Introduction to the Epistles of Paul
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Author and Date
- Historical Background
- Paul - A Short Bio
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
Letters were a very popular mode of communication in the first century. Including Revelation, twenty two letters (or epistles) were canonized in the NT. Of these, thirteen was penned by the Apostle Paul (fourteen if we include Hebrews, whose author is unknown but attributed to Paul by many scholars). The Pauline Epistles are typically subdivided into the church letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1-2 Thessalonians), the pastoral letters (1-2 Timothy and Titus), and the individual letter to Philemon. These epistles were an extended part of Paul’s ministry, reaching not only the original recipient, but others as they were circulated among other churches, then ultimately to all readers of the Holy Scriptures throughout history.
Paul was a brilliant scholar with an extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). The other apostles considered his letters to be of the same authority (2Pe 3:15-16). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his thoughts were often so profound that the current language could not fully express his intended meaning. Thus, he frequently combined existing words or derived others to form new expressions which would become standard terminology.
It is hardly a stretch to say that Paul’s teachings greatly influenced the development of the Christian to a greater extent unsurpassed by any other human in the first century. He greatly expounded upon the doctrinal and practical themes of the Gospels, which only existed orally at the time that he wrote many of his letters (see "Timeline" below). His writings are the primary source utilized by scholars when formulating systematic theology, and are often employed as a basis of evaluating moral and ethical issues. In fact, there are very few aspects of Christian doctrine that are not detailed or at least touched upon in the Pauline Epistles.
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Author and Date
As we might expect, the Pauline Epistles were written by Paul (see the "Timeline" chapter below for estimated dates). Some modern critics argue that some of the letters were written pseudonymously (another person using Paul’s name), due to stylistic variations between a few of the books. The minor variances can be easily explained by the assistance of a different secretary (amanuensis), each of whom would contribute his own style. Other factors were the varying purposes of each letter, and the fact that they were written over a 20-25 year period. Many of us can look at something we wrote just a few years ago and detect some deviations in style from our current writings.
Regarding the pseudonymity issue, there is no evidence from this era that this practice was accepted. Almost all known pseudonyms were forgeries intending to deceive the recipients on doctrinal matters, which Paul himself condemned (2Th 2:2). In addition, the church father Tertullian records (On Baptism) that a bishop was removed for writing Acts of Paul and Thecla even though he attempted to be consistent with Paul’s teachings. Toward the end of the second century, Serapion, the bishop of Antioch, rejected the Gospel of Peter, stating "For our part, brethren, we both receive Peter and the other apostles as Christ, but the writings which falsely bear their names we reject, as men of experience, knowing that such were not handed down to us" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12.1–6).
See "Paul - A Short Bio" below for more information on the author.
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In the spring of 30 or 33 AD, Jesus had been crucified and resurrected. He then gave His disciples a final commission (Ac 1:8) and ascended to the father. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at the birth of the Church at Pentecost and about 3000 believers were added to their number in response to Peter's sermon (Ac 2). The Church continued to grow amidst opposition from the Jewish religious leaders, until additional Greek-speaking leaders were chosen to meet her increasing needs (Ac 6:1-7). While James, the brother of Jesus, administered to the Jerusalem church, increased persecution forced the Apostles to scatter among the dispersed Jews.
At this time, Christianity was still considered a sect within Judaism and, even though the Holy Spirit had come upon them, the apostles were still slow to understand that Jesus’ messianic movement also included the Gentiles. As a gift to the church, and the Gentiles in particular, God called Paul as the final apostle on mission to the Gentiles (Ac 9). As Gentiles began coming into the Faith, the other apostles and Jewish believers held that the Gentiles should be proselytized (converted to Judaism and required to observe the Jewish Laws). This issue was partially resolved at the Council of Jerusalem about 50 AD (Ac 15). This denial of the viewpoint of the rabbinic Jews led to the eventual split with the Jewish Christians who sided with their Gentile brothers and sparked much theological debate and additional persecutions.
As Christianity continued to spread, so did the many questions regarding the meaning and application of the Gospel for all the new believers. Although the Faith had been once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), the NT revelation had not yet been written down. This does not mean that the Faith (the received body of Truth) was still in flux. It had been ultimately delivered "once for all" to the saints during Jesus’ earthly mission (Heb 1:1-2), and was now orally circulating by the Apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26, 16:13-14, 2Pe 3:2).
Thus, the believers looked to the apostles for instruction. For the next few decades, Paul and the other apostles, in obedience to their calling (2Pe 3:2), would provide teaching and training through their personal ministries and their letters. In time, their writings would be collected into the NT canon, but their teachings were considered authoritative from the start (Ac 2:42, Eph 2:20, 1Th 2:13). Clement, one of the early church fathers in Rome and a contemporary of the Apostle John, wrote about 95 AD that "The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in good order" (1Clement 42:1–2).
See the Historical Background and Timeline Footnotes for the Book of Acts for additional information.
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This timeline includes the NT Epistles (both Pauline and others), along with some key events during the first century. Unlike modern publications, books and letters in Biblical times were not dated. We can however, establish the approximate dates from the Book of Acts and from extra-biblical sources (see the Timeline for the Book of Acts for historical notations). All dates are AD unless noted.
|~ 6-4 BC||Birth of Jesus|
|~ 7-8 AD||Jesus visits the Temple as a Boy|
|~ 28||Jesus baptized by John the Baptist and begins His ministry|
|30 or 33 (1)||Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection|
|30 or 33 (1)||Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem); 3000 Saved at Peter’s Sermon|
|~ 31-34||Saul (Paul) persecutes the Christian Church; Stephen martyred|
|~ 35||Saul’s (Paul) Conversion|
|37-44||Herod Agrippa rules Palestine|
|~ 40-45||Epistle of James written, probably in Jerusalem|
|~ 44||Peter’s miraculous rescue from prison; leaves Jerusalem|
|~ 46-48||Paul’s first missionary journey (with Barnabas)|
|~ 48-49 (2)||Paul writes Galatians to the southern Galatia churches from Syrian Antioch|
|49||Emperor Claudius expels Jews from Rome|
|~ 49-50||The Council at Jerusalem|
|~ 49-51||Paul writes 1st and 2nd Thessalonians from Corinth|
|~ 49-52||Paul’s second missionary journey (with Silas - joined by Luke)|
|52-59||Felix as Governor of Judea (replaced by Festus in 59)|
|~ 53-56||Paul’s ministry in Ephesus; Paul writes 1st Corinthians|
|~ 53-57||Paul’s third missionary journey|
|54||Emperor Claudius dies; Jews allowed to return to Rome|
|54-68||Reign of Roman Emperor Nero|
|~ 55-60||Gospel of Mark written|
|~ 56-57||Paul writes 2nd Corinthians from Macedonia|
|~57||Paul writes Romans from Corinth|
|~ 57-59||Paul is imprisoned in Caesarea|
|~ 58-63||Gospel according to Luke (a frequent companion of Paul) written|
|~ 58-68||Gospel of Matthew written|
|~59-60||Paul’s voyage to Rome|
|~ 60-62||Paul under house arrest in Rome|
|~ 60-63||Peter’s 1st Epistle written from Rome|
|~ 60-70||The Epistle to the Hebrews written by Paul or unknown author|
|~ 62||Paul writes Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while imprisoned in Rome|
|~ 62||James (the brother of Jesus) stoned to death in Jerusalem|
|~62-64||Paul writes 1st Timothy and Titus (from Macedonia?)|
|~ 62-65||Book of the Acts written by Luke (a frequent companion of Paul)|
|~62-65||Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)|
|~ 63-66||Epistle of Jude written|
|~ 64-65||Persecution of Christians under Nero|
|~ 64-67||Peter’s 2nd Epistle written from Rome; Peter martyred in Rome|
|~ 64-67||Paul writes 2nd Timothy from Roman prison|
|~ 64-67||Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome|
|66-70||Jewish uprising against Roman rule|
|70||Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem|
|~ 85-95||1st, 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John written from Ephesus|
|~ 95-96||John writes the Book of Revelation from Isle of Patmos|
|~ 100||Death of the Apostle John|
(1) These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar). The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.
(2) Alternatively, Galatians possibly was written to the northern Galatia churches from Ephesus or Macedonia ~55-57.
~ Dates are approximated.
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Paul - A Short Bio
Relationship between Paul’s Teachings and His Person
It is arguable that, outside of Jesus Christ Himself, the Apostle Paul probably has had (and continues to have) as much influence on Christianity as any person in history. Yet, in explaining and elucidating the teaching of Christ, rather than offer us a systematic treatment of theology, he interweaves this teaching with his own life, faith, personality, and experiences. He wrote from experience about salvation and the Law, Christian love, encountering false teachers, suffering for one’s beliefs, community, and other specific advice pertaining to a large diversity of issues faced by the new believers. Thus, for a fuller understanding of his teachings, we must have a basic knowledge of the life and character of Paul.
Above all, the Apostle Paul was humble in his faith. He considered himself to be the chief of sinners (1Tim 1:16), the least of the apostles (1Cor 15:9-10), and a prime example of God’s strength made perfect in weakness (2Cor 12:7-10). Despite physical challenges, danger, poor health and sufferings (2Cor 11:23-27), he accomplished many tasks made possible only by the grace of God, such as the founding of numerous churches to whom most of his letters were addressed.
The Life of Paul
Paul (called Saul until after his conversion to Christianity) was born about 5-10 AD in Tarsus to Jewish parents from the tribe of Benjamin, also inheriting their Roman citizenship (see Historical Background of Acts). A tentmaker and leatherworker by trade, he had a brilliant mind (Gal 1:14), studying in Jerusalem as a Pharisee under Gamaliel (Ac 22:3, 26:5, Php 3:5-6), the most distinguished rabbi of his time (Talmud) and the grandson of the even more famous rabbi Hillel. He was an expert not only of the OT Hebrew Scriptures, but also of the Greek language, culture and philosophy. He was thus uniquely qualified to be all things to all men in order to bring salvation to some (1Cor 9:19-23).
Paul was also a leading persecutor of the Church (Gal 1:13), but this all changed upon a radical encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Ac 9:1-22, 22:6-11, 26:12-18) about 35 AD. Consequently, his zeal for Pharisaic tradition shifted to Christianity as he passionately dedicated his life to proclaiming the Gospel truth to Jews and Gentiles alike. After such an abrupt and spectacular conversion, he traveled to Arabia for a few years where he very likely received additional revelation from God (2Cor 11:32, Gal 1:11-17). He now understood that salvation and righteousness came not from observing the law, but was a gift from God by the resurrection of Jesus to those who would believe. Unlike before, he also realized his inability to accomplish his mission by his own ability or merit, relying instead on the grace and power of God. He then returned to Jerusalem and attempted to join with the disciples. After initially rejecting him due to fear, they later accepted him after learning that the Jews were trying to kill him because of his preaching the Word. He also met with Peter and James (Ac 9:26-31, Gal 1:18-24) during this visit.
About ten years after his conversion, Paul and Barnabas spent about a year ministering in Antioch, then returned to Jerusalem to deliver a famine relief collection (Ac 11:25-30). At this time he was accepted by the apostles when they saw that he had been entrusted with the Gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 2:1-10). Paul and Barnabas then set out on the first missionary journey (Ac 13:4-14:26), during which he probably wrote his letter to the Galatians.
About 50 AD, Paul again returned to Jerusalem to attend the very important Council at Jerusalem (Ac 15), a conference held to discuss conditions for Gentile membership in the church. The hard-line Jewish wing argued that Gentiles should follow all the Mosaic laws and traditions, including circumcision. Peter argued that the Gentiles, like the Jews, should be included based upon their faith and God’s grace. James, the brother of Jesus then proposed (and the church adopted) a solution to establish fellowship between the Jewish and Gentile Christians which primarily agreed with Peter and Paul’s position.
For the next seven years or so, Paul traveled throughout
the Middle East and Eastern Europe on his second and third
missionary journeys (Ac 16-21), accompanied at various times
by Silas, Luke, Timothy and others. During this time,
he spent about 18 months in Corinth and three years at
Ephesus and wrote several more epistles.
Controversy with the rabbinic Jews however, continually followed Paul throughout his ministries, fueled primarily by his insistence that the Gentiles should have equal rights within the church without being required to follow the Mosaic laws and Jewish traditions. As a result, when he again returned to Jerusalem around 57 AD, he was arrested (Ac 21:27-36), but when a plot to kill him was discovered, the Romans, because of his Roman citizenship, transferred him to Caesarea during the night for his protection (Ac 23:12-35).
After two years of imprisonment, during which God reveals that he would go to Rome, he appealed to Caesar (Ac 25:1-12). Paul then sails for Rome, is shipwrecked on the Island of Malta for three months, and arrives in Rome about 60 AD. Paul then spends two years under house arrest (Ac 28), during which he writes Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. According to reliable tradition, he was released about 62 AD, possibly made a fourth missionary trip to Spain, and wrote the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus. He then returned to Rome and was martyred during the Christian persecutions under Emperor Nero about 66-67 AD.
We’ve already mentioned in the Historical Background that believers looked to the apostles for Christ-centered instruction during this time before much of the NT revelation was written down. They looked to the Apostles as the standard not only of knowledge and belief, but also of behavior and action. After Paul’s conversion, he no longer relied on his own strength and understanding, but remained both content and confident in the Lord (Php 4:11-13) and faithful to his calling through it all. That’s why he could advise the new believers to "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ", and praise them for holding to the teachings (1 Cor 11:1-2, see also Php 4:9). Paul lived his life in such a way that in the end, he could say I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2Tim 4:7-8).
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
Paul wrote his epistles to encourage, warn, and instruct the churches he had founded (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians). He also wrote letters to churches that he had not visited (Romans, Colossians) and to individuals (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon). Through his letters, Paul’s ministry was extended not only to those directly addressed in his writing, but also to readers of the Bible throughout the centuries.
Paul’s epistles were not systematic treatments of the Christian doctrines, but letters primarily addressing specific situations involving the recipients. Nevertheless, his letters contained and expounded upon much doctrine that related to these circumstances.
While the main topics of each epistle varies according to its purpose, we can identify some key themes which repeated occur in most of Paul’s letters. First, God intervened in the fallen world by sending Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of His promises. Jesus, as the Messiah and ultimate revelation of God, voluntarily went to the cross, was resurrected, and ushered in the Kingdom of God during these "last days". Thus much of Paul’s writings contain an eschatological theme, anticipating the ultimate consummation of the Kingdom at Christ’s return.
Second, because of the work of Christ, God offers sinful human beings the gift of reconciliation, secured by faith and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are now credited with the righteousness of Christ (2Cor 5:21) and experience a new transformed life (2Cor 5:17).
Next, this gift is available all people, Jews and non-Jews alike (Rom 1:16-17, Gal 3:28-29, Eph 3:6). All believers are now spiritual children of Abraham. The work of Christ broke down all ethical barriers, so salvation for anyone is found through faith in Christ alone.
Finally, we are to live our new life in Christ. Many of Paul’s letters can be divided into theological and practical sections. He first explains our position in Christ (who we are), then instructs us in practical matters (what we should do). Sometimes the sections are clearly divided. For example, the first half of Ephesians (ch 1-3) and Colossians (ch 1-2) contains doctrinal discussions, while the second half of each (ch 4-6 and ch 3-4 respectively) focuses on the practical application. The book of Romans is also clearly divided between doctrine (ch 1-11) and application (ch 12-15). In others such as Philippians, the two sections are intertwined. In either case, the two sections are always interrelated, that is, because of who we are in Christ, we should act accordingly. By our submission to the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is to be Lord over all areas of our lives.
Some of Paul’s letters also deal with false teachers, who subtly undermine the true Gospel of Christ, often leading people astray within the young churches. We are to study the Word in order to use proper discernment when facing many similar issues today so that we may be approved by God (2Tim 2:15).
Paul dealt with many other issues which are still relevant to us today. See the "Themes" chapter of the introductions to the individual epistles for more details.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
The first key to interpreting and understanding Paul’s Epistles is a basic knowledge of Paul the man, so see the short biography above and take note of the many autobiographical entries within the letters themselves. We can’t divorce the teachings of Paul from his life, spiritual experiences, and Christ-centered mindset.
Regarding the literary type, Paul generally followed the basic form of the Greco-Roman letters of his day, consisting of a greeting, body and conclusion, but could also alter or expand it as required. In Romans and Ephesians, we find theological treatments of doctrine, but most dealt with specific issues facing the recipients. The latter, of course, was infused with doctrine and the former with personal examples and relative experiences.
While the Gospels are narrative compositions describing the life and works of Jesus Christ, the Epistles typically contain a more reflective and philosophical tone, probing deeply into the implications and significance of the Messiah’s ministry. Paul could look back and expound on the fuller meanings of the gospel themes, setting them in light of the OT promises. So, in studying the epistles, one of our most productive endeavors is to examine Paul’s use of the various OT citations and allusions. As we consider how he applied the OT and Gospels to specific situations within the churches and communities, we learn how to better employ these Scriptures to our own circumstances. We can also observe Paul, under the influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveal certain "mysteries" previously hidden, such as the God’s intention to include the Gentiles in the Kingdom.
Next, we must understand the historical background and specific circumstances of each letter. Unlike the original readers, we don’t have firsthand knowledge of the situation being addressed. It is often said that reading the letters is like listening to one half of a telephone conversation, in that we hear only Paul’s response to the other party. Although we don’t possess complete knowledge of the specifics, we know that God’s revelation is sufficient for us to adequately interpret and apply the teachings of the epistles. For example, we may not know the exact nature of some of the false teaching that had infiltrated the churches, but we can glean principles for dealing with false doctrine in our day. Some of the other issues we find addressed are unity and dissension in the church, persecution and suffering, and doctrinal confusion.
We should also interpret themes within each epistle in the context of the entire book, then within the framework of his other letters, and ultimately as surrounded by the whole of Scripture. We find the foundation for Paul's letters in the Old Testament and the Gospels. We can also examine the distinct, but corroborating perspectives of similar themes found in the General Epistles.
We should look for subject matter which Paul repeats in multiple locations. For example, he narrates the account of his conversion on numerous occasions, so it is obvious that this was a defining moment which radically influenced his life and thinking (as it would anyone). Yet, there are also repeated references to his Pharisaic training so we notice traces of his Jewish upbringing, such as stressing the importance of the Law along with his emphasis that it has been fulfilled by Christ. He consistently taught that salvation was by faith alone (Rom3:28, Gal 2:16, Eph 2:8-9, 2Tim 1:9), but did not neglect the importance of good works as a consequence (2Cor 9:8, Eph 2:10, 1Tim 6:18). See the "Themes, Purpose and Theology" chapter above for other prominent re-occurring themes.
A final concept which permeates all of Paul’s letters and indeed, the other themes as well, is that of love. Once again, he leads by example as we continually observe Paul’s love for Christ and the fellow believers. He best summed this up by writing that If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing (1Cor 13:1-3 NLT).
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