Five Considerations About Arguments Based on Stylistic Differences

How should we think about arguments against the traditional human authorship of a certain passage or book of Scripture based on style and word choice, such as this one by Bart Ehrman: “its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel” (Misquoting Jesus, pg. 65)?

The following considerations are incredibly helpful to think through such arguments:

1) Remember that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author, and efficient cause, of Scripture even though He used human authors as the means (instrumental cause) of writing it. Human personality and style can be observed in Scripture, but it should not be understood as characteristic of the essence of Scripture, it is merely accidental to it. Biblical authors were not merely illiterate shepherds and fisherman, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thus, style and word choice are not distinguishing features like they are in secular writings. Notice how William Whitaker reasons in response to Stapleton who made a similar objection:

“But let us hear what sort of argument Stapleton broaches against this method. First, the scripture hath not one, but many different authors, who have each their own manner of expression. Isaiah’s style differs from that of Amos; Peter and Paul do not write in the same manner.

I answer, that, indeed, the styles in scripture are various, but that nevertheless that variety is not so great as to baffle observation. Although Isaiah, who was educated in the royal court, hath a much purer and more elegant diction than Amos, who had lived amongst shepherds, yet this shepherd speaks in such a manner as to be intelligible to all who can understand anything: for he had learned to speak from the best master of speech, even the Holy Spirit. So, although Paul, brought up by Gamaliel, the most learned of the Pharisees, speaks otherwise than Peter or James, who had passed almost all their lives in fishing; yet the difference is not very great, since Peter and James did not learn to speak Greek in their fishing occupations, but were taught by the Holy Spirit, a much better and more eloquent instructor than Gamaliel. But let us grant that the style of scripture is different in many books: yet how does this prevent either that such differences should be marked, or that, when marked, they should yield great help in the interpretation of scripture?”

Disputations on Holy Scripture, pgs. 478-479.

2) Sample size and confidence. How large a sample of one human author’s undisputed writings would be needed to compare a disputed passage with to give enough certainty that the passage is indeed not the style or within the vocabulary of that human author? How would one determine a confidence level to a judgment like that? It is just as likely that there is not enough material in Scripture to compare style and word choice of a disputed passage to, in a statistically significant way, because the human authors wrote too small of a sample. The whole endeavor may be of some value in secular fields, but is ultimately arbitrary and ignores the divine nature of God’s Word.

For example, regarding the Pericope Adulterae, “G. Udney Yule, a professional statistician and reader of statistics at the University of Cambridge, has shown that it takes at least 10,000 words to form any solid statistical basis for authorship.  In John 7:53-8:11 there are only 174 words.  The insufficiency is evident.”*

3) Sometimes when terms only appearing once in a book of the Bible (hapax legomenon) are more highly concentrated in one passage than average, it is considered evidence that that passage may not have been written by the traditional author. However, this is poor statistical analysis because it disregards the possible variation and assumes words are being randomly placed on the page. An author is going to use different words for different topics. Again, using the PA as an example:

“The Gospel According to John has 376 hapax legomena in a total of the 15,635 words in this book.  The unaware could calculate that this comes to an average of one hapax legomenon for every 41.6 words, and that the Pericope Adulterae, which consists of 174 words, should therefore have only four hapax legomena, instead of the fourteen that it does have.  The problem with this is that unlike, say, flipping coins, which is regular and has a limited number of possible outcomes, the choice of words a writer may use is vast and is dependent on subject matter, so whatever the average may be in such cases, the standard deviation is huge and finding three or four times the average number in a passage carries no significance at all.”

John Tors, A Call For Serious Evangelical Apologetics: The Authenticity of John_7:53-8:11 as a Case Study

4) Unique style and word choice can be argued from just about anywhere in Scripture, even from passages whose human author is not disputed. For example, many undisputed passages in John (6:3-14; 9:1-12; 4:5-16; 21:1-12; etc.) have been shown to have the same number of so-called “non-Johannine” words as the PA. See The Adulteress and Her Accusers: A Study in Intrinsic Probability by A. W. Wilson.

Additionally, Dr. Gordon Fee points out that there are many passages with unique language which could be argued to be “non-Pauline.”

“e.g., 1 Thes 1:9-10; 5:9-10; 2 Thes 2:13-14; 1 Cor 5:7; 6:11; 6:20; 15:3-5; 2 Cor 5:18-21; 8-9; Gal 1:4; 4:4-6; Rom 3:23-25; 4:24-25; Col 1:15-20; 1:21-22; 2:11-15; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 3:8-11; 3:20-21; 1 Tim 1:15; 2:4-5; 3:16; Titus 2:11-14; 3:5-7; 2 Tim 1:9-10. One could easily show the “non-Pauline” character of all of these passages, since each of them has unique language and no two of them are alike. It is the very richness of these passages, and their obviously having been adapted to their contexts, that makes so much of the argumentation about the non-Pauline character of the present passage

[Phil. 2:5-11] so tenuous.”

Philippians_2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?, Bulletin for Biblical Research (1992), footnote 43.

5) Stylistic and lexical arguments are the same sort made in extremely liberal arguments that conservative Christians would reject with regard to the JEDP hypothesis and other higher critical theories. The impiety of disregarding Scripture’s testimony of itself, the unreliability of disregarding the universal Church’s witness to Scripture, and the arbitrariness of style and word choice as distinguishing factors is clearly seen in extreme higher critical theories, yet the same argumentation is accepted by conservative Christians with regard to other passages. It is inconsistent with our most fundamental doctrines. We must not let it creep into our beliefs elsewhere.


* Johnson, Alan F. “A Stylistic Trait of the Fourth Gospel in the Pericope Adulterae? ” JETS 9 (1966), p.93; cited from Tors, John, A Call For Serious Evangelical Apologetics: The Authenticity of John_7:53-8:11 as a Case Study.

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About the Author:

Paul J. Barth is a confessional Presbyterian who holds to the original (1646) Westminster Standards. He is an Air Force veteran and currently an undergraduate Geography student at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he lives with his wife and two kids. Paul is not an ordained minister and offers his views as a private person.

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