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.
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 because he expresses it in his letters, and the reason we know Paul wrote those letters is because 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?