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Inconsistency in Authorship or Not?

I was recently reading through a relatively older work by David Hall, The Seven Pillories of Wisdom. Essentially he offers a critique of seven common arguments used in NT scholarship. In the sixth chapter, he examines the ‘argument from consistency’. The question he raises is one which I, too, have asked: “How far should we expect a preacher or an author to be consistent?” (84). While I don’t think he argues his case superbly in the remaining part of the chapter, I think the initial question is significant. Too often, I think we expect biblical writers to be far more consistent than necessary.

A common example has to do with issues of Pauline authorship. Scholars will approach a certain epistle ascribed to Paul and conclude that it must not have been written by Paul himself because of divergent vocabulary or concepts as compared to some canon of writings which are more likely to have been written by Paul. While I recognize the difficulties of the pastoral epistles (for example), I also don’t want to put Paul in some sort of literacy box by implying that he had a vocabulary of (let’s say) 10,000 or 20,000 words. Granted, there are a variety of other factors to be considered for each of Paul’s writings, but the argument from consistency seems to be consistently overdrawn.

My own writing style has evolved a great bit over the last 5 years. I use words a bit differently than I have before. Sometimes I’ll put a spin on words in rhetorical style. Yes, I am inconsistent in the strict sense, but I am not schizophrenic. Thus the question returns: How consistent should we expect an author to be?

4 Responses to Inconsistency in Authorship or Not?

  1. as i’m sure you’re aware of, there’s also the issue of paul utilizing different amenuenses (is that the plural of amenuensis/secretary?) for various letters. for example, although tons of NT scholars use vocabulary to insist the pastorals are not pauline, walter liefeld has noted dozens of words only used in the pastorals and luke-acts. he has also noted the regular of use of health/medical words, like “sound” and “soundness,” in the pastorals, words which would might be used by, say, a physician. he suggests the possibility that luke was paul’s amenuensis for the pastorals. i don’t think he “proves” this (nor does he suggest that he proves it), but he at least demonstrates the plausibility that luke recorded paul’s dictation for the pastorals. this implies, though, that paul shared thoughts and the amenuensis helped shape them into literary form (as opposed to paul dictating letters word for word).

    good subject for discussion

    • Good point, Mike. Certainly considering the potential divergence that might result from the use of one amanuensis or another is significant. Regardless of how we understand the scribal process here (i.e., strict dictation or loose ‘ghost writing’), the level of consistency we should expect is not so high as it is sometimes thought.

      [I just realized that ‘ghost writing’ looks like a pun! It’s not ‘Holy Ghost writing’… I only meant to refer to the process of minor editing of oral communication into writing.]

  2. While consistency in vocabulary and style should certainly be present in some measure, I also agree that it is far too easy for critical scholarship to oversimplify their expectations. One mark of a good writer happens to be the ability to diversify. This mark, for instance, would especially have been a benefit for scripture writing. Paul’s educational background in particular would lend itself towards a greater vocabulary. The ability to articulate and express precisely what the Holy Spirit intended would have been absolutely necessary for truth to be clear. So much depends on it. The broader the writer’s vocabulary and expressive ability, the better.

    • Yes, I’m sure Paul’s vocabulary was reflective of what we know about his background. (And I hope my 10,000-20,000 word example above was understood as a bit of sarcasm!). Also, you make an interesting point regarding how the doctrine of inspiration might come into play here, though I’m careful not to assume that Paul’s own view of the writing process was a well-formulated doctrine such as we have looking back.

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