Christians believe that Paul of Tarsus was the “Apostle” of Jesus(P), whom he met in a vision on his journey to Damascus. Paul is also claimed to be the author of the Epistles to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Hebrews. It is therefore strange that this self-confessed ‘Apostle’ of Jesus Christ fails to pay more attention to the words of Jesus(P) himself in his epistles :
All the evidence indicates that the words of Jesus were authoritative in the Church from the first, and this makes it the more remarkable that such scanty attention is paid to the words or works of Jesus in the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s letters, the later Epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, and even Acts have little to report about them.…Papias (ca. AD 130), the first person to actually name a written gospel, illustrates the point. Even though he defends Mark’s gospel (Euseb. Hist. III.xxxix.15 – 16), and had himself appended a collection of Jesus tradition to his “Interpretation of the Oracles of the Lord” (Euseb. Hist. III.xxxix.2 – 3), his own clear preference was for the oral tradition concerning Jesus, and the glimpses that Eusebius provides of Papias’ Jesus tradition give no hint of his dependence on Mark. Neither do the more frequent citations of Jesus in the apostolic fathers, largely “synoptic” in character, show much dependence on our written gospels.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, p. 137
To what extent has the Pauline letters shaped the selection of the gospels of the New Testament as canon today ? This article would examine the evidence and present its conclusions on the matter, insha’allah.
The Pauline Epistles and Their Influence Over the Selection of Gospels
It is acknowledged that the current gospels of the New Testament, which contain the words of Jesus, were written after the Pauline epistles. This statement is confirmed by Prof. Brandon, when he informs us that
The earliest Christian writings that have been preserved for us are the letters of the apostle Paul.
S. G. F. Brandon, Religions in Ancient History, p. 228
All but the gospels acceptable to the Pauline faith were systematically destroyed or re-written. In fact, the gospels were not even in existence prior to the Pauline writings. Rev. Charles Anderson Scott tells us that :
It is highly probable that not one of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) was in existence in the form which we have it, prior to the death of Paul. And were the documents to be taken in strict order of chronology, the Pauline Epistles would come before the synoptic Gospels.
Rev. Charles Anderson Scott, History of Christianity in the Light of Modern Knowledge, p. 338
Hyam Maccoby makes an interesting observation regarding the influence of Paul as follows :
We should remember that the New Testament, as we have it, is much more dominated by Paul than appears at first sight. As we read it, we come across the Four Gospels, of which Jesus is the hero, and do not encounter Paul as a character until we embark on the post-Jesus narrative of Acts. Then we finally come into contact with Paul himself, in his letters. But this impression is misleading, for the earliest writings in the New Testament are actually Paul’s letters, which were written about AD 50 – 60, while the Gospels were not written until the period AD 70 – 110. This means that the theories of Paul were already before the writers of the Gospels and colored their interpretations of Jesus’ activities. Paul is, in a sense, present from the very first word of the New Testament. This is of course, not the whole story, for the Gospels are based on traditions and even written sources which go back to a time before the impact of Paul, and these early traditions and sources are not entirely obliterated in the final version and give valuable indications of what the story was like before Paulinist editors pulled it into final shape. However, the dominant outlook and shaping perspective of the Gospels is that of Paul, for the simple reason that it was the Paulinist view of what Jesus’ sojourn on Earth had been about that was triumphant in the Church as it developed in history. Rival interpretations, which at one time had been orthodox, opposed to Paul’s very individual views, now became heretical and were crowded out of the final version of the writings adopted by the Pauline Church as the inspired canon of the New Testament.
Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker : Paul and the Invention of Christianity, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1986), p. 4
There is no doubt that the influence of Paul is much more dominant than the influence of Jesus (P) himself in the New Testament. Scholars have known and recognized the influence Paul exerts over the New Testament, to the extent that Paul even declares that he has a different gospel than Jesus.
Dating for The Authorship of The New Testament
The popularly accepted dates for the authorship of the current books of the Bible are approximately as follows :
Approx. AD Event /Document
30 Crucifixion (Ascension) of Jesus
50 First Epistle of Paul
62 Last Epistle of Paul
65 – 70 Mark’s Gospel
70 Epistle to Hebrews (The Epistle to the Hebrews is not listed in the 6th century list of the manuscripts called Codex Claromon. This leads to the suspicion that it could have been written at a later date)
80 Luke’s Gospel
85 – 90 Matthew’s Gospel
90 – 100 John’s Gospel and First Epistle
95 – 100 Revelation
100 I & II Timothy and Titus
Uncertainty about James I & II, Peter, John and Jude does not allow historians to estimate their origin dates
Were The Epistles Attributed to Paul Really Authored By Him ?
Even the attribution of authorship of the epistles to Paul himself is doubtful. For example, let us take a look at the Epistle to the Hebrews. This Epistle, once attributed to Paul, is now generally accepted to have not been written by him. We read that
The Letter to the Hebrews, at one time ascribed to Paul, is now generally accepted to be by some unknown Christian of the 1st century. More like a sermon than a letter, it is one of the best and most carefully constructed compositions in the New Testament. Addressed originally to Christians out of Jewish backgrounds, the book makes extensive use of Old Testament material to demonstrate that the ministry of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
Excerpted from Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, copyright — 1994, 1995 Compton’s NewMedia, Inc.
The editors of the KJV, in their Introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews, wrote that :
The author of the Book of Hebrews is unknown. Martin Luther suggested that Apollos was the author…Tertullian said that Hebrews was a letter of Barnabas…Adolf Harnack and J. Rendel Harris speculated that it was written by Priscilla (or Prisca). William Ramsey suggested that it was done by Philip. However, the traditional position is that the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews…Eusebius believed that Paul wrote it, but Origen was not positive of Pauline authorship.
KJV, New Revised and Updated 6th, the Hebrew/Greek Key Study, Red Letter Edition
Even the books of Acts was written to fulfill a certain purpose. As Hyam Maccoby observes :
As we have seen, the purposes of the book of Acts is to minimize the conflict between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, James and Peter. Peter and Paul, in later Christian tradition, became twin saints, brothers in faith, and the idea that they were historically bitter opponents standing for irreconcilable religious standpoints would have been repudiated with horror. The work of the author of Acts was well done ; he rescued Christianity from the imputation of being the individual creation of Paul, and instead gave it a respectable pedigree, as a doctrine with the authority of the so-called Jerusalem Church, conceived as continuous in spirit with the Pauline Gentile Church of Rome. Yet, for all his efforts, the truth of the matter is not hard to recover, if we examine the New Testament evidence with an eye to tell-tale inconsistencies and confusions, rather than with the determination to gloss over and harmonize all difficulties in the interests of an orthodox interpretation.
Hyam Maccoby, op. cit., p. 139
We have seen that the Pauline Epistles were written before the gospels of the New Testament and therefore exerts an influence over the selection of the gospels of the New Testament in our hands today. Jesus(P) himself had no idea of what Paul had done to his teachings and would have been amazed and shocked at the role assigned him by Paul as a suffering deity. Moreover, not all the epistles attributed to Paul were really written by him, and some were even written to fulfill a certain purpose. It is this reason which makes the epistles unacceptable to be divinely ‘inspired’, as it is clear they are the product of men.