The Chronology of the New Testament, part two : The Genuine Letters of Paul
Welcome back to Sunday School! Class is officially in session. This week we’re continuing our deep dive on the chronology, the who wrote what when, of the New Testament (NT). If you missed last week’s intro you can find that here. We began with an overview from 36,000 feet of proposed dates for the various NT books. Today I want to zoom in on the earliest NT documents, the authentic letters of the historical Paul.
Let me pause for a moment to acknowledge a couple of surprising elements in that previous sentence. The first being that the letters of Paul, and not the Gospels, are the earliest sources in the NT. That means that these Pauline letters are the writings available to us that are closest in proximity to the life of the historical Jesus. All of Paul’s genuine letters were written in the 50s or early 60s CE. So, even though they come first in the ordering of the NT books, the Gospels are not the first witnesses to Jesus. Far from it! They were written between c.70, at the earliest, and the 120s CE at the latest, all after the life of Paul (who is believed to have died in the mid-ish 60s).
So, what do we know about Paul as a historical person? Here’s a handful of things we can say about Paul.
Paul was a human being. He wasn’t perfect, above mistakes, or always correct in every opinion. Paul, just like us, was a person in process. This means he learned, grew, and changed over time. This doesn’t diminish who he was or his contribution (or ours).
Paul was Jewish, not Christian. Christianity, in my estimation, did not exist during Paul’s lifetime. What became Christianity emerged from a split between the synagogue communities and those members who followed Jesus in the late first century, but really didn’t become the religion we recognize until probably around the fourth century. Paul never converted or changed religions. He didn’t stop being Jewish or thinking and interpreting the world through that lens. This is where we often go off the rails and completely misunderstand Paul.
Paul wasn’t doing something different than Jesus was doing. He saw himself as continuing that work. If anything he expanded the scope of that same work. Jesus began a community of non-violent resistance against Roman occupation and rule in the first century in the territory of Judaea. I believe Paul was doing similar work, but with the realization that Roman oppression impacted Gentiles, too. This led to Paul’s vision of communities in which Jews and Gentiles both found belonging and participation.
Most of Paul’s writing is about finding ways to hold together communities of people who have deep differences. Jewish and Gentile members came from vastly different worlds and perspectives. Paul wrote letters to address this and to attempt to bridge those divides by uniting people around their shared work and dreams for the world.
We don’t know what Paul knew about the life of Jesus, because his inclusion of those details are very scant in his letters. I don’t think that means Paul was unaware of any stories about Jesus, or that he didn’t care about the historical person of Jesus. Paul’s letters are all occasional, written most often to address issues that the recipient communities were sorting through. As a result, they focus on that kind of content. For example, it would be a little strange to write the church at Corinth about a specific set of issues and to begin by saying, “Here’s everything I know about Jesus’s life.” That wasn’t the point of the letter.
Paul’s experience of the Jesus was transformative for him. It quite literally altered the course of his life. The book of Acts offers three accounts of what is often called his “conversion,” the details of which don’t agree. Since Acts is a later text, written between twenty-some to as many as perhaps fifty years after his death, those stories aren’t good sources of information about Paul as a historical person. It’s more reliable to look to his own words to help sketch a portrait of who he was and what his experiences were.
Paul talked a lot about salvation, but for him that didn’t primarily mean “going to heaven when you die.” He clearly expected to be united with Jesus upon his death, but his understanding of salvation also embraced the Exodus narrative and challenged Roman Imperial theology. Think liberation, not evacuation.
Another surprise for many readers might be the two words I used to describe these earliest documents authored by Paul: authentic and historical. Those two words point toward the fact that the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that the historical Paul could not have written all thirteen letters attributed to him in the NT. Of the thirteen letters scholars affirm the Pauline authenticity of seven: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 + 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans. There are three letters that *might* be connected to Paul, perhaps through students writing at a later time in his name, but a majority of scholars think they are unlikely to be authentically Pauline (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians). Finally, there are three, the Pastorals, that scholars say could not be from Paul (Titus, 1 + 2 Timothy).
These six other letters are disputed, and fall into the category of pseudepigrapha, meaning they are falsely attributed. Later writers wrote in Paul’s name in order to enjoy the weight and authority that his reputation carried. A close reading of these letters reveals many dissimilarities with the authentic letters in terms of language (both in the words used and writing style), theology, and cultural context (the disputed letters, especially the Pastorals, refer to things like church roles or offices that reflect a later time than Paul’s). It’s interesting that many of the most objectionable statements that are attributed to Paul come from these six letters that carry disputed status. This will come back up as we reach them chronologically.
Let’s turn now to the genuine letters. Here are some “fun facts” about these authentic letters:
Paul’s letters are ordered in our Bibles based on their length, not their date of writing or importance.
Paul’s letters are all occasional and, except for one, written to communities, not individuals. Even that letter, Philemon, references the “church in your house.” The “yous” are often plural and communities of Jesus followers are at the center of Paul’s writing.
Second Corinthians doesn’t seem to be a single letter, but instead could be an amalgamation of several letters. Scholars see it as containing at least two letters, while some see as many as five letters spliced together. If you’re interested in this kind of Bible-nerdery definitely check out the suggested resources below.
Likewise, Philippians is considered to be a composite of at least three pieces of Pauline correspondence with the Philippian church.
It is believed that, over the years, additions were made to the letters of Paul by scribes. These interpolations are often noticeable. One way they become evident is that these interpolations create breaks in thought that, if removed, the text before and after flow seamlessly. They also introduce ideas that are obviously not Pauline, and often they affirm the exact opposite of what Paul says elsewhere. Ex. Romans 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-38.
Finally, Paul’s letters weren’t written to us. They are someone else’s mail. They can still be helpful, absolutely. But for that to be the case we must enter into their original context, as best we can, and only then discover through careful engagement how we might transport their meaning into our lives and communities today.
Suggested reading for starters (not exhaustive, not even close):
The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Pauls Rhetoric and Meaning by Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy, and Schmidt (This is a MUST READ for Bible-Nerds!)
The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written by Marcus Borg (Introductions and timeline from Borg, NRSV text)
Q: What did you find surprising/interesting/compelling/frustrating/etc???