Wednesday, August 12, 2009

St. Paul to the Laodiceans

We are all familiar with the Epistles of St. Paul which form such an integral part of the New Testament and the Church's liturgical life, but did you know that for centuries there has been speculation about a missing letter of St. Paul?

In the closing sentences of Colossians, we find the following phrase:

Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas. Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea (Col. 4:14-16).

Here St. Paul is admonishing the Church at Colossae to pass their letter on to Laodicea when they are finished with it, and likewise, to obtain a letter from Laodicea which Paul apparently wrote to them. Most biblical scholars believe this to actually be the circular letter to the Ephesians, but it could also be a reference to I Timothy, which in certain Greek manuscripts begins with the phrase "Written at Laodicea, metropolis of Phrygia Pacatiana."

Nevertheless, it has been maintained by many over the centuries that this "letter from Laodicea" is actually a lost letter of St. Paul. If so, no trace of it has ever been found. There was once a heretical Epistle to Laodicea attributed to Marcion that circulated in Asia Minor in the 3rd century, but more interesting is an orthodox but apocryphal "Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans" that was compiled in the early fourth century that consists of twenty short lines and is mainly made of matter taken from Philippians and other Epistles, and pieced together without sequence or logical aim. In the patristic age it had no authority whatsoever; it appeared in no codexes, either Greek, Syriac, Latin or other. St. Jerome said that "it is rejected by all."

However, this apocryphal Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans was more popular in the Middle Ages. A Greek manuscript from the ninth century actually includes it in the New Testament immediately after Philemon. It appears in over one hundred different Latin texts, beginning around the sixth century.

Opinions on it have been varied. Priscillian (c. 385) thought it was a genuine work of St. Paul, but was nevertheless not Scripture. Filastrius of Brescia, around 390, also thought it was genuine but thought it should not be read in Church, which implies that some were reading it as the Epistle in Mass. Interestingly, Pope St. Gregory the Great also shared this opinion.

In Britain, Alfric, Abbot of Cerne (c. 989) accepted it fully as a fifteenth letter of St. Paul, as did John of Salisbury (1165). In the High Middle Ages it was translated into German and was actually included in German Bibles after Galatians for a brief period from 1466 until Luther. This apocryphal epistle also was translated into Arabic and was debated at Tubingen as late as 1600. The French scholar Faber Stapulensis (c. 1526) included it among St. Paul's works.

Following the renewal of the study of ancient languages in the 15th and 16th centuries, coupled by the turmoil of the Protestant Revolt, this apocryphal Letter to the Laodiceans was finally and defintively rejected by everybody. The text of this forged epistle can be read here. It takes about twenty seconds to go through.

The above information is taken from The Formation of the New Testament, a book by Edgar Goodspeed (1926), which is somewhat progressive in its theology but is a pretty good read about the compilation and historical development of the Canon.

3 comments:

Nick said...

It's good to talk about this issue because Mormons often bring up these "details" to "prove" that the Bible is unreliable because it was "tampered with."
(They do this as an attempt to make the Book of Mormon look reliable and Christendom to look corrupted. And people get hurt by this)

The safest and quickest answer is: Not everything the Apostles wrote was scripture, so if the Epistle to Laodcia is not the Epistle to the Ephesians then we can simply say it was a genuine but uninspired letter.


Also, that 20 line apocryphal epistle was a joke. Paul doesn't write that sloppily.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this text is similar in origin to the so-called correspondence of St. Paul and Seneca the Younger. That work, too, often has the feel of a pastiche based on collated passages of authentic Scripture. Among the conjectures of the origin of that work, which St. Jerome also seems to have known, is that it was possibly a fourth-century school-boy exercise.

Timothy Mulligan said...

I wouldn't be surprised at all if St. Paul wrote letters besides those in the New Testament. But St. Paul is not the Holy Spirit! The letters in the New Testament matter because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Of course, it would be interesting and edifying to read additional letters of St. Paul, but they would not be Scripture. (Interestingly, though, they might nevertheless be inspired to some degree, just as any saint's writing.)