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The Pauline Legacy

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The Seven Letters

Paul falls off the radar screen, on which we have been tracking him; but he left behind a rich legacy, which we shall consider, first, in terms of his authentic letters which have survived, in whole or in part. They are given here, as found in the New Testament, in approximately their order of composition.

1 Thessalonians. See Founding Missions (4), for details.

1 Corinthians (Letter L). See Ephesian Headquarters (2), for details. 

Galatians. See Ephesian Headquarters (4), for details.

Philippians. See Ephesian Headquarters (5), for details.

Philemon. See Ephesian Headquarters (5), for details.

2 Corinthians 10 – 13 (Letter H). See Ephesian Headquarters (6), for details.

2 Corinthians 1 – 9 (Letter R). See Closing Months (1), for details.

Romans. See Closing Months (3), for details.

Letters by Later Paulinists

There is also an important place in our discussion for that part of Paul’s legacy which, like a well-invested trust, continued to grow, well into the next century and beyond. This growth was not quite what Paul might have contemplated. Even before his letters began to be collected and circulated throughout the Christian world, the process of imitation began; and if imitation is the highest form of flattery, Paul would have felt flattered.

We live in an age when copyrights are jealously guarded. We prize our intellectual property. Hence we may be offended by the thought that in the ancient world authors often circulated letters and other writings in the name of a great figure, contemporary or long departed. Pseudonymous writers soon began to enlarge the Pauline legacy with epistles attributed to him—not surprising, considering his importance as apostle, martyr, church-founder without parallel, impressive intellect (even if not always understood), and effective advocate for the world mission of the church. They did this for purposes which seemed legitimate enough: to update the apostle’s teaching, or to address new issues or problems faced by a growing and developing church. 

2 Thessalonians

One of the persistent problems faced by Paul and other New Testament writers was the end-of-time delay, as months lengthened into years, and years into decades, and still Christ had not appeared on clouds of glory. Some like Paul and the author of John’s Gospel dealt with the problem by bringing end-of-time expectation into present-time spirituality. Others like the author of Matthew’s Gospel (click on Heightening), the author of 2 Peter, and the author of 2 Thessalonians preferred to reinforce strictly future end-of-time expectations.

In the case of 2 Thessalonians we have a letter which on the one hand is something of a knock-off of 1 Thessalonians, which it resembles in details of vocabulary and structure. But on the other hand it addresses a church, many of whose members had died before the end-of-time events announced so graphically in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: the Lord himself descending from heaven with the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet. With the passage of time, and the death of Paul and of many other Christians, it had become evident that not even Paul would be among those caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

The author solves the problem with this explanation of the delay: the end will not come before the man of lawlessness is revealed; but this lawless one cannot be revealed because he is being restrained. The following end-of-time scenario results: When the restraining power (not clearly identified) is out of the way, then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, who in turn will be slain by the Lord Jesus with the breath of his mouth and destroyed by his appearing and his coming (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12). Thus the author explains the delay and  keeps end-of-time expectations alive. At the same time he provides a degree of predictability: the reader will be able to know when the end is near.

Not only does this scenario contradict what Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; there is also a contradiction between what the two letters claim was Paul’s teaching at the founding visit. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:2, his readers already knew that there would be no warning of the end; it would come as a thief in the night. According to 2 Thessalonians 2:5, they had already been told that there would be plenty of warning; the end would be preceded by the man of lawlessness, his revelation and his destruction. For a fuller discussion, click on The Authenticity of 2 Thessalonians.  

At the end of 2 Thessalonians the pseudonymous author attempts to authenticate the letter with Paul’s hand written greeting and signature, which is “the mark in every letter of mine” (2 Thessalonians 3:17), even though several of Paul’s certainly authentic letters (1 Thessalonians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Romans) contain no such signature. That this author was not the first to attempt a writing in the name of Paul is shown by his warning not to be disturbed “by letter, as though from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:2). 

Colossians and Ephesians

As post-Pauline Christianity was seeking to meet competing world views, with their speculations and rituals, the pseudonymous author of Colossians defends the Pauline tradition. The writer sets forth an eloquent and exalted view of Christ (Colossians 1:15-20), with references to

bulletChrist’s pre-existence (1:17);
bulletHis function as the agent of creation (1:16);
bulletHis divine nature (“in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”), 1:19; and
bulletHis rôle in reconciling all things to himself (1:20).

The author views Paul’s sufferings (and martyrdom, retrospectively) as completing “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1:24). If the author’s language and style are not quite what Paul’s were, this letter is nevertheless a noble and thoughtful work.

Ephesians incorporates significant portions of Colossians, and presents a kind of compendium of Paul’s thought. The pseudonymous author rehearses some of Paul’s favorite themes, such as human sinfulness and the gospel of grace (Ephesians 2:1-10). The emphasis upon the unity in Christ of gentile and Jew (2:11-22) gives an ecumenical tone to the work, at a time (perhaps 80-95 A.D.) when Jews were expelling Christians from synagogues, and Christian writers were comparing Pharisees to white-washed tombs (Matthew 23:27). In the opening address (Ephesians 1:1) some Greek manuscripts include the words, “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful,” while other manuscripts have only, “to the saints who are also faithful;” from this fact we may conclude that this was originally a circular letter addressed perhaps to a group of churches in the province of Asia, with one copy addressed to Ephesus.

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus

Often called “the pastoral letters,” these pseudonymous writings represent a stage in the development of the church (perhaps 100 A.D. or later) when it was becoming institutionalized, when faith meant correct doctrine, and when the apostle was a distant memory, a kind of “stained glass” Paul.

bulletChurch offices are being defined (bishops, deacons and presbyters, 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-23; Titus 1:5-9), and their qualifications set;
bulletCharity is routinized (1 Timothy 5:3-16);
bulletHeresy is being fought by defining creeds (1 Timothy 2:5-6; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Titus 3:4-7; compare 2:1); and
bulletMorality is rule oriented (throughout the three letters).

The Collection of the Letters

Very briefly, we might suppose that Paul’s seven authentic letters would have been the nucleus of the collection; that by the turn of the first century 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians had been added; and that some time in the next several decades the Pastoral Letters were included. Things may not have been quite this straightforward, in view of the fact that 2 Corinthians is not quoted until well into the second century, from which we might suppose that there were delays in assembling its constituent parts into what became the canonical letter we know.


Click on Next for Acts as a Source (1)


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