Paul has been called the second most influential person in the history of the Christian faith. Mysterious and hard to pin down, yet known throughout early Christian communities; almost too good to be true, yet by his own account flawed. Millions base their understanding of the Christian faith on his writings, yet many can’t say clearly who he was, or why he is so important to them.
Paul was a tireless evangelist, a proficient theologian and keen intellectual, and he had a day job! Though he did not meet Jesus in the flesh, he managed to distil the key aspects of Jesus’ teaching and left the Church with a foundation on which God continues to build. Passionate and devoted, he spent his life interpreting the work of Jesus and making it clearer for others. He wrote of the contradiction of the cross, justification by faith, and the place of the law. Remember the idea that in weakness there is strength? That’s one of his too!
And yet, Paul has been a controversial figure over the centuries. Many have used words attributed to him to justify abuses ranging from apartheid, to fascism, to oppression of women and repression of sexuality. Some have turned away from Paul, and indeed Christianity, as a result.
These apparent contradictions are worth deeper investigation, but it turns out that the source is smaller than the Christian church originally thought. Of the 13 (or 14) New Testament books attributed to Paul, only seven are undisputedly Paul’s writing. How do we know this? There are several ways to investigate the authorship of a text, and over time ALL of them have been applied to the letters in the New Testament!
Firstly, scholars investigating authorship can evaluate what a writer says about themselves. In a letter like those in the New Testament, an author would often identify themselves or provide some sort of personal detail. Paul usually did this, and often he would say ‘hello’ from his scribe too. This is called ‘internal’ evidence.
Another way to determine who wrote what is to check out external evidence. An author might refer to one letter in the text of another that is undisputed, or other authors from the time might reference the text. This technique can be tricky, as so many texts from two thousand years ago have not survived, but external evidence can support other evidence of authorship.
There are often clues about an author in the historical setting of a piece of writing. Scholars investigate biographies, autobiographies, references to major events and people. There are of course pitfalls to this when looking at ancient texts, but sometimes cross referencing can help to secure an idea of who wrote what.
Modern scientific techniques can analyse the ‘linguistic fingerprint’ of a text by comparing vocabulary, sentence structure and length, common phrases, and even the frequency and types of jokes! Investigators have to take into account the possibility that an author might have matured in their writing over time, or been sensitive to their different audiences.
It is also possible to compare the ideas that an author writes about. Investigators look at the known writings of an author and compare the doctrinal consistency and then balance the likelihood of these ideas developing over time.
All these techniques and more have determined that Paul wrote at least these seven letters to the early Church:
- First Epistle to the Thessalonians
- Epistle to the Galatians
- First Epistle to the Corinthians
- Second Epistle to the Corinthians
- Epistle to the Philippians
- Epistle to Philemon
- Epistle to the Romans
Yet, other letters attributed to Paul have inspired many over the generations, and their content is as valuable as ever. Why did the authors use Paul’s name? Does this change how we think about them? What can we know about the person of Paul from his own writing?
To find out more, check out the new FAITH360 module – The Puzzle of Paul – produced by the team at FormedFaith, along with expert content by The Rev’d Canon Dr Marian Free. See formedfaith.org to find out how to get this workshop happening in your parish.Jump to next article