Pauline Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles

This article addresses the arguments against Paul's authorship of the Pastoral Epistles and reviews the evidence that favors the traditional view.

Pauline Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles
1 Timothy


1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are commonly referred to as the Pastoral epistles. Perhaps a misnomer since these epistles are not strictly speaking manuals of pastoral theology, they were often grouped together as one corpus because they were each written to individuals entrusted with the oversight of specific church congregations. Another similarity these three letters share, distinct from Paul’s other ten epistles, is the widespread rejection of Pauline authorship.

This article seeks to accomplish four purposes. It will summarize the historical view of Pauline authorship for these three epistles. It will identify and address the common arguments that question their Pauline authorship. It will review the external and internal evidence that supports the traditional view of Pauline authorship, and it will explain the important implications of the Pauline authorship of these epistles.

The Historical View of Pauline Authorship

For nearly two millennia, Christians believed the three Pastoral epistles (Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy) were written by the apostle Paul. This opinion was widely accepted throughout church history until the early nineteenth century. Influenced by the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, J.E.C. Schmidt (1804) expressed doubts about Pauline authorship and the authenticity of 1 Timothy.[1] One year later, Edward Evanson (1805) questioned the authenticity of Titus. Citing linguistic differences between 1 Timothy and the other two (2 Timothy and Titus), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1807) wrote that it was “virtually impossible for the author of 2 Timothy and Titus to have written 1 Timothy as well.”[2]

Culminating in 1812, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, in his Introduction to the New Testament, argued that because of vocabulary differences, Paul was unlikely the author of all three epistles.[3] Over the next fifty years, a consensus grew that Paul did not author any of these epistles to Timothy and Titus. In his book The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles, P.N. Harrison used linguistic evidence to support his opinion that “these epistles received their present shape at the hands, not of Paul, but of a Paulinist living in the early years of the second century.”[4] Today, many scholars assume the pseudonymous authorship of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus is a foregone conclusion.

The Arguments Against Pauline Authorship

2.1 Historical Problem

One argument used to question Pauline's authorship is the challenge of harmonizing the historical events from the letters to Timothy and Titus with those recorded in the book of Acts. Three historical events not recorded in Acts but found in the Pastoral epistles are Paul leaving Timothy at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3), Titus being left in Crete (Tit 1:5), and Onesiphorus looking for Paul in Rome (2 Tim 1:16–17). To harmonize these events, one must accept that these three epistles must have been written after Paul’s Roman imprisonment in Acts 28.[5] The proposed theory is that Paul was released from this first Roman imprisonment, enjoyed a time of freedom, and then was arrested and incarcerated a second time in Rome, where he would later be executed.

Rejecting the theory of Paul’s release after Acts 28, critics argue that the three historical events cited in the Pastoral epistles were either pieced together by a pseudonymous writer or purely fictitious. They do not accept that Paul had a second Roman imprisonment. Instead, they only accept the historical events concerning Paul found in Acts as reliable and authentic. However, this argument of silence is weak since many accept the truthfulness of Paul’s sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:23–27, which involved many of Paul’s life experiences that were not recorded in Acts.

Another historical problem is dating the heresy and false teachings that Paul addressed in the Pastoral epistles. Some suggest that in 2 Timothy 2:17–18 (denying the future bodily resurrection of Christians) and 1 Timothy 6:20 (“falsely called knowledge”), Paul is countering Gnosticism, a theological movement that developed in the second century. Therefore, these three epistles could not have been written in the first century by the Apostle Paul. Conversely, Paul was countering an erroneous form of Judaism that simply contained features (asceticism) similar to later Gnosticism.

Church Structure

  • A second argument used to question Pauline authorship is the church structure. Critics believe that the detailed offices of the church, as described in the Pastoral epistles, were too advanced for the early church of the first century. However, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches they founded during their missionary journey (Acts 14:23). Paul specifically addressed “overseers and deacons” in his opening greeting to the Philippians (Phil 1:1), and he was clear in equating elders with bishops/overseers in Titus 1:5–7. It seems more probable and pertinent for the first-century church to receive instructions from Paul regarding elders and deacons than the second-century church when these character qualifications were already well-known and established.

Vocabulary and Style Differences

A third observation used to cast doubt on Pauline authorship is the apparent differences in vocabulary and style between the Pastoral epistles and Paul’s other epistles. With respect to vocabulary, concerning the 848 common Greek words used in the Pastoral epistles, 306 (more than one-third) do not appear in the other 10 Pauline letters.[6] Because 211 of the aforementioned 306 words are found in second-century writings, it would suggest that the Pastoral epistles were not written by Paul but by a second-century writer.

Of these 306 words that do not appear in Paul’s other ten epistles, 127 occur in 1 Timothy alone, 81 in 2 Timothy alone, and 45 in Titus alone. Taking the same line of reasoning, this would suggest that there were three different pseudonymous writers, a conclusion that these same critics do not endorse. Furthermore, most of the words shared by the Pastoral epistles and second-century writings are found in other writings prior to AD 50.[7] There are 93 particles, propositions, and Greek pronouns in Paul’s other ten epistles where all but one appear in the Pastoral epistles. Therefore, statistical analysis used to deny Pauline authorship can similarly be used to support Pauline authorship and its first-century authenticity.

Regarding style, one scholar points out that in his other epistles, Paul “sets forth his argument and gives reasons for his position and answers objections that he anticipates the readers will have. In the Pastoral epistles, the author does not argue at any length and appears to comply with the truth already known.”[8] As an example, in Galatians and Philippians 3, Paul presented well-organized arguments to combat false teaching and error. In the Pastoral epistles, the author gives mere warnings and appeals without any precise, formal defense. However, it is generally accepted that in letters and epistles, the same author will employ different styles depending on the circumstance. No one writes a business letter in the same style as a love letter. Similarly, it is expected that Paul’s personal letters to Timothy and Titus would warrant a different demeanor and style from Paul’s other epistles, which served different contexts and purposes.

Theological differences

A fourth reason to cast doubt on Pauline authorship is the theological and conceptual differences between Paul’s earlier letters and the letters to Timothy and Titus. The Pastoral epistles omit the concept of the cross and the believer’s union with Christ. They also do not contain any teachings on Christ as the Son of God, the works of the Holy Spirit, and the dichotomy of man’s flesh and spirit.[9] The absence of characteristic Pauline doctrine in these epistles raises doubts that Paul had written these epistles without any mention of these cardinal truths.

While the Pastoral epistles also contain more Hellenistic terms when referencing the gospel of Christ (1 Tim 2:5; 2 Tim 1:10; Titus 2:11), much theology from Paul’s other epistles is reiterated in a similar fashion in the Pastoral epistles. Some examples include the demand for godliness (1 Tim 2:2) and the importance of correct teaching (1 Tim 6:3) and “sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:3). In these three epistles, the author affirmed that Christ “came to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), salvation is through divine mercy and not works (Tit 3:5), the necessity of faith in Christ (1 Tim 3:13), and the doctrine of God’s election (Tit 1:1). Many doctrinal truths that characterize foundational Pauline theology are contained in the Pastoral epistles.

The Evidence for Pauline Authorship

External Evidence

The Pastoral epistles were known to Christian writers of the early church and widely accepted.[10] Polycarp (AD 117) quoted the Pastoral epistles (1 Tim 6:7, 10), as did Athengoras (ca. 180) and Theophilus (later second century AD). Irenaeus (ca. AD 130–200), in his work Against Heresies, cited each of the three letters and identified their author as the apostle Paul. The Pastoral epistles share similarities to 1 Clement (ca. AD 96), and it suggests that Clement was familiar with the Pastoral epistles, which supports first-century authorship.[11] The Muratorian Canon included all three epistles as part of the Pauline collection of letters,[12] and this indicates that the church of Rome esteemed the Pastoral epistles highly.

Marcion was the only second-century writer who rejected the authenticity of the Pastoral epistles. Marcion’s canon excluded these epistles from Paul’s other ten epistles. Tertullian wrote that Marcion “cut them out of his collection of Paul’s letters,” which implied that Marcion was acquainted with these three epistles (supporting a first-century date) but did not accept them.[13] Of note, Marcion also rejected Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospel.

The Chester Beatty Codex 𝔓46 (dated in the mid-third century AD) does not contain the Pastoral epistles, but this is not conclusive evidence that the absence of these three epistles reflected a true representation of the New Testament canon in Egypt during the third century.[14]

The fact is that 𝔓46 is not complete, with both its beginning and ending missing. But because it was in codex form, it is possible to calculate that the missing ending would not have contained enough sheets to contain the Pastoral Epistles. It is not, however, self-evident from such a calculation that the Epistles must have been missing, for there is evidence that the scribe has crowded more lines into the latter part than the former. Moreover, it was not unknown for scribes, when short of space, to add additional sheets at the end of a codex, but there is no means of knowing whether this happened in this case. Another possibility is that the Pastorals were included in another codex.[15]

While the Pastoral epistles are not included in Marcion’s canon and 𝔓46, the overwhelming external evidence in early church history supports the authenticity of the Pastoral epistles, including Pauline authorship. To suggest that these letters were falsely attributed to Paul and subsequently received into the New Testament canon as Pauline by the church becomes a difficult task.[16]

Internal Evidence

There is strong internal evidence that Paul wrote the three Pastoral epistles. At the opening of each epistle, the author introduces himself as Paul (1 Tim 1:1, 2 Tim 1:1, Tit 1:1). The author describes himself as a former blasphemer and a violent persecutor but was shown mercy (1 Tim 1:13). He left Timothy at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3), called Timothy his “child” (1 Tim 1:18), expressed a desire to visit Timothy (1 Tim 3:14), and exercised apostolic authority (1 Tim 5:21). He prayed for Timothy (2 Tim 1:3), was put in chains as a criminal (2 Tim 2:9), and was followed by Timothy at Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (2 Tim 3:10). The only known person who fits this self-description is the apostle Paul.

In general, the self-claims of any literary work should be respected unless they can be shown to be historically unlikely or false. The self-identification of the author of these three epistles is undoubtedly the apostle Paul. To question Pauline authorship requires attacking the truthfulness and veracity of the epistles and Scripture itself.

The Problem of Pseudonymity

Therefore, the only reasonable alternative to Pauline authorship is pseudonymous authorship.[17] Pseudonymous authorship would involve a later follower attributing his own work to the apostle Paul in order to perpetuate Paul’s teaching and influence. The author could have forged the letter, but that would have been intentional falsification, which is incompatible with the inerrancy of Scripture. Another suggestion is that the author wrote using Paul’s name but expected his readers to be aware of the literary device of pseudonymity (transparent fiction).[18] A difficulty arises since this would require a pseudonymous readership, feigning the readership of Timothy and Titus.

David Meade, in his book Pseudonymity and Canon, showed that pseudonymity is rooted in Jewish tradition, and there are existent pseudonymous writings associated with Isaiah and Solomon.[19] The Pastoral epistles simply continued this line of tradition. In reality, only two pseudonymous letters have been preserved from Jewish sources during this time period: the epistle of Jeremy and the letter of Aristeas (neither are truly letters).[20] The former was a short sermon, and the latter was an account of the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to Greek. Christians had produced pseudonymous forms of other types of literature, such as narratives, gospels, and even apocalyptic literature. However, archeologists have uncovered only a few pseudonymous epistles. M.R. James, in his book The Apocryphal New Testament, confirmed that only six Christian pseudonymous letters have been found, and they are all dated between the 4th and 13th century AD.[21]

Richard Bauckham, in his article “Pseudo-Apostolic Letters,” acknowledged the rarity of apocryphal or pseudepigraphal apostolic letters in relation to other genres and offers the explanation that there “may well have been the sheer difficulty of using a pseudepigraphal letter to perform the same functions as an authentic letter.”[22] There is no evidence to suggest any acceptance of pseudonymous letters during the apostolic period. Instead, there was great concern about the reception and acceptance of forged letters. Paul instructed the Thessalonians to give no credence to any letter that “supposedly [came] from us” (2 Thess 2:2 CSB). In the same letter, Paul remarked that he took extra effort, using his own hand, to produce a “distinguishing mark” to authenticate his letters (2 Thess 3:17).

There has been universal rejection of other pseudonymous works attributed to Paul, including 3 Corinthians (found in the Acts of Paul) and the Epistle to the Laodiceans. The latter was clearly spurious since it did not appear in the Latin church until the fourth century.[23] One reason for the rejection of pseudonymous letters is its inherent ethical dilemma. What would be the motive and reason for the author to include details regarding Paul, especially if the historical details are fictitious and falsified? The problem of pseudonymity in the genre of letters and epistles during the first and second centuries is not trivial, and it must be addressed when Pauline authorship of the Pastoral epistles is attacked.

The Importance of Pauline Authorship

There are only two possible theories, according to Donald Guthrie, that are reasonable should pseudonymous authorship be accepted.[24] If the Pastoral epistles were written by another person who assumed the persona of the apostle Paul, the first possibility is that all the material is fiction. That is, the historical events and the contents of the letter are untrue and did not originate from Paul. This would attack the veracity, reliability, and authority of these three epistles.

A second possibility is what is called the fragment theory. Because portions of these epistles do appear genuine (1 Tim 1:13–15, 2 Tim 1:16–18; 3:10–11, Tit 3:13–15), this fragment theory assumes that some of the material is Pauline, but it has been redacted or edited by another person.[25] The editor may have been Timothy, Titus, or another of Paul’s companions. Accepting this theory, however, would attack Paul's original authorial intent since it implies the editor had difficulty accepting Paul's teachings and writings and would make revisions, edits, and changes.


In summary, for nearly two thousand years, the Christian church had accepted 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus as written by the apostle Paul. It was only in the last two hundred years that Pauline authorship was questioned, and the notion of pseudonymous authorship for the Pastoral epistles was conceived. Four common arguments used to dismiss Pauline authorship are the challenges to harmonizing historical events, the advanced church structure depicted, the differences in vocabulary and style, and the apparent theological differences with Paul’s other writings. Each of these arguments can be addressed, and with strong external and internal evidence support and the substantive problems with pseudonymous authorship, the traditional view of Pauline authorship remains sound and reasonable. Accepting Pauline authorship is important because to deny it would question and attack the inerrancy and canon of Scripture.

  1. Raymond F. Collins, Letters That Paul Did Not Write: The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Pauline Pseudepigrapha, 1. publ, Good News Studies 28 (Wilmington, Delaware: Glazier, 1988), 89. ↩︎

  2. Raymond F. Collins, 90. ↩︎

  3. Ibid. ↩︎

  4. Percy Neale Harrison, The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles (India: Oxford University Press, 1921), v. ↩︎

  5. Donald Guthrie, “Pastoral Epistles,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised., ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 682. ↩︎

  6. D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992), 360. ↩︎

  7. Carson, Moo, and Morris, 361. ↩︎

  8. George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 23. ↩︎

  9. Andreas J. Köstenberger, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, ed. T. Desmond Alexander, Thomas R. Schreiner, and Andreas J. Köstenberger, Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021), 23 ↩︎

  10. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2016), 719–726. ↩︎

  11. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 4th rev. ed., The Master Reference Collection (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 608. ↩︎

  12. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 609. ↩︎

  13. Donald Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 22. ↩︎

  14. Donald Guthrie, “Pastoral Epistles,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 681. ↩︎

  15. Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, 22–23. ↩︎

  16. Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, 720. ↩︎

  17. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 607. ↩︎

  18. Köstenberger, 1–2 Timothy and Titus, 16. ↩︎

  19. Carson, Moo, and Morris, 370–371. ↩︎

  20. Carson, Moo, and Morris, 367. ↩︎

  21. Carson, Moo, and Morris, 368. ↩︎

  22. Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, 721. ↩︎

  23. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 608. ↩︎

  24. Guthrie, “Pastoral Epistles,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 684–685. ↩︎

  25. Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 464–465. ↩︎