What if Paul is not the author of the letter to Timothy as tradition teaches? What if someone masquerading as Paul wrote it instead? Would that matter to you? Would this change how we teach and apply the letter today?
This essay concerns the matter of pseudonymity for letters traditionally attributed to Apostle Paul. Many Bible scholars surmise this is the situation for 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and other NT letters. Paul is dismissed as the genuine author because, as is argued, the letters were written pseudonymously—by someone posing to be Paul.
My Bib Research project dealt with 1 Timothy, so this naturally concerned me. When I asked my professor about the pseudonymity concerns of 1 Timothy he said not to get bogged down trying to understand it—just focus on exegeting the text.
In my mind, faithful exegesis of the text requires understanding the problems that others raise as well. So I set out on the tortuous path to sort out what I now call, the “conundrum of the faux-Paul”.
THE PSEUDONYMOUS AUTHOR
Today the term pseudonym describes an author whose identity is hidden behind a pen-name—possibly used to conceal racial or gender identity. Pseudonyms also allow an author to publish in a variety of genres. For instance, one could publish novels under one name and mysteries under a second name. Occasionally, authors use a pseudonym to protect themselves from retribution.
And then there are some folks who just happen to have a name that needs a bit of finessing, so they create a pleasing pseudonym to help market their work. My generation may not remember the singer Arnold George Dorsey, but will probably remember Englebert Humperdinck—the name Dorsey chose for his singing career.
This is an acceptable practice because the author and the pseudonym are one in the same. But, it would be illegal today for me to publish under the name of another, more successful author. Copyright laws function to keep original work protected.
Pseudonymity means something quite different in terms of Biblical scholarship. Claiming that the first letter to Timothy (and other Pauline letters) was written pseudonymously, means that someone else—who was not Paul, but claimed to be Paul—wrote 1 Timothy.
Now, writing literature or novels under a pseudonym, regardless of which century, is fine and dandy. Literary works do not function as scripture, nor do they claim to have divine inspiration. But claiming to be Paul, as is stated in 1 Tim 1:1, 2, when you are indeed not Paul, is in my mind, a serious problem that Biblical scholars concerned about “rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15, NRSV) cannot avoid.
REAL PAUL OR FAUX-PAUL?
In the early 1800s critical scholars scrutinized the literary works of Plato, Homer, and others to determine if they were authentic or written pseudonymously. Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German Protestant from the Tübingen School of Theology applied those same methods to the Bible. When noting that the vocabulary and ideas in 1 Timothy differed significantly (in his estimation) from Paul’s other work he classified them as inauthentic.
To put it simply, since the issues addressed in 1 Timothy concerned issues not found in the first-century church but in the churches of a later century, Paul obviously could not be the legitimate author because Paul had died in the mid-first century.
Schleiermacher was not the first to challenge the authenticity of Biblical texts. The concern for authentic scripture led Marcion (c. 85-160 A.D) to develop a canon of books he deemed legitimate. In reaction, the church leaders were compelled to construct an agreed upon canon—one that became the Bible used today.
THE CANON, INSPIRATION, & AUTHORITY
The pseudonymity issue matters on numerous levels. First, it raises questions about the canon: Who decided which books would and would not be included in the canon and why? Second: How does this affect the view of ‘inspiration of scripture’? Third, and of significance for my research: If the letter to Timothy is a faux-Paul, why was it included in the canon? Or, worse still: Were they aware it was a faux-Paul and included it anyway? If so, what motivated them to include it? Was there a hidden agenda?
And last, but of greater importance to me, is the concern of authority: Who has the authority to or not to teach? If 1 Timothy is proven to be a faux-Paul, written pseudonymously by someone usurping authority in the guise of an Apostle—then it not only lacks apostolic authority—it has no authority for the church and certainly has no authority whatsoever over women!
If I were to accept this as an actual fact—rather than the theory that it is—I would rightfully be suspicious of who actually wrote this letter? What agenda did this faux-Paul have? And who now is the faux-Timothy to whom the letter is addressed? And precisely who did this faux-Paul think he (or even she) was to assume apostolic authority? Who was this faux-Paul who commanded women to be silent and demanded they stop authentein-ing at Ephesus—if Ephesus was even the intended location? Surely you can see the problem here!
Whew!! Do you see why the issue of pseudonymity, or as I call it— the Conundrum of a Faux-Paul—cannot be ignored? It has serious consequences for how we interpret and apply 1 Timothy 2:11-12 in the church.
In one fell swoop, the many NT letters— believed for centuries to be written in the mid-first century by Paul to actual struggling, early churches— were untethered from their author, their historical location, and from their unique social setting, thus making it nigh unto impossible to reconstruct a satisfactory socio-historical setting to determine the purpose for the letter. Relocating the letters from the first-century into the second or third centuries solved nothing and only compounded the conundrum of the faux-Paul.
If the letters are not grounded in their original place, and as close as possible to their original decade—they remain simply a tool in the hands of any interpreter who has an agenda to grind. The Pastoral letters (misnamed in my humble opinion) as well as other Pauline letters, were now freed to float into whatever socio-historical setting the interpreter fancied and they became fair game for any agenda. This is of course is of great concern.
MISAPPROPRIATION OF AUTHORITY
We are painfully aware how a misappropriation of authority into the hands of a few often results in the control of many. History is not simply an objective record of the facts but an interpretation of the facts. The conqueror tells one side of the story and the conquered tell a different story.
That makes us uncomfortable, especially when it comes to the Biblical text. Hopefully, as we mature in our thinking we realize, and yes, to our disappointment, that history—the story of us, and the story of faith— is manipulated by those with an agenda. But, familiarizing ourselves with these various agendas actually allows us to get a firmer grip on the text!
Today, we need to read wisely. We need to be alert to the varying agendas prevalent in commentaries and other resources. I may not agree with Schleiermacher’s point of view, but I applaud Schleiermacher. He risked his career by speaking out, in contesting the status quo, by not ignoring what he found in his research.
Again, hear me, we don’t have to agree with his findings, but we should follow his example. What if we dared as much today— to speak out against the status quo, to question our traditionally held views about 1 Timothy or any concern for that matter—not for the sake of contention, but for the sake of a better understanding of the Biblical text and a better application in the church.
To be honest, I also have an agenda: to find an interpretation for the 1 Tim 2 problem that allows me to situate the letter in its original setting, that allows me to maintain Paul as its legitimate author, and most importantly, that allows me to keep my faith firmly planted on the foundation of God’s inspired Word.