Were some of the New Testament letters written by someone else?
A FOCL webinar by Dr. Drake Williams examines claims about false authorship of the New Testament letters and how widespread these claims are.
FOCL · 16 MARCH 2016 · 16:50 CET
Are certain books in the Bible written by someone other than who we think? Was this intentional? What are the implications if the Bible is misrepresenting itself?
Dr. Drake Williams, professor of New Testament at Tyndale and Associate Professor of New Testament at Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven, Belgium, answered these and other questions in the FOCL webinar “Forgery? Were Some of the New Testament Letters Written by Someone Else?”
Williams started by confirming that the topic of the webinar “is being discussed among scholars.”
He said the New Testament letters some people question are: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, James, and Jude.
“This has implications related to the canonisation process of the Bible, and the authority of those who might have allowed this false authored books to be part of that canon”, the Tyndale professor commented.
WHO IS DOUBTING THE AUTHORSHIP OF THESE LETTERS?
“Many college books are stating that those letters were not written by the authors we have always thought”, he affirmed.
At the same time, “there are also some popular authors who are beginning to say that New Testament letters are not written by their authors.”
These views started in 1792 with the book “The dissonance of the four generally received evangelists”, by Edward Evanson. But it was in 1840 when F.C. Baurin, of the Tübingren School of Theology, shared them with wider audiences.
REASONS GIVEN TO DOUBT
The speaker said there are several reasons scholars have given to believe in this false authorship, but he mentioned the 7 more common concerns:
- The church leadership found in some letters seems too advanced for a first century writing.
- The doctrinal concerns of some letters did not exist when the stated author lived: In Titus, Timothy or 2 Peter, for example, the speaker explained, the letter resembled Gnostic issues, and those came from the second century.
- The teaching seems different than other known letters: For instance, some scholars believe that the doctrine regarding the end of times is different in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, hence, the authors are probably different.
- The vocabulary is different: The speaker quoted author P.N. Harrison who stated that “for the Pastoral letters, about 1/3 of the words are not found anywhere else in Paul´s letters, but a lot of those words can be found in second century Christian writings.”
- The style is unlike other letters by the same author: Those scholars who use this argument said that specially in Ephesians the style is completely different, so “it could be written by someone who tried to imitate Paul´s writings.”
- The quality of Greek writings: For some scholars it is hard to believe that “a fisherman (Peter), or a peasant (James) could have written the epistles in such a good Greek.”
- Similarity or dissimilarity to other letters: “2 Peter is too different form 1 Peter, and at the same time, 2 Peter and Jude resemble too much”, is one of the arguments scholars used to talk about the false authorship of these letters.
“A FALSE NAME IS DIFFERENT THAN A FORGERY”
After explaining the reasons given by some scholars to doubt about the authorship of several New Testament letters, Williams evaluated them.
We “must assume the time in which we live, because there is a high interest in forgery and conspiracy today.”
But “the first doubts of false authorship did not accuse of forgery.” Actually, the speaker argued “a false name is different than a forgery.”
DIFFERENT STYLE, DIFFERENT AUDIENCE
Regarding the differences in vocabulary and style, Williams pointed out that “it is important to remember that New Testament writers used a scribe, which could account for style differences.”
“We can read about them in the Bible in Romans 16:22 or 1 Peter 5:12, among others”, he added.
Additionally, the speaker stated that “a congregation that is known to the author could receive different information than other that is less well acquainted.”
“And a letter to a trusted leader, like Timothy or Titus, would assume different content and different concerns.”
“WHY THESE CLAIMS COME SO LATE?”
He believed that “questions should be asked as why these claims come so late and why people were fooled for so long.”
Early Christian, or even Reformers did not question the letter´s authorship, so “is our method of reasoning substantially better following the Enlightenment?”
The speaker concluded the evaluation by arguing that “and author´s motive is difficult to measure.”
FORGERY AT THE TIME OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
To illustrate everything, the Leuven proffesor explained during his talk, he analysed the viewpoint of pseudepigraphy and forgery at the time of the New Testament, considering Jewish, Greco- Roman and early Christian sources.
Regarding the Jewish sources, he stated that “Jewish letters are not comparable to New Testament letters, so there is not pseudepigraphy of comparable Jewish letters. They are not a good source to look at.”
However, “the Greco-Roman literature shows us many authors who were clearly against pseudepigraphy and forgery.”
Then, “if Greco-Roman writers were not in favour of false names in letters, why would a Christian writer take the chance of discrediting his message by attaching a false name to audiences that emerge form a Greco-Roman background?”
Dr. Williams finished his talk “drawing conclusions from ancient literature, and putting them together with the prior evaluation”:
- Forgery is a relatively new term, an appealing one in a culture which likes these ideas.
- The staring point for forgery is very important: do we trust the early church or are we suspicious of it?
- Many contemporary Greco-Roman writings discredit the forgery.
- While there are falsely ascribed Christian work, early Christian leader were against the practice.
“All this leads me to the question: were there forgeries in the New Testament? The answer is no”, he concluded.