Gerald Bray is Research Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. He has recently published the International Theological Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles with T and T Clark. I asked him about the contribution of the Pastorals to our understanding of Paul, theology and ministry.
IP: The so-called Pastoral Letters of Paul are often marginalised, both in the church and in scholarship, in part because they are perceived to be at some distance from the ‘centre’ of Paul’s thought. What do you think the Pastorals add to our understanding of Paul and his view of ministry?
GB: The common search for a ‘centre’ to Paul’s thought is rather unfortunate, in my opinion. Paul was not so much a theologian as a correspondent, sending letters as and when they were needed to meet various circumstances. It is only natural that those circumstances should vary from time to time and from place to place. If we take the view that the letters were part of his ministry, then it seems to me that it is that ministry which is their proper ‘centre’, and if that is the case, the Pastorals have at least some claim to being the most central letters of all.
The Pastorals are addressed to individuals rather than to churches, although it is clear from their contents that they were meant to be read to the churches too. They show that the apostle envisaged a structured ministry in the congregations that he founded, and that the primary duty of that ministry was to remain faithful to the original message of the gospel. They demonstrate that Paul was not a hit-and-run evangelist, but someone with a clear strategy who looked towards the future as well as dealing with the present. They also show that he was concerned with every aspect of congregational life and believed that he had a message for all the different groups that could be found in a local church.
IP: Historically, academic scholarship has been sceptical about Pauline authorship. What do you think are the main arguments for these letters as genuinely written by Paul? Are these arguments now gaining traction in the academy?
GB: Historical doubts about the authorship of the Pastorals go back no further than Friedrich Schleiermacher, who claimed that 1 Timothy was pseudepigraphal. Before that time their authenticity was never questioned, and they are quoted or alluded to as early as the second century, well before most of the other New Testament books.
Doubts about Pauline authorship are based on their style, which is rather different from most of the other Pauline letters, and their content, which is said to reflect a post-apostolic phase of the church’s development. It is also claimed that there are a number of words in them that were not in circulation in the first century, though that is difficult to prove and epigraphical evidence has shown that this is not really the case. Most of the vocabulary is now known to have been in use in Paul’s day, even if it is not present, or not very frequent, in literary texts of that period. The ancient literary tradition is generally conservative, so we must not take the first appearance of a word in a particular text as an indication that the word did not exist before then.
The arguments for Pauline authorship are many. First, the fact that the letters differ to some degree from the other Pauline writings may either indicate that Paul was using a different secretary (amanuensis) or that he was writing them himself – my preferred solution. A pseudepigrapher would take care to sound as Pauline as possible, and would probably avoid such obvious giveaways as writing to individuals instead of to churches, as Paul generally did. It is also hard to see why a pseudepigrapher would go to the trouble of writing three separate letters, instead of just one. 1 Timothy and Titus, in particular, are similar enough that it seems strange that anyone would indulge in such unnecessary repetition. There is also the fact that the letters were written at a time when the organisation of local churches had not progressed beyond what the apostles themselves knew. If they had been written at a later time their anachronisms would have been obvious to the recipients. The situation described in them would either have been of post-apostolic origin (and known to be so) or no longer relevant, which would have removed any purpose in writing the way Paul did.
If the letters did not circulate before the second century it might be possible to argue that the first readers were distant from the time of Paul himself and ignorant of the circumstances in which he ministered, but what about Timothy and Titus? There would surely have been many people still alive who would have known them, and been able to vouch for the authenticity (or otherwise) of the letters. The texts themselves point to a much earlier date than has generally been accepted, and of course, the further back this date is pushed, the more likely it is that Paul himself was their author.
The academy has been slow to get to grips with the problem of authorship and for the most part, New Testament surveys are content merely to repeat the received ‘consensus’. But those who have studied the texts most closely – William Mounce, Luke Timothy Johnson and Philip Towner – all agree on Pauline authorship, despite their different approaches and backgrounds. It is not too much to say that those who have worked most closely with the texts are the ones who are most convinced of their Pauline origin. The ‘academy’, however one defines it, ought to take note of that.
IP: Ben Witherington makes the case, on the basis of style and grammar, that Luke had a hand in the writing of these letters. Do you think that this is a persuasive suggestion? Why (not)?
I am agnostic about this, for the simple reason that there is no evidence one way or the other. Luke and Paul worked closely together at different times, so Luke may well have been involved in writing the Pastorals. Who can say? Style and grammar are difficult to use as ‘proof’, partly because of the amanuensis question and partly because colleagues often end up talking much like each other, especially when they are together for months and even years on end. I am inclined to doubt Luke’s authorship (assuming they are pseudepigraphal) because Luke would not have needed to hide his identity in that way. In the Acts of the Apostles he did not hesitate to tell the world what Paul said, thought and did, so why could he not just have said something like: ‘Before he died, Paul told me this…’ and gone on from there?
IP: Evangelical interpretation of 1 Tim 2:11-15 has been deeply divided for some time. What are the main interpretive issues here? Do you think there is a possibility of rapprochement for interpreters on either side of the divide?
GB: Evangelical interpreters have been divided since the 1970s (or so), but almost entirely because of the issues raised by feminism and women’s ministry in today’s church. Some are prepared to say that Paul (or more likely the pseudepigrapher) was simply wrong about women and can be ignored on the subject. Others think that he was a man of his time and writing for people who shared his general outlook on life, but that this is no longer where we are today and so we must read the text in the light of wider developments foreshadowed though not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, which they call its ‘trajectory’. Their favourite comparison is with slavery – we do not advocate that today, but (usually) accept that it was a reality in ancient times that the apostles had to live with, even if they might have preferred something else. Then, of course, there are those who cling to the traditional line and continue to interpret the text as it has been read for centuries.
My view is that the text must be read as it stands, whether we like what it says or not. Paul’s view of the relationship between men and women is based on two theological principles. The first of these is creation and the second is the fall. The man was created before the woman and the woman was the instrument Satan used to deceive the man. This is straight out of Genesis 2-3 and should not occasion any disagreement. The male is given certain leadership responsibilities, but (as the fall demonstrated) he is weak in some ways, particularly in his susceptibility to the female, and he must be protected against this. The Bible is full of examples of great men brought down by the seduction of women – Samson, Solomon, Ahab and so on. Once again, this seems incontrovertible to me.
The real question is whether, or in what way, this teaching should apply to the church’s ministry today. We must remember that if we dissent from Paul’s teaching on the subject, we are rejecting the Biblical world view of creation and the fall, and if we do that, we are denying the gospel of salvation too, because salvation is the remedy for the fall and operates within the context of creation.
I do not know what chance there is of a reconciliation between the opposing sides on the interpretation of this text, but I would suggest that unless we start with a dispassionate examination of what it says, we shall never get anywhere. The theological principles undergirding it need to be brought back to the fore, hard as that may be. We also have to get away from the emotionally-charged issues surrounding the role of women in the church, which is not easy either.
IP: Your commentary is in the T and T Clark ‘International Theological Commentary’ series. What is contributed by a ‘theological’ interpretation of Scripture, and in particular of the Pastorals?
GB: ‘Theological commentary’, rather like ‘Biblical theology’, means different things to different people. To me, it means that there is a coherent mind and message in the Biblical texts, and that particular passages reveal one or more aspects of that. The Pastoral Letters cannot be interpreted on their own, as if the rest of the Bible did not exist. Paul was obviously basing himself on the Old Testament and even says so explicitly (2 Tim 3:16). A theological interpreter must therefore seek out what the universal world view of Scripture is and interpret particular texts in the light of that. (See my remarks on 1 Tim 2:11-15 above for an example of what that entails.) He or she must also remember that God is eternal and that his mind does not change. This means that earlier generations of commentators have a right to be heard – reliable interpretation did not begin with the Enlightenment. It also means that there must be a level of understanding that is still meaningful today and that will remain so until the end of time, since past, present and future are one in the mind of God. Finally, theological interpretation must consider the texts as divine revelation and accept that in the final analysis, God is revealing himself in and through them. That is the perspective that I have tried to maintain in my commentary – to know God and to make him known.
GB: The church today needs to remember that it is a fellowship of those who have been called to the marriage feast of the Lamb, for which we are being made ready. We are children of God, born again into a new world in which the old human way of thinking has been overturned. There are different roles in the church and godly order requires them to be played by the right people, but ultimately the criteria for all church members are basically the same. We are all called to be godly men and women, living in a way that does justice to our profession of faith. Paul does not talk about the overseer (episkopos), the deacons or even the widows in terms of their function, but puts the emphasis on their spiritual character, which is essentially the same in all cases. They must be the right kind of people, and if they are, God can and will use them as he sees fit.
The church must also remember that it is liable to be led astray by good (but secondary) matters just as much as by openly false teaching. Genealogies were important to Jewish people and so it is not surprising to find them mentioned in the Pastorals, but they were a distraction from the main message and giving people a false sense of ‘learning’ when they were ignorant of the most basic truths of the gospel.
The church must also learn that its duty is to ‘guard the deposit’ handed down to us from the apostles, and not move off in new directions that were unknown to (and would have been repudiated by) them. We do not have to be dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists, but neither can we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have to remember that in every generation there will be those who will try to pervert the gospel from within and we must stand against them. The traumas of the current church situation are too obvious to need rehearsing here, and we must stand firm against every temptation to dilute the message of salvation. Our numbers may drop as a result, but as Gideon discovered, it is better to have 300 crack troops than 1000 who are not prepared to wage the spiritual warfare that is our earthly calling.
What have I learned from the Pastorals? So many things! But I think the most important of them is that God cares about every church member because we all belong to him. Because of that, we also belong to one another. The apostolic teaching binds us together and liberates us for the tasks at hand. As a child of God I may be called to perform different functions in the church, but I have no right to think that I am better than anyone else, no right to lord it over them and no right to shirk my duty because I somehow imagine that I have been made for better things. To sum it all up, I have learned that the Pastorals are to a considerable degree an extended application of the principles enunciated in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and it is in the light of them that I try to interpret the plan of God, both for me and for my brothers and sisters in his family the church.
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