The Writings of Paul
The Letters of Paul: Introduction
In terms of the development of Christian thought and institutions, the logical next step in our intellectual journey is to examine the letters of Paul, said by many to be far the second most important individual in the growth of Christianity after Jesus himself. The letters are conventionally organized in modern Bibles in the order of their length. This is not too useful to us, because we want to understand the growth of Paul’s theology, as well as the development of Christianity. Accordingly we will skip about, taking important ones in the order of his writing.
Each of the collections of his letters were written to particular churches, usually in Greco-Roman cultural areas. Paul’s letters are commonly advice to congregations experiencing doubts and disunity, and hence show us contemporary issues and Paul’s solutions to them.
Accordingly, we begin with the First Book of Thessalonians, written about 50 A.D. (There are some issues with 2nd Thessalonians, so I propose to skip over it.) First Thessalonians shows us Paul’s beliefs in their early stages, though the Church at Thessalonica was founded on his second missionary journey, and shows his thought already very systematic and well developed.
This particular Book is also useful to us in that it picks up in some regards where First Peter left off, with particular attention paid to the issue of the Parousia, the Second Coming.
After Thessalonians, Galatians and then Romans are logical next steps. The church in Rome was not only to be the center of Christendom within several centuries, but it was very troubled by the issues between Judaic Christians (Jews who had converted, but still had some concerns, usually dealing with the place of Mosaic Law (often this refers to traditional Jewish ritual and practice more than thought as such) and Greco-Roman groups, a controversy which Paul ultimately solved in a dramatic and highly controversial way, by declaring that the Laws of Moses had been superseded by the coming of Christ.
Biography of Paul: (Here I am following The Jerusalem Bible and Shelley’s work, Church History in Plain Language, as well as well as Duchesne’s, Early History of the Christian Church, Vol I., rather closely.) Paul is a fully historic figure. His place as the chief Apostle of Christ is secure, even though he probably never met Jesus.
Paul was born about 10 A.D. in Cilicia, in today’s Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast, perhaps a hundred miles from the scene of today’s fighting with ISIS in NW Syria. He was of a good Jewish family and studied in Jerusalem with a noted Rabbi of the period, Gamaliel (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamaliel for a good summary of his teachings.) Gamaliel was said to be one of the foremost Rabbis of his age, and particularly important in the study of Jewish law. He taught Paul Jewish law (Acts 5:34-40), giving him some standing as an expert in traditional practices and ritual. Paul was fully educated in both Greek and Roman learning. He was also a Roman citizen and could travel freely throughout the Roman Empire. He was, in short, the perfect Apostle to the widely varied ethnic and cultural groups in the Mediterranean basin.
As is well-known, Paul (Saul) was initially a very active Jewish opponent of Christianity, and is held to have been present at the martyrdom of Stephen—perhaps even responsible for it. (Acts 7: 58; 22:20; 26:10) In 34 A.D. he was directly addressed by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus in Syria (Acts 9:3-16; Ga 1:12.) From that time forward, Paul became an inexhaustible evangel for Christianity, until his martyrdom in Rome, presumably in 67 A.D at the hands of Nero.
Paul clearly saw himself as the evangel to the pagans, by which he meant those steeped in Greco-Roman culture. Though born a Jew, he came to see conservative Jews as enemies of Christianity, and later in effect read them out of the Christian Church when he led other Christian leaders (At the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D.) in refusing to compromise with Jewish rituals (Often referred to as “following the Law”).
Paul made several extended trips among widely separated Christian churches, often responding to discord in those congregations, or to attacks from teachers of other religions, including Judaism and European and Asian Mystery religions. In addition to Acts, which is in the more familiar form of a Book of the Bible, he left behind large collections of letters, with which we shall begin.
Paul’s main task as he viewed it was to plant new Christian churches in the Mediterranean world, then to nurture and protect them as they grew. Though Paul occasionally had visions and moments of religious ecstasy, his writings reveal him to be more “intellectual than imaginative” (Jerusalem Bible, p. 253). His prose is very direct and straightforward. Though he was doubtless trained in rhetoric and in the teachings of various Greek philosophical schools, he has no recourse to them at all. In short, Paul seems utterly sincere.
Paul’s Theology: Paul’s religious ideas were very straightforward though they do show increasing complexity as he deals with the many attacks on Christianity he was to encounter in his travels. He believed in what was known simply as the kerygma in Greek: The teaching that Christ was crucified, rose from the dead, and that all this had been foretold in Jewish texts.
In general, Paul’s letters are not meant to be elaborate theology, but rational and instructive responses to particular problems. We sometimes have to recreate what those problems might have been from the historical context of the period. Often those are rather vague, and we do not always know what particular attacks he was responding to, although the audiences for those letters certainly did.
- First, read and discuss Thessalonians because it shows early Pauline thinking.
- Then follow with Corinthians because it further develops issues of “Wisdom” which we have been following…
- Then Galatians which shows more complex issues…and prefigures the more elaborate arguments of Romans.
- Lastly, Romans, which also follows the critical Council at Jerusalem in the opinions of most experts…
We begin with Thessalonians 1, written about 50-51 A.D. and addressed to the large congregation at Thessalonica. Thessalonica was on the Mediterranean coast in what was then Macedonia; probably today it is the NE corner of Greece (Achaia or Attica in the language of the period). (There is a useful site at http://www.bible-history.com/maps/maps/map_pauls_second_missionary_journey.html, which ties specific statements of Paul in his writings to the sites which he visited, with excellent maps.)
Thessalonians is very useful to us because in Book I, Paul is primarily interested in teaching his audiences the basics of Christianity, particularly on the twin issues of the nature of death, and rebirth following the Second Coming. (This letter was written after his actual journey to Thessalonica—(50-51 A.D.)—Paul was then in Corinth in the “boot” of Greece)— and was probably intended to clarify some of his earlier teachings in Thessalonica. The ideas in them are still very close to Jewish apocalyptic teachings.
Answering these questions should clarify some issues for you:
- Note at Book 1: 1-2 who Paul’s companions are…
- For discussion: What is expected of these relatively new Christians? (See Book 1: 4-10)
- What problems does it seem the Thessalonians might fear as presented in Book 2: 1-12)
- For discussion: (First Thessalonians 1:4-13 through 1:5-11) What issues does Paul seem to be discussing here? How do they differ from your own beliefs?
- What issues does Paul raise at Book 2: 14-17?
- Closing: Potential issues here? (5:12-22)
Corinthians (Written 57 A.D. Note that Paul often spent extended periods in residence at one community before moving on to another; he was to spend 18 months in Corinth…) Paul had by then left Thessalonica. (See Acts 18:1-15)
Again, answering these questions should help pull your understanding of Paul’s thought at this time together.
- Discussion: At Books 1 and 2 what seem to be the issues Paul is dealing with?
- For Discussion: Who were the Corinthians before accepting Christ? See (Cor 6:1-11)
At Corinth Paul probably encountered Greek “Mystery” religions that often taught “higher” or “hidden” truths available only to initiates. The Greco-Roman Corinthians would have been especially vulnerable to such teachings and the early Christian church was still more open to variant materials and practices than it would later prove to be. What were in Paul’s time just a wide variety of beliefs, would later find some of those declared to be heresies and weeded out.
- See Cor 1: 15-17.
- See Cor 1: 17 to 2: 16. What is the new nature of Wisdom? You might review the ideas on Wisdom we read in Job and Proverbs to better understand the new definitions Paul is proposing.
- The Eucharist: 11:17-35
- Paul has sometimes been accused of being overly flexible. Read Book 9: 19-27. What do you think?
- Paul is also accused by many modern women of being a misogynist and a patriarchal thinker. See the issue of marriage? (7:25-40) Women at service: 11:2-16
- Analogy of the Body: 12:27-30 This reflected a very important Greek and Roman idea to use the metaphor of the body in many different ways. See how Paul has adapted it here.
- What is the most important gift? 13:1-14
- 15: 12-20. Any changes visible here in Paul’s doctrines from Thessalonians?
Letters of Paul: Galatians (For April 18) Galations (and Romans) were written between pre-49 A.D. and 57-58 A. D. The two collections of letters form a sort of unity, some have argued: This was was a period of much confusion and dissidence in Galatia. [The Galatians were the remnants of an earlier Celtic (Or Gallic) invasion, who spoke their own language, now lost. But they spoke Greek as well. Galatia was located in today’s Turkey, south central from the Black Sea.] But the later work, Romans which presents Paul’s mature consideration of the issues facing the Galatians is more thoughtful and better organized—closer to a sermon or a Book than is Galatians.
Galatians: While it is not so obvious as in Corinthians, Paul is again working with issues dealing with “Wisdom.” Perhaps trying to correct imbalance in Greek thought which is too closely tied to human effort (reason/philosophy) to suit Paul as an evangel. Recall that in earlier letters he is mostly concerned with Judaizers’ drive to push The Law on new Christian communities. Now Paul seeks a middle way between Reason, Faith, and Practice.
- An excellent on-line site which links Galatians together with an easily understood commentary is found at:http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/niv/galatians/1/
- Please note in reading Galatians that it was held to be, by Martin Luther, the most important of the Bible for the origins of the Protestant movement. The issue for Luther was faith vs. works. Paul states the importance of this issue very strongly, though his most highly-developed statement is found in Romans.
- Questions for Discussion, April 18
- Book 1: 6-10. What is the issue here?
- 2: 15 to end of 2. What is the relationship between Faith and Acts?
- What is the “Good News?”
- 3:1-6. What problems face the Galatians? Note that this is the one letter that opens without praise for the recipients…
- 3:6-9. This discussion of Abraham and Faith vs. Acts is very important to Paul and to early Christianity. What does it seem to be about, to you?
- 3:23-29. How does this fit Paul’s purpose in Galatia?
- 4: 8-11. What has so angered Paul here?
- 5: 13-26. This is Paul’s summary and prefigures Romans…
and Romans to follow below….