Paul and the Pastoral Epistles: Bart Ehrman’s forgery claim disputed

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Paul deals with the problems in the church by addressing the church at large and pleading with all the members to change their ways. Why doesn’t he address the bishop of the church, or the head pastor? Why doesn’t he write a letter to the leader of the church to tell him to get his troops in line? Because there was no ultimate leader of the church. There were no bishops or head pastors. In Paul’s churches, in this brief time between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all believers, the community was run by the Spirit of God working through each member.

What happens when there is no official hierarchy, no appointed leaders, no one to take charge? What typically happens is what happened in Corinth. A good deal of chaos. How can such chaos be brought under control? Someone needs to take charge. Over time, that’s eventually what happened in Paul’s churches. After he himself had passed off the scene, his churches assumed the kind of shape that you would assume, where there was someone at the top, someone who gave the orders, someone who had leaders under him who were appointed to keep everyone pulling together, to make sure that only the correct teachings were being given, to discipline those who were not behaving properly.

You don’t find this kind of church structure in Paul’s day. You do find it in the Pastoral Epistles” [Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, pp. 132-133].

Did Paul write the Pastoral Epistles? It may seem as if to some, he wrote them without fail, but this isn’t the case in the minds of everyone. Scholars say that Paul only wrote about half the books attributed to him, that the other half are clever forgeries penned by other intelligent, sophisticated writers who lived some decade to twenty years after Paul, wanted something to say, and wanted to ride on the coattails of a successful church authority like Paul to get the message out. Thus, 2 Thessalonians has been labeled a forgery, though I believe I’ve successfully dealt with that claim and buried it. Now, we’re investigating the claim that the Pastoral Epistles that involve pastors is something that didn’t exist in Paul’s day.

Ehrman has made a slip-up, a mistake, in claiming that leadership put in place to dispel the chaos is something anachronistic for Paul, something that didn’t occur until he died. The reason Ehrman’s claim is erroneous is because, in a book that he claims scholars attribute to Paul without reservation, Paul mentions spiritual authority and leadership.

What is that book? 1 Thessalonians.

Ehrman’s confidence in the Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians

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Ehrman tells us in his book that 1 Thessalonians is given Pauline authorship across the board, with virtually no dissenters:

“The seven letters that virtually all scholars agree Paul wrote — the so-called undisputed Pauline epistles — are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon” (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, pg. 54. Bold font emphasis mine).

Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only eight almost certainly go back to the author whose name they bear: the seven undisputed letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) and the Revelation of John (although we aren’t sure who this John was)” (Jesus, Interrupted, page 112. Bold font emphasis mine).

1 Thessalonians is an “undisputed letter of Paul,” meaning that virtually few scholars would ever dare to contest it.  So, in order to show Ehrman is erroneous about the Pastoral Epistles, I will be coming from an undisputed Pauline epistle (1 Thessalonians), while using other undisputed epistles as the need arises.

 Church leadership in 1 Thessalonians

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At the end of Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians (the one scholars don’t doubt is Pauline), Paul tells the church at Thessalonica to “recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, NKJV).

The phrase “over you in the Lord” is unambiguous in its reference to spiritual leadership. Who were these people over them, if there wasn’t a pastor/bishop, deacons, elders, teachers, etc.? Ehrman says that this type of leadership didn’t arrive until a decade or two after Paul had died, but we see Paul mentioning spiritual authority in the church here in a letter that is “undisputedly” Pauline.

Church Leadership in Philippians

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Philippians, another undisputed Pauline epistle, puts to rest the claim that “such leadership didn’t exist until after Paul died.” In fact, in Paul’s greeting to the Philippians, he mentions the leadership (yes, that which Ehrman says was anachronistic for Paul and out of step with his time):

Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:1-2)

Bart Ehrman says that such leadership didn’t exist until after Paul’s death, but if that’s true, why is it that we find Paul mentioning “the bishops and deacons” in Philippians 1:1, in a letter that scholars assume is Pauline? It turns out, then, that Ehrman has some explaining to do if Paul’s own undisputed letters provide insight into the leadership of that day (bishops and deacons, according to Philippians 1:1).

Conclusion

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

There’s more to be said on Pauline authorship, but we’ve investigated Ehrman’s claim that leadership didn’t exist in the church until some two decades after Paul died (and have found Ehrman’s view wrong, incredibly so).

The letters of 1 Thessalonians and Philippians are given Pauline attribution by nearly every scholar in the field, which means that these letters are a huge indictment and rebuttal to Ehrman’s claim. In two letters given to Paul without reservation, we see spiritual authority mentioned as “bishops and deacons” in Philippians 1:1 and “those over you in the Lord” as a reference to them in 1 Thessalonians. These labels don’t exist in undisputed Pauline epistles by mistake.

Ehrman’s claim that the Pastoral Epistles don’t belong to Paul because of the leadership hierarchy mentioned in them are flat wrong because Paul himself mentions the same leadership. Ehrman has struck out again.