March 2017

The Pauline Epistles

 

As I’ve explained in previous years, Lent was traditionally a period for teaching believers about the basics of the faith. Some of my Lent articles, picking up on this tradition, have consequently been about the various creeds. This year I’ve decided to write about the earliest books of the New Testament: the Pauline Epistles. Of course, as with all the books of the Bible, we don’t know exactly when they were written: AD dating wasn’t invented until the sixth century and didn’t begin to catch on in Western Christendom until the eighth; it wasn’t normal in a manuscript culture for works to be straightforwardly dated (e.g. by reference to the year of this or that ruler); it wasn’t common for authors to identify themselves within their manuscripts; and we can’t rely on the integrity of the texts having been maintained as they were successively copied. Fortunately the Pauline texts are epistles (Latin epistula, ‘letter’), and  letters from classical times, if complete, have a standard opening identifying the sender: ‘From such-and-such to so-and-so, greeting’. Of course, this can be dressed up a bit, as with the opening of Philippians: ‘From Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all those of God’s people, incorporate in Christ Jesus, who live at Philippi, including their bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’.

Paul’s name stands in this way at the head of the thirteen New Testament books immediately following the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. This pride of place, after the accounts of Jesus’ life and the establishment of the early church, reflects the importance of this early body of Christian writing. However, the association with Paul’s name does not mean that he really wrote all of them. Before the age of printing, it was common enough for texts that were felt to be important to be confirmed in that status by being attributed to known authors of suitable standing. We should not think of this negatively, as we would do these days, but rather as a seal of approval, an accepted recognition of value. As far as the so-called Pauline Epistles are concerned, there is a division of opinion about whether Paul was the author of Colossians and II Thessalonians, and he is quite widely thought not to be the author of I and II Timothy, Titus and Ephesians, which leaves only seven epistles for which Paul’s authorship is accepted by pretty well everyone. The analysis deployed to work this out is complicated, but draws upon comparisons of language, style, theology, and so on. Dating is similarly conjectural. Here, we take into account what we know of Paul’s life, drawing upon Acts and various clues that we find in the letters themselves — what we can regard as throw away remarks, for example, which allow us to work out, with some degree of confidence, the order in which they were written. When all the evidence is assembled, the seven letters confidently ascribed to Paul can be arranged and dated as follows, although minor variations of date are arguable: I Thess c.50, Galatians c.53, I Cor. c.53-54, Philippians c.55, Philemon c.55, II Cor. c.55-56, Romans c. 57. For comparison, Mark’s gospel, as we have it, was probably written c. 65-70, with the other two synoptic gospels, which make use of Mark, coming later, and John’s gospel, which is independent of the other three, being composed probably as late as the turn of the first century.

 

Joyce Hill