Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Composition of the Non-Pauline Epistles

It is striking how little we know about the authors, dates and circumstances of composition of the minor books of the New Testament.

2 Thessalonians

This epistle, with its concern for the eschatological Man of Lawlessness and the Day of the Lord, may bear witness to the revival of interest in apocalypticism in Jewish and Christian circles in the years after 70.  Unlike the ‘real’ St Paul, however, the author did not believe that the second coming was imminent; this may indicate that he belonged to the second Christian generation.

Summary: Date unknown, plausibly c.70-100.


It is inherently likely that Ephesians was composed at least after the death of the historical Paul, and hence after the mid-60s. It may have been composed some time after Paul’s career, since the key question of whether and how Gentiles were to be admitted into the Church is no longer a hot issue in the epistle, and the second coming is no longer seen as being imminent.

Interestingly, there are substantial similarities between Ephesians and Colossians in their language and structure. One may very well be dependent on the other: the case has been argued from both sides, but the argument for the priority of Ephesians seems more plausible. 

Summary: Date unknown, plausibly c.70-100.


See above. 

Summary: Date and author unknown.


The text’s references to the ongoing functioning of the Jewish sacrificial system imply, but do not prove, that it was composed before the destruction of the Temple in 70.  It has further been suggested that the strict morality taught by the ‘epistle’ (which is really a sermon) represents a temporary ethical code to be lived only until the second coming, and 10.24f seems to affirm that the second coming was regarded as being imminent.  On the other hand, a very early dating is made implausible by 2.3, which implies that the first Christian generation was already receding into the background.

Can the timeframe be narrowed down further?  The reference to persecutions at 10.32-34 has been linked with the Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of Jewish Christians from the city of Rome in 49.  It fits less well with the Emperor Nero’s persecutions of the mid-60s; but, on the other hand, it has also been linked with the persecutions of Domitian in the 90s.  The mention at 13.23 of ‘Timothy’, who is probably to be identified as St Paul’s companion of the same name, has been thought to indicate a date in the mid-60s, on the grounds that the epistle may have been written from Rome and there is reason to believe that Paul’s Timothy ended up in Rome at that time. Even if this speculation is wide of the mark, Timothy’s apparent closeness to Paul makes it likely that he did not visit Rome before Paul did so in the later 50s.

Some scholars have suggested that Hebrews was written in Palestine, but this seems unlikely.  It is written in quite elegant Greek, and both its writer and its audience stood at at least one remove from the original eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry (2.3).  The reference to "those from Italy" at 13.24 has been used to support arguments that the text was written either to or from Rome; we have already mentioned the potential significance of the mention of Timothy at 13.23.  It has further been argued that Hebrews has affinities from other texts probably written from Rome, notably 1 Peter and 1 Clement (a letter dating from perhaps the latter part of the first century which was not included in the New Testament; it is the first Christian document to quote from Hebrews).  On the other hand, Hebrews was much more popular in the east than in the west in the early Christian centuries, and Rome was one of the last places to accept it as a canonical work of scripture. This may indicate at least that it was not written to that city.

Though the ‘epistle’ is full of quotations from the Old Testament and references to matters of Jewish interest, some possible hints have been found that its readers included Gentiles. 

Summary: Written mainly for Jewish Christians at some point in the second half of the 1st century, perhaps around c.50-70.  The author came from the east and seems to have been writing either to or from Rome.

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus

The language of these ‘Pastoral Epistles’ is noticeably less biblical and more Hellenistic than that of the genuine Pauline letters, and there is possible evidence of an anti-Jewish theological position.  On the other hand, their grammar bears witness to both Semitic and Latin influences.

The epistles refer to specialised leadership-roles which are not attested in the authentic Paulines.  They provide the first evidence of local churches being governed by a single bishop, a development unattested elsewhere in the New Testament and mentioned first outside the NT in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c.110).  This is consistent with a date around the end of the first century. On the other hand, the seeming existence of a vibrant Jewish Christian movement may point to an earlier date.

There is some reason to believe that the author of Titus was influenced by Ephesians.

Some commentators have perceived similarities in style and thought between the Pastorals and the books of Luke and Acts, which were composed some time around the 80s.  Note that 1 Timothy cites as "scripture" a saying of Jesus (1 Tim 5.18) which also appears in Luke (10.7).  On the other hand, the language of 1 and 2 Timothy has some affinities with second century usage.

Summary: Date unknown, perhaps c.80-120


The epistle is addressed to ‘the twelve tribes [of Israel] in the Diaspora’ (1.1) and refers to Christians meeting in a ‘synagogue’ (2.2).  This suggests a Jewish Christian perspective, but the contents of the text as a whole are not distinctively Jewish in character.  The Jewish elements may have been an attempt to feign the persona of James the brother of Jesus.  The author was an accomplished Greek speaker who was familiar with the Septuagint.

The writer’s pointed references to wealthy Christians and the inappropriate deference accorded to them does not seem to fit well with the very earliest period of Christian history, though wealthy believers were already causing problems for the Corinthians in the early 50s.  Some scholars have claimed that James preserves, in comparison with the other NT epistles, an unusually large quantity of the historical Jesus’ teachings.  It has also been argued that James' theological argumentation only makes sense against the backdrop of a period later than Paul.

Finally, the letter dates from a period in which the Christian communities were being governed by "elders" (presbyteroi).

Summary: Date unknown, possibly c.70-100.

1 Peter

This letter is addressed to Christian communities in the eastern Roman Empire, and 4.3 suggests that its audience was largely composed of pagan converts. The fact that it was written in Peter’s name may (but may not) mean that it was composed in Rome, where Peter lived for a time and was martyred; it also has affinities with 1 Clement. It is written in good Greek and shows familiarity with the Septuagint.

1.1f, which resembles the opening to James and refers to ‘the Chosen People in the Diaspora’, hints that the writer came from a Jewish background. He goes on to refer disparagingly to ‘the Gentiles’, and he avoids attacking the (non-Christian) Jews even though his line of argument gives him an opportunity to do so. He refers to the Jewish scriptures and to Jewish traditions.

There are few firm pieces of evidence as to the letter’s date. There are references to persecutions, but 2.13-17 seems surprisingly deferential towards the authorities, which would have been incongruous at a time of widespread official hostility. This might place the letter between the persecutions of Nero and Domitian. ‘Babylon’ as a designation of Rome (cf. 5.13) becomes frequent in Jewish and Christian sources after 70. It has also been argued that the author drew on Paul’s letters and Hebrews. A very late (second-century) dating is unlikely, not least because the author is still expecting the second coming in the near future.

Summary: Date unknown, perhaps c.70-90.  It may have been written by a Jewish Christian to Gentile believers.

2 Peter

This epistle was certainly not written by St Peter the apostle. Its author was well-versed in Asian-Hellenistic language and imagery, and he had no strong interest in Judaism. It may (like 1 Peter?) have been written from Rome.

The letter was composed after 1 Peter (3.1) and Jude (from which it borrows). A very late (second-century) dating is made possible by the reference to the Pauline letters as ‘scripture’ (3.16). On the other hand, 3.4 indicates that some Christians were concerned about the delay of the second coming (this seems to have been less of an issue in the second century), and may suggest that the apostolic generation had only recently died out. At any rate, the letter was composed before the Apocalypse of Peter (c.110-140), which uses it as a source. 

Summary: Date unknown, perhaps c.90-110. Author an educated man, perhaps a Gentile living in Rome.

1-3 John

It is generally agreed that the Johannine epistles emerged from the same milieu as the gospel of John (Ephesus and the surrounding area of Asia Minor in the last years of the first century). 1 John (at least) seems to show knowledge of John's gospel, and must hence have been composed after it. Though they lack the polemical anti-Jewish edge of the gospel, there is no reason to believe that the epistles were written by Jewish Christians. 

Summary: Written in the same place and at or after the same time as John's gospel, perhaps c.100.  Gentile authorship likely.


The Greek of this epistle is good, though its author also seems to have had a knowledge of Semitic languages, the Old Testament and Jewish traditions.  Verse 17 may perhaps imply that many of the apostles’ original converts were still alive (though this is not certain, and in any case the writer may have written the verse in the character of Jesus’ brother Jude). 

Jude appears to have been influenced by James, and to have influenced 2 Peter in its turn.

Summary: Date unknown.  Author likely to have been a Jewish Christian from the east.