimes the community sends somebody to go to make the long journey to go find Paul. And since Paul cannot come, he writes a letter. And these letters are expected to be read in public. So letters were ancient people’s easiest way to communicate across thousands of miles away. So letter writing was important to the ancient people.

Rebecca: So kind of stepping back and looking at the big picture on all of this, why does it matter? Why is it so important for us to be accurate about who did or didn’t write these letters in the New Testament?

Ferdinand: Rebecca, that’s an excellent question and here is my opinion. The importance of the name of the person who wrote the letter or the gospels is not as important today as it was in the first, second, or third or fourth century. Because they, in those periods, before these letters and gospels made it into the canon of Christian scripture, they were circulating individually. And the ability of any, the willingness of any community to read them will be based on the authority of the author. We don’t worry about that today because they are already part of our canon. So it’s just scholars enjoying themselves with finding authorship of books and letters in the New Testament. But for people of faith like you and I, we read them as documents of faith for us. And even those that scholars believe are not written by Paul are still read in many Sunday schools and Bible study programs today across the Christian world as they are written by Paul. Because the authorship is not as important to us today as drawing from these texts, nourishment for our faith and our relationship with God and with one another.

Emily: Thank you so much for being our guest today, this was a lot of fun.

Ferdinand: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you both, Emily and Rebecca.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.