Introduction to The Pastoral Epistles
THE TERM “PASTORAL EPISTLES” has been applied, since the eighteenth century, to the three letters from Paul to his two coworkers and envoys, Timothy and Titus. The name reflects the central concern in these three epistles for the internal life, governance, and behavior of Christian communities and their members. Scholars have long debated whether these letters were written by the apostle Paul himself, or by a later disciple who sought to provide guidance for Pauline churches in new times and places. While most scholars today regard them as pseudepigraphical (that is, ascribed to the authority of a major figure, but not actually written by him, a custom well attested in ancient literature), there is not complete unanimity on the question. The conclusion that these three epistles were not written by Paul is based upon literary, historical, and theological criteria. First and Second Timothy and Titus share a common Greek vocabulary and style that diverges in many ways from the other Pauline epistles. Historically, the Pastoral Epistles presume an institutionalized leadership in local communities and internal dissent over faith and practice, which perhaps better fits a period late in the first or early in the second century CE when Paul was no longer alive. The epistles may have been written in Crete or Ephesus, both mentioned in them. Theologically these letters minimize or lack characteristic Pauline themes (such as justification by faith, or the church as the body of Christ) in favor of a new emphasis on adherence to tradition and regulation as signs of the Christian piety they seek to inculcate in their readers. Although Timothy and Titus had been Paul'strusted associates for decades, the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus present the recipients as needing basic instructions for community leadership. Second Timothy is less concerned with regulating the life of Christian communities than Titus and 1 Timothy. It has been described as a “testament,” the last words of the apostle to a close associate. It looks forward to the difficulties facing Timothy and others after Paul'sdeath with foreboding.
Recent challenges to the pseudepigraphical nature of all three letters have come from scholars who argue that each should be judged separately, that the letters contain fragments of original Pauline material, or that the very concept of “authorship” of a Pauline letter requires nuance, given that Paul used secretaries and served as a member of a cooperative missionary team. Neither is there scholarly unanimity about which other letters are certainly authentic, nor which parts of those are most tellingly “Pauline” for comparison with these epistles. Each reader should consider the evidence about the authorship of the Pastorals cumulatively, first as a question of historical fact—did Paul write them or not? Then, and separately, one should reflect on the interpretative and theological implications of such a decision, for the denial of Pauline authorship may or may not entail a loss of authoritative status for that document within a particular religious community.
Regardless of authorship, the Pastoral Epistles share a common rhetorical strategy: Each is addressed to a single individual among Paul'scoworkers, but also has in mind a wider circle of readers. In each the author presents himself as a Paul who speaks as an unambiguously authoritative figure of the past to church leaders and members of later generations who did not know him personally.