Herman Detering's "Falsified Paul": A Critique

In the Fall 2003 issue of The Journal of Higher Criticism, an author named Herman Detering offers an item titled The Falsified Paul. The dedication tells the story by itself; it is partly to G. A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, someone of whom we once wrote much with extensive credit to Mark Nanos. The train of thought here is a form of highly radical criticism of the NT which ends up at the destination that declares the whole thing a forgery, though here, Detering is only concluding that "the Pauline letters in their entirety are inauthentic."

Now even the worst of "liberal" critics like Crossan and Mack do not even go this far. They are at least willing to grant some of Paul's letters as authentic, if not the majority (at least 6 or 7). And to his credit, Detering admits his thesis will have a hard road to follow if it is to become accepted. But what are his arguments for total Pauline inauthenticity (or TPI, as we will shorthandedly call it)?

Below is a diary of my readings in Detering, in approximately 25-page chunks.

Pages 1-26

The first argument out of the gate needs no introduction [9ff]: Detering remarks almost at once upon what he finds to be the oddity of Paul saying so little about Jesus. This of course is the case of an overstated problem.

Detering hints next [12] to allegations of inconsistency in Paul's theology and biography, but offers no details as yet. He seems to readily dispense with Acts as a historical source under the influence of those who say it is not history but more like a "romance" [15]. This too is something that has been refuted; for more on the reliability of Acts as a historical source, and alleged conflicts with Paul, see here. Detering does a disservice if he believes he can assume this as a bedrock of his thesis and ignore contrary arguments. (Where Detering further uses arguments covered in the linked article -- such as Paul not having authority to arrest people in Damascus [19] -- we will not specifically address them here.)

Detering does some analysis on the story of Stephen's stoning (Acts 8). In terms of arguing for ahistoricity, Detering spends more time objecting to how commentators add drama to the scene with their own colorful descriptions than he does actually addressing the narrative.

He cites Schoeps as determining ahistoricity by the simple point that Stephen plays "no great role in early Christian literature" and his martyrdom "falls entirely into the background" compared to other martyrdoms like that of James. [20]

How this argues for ahistoricity is not explained. It is not quantified in any sense (eg, no literary statistics of mentions of Stephen vs James, etc in Christian literature; nor any critical evaluation of how their relative importance is demonstrated). It isn't sufficient to just say, "hmm, that's funny" and move on with the argument.

Going further as Shoeps does, and alleging that Luke created Stephen as a way of subtly assaulting theologies with which he disagreed, is simply unjustified mirror-reading and sheer creativity.

The truth is that in terms of honor ratings, priority to someone like James over Stephen is completely intelligible. Schoeps' mindset is that of the modern individualist who thinks every individual deserves equal time; just as CNN sees fit to report in depth the deaths of single soldiers in war and stories of their families. Schoeps is off target socilogically, and so is his criticism. Stephen would not become a leading example versus someone like James simply because he was not a community leader whose example would be the one to be followed.

Then appears another familiar argument: Paul's conversion account has things which look like elements from other stories. This simply fails to account for reporting methods used in this period; see here. Imitation does not equate with ahistoricity.

Further objections by Detering range from the used before (see link above) to the pedantic (such as, in Acts, Paul is seen primarily as a missionary and miracle worker, not as a theologian as he is in his letters -- 22 -- as if these two were mutually exclusive).

Before beginning, and so I do not forget, I will note a point made by the reader who requested this project. There is an irony in Detering in that he dispenses with Acts based on incompatibility with the Pauline letters, even though he argues that those letters are entirely inauthentic.

Page 28 offers us reports to the standard arguments about forgery in Christianity and gospel authorship. Detering takes a great deal for granted here, and time he spends on reactions to the charge of forgery [29f] would have been better spent trying to formulate defenses against the sort of arguments offered in our links.

It speaks for itself that Detering resorts to saying that the authenticity of Pauline letters is staked on the "reputation" of scholars rather than evidence. [30] He is front-loading charges of bias and spin-doctoring to undeservedly stake the high ground.

There is the usual argument on the inauthenticity of the Pastorals, with nothing new [31]. So likewise in points against Colossians and Ephesians. 2 Thessalonians too is doubted; on this see my book Trusting the New Testament.

From here Detering briefly speaks of historical questions about Pauline authorship by radical critics. I will pick up on page 54 where he offers some specific arguments.

I had discovered at this point that one might be confused by the pagination of the PDF document from which I drew Detering's comments. From here on I will endeavor to use the page numbers printed in the original JHC article and not the PDF pagination.

Starting on page 54 Detering sums up some arguments used against Pauline authenticity:

  1. There are a series of comments offered about alleged peculiarities in the openings to Paul's epistles. Detering seems to be under the impression that where Paul offers his credentials (eg, "an apostle") this somehow could indicate that someone else wrote the letter. He claims (with no documentation, other than quoting a single such greeting from a letter, "Cicero greets Atticus") that the greetings employed by Greeks and Romans were "very unpretentious."

    Not that, again, Detering provides examples, much less examples of letters from a person in authority to a person or persons under them. Oddly enough, we find here no comment from a classical scholar about Paul's greeting in Philippians being more "pretentious" than that of the one Detering uses as an example. Much less does Detering quote any authority that regards Paul's openings as unusual. In fact, Paul's assertions of his credentials make perfect sense in an honor-based culture, given Paul's unusual situation as one whose authority was a question mark at times.

    I should point out that I am familiar with ancient letters, and have used many sources that are, such as Richards' work on the use of a secretary in the letters of Paul. Detering needs to show that letter openings as a whole lacked "pretense" (whatever that is supposed to mean; it needs to be defined) and then also show that in the specific case of Galatians, this "pretense" is unwarranted.

    Note as well that there is no contradiction between issues of honor and Christian teachings of humility. As Pilch and Malina note (Handbook of Biblical Social Values, 118) "humility" meant staying within one's status and not claiming more for yourself than was warranted -- and Paul was claiming no more for himself than was true.

    While it is true that Paul sometimes goes long on his prescript (I have noted a comment that Romans 1:1-7) is "one of the longest" -- not "the" longest -- in antiquity), I can find nothing to suggest that this is reason to deny the letters to Paul, and one must certainly do more than Detering has. There are other contextual reasons for the length in these cases: matters of identity and honor, and the insertion of Christological material, for example, which would not apply to something like "Cicero greets Atticus".

  2. Detering also makes some rather silly remarks, such as commenting on Gal. 1:1, "to the churches in Galatia," saying, "The poor letter-carrier!"

    Despite Detering's sarcasm, people had ways of getting letters around: For example, you looked around for someone heading out the same way as the letter's destination, or hired a messenger, or got a slave to carry it. Nor does it do to object to the "vagueness" of the addressee, since any carrier would be given appropriate instructions for the destination.

    Many of Detering's remarks are pedantic in this way and warrant no response (eg, his claim of contradiction between Rom. 1:1 and 2 Cor. 5:16, which he doesn't even explain).

  3. Gal. 2:6: But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:)

    Detering makes much of the use of "were," supposing it means the apostles in question were dead, so this means this was written well past Paul's time. Hardly so: Contextually, "were" just as well refers to former positions of status within a community (such as, "I used to be the top student under this rabbi").

  4. Gal. 6:11: See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

    Detering makes much over this, wondering why Paul wants to guard against falsification of letters in his own lifetime. Scholars like Witherington (Galatians commentary, 442) have an obvious reason for this authentication: Given the sensitive nature of the letter, Paul wishes to affirm that though (as was normal for the period) a scribe penned the bulk of it, he stands fully behind it; no one can say that someone else is trying to cover for Paul or speak on his behalf, which would be a sensitive issue of honor under the circumstances. (The same answer is intelligible in 2 Thess. 3:17 as well.)

    Relatedly, handwriting experts and vaults were not needed to authenticate such letters -- in an age when 90% of the people were illiterate, it was hardly difficult to have a form of writing that was distinctive, certainly within a limited peer group; and it is hardly unlikely that copies were needed when simple memory would do.

  5. It is also worth noting that one of Detering's objections amounts to saying that the people of Galatia would be too backwards to understand Paul's letter. [56] Said of any other group, Detering's comments would be taken for bigotry.
  6. Detering cannot understand why Paul would go into Arabia and not Jerusalem. The answer: Paul is perhaps following the path of the Exodus, and perhaps even visiting Mt. Sinai, as Wright has suggested. However, it is just as well to suppose that he chose this as a nearby mission field after Damascus; and has every reason to NOT return to Jerusalem to face his Pharisee superiors who are naturally not going to be pleased that he botched on his job of arresting Christians by becoming one.

    Note that a pilgrimage to one of Judaism's holiest sites by one of its most strident devotees is hardly implausible. Even though Paul was teaching a new covenant to replace the Mosaic law, Paul would certainly not fail to recognize the giving of that law as historic moment in salvation history.

    Note as well in this regard what was happening in Galatia at the time needs to be properly understood, and that when Paul said he was one who "counted all his past life in the law as dead," this sentiment occurs in a much later letter after Paul would have had time for reflection.

    Finally, it is not in the least odd that Paul might avoid his Pharisee superiors, because a later Paul took on the leading apostles and the high priest. Also, if Paul has been told that he had a job to do by the Risen Jesus, it hardly makes sense for him to immediately go back home where he will likely be executed or imprisoned.

  7. Detering errs regarding 1 Cor. 11. Please note that Detering does not deal with any scholarship on this or any other of these subjects before announcing his conclusions.
  8. The usual argument is offered about 1 Thess. 2:14-16.

In a section following [57ff] Detering tries to make issue of alleged lack of "traces" of Paul in ancient sources. Why this ought to be an issue is not explained. This is Remsberg's argument all over again; before being taken seriously here, Detering needs to explain why any particular source ought to have said anything at all about Paul; as if someone like a Columella would know (or care) that Paul had been shipwrecked three times and would see fit to change his subject from agriculture to say so.

It is misguided for Detering to object that none of this is mentioned in Greco-Roman or Jewish literature. It is not enough to say that Plutarch, for example, was "open to all religious movements" of his time and then stand back amazed that Paul is not mentioned despite this. Plutarch also did not mention Gamaliel, or Hanina ben Dosa; were they also mythological? Did Plutarch name all the missionaries of the Mithras cult?

A section following [61ff] offers some more arguments re Paul: Acts vs. Epistles school (see link above), as well as allusion to elements of Paul vs Peter. There is little or nothing new here.

Justin Martyr, Detering says, is not aware of Paul; but what about places where Justin seems to have been influenced by Pauline material? That's simple, says Detering: The letters were around, but not yet attributed to Paul [73], which doesn't seem to explain why Justin doesn't mention the true author of the letters, or at least say, "according to these letters which go around anonymously." Proof that this could have been done is found in that it was also done with the letter from James....probably! And strangely, while Justin, according to Detering, could have been hesitant to name Paul because his letters were considered forgeries, he was still using ideas clearly derived from these forged letters.

There's another matter as well: 1 Clement and Ignatius clearly testify to Paul early enough to satisfy Detering's arbitrary requirements; but that's no problem, because those letters are fake also, for the same kind of reasons Detering finds problems over Paul. But that's another subject, and we'll pick up again on page 85 where Detering talks of Paul again.

In his next section, Detering, having assumed his thesis of Pauline fabrication proven, moves on to discuss the origin of Paul's letters as he sees them; there's not a great deal that needs to be said here, since if Detering's foundation is broken, there is no need to knock over the bricks he erects upon it. Just a few points of observation, then, that speak for themselves:

Detering finds great mystery [124] in Paul's hypothetical of himself preaching circumcision in Gal. 5:11, thinking this verse evidence for his "Marcion" theory since he does not figure opponents could make this charge against Paul if he truly were the letter's author.

The verse is "enigmatic and debated," as Witherington says in his Galatians commentary [372], but it is far from "bewildering" as Detering claims: The grammar, as Witherington notes, supports the understanding that Paul is referring to his pre-Christian life when he was still a Jew preaching circumcision (or, perhaps, Paul is indeed answering such a charge, based on his circumcision of Timothy; in which case, he is answering as well a charge of inconsistency). Either way it takes far more imagination to suppose, as Detering does, a forged letter being thrust before Marcionite churches and accepted as valid.

Detering is also unaware of the rhetorical pathos of passages like Gal. 4:16 [126] in which Paul wonders if he has become the Galatians' "enemy"; this is not meant to be literal, but is a shaming device, meant to shame the Galatians for what was their much more moderate abandonment of Paul's teaching and the taking up of the teaching of his opponents (so likewise, the equally hyperbolic notion that Paul was first welcomed as though an angel in Gal. 4:14 [137] and the fighting of beasts in Ephesus [138]; such was the way of the ancients' "dramatic orientation").

From here, Detering offers an analysis trying to match letters of Paul with the situation of Marcion; the question never raised is, why would Marcion, himself a figure of high esteem and honor, need the persona of Paul as a proxy to defend himself? Detering is clearly without recourse to the social background which explains such statements as Paul's direction that his readers imitate him (eg, 1 Cor. 4:16) [134]; this is normal collectivist leadership, not in the least "peculiar" or "presumptuous" -- in Paul's day, people thought of themselves first as a group, and someone like Paul would be expected to act as a role model for the group, and point to himself as such.

Detering then embarks upon an analysis of the much later stories of Paul and Thelca; these need not detain us at all, save to note that Detering's errors on matter such as the above are what lead him to presuppose these stories as sources for items in Paul's letters; when in fact the Thelca tales are making the same mistake as Detering does, overliteralizing a dramatis personae. We need also not be detained by Detering's extended efforts to equate Paul with Simon Magus, for his argument assumes that he has priorly proven his case.

Now it is time for some concluding remarks.

To operate against a strong consensus position -- in this case, one which sees Paul as at least the author of seven of 13 letters in the NT, if not more -- requires a great deal of work.

Detering has come nowhere near meeting this burden. Most of his objections are pedantic or involve serious conntextualizations. He has interacted with almost no serious Pauline scholarship, and indeed seems to have paid far more attention to arguments done centuries ago than to modern Pauline scholarship.

In light of this, Detering's closing sermon (which is what it is) in which he waxes eloquent (marginally so) about the "freedom" one obtains from following his higher critical method, is tragic. Detering simply claims the high ground (however illicitly) and waves off those who disagree as priorly committed to the old paradigm. It speaks for itself that he also stands up for a form of the Christ myth (which sees Jesus as a composite of several historical figures [178].

To put it bluntly: JHC is a journal for those whose work is so far outside the consensus that they can't pass peer review in something more serious like New Testament Studies. Detering's claims would never pass peer review beyond the limited circle of JHC, and he likely knows this. However, he is also likely counting on readers not knowing this.

His case against Pauline authenticity is a failure, and shall remain so.