Paul did not invent the epistle (letter) as a literary form. Letters were a common means of communication and instruction in the Near East in antiquity. We have correspondence written by pharaohs in Egypt to instruct and teach others from 2,500 years before Paul’s day. Doubtless similar things were produced wherever there was written language.
Paul’s letters were written sometime between AD 48 to AD 64. They almost certainly predate the Gospels and Acts and so are the earliest existing writings that we have concerning Jesus’ teachings and the doctrinal and organizational development of the early Church.
Paul’s religious teaching always valued religious experience over scripture, although he was a prodigious quoter of the Hebrew Bible. We miss many of his references because we don’t know the Old Testament well enough, and because he was quoting the Greek translation—the Septuagint. Therefore, the wording of his quotations differs from our English King James’ version of our Old Testament.
Despite his reverence for scripture for the foundations of his belief, he continually went back to his experience in meeting Jesus and his personal revelations. He had previously been zealous in defending the Torah, but later, after his vision, he particularly defended the One who had given it.
For eighteen centuries, the Christian Church interpreted Paul’s letters as being authentic, that is, having been written or dictated by Paul himself. In the 19th century, secular scholars began to examine Paul’s thirteen letters and to speculate that he had not written all of them. However, most of our Church leaders and scholars generally have felt that Paul himself wrote, or collectively wrote with others, all thirteen epistles bearing his name during his ministry in the mid-first century AD. This would currently be a minority position in most theological colleges.
Paul’s writing was varied
Paul’s epistles were occasional. That means that they were written for specific occasions. If there had been a problem, then Paul wrote to correct it. If the Church congregation appeared to believe or was acting on something that wasn’t true or was against the cultural norms of the gospel, then Paul wrote to address that issue.
At times Paul wrote parts of some letters to raise money. At other times he was being criticized and he wrote some letters to justify or explain his actions. There were more letters written by Paul than we have, and we do not have any of the letters that came to Paul that prompted his replies. Therefore, what we do have is a fragmentary conversation.
Paul’s letters were authoritative. He wrote as an apostle to members of the Church. Although they were written with the expectation of respect, he would probably have been surprised to know that he was writing scripture. Indeed, it might have horrified him to think that his writings would be in a book valued alongside of Torah one day.
His letters were, however, meant to be read to the Church generally and obeyed in their context. All Paul’s letters were written to people who had no experience in the Church beyond a few years at most. These branches were all in their infancy. The members of the gentile churches, who were the recipients of most of his letters, had had little experience with a Church community. Most had never attended a synagogue. At best, they might have been members of social clubs, trade guilds, funeral societies, or the army.
Paul wrote all his letters in Greek. They were written to address different situations in varying styles and rhetorical techniques common to his culture. At times, he wrote like a Jewish Torah scholar, which he was. At other times, he wrote like a Greek rhetorician, which he was. He had a foot in each of those two cultural camps.
He spoke, wrote, and read Aramaic and Hebrew and had grown up in Jerusalem under Jewish teachers using those languages. He had also had very good instruction in the Greek language and culture. He wrote Greek very well. To have a language is to possess a culture and all that accompanies it. Paul’s varied themes, images, and ideas reflected both ancient cultures.
Placing Paul in a cultural context
These cultures, familiar to Paul in antiquity, are two thousand years from ours, and it requires some work on our part to get back to what his intent in writing was. Most readers of Paul have read their own issues, more than Paul’s, into his story. What someone says about Paul likely tells you more about her or him than about Paul. What Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Joseph Smith and others have said about Paul and his writings definitely has told us more about those men than about Paul. They each saw him and interpreted him in the light of their own needs, personalities, times, places, and personal inspiration. They likened him unto themselves.
In Paul’s time, no one read silently to himself as far as we know, and many in the Church likely could not read. These letters would all have been read aloud, with all the rhetorical gestures and flourishes of that time. They were written to be read aloud. It helps to better understand them if we hear them read aloud to us. The church scripture site allows that. You might try it. Or perhaps a flamboyant family member could read a chapter or two aloud to give you more of the flavour of their use in Paul’s time.
Letters were Paul’s last resort. His preference in ministry was to go himself and deal with issues. His second choice was to send a trusted associate like Timothy or Titus. His last choice was a letter. He would have much preferred to talk with us face to face than to have us read his 2,000-year-old letters.
The letters were meant to be passed around to different congregations (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16). From what we can tell, their use was largely confined, for the first hundred years or so, to the city or area to which they were sent. Only later were they collected and circulated throughout the wider Church. Corinthians and Romans, because of the density of their doctrinal content, were the two books first sent around more than locally. Christian writers of the second century AD quoted First Corinthians more than any other book, followed by Romans.
The Pauline epistles became the starting point for the New Testament
Paul’s letters were first collected in the early second century AD into something resembling the order in which we have them now. In AD 110 Ignatius, the bishop in Antioch, mentioned that Paul’s letters had been collected. Their present order was set by about AD 150. The general epistles from other apostles followed as part of the grouping of writings that became our New Testament.
The writings of the Apostle Paul, more than any other author, have shaped Christianity’s understanding of its relationship to Judaism and to the Old Testament in particular. But his greatest role in Christianity has been his teachings on what man must strive to do to be right with God, and what God does for all of us through His persistent grace.
. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, et. al. (ed.) The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol., Abingdon Press, 2008.
. Brown, Raymond E., Fitzmeyer, Joseph A., Murphy, Ronald E. (ed.) New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1990.
. Carson, D.A., et. al. (ed.), New International Version: Biblical Theology Study Bible, Zondervan Press, 2011.