Subtle Clues in the Pastoral Letters That Point to Pauline Authorship

The letters attributed to Paul have caused arguments about whether he really wrote them. Most scholars tend to think they are fake. However, some things inside these letters make it tricky for critics to say they’re fake.

William Paley pointed out that there are parts in the letters that seem unrelated and practical, like advice about food and personal stories. These things make it harder to believe the letters are forged. Let’s dive in and take a look.

Unexplained allusions

In 1 Timothy 5:23, the advice is given, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”

When thinking about the chance of someone pretending to be Paul and writing a letter, William Paley notices something strange. It’s weird that they included this kind of advice. This advice isn’t about doctrine, church business, or matters of orthopraxy. Instead, it’s more like advice for someone’s real health problems.

Also, Paley talks about how this advice is put in a weird place in the letter. The rest of the letter mainly talks about being honest and staying away from evil. But then, out of the blue, it talks about Timothy’s health and what he should drink. It’s surprising. It’s like the writer was writing down their thoughts as they came, maybe so they wouldn’t forget. This style is common in personal letters, but it’s not usual in formal writing, which forgers might aim for when they try to make something look real.

DA Carson and Douglas Moo have pointed out some interesting things in the Pastorals that don’t match the usual signs of forgery. These things make us wonder about the idea that Paul didn’t write these letters.

For example, why do these letters talk about Paul’s cloak and scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13)? Why do they say that Paul left Timothy in Ephesus while he went to Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3)? These texts also show Paul saying he plans to visit Timothy soon but isn’t sure about delays (1 Timothy 3:14–15). There’s also a part where Onesiphorus looks for and finds Paul in Rome (2 Timothy 1:16–17). Lastly, the letters tell Titus to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos (Titus 3:13).

All these references are puzzling if we believe the letters were written at the end of the first century or the start of the second century by someone who didn’t know much about Paul’s life. A logical guess would be that a writer like that would stick to what we already know about Paul. There’s no good reason for them to make up these made-up stories.

Furthermore, it’s important to mention that all these references in these three letters are quite specific and linked to real historical situations. They don’t have the kind of imaginative and legendary elements often seen in some second-century stories about Paul, like we see in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, or The Acts of Paul. In this sense, the Pastorals have more in common with Paul’s real letters than with the well-known fake documents that circulated in the early church.

These unexplained references in the pastoral letters are indeed strange and don’t seem to fit in texts that people think might be religious forgeries. While someone might guess that a forger added these everyday comments to make the letters seem more real, it’s hard for critics to argue that the author of the Pastorals was super clever and, at the same time, say that the letters go against what Paul believed. These references add to the overall evidence that, in my opinion, supports the idea that Paul wrote these letters.

Undesigned coincidences

But some of these unexplained references dovetail well with what we read in the Book of Acts. An intriguing case can be found in 2 Timothy 3:15, where we learn about Timothy’s early upbringing:

“… and from childhood, you have known the sacred writings, which are capable of making you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

This passage undeniably references the Jewish scriptures. However, we also encounter a relevant passage in 2 Timothy 1:5, which states: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that first resided in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, resides in you as well.” When considering only the book of 2 Timothy, this connection remains unexplained. If this letter were forged, it raises questions about how the author had knowledge of the names of Timothy’s family members or if he simply fabricated them, or how he knew of Timothy’s Jewish upbringing.

But these details dovetail seamlessly with the account found in Acts 16:1-3: “Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

In Acts, we learn that Timothy’s father was of Greek origin and we can assume that he had qualms about circumcision. On the flip side, his mother had converted from Judaism to Christianity. This background explains why Timothy had familiarity with the scriptures from an early age. It’s noteworthy that 2 Timothy mentions his grandmother but does not go into details about his father. Initially, these two sets of details may appear unrelated. Nevertheless, this has the ring of truth. Timothy’s father was Greek, and his mother was of Jewish heritage. He was raised with a deep understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures, and both the author of 2 Timothy and the author of Acts accurately depicted him, without any apparent indication that one account was derived from the other.

But there’s more. In 2 Timothy 3:10-11: In these verses, it’s written, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”

The Antioch mentioned isn’t the famous one in Syria where Paul and Barnabas spent a long time. Instead, it’s Antioch in Pisidia, which they visited during their early missionary journey. In this Antioch, Paul delivered a sermon, which you can read about in Acts 13. The story goes that the Jews riled up devout women and important people in the city to oppose Paul and Barnabas, and they were kicked out of the region. They moved on to Iconium, where they entered a synagogue to speak to Jews and Greeks. But some of the Jews who didn’t believe caused trouble with the Gentiles. Even so, they continued to boldly preach the word of the Lord, performing miraculous signs and wonders that testified to God’s grace. The city’s residents were divided, with some supporting the Jews and others supporting the apostles. When both Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, tried to mistreat and stone them, Paul and Barnabas became aware of the danger and fled to Lystra and Derbe, which were cities in Lycaonia and the surrounding area. In these places, they continued to spread the gospel. However, some Jews from Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra and convinced the people to stone Paul. They left him for dead, but miraculously, he recovered, returned to the city, and left with Barnabas for Derbe the next day. They preached the gospel in Derbe, teaching many, and then retraced their steps, revisiting Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Acts lines up with the reference in the letter to Paul’s troubles in these three cities, which happened one after the other in the same order as mentioned in the letter. (For the details on Antioch, see Acts 13:44–52, for Iconium, see Acts 14:5, and for Lystra, see Acts 14:19)

The second question is how Timothy learned about these troubles and why the apostle chose to remind him of these particular events instead of other challenges in his ministry. It appears that some years later, approximately three years after these events, Paul made another journey through the same region with the goal of visiting the believers in the cities where he had preached. During this trip, he met Timothy, who was already a disciple, in Derbe or Lystra. Timothy had a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Since Timothy was already a disciple when Paul met him, (see Acts 16:1) it suggests that Timothy became a follower of Christ during Paul’s previous visit to these areas when he faced the troubles mentioned in the letter. This is why the apostle reminded Timothy of these hardships because they were the challenges they faced when they first crossed paths, and calls him his beloved child. (2 Timothy 1:2)

In a nutshell, the reference to the persecutions in the letter lines up with the historical account in the Acts of the Apostles. Timothy’s knowledge of these challenges comes from his residence in one of the cities mentioned and his conversion by Paul during the time when these events occurred. The apostle’s mention of these trials in the letter likely arises from the fact that they were the hardships they experienced when they first met, rather than an intentional attempt to create a connection with the historical account.

One might suggest the author of 2 Timothy used information from Acts to make the story seem more convincing. However, consider how indirect all of this is. First, 2 Timothy implies that Paul had a good reason to talk about these persecutions to Timothy and highlight Timothy’s knowledge of them. Next, Acts 13–14 mentions persecutions in those places. Finally, Acts 16 suggests that Timothy was already a believer from that region and became a Christian during Paul’s previous visit, which coincided with the persecutions in Acts 13–14. While it’s possible that a subtle forger inferred all these details, it doesn’t seem likely.


Arguments against these letters’ authenticity often point out issues with vocabulary, arguments from silence, and the supposed later development in church hierarchy. However, when we dig into the text itself, we find good reasons to believe these letters are genuine. This matches what the overwhelming consensus church fathers thought – that Paul wrote them. It’s important for biblical scholars to pay attention to this evidence.

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