Bart D. Ehrman, in his book Forged writes about the letters to Timothy attributed to the Apostle Paul:

Both letters have words and phrases in common not found in any of the other letters attributed to Paul: the ‘promise of life’, ‘with a pure conscience’, ‘from a pure heart’, ‘guard the deposit (of faith)’, Paul is an ‘apostle, herald, and teacher’, and so on. What is striking is not only that these phrases and many others like them are found in these two letters, but that they are found only in these two letters.

From a historical grammatical critical point of view, what would have prompted Paul to use such phrases in his private letters to trusted fellow workers and not use them in his public letters to churches addressing specific difficulties?

The letters themselves claim to be written by Paul:

Paul, an apostle...Unto Timothy (1 Tim. 1a & 2a)

Paul, an apostle...To Timothy (2 Tim. 1a & 2a)

  • could you clarify what you mean by "literary evidence." For example, does it include uses of supposedly anachronistic church offices such as bishops and presbyters, or is it limited to grammar and style? Also what about inconsistency of teaching about the role of women in the church and relations between men and women in marriage? Oct 3, 2022 at 1:33
  • Dan, those two other issues are brought out in other questions. My focus is on the words that Ehrman brings up in the specific paragraph mentioned.
    – Jess
    Oct 3, 2022 at 2:41
  • I’m voting to close this question because it is not about the text itself, but Bart Ehrman's opinion of the text. It might be best served by being asked on the Christianity SE or migrated there. Oct 4, 2022 at 20:05
  • 2
    I respect James' opinion, but personally take the view that well scoped questions on critical scholarship about authorship of distinct texts is a better fit for this site than C.SE. I'd see this type of subject as On Topic, but am open to other views.
    – Steve can help
    Oct 5, 2022 at 22:13
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    Michael16, please list the unique phrases Bart uses and put it in your answer. It's really good answer! 👍🏼 But this concept of closing a question because it's stupid (poor quality) or easy to answer is really a discussion stopper for any number of questions. Who is really to say what is a stupid question? Bart Erhman is considered a highly respectable scholar on Wikipedia, whether you agree with him or not. His thoughts are worth evaluating.
    – Jess
    Oct 20, 2022 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


Yes, an alternate interpretation exists.

Ehrman himself acknowledges that Paul wrote his letters through an amanuensis (scribe). In antiquity the "author" was not the person who scratched the symbols onto a scroll--that was the scribe--the author was the person who decided what was going to be said, and under whose authority the final draft was approved and published.

(The letters of Cicero provide much historical insight into the role of scribes)

Based upon a comparison to Acts, those who accept that 1 & 2 Timothy are genuine Pauline letters generally date them to after AD 62, late in Paul's ministry, and after the composition of all of the other Pauline letters (except for Titus). It is therefore likely that the scribe(s) Paul is utilizing for these letters is/are not the same as the scribe(s) used in his earlier letters. 2 Timothy 4:10-11 explicitly acknowledges that almost all of Paul's associates have left him. If Paul is utilizing a different scribe, and allowing the scribe to put Paul's ideas into flowing prose (as Cicero himself often did when authoring a letter), it should come as no surprise at all that the vocabulary and style of 1 & 2 Timothy differ from many of Paul's other writings.

As for content, even today the message a preacher gives in a public sermon will differ from the advice given in a private letter.

The Patristic writers, who had a more solid grasp on ancient Greek (when it was a living language) than anyone today, had no difficulty accepting that the man who authored Romans could also have authored 1 & 2 Timothy. For example, Polycarp quotes the epistles to Timothy 5 times, which is difficult to justify if the epistles were *forgeries written during Polycarp's lifetime.

*Note that if Paul did not write these letters, they aren't just collections of Pauline ideas by his fervent admirers (as some suggest Hebrews may be), they would be outright deceptions, given the personal details included in the letters. The forger wouldn't have just been trying to teach a Pauline theology, but would have been actively and intentionally trying to convince people--falsely--that these were real accounts of the actions of Paul & his fellow-laborers. A faithful disciple of Paul would be more likely to stick to the theology (such as in Hebrews); only a forger would have incentive to insert fictitious biographical details into the letters.

  • I upvoted this. But I do wonder how much Paul might have still made stylistic variations to his letters without ghost writers being involved. I suppose its like the music world - e.g. Cat Steven's wrote "Morning Has Broken" with Rick Wakeman actually composing the music, but not being credited on the album.
    – Jess
    Oct 3, 2022 at 2:47

In answering this question, it is important to consider authorial intent. In some ways these types of "form critical" objections are parallel to how Shakespeare's works are often disputed. For a defense of the authorship of Shakespeare's works, see David Kathman's site, Shakespeare Authorship.

Based upon the mostly undisputed letter of Paul to the Corinthian's, it appears that Paul's authorial intent in choosing styles of communication was to work at effective communication. For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:

To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law...To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some.

In general, this philosophy might explain Paul's use of short, pointed sentences at times while, at other times, writing in sentences that are long and complex.

In his introduction to The Jewish War Josephus writes that he wrote two different versions of "the war of the Jews against the Romans" The first version he says was "in my vernacular," that is, in Aramaic, "for the up-country barbarians." While we don't have both versions, an intriguing possibility exists that there were variations in style between the two versions that was very substantial.

In the field of marketing, the use of "buzz words" to target selective social niches is very important. Paul, with a little help with his amanuensis (scribe), might have deliberately utilized textual outliers, such as "promise of life...with a pure conscience...from a pure heart...guard the deposit of faith," as forms of an idiolect or "buzz words" that Timothy could especially connect with. Paul calling himself an apostle, herald, and teacher would also be examples of utilizing different styles of vocabulary and rhetoric that is varied according to the recipient(s) of the communication process.

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