The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity

Work by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, credit Wikipedia

Benjamin P. Laird, The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity: its Formation, Publication and Circulation. Hendrickson Academic (2022). Pp. i-xx, 1-371. $59.95. Reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Revisions of doctoral dissertations are not necessarily a pleasure to read. In this case, however, B.P. Laird (henceforth BPL) has published a useful contribution to Pauline studies. After an introduction that surveys what will follow, there are six chapters and three appendices. His writing is clear, although at times he contradicts himself, as he subtly does in the below quotation. Even so, his research in this book is founded upon a set of well-studied beliefs:

‘I will consider a large body of internal and external evidence which together supports the conclusion that at least three major archetypal editions of the corpus—those containing ten, thirteen, and fourteen letters—were formed and designed as early as the first century and certainly no later than the mid-second century. It will further be suggested that these major archetypal editions circulated simultaneously for many years until collections containing fourteen writings became widely recognized no later than the fourth century. Although it is unlikely that the most primitive edition of the Pauline corpus contained all fourteen of the writings traditionally associated with Paul, it will be suggested that each of the fourteen writings originated either with Paul or with those who were members of the early Pauline circle, and that many of these writings were likely composed much earlier than is often assumed in modern scholarship’ (p.4 my italics)

The book follows a circuitous orbit around the above statements. If three different editions were extant in the earliest era of Christianity, and if real proof shows that they were utilized, it proves that equal standing should be given to the three reading traditions. Therefore it is unnecessary to doubt the prevalence of the fourteen writings in the most primitive edition ascribed to Paul.

There are six chapters, three appendices, a bibliography, and two indexes. BPL’s approach is comprehensive. The first chapter looks at literary conventions in the first century. He refers to the writings of Cicero, Seneca, Ignatius and others. His familiarity with those letters is not analytical. The aforesaid writers penned their own texts. And Paul did not arrange his letters for publication. The value of this chapter is diminished by the fact that no study of any author’s literary style or a letter’s structural form is given. He writes of those ‘who enlisted the services of a professional scribe or trained slave often included a personal note in their own hand at the end of letters’ (p.36). But where in Paul’s letters is a professional scribe or trained slave mentioned or utilized? Nothing is known socially of those who occasionally aided him in composing his thoughts.

In chapter two, and in more than 70 pages, BPL examines various textual witnesses to the early state of Pauline writings. An excellent appraisal of p.46 (Chester Beatty papyri) appears. Readers will find the amount of information on these pages imposing. But more should have been said about codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, seeing that they are the foundations of so many modern English translations of the New Testament. He acknowledges that the titles of the Pauline letters were recognized universally among early Christians (p.84).

Chapter three is no less lengthy. Anyone interested in what Patristic era authors stated regarding the Pauline corpus will be content with the data given. The critique of the early witnesses to Paul’s letter-writing activities herein is antiquated, however. Merely citing for/against positions is not a true critical examination of facts and ideas. In fact, on page 116, he simply echoes claims that Second Peter differs from First Peter in style etc., claiming a later first century date for its composition while repeating its alleged ‘literary dependence on Jude’. But on page 119 he states that ‘there are elements in the text of 2 Peter that are more consistent with an earlier date…’. He should choose a position and argue accordingly.  The connections mentioned between First Clement and Second Peter are tenuous.

In chapter four BPL focuses on the reception of the Pastoral epistles and Hebrews. This section is attractive in every way. Following D. Allen’s lines of reasoning, he assumes the truthfulness of the claim that the language of Hebrews is similar to Luke’s Gospel. But he goes further, asserting that the author of the Hebrews submitted the work to Paul for approval (p.232). Neither Barnabas nor Timothy need to be mentioned in the discussion of authorship. They left behind no authentic literary remains. The reading of all these quotations of scholarly debates are like parlour games. Rarely are linguistic investigations employed. The wildest speculations are rampant, and the conclusions for 200 years of critical study have been the same: ‘Paul did not write it, but someone who was linked to him, did’. In any case, why not simply ascribe the book to “Paul” with quotation marks and move on? Indirectly, this is what each critical scholar does, being unable to resolve issues related to Greek similarities and dissimilarities within the texts.

Who was Hebrew’s originator? The issue of authorship at present is severely one sided and appears to be decidedly against Paul. I find it worth noting, though, that the consentient view of the believers throughout ancient Christendom leaned towards the Apostle Paul as the author. And it seems odd that the four names often mentioned as against Pauline authorship: Origen (c.184-253AD), Tertullian (c.160-220AD), Hugo De Saint Victor (1096-1141AD), and M. Luther (1483-1546), have not themselves been critically examined for the genuine worth of their own theories on the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews. This is in marked contrast to Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215AD), Chrysostom (c.349-407AD), Jerome (c.347-420), Augustine (354-430), L. Valla (d.1457) and J.L. d’Etaples (d.1536), all of whom believed in Pauline authorship and were equally reputable as scholars. In fact, Origen, who is cited by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist:.6.25.11-14) as saying that only God knows who wrote the epistle, stated in the previous sentence–in Latin–that all churches that affirm Pauline authorship are to be commended for doing so (also in Origen’s writings he quotes from Hebrews more than 200 times and usually attributes the verses to Paul). The Eastern Church, on the other hand, always presumed Pauline authorship. For a treatment of this view—with extensive citations of Eastern Church Fathers, see The Epistle to the Hebrews (1982) by Fr. T.Y. Malaty of the Coptic Church of Alexandria Egypt translated into English by Ferial Moawad (1997). As for the Ethiopian and Syriac churches, they sent no delegates to the ecumenical councils whose agreements yet dominate the Western churches. Thus the resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon (451AD), and the ones which preceded it, are irrelevant to their traditions and have never been binding upon them. These divisions have affected how biblical scholars are educated.

Historian Martin Hengel (1926-2009) once lamented that New Testament scholars tend to be too narrowly trained; knowing little more than the 680 pages of the New Testament Greek and having little acquaintance with ancillary material (vid. ‘Tasks of New Testament Scholarship’ in Bulletin for Biblical research 6 (1996), pp.67-86). Therefore the biblical field is languishing because of ahistorical philological methodologies. Any casual study of Philemon yields a useful harvest of results: namely, more than 97% of Philemon’s words, forms and syntactical arrangements are also found in Hebrews. As far as style is concerned, the final salutation-sentence of Hebrews 13 is written exactly as the final salutation in the last line of Titus chapter 3. As a further example, one should note another feature concerning a work, Prometheus, traditionally ascribed to Aeschylus, but one whose authorship now is seriously called into question. Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones stated “No one can deny that a case against authenticity can be made, and for the foreseeable future there are likely to be a number of people who feel confident that Aeschylus cannot be the author. There are also likely to be others who suspend judgement: a limited quantity of material is available to us, and a great poet may vary his technique according to his subject-matter;” (The Further Academic Papers of Sir Hugh Lloyd Jones (2005): p.179). That Paul could “vary” his technique is a theory, I believe, that lies beyond the “faith” of most critics of the epistle to the Hebrews, but it is a theory I cautiously maintain.

In chapter five BPL assesses the scholarly theories pertaining to the formulation of the Pauline corpus: i.e. the hypotheses of E. Goodspeed, John Knox, C. Leslie Mitton, L. Mowry, J. Murphy-O’Connor, G. Zuntz, E. Lovering, T. Zahn, and B. Childs etc. He acquaints readers with their positions. It is not easy to sum up all the aforenoted scholars’ scholarship in a few individual paragraphs. BPL tried but in the end no confirmable conclusions about the corpuses’ development may be drawn from all the pages written.

The final chapter, six, is a rigorous treatment of the formation of the Pauline corpus according to extant evidence. It offers BPL’s own view of how the Pauline letters came into being as a set of documents. He begins with the 7-church tradition, which restricts the scope of the corpus to the epistles connected with the seven churches or communities of that day, like the ones mentioned in John’s Apocalypse. It is a novel theory, highly unlikely though. He then mentions ten-unit and thirteen-unit collections, even the fourteen-unit one. He submits six observations that demonstrate why the fourteen-unit collection was in circulation fairly early in the history of the early Christian communities. The reasons he gives are more or less the same as had been mentioned in previous chapters.

The author argues forcefully for Luke as the editor of Pastoral epistles and of the work of Hebrews, again citing similarities in writing styles (p.303-4). What exactly are these correspondences? Readers are not told. The few pages he gives on the lost letters of Paul were needless.

Further criticisms: in too many instances BPL cites specialists without adequate criticism of their views. Often his own conclusions are devoid of textual evidence. He trusts scholarly consensuses far too much. It is not true, as Laird asserts, that ‘it was common for first-century writers to enlist an amanuensis (secretary) to assist with the composition of the work’ (p.17). A study of extant writings from the Hellenistic age would prove his claim to be inaccurate.

This volume, nonetheless, is a vital resource for coming to terms with how Pauline writings were formed, received and circulated in the earliest Christian communities. It should certainly be procured by Pauline scholars whose predilections favor less than liberal approaches to the reading of Pauline epistles. The citations are exhaustive and exhausting to read. Numerous notes could have been abbreviated. This whole book constitutes a great canvas that the author used to depict his innovative thoughts on the Hebrews’ reception and its origin.

Classicist Darrell Sutton is a frequent contributor to QR

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1 Response to The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity

  1. David Ashton says:

    Do you recommend a GOOD critique of Marcion including specifically Harnack’s view of the Pauline corpus? Also the BEST recent work on the date of the Synoptics re John (I have the book by John Robinson and Craig Keener’s FG Commentary)?

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