Paul the Person, Paul the Personage

Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus—Bible Study Lesson 2

by Reta Halteman Finger

Saint Paul Statue in front of the Castel Sant’angelo in Rome
Saint Paul Statue in front of the Castel Sant’angelo in Rome

The other week my small group from church was reviewing our New Year’s resolutions from 2018. One woman had resolved to read through the New Testament during the year. But she got stuck on the letters because, “I really don’t like Paul!” she announced. Though wishing for more details, all it was possible to say at the time was, “Lots of people, especially women, don’t like Paul.”

Christian feminists who haven’t already tripped over 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-36, will probably stop dead in their tracks while reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15, along with various other statements in the Pastoral Epistles limiting women. Therefore, given the many differences between the undisputed letters of Paul and these writings, it can come as a relief to hear that they are likely pseudonymous (see Lesson 1). Unfortunately, Christian feminists may take that as license to ignore rather than wrestle with them.

More recently, however, some scholars are balking at a black-and-white definition that relegates 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus to the shadows. Instead, these scholars point out that, as happens so often in life, there are a few shades of gray. For starters, 2 Timothy is different from the other two letters. Rather than instructions on church order, it sounds like a farewell speech by the dying Paul to Timothy, his “beloved child.” David Barr notes that 2 Timothy 1:1-2:7 and 4:6-22 could be fragments of real letters from Paul (New Testament Story, p.195). But if the letter as a whole is meant to function as a “last will and testament” from Paul, the nature of that genre itself presumes that someone else is recording the words of the dying person. We can see that in other testamentary literature like the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (2nd century BCE) or the Testament of Moses (1st century CE), all part of the collection of Jewish writings called the Pseudepigrapha.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament literary critic, suggests that Paul himself may have shaped 1 Timothy and Titus to the literary style of royal correspondence, or mandata principis, “commandments of the ruler” (Johnson, Anchor Bible Commentary, pp.96-97). Paul Zehr leans toward the view that these letters “come from the mind of Paul through Luke, or one of Paul’s close associates, who did the actual writing.” He prefers Luke as the likely secretary, “since there is evidence of Luke in the writing style” (Zehr, Believers Church Commentary, p. 333).

In the Catholic Sacra Pagina Commentary, Benjamin Fiore, S.J., further analyzes the content of these letters regarding church organization and compares it with other early Christian writings which also reflect the structure of the developing church, such as 1 Clement and the letters of Ignatius. Fiore places the Pastoral Epistles around 80-90 CE, a couple of decades after Paul’s death in the mid-60s (Fiore, p. 20).

Jouette Bassler’s Abingdon commentary sees authorship as crucial to interpretation of these letters. Their theology, she says, is the most significant evidence of pseudonymity, such as the absence of God’s righteousness or the cross of Christ (Bassler, p, 17). She enumerates which of the various collections of early Christian literature include the Pastorals (another term sometimes used for the Pastoral Epistles), and which of the collections do not. For example, Papyrus 46 (often written with the scribal abbreviation, P46), is a collection of Paul’s letters dated about 200 CE, and it does not include these letters to Timothy and Titus. But these letters do appear in later major manuscripts, “except the reputable Vaticanus (B)” (p. 18). Bassler pushes the date of composition to somewhere between 90 CE and the mid-second century.

James Aageson’s commentary refers to an argument by Anthony Blasi, who uses the word charisma to contrast Paul as a person, with Paul as a personage. A “person” is a historical individual, but “personage” refers to her or his “public and charismatic persona constructed in the minds of other people.”  For someone like Paul to continue to be a personage, his “charisma has to be constructed anew for each generation” (Library of Pauline Studies, p. 8). This takes creativity and imagination.

This concept intrigued me as I thought about an insightful article by Dennis MacDonald called The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon. MacDonald contrasts the more conservative Pastoral Letters with the noncanonical Acts of Paul, an account which seems to pick up where Luke’s canonical Acts of the Apostles leaves off. The Acts of Paul includes the story of Thekla, a woman who refused conventional marriage to become a charismatic disciple of Paul. MacDonald sees both sets of writings coming from oral tradition and creatively shaped to meet the conflicting attitudes—both radical and conservative—of later Pauline communities. (For another example of such church conflict, see Elaine Pagels’s comparison of the radical Paul with conservative Elder John in my series on Revelation, Lesson 9.)

Aageson does not state his conclusion on authorship of the Pastoral Letters up front. Rather, he analyzes the patterns of argument in them throughout his commentary and shares his more complicated conclusion at the very end (pp 207-210).

These few examples give us a hint of the debate over authorship of the Pastoral Epistles that has been taking place for the past two centuries. To better understand broader principles of biblical hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), see the first seven lessons of the “Hermeneutics” series, which was published previously here on“Reta’s Reflections.” They will fill in some of the historical gaps and provide a feminist approach.

Now that we have examined the questions and disputes around the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, we’ll delve into the text itself in the following lessons.  Lesson 3 will focus on the first chapter of 1 Timothy.


Questions for discussion and reflection:

  1. What sources have you used to explain authorship issues in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus? Is the question of pseudonymity in our biblical canon an ethical issue for you?
  2. Should Christian feminists read the Pastoral Epistles with a greater “hermeneutic of suspicion” than the undisputed letters of Paul?


Sources used:

Aageson, James W. Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church. Library of Pauline Studies, General Editor, Stanley E. Porter. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.

Barr, David L. New Testament Story: An Introduction.: Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2002. Pp. 195-204.

Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries.: Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press,1996.

Charlesworth, James, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2.: Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1985.

Fiore, Benjamin, S. J. The Pastoral Epistles. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 12. Daniel Harrington, S. J., Editor. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The First and Second Letters to Timothy. Anchor Bible, 35A. General editors William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001.

MacDonald, Dennis R. The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1983.

Zehr, Paul M. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Editors Douglas B. Miller and Loren L. Johns. Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 2010.


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.