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Letters Based Chronology (1)

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Methodology involves how we get our answers, and in this case it is a question of how we arrive at a chronology of Paul’s career. A defective methodology tends to produce defective answers; a good methodology consistently applied tends to lead to good answers—not infallible, but at least improvable, answers.

bulletIn trying to put together the pieces of Paul’s career, as much as in understanding his teachings, good methodology gives pride of place to the letters, which are primary sources.
bulletGood methodology recognizes Acts as an important work of early Christian edification, but declines to employ material from Acts, a secondary source. This exclusive use of the letters is not a matter of ideological zeal, but of methodological caution, in an attempt to ensure clean results. The reasons for leaving Acts to one side are provided in Acts as a Source (1) to (4).
bulletA methodology based exclusively upon the letters provides abundant material for understanding Paul and his career, without resorting to harmonization of our sources, i.e. accommodating Acts to the letters, or (worse) accommodating the letters to Acts. Little is to be gained by a premature combination of two different fields of data.

Almost a century ago, B. W. Bacon warned against the “obsolete harmonistic method which sacrifices the individual intention of the sources considered separately to the dogma of inerrancy” (Bacon 1907:454). Even if the doctrine of inerrancy may not be quite the controlling factor which it was earlier, the accommodation of sources to one another still flourishes, in a mood of methodological complacency. But surely it is a superior procedure first to do a letters chronology, or chronologies (see Summary Chart #4, for a sequential letters summary) and then go on to an Acts chronology (see Chart of an Acts Chronology) before we assess what each can contribute to our knowledge of Paul and early Christianity. 

Making due allowance for an author’s perspective and purpose

In giving priority to the letters, we are not talking about impartial biography or history; Paul is very much the partisan, and surely puts his own spin on events which he recounts. But “this does not necessarily relativize the information from the letters, so as to leave us without any useful information” (Bercovitz 1989,179; click on Chronologies). For example, when writing Galatians Paul must have known that his case would be weakened if he misrepresented the events which he describes, and he seems to have certified the accuracy of his report with an oath (Galatians 1:20). In any case, the letters are relatively more reliable than Acts.

Identifying the Principal Structural Elements

These are supplied by:

bulletThe use of just the seven certainly authentic letters; see The Pauline Legacy.
bulletThree Jerusalem visits, and the time intervals of three and fourteen years which lead up to the first and second visits.
bulletFounding missions, in four great centers or areas (instead of three missionary journeys with a long list of stopping places).
bulletThe various stages of the Jerusalem collection.
bulletThe stages in Paul’s developing relations with his congregations (see Hurd 1965/1983; click on Origin).

Working Inductively from Smaller Units

These micro-sequences are established by:

bulletCollecting anecdotal material from individual letters, including work on the collection, travel plans, self support, and letter writing.
bulletIdentifying stages of his relations with churches, such as the founding mission, a problem or crisis which he learns about, the letter, and sometimes a post-letter situation.

Stitching the Pieces Together

The macro-sequence is of course established by assembling the micro-sequences. For the most part, the connections are provided by information in the letters: Philippi to Thessalonica to Achaia; or Ephesus to Troas to Macedonia. In other cases, we work with probabilities:  Syria-Cilicia to Galatia to Macedonia, for the founding missions. The order of certain letters emerges rather early in the process (one may refer to the programmatic essay of Hurd 1965:225-48):

  » 1 Thessalonians
  » 1 Corinthians (Letter L)
  » 2 Corinthians 1 – 9 (Letter R)
  » Romans

The location of Philippians and Philemon between Letters L and R is dependent upon the hypothesis of an Ephesian imprisonment. The position of Galatians and of 2 Corinthians 10 – 13 (Letter H) remains less certain. Arguably, Galatians may be placed after Letter L (1 Corinthians);2 and Letter H (2 Corinthians 10 – 13), just prior to Letter R (2 Corinthians 1 – 9).3  The resulting order is as follows:

  » 1 Thessalonians
  » 1 Corinthians (Letter L)
  »  Galatians 
  » Philippians
  » Philemon
  » 2 Corinthians 10 – 13 (Letter H)
  » 2 Corinthians 1 – 9 (Letter R)
  » Romans

   1The case for an Ephesian imprisonment is argued in Philippians and Ephesus (2).
  2Click on Ephesian Headquarters (4).
  3One may consult The X-Letter in 2 Corinthians (a) to (c).

It needs to be added that an indispensable criterion in the process of assembling the micro-sequences is the avoidance of time compression; e.g., one must allow sufficient time for travel, as well as for settled work during a founding mission. (Click on freedom from time compression.)

Confronting Variables

Needless to say, a letters chronology does not solve all the problems of Pauline chronology, but it does clear the ground so that the alternatives listed below (and others which might be mentioned) can be addressed with sound procedures.

bulletWere the principal founding missions (in at least Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia) before or after the Jerusalem Conference? See Pre-Conference Founding Missions.
bulletWhere in the macro-sequence are we to place the composition of Galatians? See Paul and Galatia (1); compare Ephesian Headquarters (4).
bulletWhere do we locate the imprisonment during which the “prison letters” were written? See The Ephesian Imprisonment.
bulletIs the letter referred to in 2 Corinthians 2 and 7 lost, or is it to be identified with Letter H (2 Corinthians 10–13)? See The X-Letter in 2 Corinthians (a) to (c).

These variables are addressed for the most part in one or another of the special essays which may be found in Author’s Workshop, and in Special Topics. The results of these essays are incorporated into the five studies found in Main Tent.

The “Fallibility Principle”

John R. Watson lays out an impressive methodology for conserving historic pipe organs, and he illustrates these principles with three case studies ranging from restoring a [tuning] temperament to reconstructing a hand pumping mechanism. In his discussion of minimum intervention, he writes (Watson 2002, 28):

Conservation proceeds from an assumption of the practitioner’s own fallibility. Because hindsight frequently judges past restorations harshly, we have learned the importance of designing restorative alterations that are “reversible” . . . . The fallibility principle also explains the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration between colleagues and allied professionals. Pride and the defense of professional turf can stand in the way of collaboration. In restoration, one of two things will usually be diminished. Either it will be the ego of the practitioner, or it will be the historic integrity of the organ; only the former can heal itself.

The fallibility principle is built into the methodology being advocated in As Paul Tells It . . . In this work, we have recognized from the outset that our presuppositions, arguments and evidence must be transparent, and subject to correction with better arguments and evidence. There are enough variables in the process of putting this kind of chronology together that the conclusions offered, though well tested, have a tentative character which invites comment and improvement (visit Conversation on Paul).

A Chronology Without Dates?

Readers may find a chronology without dates curious. What is being offered here is not an absolute chronology, but a relative chronology, which attempts to establish the proper sequence of events and writings. Those who work with such a chronology will discover it to be a useful way of keeping track of comings and goings, crises, and the apostle’s response to these problems. The letters offer almost nothing by way of synchronisms with externally datable events. Paul’s career fits in during the period between the crucifixion of Jesus (about A.D. 30) and the persecution under Nero (about A.D. 64), or possibly later. 

The Aretas Datum. Paul does mention his escape from arrest in Damascus by the ethnarch of the Nabatean king, Aretas IV (2 Corinthians 11:32-33), but this reference is not as helpful as one might wish.

(a) One problem is that we have (so far as this writer knows) no direct evidence of Nabatean control of Damascus during this period except from this reference in Paul. Nabatean control is possible so far as external sources are concerned, but not proven. (b) It is uncertain whether Aretas controlled Damascus directly, or only through his ethnarch. (c) While it has been plausibly argued that Nabatean control would have been unlikely before the death of the emperor Tiberius in A.D. 37, not all are convinced. (d) The death of Aretas IV is variously dated as early as 38, and as late as 40. Recognizing the uncertainty which exists, we shall adopt as a working hypothesis the view that the Aretas episode took place as early as 37 and as late as 40.

If we suppose that this episode was the occasion for Paul’s first Jerusalem visit, we might conclude that he made this visit some time between 37 and 40. We could then date the second Jerusalem visit (fourteen years later) as early as 51 (or 50, using an inclusive reckoning), or as late as 54. But it is evident that, even if a particular combination of uncertainties was correct, precision in dating would still elude us. Further, even if precision were possible, what difference would it make for the interpretation of the letters? The answer is, Little or no difference. A relative chronology is quite adequate for the purposes of exegesis. What is the benefit of “knowing” that Galatians was written in the year 53 rather than 56? There are more important problems to worry about (see above, for the list of “variables” needing attention). On the whole, then, we have more to gain by striving for a reliable relative chronology than in trying to establish synchronisms of dubious ancestry for absolute dating.

The Results

The relative chronology which results from the procedures outlined above has been laid out in the five studies in Main Tent, and displayed in Summary Chart #4; see Closing Months (5). The principal unfinished business is to address the question of Pre-Conference Founding Missions, in the next page.


Revised March 14, 2003


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