In search of the authentic St. Paul

St. Paul statue in front of St. Peters Basilic...

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Gene has pointed out several times that experts disagree on Paul’s letters—which ones are authentic, etc. I’ve become familiar with the viewpoint of one of those scholars, Luke Timothy Johnson (a former Benedictine monk), and find it very helpful. Hope I can express it clearly.

Paul, in the early church, was primarily viewed as a founder of churches, a moral teacher, and a martyr, not a theologian. Much of what seems inconsistent or contradictory in his letters springs from the fact that he was reacting to a situation, not preaching from a systematic theology. He was thinking on his feet, like a good pastor.

Paul used the literary conventions of classical rhetoric. His purpose was primarily to persuade, and he would adopt different literary “characters” to do so. Sometimes when he writes in the first person, it is rhetorical. The emotions we detect—anger, joy, etc.—are often rhetorical and not personal.

The letter to the Romans was written as a scholastic diatribe, stating a thesis, arguing its truth through an antithesis (the opposite point), restating the thesis, giving ancient (scriptural) examples, raising and answering arguments. Typical is the use of rhetorical questions with short, abrupt answers.

  • Thesis: The righteous person will live out of faith
  • Antithesis: The wrath of God is revealed by sin, the opposite of faith
  • Restated thesis: The faith of Jesus saves humans.
  • Scriptural example: Abraham.

Our NAB study Bible concurs that Romans has the form of a diatribe. See note on Romans 7:7-25 (page 1503), where Paul uses the first-person singular for the sake of argument. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.

Other Professor Johnson theories:

  • Some scholars believe a Pauline school after his death wrote some of the disputed letters. Why not hypothesize a Pauline school before his death, with the members working out some of these concepts together? (Here I imagine close associates, such as Timothy or Titus.) Romans, in fact, has the feel of a classroom situation, with students raising arguments and the professor answering them. Under this theory, Paul could have authored every letter (sending them out under his signature, much like the president authors his State of the Union speeches), but not actually written any of them!
  • The letters to Timothy and Titus are highly disputed, partly for the difference in style – “a more Hellenistic sound and vocabulary.” One explanation: They were written not to a diverse audience but to trusted lieutenants who were trained, as Paul was, in Greek rhetoric. These letters do not fit the familiar pattern of letters to individual churches, such as at Corinth or Thessalonika. But they do follow literary conventions of the day: 2 Timothy as a letter of advice, 1 Timothy and Titus as instructions of a governor or ruler to his delegate. Otherwise, the letters have similarities in content or theme with other writings of Paul.

I don’t know enough to raise objections to these theories. But some of our readings that argue against Paul’s authorship of certain letters seem so convoluted. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of Johnson’s argument.


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