Portrait of an Apostle: A Case for Paul’s Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians, by Gregory S. MaGee

paul-apostlePortrait of an Apostle: A Case for Paul’s Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians, by Gregory S. MaGee (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 204 pages.

If Colossians, Ephesians, or both are pseupigraphal writings, how would we know? There is one objective, historical test to which we might subject the documents. There are documents that are unanimously agreed to be Pauline pseudepigraphs, namely, Epistle to the Loadiceans (Ep. Lao.) and Third Corinthians (3 Cor.). An objective, historical test would be to compare the language and ideas of these two known pseudepigraphs to the language and ideas of Colossians and Ephesians. When these documents are compared with the agreed upon Pauline corpus (say, the seven-letter corpus), do they all compare and diverge in the same way?


This was the creative idea for Gregory MaGee’s dissertation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School under the supervision of D. A. Carson. MaGee is responding to what he calls the “Exalted Apostle Theory,” which holds that pseudepigraphers stressed Paul’s authority in their letters by exalted descriptions of his ministry, apostleship, and suffering. This stress, which diverges from Paul’s portrayal of himself in the accepted Paulines, gives away a veneration of Paul that betrays a post-apostolic historical setting.

MaGee lays the groundwork in chapter two by expounding six themes tied up with Paul’s self-portrayal (21):

  1. Paul’s revelation from Christ on the Damascus Road
  2. Paul’s sense of God’s grace in choosing and empowering him
  3. The revelation of the mystery of the gospel to Paul
  4. The OT foundations of Paul’s ministry perspective
  5. Paul’s standing as an apostle in relation to the other apostles
  6. Paul’s ministry through suffering and imprisonment.

He then compares Ep. Lao. and 3 Cor. to Paul’s self-portrait in the undisputed Paulines. He finds that both letters imitate language from the undisputed Paulines quite slavishly, and references to Paul’s persona and apostleship are rather forced, with no relevance to the literary context or the supposed historical context inferred from the letters (63-79).

The last two chapters make the same investigation of Colossians and Ephesians, respectively. The passages that involve Paul’s self-portrayal are Col 1:1; 1:23-2:3, 5; 4:4, 10, 18; Eph 1:1; 3:1-13; 4:1; 6:19-20. In Colossians, MaGee demonstrates that three of the six themes of Paul’s self-portrayal are present (numbers 2, 3, and 6 above), and the three that are missing are not required by the historical context of the letter as they were in other letters, such as the polemical Galatians and 1-2 Corinthians (122-126). While many similar words and phrases are used in Colossians and the undisputed Paulines, the language of Colossians is freely composed rather than slavishly copied, and the theology is in line with the undisputed Paulines as well. Moreover, the references to Paul’s persona in Colossians are well integrated into the letter and do not seem to have been inserted haphazardly to feign authenticity, as in Ep. Lao. and 3 Cor. 

Ephesians is much the same way. But of course the main reason for scholars holding Ephesians to be pseudepigraphal is its close linguistic similarity with Colossians. Supposedly, since so much of the wording is nearly exactly the same, it must be a later Pauline pseudepigrapher imitating Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. But MaGee demonstrates that the wording of Colossians and Ephesians differ enough that it may be more plausible that Paul wrote Ephesians in a similar historical situation as Colossians, with the ideas still fresh in his mind. He concludes there is more coherence, and thus explanatory power, in the theory that Paul wrote both letters than in the Exalted Apostle Theory (170-173). 


What exactly has MaGee proven, if anything? The merit of this study is to bring some objectivity into the debate. Since we can all agree that Ep. Lao. and 3 Cor. are pseudepigraphal, we can judge how those two pseudepigraphers imitated Paul and see if Colossians and Ephesians exhibit similar marks of pseudepigraphy. The volume takes the approach of closely exegeting each passage involved in Paul’s self-portrayal. While this does make for slow reading, it evinces a careful approach that desires a sensitive reading of the text without immediately jumping to conclusions. I truly enjoyed this book, and the thesis is clear and helpful in the current debate.

But I have some substantive criticism, to which MaGee has graciously written a reply.

First, the authors of Ep. Lao. and 3 Cor. are only two pseudepigraphers. They do give us an actual example of how two (supposedly) different authors imitated Paul. But how do we know that other pseudepigraphers would not imitate Paul more freely, slightly developing his theory and using similar but altered language? In fact, this is what most scholars who argue against Pauline authorship of the canonical letters argue (or really, assume). When an argument is made that a pseudepigrapher would attempt to imitate Paul closely to appear authentic (as even MaGee assumes [11]), scholars respond by arguing a truly crafty pseudepigrapher would depart from Paul’s language a bit in order not to be caught.

But really, how can anyone know this either way? These are nothing but baseless, imaginative historical assumptions about faceless and nameless persons. We may look at pseudepigraphs and examine how the authors try (or do not try) to imitate the purported author, but we have such a small sample size that we can make no reliable determination about how any one particular pseudepigrapher would attempt to imitate an author. So while MaGee has brought in some objectivity, I am not sure it is anywhere near enough to make a difference. (Note: as MaGee will correctly point out, he does not claim to be adding objectivity; that is my observation, and I think he has added some objectivity to the debate in this sense alone.)

Second, MaGee relies on the scale of “explanatory power.” In historiography, the coherence theory of truth is popular, since it makes much sense on the surface to suggest that whichever picture makes the most coherent story out of the data is the (most) true story. MaGee is not using the coherence theory of truth, but he does suggest his explanation of the historical occasion of Colossians and Ephesians has “greater explanatory power” than the Exalted Apostle Theory, and that he has attempted to explore “multiple possible meanings for the discourse in the pursuit of a coherent interpretation that fits the background presented by the letter itself” (170, 173). This approach of “the most coherent story wins the day” has been argued at length by N. T. Wright in his version of critical realism and is popular both in biblical studies and historiography more generally.

But the problem is that, as Alvin Plantinga has demonstrated at length in his trilogy on warrant, coherence is neither necessary nor sufficient for providing warrant (or rationality) for a belief. So a historical belief could be coherent, but still lack warrant, and even lack truth. And of course, there is no objective criteria for determining which theory does have the most explanatory power, and those favorable to pseudepigraphal explanation will certainly find the “Exalted Apostle Theory” more coherent and explanatory of the data than MaGee’s position. So the approach to aim for greater explanatory power should not be relied upon in these types of inquiries, since ideological biases eradicate the ability to judge explanatory power objectively, and because coherence itself guarantees us nothing except coherence.

Third, even if MaGee is right in his analysis, he does not nullify other means of arguing for pseudepigraphy. Now, MaGee says the goal of his study is “to cast doubt on the viability of this paradigm and to offer alternate and ultimately more effective explanations for the ways that Paul expresses his understanding of his calling” (174). It seems to me that MaGee holds up two possibilities throughout the study: either the author is a pseudepigrapher that fits in with the “Exalted Apostle Theory” or the author is Paul.

But even if MaGee is correct that the portrait of Paul does not go beyond the context of the letter or of faithful Pauline representation, there is still the possibility that the author is a pseudepigrapher who simply follows different tactics than the authors of Ep. Lao. and 3 Cor. One could still argue from style, vocabulary, and theology in parts of the letters that MaGee does not examine to determine that the author cannot be Paul. One could then suggest that their evidence outweighs MaGee’s interpretation of the passages as being most likely from Paul, and still hold to pseudepigraphy. So I think MaGee has overstepped the bounds of his conclusions by suggesting the author is most likely Paul, since his study only handles the “Exalted Apostle Theory,” but I do believe that his interpretation of the passages are more likely than the alternate interpretations, but of course that’s a subjective opinion.

Conclusion and the Way Forward

In sum, what has this book achieved? MaGee has brought some objectivity into a debate that abounds in historical speculation. He has shown it is more likely than not that Colossians and Ephesians are not pseudepigraphal, since they do not resemble Ep. Lao. and 3 Cor. when compared to the accepted Pauline corpus. In that sense, while he hasn’t proven anything, he has given the edge to Pauline authorship based on objective, historical evidence. When combined with early church testimony that Paul wrote the letter, I think this evidence weighs heavily in favor of considering Colossians and Ephesians “innocent until proven guilty,” whereas many want to put the burden of proof on those who would claim Paul wrote them.

But what about style and vocabulary (I leave theology aside for now)? These are generally the leading reasons why scholars consider Colossians and/or Ephesians pseudepigraphal. Some recent essays have shown that arguments from style and vocabulary have been incredibly naïve linguistically. Advances in modern linguistics have made studies in styolometry, for example, far more robust in their methodology for determining the authenticity of a document’s claim to authorship.

“Register,” which considers an entire complex of factors that generate an author’s style in any specific context, has also been mostly ignored, and recent socio-linguists have emphasized the need to study register in writings. When some studies have taken these advances in modern linguistics in mind, they have found that Colossians and Ephesians diverge less than other genuine documents in various corpora. Add to this the fact that some scholars (e.g., Lincoln on Ephesians) still refuse to acknowledge that the use of an amanuensis renders arguments from style at least weakened, and we see that arguments from style and vocabulary are hardly worth considering much anymore unless they have a serious and rigorous linguistic methodology.

So I propose the way forward is to highlight the sort of studies that do just that. So far, several studies have demonstrated that, based on the study of other corpora with writings known to be by the same other, the Pauline epistles, with the exception of the Pastorals, do not diverge widely, and where the Pastorals do diverge, they do so together. This divergence of the Pastorals means either that Paul wrote them with quite a different “register,” a part of which is the fact that he wrote to individuals rather than churches, or it means that the same pseudepigrapher wrote all three epistles, a theory which I do not believe any scholar holds. It seems to me, then that modern linguistics is one of the most helpful means to salvaging Paul’s epistles for the church and restore to the academy half of the Pauline corpus, which the church has been sorely deprived of since Baur.

Find MaGee’s book here on Amazon.

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  1. Pingback: The Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians – A Closer Look | Watchful