As far as I can tell, St Paul quoted from the written Gospel of Luke. And since St Paul died in AD 67 or thereabouts, the Gospel of Luke must be younger than that. I’ve also reached the conclusion that what “critical scholars” say to overturn this observation is a whole lot of not very much based on even less.
It doesn’t matter if Luke wasn’t written early
Nothing important stands or falls on the question of whether or not a Gospel was written in the 50s, 60s or 80s.
There’s no theologically important reason why I must be motivated to say that any of the Gospels were written early. Plenty of conservative Christians think that John’s Gospel was written in the 90s, for example. Any concerns that a Gospel written in the 70s or 80s is too late to contain reliable testimony is just mistaken. If we were talking about one person who saw something forgettable writing from his own memory forty or fifty years later (e.g. “now let me think, what did that graffiti that I saw on that day say…”), then sure, this sort of timeframe might be a problem. But in the first place nobody thinks that’s how the Gospels were composed, and secondly that’s (mostly) not the sort of thing the Gospels record. The Gospels were compiled from sources, traditions of existing testimony brought together into four records, three of which in particular (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have overlapping sources. Those traditions pre-date the final written Gospels by decades and consist of eyewitness testimony.1 And while my recollection of the specific wording of graffiti forty years ago – something I wasn’t particularly interested in at the time – is likely to be pretty bad, my recollection of important events that were striking to me at the time and have been important to me ever since (for example, who was the woman in white at my wedding, and what did she say when the minister asked her if she takes me as her husband?) is likely to be pretty good even decades later. So nothing important stands or falls on the question of whether or not a Gospel was written in the 50s, 60s or 80s.
Still, it’s nice – fun in a wicked sort of way actually – to be able to show that a Gospel was written early. Critics of the reliability of the Gospels like to think of their authorship being as late as possible in order to increase the distance between the account and the alleged event, strengthening the narrative according to which the Gospels consist of legends that sprang up during the intervening decades. There’s a certain pleasure in pointing out to them that not only do the dates generally accepted in liberal New Testament scholarship today not present any interesting problems in regard to reliability, but actually the dates of authorship may be a whole lot earlier and the insistence on late dating is based on very little of substance. This is what made John A. T. Robinson’s book Re-dating the New Testament so scandalous. Robinson was hardly an outspoken conservative, and he wrote during a time when liberal New Testament criticism ruled the roost in academia. Robinson contended that the proverbial emperor had no clothes and that the widely accepted view that the New Testament books were composed late was a theory without foundations.
But it looks like Luke was written early
So, there’s the backdrop against which I write this. I don’t have to say that the Gospels were written early. There’s widespread consensus that Mark was written early, but not such consensus for the others. But here’s a thought: St Paul, while he was writing his Epistles, appears to have known what was written in the Gospel of Luke. I say “appears to have known” because I’m open to alternative explanations, but on the face of it, this is how it looks. If you think I’m wrong, show me why.
Here is why this appears to be the case. This is an excerpt from Paul’s first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:17–18):
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The labourer deserves to be paid.”
Paul claims to be quoting from scripture. But which parts of scripture is he quoting from? The first one is easy. “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” comes from the Torah, in Deuteronomy 25:4. What about the second quote, “the labourer deserves to be paid?” or more literally, “the worker deserves his wages?” (the NRSV from which I quoted often alters the sentence to remove reference to gender). Is it anywhere in the Hebrew Scripture? What about the Septuagint? Nope, nowhere. Was there any Jewish writing at the time that contained this saying and which might have been regarded as scripture? No. So what was he quoting from when he claimed that this is something contained in scripture?
Here’s a quote from something that Christians today regard as Scripture: “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid.”
And there it is, the elusive phrase. This is from the Gospel of Luke (10:7), where Jesus is giving his disciples instructions before sending them out. So how did Paul know about this saying being in Scripture? Remember that St Paul is believed to have died in AD 67.
Looking for a way out
One easy answer is to say that the Gospel of Luke copied from St Paul. That would explain why the saying appears in both books, but it doesn’t at all explain why Paul would quote this saying as something contained in scripture.
You might be tempted to say that Paul’s letter was tampered with and this quotation was smuggled in by Christians after the Gospel of Luke was written. But this would have been a wholly unmotivated thing to do. Christians had no reason to say that Luke’s Gospel had been written early if it had actually been written in the 70s or later. They were not facing down critics who alleged that the Gospels were written late and are therefore unreliable, and in any event they could have simply dismissed the argument on the grounds that a Gospel written down in the 80s is not too late. There is also no evidence of a textual variant in 1 Timothy 5:17–18 showing that this quotation has ever been lacking. All the evidence shows that this quotation has always been present in Paul’s letter.
You might want to say that perhaps Paul was referring to the testimonies about Jesus that were circulating before the Gospel of Luke was written. This isn’t impossible and there is little doubt that Paul knew of such testimony, but it is very unlikely that this is what he means here, given that Paul said that this saying was contained in scripture, γραφὴ (graphe) in Greek, a term that specifically means something written. This would be unprecedented for Paul, who uses γραφὴ numerous times, and always to refer to something in writing, as he did in his next letter to Timothy and in other places (Romans 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; Galatians 3:8, 22; 4:30).
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture (γραφὴ) is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
2 Timothy 3:14-16
Perhaps you’re so certain that Luke was written later that Paul’s quotation forces you to say that 1 Timothy must have been written late, and therefore not by Paul. But if this is the move you make, the tail is wagging the dog. Your position that Luke was written late is controlling how you read the evidence that is materially relevant to the question of when Luke was written.
Did Paul write 1 Timothy?
“The majority say this” is useful knowledge but it is not a serious argument.
Here is where you might be tempted to make the sort of gesture I see so often on the topic of the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus), and say “but the majority of scholars say” that they were not written by Paul or during his lifetime, they were written later. Here is where I want to vent a bit of frustration and some New Testament scholars. I’ll try to be brief, but I must make a detour into the question of the authorship, as it is related to the issue of dating. “The majority say this” is useful knowledge but it is not a serious argument. In spite of the number of New Testament scholars who say that Paul did not write the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus), the more I look the more I think there is very little reason to doubt that he did write them.
I’ll focus just on 1 Timothy as that’s where the salient quotation appears. 1 Timothy cannot, in my view, be treated as a letter that was stated to have been written by Paul on the understanding – an understanding the first readers were supposed to have – that really it was written in the tradition of Paul. In this view we have a student or disciple of Paul writing some years after his death to an audience who knew the letter wasn’t coming from Paul, but rather was consistent with Paul’s teaching, both to the church and to the writer. The contents of the letter really don’t allow us that option. Not only does the letter claim to have been written by Paul (“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope”), but it purports to have been written by Paul to Timothy, who was in fact Paul’s companion in the book of Acts (“to Timothy, my loyal child in the faith”). The writer refers to his own travels with Timothy, at one point travelling to Macedonia and urging Timothy to remain in Ephesus (1:3). The writer claims Paul’s past as a persecutor of the church prior to his conversion (1:12-13). If the author was not Paul, then they were not presenting themselves as a disciple writing in a manner consistent with Paul; they were fraudulently claiming to be Paul.
The arguments against Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles come down to these: They relate events that seem to fall outside of Paul’s life as related in the book of Acts, they have a markedly different writing style from Paul’s other letters, and, it is alleged, early Christian sources treat the pastoral epistles differently. I’ll try not to dwell on the issue too much, but I’ll discuss each of these.
According to this objection, the real Paul had no opportunity to do what 1 Timothy says he did. As Knight explains:
1 and 2 Timothy place Timothy in Ephesus and 1 Timothy has Paul going to Macedonia (1:3). In Acts Paul does travel to Macedonia from Ephesus (Acts 20:1), but Timothy has not been left behind in Ephesus but sent ahead to Macedonia (19:22). Furthermore, Timothy accompanies Paul on his journey to Jerusalem (20:4).2
This objection, if it is supposed to be effective, must assume that if the author is Paul, then he must have written the pastoral epistles during the period of his life covered by the book of Acts. But why think this? Acts does not record the death of Paul so there is no obvious reason why he couldn’t have gone to Macedonia after his two-year period of house arrest in Acts 28:16ff. There are grounds for thinking that he was released (rather than dying during house arrest) and left Rome, both because of the reference to a fixed period of remaining in the house where he was and, say some, the use of the aorist in Acts 28:30. Early church testimony also affirms that Paul was released from house arrest in Rome (see Knight’s commentary for some discussion of this). This would mean that Paul’s imprisonment during the writing of the pastoral epistles was later in his life than the house arrest recorded in the book of Acts, and his trip to Macedonia would fall in between these imprisonments. It is possible that his trip to Macedonia occurred during the book of Acts but was not mentioned (as with other events, like Paul’s lashings as recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:34), but we need not maintain this.
There is corroboration of this explanation in Paul’s description of his time in prison. In the “prison Epistles,” written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, Paul was anticipating his release and to return to Philippi and Asia (Philippians 1:19, 25, 26; 2:24; Philemon 22). His imprisonment while writing the pastoral epistles, however, is difficult (2 Timothy 1:16-17) and he expects that he will soon die (4:6). If Paul’s expectations in the prison epistles were correct, then he was released, after which point, after which, at some point, he went to Macedonia and left Timothy in Ephesus, an event he recalls from his later imprisonment shortly before his death.
So there is no serious problem for Pauline authorship on the grounds that they record events not mentioned in the book of Acts.
The main argument to which people appeal for ruling Paul out as the author of the pastoral epistles is that the style of writing is very different from the other Pauline letters. This was an argument first advanced by Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century. We are shown counts of how many times different words are used in the other letters that bear Paul’s name, and then we are shown that the pastoral epistles look different in terms of word choice. We are told that ideas are framed differently, the way ideas are connected to their justification looks different in the pastoral epistles, and so on.
Even very fine New Testament scholars, I think, are here relying on arguments that are not difficult to address, as far as I can tell. For example, a scholar as good as I Howard Marshall repeats the argument that the style and vocabulary of the pastoral Epistles are similar to each other and distinct from the other letters attributed to Paul. He is right to repeat it because he is surveying the arguments against Pauline authorship, and this is probably the most frequently used argument. Marshall notes one explanation of this hypothesis, the one that I think makes best sense: That Paul was working with the same secretary or colleague when these letters were produced, and he allowed that person significant leeway. Marshall summarises and apparently rejects the explanation (albeit gently) as follows:
There is a possibility that the details of a composition are due to a colleague or ‘secretary’ who was given a rather free hand by Paul. Here again the effect is to ‘rescue’ [the pastoral epistles] for Paul at the cost of denying that he himself was responsible for their contents. They have his blessing but not his mind. Nevertheless, a faithful secretary would doubtless have attempted to keep as far as possible to the kind of things that Paul would have said.
The difficulty here is that this procedure is different from that of Paul as we know him; there is a homogeneity about his authentic letters which shows that he dictated them himself and added his signature at the end. However, there is the possibility defended by some scholars that Colossians was produced in this way. There is also the problem that no secretary or co-author is mentioned in the [pastoral epistles], not even a messenger who is responsible for bringing the letters to their destination.3
But the amanuensis theory does not imply that Paul was not responsible for the contents of these letters. Not, at least, in the sense in which a person is normally responsible for the content of a letter that they agree to have their name affixed to. And this broader sense of responsibility is not a high price to pay (if it is a price at all).
An amanuensis / secretary / colleague would explain why the pastoral epistles have a very different style from the other Pauline Epistles, as well as the fact that the letters so obviously claim to have been written by Paul and to relate events from Paul’s life as though they were the experiences of the author. Here is where we have to perhaps think a little more broadly about what it means to say “Paul was the author.” Suppose a boss asks his secretary to write a letter thanking employees for their hard work over the previous year. She writes the letter and shows it to him for review. “Not bad, I like it. Oh, could you change this sentence here, and also mention that thanks to their efforts, we’re expanding into Asia next year.” The boss might not have chosen and typed all the words, but still, nobody is lying if they say the letter is from the boss. The letter will not reflect the boss’s normal way of expressing himself, but it is his letter nonetheless.
If you could see my private correspondence and compare it to my public blog posts, you’d see some major differences.
What is more, the pastoral epistles not only have a different audience from Paul’s other letters, they have a different type of audience. The whole exercise of counting the number of occurrences of different words or analysing just how the writer orders his thoughts on the page is based on the – in my view wholly misguided – assumption that we should expect there to be no obvious difference between the way Paul writes a letter that is supposed to be presented to the whole gathered church (e.g. Romans or Ephesians) and a letter written to be read by an individual (namely, all of the pastoral epistles). That this marks a non-arbitrary difference between the pastoral epistles and the other Pauline epistles seems not to be even mentioned in the various critical analyses of how these letters are unique. If you could see my private correspondence and compare it to my public blog posts, you’d see some major differences. You have no trouble believing that, I am sure, so why think anything different of Paul when it comes to the difference of his letters for a church compared to his letters to individuals. If Paul – like me and like many people, I expect – wrote differently when writing to individuals from when he write letters to be presented to the wider church in terms of word choice and style, we have a good explanation for why Paul might structure his thoughts and speak differently in the pastoral epistles.
Attestation in the early church
Some critics make the argument that the second-century heretic Marcion (d. AD160), although he had high regard for Paul’s writings, did not have the pastoral epistles in his canon of the New Testament. This was an observation made by Tertullian: “I wonder, however, when he received (into his Apostolicon) this letter which was written but to one man, that he rejected the two epistles to Timothy and the one to Titus, which all treat of ecclesiastical discipline.”4 Consequently, it is urged, the pastoral epistles were not regarded as legitimate in Marcion’s time. This is a dubious argument. Firstly, we already know that Marcion was perfectly willing to simply remove any parts of the New Testament that he did not like. He excluded all the Gospels except Luke, of which he had a butchered version, and he excluded numerous other books of the New Testament. As Falconer explained, due to Marcion’s repudiation of the law and the God of the Jews, “He would object to such statements as i Tim. i. 8, vi. 13, 20, 2 Tim. iii. 16.”5
What is more, orthodox sources earlier than Marcion appear to show that they knew of the pastoral epistles and regarded them as scripture. There is widespread agreement that Polycarp (in approx. 120) and Ignatius (who died between 98 and 117) used them. 1 Clement (96) uses language and thoughts that are very similar to the pastoral epistles. After discussing difficulties in supposing that Clement came before the pastoral epistles, Falconer concluded that “The most probable explanation of the similarities, both in ideas and in language, between the Pastorals and 1 Clement is that the former, as they now are, were known to Clement.”6 Citing Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Clement as examples, George Knight says that “By the time of Irenaeus (second century), when NT books are being quoted by the author’s name, the PE are definitely regarded as Pauline.”
Paul wrote this letter
These, as far as I can tell, are the main arguments against Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles. This is as good as the arguments get. I have made it my business over the last couple of weeks to scour as many decent sources as possible (so not internet ramblings) and to ensure that I understood the case against Pauline authorship. So while I know that you can make a sweeping hand gesture and assure us that “most critical scholars” do not believe Paul wrote 1 Timothy, I know what their reasons are, and now you do too. There are not many reasons and they are not very good, in my view. I grow weary of seeing one after another writer on the subject making confident claims about what most scholars know, as though they were somehow offering an argument against Pauline authorship of these letters. There’s no compelling reason to reject the claim of 1 Timothy to have been written by Paul. If you want to maintain that Paul is not the author, you would need to come up with a new, better reason for saying so, although it is difficult to see why anyone would wish to do so (why would anybody have an interest in Paul not being the author?).
So, here is where we are: At some point prior to his death (which is when people tend to write letters) in AD 67 or thereabouts, St Paul quoted from Luke’s Gospel and called it “scripture.” But pretty obviously, you can’t quote from a book unless the book exists. Consequently, the Gospel of Luke must have been written and had time to become recognised by the early Christian community as bearing witness to the life of Jesus prior to AD 67.
So Luke’s Gospel was probably written in the 50s or 60s. If I’m wrong, tell me why.
- For a compelling defence of this description of the written Gospels as collections of eyewitness testimony, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
- George Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992, electronic edition).
- I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London: T & T Clarke, 1999), 64-65.
- Against Marcion, Book 5, chapter 21.
- Sir Robert Falconer, The Pastoral Epistles: Introduction, Translation and Notes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1937), 2.
- Falconer, The Pastoral Epistles, 5.