Two weeks ago I participated in a conversation with Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. regarding how scholars determine date and authorship. Readers who consult more than one Bible Handbook, Bible Dictionary, or introductory material from more than one study Bible will find that there can be considerable variation in the information regarding a particular book. Elgin and I only touched on a few of the key issues.
Here’s the YouTube:
I know many of you will not want to watch an hour long discussion. I want to write a few notes here. I’ll provide a link to this post to Elgin, and if he wants to respond on his blog, I’ll provide a link to it here. I don’t actually intend to argue with any of his views in these notes.
Let’s consider a hypothetical case from modern life, the college term paper. Here we have strong external evidence that the material was written by the student, as that student turns it in, perhaps even saying, “Here’s my paper!” There’s a title page with the student’s name. Depending on how one applies the analogy, one might consider the title page internal or external evidence. (Some authors are named internally in New Testament documents, while some are named in titles added later.)
A responsible and reasonably intelligent professor, however, will have to consider the possibility that the student has plagiarized the paper. How might this be done?
Bypassing modern methods of checking the internet, the professor might consider the student’s style as demonstrated in other assignments, as well as the student’s level of learning. A poor student who suddenly turns in a top notch paper might be suspect. References to things the student is unlikely to know, or to experiences the student is unlikely to have had might also trigger interest.
Before there were easily available internet searches, a professor would be limited to using his or her memory and library resources. Now a good deal of potential material can be checked quickly and automatically.
This would be internal evidence, looking at the nature of the document. The synoptic problem in the gospels starts with the fact that there are close parallels between the first three gospels, closer parallels than most believe can be explained by common oral sources, so students of the gospels look for a pattern of copying between these three. Who was first? Explaining common text between Matthew and Luke, text that does not occur in Mark, on the assumption that Mark was written first, results in the idea of Q, a hypothetical written source.
But the analogy also provides us a reason why scholars tend to examine the internal evidence closely, even though there may be quite strong external evidence in favor of a particular author. They see potential motivation for an author to have attributed a letter to a more famous person, thus giving it greater authority. On the other hand, the motivation might be to honor the person named.
In the video I refer to the example of Colossians. What’s interesting in that case is that the main arguments against Pauline authorship result from the theological positions taken and some of the vocabulary used. Standing against this is the fact that the author named in the book is Paul (but see above regarding reasons to question this). If one tries to date the book much later, then it is likely there would be no church in Colossae, as it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the early 60s CE. Thus both the author’s name and the destination of the letter would be a literary device.
Thus your answer to the question of authorship is going to come down to whether you evaluate the internal evidence (style, vocabulary, theology) as sufficiently strong to overcome both the book’s own attribution and early church testimony, or perhaps that internal evidence as sufficiently weak.
My personal view is that it is very probable that Paul is the author of Colossians, and that the difference in theme results from a difference in the issues to which he was responding, and in turn the differences in style and vocabulary are due to the differences in theme. I think it also unlikely that a letter to a church in a city recently devastated by an earthquake will not mention [ed 022815] such an experience, and this suggests to me a date earlier than Paul’s death. It is also less likely that a letter will be written in Paul’s name while Paul is still alive to repudiate it.
But notice that I state this as a probability. Historians don’t generally dealing in proving this or that in an absolute sense. They look at probabilities. I think it is most likely, but not absolutely certain, that Paul is the author.