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ON THE PROBABILITY THAT MANY OF ST. PAUL’S EPISTLES HAVE BEEN LOST
Ἐν πάσῃ ἐπιστολῇ—‘In every Epistle.’—2 Thess. iii. 17.
THESE three words, dropping out by the way, open a field for reflection to those who maintain the genuineness of the Epistle in which they occur, because they imply, or at least make it probable, that St. Paul wrote other Epistles, which were never reckoned among the Canonical books, and of which all trace must therefore have disappeared in ecclesiastical history, even in that early age in which the Canon was beginning to be fixed.
Other expressions in the writings of the Apostle lead to the same inference. In the second chapter of the Epistle from which they are taken, which it is important to observe is almost the earliest of those extant, and the words of which cannot therefore refer to the Epistles which are familiar to us, he twice speaks of ‘a letter as from us’, as a common and possible occurrence (ver. 2, 15). In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, x. 10, the Apostle supposes his adversaries to say ‘that his letters are weighty and powerful’; to which he replies in the next verse, ‘Such as we are in word by letters when absent, such will we also be in deed when we are present’. Is it likely that the Apostle is here referring to the First Epistle only? The words of 1 Cor. v. 9, ‘I wrote unto you in the epistle,’ probably allude, 160notwithstanding the tense, to the letter which he was writing at the time, and have, therefore, nothing to do with our present inquiry. But the general character of both Epistles to the Corinthians leads to the conviction that he was in habits of correspondence with the teachers of the Church of Corinth. It appears also from 1 Cor. xvi. 3 that he was intending (although the intention in this instance was not fulfilled) to send messengers with letters of introduction, as we term them, to the Church at Jerusalem;—letters of Christian courtesy, of which one only—the short Epistle to Philemon—has been preserved to after-ages. Similar occasions must often have occurred in the course of a long life and ministry; St. Paul did not cease to be St. Paul in his feelings towards others, because what he wrote in the privacy of the closet was not destined to be read afterwards by the whole Christian world. Once more, in the Epistle to the Colossians, iv. 16, the Apostle enjoins the Churches of Colossae and Laodicea to interchange the letters which they had received from him. It is only a conjecture, and one which is not favoured by the similarity of the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, that the Epistle here referred to as the Epistle to the Laodiceans is the extant Epistle to the Ephesians. Here then are signs of another lost Epistle. The allusion in the Second Epistle of St. Peter, iii. 15, 16, ‘Even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction,’ may be mentioned also, though it has only a general bearing on our present subject.161
(ii) The character of the Apostle is a further presumption on the same side of the question. He who lives in himself the life of all the Churches, who is praying for his converts night and day, and who allows no other concerns to occupy his mind,—of such an one is it reasonable to suppose that, during his whole ministry, to all his followers in many lands, he would write no other Epistles but those which have come down to us? One might have thought that every year, almost every month, he would have found some exhortation to give to them; that he would have received news of them from some quarter or other touching divisions which required healing, or persecution under which his children needed comfort, or advances of the truth which called for his counsel and sympathy. One might have thought that his affection for them, and his extreme (may we call it?) sensitiveness to their feelings towards himself, would have led him to make use of every opportunity for writing to them or hearing from them. He who had no rest in his soul until he had sent Timothy to know their state, could not have borne to have passed a great portion of his life without knowledge of them or intercourse with them. But if so, the Canonical Epistles or Letters cannot be the only ones of which the Apostle was the author. For, including the Pastoral Epistles, their number is but thirteen, not one in two years for the entire active portion of the Apostle’s life, and these very unequally spread over different periods. Of the first ten or fifteen years no Epistle is extant; then two short ones begin the series; after an interval of some years succeeded by another short one: then in a single year follow the three larger Epistles together, more than half the whole: lastly, in the years of his imprisonment, we have not much more than a short Epistle for every 162year. Is it likely that there were no others?—or are we suffering ourselves to be imposed upon by the fear of disturbing a natural but superficial impression?
(iii) The Epistles which are extant, with the exception of the Epistle to the Romans, are unlike the compositions of one who in his whole life wrote only ten letters. They are too lively and draw too near to the hearts of men. Those especially to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians (compare Philemon) imply habits of familiar intercourse between the Apostle and the distant Churches. Messengers are passing from him to them, and he is minutely informed of their circumstances. There is no trace of ignorance on the Apostle’s part of what is going on among them. There is none of that natural formality which grows up in letters between unknown persons. Would the Apostle have written to a Church which he only addressed once in his life in a style which is more like talking than writing?—and without the least allusion anywhere to the singularity of the circumstance of his writing to them?
But if, as the allusions which have been mentioned and the reason of the thing, and the style of the extant Epistles themselves, lead us to suppose, St. Paul wrote other Epistles, which have not been handed down to us, then many reflections arise in our minds, some of which have an important bearing on the interpretation of Scripture.
1. It has been observed that within a single year of his life the Apostle wrote the Epistle to the Romans and the two Epistles to the Corinthians, which are in quantity equal to more than half the whole of his Epistles, and not much short of a seventh portion of the entire New Testament. Nor is it certain that 163these were the only Epistles written by him in the same year: the reverse is more likely. Now suppose we take this as the criterion of the probable amount of his lost writings, and that during each year of his ministry, which extended over a period of at least twenty-five years, he wrote an equal quantity,—though it would not be true to say that ‘the world itself would not contain the books that would have been written,’ yet the result would have been a volume three times the size of the New Testament. There is nothing extravagant in this speculation, although there is no proof of it; the allusions to lost Epistles make the idea extremely probable. Nor would any one think it extravagant if the Apostle had not been one of the Canonical writers, whose writings we are accustomed to regard as supernaturally preserved to us.
2. Suppose, further, that in a distant part of the world, in some Syriac, or Armenian, or Aethiopic transcript, or even in its original language, buried in the unexcavated portions of Herculaneum or Pompeii, one of these lost Epistles were suddenly brought to light: with what feelings would it be received by the astonished world! The return of the Apostle himself to earth would hardly be a more surprising event. There are minds to whom such a discovery would seem to involve more danger than the loss of an Epistle which we already have. It is not impossible that it might be suppressed or ever it found its way to the Christian public. Suppose it to escape this fate; it is printed and translated: with what anxiety do men turn over its pages, to find in them something which has a bearing on this or that controverted point! If touching upon disputed matters, is it too much to conceive that it would not find equal acceptance with disputants on both sides—supposing that it 164favoured one of them rather than the other? Time would elapse before the new Epistle would find its way into the language of theology. There would be no Fathers or Commentators to overlay it with traditional interpretations. It is strange but also true that it could never receive the deference and respect which has attached to those more legitimate Epistles in the possession of which the Christian Church has gloried for above eighteen centuries. And some one standing aloof might ask whether any article of faith which such an accident might disturb could be necessary to salvation.
3. Another supposition may be raised of the discovery not of one but of many lost Epistles of St. Paul, which suggests a new question. Would the balance of Christian truth be thereby altered? Not so. A moment’s reflection will remind us that the servant is not above his Lord, nor the disciple above his Master. If we have failed to gather from the words of Christ the spirit of the Gospel, a new Epistle of St. Paul would hardly enlighten us; if we are partakers of that spirit we have more religious knowledge than it is possible to exhaust on earth. The alarm is no sooner raised than dispelled. The chief use of bringing the supposition before our minds is to remind us of the simplicity of the faith of Christ. It may help to indicate also to the theological student the nature of the problem which he has to consider in the interpretation of Scripture, at once harder and easier than he at first supposed,—easier because simpler, harder because beset with artificial difficulties. Were the Epistles bearing the name of St. Paul not ten but thirty in number, a great change would take place in our mode of studying them. Is it not their shortness which provokes microscopic criticism?—the scantiness of materials giving rise to conjectures, the 165fragmentary thought itself provoking system? Words and phrases such as ‘justification by faith without the works of the law’ could not have had such a powerful and exclusive influence on the theology of after times had they been found in two only out of thirty Epistles. Theories and constructions soon come to an end when materials are abundant; ingenuity ceases to make an attempt to fill up the blanks of knowledge when the mind is distinctly conscious that it is dealing not with the whole but with a part only.
4. No difference is made by the supposition which has been raised respecting the extant Epistles considered as a rule of life and practice. Almost any one of them is a complete witness to the Author and Finisher of our faith; a complete text-book of the truths of the Gospel. But it is obvious that the supposition, or rather the simple fact, that Epistles have been lost which were written by St. Paul, is inconsistent with the theory of a plan which is some times attributed to the extant ones, which are regarded as a temple having many parts, even as there are many members in one body, and all members have not the same office. A mistaken idea of design is one of the most attractive errors in the interpretation of Scripture no less than of nature. No such plan or unity can be really conceived as existing in the Apostle’s own mind; for he could never have distinguished between the Epistles destined to be lost and those which have been allowed to survive. And to attribute such a plan to an overruling Providence would be an arbitrary fancy, involving not inspiration, but the supernatural selection and preservation of particular Epistles, and destructive to all natural ideas of the Gospel. It is a striking illustration of what may be termed the incidental character of Christianity, that (not without a Providence in this as in all 166other earthly things) some of the Epistles of St. Paul, in the course of nature, as if by chance, are for ever lost to us; while others, as if by chance, are handed down to be the treasures of the Christian world throughout all ages.
5. There is no reason to suppose that those Epistles of St. Paul which have been preserved were more sacred or inspired than those which were lost, or either more so than his discourses in the synagogue at Thessalonica during ‘three Sabbath days’, at Athens, at Corinth, at Rome, or the other places in which he preached the Gospel. The supposition of the lost Epistles indefinitely extends itself when we think of lost words. Of these it might be truly said, ‘that if they were written every one, even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.’ The writings of the Apostle, like the words of our Saviour, are but a fragment of his life. And they must be restored to their context before they can be truly understood. They do not acquire any real sacredness by isolation from the rest. It would be a loss, not a gain, to deprive the New Testament of its natural human character,—instead of receiving a higher and diviner meaning, it would only be reduced to a level with the sacred writings of the Asiatic religions. ‘So Christ and his Apostles went about speaking day after day,’ is a truer and more instructive thought than ‘these things were formally set down for our instruction’. Nor does it really diminish the power of Scripture to describe it, as it appears to the eye of the critical student, as a collection of fragmentary and occasional pieces. For these fragments are living plants; the germ of eternal life is in them all; the least of all seeds, when compared in bulk with human literature, they have grown up into a tree, the shade of which covers the earth.167
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