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The More Scholarly Argument that Paul did Not Write Colossians

Every now and then I think it’s useful on the blog to shift gears away from explaining at a more popular level what scholars have come to think to showing how scholars make their arguments to one *another*.  I don’t want to do this a lot, but it seems that it can be helpful at times, just so blog readers can get a bit of a sense.

Right now I’m in them middle of a thread on whether the author of Luke was really “Luke the gentile physician,” one of Paul’s traveling companions.  The only reason for thinking such a person even existed (a gentile doctor named Luke) is that he is mentioned by Paul in Colossians.  In my previous post I explained why the majority of critical scholars don’t think Paul actually wrote Colossians (so that the historical Paul does *not* mention this person). The post was written for a general audience, and a number of people raised questions about it.  So here is how I provide the evidence for fellow scholars in my book Forgery and Counterforgeryjust so you can see.

It’s not HUGELY complicated.  We’re not talking astrophysics here.   But as you’ll see, it does get ratcheted up a notch.  The second half is less technical.  This kind of thing may not be to your taste; but in any case, it is!


As with every instance of forgery, the case of Colossians is cumulative, involving multiple factors. None has proved more decisive over the past thirty years than the question of writing style. The case was made most effectively in 1973 by Walter Bujard, in a study both exhaustive and exhausting, widely thought to be unanswerable.

Bujard compares the writing style of Colossians to the other Pauline letters, focusing especially on those of comparable length (Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians), and looking at an inordinately wide range of stylistic features: the use of conjunctions (of all kinds); infinitives; participles, relative clauses; repetitions of words and word groups; use of antithetical statements; parallel constructions; the use of preposition ἐν; the piling up of genitives; and on and on. In case after case, Colossians stands apart from Paul’s letters.

Here I can mention a slim selection of his findings. How often does a book of Paul’s use adversative conjunctions? Galatians 84 times; Philippians 52; 1 Thessasonians 29; but Colossians only 9. Causal conjunctions? Galatians 45 times; Philippians 20; 1 Thessalonians 31; but Colossians only 9. Consecutive conjunctions? Galatians 16 times; Philippians 10; 1Thessalonians 12; but Colossians only 6. How often does the letter use a conjunction to introduce a statement (ὅτι, ὡς, πως etc.) Galatians 20 times; Philippians 19; 1 Thessalonians 11; but Colossians only 3.

If you want to keep reading, and you’re not yet a blog member, why not join?  Won’t cost much; you get five posts a week; almost all of them are written to communicate knowledge scholars have acquired in terms non-scholars can make sense of — about topics that many of us find really important.  And the entire membership fee goes to help those in need.  

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Did *Any* Companion of Paul Write Luke and Acts?
Problems with Thinking That Luke Wrote Luke (and Acts)



  1. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  January 11, 2020

    Thank you for this post. It provides incontrovertible insight into the process behind conclusions you make on this blog and in your popular books. So, while occasional posts like this are quite helpful, I’ll leave the page after page of statistical analysis to you. : )

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      Yeah, it’s not my favorite part of the job….

      • Avatar
        GStevens  January 16, 2020

        Speaking as a bible buff with about 0.1% of Bart’s knowledge. For my own part, I accept the standard division of Paul’s letters into Yup, Maybe, and Nope. In which Colossians is in the Nope camp. How does one react to the argument against Bujard, that Paul in Colossians simply used a more independent amanuensis?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 16, 2020

          I have a lengthy discussion of amanuenses in antiquity in my books on forgery: but you can see what I pretty much say by searching for “secretaries” on the blog.

  2. tompicard
    tompicard  January 11, 2020

    I am wondering about Bujard’s methodology

    Did Bujard or anyone else make similar tests on any other authors in order to verify the conclusion that differences in writing styles over the years imply different authors ?

    for example see the letters of Thomas Jefferson here

    if one looked at all the different letters there comparing conjunctions and relative clauses, would one conclude that NONE of the letters in these archives had been forged???

    similarly “considering content”
    are the contents of these ‘purported’ Jefferson letters so similar that we must conclude they originate from the same author?

    in regards to “There are other theological differences from Paul,”
    has anyone considered whether all the letters in this archive express no “political differences from Jeffersons” undisputed letters

    [Jefferson just an example, maybe study has been done with another profrolic writer]

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      I have a former student doing that kind of thing now; I don’t know if Bujard ever did or not offhand.

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  January 13, 2020

        Great. Came here to ask just that. That would be interesting as I do suppose our writing style changes over time?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2020

          They certainly do! Yup, that needs to be taken into account.

  3. Avatar
    Hngerhman  January 11, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    Has anyone in academia made a serious attempt to train a computer neural network or apply other forms of machine learning to attack the Pauline authorship problem?

    Seems a ripe area for application – especially in light of the splash that CBGM is making (And would likely receive a reduced level GIGO critique relative to CBGM).


    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      Oh, yes, it’s a field of study. I have a former student writing a book about it.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  January 12, 2020

        Phenomenal! Given I’m neither a Greek speaker nor a computer scientist, it should be perfect for me! Ha.

        Is there recommended reading as it pertains to the authorship of the Pauline corpus? My google searches aren’t turning up anything fruitful. But, if it’s too esoteric, no worries.

        It’s super intriguing, because (as I’ve seen in my field) machine learning may hit 95% of what humans are doing (and hit it at a blinding speed), but the fun is in the 5% that either humans or AI misses.


        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2020

          I give an extended discussion of the “non-Pauline” letters (why he probably didnt write them) in Forgery and Counterforgery.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  January 13, 2020

            Apologies – in my excitement and haste, I was unclear about my question (forgetting you don’t always have the prior comments in the thread handy).

            I’ve read F&CF probably 5 times – it’s amazing!

            Question: Is there good preliminary reading, in advance of your former student’s future book on machine learning applied to NT, narrowly around the topic of AI/machine learning/neural networks applied to the authorship problem of the Pauline corpus (or other major NT issues more broadly)?

            Basically, who is doing (and/or writing about) the work Bujard would be doing if he had access to today’s computing power?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2020

            There are people doing it, but apart from my student, I don’t know. If you’re really interested in reading up on it, send me an email and I’ll give you his name.

  4. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  January 11, 2020

    My Bible, The New Living Translation, says in Col. 1:1 that this letter is from Paul and from our brother Timothy so this is their combined efforts and explains the difference in writing style. If Paul says he is a partial writer than I believe him. The fear of God was put into Paul on the road to Damascus. One of the things God commands us not to do is to testify falsely and Paul would certainly be aware of that.
    As far as the suffering mentioned in Col. 1:24 Jesus warned us that he was made to suffer and that those who follow him will be made to suffer also. Such are the Martyrs of the Church.

  5. Avatar
    amonro  January 11, 2020

    A few questions come to mind:

    1) Since critical scholars are somewhat divided on Pauline authorship of Colossians, what do you think the best argument *for* Paul being the author is?

    2) It seems like scholars generally are either “for it” or “agin’ it” regarding Paul authoring the letter. Is there a significant (however you want to define “significant”) minority opinion saying that it contains fragments of genuine writings of Paul mixed together with other material? For example, maybe part of the first chapter and part of the last chapter (including the part about Luke!) were written by Paul, perhaps shortly after Philemon was written, but the middle was written by someone else after Paul’s death.

    3) Do you think there is a way that consensus on the question of Pauline authorship of Colossians could be reached in the near future? Are there particular data, or is there a relatively new method, that might bring about consensus?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      1. It has a lot of Pauline thoughts and ideas and phrases in it. (which could be used to argue both ways: Paul wrote it or an imitator did; do the issue is less the similarities than the differences; 2. Yes, somewhat. That argument is made a lot more with 2 Timothy, as it turns out; but scholars are always open to the idea. 3. I doubt it…. Evangelicals are always going to think Paul wrote it because it claims he wrote it and it’s in the Bible.

  6. Avatar
    dominchowles@gmail.com  January 11, 2020

    Great post Bart , it’s interesting as apologists like Mike Licona think we are being too “Skeptical” ( in a reply to me from one of his posts on your Blog) re the authourship of the Gopels. You seem to be practicing good Historical Methods ( I am a big fan of When Jesus Became God) and it is just frustating that just because this is about God apologists seem to let their standars slip.Licona thinks Mark wrote Mark (In a reply to me from your blog) and he thinks it’s “huge” that Luke reported Paul persecuting Christians in Acts. I replied that I thought it “huge” that Omri has non biblical sources but sadly Jesus dosen’t, I mean contemporary sources . It’s funny that Licona repied “who is Omri ?” which I have on my gmail but he edited it on your blog as he obviously realised his error.

  7. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  January 11, 2020

    I can’t speak for others but I really appreciate the more detailed analysis. Thank you for doing this more in-depth presentation from time to time. It might be kind of nice to have a NT edition with the forgeries stripped out combined with a concordance based on top notch historical criticism and the most current historical research. This seriously revised NT would include chapters explaining why certain material is not included. Maybe there is such a thing??

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      Not really. Wouldn’t be much left! Only 8 of the 27 books (7 letters of Paul and the book of Revelation) are books almost certainly written by the people claiming to be the author (Revelation being written by someone otherwise unknown, simply named John; he doesn’t claim to be Jesus’ disciple John)

  8. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  January 11, 2020

    Since the forged letters were written decades after Paul had died then shouldn’t the readers have known that they were not written by him?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      It was very easy to put a forged book into circulation — it happened all the time, in pagan and jewish circles as well, and in Christian circles for centuries, through the middle ages down, in fact, to modern times! all you had to do is claim you had “discovered” it, or that someone from some remote place had sent it to you, etc.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  January 11, 2020

    Interesting Christology. I’ve always took “first born of creation” to mean Jesus was the first and greatest of all God’s created beings. Is that correct or is the connotation something different in the Greek?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      It can mean either “first of all” or “most important,” but either way it suggests he was created.

      • Avatar
        veritas  January 12, 2020

        Mormons believe he was created as you say, and so was Satan, created, thus making them brothers. You mention in the beginning of your post, ” widely thought to be unanswerable”, Is this more accepted today among you and other scholars or is it still very much debated the authorship of Colossians, since you mentioned or not sure if Bujard stylistic methodology has been used with other authors for efficacy?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2020

          Are you asking if there are critical scholars who still think Paul wrote Colossians? Yes indeed.

  10. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  January 11, 2020

    While your arguments about the letter was not written by Paul are sound, it really has no bearing on whether or not Luke the physician was his companion or not. It seems to me that whoever the author was, he would not have thrown in the reference to Luke IF he thought the readers would find that surprising.

    People who are attempting to convince others of something that is not true would never add unnecessary details into their story unless it made it more believable. It seems to me IF the letter was a forgery, that the mention of Luke by the author would indicate that Luke was KNOWN to be a traveling companion of Paul, by the intended audience.

    Why else include the reference?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      Actually, one of the real tricks of ancient forgery was to throw in irrelevant detail as smoke to provide verisimilitude. So if you’re making up a story about your aunt, you might say, “my aunt, the great baker.” It adds a detail which makes it more believable, even if its not true. Colossians does not say anything about Luke being a travelling cvompanion, only that he is a gentile physician. Acts doesn’t mention him as a gentile physician, and in fact doesn’t even give his name. It’s only by saying that the guy mentioned by “Paul” is the one who wrote Acts that you come to Luke, the gentile physician, as the author of Acts. See the problem? The idea the guy was a gentile physician is found in a letter that was forged, so we don’t know if Luke was a gentile physician (it may just be a verisimilitude); and in any event, the person never shows up in Acts (neither a gentile physician nor a person named Luke ever appears in the narrative). so the idea that he probably wrote the book is based on … what?

  11. Avatar
    Ficino  January 11, 2020

    Well, maybe Paul had another experience when he saw a bright light and fell down on the road, and afterwards his writing style was different. You can’t prove this false. And the Bible says Colossians is written by Paul and Timothy. Right there in Col. 1:1. /s

    Very good post! I love the tour through Greek constructions.

  12. Telling
    Telling  January 12, 2020

    Hi Paul,

    His argument would be more convincing if he gave some stats on other writers and demonstrated that their writing styles didn’t change in these same statistical ways over long periods of their life.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2020

      I have a former student doing that kind of thing now; I don’t know if Bujard ever did or not offhand.

      • Telling
        Telling  January 12, 2020


        That seems a good idea, and much can be done with computers, which I see you’ve addressed here.

  13. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 12, 2020

    Even if Colossians is a forgery, do you think there really was a Luke who knew Paul? The letters mention other names that are included in the undisputed letters (e.g. Onesimus). If I was a forger and wanted to drop names, I’d probably pick ones who were known/thought to be companions of Paul.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      Yes, Paul mentions someone named Luke in Philemon. That’s where the forger of Colossians got it.

  14. Avatar
    aar8818  January 12, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, do you think authentic Paul has a higher Christology than Mark? If so, why? And why would that be?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      Yes, I don’t think Mark imagined Christ as a pre-existent being come to earth, as Paul did. I’m not sure what nuance you mean with “why.” Is it why would they be different? Just because people living at the same time always have different views (i.e., it’s not that everyone in early Christainity all thoguht the same thing at the same time: lots of diversity!)

      • Avatar
        aar8818  January 13, 2020

        Thank you. I appreciate that answer.

  15. Avatar
    b.dub3  January 12, 2020

    Dr Ehrman, I strongly agree that the evidence as you’ve outlined it tends to show that it is highly unlikely that the historical Paul wrote Colossians. However I’m not sure I can agree on the example related to the new life in the present passages. You site Romans 6:6 as example, but leave out verse 11 in the discussion where it is said, therefore “…consider yourselves dead to sin, but *alive* to God in Christ Jesus.” It is clear is it not that Paul is talking about a paradox of our present situation of being dead to sin, BUT alive to God in Christ at the same time? This therefore would seem consistent with the other non-pauline writings although inconsistent perhaps in matters of emphasis.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2020

      Oh yes, Paul certainly thinks everything in Christ is a “new creation” and that since those baptized have died to sin, they are alive to Christ. Absolutely! But, he does not use resurrection language for it. He meant something very specific about resurrection. It was going to come when Jesus returned, and decidedly not before. That’s what the author of Colossians changes. (And Ephesians)

  16. Avatar
    gwayersdds  January 13, 2020

    I have a question which will expose my total ignorance. Could the books that scholars believe were really written by Paul actually be written by someone else who wrote all of them. That would account for the similarities in style, grammar and vocabulary. What evidence do we have that Paul was the true author?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Yes, it’s possible, certainly. But it doesn’t seem very likely. The books all claim to be written by Paul, so one has to assume they were unless there is evidence otherwise. But the evidence all points toward Pauline authorship: they theological views are ones attested for Paul elsewhere; they do not endorse views found later in the Xn tradition (one of the hallmarks of forgery; and Paul was widely known to have written letters — so there is nothign implossible about his having done so. *Someone* had to write them, and so unless there are reasons for thinking it wasn’t Paul, it seems unlikely that it wasn’t.

  17. Avatar
    meohanlon  January 13, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Even if the letter was written by someone else claiming to be Paul (and that seems rather likely) wouldn’t he try to reference things he assumed, from previous traditions to be true of Paul and his companions? So how likely then would it be for him to fabricate the ‘fact’ that Luke was a physician, and escape verification by those who knew enough about Paul and maybe Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Forgers always build on previous knowledge/tradition and then develop and expand it. Otherwise there would be no reason to forge a writing. And adding new anecdotal detail is a way of establishing verisimilitude. Happens a lot, as it turns out!

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 13, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Interesting as always. The topic of Paul’s writings is my favorite since for some of the most stringent scholars the 7 authentic letters are the only New Testament documents that are taken seriously from their point of view of historical validity. My question is, since I know you are skeptical about the empty tomb claim from the Gospels, In 1 Corinthians 15:4, “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Is Paul talking about a literal 3 days or is this a link to Hosea 6:2 or perhaps another verse of the Old Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      I think it’s both for Paul.

      My sense is that *all* scholars take every book of the NT seriously as a historical source. But most of them are sources not for the period or person they are talking *about* but for the period or person they actually *were*

  19. Avatar
    NogardJ  January 14, 2020

    How (if at all) do Paul’s ideas of being in Christ reflect deification vs actual physical resurrection?

    I converted to Orthodox Christianity more than 20 years ago and many of the references to resurrection are understood to be in connection with deification so that there is a personal rising from the dead as we are united to his uncreated energies. This is a distinct idea from the final rising from the dead.

    Within the framework of Christian deification (“glorification” for those perhaps offended by the terminology) Rom 6: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” indicates this process occurring which is living in the power of Christ’s resurrection vs the actual 2nd coming where the everyone is transformed into a resurrected state.

    In the undisputed letters of Paul do see evidence that Paul taught such a thing? Do you believe this was also an idea (brilliant actually) to enliven the church using letters such as Colossians and 1 Pet “partakers of the divine nature” to maintain the christian faith for the long haul?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      My views is that Paul almost certainly believed in *both* an actual physical resurrection and deification. There was no other kind of resurrection in Paul’s Jewish circles, and he emphasizes in 1 Cor 15 that it was an actual physical (not a spiritual) return from the dead; but it’s also clear that X then was taken up to live with God, in the body — i.e., he was deified. Thus Phil. 2:6-10. that later got made into a different concept that emphasized a spiritual, rather than physical, afterlife.

      • Avatar
        NogardJ  January 15, 2020

        Thanks for your response.

        How do we know that the author of Colossians isn’t using language for deification? The language of deification would presuppose a spiritual birth in Christ and a gradual becoming god through grace that has happened and is continuing to happen.

        The passages – “has delivered us from the authority of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son.”, “you were also raised in him through faith” … God “made you alive with him” … “if then you have been raised up with Christ”, can point to deification not physical resurrection, can they not? If so, how are these passages this not in line with Paul’s teaching on deification?

        I know few, if any, protestant theologies teach deification, but the Orthodox Church certainly does.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 15, 2020

          Yes, he may well be. The idea was certainly advanced by early theologians most Protestants otherwise have little problem with, such as Irenaeus. And of course the idea that at death people become angels is very old, and for most early Jews and Xns, that’s a form of deification (since they are heavenly beings, not mortals)

        • Avatar
          Erik Nelson  February 22, 2020

          The “already but not yet” aspect of The Kingdom of Heaven is explained by the Parable of the Mustard Seed (cp. Papias’ memory of a similar statement about “the vine” growing until it had 10,000 branches with 10,000 shoots with 10,000 clusters with 10,000 grapes)?

          What was present in the 1st century was the “seed” which was “planted” — even as Jesus Christ’s body was “planted” in the ground of the tomb

          From then on, the “seed” grew into a world-wide Church comprising two billion persons

  20. Avatar
    Duke12  January 15, 2020

    Others have mentioned Colossians 1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,To God’s holy people in Colossae …” (NIV). Never noticed that before!

    Is it possible (or plausible) that Paul and Timothy collaborated on the epistle or that Timothy wrote it “as Paul” kind of like Plato writing “as Socrates”?

    (doesn’t explain the other presumed non-Pauline letters, of course)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Yes, I talk about that in the book. Paul certainly wrote his letters “with” others. But he’s the one who put pen to papyrus, as is evident by the fact that he will sometimes to move to the first person singular pronoun. So the other is providing moral support and agreement, but it’s Paul’s writing. See, for example, right off the bat: Colossians 1:24. Or more obiously read Philippians 1:1-2 then 1:3!

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