Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church

  • James Aageson
  • Jul 9, 2008
  • Series: Volume 11 - 2008

James W. Aageson, Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church. Library of Pauline Studies. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008. $24.95. 235 pp. ISBN: 978-1-59856-041-1.

The goal of the book can be stated succinctly: by assessing the letters in the NT alleging to come from Paul's pen, and the documents that emerge in the post- and sub-apostolic ages that evidence Paul's influence, we can trace the Pauline trajectory and distinguish what was truly from Paul's pen from what emerged from his developing legacy. Obviously, the ever-controversial "Pastoral Epistles" are in the cross hairs of any such investigation. Were they, or any one of the three, written by Paul? Or can they, or any of the three, be shown to bear the marks of the ongoing legacy of Paul as his thinking was reinterpreted in the decades following his death?

Aageson is a professor of biblical studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. His methodology presumes that he can isolate and trace the textual character, the theological world, and the pattern of convictions and behaviors presented in the various literature, viz., the uncontested Paulines, the contested Paulines--especially the Pastorals--and subsequent books. Having done that, then he presumes that he can draw conclusions about the character and place of the Pastorals. That is, he seeks to show where the books fit on the spectrum: "written by Paul" <--> "reinterpretation of Paul for subsequent occasions."

He starts by identifying the theological patterns in the three Pastorals, treating the letters, wisely, individually. Next, he compares the major patterns from the Pastorals (though now, wrongly, he lumps all the data of the three letters together as if they are a monolith) with Paul, especially those letters usually seen as most closely related to the Pastorals: Philippians, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians. Finally for his analysis within the NT, he compares the themes of the pastorals with the other books (especially the view of Paul in Acts), posits how the Pauline canon emerged, and finally how Paul's theology was reinterpreted in the "deutero-Pauline Epistles": Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.

The method repeats, then, beyond the confines of Scripture into the post- and sub-apostolic writings that give evidence of the Pauline legacy. Aageson includes a chapter on the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla due to the special prominence it gives to Paul.

I must cite his conclusion in full:

The theological patterns generated by this discussion converge in support of the claim that the Pastoral Epistles were written most likely after Paul's death but before Ignatius of Antioch wrote his letters. These theological patterns are represented in the Pastorals by post-Pauline Christological language and development (savior, epiphany, and mediator language), different and also more mature ecclesial concerns (the household of God and qualities appropriate for leadership roles), and more fully expressed notions of correct belief and truth (the ‘good deposit'). [p. 206].

I praise Aageson for his helpful and often very insightful analyses of the many sources he investigates. It is useful to separate out the key themes within the Pastorals and to compare them to the various other literary documents that he investigates. His work is thorough. It's instructive to consider how Paul influenced later Christian writers and the emerging orthodox consensus.

But for all the virtues of such an enterprise, I think that his book suffers from several flaws. First, he begins with the assumption that there is a body of literature in the NT that is conveniently called "deutero-Pauline." Now that may be a popular and conventional position within the NT guild today, but one can hardly expect Aageson to be objective in his analyses when he already "knows" that some books in the NT, though claiming to be from Paul's pen were written by others--perhaps as long as decades later. In other words, I don't think he allows the evidence to stand on its own, or to allow his conclusions to emerge without preconditions. I suspect all along that he suspects what he will conclude!

Second, as hinted above, he lumps the three Pastorals together and pits them against the other literature, even though he states that he is not sure one writer was responsible for all three letters. If he had compared each of the three letters individually with the acknowledged Paulines, or the deutero-Paulines, he might have found closer affinities and been less confident about consigning all of them together to the latter category. At the least, he may have concluded that one of the letters was genuine. That never was an option.

But, third, the most significant flaw in the book is the virtual complete failure to consider sufficiently the unique historical contexts behind each (and they were different) of the Pastoral Epistles that might account for their distinctive theological and lexical patterns. In my quotation of his conclusion above, careful readers will detect precisely those time-honored objections to the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals that were first enunciated by Schleiermacher (in 1807) and have been repeated over several centuries now with little reexamination. The uniform testimony of the first eighteen centuries of biblical scholarship is ignored without any examination or explanation. What is the value of isolating the textual character, the theological themes, and the pattern of convictions and behaviors evident in the Pastoral Epistles without assessing whether the specific situations of the readers and the occasions of the letters demand these very elements? And if so, could such situations and occasions occur within the life and ministry of Paul himself and not be relegated too facilely to some nebulous post-Pauline era? Is it so difficult to posit within Paul's lifetime the kind of church structure envisioned in 1 Timothy? What is so "post-Pauline" about stressing the need for qualified overseers and deacons in view of the errors of the false teachers?  Does this betray an overly structured, "early catholic" ecclesiastical structure? Given Paul's stress on salvation language in his letters, why would the use of "Savior" be so out of character for the historical Paul if such a term best suits his purposes (to take several examples)?

In short, what appears to be a useful journey turns out to be a cul-de-sac: we end up where Aageson started.

William Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
July 2008