Monday, November 17, 2008

When Were the Pastoral Epistles Written?

Those of you familiar with the standard introductions to the New Testament will be aware that it is common fare for modern scholarship to treat the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) as a distinct grouping of letters within the Pauline corpus that is regarded as pseudonymous: i.e., falsely ascribed to Paul.

From this perspective, these three letters--which are clearly written around the same time to address similar issues--are commonly attributed to an unknown "disciple of Paul" who wrote them up in his name, sometime in the 80s-90s of the first century. Indeed, some scholars would even go so far as to date them to the late 2nd century A.D.

Although there are a number of reasons given in support of this claim of pseudonymity, one of the most common is that Paul's opponents in the Pastoral Epistles are supposedly different from his opponents in his "authentic" letters. Specifically, supporters of pseudonymity often identify the opponents in the Pastorals as early Christian gnostics. Because gnosticism is often held not to have developed in the early Church until the late first or early second century A.D., this fact is held out as proof that Paul could not have written the Pastorals.

But is this correct? Are Paul's opponents in the Pastorals really the gnostics? True, Paul does give a fleeting warning at the end of 1 Timothy to avoid "what is falsely called knowledge" (Gk gnosis) (1 Tim 6:20), but this hardly constitutes an uneqivocal reference to early Gnosticisism. Indeed, even a supporter of pseudonymity such as Raymond Brown admits that, even when one accepts the gnostic hypothesis, "the exact nature of what is being criticized in the Pastorals is hard to discern" (Intro. to the New Testament 665)?

But is it really? Are the opponents of Paul really that difficult to identify? To the contrary, I would submit that he explicitly names them, and that they are the same opponents Paul refers to in the Epistle to the Galatians. Compare the following texts:

For before certain men came from James, [Peter] ate with the Gentiles, but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (Galatians 2:12)

For a bishop, as God's steward... must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it. For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party; they must be silenced... (Titus 1:9-10)

Notice here that Paul's injunction to the bishop to teach sound doctrine is not some kind of abstract 'church rule', but is specifically ordered toward refuting and silencing the circumcision party. Indeed, in the Pastoral epistles, the various references to dissidents identify them as those who claim to be "teachers of the Law" but are not (1 Tim 1:7), and those who foster "quarrels over the Law" (Titus 3:9).

Does this sound like the kind of controversies with Gnosticism that the Church was wrestling with in the second century A.D.? Not to me. To me it sounds like the Pastoral epistles reflect the final stage of Paul's life, say, in the mid-60s, after his imprisonment in Rome, when the Circumcision faction that had plagued his early missionary efforts in Galatia continued to spread and cause division within the Churches he had planted.

When the references to the circumcision party and controversy over the Jewish law are given due weight, it seems to me that the situation addressed by the Pastoral epistles gives good reason for thinking them early first-century and authentic.


Teófilo de Jesús said...

Scholars who object to the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles do so because the hierarchical church authority depicted in said epistles was "too Catholic" for their taste. Ergo, the Pastoral Epistles had to be post-Paul.

This is an instance of anti-Catholic prejudice disguised as scholarship.

Brant Pitre said...

Good point, Teofilo.
I agree that many of the assumptions made about church authority and hierarchy are just that: assumptions which are often dictated not by the evidence itself but by how the early Church "must" have developed. The notion that there was not hierarchical authority structure from the beginning needs to be questioned against the data.

What I was trying to stress in this post, however, was that even APART from those kind of assumptions, the actual context of conflict in the Pastoral Epistles puts them in chronological proximity to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and the circumcision controversy (Galatians 2)--NOT to the late first or early 2nd century A.D.

Kyle Essary said...

Very good article and critique of the late 19th century scholarship that still lingers.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

A biased late date for the Pastoral epistles is harmful not only for Catholics but for all Christians.

Richard Fellows said...


as you know, there are many arguments for the pseudonymity of the pastorals. People will weigh individual arguments differently, but it has to be said that their combined force is compelling.

It is not enough for people to dismiss the pseudonymity view as inspired by anti-Catholic sentiment or 19th century assumptions. I, for one, am conservative when it comes to other texts such as Acts.

I am particularly struck by the HISTORICAL difficulties in the PE. The author incorrectly thinks that:
1. Timothy was young (he cannot have been at the time of writing)
2. Timothy was Timid (see Hutson's "was Timothy Timid?")
3. Prisca and Aquila were in Ephesus (see Rom 16)
4. Paul left Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) (2 Cor 1:1 shows that he did not, and Acts 20:25,38 shows that there was no latter occasion when Paul was in Ephesus).

These problems make it very difficult to suppose that Paul wrote the PE, but they are just the kind of mistakes that we would expect a later reader of 1 Cor 16 to make. It seems obvious to me that the author of the PE attempted to extrapolate from the data in 1 Cor 16 and made these understandable mistakes. From 16:10he incorrectly inferred that Timothy was a timid youth. He read 16:19 and assumed that Prisca and Aquila stayed in Ephesus. He read 16:5-11 and assumed that Timothy was in Ephesus when Paul went to Macedonia and that Paul left him there to combat the 'many adversaries' (16:9). I have made these points before elsewhere and they need to be addressed.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Richard,

Thanks for the response!
I appreciate your input.

You're correct, of course, that there are multiple arguments for the pseudonymity of the Pastorals. However, I disagree that "it has to be said that their combined force is compelling." To the contrary, I find even their combined force uncovincing.

And I must say that I don't follow the force of the arguments you listed. I have a few questions:

You said:
The author incorrectly thinks that:
1. Timothy was young (he cannot have been at the time of writing)

My Question: How do you know Timothy cannot have been young at the time of the writing when that's precisely what we're debating? (This is the fallacy of begging the question.) What controlling evidence do you have for how young he must have been? Please give the data.

Your Point:
2. Timothy was Timid (see Hutson's "was Timothy Timid?")

My Question:
I don't have time to read Hutson's article now. Can you give me the actual data that says Timothy was never timid? Your argument seems to be based on evidence that Timothy wasn't timid (I don't know what this evidence is) and that this means he was never timid. I don't follow this logic. Have you never been courageous in some cases and timid in others?

Your Point:
3. Prisca and Aquila were in Ephesus (see Rom 16)

My Question:
So what? Are Prisca and Aquila immobile? Can't they travel? Please explain.

Your Point:
4. Paul left Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) (2 Cor 1:1 shows that he did not, and Acts 20:25,38 shows that there was no latter occasion when Paul was in Ephesus).

My Question:
How do you know "there was no latter occasion when Paul was in Ephesus"? Your evidence from Acts does not prove your point because my contention is precisely (as I said in the original post) that the Pastorals are written after Paul's release from his imprisonment in Rome. The book of Acts ends before this period; i.e., it can't be used as evidence against it because it doesn't narrate that far. It only goes up to about 62 A.D. I'm arguing the Pastorals are from the mid-60s, dealing with a second imprisonment (the one from which Paul does not escape alive). In short, Acts 20 can't show "there was no later occasion" when Paul when in Ephesus, because Acts is not a complete account of Paul's life until his martyrdom.

Okay, so those are my initial attempt to address your questions.

But I noticed that in your response, you did not address my original point. If the Pastorals are written in the late first or early second century A.D., what evidence do you have that the circumcision party was still a problem forty or more years after the Jerusalem Council?

Thanks for the dialogue!

Richard Fellows said...


Thanks for your comments. I will try to answer your questions and flesh out the skeleton arguments that I offered.

1. Timothy joined Paul in A.D. 49 at the latest. He was a "coworker of God", according to the most likely reading of 1 Thess 3:2, and he preached to the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:19), so he appears to have been a fully qualified missionary partner. Now, we are agreed that 1 Timothy cannot have been written before A.D. 62. Therefore Timothy had been a missionary partner of Paul for more than 13 years when this letter was written. This makes him a veteran missionary, yet 1 Tim 4:12 says that he was young. It is sometimes said that a 30 year old could be considered young in the ancient world, but there is no evidence for this.

2. Hutson pointed out that Timothy returned to Thessalonica, where there was severe opposition. This takes courage. Hutson also points out that Timothy was sent to Corinth (1 Cor 4:17) to deal with opponents. These are not jobs for a timid youth. Yes, it is possible that a courageous person could sometimes be timid but this is special pleading.

3. Yes, it is possible that Prisca and Aquila returned to Ephesus from Rome, but we have no evidence of this. It is simpler to suppose that the author of the PE was dependent on 1 Cor 16, especially as all the other data points that way.

4. In Acts 20:25 Paul tells the Ephesians that he will not see them again, yet you have to suppose that he did return to the east and probably to Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3). This is hard to reconcile. Why would Paul get it wrong? Why would Luke include a mistake by Paul without explaining that it was a mistake? There are other problems: why would Paul return to Ephesus rather than go to Spain, which had been his original destination? Is it really likely that Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome? If Paul was released and continued his work, why did Luke not record it? The abrupt ending of Acts is explicable if Paul was executed without release since Luke has a tendency to down-play the opposition of the civil authorities to the church (Luke knew that opponents of the church might get their hands on copies of his text and would want to use it to portray the Christians as subversive, so he censored himself to avoid giving them ammunition, and I think Luke's intended readers understood this).

Anyway, 1 Tim 1:3 reads, "I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you might instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine...". This work well as an extension of 1 Cor 16:5-11 where Paul says that he has many adversaries in Ephesus and he anticipates that Timothy will return to him there and that he (Paul) will then go to Macedonia. The author of the PE imagines that Paul, as he left for Macedonia, instructed Timothy to stay in Ephesus to combat the adversaries. The problem, of course, is that Timothy did not stay in Ephesus (2 Cor 1:1).

You suggest that the opponents in Titus 1:9-10, 1 Tim 1:7 and Titus 3:9 are similar to the advocates of circumcision whom Paul opposed in Galatians. However, is there any evidence that the opponents in these passages from the PE advocated circumcision or any other Jewish practice for Gentiles? Titus 1:10 simply refers to "those of the circumcision" and this could simply mean Jews. I do not see any indication that they were advocates of circumcision, but perhaps I need to think about it some more.

DimBulb said...

Mister Fellows,

Regarding point 1. Timothy is not called a young man in the passage you cite, his youth neotes is being referred to in reference to people who are apparently older, hence the term is relative not denoting a specific age. In relation to older people a man of 40 could be understood as neotes. I would draw your attention to Matt 19:20 where a "young man" neaniskos is said to have kept the law from a young age neotes.

Regarding point 2 you wrote: "Hutson pointed out that Timothy returned to Thessalonica, where there was severe opposition. This takes courage."

But isn't this a begging of the question? If Timothy was timid then his action took grace, the subject matter of the Pastoral passage.

You also write: "Hutson also points out that Timothy was sent to Corinth (1 Cor 4:17) to deal with opponents. These are not jobs for a timid youth. Yes, it is possible that a courageous person could sometimes be timid but this is special pleading."

It is also possible that St Paul sent St Timothy to Corinth because he trusted the grace of God given to his companion. Considering what St Paul says in verse 9-15 of that chapter I think he very much had the grace of ministry in mind. Further, St Paul refers to the mission of timothy to Corinth again in 16:10, where he says that if Timothy comes to them "see that he is without fear in your company." Certainly this may suggest a proneness to timidity. St Paul adds: He is doing the work of the Lord as I am, therefore no one should disdain him." If Timothy was so naturally courageous, why would Paul worry about the possibility of his fearing the disdain of others?

Richard Fellows said...


1 Tim 4:12 reads, "let NO ONE despise your youth". Given that the author writes, "No one", it does not seem likely that he has in mind only old people. The surrounding passage does not indicate (to me) that "Paul" has only old people in view. 4:6 reads, "If you put these instructions before the BROTHERS..." so the author is thinking of the community as a whole. I also find it hard to believe that the church would have been dominated by old people in Paul's day. In any case, I can't think why converts, even elderly ones, would despise a 40 year old because of this relative youth. In matters of doctrine they would surely have respected the fact that he had been in the faith for longer than they had and had helped to bring the faith to Macedonia and Corinth.

Concerning Timothy's supposed timidity, I believe the author of the PE inferred this timidity from 1 Cor 16:10-11 because he failed to understand these verses in the light of 1 Cor 4. Reading 1 Cor 4:6-5:6 it is clear that Paul is combating puffed up Corinthians who have disdain for him, and that he has sent Timothy to deal with them. It is therefore not surprising that Paul in 16:10-11 is concerned that they might disdain Timothy also. Therefore 16:10-11 when read in the light of chapters 4 and 5 give no hint that Timothy was any more timid than Paul himself. 16:10-11 tell us nothing of the character of Timothy, but reflect the brash arrogance of some of the Corinthians. The author of the PE has read 16:10-11 in isolation and come to an understandable (though wrong) conclusion that Timothy was timid. This is just one example of the author's use of 1 Cor 16.

Unknown said...

I contend that the Pastorals were "authored" by Paul and "written" by Luke as amanuensis. Paul was in prison and probably didn't sit down and write them out.

2 Tim states "only Luke is with me".

In other words, Paul says to Luke "write Timothy and tell him....Then write something similar to Titus."

Luke reads them to Paul when he's finished and Paul says, "Sounds good. Send the letters and keep a copy."

If I had the time, I'd run a hapax legomena search and see how much overlap there is between Luke-Acts and the Pastorals.

I'm sure somebody out there has done this.

DimBulb said...

Mister Fellows,

Sorry for the delay in responding.

The reference to Timothy's youth (neotes) should (I think) be seen in relation to the opening of chapter 5 which speaks of his duties towards both elders and youths (neos). I think the relative nature of the reference to Timothy's age which I pointed out above is still in play. All the age references are relative (e.g., elder could mean nothing more than older of the two; neos could mean nothing more than younger of the two).

1 Cor 16:10-11 doesn't just speak of other peoples disdain, it insists that Timothy be treated so as to be without fear. The Greek is aphobos, which can in certain usages, according to context and wording, denote boldness (Luke 1:74; Phil 1:14). But if Paul has to warn the Corinthians that Timothy be without fear it suggests more than "that Paul in 16:10-11 is concerned that they might disdain Timothy"

Anonymous said...

Just passing through, thought I'd drop a note about this topic.

In addition to many other important arguments, one thing I have noticed about the Pastorals is that the content does not match the supposed occasion. Specifically, in the case of 1 Timothy, why on earth would Paul have to write to Timothy (an experienced co-laborar in ministry) to give him such elementary instructions? I mean, would Timothy really need to be told that officeholders shouldn't be drunkards, that people shouldn't be busybodies, etc.? I mean, everything in the letters aside from the personal requests would already have been well-known by Timothy. Why does "Paul" treat "Timothy" as such a greenhorn?

There are many places where the fiction fails, but this is one of the most amusing.