Book Review: The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles by P.N. Harrison

My motivation for reading this book came from a post from Gurdur where he stated:

 “A fair bit formally credited to him is not his work (probably 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews not being his)”

It was by no means the first time I’ve heard that stated, but wanted to do was examine the evidence. Where I looked around for references, all I could see were references to “most scholars” or some very vague hand-wavey arguments. It was surprisingly hard to pin down anything resembling original research. Eventually, all the roads that didn’t lead to dead ends ultimately ended up at this book.

It is free to download, but I’m not a fan of e-books so it has taken several months to find a long enough weekend (I read this over Easter) to read the ~200 page pdf file on my laptop.

The opening section contains a very brief outline of the “problem” which forms the title of the book and the approach that the author intends to take in order to tackle the problem.

The problem is stated as the questions over who wrote the books (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus), when were they written and why were they written. Harrison states that his technique is to be open-minded and to review the evidence as independently as possible, without giving any reverence or special treatment to any one point of view. However, he goes straight from this into his giving his conclusion which, in summary, is that Paul did not write the entirety of the books but that they were written by a follower of his in the early 2nd century who had access to some personal notes that Paul did write to Timothy and Titus, where phrases from these are incorporated into the letters as we presently know them.

So that problem that the reader is faced with from the outset is that we have an author who professes all the right things we want to hear for an ‘objective’ view of history but who in the next breath disregards this with a piece of polemic setting out his conclusions in advance of the evidence. To me, it doesn’t matter that he comes out against Pauline authorship, the verdict on the scholarship would be the same if he had pre-emptively concluded in favour of Pauline authorship. The rest of the book then set about trying to give justification for these views.

The main argument focuses on what Harrison refers to as Hapax Legomena, which is a shorthand of saying words which appear in the Pastoral epistles which don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament (NT). Of course, this refers to the number of Greek words rather than any translation. Curiously the statistical basis on which this is based is the number of such words per page. This is then reliant on the particular edition used and appears quite arbitrary. Another analysis referred to, which Harrison rightly disparages, is the number of unique words per chapter. This is course is dependent on the arbitrary chapter divisions which was made much later than the composition of the letters. Yet the irony of using the number of words on a page is lost on Harrison. It seems to me much more reasonable that the rate of unique words per 1,000 would be much more specific and comparable with other works.

In short, the number of unique words per page in the pastoral epistles is much higher than in the rest of the Paul’s works. There is also a brief discussion on apparent “omissions” where words and phrases (very commonly ‘connecting’ words) which are common in the rest of Paul’s works are not present in the Pastorals.

With the arbitrary nature of the statistical analysis aside, there are plenty of other objections that may be raised against Harrison’s hypothesis and he does duly take note of some of these. Those that jumped to my mind included:

  • The fact that the Pastorals were written to individuals whereas most of the rest of the Pauline letters were to churches.
  • The subject matter of the pastorals is very different from the rest of the Paul’s writings, so it should be no surprise that a slightly different vernacular is used.
  • There is no comparison to other writers and how their usage of words varies across their works.
  • The real significance of the variances considering that the whole of Paul’s recorded works is really very small, especially when considered against the Lucan corpus or the collected works of any other contemporary writers.
  • The assumption in the statistical analysis that what we have preserved represents the entirety of Paul’s writings.

Harrison attempts to answer some of these critiques, but not all. For those that he does tackle, his treatment is not convincing. In his response to the first point, he points out the example Philemon, which was written to an individual. This is, however, the shortest of Paul’s writings and so to draw on that as a source of statistical significance seems suspiciously spurious.

Harrison also tries to address the second, but the argument presented carries no weight, moves to a side-issue and never actually answers the challenge.

For the third point, he makes of comparison with Shakespeare, where a similar analysis has been done. Now the results of the Shakespeare survey does in fact show the same level of variance between his plays as Paul’s writings does (including the Pastoral epistles). This would seem to counteract Harrison’s proposition, though his defence is that the Shakespeare model has a fairly continuous range, with the number of unique words per page not only spanning a range, but filling it is as well. The contrast with Paul is that there appears to be one range for 10 of his letters and then a large jump to the Pastorals; a fact which is demonstrated by numerous graphs.

The fourth and fifth points are never addressed and so any meaningful statement of significance is somewhat lacking.

Moving on from this, Harrison looks at a collection of 2nd century christian writers. This is to look at his conclusion (determined before the examination, remember) that the pastoral epistles were composed in the 2nd century. Here, there is some consideration given to the paucity of writings we have available, though interestingly he never considers alternative 1st & 2nd century writers other than those of the New Testament. For example, I would have considered it reasonable to compare Pauline grammar with that of Josephus and Tacitus, but they are noticeable by their absence from this analysis. At least these would form a better comparison than Shakespeare, writing around a millenium & a half later.

The other point that Harrison misses is that Paul was a significant thought-leader of his time. So the fact that some of his grammatical structures appear to have parallels in 2nd century writings could indicate that it wasn’t necessarily composed then, but rather that there is possibility that those who followed adopted Paul’s pioneering writing style.

The last section of the book is very different in character. Here, Harrison posits that the pastoral epistles, and in particular 2 Timothy, contain some of Paul’s genuine writings. He does this by posing further questions on the authenticity of the composition of the writings. Specifically, he asks when and where they were written. First and foremost in his crosshairs is the idea that Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome and that the letters were written during the 2nd imprisonment. In outline, the idea is that the details of the 2nd imprisonment are so closely aligned with the 1st so as to the make them indistinguishable and therefore show that they were in fact one and the same.

Having ‘plucked out’ the genuine elements of 2 Timothy, Harrison then constructs what he believes to be Paul’s actual writing before giving a short commentary on this passage.


I do not find Harrison’s conclusions to be as firmly grounded as he does. That is not to say that I affirm the Pastoral Epistles are unquestionably 100% Paul’s writings. This work does provide evidence which casts doubt on such a proclamation. Yet the evidence presented fails to take into account the relative paucity of the volume of the writings and the comparisons made to other writers (such as Shakespeare). As such the declaration that the vast majority of the work are not of Paul’s origin and that only a small section of 2 Timothy may be rightly credited to him is unconvincing.

So where does that leave us? I neither confirm nor deny Paul’s authorship of these letters. I remain with doubts in my mind and have not seen any evidence presented here or elsewhere to push me off the fence on direction or another.