When and How was the Pauline Canon Compiled? An Assessment of Theories

  • Stanley E. Porter
Part of the Pauline Studies book series (PS, volume 1)


There are three periods in the development of the Pauline canon: the period during which the letters were actually written (whether by Paul or by later authors), the period during which the letters were gathered into a corpus, and, finally, the period of transmission during which the texts of these letters were firmly and finally established and used by the Church.1 There is some, almost inevitable, overlap between these three periods. For example, for those who do not believe that Paul wrote all of the letters attributed to him (that is, probably the majority of New Testament scholars), the period during which the letters were actually written is an extended period that clearly overlaps with the period during which the letters were gathered, as will be discussed below. However, despite some of this apparent contiguity of the developmental periods, I find it perplexing to note just how little significant insight into this overlap there is in the scholarly discussion. As an example, it is not uncommon for those who are concerned with the authorship of the Pauline letters, even those who discuss the purportedly pseudepigraphic letters, such as Ephesians or the Pastoral Epistles, not to enter into serious discussion of the gathering together or collection of the Pauline corpus, even though theories regarding pseudepigraphic authorship are often directly related to how the gathering togethether of the letters took place—for example, the pseudepigrapher is often thought to be dependent upon knowing some of the authentic Pauline letters. Similar comments can be made about those who are concerned to describe the transmission of the Pauline letters. Often discussion is about the transmission of a particular letter (or parts of a letter, when purportedly composite letters are discussed, such as 2 Corinthians or Philippians), or, more usually, the transmission of a particular textual variant unit (such as the doxology of Romans in 16:25–27)—almost as if a Pauline canon did not exist (apart from the necessary reference to manuscripts that sometimes have other Pauline letters in them, such as that designated P46, etc.). Even for those relatively few scholars who are convinced of widespread interpolation into the Pauline letters (to say nothing of composite letters), previous discussion has usually been of individual books, rather than of the larger Pauline corpus.2 Discussion of the process of gathering the letters is often kept completely apart from that of the role that the letters have played in the Christian Church.3 However, even though integrated study of all three dimensions is clearly necessary, there have been relatively few such dedicated studies.


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  1. 1.
    This is similar to D. Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994 ), 50, but without prejudging the role of Paul in the collection. Cf. now also his The First Edition of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 ).Google Scholar
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    According to Guthrie (New Testament Introduction,657), it was proposed by R.L. Archer, `The Epistolary Form in the New Testament’, ExpTim 63 (195152), 296–98, that, using Seneca as his model, Paul kept copies of his letters (p. 297).Google Scholar
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    E.R. Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (WUNT 2.42; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), esp. 164–65, 187–88; followed by E.E. Ellis, `Pastoral Letters’, in G.F. Hawthorne, R.P. Martin, and D.P. Reid (eds.), Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 660; idem, Making of the New Testament Documents, 86, 132, 297.Google Scholar
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    This seems to include Ellis, Making of the New Testament Documents, passim,who apparently wants to maintain a thirteen-letter corpus, with Paul as its originator.Google Scholar
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    It must also be noted that Richards’s theory that Paul made copies of his letters does not necessitate Paul as the direct instigator of the collection of his letters, as Richards himself clearly notes in his advocacy of a secretary hypothesis.Google Scholar
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    This passage can be used, however, by those who argue for authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles, such as Richards (Secretary,164–65) and Ellis (Making of the New Testament Documents,86, 297, but who also cites 1 Cor 5:19ff.).Google Scholar
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    Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection,56 on Cicero, Fam Bk 13, and 73–86 on the Corinthian letters; Murphy-O’Connor, Paul,127. Murphy-O’Connor (Paul,118) contends that Richards’s theory of a secretary using Paul’s copies cannot account for those letters that are composites. Murphy-O’Connor clearly assumes that theories of composite letters are proven.Google Scholar
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    Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection, 48–50; idem, Die Entstehung, 84–88. The distinction goes back to G.A. Deissmann (Bible Studies [trans. A. Grieve; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901 (1895, 1897)], 3–59; `Epistolary Literature’, in T.K. Cheyne and J.S. Black [eds.], Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religious History, the Archaeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible [4 vols.; London: A. & C. Black, 1899–1907], 2.cols. 1323ff.; Light from the Ancient East [trans. L.R.M. Strachan; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 4th edn, 1927 (1910)], 224–46), but is now seen to be overdrawn, at least in much English-language scholarship. For representative recent examples, see D.E. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (LEC; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987 ), 161Google Scholar
  130. L.T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 251. Trobisch does not seem to know of the English-language scholarship that has questioned Deissmann’s categories, at least as reflected in his references in Die Entstehung.Google Scholar
  131. 92.
    Trobisch himself distinguishes between a letter being sent and hand delivered by the author, a particularly doubtful distinction, in the light of letters being seen in epistolary studies as a substitute for the personal presence of the author. See H. Koskenniemi, Studien zur Idee and Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n. Chr. (Suomalaisen Tiedeakatemian Toimituksia B.102.2; Helsinki: Suomal-ainen Tiedeakatemia, 1956), esp. 88–127.Google Scholar
  132. 93.
    S.K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity ( LEC; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986 ), 19.Google Scholar
  133. 94.
    Murphy-O’Connor, Paul,12–13.Google Scholar
  134. 95.
    Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection,13, who dates it to around AD 200. Trobisch appears to have modified his position since Die Entstehung (pp. 26–27 and n. 60), where he contends that the 200 date is not so certain and argues instead for the third century.Google Scholar
  135. 96.
    See F.G. Kenyon, The Text of the Greek Bible (rev. A.W. Adams; London: Duckworth, 3rd edn, 1975 [1936]), 70–71.Google Scholar
  136. 97.
    See Duff, 1346 and the Pastorals’, 578–90.Google Scholar
  137. 98.
    Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection,22.Google Scholar
  138. 99.
    Schmithals, Paul,254, citing the Muratorian canon (is this evidence for its early date?), Marcion, and Tertullian, Marc 4.5 and Haer 36.Google Scholar
  139. 100.
    See Gamble, Textual History, passim; J.A. Fitzmyer, Romans (AB 33; New York: Doubleday, 1993 ), 55–68.Google Scholar
  140. 101.
    Trobisch’s argumentation (Paul’s Letter Collection, 71) is difficult to grasp. He seems to assume that Romans 16 is a cover letter on the basis of there being many ancient examples of such letters (the one example he cites is from the third century AD). He then gives two characteristics of the cover letter, one that it is not addressed to the same place as is the original letter, and the other that it most often would mention the enclosed copies of the letter. Thus, he must take Rom 16:22 as `I [Tertius] copied the letter for you’.Google Scholar
  141. 102.
    Best, Ephesians,66; Zuntz, Text of the Epistles,276. It would be a dubious argument to claim that once the first four letters are removed, then Ephesians stands at the head of a collection. There is still the objection that the content of Ephesians itself it not appropriate as such a letter.Google Scholar
  142. 103.
    See M. Kiley, Colossians and Pseudepigraphy (BibSem; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986), 46–47, who argues that Paul mentions `financial transactions on behalf of his mission’ in the seven authentic letters.Google Scholar
  143. 104.
    See Murphy-O’Connor, Paul,128, who uses such information in terms of his collection B.Google Scholar
  144. 105.
    On the issue of the particularity of the letters and the problems related to collecting the Pauline letters, see Dahl, `Particularity’.Google Scholar
  145. 106.
    Schmithals, Paul,256.Google Scholar
  146. 107.
    Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection,20.Google Scholar
  147. 108.
    Murphy-O’Connor, Paul,125.Google Scholar
  148. 109.
    Murphy-O’Connor (Paul,123) dismisses this as `an error without historical significance’.Google Scholar
  149. 110.
    Murphy-O’Connor (Paul,124) again dismisses this transposition as `an insignificant error’. Cf. Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection,17, where he claims that 5146 in its entirety is arranged according to length, with Hebrews placed before 1 Corinthi-ans so as not to separate the two Corinthian letters.Google Scholar
  150. 111.
    Zuntz, Text of the Epistles,263–83.Google Scholar
  151. 112.
    A possible exception is the numbering of the chapters in B 03 Codex Vaticanus. But, as Trobisch notes (Paul’s Letter Collection,21–22), it is only the numbering of the chapters that places Hebrews after Galatians, since the books themselves are written with Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians. Contra Murphy-O’Connor, Paul,123–25.Google Scholar
  152. 113.
    This pattern is thus found not only in modern arrangements of the Pauline canon (Bruce, Canon,130 n. 50), but in ancient times as well.Google Scholar
  153. 114.
    This is not the place to defend at length the hypothesis that all of these letters qualify as personal letters of sorts, except to note that Philemon is typically considered a personal letter even if it is more than that (J.A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon [AB 34C; New York: Doubleday, 2000], 23), and that much of the dispute over authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles concerns the personal elements found in the letters and the fact that they are addressed to individuals associated with Paul’s mission (see E.E. Ellis, Paul and his Recent Interpreters [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961], 49–57, for an older but representative survey of opinion). See now also J.T. Reed, `To Timothy or Not? A Discourse Analysis of 1 Timothy’, in S.E. Porter and D.A. Carson (eds.), Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research (JSNTSup 80; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 90–118, who notes the clear indications of the personal nature of the correspondence addressed to Timothy.Google Scholar
  154. 115.
    I find Richards’s theory very plausible, in the light of practice in the ancient world, the nature of the Pauline correspondence, and the indications from the Pauline corpus as a whole. See also O. Roller, Das Formular der paulinischen Briefe: Ein Beitrag zur Lehre vom antiken Briefe (BWANT 4. 6; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1933 ).Google Scholar
  155. 116.
    Critical scholarship would, as noted above, endorse seven letters, but the above formulation suggests that there are structural reasons regarding the shape of the Pauline corpus for seeing all thirteen as authentic. Less likely is that nine letters are authentic, since that requires bracketing out an entire category of letters, the personal letters, in which at least one letter is acknowledged to be genuine.Google Scholar
  156. 117.
    See Guthrie, New Testament Introduction,655–57, for defence of Timothy. The relationship of this theory to the issue of the authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles is unavoidable.Google Scholar
  157. 118.
    See C.-J. Thornton, Der Zeuge des Zeugen: Lukas als Historiker der Paulusreisen (WUNT 56; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991 )Google Scholar
  158. Porter, Paul of Acts,187–206. It is even possible to accommodate the objection that this close companion assembled a number of smaller letters into larger ones, especially if he had been close to Paul and knew his mission strategy—this assumes that such a hypothesis is necessary.Google Scholar
  159. 119.
    See Dahl, `Particularity’, 265–66, who recognizes the problem.Google Scholar
  160. 120.
    I must confess to having lost sight of who first originated this analogy, and apologize for not making explicit reference to its source. The analogy, I believe, is so pertinent that I think it merits inclusion in any case, and I would welcome being informed of its originator so that I can include reference in any future reprint or use of it.Google Scholar
  161. 121.
    Walker, `Acts and the Pauline Corpus Reconsidered’, 63–70, following especially M.S. Enslin, “`Luke” and Paul’, JAOS 58 (1938), 81–90Google Scholar
  162. Walker, `Once Again, Luke and Paul’, ZNW 61 (1970), 253–71; and now with further evidence in W.O. Walker, Jr., `Acts and the Pauline Corpus Revisited: Peter’s Speech at the Jerusalem Conference’, in R.P. Thompson and T.E. Phillips (eds.), Literary Studies in Luke Acts: Essays in Honor of Joseph B. Tyson ( Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998 ), 77–86.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stanley E. Porter
    • 1
  1. 1.McMaster Divinity CollegeHamiltonCanada

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