How Should We Regard New Testament Books of Uncertain Authorship?

Recently, we discussed the fact that some New Testament books were not written by who they say they were. This is not news to believers; we have known for a long time that some letters attributed to Paul, for example, were not written by Paul even though they say they are. Scholar Bart Ehrman calls some of these books outright forgeries.

So the question arises as to what we do with New Testament books of uncertain authorship. Do they reflect legitimate voices of early believers? Do they have any value at all? Should we just ignore them and stick with New Testament books with greater certainty of authorship?

If so, that would mean losing some letters associated with Paul. For example, various scholars dispute Paul’s authorship for Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Some are more universally disputed than others.

NT2

One Reader’s Response

I really loved the response of one of the blog’s regular readers regarding the disputed books of Paul. I share Tony’s comment here with some editing. He says:

It’s funny, though. When I read the opening passage of Ephesians 1, I still feel the Spirit rising up within me and crying out ‘Yes! Yes!’ That passage is just so effervescent and full of joy that the words just fly off the page. Whoever it was written by, and no matter how deceitful the writer was, or intended to be, still the writing is inspiring.

Which makes me wonder: ‘All scripture is God-breathed…’ etc. could also be translated as ‘All God-inspired writings…’ (and yes I know Paul didn’t necessarily write that!). So, does that mean that all writings inspired by someone’s beliefs are somehow ‘useful’ to the believer? The writings of well-respected Christians such as Billy Graham would rarely be questioned by their readers. Does that mean that those books by Dr. Graham have been elevated to the level of Scripture? No! But I think it’s fair to say that many people read those books as if they are *almost* as ‘inspired’.

How much therefore is ‘Jesus Without Baggage’ inspired, given that all of your work, Tim, is inspired by your deep faith? How much of my blog is inspired? Now, neither of us would claim that our blogs are Scripture, but most of our work is indeed inspired writing *because* it is inspired by our faith.

Therefore, I believe that *any inspired writing through which the Spirit can speak* is ‘useful’ for equipping the person of faith. Sure, the Bible holds a special place for most Christians, but if truth be told, there’s a lot more that we are inspired by, in literary terms, than just the Bible.

I Agree with Tony

I think Tony raises a really good point, and I am glad he did because I feel the same way! Just because we understand that Ephesians was not written by Paul does not mean it is of no value. And when I read the book of 1 John, I think, ‘If John, the disciple, did not write this (and I don’t know one way or the other), who is the genius who did! I would love to know the answer, but the value is in the writing itself–not the author. It rings true!

So it does not bother me much that Ephesians claims to be written by Paul when it probably was not. I don’t know how that claim came about–it might not have been the writer’s intention. Perhaps someone else inserted Paul’s name in an early manuscript that was then picked up in later copies. Who knows? However, I do keep in mind that most likely Paul did not write it so that I am not influenced simply out of my admiration of Paul.

And this does not apply only to biblical books. I am frequently inspired by CS Lewis and other writers, but that does not make them inerrant in any way. In fact, I think Lewis is sometimes very mistaken.

Another Reader Responds to Ephesians

Anca, another regular reader, had a different response to Ephesians (edited):

Many Christians find Ephesians to be a blessing and jewel to them, they consider it inspiring. I, on the other hand, find it to be one of the most devastating to Christian marriages possible. I am connected to a network of Christians that help abused women, and Ephesians five is one of the biggest contributors to the abuse their husbands have enacted on them.

Till this day Pastors teach that a husband should control their wife and make all of the family decisions and wives must submit to everything the husband wants except for sin. It’s abuse to be ruled over and controlled and have no authority over your own life and in your family. It was really not wise for the Author to compare a husbands function within marriage to Christ who is divine and assign a subordinate role to the wife having to live a life of obedience like the Church supposedly does.

I don’t throw all of Ephesians out as some parts are useful and beautiful, but it does not have the same integrity and weight to me that the gospels or Paul writings do.

I Agree with Anca as Well

Just because a book has inspiring passages that give it value does not mean that everything in it should be accepted as inspired. In addition, all New Testament books give us insight on the thinking of various early believers. This is also of value.

On the other hand, I don’t feel quite the same way about the overall value of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). I think this is where Ehrman is most convincing in his accusations of deceit. So I read the Pastorals extremely critically and find many problems in the content. We will talk about the Pastorals next time.

Articles in this series:
Bart Ehrman – Forged: A Book Review
How Should We Regard New Testament Books of Uncertain Authorship?
Blaming Paul for Things He Never Said
The Special Case of Women Keeping Silent in the Church in 1 Corinthians

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  • Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.
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34 Responses to How Should We Regard New Testament Books of Uncertain Authorship?

  1. tonycutty says:

    I find it fascinating how some of the best blog posts stem – directly or indirectly – from discussions with others. And also how much these discussions introduce us to new and interesting perspectives that we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. Excellent!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Ross Jarvis says:

    Thanks Tim. I can appreciate why inerrantism is such a force, as it tries to introduce an “objective” certainty into a very uncertain World. But as those of us who have really tried to read and know the bible have discovered, it is not that certain a thing. It usually always comes down to the phrase “but how can you know? know for sure?” My answer is that we can’t and the bible certainly isn’t certain and may often be wrong.

    Through experience we can get an idea of what works, what is right but we stumble all the time. Sometimes the bible can make us uncomfortable and that’s right, we may need to change something about us. But sometimes it makes us uncomfortable because what it’s saying is not right.

    As a dig against the inerrantists on this point (it’s a wicked streak within me), I usually point out that many Evangelicals like to cast their anger against homosexuality, which I don’t think Jesus says much if anything about, but seem completely deaf to his multiple pronouncements about wealth. So even those who feel the bible is very clear don’t always seem to act as if it is.

    I think the central point is that God’s Spirit should work within us leading us to follow him by Loving, If scripture is the ultimate reference then His Spirit isn’t up to much if we can’t trust Him and always have to abrogate Him to the “instructions”. So if we follow the instructions e.g. by attacking same sex couples, or by stopping women lead, where if anywhere is love in that? I seem to remember someone quoted as saying that all of the Torah boils down to loving, loving God and others, so that is probably where we test ourselves and scripture.

    This is my greatest failing I suppose as It is very hard to love others, particularly my enemies, although it feels rather common that my “enemies” seem often to be within the Christian Camp, not outside it. I’m not sure but does God call us to love others, but allow us to criticise only where we see an absence of love?

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Ross, I understand the appeal of inerrancy as well; I was an inerrantist for many, many years. But I conclude that it is a ‘certainty’ build on assumptions and wishful thinking. The Bible doesn’t even suggest that the Bible is inerrant.

      I am afraid you are right in saying, “Many Evangelicals like to cast their anger against homosexuality, which I don’t think Jesus says much if anything about, but seem completely deaf to his multiple pronouncements about wealth. So even those who feel the bible is very clear don’t always seem to act as if it is.”

      Notice that condemnation of gays, subjugation of women, and wealth all involve power. I don’t think Jesus promoted power–he taught love and service instead.

      Liked by 2 people

    • ancadudar says:

      “I can appreciate why inerrantism is such a force, as it tries to introduce an “objective” certainty into a very uncertain World. But as those of us who have really tried to read and know the bible have discovered, it is not that certain a thing. It usually always comes down to the phrase “but how can you know? know for sure?” My answer is that we can’t and the bible certainly isn’t certain and may often be wrong.

      Through experience we can get an idea of what works, what is right but we stumble all the time. Sometimes the bible can make us uncomfortable and that’s right, we may need to change something about us. But sometimes it makes us uncomfortable because what it’s saying is not right.”

      I so agree with what you said! I think the safest place to be are the teachings of Jesus and all else is secondary. I realize that even some of the sayings attributed to Jesus are hard to understand, but while we all know literal mountains will not actually move, love and kindness and generosity can move the toughest rocks in the hearts of people.

      “particularly my enemies, although it feels rather common that my “enemies” seem often to be within the Christian Camp, not outside it.”

      This is so true! It is often those on the inside who are the worst.

      “I’m not sure but does God call us to love others, but allow us to criticise only where we see an absence of love?”

      Justice and love must go together! By not bringing about justice when needed, even though correction, love is often hindered and evil continues to flourish.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lana says:

    It does raise interesting question: surely if the author was outright intending to deceive the church, it does cast some validity on its content. On the other hand, is it content that is being disputed or consent? If I published an academic article under the name and institution of same famous scientist of the day, in order to get it published (since I was a no-name), it would be retracted with a watermark in the next edition (assuming that it would only take about 3 months for the real author to contact the journal and say WTH). My results could be perfectly valid, but it would still be retracted. This would mainly be because I had violated the identity of the famous scientist and published something under his name without his consent; it would also be because I deceived the readers. (Retraction Watch has covered stories of co-authors who published a paper without another co-author’s final consent and the papers were retracted, and that’s after it had passed the rigor of peer review, and there was no forgery. To say the least, consent matters in academia today.)

    That said, I also just wonder if some of this is a bigger deal today than it was back in the day. Not that it’s no deal, but if it’s a bigger deal because of modernity. As I said, today a forgery would call for immediate retraction. The gospels were not written by the apostles either. I don’t have the answer to that since I’m not a NT scholar so I will default to the expertise of others.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Lana, I think you are right that, today, this is a more serious legal problem than it was in the ancient world because we have laws for academic writing and the ability to respond to infringements of those laws.

      You ask a good question, “Is it content that is being disputed or consent?” I am fairly sure that all the documents in the New Testament were written by genuine believers of that time whether the authors were named, unnamed, or incorrectly named. And each of these writers presented a genuine point of view among believers of the day; it is good to know what they were thinking. So I can read letters of uncertain authorship with benefit–even the pastoral letters, which I think are the most suspicious.

      On the other hand, I would like to have some idea of what Paul did and did not write in order to have a better picture of Paul’s authentic perspective rather than have it contaminated by things he did NOT write but were written in his name by someone else.

      This does not mean I cannot disagree with Paul, but if I do I would like for it to be Paul with whom I disagree rather than someone else. So I would say content and insight is more important that authorship, but authorship is a legitimate question to pursue.

      Like

      • Lana says:

        testing to see if this will go to spam.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lana says:

        Okay, so. Content is more important than authorship, at least for the early church. That is not straightforwardly true today. A forgery would not only result in retraction of an article, but everything a scientist did would be called into question, and it would effectively end their academic career (both professorship and research grants).

        I guess, to me, it depends on the level of deceit here, for its day and age. If your summary of Erhman is right (note that I have read 2 or 3 of his books but not this one), then he is suggesting that this deceit was deep and thus it casts doubt on the reliability — help me out on the word here — of the books altogether. Which is to say, if you are going to that level to lie about who you are, then your character, and along with it, your content, is called into question. In this sense, what is harmful about the pastoral epistles is not just that it runs counter to a lot that Paul taught, but that the appeal to us is a lie altogether, causing us to do actions or think things that may be false to Paul and indeed, if it was all built on a lie, why believe what this person says to be solid or worth our time at all? This is the entire problem with lying: after a person has lied, particularly about something substantial (not what they had for breakfast), you stop believing anything they say. If there is a doctoral dispute here, then one might be more inclined to go with the real Paul than one who has the nerve to lie.

        On the other hand, suppose that the deceit is not not as a big of deal as it is in modernity, that it’s not really a deep-seated lie, then I think we can just enjoy it with less worry. This is why I brought up plagiarism earlier; obviously forgery and plagiarism are not the same misconduct, but I do know that plagiarism of ideas was not the intense lie or intense deceit it is today, as we see for example when the gospels don’t cite Q. That example shows, for me, that critical reflection requires that we consider the times. Just as plagiarism of an idea might not have been misconduct for them, and thus not a lie, so also forgery might also might not be the misconduct it would be today.

        So now back to whether forgery casts doubt on the entire thing. I’ll use the gospels here. If everyone knows that the gospels were not written by the apostles, then there is little harm done in the deceit – the deceit is not very severe. This would be like if I had a pin name in academia that had used the name of a famous dead scientist, say I went by Newton Jones or something; everyone knows I’m not that other Newton, so it’s not that big of a deal. An even better example would be if I used the name of a scientist who had been dead only 20 years, such that most people would understand that it was a pin name, but an occasional reader might not; it’s still not as big of a deal (especially compared to data manipulation and fabrication of data) since anyone who spent 5 minutes on research would know it was not the other man or woman. (Although the use of pseudonyms is still frowned upon by many in academia, it’s rightly not a career ender like forgery or data manipulation or plagiarism.)

        The forgeries of Ephesians and the pastoral epistles are more deceitful than the gospels, but it still raises questions in my mind. That is where I’m fetching your opinion or others.

        Liked by 2 people

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Lana, I agree with you that the situation of false authorship is not as dire as Ehrman insists. I think it does confuse things though in that it is sometimes difficult to determine what Paul thinks about certain important issues. The pastoral epistles seem to be the most universally challenged as Pauline and also contain a good bit of questionable content (this is what the next article will be about). It is good to understand that Paul almost certainly did not write them.

          And I find Ehrman’s accusation in the case of the pastorals to be his most convincing point. The author seems to go out of his way to create the impression that the letters are from Paul, and I have to wonder about his motive. He seems to be very deceptive and likely for a reason. This raises concerns for me.

          I also agree with you that today’s standard of plagiarism did not hold in NT times, so that I see no problem with Matthew and Luke using Mark and Q as sources without attribution.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Filosopete 🇿🇦 says:

    Inerrancy is an imaginative state of the mind. The idea came from a secular person in the first place. Infallibility as far as the core message goes, is important. And that should include 1 Corinthians 13 even if John Doe wrote it. Or what do you say?

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Filosopete, it sounds as though you are saying that infallibility of the biblical message is important. What do you mean by that?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Filosopete 🇿🇦 says:

        The Love Letter, that God loves us just as we should love our own. That is the core message, also strangely to be found in the Lost Books of Adam & Eve.

        I am straight, happily married. But why so many greedy folks, frauds or gossips in the church while homosexuals get bludgeoned to a premature death? Why are some wealthy while especially disabled believers, who cannot work, live in abject poverty? My Bible teaches that it is a punishable transgression to allow your brother to become impoverished. Then read 1 John 3v17. Isn’t Love the real message? After all, what motivated Jesus to die for us? Was it greed for souls, was it sado-madochism or just maybe love?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Filosopete 🇿🇦 says:

        What I mean is that the essence should shine through, be preserved, regardless of the sheer witchcraft or alternative creativity of some translators. After all, God created us out of His fullness, which is Love, with promoting that Love as an objective. Right at the end, in the last few lines of Revelation, in several translations and in two languages, I read that we will be judged by our works. I often wonder how loveless faith could connect with the central message of the Bible.

        Liked by 2 people

    • ancadudar says:

      “Infallibility as far as the core message goes, is important. And that should include 1 Corinthians 13 even if John Doe wrote it.”

      This is so true! We can know what is infallible by the fruit it produces. The fruits of the Holy Spirit almost always win out in producing good and healthy outcome consistently, and justice and rightful correction of hateful behavior in others is also an attribute of the fruit of the Spirit and is a stable in the teaching of Jesus! We can correct hateful ideologies indirectly by living as examples of love for others to follow as it is often contagious, and directly by calling it out when we see it and confronting it with words of truth and wisdom which hold much power.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Elisa says:

    I really appreciate this discussion. I haven’t studied enough to comment intelligently, but I have come in the last seven years to feel completely differently about the Bible from my long dark night in the world of the inerrant. I am grateful you are blogging about all of this.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Elisa, I am glad you find the blog helpful! I think the idea of inerrancy prevents us from understanding important aspects of the Bible.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ancadudar says:

    I’m finding the NT inconsistent at best. I think a lot of evil has come from the letters that attribute themselves to Paul but were most likely not. I read through two NT books yesterday and it struck me that certain concepts were against the teachings attributed to Jesus Himself!

    I am not skilled enough to explain it, but if we read the Paul from the seven undisputed letters, and compare them to Jesus teachings, there is a simpler and more consistent gospel.

    You can almost always trace most of the hateful attitudes in the church as stemming from teachings that come from the disputed letters. It’s not just talking about women and slaves, for example, 1 Timothy has an US versus them attitude that villainizes the world and any Christian who disagrees with certain doctrines. I want to puke everytime someone quotes “in the last days men will fall away from the faith…. have itching ears…no sound doctrine….” this is even used against other Christians when they hold a different view of the scriptures! It is weaponized fear.

    Paul’s use of imagery for the “Body” of believers and it functions was radically different than the later christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology that arose. The implications are huge!
    Paul’s use was more in sync with Jesus in that it was action, love, and justice based, the later development made it about “religion”.

    It goes without saying how much evil the household codes have done! The worse place someone can be in is to think that the fruits of the Holy Spirit and loving your neighbor with self-love are compatible with and can co-exist within an exploitive caste system of injustice. I have heard so many times people say that God defines what love is, and if He says it is alright to rule over your wife and own slaves, then it is still within the definition of love! It neutralizes and makes mute the potency and transformative power of love and justice that we were commissioned to walk in.

    To me, it is not just an authorship issue, but the content of the letters themselves that have muddied the waters. Considering the cost to benefit, it would have been better had we not had these letters. At least that is my opinion.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Lana says:

      haha. You have no idea how many times I’ve had the “vein philosophy” verse in colossians quoted at me. My life would be so much easier without it. On the other hand, the verse about how we are seated in the heavenly places — currently seated — is stilll one of the most moving verses in the entire Bible to me.

      Liked by 2 people

      • ancadudar says:

        “You have no idea how many times I’ve had the “vein philosophy” verse in colossians quoted at me. My life would be so much easier without it.”

        LOL, I can only imagine! You should ask them if they realize that the author was talking about some cultic philosophy centered around the cosmos and how they thought they needed to punish the flesh harshly and it senses so that they could ascend above the cosmos and become one with God! “Head” in Greek did not mean “leader” or “boss” directly, it meant source and preeminence and it was on account of being preeminent and the originator of things that authority and rulership over them came to the one who was its source and originator far above their direct influence. This is why the author introduced a new Christology for the first time saying that Christ as “Head” is the originator of the cosmos and they dwell in Him bodily. That He is far above them and they have no power over Him or Christians because we are his body and share in his preeminence over them and any other power. That on account of Christ being the firstborn of the dead, He ultimately punished His flesh on the cross for us, reconciled us and all things in His flesh, and ascended far above any other unseen power and dominion for our sakes. And that those who are in Him share in His fullness and only need to be circumcised in the heart by doing good works, holding fast to the “head” Christ, and therefore not having to figuratively circumcise or punish their flesh to ascent and be one with the Godhead. If I were you I would give them the biggest and wordiest lesson on philosophy possible from Colossians itself, LOL!

        Liked by 1 person

      • ancadudar says:

        Lana,
        I did not mean to come across as preaching to you in my earlier post, it’s just that I read all of Colossians and Ephesians directly from a Greek to English translation yesterday, and it made me laugh that they throw that vain philosophy verse at you from Colossians when they have no idea what “Paul” was speaking about! It was addressing a very real philosophy going on in their culture focused around the heavenly bodies and extreme ascetic practices they believed they needed to do in order to ascend to different levels of spirituality. I can tell from your earlier posts that you are very intelligent and learned, so I feel for you when you try to engage them in intellectual conversations and they respond ignorantly with a verse out of context as a way to shoot you down!

        “On the other hand, the verse about how we are seated in the heavenly places — currently seated — is stilll one of the most moving verses in the entire Bible to me.”

        Yes, the development of how those verses came about and their meaning has deep and beautiful roots! There is an organization that did a study for the past 30 years on the New Testaments development and concept for the seven times “Head” is used in Colossians and Ephesians in relation to Christ, the meaning is so deep and esoteric! It has deep meaning for why and how we as the Church, being the body of Christ, are seated with Christ in heavenly places! He is preeminent as Head over all other powers and shares all of the victory and glory with us, His body. Done through empowering not only the whole church for service, but it’s individual members. We are told what weapons to use that are mighty for bringing down of strongholds. They were not meant to be just spiritual words and concepts, they were meant to be materialized. If people just got this, it would be so powerful, the weapons are justice, love, mercy, righteousness, faith, words being the sword, truth, compassion, basically all things for activism and works of kindness! These things change people, they change Nations. Yet, many Christians think they are just “spiritual” weapons used to fight unseen “demons” so they end up fighting each other over “false” doctrines or none-Christians. The author was intending to give esoteric meaning to the material actions were are told by Jesus and original Paul to go out and do.

        Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anca, Yes!

      “If we read the Paul from the seven undisputed letters, and compare them to Jesus teachings, there is a simpler and more consistent gospel…Paul’s use of imagery for the “Body” of believers and it functions was radically different than the later christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology that arose. The implications are huge! Paul’s use was more in sync with Jesus in that it was action, love, and justice based.”

      Some people talk about how unique and creative Paul was–and he was. But I have long noticed that Paul is quite an observant follower of Jesus and his teachings. Some of the best expressions and explanations of Christian love in action are found in Paul. But, of course, they are somewhat diminished by things Paul did NOT say. And that is very, very unfortunate and has plagued and misdirected the church for 2000 years.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. ancadudar says:

    Tim,
    The way you wrote your whole post above and the weaving of the two views between Tony and me was pure genius on your part! The whole thing is so well written. This masterpiece you wrote should have a reward or plaque to go with it, well done brother! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anca, thank you so very much. But the genius was in the comments the two of you made. They just called out to be consolidated as the core of their own article. I thank you–the both of you.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Blaming Paul for Things He Never Said | Jesus Without Baggage

  9. michaeleeast says:

    Tim, This is useful analysis of Paul’s letters. I agree with what you have said. But the epistles in the New Testament don’t carry the same weight as the Gospels. Books written by others like C.S. Lewis are also inspired but I agree that they are in no way inerrant.
    My British friend John Churcher’s catch-cry is “Context Context Context!” and I think this applies to all inspired writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, I agree! The textual context matters, of course, but so does the historical context and the cultural context.

      Like

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