I'm a bit clogged up because I haven't had much time to post this last week. So let me start by nearing the end of chapter 1 of N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I actually finished reading the chapter a couple weeks ago. Thus far,
1. The Basics of Philemon
2.i-iii. Philemon and Christian Worldview
iv. History, Exegesis, "Application"
In this section, Wright addresses the question of the sources he will use to construct an understanding of Paul's theology and worldview. The main issue here is the fact that, for the better part of the last century, a large number of Pauline scholars have questioned whether Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. Similarly, a strong majority have concluded it not likely at all that Paul wrote 1, 2 Timothy and Titus.
Wright argues that the consensus in several of these cases should be re-examined. He argues, for example, that ideological reasons stand behind the consensus in relation to several of these letters. He lays the blame first at the feet of the nineteenth century interpreter F. C. Baur. Baur famously categorized the New Testament in terms of a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis, with Jewish Christianity as the thesis, Pauline Christianity as the antithesis, and "Catholic" Christianity as the synthesis. Accordingly, any Pauline letters that seemed "catholic" were considered as non-Pauline.
In particular, Wright thinks some of the difficulty with regard to Colossians and Ephesians, in his view, is because they "seem to have a much stronger and higher view of the church" (57). They "did not appear to teach 'justification by faith.'" They "fly in the face of the liberal protestant paradigm" (57-58). He seems a little puzzled that the "new perspective" on Paul, which challenges the liberal Protestant paradigm, has not challenged it at this point.
So he suggests another ideological "prejudice" he suspects may be in the way now--the household codes. So he suggests that egalitarianism may now stand in the way of what he considers a fairer consideration of Ephesians and Colossians. Whatever the cause, it has become such a dogma, in his view, that younger scholars are not allowed to question it. He mentions with favor Clifford Geertz's comment that "it is almost more of a problem to get exhausted ideas out of the scholarly literature than it is to get productive ones in" (59).
So he says, "let us put the chess pieces back on the board from time to time and restart the game" (60). He does not find arguments from stylistic difference convincing. He finds the stylistic differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians more striking than between Galatians/Romans and Ephesians/Colossians. In the end, he proceeds with the assumption that Colossians is certainly Pauline and Ephesians is highly likely to be Paul.
He also considers it highly likely that 2 Thessalonians is Pauline. The "prejudice" he identifies against it is the older prejudice against Paul being an apocalyptic thinker. But since now it is even trendy to think of Paul as an apocalyptic and political thinker, it would be ironic to rule 2 Thessalonians out of consideration, he says. Nevertheless, "as a concession to troubled consciences" (61), he will still try to let the "normal seven letters" bear most of the weight (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon).
Wright seems careful not to say explicitly that 1 Timothy and Titus are not from Paul's hand, but he implies that he thinks so. At the end of all this rethinking, 1 Timothy and Titus remain in "a different category" for him. He does not consider 2 Timothy as doubtful. "My own opinion is that if the only 'Pastoral' letter we had was what we presently call 2 Timothy, the 'problem of the Pastorals' might not have occured" (61).
Finally, he addresses Acts as a source for Paul. Once again, he finds a liberal prejudice underlying the unpopularity of using Acts as a source for the historical Paul. The Gospels and Acts were seen as a coping strategy with the failure of Christ's return to take place. He thinks Acts has been dated later and later for these sorts of theological and ideological reasons. Luke is seen as an architect of a road toward early Catholicism, a la Baur.
"None of this means, of course, that Acts can be used naively as it stands as a historical source" (63). But he believes it is less in conflict with Paul's own writings than is sometimes supposed. He even suggests that we should no longer just assume that Acts 15 and Galatians 2 refer to the same event. Basically, he wants to open the doors on any consensus that may exist and look at Paul's writings freshly, with no presumptions unexamined.
Wright is clearly trying to redress what he sees as an unsubstantiated bias among Pauline experts in relation to which books Paul wrote in the New Testament and which books might be "pseudonymous," written under Paul's name a few decades after his death. We must applaud his plea that each generation of scholars, indeed each student, be willing to examine long-held consensuses like these.
I think of what Mark Goodacre has said in relation to the existence of Q--while most scholars may believe in Q, few have done the hard work to come to that conclusion on their own. They more or less assume the existence of Q because it has been a consensus for so long. (By the way, Goodacre hasn't convinced me yet that he is right, even though I agree with the need to re-examine the consensus.)
Wright's words in this section have been greeted with great delight among evangelicals, who have more or less always rejected the arguments for pseudonymity anyway. Indeed, it is practically forbidden in most evangelical circles even to question the literal Pauline authorship of any of his books in the New Testament. To do so is usually seen as tantamount to calling these books forgeries and their authors liars (I reject that this is the only alternative position, as does Wright).
We thus see prejudice on both ends of the spectrum. On the one end are the scholars who won't let you study with them if you actually think Paul might have written the Pastoral Epistles. On the other end are those who will kick you out of their fellowship if you even entertain the idea that Paul might not have. Wright stands in the middle between these two extremes. He only thinks 1 Timothy and Titus were written as a literary device under Paul's name (and he does not see this as an obstacle to considering them Scripture). The rest he more or less accepts as coming from Paul's hand, with the possible exception of 2 Timothy.
The reaction to Wright's thoughts here is predictable. Evangelicals, who have never accepted pseudonymity at all on principle, will greet his thoughts here as vindication. "Told you so." Meanwhile, it is doubtful that Wright's arguments here will convince any scholars who already accept the old consensus. I privilege the Pauline authorship of all these books in my teaching, but like Wright would love to see a climate where the question is about the evidence rather than the politics.
It is doubtful that I can be objective, but let me try my best to evaluate Wright's push back on the century-long majority positions. Since he does not reject the consensus on 1 Timothy and Titus, I will not address them.
Let me say that I have long agreed with Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and now Wright on the topic of 2 Timothy. It is far less "problematic" than 1 Timothy or Titus. The only reason I personally can think to doubt whether Paul wrote 2 Timothy is chapter 4, which seems to see Christ's return as some time in the future. This represents a shift from 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where Paul seems to expect the Lord to return much more imminently. For this reason, Murphy-O'Connor suggested 2 Timothy might have been built out of a final letter of Paul, with some supplementing by someone else.
Wright's questions on the extent to which style can be used to make such determinations have been made for some time. E. Randolph Richards suggested that the common use of a secretary when composing a letter especially makes questions of style more difficult to use against authorship. Whether this is simply telling a certain audience what it wants to hear or giving a substantive corrective remains to be seen.
I think of what James Dunn wrote in relation to Paul's authorship of Colossians. Dunn was clearly quite willing to believe that Colossians came directly from Paul's hand but in the end suggested that perhaps the hand of Timothy, who is also mentioned as an author, was more directly responsible. In this scenario, perhaps Paul drafted a basic outline and agreed with what Timothy composed, but would have largely left the writing itself to Timothy. Such a proposal is speculative, of course, but it underlines Dunn's ultimate inability to reconcile differences in "manner and mode of expression," in light of "the relative constancy of Paul's style elsewhere" (35). Whether Wright or Dunn is correct on this one, I feel Dunn's pain.
Wright is surely correct that young scholars often accept the consensus of previous generations without enough of a critical eye. There is surely some truth that fumes of earlier consensuses live on by their own momentum. I seriously doubt, however, that F. C. Baur or his fumes continue to have any role to play whatsoever in the current lay of the scholarly land. Wright has more evidence at hand that the egalitarianism of someone like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza might want to distance Paul from the household codes of the Prison Epistles. Then again, I doubt she would have any problem critiquing Paul himself.
Is an anti-apocalyptic bias at work against 2 Thessalonians--or maybe an anti-dispensational bias? Maybe so with some scholars. As I see it, what is difficult about 2 Thessalonians is 1) how difficult it is to place in Paul's timeline and 2) the fact that it is just so different from anything we hear Paul say elsewhere. It is just an enigma all the way around. Perhaps Wright has some silver bullets here, and I look forward to hearing them.
I smiled when I read Wright's statements about Ephesians. Regardless of Paul's authorship, it is not surprising that Wright would not so much feel the pain of those who think Ephesians is more generic than Paul's other letters. That is to say, in my opinion, Wright's interpretations of Paul are already a more theologized and abstract version of the real Paul, so it is no surprise that he would not seem to notice that Ephesians is less concrete than Paul's other letters. Edgar Goodspeed once speculated whether Ephesians might have been created as a cover letter for Paul's letters once the church started collecting them and binding them together. He wondered if it was created to present a synopsis of Paul's theology.
Obviously such ideas are unprovable. They are purely speculative. Goodspeed's speculation merely testifies to the general, rather than concrete, nature of Ephesians. The words "at Ephesus" were not likely part of the original letter, leaving some to suggest Paul wrote it as a circular letter to a whole region, rather than to a specific church in Asia. Quite unusually for Paul, the only actual, concrete name mentioned in the whole letter is Tychicus.
A careful eye will observe numerous minor shifts in Ephesians from Paul's earlier letters (e.g., saved by grace rather than justified by faith). That does not mean Paul didn't write it. But if we truly want to listen to Paul, we won't sweep them under the rug either.
The point is not to say that Wright is wrong about Ephesians. It is to say that far more is going on with the consensus than some ideological fume carried over from F. C. Baur. Wright will not change anyone's mind by what he has written here, only inspire those who already agree with him.
Similar responses could be made with regard to Wright's treatment of Acts. There are no doubt some "liberals" who would want to distance Acts from the actual events, to distance it from history. Yet there is just as much bias on the other end, pushing it to be as early as possible. In the middle are at least a few scholars who are really trying their best simply to follow the evidence to its most likely conclusion.
Yet surely his basic position is correct. We should neither assume that Acts is fiction or be naive about its precise historicity. Let the evidence go where the evidence goes.