Precautions to take when dating and getting to know Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

A nineteenth century picture of Paul of Tarsus
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The following post is an adaption of what I recently wrote to someone who had emailed me for an opinion on a study he had written on the origins of Christianity. His thesis rested entirely on acceptance of the conventional scholarly view of the authenticity of certain letters of Paul. I was reluctant to burst his balloon and only wrote the following after being pushed for a detailed explanation of my reservations.

Being on time

If we rely on external controls for verification, on the understanding that self-witness of a narrative or document alone is insufficient to establish authenticity, then we have no certainty that the Pauline letters were composed earlier than the second century.

We do not see evidence that anyone knew of them until the second century. They are first testified as belonging to Marcionite and other “unorthodox” Christianities.

We can take internal indicators, such as his flight from Damascus under king Aretas. That’s fine, but it also raises methodological questions that are discussed below.

What you see is what you get?

Further, when we find them discussed by the likes of Tertullian, it often appears that neither he nor his opponents knew the letters in the form in which we have them today. It appears they have been subjected to a series of redactions that reflect theological/political power struggles of the second and third centuries.

You use a courtroom analogy. So it should be kept in mind that no witness is accepted solely on his own claims about his own identity or the story he or she gives of their life. There has to be some external control for the court to be satisfied that the witness really is the person he is claiming to be. This is especially important in the case of early Christian literature which is well-known for its use of pseudonyms. And we know various Christian schools traced their foundings back through legendary/mythical genealogies of teachers or apostles.

Parental advice

But we don’t need to resort to a courtroom analogy. The need for some independent check in order to establish the authenticity of any claim is nothing more than a truism. It is what we learn as children. I recall a friend many years ago being so sure President Nixon was telling the truth because he could see the sincerity oozing out of him whenever he spoke on TV.

But with ancient documents, and modern ones too, we not only have to establish the authenticity of the contents, but also the authenticity of the author. Unless we know the provenance of a text we are pretty much stuffed as far as knowing how to begin making any serious judgment about it.

There is nothing hyper-sceptical about any of this. It is nothing more than normal precaution. Check authenticity before you run too far with what you read or hear. Journalists learn its importance very quickly or they risk ruining their careers.

Being taken for a ride?

Rosenmeyer has written an exploration of the way epistolary literature was often used to create or propagate fiction in the ancient world. Scholars who argue for the authenticity of just seven of the Pauline epistles do so with circular logic. They identify a common emotional thread through those seven, then say that this common emotional thread is evidence that Paul had that emotional disposition, so these letters are genuinely Pauline. That is, the reason we know Paul had that disposition is that he expresses it in his letters, and the reason we know Paul wrote those letters is that we find those emotions expressed in them! It’s circular. All the common emotional thread legitimately tells us is that a common school of thought or author was behind the core of the letters as we know them today.

Sure we can for convenience say they are Paul’s letters, but in the backs of our minds we need to remain aware that we have no way of verifying that. It can only be at best a tentative claim. But that’s no problem. Most knowledge is tentative, anyway.

A substantial amount of mainstream biblical scholarship is based on such circular fallacies.

So just because “the scholarly consensus” judges seven or so letters to be authentic to the apostle named Paul who lived and worked in the middle of the first century etc, that does not establish such a claim as a “fact”.

Facts and Evidence, and the Historian’s “Scientific Art”

Facts in my book are what can be directly inferred from tangible or directly knowable evidence. Evidence is stuff like papers and ink, inscriptions, monuments, etc. The facts are what historians can infer from these forms of evidence — things like: Tony Blair was Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007; the Japanese used prisoners of war to build the Burmese railway and many died around the Kwai River (I visited the scene recently and saw all the material evidence); etc. The historian’s job is to explain such facts, or to piece the facts together to tell a story. The historian does this by finding out more information about such facts, usually by research to uncover more evidence from which more facts can be inferred; and also by seeking plausible relationships among the facts in order to construct a historical narrative.

And the “trained historians” learn to test the evidence they find. They need to test its authenticity. They need to test its claims in the case of written narratives. Reputations can be sullied if they get it wrong, as Hugh Trevor-Roper found out over the Hitler Diaries, and as Hobsbawm admitted in his handling of uncorroborated narratives (even by self-professed eye-witnesses) in his study of social bandits.

Classicists and scholars of medieval times who work with surviving narratives and inscriptions ply the same precautions. Provenance is first established, and external controls are implicitly or explicitly referenced, to justify the way they are used (or not used) by the historian.

Applying all this to Paul’s letters

Unfortunately we have no means of testing the Pauline corpus as to the authenticity of its authorship, or the claims it makes about what appear to be first-century churches.

So if we are going to work with these letters at face value, the only valid way to do so it to make this caveat clear from the start.

Is not the more valid handling of them to analyse them in the context in which they first appear in the external record? It may be that they really do come from a Paul a century earlier, but we have no methodological way of establishing that, at least none that I can think of.

If we find that we can explain a large portion of the thoughts and language in the letters in terms of the second-century issues that interested theologians at that time, then our methodology has to some extent justified itself.

If not, and if we think that the letters only make sense in a mid-first century context, then that’s fine. But what controls can we possibly appeal to in order to make that judgment?

Or should we study them in their own silo, much as we might study, say, a subset of Nag Hammadi and gnostic writings? If we are unable to establish a narrow date range for their origin, this might be the most valid approach. If they were not considered integral to the development of the earliest church according to our external witnesses (though they were very relevant in the next century), how can we justify studying them as if they are the foundation of Christianity?

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Precautions to take when dating and getting to know Paul”

  1. Of course the evidence is shotty. You’re just supposed to take it on faith that Paul’s letters are not only authentically written by someone named Paul but that they were written in the 1st century and that this Paul was made an apostle by Jesus after his death and that unless you believe everything in these letters you will burn in hell for all eternity.

  2. I think historians are always going to make arguments based on more fined tuned analysis of evidence, so you not going to have a lot of people in history happy with working with text in such a broad range of dates from the last possible date it could have been produced to the earliest. Especially when some extreme of the range is held by very few people as likely date of composition.

    For instance I’ve seen some folks argue for Luke to be pre 70 C.E.. If I’m discussing Luke and its role in history, I don’t think I need to entertain the prospects of such an early date, the thinking employed to get the early date appeals to some but only a tiny sliver of the professional thought on the date of Luke. Some researchers may be sure from some evidence of a very particular date and it is up to them to argue for their position. Some folks find certain evidence more convincing that other for a number of reason. Me, not being an expert and not having made an in depth look at the evidence tend to work with a wide range within the curve, ignoring minority reports of extreme positions but understanding they could be right. In genral most people are mostly right most of the time. Of all the minority positions only a few will ever be right.

    My experience in reading arguments for the dates of Paul’s work has been limited, but I haven’t encountered the argument you discussed as circular reasoning. Given the amount of work that has been done in Paul, I do feel confident about the consensus. If a thing appears to be as it is purported to be, then I have no issue with someone using it for what it seems to be. There is no need to work overtime on what it may possibly could be instead. If we found no WMD in Iraq, then we can argue they aren’t there without the need to brainstorm possible conspiracies to explain why they aren’t there just to keep a question mark over the issue.

  3. Detering’s The Falsified Paul is always worth a read.

    What I keep noticing in the field of NT studies is the propensity to choose methods based on the results they yield. I think a lot of scholars have noticed the collapse of criteriology, which explains the desperate move by Theissen, Winter, and now Casey to embrace the Criterion of Historical Plausibility. If people didn’t so frantically need the historical Jesus (and the historical Paul), would we really have gotten to this point?

      1. It’s interesting that Detering, after 170 pages of well-reasoned argument in ‘The Falsified Paul’, accepts the historicity of Jesus, largely, it seems, on the likelihood that the apocalyptic material in the gospels would not have been useful for doctrinal/theological purposes, and would therefore not have been invented (pp. 177-178).

        Quite surprised that such a sceptical scholar would seem to appeal to the dreaded “embarrassment” criterion. But then again, the eschatological craziness is probably the best argument that some of the gospel material goes back to a single historical person going by the name of Jesus. Before I began to look more closely on the subject, I did find this argument pretty convincing. Now my mind has been poisoned by “extremist” methodology and hermeneutics of suspicion. Nasty business.

  4. The concept of “small” as being the state of one at the point of being converted or enlightened is not uncommon among gnostic literature. (Sorry unable to give the references now.) If Paul does mean “small”, and the first “owners” of the letters were the likes of Valentinians and Marcionites, one does wonder.

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