Of the twenty-seven documents making up the NT canon, thirteen are epistles or letters bearing the name of Paul. Possibly the majority of these letters are the oldest writings in the NT. Since Paul was called from the day of his conversion to be Christ's Apostle to the Gentiles, his letters form our primary sources of information about primitive Gentile Christianity, and they shed some incidental but welcome light on the early Jewish mission too. Yet the earliest of them dates from a time when Paul had been a Christian and herald of the Gospel for fifteen years; his extant correspondence comes from the second half of his apostolic career.
In the traditional order of his letters, those to churches precede those to individuals, and within these two groups they are arranged in (approximately) descending order of length. Here it is more convenient to adopt a grouping which is more nearly chronological.
(1) The Thessalonian Correspondence. The two letters to the Thessalonians were written in the early stages of Paul's Aegean ministry, soon after the a.d. 50) before he had given the newly formed church there all the teaching it required; the two letters, sent from Corinth, were designed largely to supply what was lacking in this regard. In 1 Thessalonians he (with his colleagues Silvanus and Timothy who had shared in the evangelization of Thessalonica) congratulates the church on remaining steadfast in face of opposition and propagating the Gospel (1:2-3:13), he reminds them of the ethical standards of Christianity, especially in sexual relations (4:1-12), and clears up some difficulties concerning the Parousia, particularly concerning the status of those believers who had died before that event (4:13-18).
In 2 Thessalonians, written very soon afterward-some (e.g., T.W. Manson) have argued it was written earlier-he clears up further eschatological difficulties. There was a tendency to imagine that the Parousia was so imminent that there was no point in going on working. Those who took this attitude are reminded that certain developments associated with the rise of Antichrist must precede the Parousia (2:1-12) and that for able-bodied men to give up working and live at the expense of others is quite inconsistent with the demands of the Gospel and the example set by the apostle and his companions (3:6-12).
(2) The Capital Letters. This designation is commonly applied to the epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians and Romans, which are our most important sources for Paul's teaching. Galatians. While in subject matter Galatians goes closely with 2 Corinthians and Romans, there are features which suggest it may be eight or nine years earlier, possibly even the earliest of Paul's extant epistles. The life-setting-an attempt to persuade the churches of Galatia that circumcision is not essential to the Gospel-could be anterior to the Council of Jerusalem, which settled that question, especially if the churches addressed are those of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (cities of S Galatia), planted by Paul and Barnabas before the council (Acts 13:14-14:23). News of this situation impels Paul to make an uncompromising defense of the gospel of justification by faith, as opposed to legal works, and incidentally to vindicate the independence of his apostleship and Gentile mission in relation to the leaders of the Jerusalem church. Occasional as his defense of justification is, this is no subsidiary or accidental element in his gospel, but its very pith and core, and however vigorously he asserts his independence of Jerusalem, he plainly attaches great importance to maintaining fellowship with the mother-church and its leaders. 1 and 2 Corinthians. These two epistles are the surviving parts of a larger correspondence revealing Paul's pastoral concern for the church which he had planted during his eighteen months' stay in Corinth (a.d. 50-52). The correspondence belongs to the later part of his Ephesian ministry and the months immediately following (55-56). 1 Corinthians, which followed a “previous letter” (1 Cor. 5:9) warning the recipients against the proverbial sexual laxity of Corinth, begins with an admonition deprecating a tendency to party-spirit (chaps. 1-4) and goes on to deal with ethical problems (chaps. 5-6) and then to answer questions raised in a letter sent by the church to Paul, concerning marriage and divorce, food consecrated to idols, the exercise of spiritual gifts in their meetings, etc. (chaps. 7- 16).
After the dispatch of 1 Corinthians, Paul appears to have paid the church a painful visit (2 Cor. 2:1; 13:2), which was followed by a letter of such severity that the church was stung into disciplinary action against the leadership of the anti- Pauline faction and into a desire for full reconciliation with Paul (2 Cor. 2:3ff., 7:8ff.). 2 Corinthians (at least chaps. 1-9) is Paul's response to the news of this welcome change of heart-welcome because it reached him at a time when to his anxiety over Corinth had been added some especially deadly peril in proconsular Asia. In his relief Paul pours out his heart to the Corinthians and enlarges on the glory of the ministry of reconciliation committed to him and his fellow-preachers of the Gospel (chaps. 1-7). He judges the atmosphere favorable for an exhortation to participate generously in the gift being collected in the Gentile churches for the relief of their brethren in Jerusalem (chaps. 8-9). That the mood of reconciliation did not last long is indicated by chapters 10-13-unless (which is unlikely) they are a displaced fragment of the earlier severe letter-for the denigration of Paul is more vigorous than ever, fomented (it appears) by visitors from Judaea claiming the authority of the Jerusalem leaders. Romans was sent by Paul to the Christians of the capital at the beginning of a.d. 57, when his plans were maturing for launching in Spain a missionary program such as he had just completed in the Aegean world, and for visiting Rome on the way and making it (as he hoped) his base for the evangelization of Spain. He writes to prepare the Roman Christians for his visit and takes the opportunity of setting before them a statement of the Gospel as he understood and proclaimed it, in its bearing on Israel and the Gentiles alike. Many of the themes of his earlier epistles are repeated here, especially of Galatians, but more dispassionately and systematically, Galatians being related to Romans “as the rough model to the finished statue” (J.B. Lightfoot).
(3) The Captivity Letters. In Romans 15:25ff. Paul says that before setting out for Rome he must visit Jerusalem with the Gentile churches' gift for the Christians there. Events in Jerusalem led to his detention for two years at Caesarea (Acts 24:27), after which he was sent under armed guard to Rome, where he remained under house arrest for two years more (Acts 28:30). The four “captivity letters”-Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians-are traditionally assigned to these two years at Rome, but arguments have been put forward for assigning them to his Caesarean detention (e.g., by E. Lohmeyer, J.J. Gunther) and even to an earlier undocumented but probable imprisonment in Ephesus (e.g., by G.S. Duncan). All four captivity letters need not come from the same period: Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians are closely interrelated, and the development of Pauline themes in the last two bespeaks a later date than the “capital letters”; but certain affinities between 2 Corinthians and Philippians might suggest an Ephesian provenance for the latter, if it is a literary unity. Philippians (on the assumption that it is a unity and not an editorial construct of two or three letters sent by Paul to Philippi) was in intention written to thank the Philippian church for a gift sent to Paul in prison by the hand of Epaphroditus (4:10-20). But first he expresses pleasure at the progress of the church (1:3-11), tells them how his imprisonment has turned out for the furtherance of the Gospel (1:12-18), invites their prayers (1:19-26), and urges them to maintain a spirit of concord among themselves, following the example of humility shown by Christ (1:27-2:5). This exhortation is reinforced by the quotation of what is commonly regarded as a pre-Pauline hymn or confession celebrating Jesus' self-denial and His consequent exaltation by God (2:6-11). Further personal news (2:12-29) is followed by a warning against troublemakers such as had threatened to disrupt his churches elsewhere, Judaizers at one extreme and libertines at the other (3:2-16), and renewed injunctions to rejoice and be of one mind in the Lord (3:1; 4:1- 9). Philemon is a charming personal letter to a Christian of that name in Colossae, a city of the Lycus valley in Asian Phrygia. Onesimus, a former slave of Philemon, whom Paul had befriended and won for Christ, is sent back to be reconciled with his master, to be received “no longer as a slave, but . . . as a dear brother” (v. 16), and (as Paul strongly hints) to be sent back in order to continue making himself useful to the imprisoned apostle as he had already begun to do. Colossians was sent at the same time to the whole church of Colossae to put it on its guard against a form of Judeo-pagan syncretism which was flexible enough to take some elements of Christianity into its system, but in effect undermined the Gospel by robbing Christ of His uniqueness as the one who embodied the fulness of deity, and by its ascetic demands imposed a yoke of bondage on those who should enjoy the emancipation which was theirs by faith-union with the crucified and risen Lord. In his reply to this false teaching Paul develops more fully than in his earlier epistles his conception of the church as the body of which Christ is the head, together with the doctrine of the cosmic sovereignty of Christ, and draws out their practical implications for Christian life.
But if the church is the body of One who wields cosmic sovereignty, what is the cosmic significance of the church? This question, arising out of the argument of Colossians, is dealt with in Ephesians, where Paul unfolds his vision of the church as being not only God's present masterpiece of reconciliation but also God's pilot scheme and agency for the reconciled universe of the future, when He has achieved His purpose of uniting all things in Christ. This letter was sent by the hand of Tychicus (the bearer of Colossians) to Ephesus and other churches in proconsular Asia to serve in some way as Paul's testament to them.
K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul (1911); H.A.A. Kennedy, The Theology of the Epistles (1919); P.N. Harrison, The Problem of the