How Does Authorship Affect Inspiration?

“Did Paul write the pastoral epistles, or was it a Pauline School he left behind? Was Matthew written by the apostle or by a community? If the epistles were not written by Paul, and Matthew was not written by the apostle, what difference does it make? How does the fact that the true authors are not the ones we have always thought affect the Bible’s divine inspiration?”

Paul wrote the pastoral epistles. Matthew wrote the gospel that bears his name. Rather than my providing the argumentation to establish these claims, I would direct you to a standard evangelical New Testament introduction, such as that of D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris. There you will find not only the traditional views of authorship laid out with scholarly rationale but also the contemporary critical views rebutted.

If these books of the New Testament canon were not in fact written by Matthew and Paul it makes a difference to the modern church in at least two ways. The first consequence of denying the traditional authorship has to do with authority.

In the case of Matthew, as Professor Ehrman has pointed out in his latest book, Forged, the problem is not that the author of the canonical-order first gospel lied about authorship. The gospel that we know as Matthew makes no claim as to its author but was published anonymously. The issue, however, is whether it is authoritative for the church. And with this question, we come to the very heart of Professor Ehrman’s book.

The ultimate forgery for the Bible is that Christians have claimed for centuries that it is the Word of God. If there is no God, as Dr. Ehrman has argued in God’s Problem, at least to establish agnosticism, then of course there is no word of God. How one answers the question, “Is there a God?” has huge impact on the authority one attaches to writings that claim to have been inspired by him.

Jesus illustrated this connection between authority and identity in his interaction with the religious leaders of Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life (Mark 11:27-33). They ask him by what authority he cleanses the temple, and he replies with a question of his own. “John’s baptism–was it from heaven, or from men?” They realize that they cannot answer without revealing their opinion of John’s identity as a prophet. If he were a prophet, then they would have had to submit to him as a spokesperson for God, which they clearly had not done. On the other hand if they say John’s baptism was a merely human idea, they would incur the wrath of the people who nearly universally held that he was a prophet.

If John were a prophet then all people would need to obey his words as the words of God. In the same way, Jesus, according to the New Testament writings, identified “the Twelve” as “apostles” who would be his commissioned and authorized agents. The claim in the gospel that bears John’s name is that the Twelve would produce the New Testament (John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:12-13). The “apostles” are the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament “prophets.” Paul’s authority, which he zealously defended, was predicated on his identity as an apostle (II Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 1-2). If, therefore, the gospel traditionally called “Matthew” were not apostolic, it would not be authoritative.

The second critical matter at stake in the authorship question is veracity. I Timothy claims it was written by “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1:1). II Timothy and Titus begin with the same claim. I completely agree with Professor Ehrman in his view that writing a letter and passing it off as written by someone else more famous in order to gain a wider hearing is ethically wrong. I further agree that such falsification was understood to be wrong in the early Christian world by Christians, Jews, and pagans alike. So, if in the pastoral epistles we have a supposedly well-meaning Christian from well after the time of Paul’s death acting as though he is Paul, the apostle (“I am telling the truth, I am not lying,” I Timothy 2:7), and writing for “the truth that leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1), then surely, as Tom Hanks says in the film, “Apollo 13,” “Houston, we have a problem.”

Professor Ehrman believes that Christians do indeed have that problem. “The use of deception to promote the truth may well be considered one of the most unsettling ironies of the early Christian tradition” (Forged, p. 250). I do not believe Christians have that problem, because I believe that the ascriptions of apostolic authors or sponsors to the anonymous books of the New Testament are true ascriptions not false, and because I believe that all the New Testament books that make a claim of authorship are, in Professor Ehrman’s word, “orthonymous” (i.e., rightly named).

David Bowen, PhD
Vanderbilt University