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Why I Wish We Had More of Paul’s Letters

In the previous post I began to answer the question of which lost books of early Christianity I would most like to have discovered, and I started my answer with the earliest writings of which we are familiar, the letters of Paul, most of which (presumably) have been lost.  I would love for us to find some of them.  I doubt if we ever will, but who knows?  Maybe someone will announce that one is to be published later this year!

Seriously, we would all love to have more letters from Paul, and not merely for sentimental reasons (Oh, wouldn’t that be *nice*?).   Paul is without a doubt the most important figure in the Christian tradition next to Jesus himself.  His writings have served as a basis for Christian ethical and theological thought for centuries.  And yet we know so little about what he thought and taught.

When people read Paul’s letters, they frequently neglect to realize that these are all “occasional” writings.  By that I do not mean that Paul occasionally wrote letters, but that Paul wrote his letters for particular occasions.   The letters are addressed to situations that have arisen in his churches that need to be addressed, problems of belief and practice.  When a church was having problems in one area (whether they knew it was a problem or not) Paul dealt with it in a letter – since he couldn’t be there to deal with it in person.

With the partial exception of Romans, that’s what Paul’s letters are: attempts to deal with problems as they have occurred.   But what that means is that these letters are NOT systematic expressions of Paul’s thought, where he picks a topic and explains what he really, and fully, thinks about it.   You will look in vain in these letters for a detailed and systematic exposition of Paul’s doctrines of God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit and so on; or Paul’s teachings on important ethical issues.   Whatever the problem is at hand, he deals with, often rather succinctly.

It is a huge mistake when readers – including scholars who should know better – try to…

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Paul’s “Exceptional” Letter to the Romans
Lost Christian Writings: The Letters of Paul

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Comments

  1. Aleph82
    Aleph82  March 12, 2015

    I wonder how modern Christians would handle a discovery of an authentic from Paul, especially if it contained blatantly unorthodox views. I’m not sure how the Catholic Church would handle it – other then they would do an infinitely better job of managing it’s impact than the Evangelicals. I have a pretty good idea what THEY would do. Still, I’d kind of like to see them squirm as they deny the new discovery’s authenticity while maintaining belief in the authenticity of the forgeries in the canon.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2015

      My sense is that if it contained blatantly unorthodox views most people would say that it wasn’t really written by Paul (even if it was!).

  2. Avatar
    joks  March 12, 2015

    Professor Ehrman,
    I have heard and read you to say that we have copies of copies of copies of copies of the Gospels. Are we any better off with Paul’s letters or any other books of The New Testament?

  3. Avatar
    tom.hennell@btinternet.com  March 12, 2015

    So when the author of 2 Peter writes in chapter 3;

    “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”

    can we link this to the letters we know; or are these the ones that may have since been lost?

  4. Avatar
    spiker  March 12, 2015

    “Maybe someone will announce that one is to be published later this year!”

    Ahh, but then it would be changed to 2 years from then!

    “But one might wonder, if it’s true that other letters were not deemed worth keeping – or in fact were deemed worth destroying – what made them that way?”

    Perhaps they contradicted what some forger wrote in Paul’s name.?

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  March 12, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    What is the earliest collection of Pauline letters we have? Did it differ from the one we have incorporated in the New Testament?

    thx

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2015

      Our earliest *known* collection of Paul’s letters was Marcion’s, who had ten of our letters, with the exceptions of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  March 13, 2015

        Interesting. I’m wondering if Marcion doubted the authenticity of the Pastorals or simply wasn’t aware of them. No way to ever know I guess. It is interesting that our earliest collection lacks them though. Are there theological reasons do you suppose that Marcion might have rejected them even if he had known of them? (Or was he just such an expert greek stylist that he could tell they weren’t the same author?)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 14, 2015

          It surely wasn’t because he did a stylistic analysis. But whether he didn’t know of them or didn’t approve of them — there’s no way to know!

  6. Goat
    Goat  March 12, 2015

    I have seen a number of authors state that x,y or z was not likely a part of the early Christian tradition if not mentioned in Paul’s letters. Examples include the virgin birth and miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. Does this blog mean that you would give little weight to such arguments?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2015

      I think you have to gauge the probabilities on a case-by-case basis, judging on the grounds of what Paul *does* say and, just as important, on whether a Jesus tradition would have been a convenient datum to appeal to (had he known it) in order to make one of his arguments.

  7. James Harmon
    James Harmon  March 12, 2015

    Mr. Ehrman, I have been a little perplexed about something you state in Forged. I know It’s not your most recent work but this has been on my mind for a year or two now. You state in Forged that Acts is a forgery because there are a few places where the author goes into first person descriptions, which is where the writers got the name for the Gospel of Luke. I also know that Luke is considered anonymous. My question is, that since Acts is considered a forgery and we know that Acts is the second volume of Luke’s gospel, why can’t we claim the same thing about the Gospel of Luke. Even though it doesn’t specifically state that he is the author, the inferences are certainly there. Unless acts is written by a different author than that of Luke, it seems to be a valid criticism.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2015

      I guess technically speaking you can’t call Luke a forgery because it does not, itself, make a false authorial claim; only Acts, written by the same author, makes that claim.

      • James Harmon
        James Harmon  March 13, 2015

        How about personal opinion then? When you say the words ‘technically speaking’, I get the sense that you may have a different personal view (based on.your ‘true story’ conversation with your children). My view is that since Acts is a forgery, so is Luke by proxy. If the Author of Luke intended to make his work a 2 volume set and intentionally deceived his readers in Acts (he did), it stands to reason he did at least some of those things in his first volume. Although authorship isn’t named, it’s implied through his second volume. Maybe my thinking is completely wrong. But that’s why you’re here. To help folks like me try to wade through the scholarship.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 14, 2015

          My personal opinion is that for the sake of clarity we need to be rigorous in our definitions. If a book does not claim to be written by someone other than the actual author (even if another book by this authors does make this claim) then in my view it is not a forgery.

  8. Avatar
    MikeyS  March 12, 2015

    Its a great pity Jesus didn’t hang about for another 30 years and then his followers wouldn’t have needed Paul. Maybe tongue in cheek but its a reality check about an emerging faith that had more questions than answers and still have today. Maybe more so as there would have been so few articulate educated people around to point out the errors in his theology and doctrines. His friends obviously had slaves as he said be kind to them and to know your Lord and Master etc. How can this possibly be ground breaking teaching of morality? Sorry but its all overblown and almost irrelevant by todays standards of morality. Nobody in their right mind could argue that adultery can be the only reason for divorce and shows a complete lack of understanding about marriage and about homosexuality. Two of the most important issues and they got it so so wrong.

    Bart, I’m not sure we would have learned that much more had we had a thousand letters from Paul.

    Same theme throughout.

    Jesus had to die for your sins because God demanded that.

    He is coming back shortly, and before many have died including himself probably.

    Stop quarelling and behave yourself and don’t slide back into the world.

    Obey your leaders and share your wealth around everybody.

    Women be subservient to your husbands but don’t get married unless you are sex mad and btw don’t speak in church and wear a hat!

    Keep the faith!

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  March 12, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, there is a problem with the Pauline Letters.

    While Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed (therefore, not giving Jesus the benefit of prophecy, gospels are dated after AD 70) 2 Thess, not an authentic letter of Paul says a lawless one will exalt himself to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is a god. This happened during the Jewish Revolt. Therefore, this letter of Paul is written after AD 70, unless we can come up with incident prior to that.

    1 Cor, 5: 7 speaks of Jesus as a paschal lamb sacrificed and 2 Cor, 3: 6 speaks of a new covenant, from authentic letters of Paul. The Gospels include a rationalization of why Jesus must be sacrificed and an interpretation of his crucifixion as sacrifice, and Communion representing a new covenant. The Gospels were written after AD 69. If Paul was attacked by Jews for telling Gentiles they did not need to be circumcised, the New Testament should also tell us that he was attacked for teaching the body and blood metaphor for remembrance of Jesus (paschal lamb) and for saying the Jewish covenant with God was null and void and a new covenant was needed. Paul could not have gotten away with this unless Temple authorities were too occupied with Civil War and the 1st Jewish-Roman War or slightly later when the Temple was gone. Therefore, 1 Cor. and 2nd Cor. need to be dated after AD 69, after Paul died.

    Either we re-date these three letters or we say they were redacted after AD 69.

    Your comments would be appreciated.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2015

      I”m afraid I’m not following your logic. We don’t know if Paul was attacked for these things or not.

  10. Avatar
    Jason  March 13, 2015

    I bet we’d be disappointed if we did find more letters that could absolutely unequivocally be linked to Paul. It would probably be the equivalent of a big book of Nantucket limericks but written by Tony Robins.

  11. Avatar
    paraowil  March 13, 2015

    Dr. Bart, what do you think about those studies (e.g. Trobisch) which attempt to trace back to Paul himself as a possible editor of his own letters?

  12. Avatar
    jmmarine1  March 13, 2015

    I would LOVE to see about twenty of Paul’s *other* letters!

    You should schedule another debate with Dan Wallace. He can then intimate, but not confirm, that he is working with a team that plans to publish these lost letters sometime in 2017; no doubt, all 1st century mss.

  13. Avatar
    NW  March 13, 2015

    Great article, Dr Ehrman! If neither Paul nor anyone else at that time saw a need to write out a systematic expression of their thought on Christian doctrine (at least that has been preserved, but I highly doubt it), maybe it’s because they would never think of some book in the future (the Bible) being the absolute, infallible, inerrant standard for everything in life and doctrine…especially since Paul expected the imminent return of Christ.

    If “God” intended for the Church to be a bunch of fundamentalists clinging to their Bibles, I would’ve expected to see one or more of the apostles being “inspired” to create a systematic expression of Christian teaching. Or if Jesus was creating a new religion called Christianity, rather than bringing in the end of the age (as he thought), surely he would’ve provided a systematic expression of inspired teaching for this new religion…or new stage of religion.

  14. Avatar
    Rosekeister  March 14, 2015

    For the study of early Christianity, would it be more interesting to have writings of Paul’s opponents?

  15. Avatar
    Servelan  March 15, 2015

    Is there any way to guesstimate how many ‘other’ letters Paul may have written via references in the ones we know he did?

  16. Avatar
    Sharon  March 17, 2015

    What are your thoughts that if Paul did not dedicate his work of spreading Jesus’ teachings, as well as many of his own, the possibility of a Christian religion today?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      I think Paul was very important, but I don’t think he was exclusively responsible for the spread of the church.

  17. Avatar
    Slydog1227  March 19, 2015

    Ahhhh…but do you think he is exclusively responsible for the current Christian doctrine of the church? I’m sure he tried to instill the basic tenets of the teachings of Jesus, but In your opinion, is modern Christianity really a misnomer for Paulianism?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2015

      No, I don’t think Paul invented Christianity. Maybe I’ll post on this at some point. Others were proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection before him. But certainly the kind of Christianity Paul advocated seems different from the religion of Jesus himself.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2015

    Thanks for the explanation of “occasional” letters which mean that we should not search for a systematic theology in these letters. Of course, the big question is why did the early Christians save some of the letters and not others for inclusion in the Bible?

  19. Avatar
    madmargie  April 27, 2015

    There is always the possibility that they were destroyed somewhere along the way. If they didn’t agree with some group’s theology.

  20. Avatar
    rickyw  September 2, 2015

    I have a question mostly. I know that there are seven letters which are accepted as Paul’s genuine letters. Also there are six letters allegedly by Paul which are considered as forgeries. Also Hebrews was falsely attributed to Paul. My question is simple. How do we know that Paul actually wrote these seven letters and that they aren’t forgeries like the six which are regarded as forgeries. It seems that all we can really know is that the author who wrote the seven letters accepted as Paul’s letters didn’t write the six which are rejected as forgeries. What is the actual evidence, however, that this write is actually Paul of Tarsus? This question has always bugged me but I have never seen anything on why we believe these seven letters are Paul’s. Thanks for the great articles.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2015

      Good question. Short answer: these seven appear to cohere in theme, theological outlook, and writing style to make them appear all to go back to the same author, and their concerns seem to be those that make best sense in the time Paul would have been writing (unlike the other six). And so these appear to go back to Paul.

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