Evidence About Jesus

One of the criticisms about my book that I feel keenly is that it does not have enough directly about Jesus. While my book is about Jesus indirectly, direct evidence about Jesus is very sparse outside of the Gospels. To prove something new, we have no choice but to reason from less than obvious information. While the major evidence of Jesus Christ Divided is the New Testament itself, it requires substantial logical inference to explicate some new insights about Jesus. So I guess it is just a hazard of the subject matter, that we always want more.

For those who want more about Jesus directly, I would refer them to the Gospels themselves. Every time I read them, I seem to be surprised and delighted by something. My purpose in writing is to add some historical depth to our understanding of those tremendous books. In doing so, I have found even more surprise and delight, which I want to share with my readers.

The Gospels are the primary sources about Jesus. Without them, the Christian religion would not even exist. For many people, those books are sufficient by themselves. Yet, if we truly love the message, we want to know more. There are many who traffic in platitudes and doctrines, but on history and context we could benefit from more information.

Perhaps, the most critical information of all is that Jesus really did exist as a human being. For a few Christians, this might be irrelevant or too obvious to mention; but for most, the existence of Jesus as a person is what makes him a true example to follow. He must be a real historical person to be a valid role model of righteous living, because if he was only a symbol or only a spiritual being no one could expect to actually live as he prescribes. For those among the first Christians, they knew people who had known Jesus or known his immediate followers, who could witness to his reality directly or at least indirectly. Nowadays, with the passage of time, the evidence is not so clear beyond simple faith.

Many have questioned whether Jesus was real or that he was who the Gospels say he was. We are increasingly confronted by super-skeptical atheists, who indulge in an anti-faith, denying even the most basic tenets of the Gospels. They adhere quite religiously to logical fallacies, deliberately misconstruing the evidence, because they want to invalidate all religions as fairy tales to promote their own narrow views. While they believe their intentions to be honorable, their methods often lack integrity in their use of evidence, suggesting a hidden agenda. They will often fail to recognize that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. They disallow religious texts or interpret them in a prejudicial way. The mere mention of an inexplicable wonder is enough for them to discard any text. In my opinion, they are revising the facts to make the world friendlier towards them their arguments, which appears dishonest.

Consequently, I want to spend some time elucidating the evidence which shows conclusively that Jesus did exist necessarily. My aim is to contradict the extreme skeptics and to reestablish one of the most fundamental facts about Christian faith—Jesus was a human being.

The primary evidence is the New Testament itself, as we have already noted. The Gospels especially are religious texts and are not always completely accurate on certain facts. For example, if Jesus was born when Herod was king, then he was born at least a decade before the census of Quirinius. Notwithstanding a few contradictions, we can confirm existence of early versions of the Gospels in the first century, within a few decades of their dating for Jesus death. A skeptic may disbelieve the miracle stories but, if Jesus did not live, then people were still around who could easily contradict the stories. We have no evidence of that. Jewish leaders had much reason to deny the events and we have no early evidence that they did. In fact, the Talmud criticizes Jesus and disqualifies him as a good rabbi, but notably it does not deny his existence, implying their traditions confirmed that Jesus lived.

The Gospels also contain numerous facts that we can confirm from other sources. Quirinius was a governor of Syria early in the first century and there was a census. Pilate was the prefect of Judea at the time of Jesus. John the Baptist was a famous holy man, attracted many followers, and was executed by Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was king of a tetrarchy of Galilee and Samaria. Caiaphas was High Priest about this time. Burial customs of the time agree with the description of the Gospels, but those customs changed after 70 CE. Therefore, because the Gospels reflect intimate knowledge of the historical situation in the time when Jesus lived, the writer lived about that time and the Gospels are historical. Of course, if the Gospels are historical, then Jesus must have lived when they say.

Perhaps, the most interesting confirmation of the Gospels comes from Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians, when he mentions that some among their church were claiming to have been baptized by Jesus himself. That would be hard to claim, if Jesus had not lived recently.

Further confirmation in the New Testament and other sources are the references to James, the brother of the Lord, who is elsewhere identified as brother of Jesus. Some of the sources outside the New Testament are the writings of Flavius Josephus, Bishop Eusebius, and apocryphal Christian texts. Tacitus is reported to have interviewed family of Jesus, descended from his brother Jude.

Now, we must acknowledge the criticism, that these are all religious texts to some degree. Even with Flavius Josephus, although a Jew writing for secular historical purposes at the end of the first century, his writings like most records of that time come to us through religious scribes. (I agree with some scholars who see the direct reference to Jesus twice as the editing of a pious scribe and not original.) Nonetheless, this is not sufficient to discard the texts completely, invalidating their historical references, which largely agree with the story as we know it from religious tradition.

The complaint so often heard from super-skeptics is that no historical (meaning non-religious) texts attest to Jesus, and therefore he could not have existed. This argument is silly, because even the Romans did not record everything and not everything they recorded has survived. Also, millions of people lived in the ancient world for whom we have no evidence, yet they did exist nonetheless. The argument is also wrong because we do have a couple of early references.

Suetonius wrote that during reign of Claudius, 41-54 CE, Jews in Rome were creating disturbances about “Chresto” prompting their expulsion from Rome. Since, Chresto is nearly identical to Christ, this probably the earliest evidence of Christianity not in the New Testament. Because time is so close to the time of Pilate in Judea, some of the Jews in Rome would have knowledge and may have met Jesus.

Tacitus wrote that Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome in 64 CE. Of course, this means that Christians were known by that name at this early date, three decades after Jesus.

So we do have some meager testimony from Romans. We must remember, however, the Romans did not have much reason to notice a poor preacher. The Gospels present Jesus as a pacifist, who only called the attention of the authorities on the week he died. He died like lots of common criminals and insurrectionists. There was no big battle nor buildings damaged.

However, we do have some major archaeological evidence from recent years. The discovery of the “James Ossuary” (bone box) and the “Jesus Family Tomb” and another Christian ossuary are controversial, but the controversy is not based on substance so much as a natural reaction to finds of this magnitude. These archaeological have extraordinary implications, and some scholars just do not want to accept them. We even have the ossuary for Jesus!

One last thing, as I discuss in my book, there still exists today an ancient Gnostic sect called the Nazoreans, who claim that John the Baptist was a priest of their order. Their practices and texts were obviously ancient, when they were first discovered living in southern Iraq and Iran. Their texts do not talk well of Jesus, but they do acknowledge that he was a Nazorean priest.

We have put forward some meager but significant evidence, and perhaps that is all we will ever have. Obstinate people will always disregard evidence of something they do not want to accept. Nonetheless, we can be quite sure from the variety of evidence and the amount of evidence that Jesus did live. The best evidence of all, however, is that the world changed because some ancient Jews believed in him.

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The Essene Connection

Jesus was a Jew living in a very religious culture. If we can know his background, this would provide us with some context for his words and behavior.

Recently, scholars have been giving more and more credence to the idea that Jesus was a Pharisee. We have to recognize that in spite of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees in the Gospels Jesus shared much of their ideas and traditions. Even his confrontations with the Pharisees have more the flavor of an intra-family argument than a fundamental opposition. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, but rarely does he argue against their doctrines. He ate with Pharisees, and therefore he prayed with Pharisees. He even told his disciples to obey the Pharisees, because they sat in the seat of Moses.

Yet, it is exactly when Jesus talks about the Pharisees that we can most easily detect a substantial distancing of Jesus from the Pharisees. For one obvious point, he calls them the Pharisees, reflecting that they are not the same as his own group. Jesus takes issue with some of their Torah interpretations. And, of course, Joseph Caiaphas and the Pharisees receive much of the blame for the Crucifixion of Jesus.

This duality that Jesus was a Pharisee but not really a Pharisee is explainable, when we look at the historical texts more closely. According to the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, Judaism was separated into three philosophies: Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. The Sadducees were distinct in not following any scripture except the Torah and in not believing in Resurrection of the Dead. The Pharisees and the Essenes agreed in their acceptance of prophetic writings as authoritative and they shared similar doctrines and practices. The major difference according to Josephus was that the Essenes lived as monks under a stricter interpretation. His descriptions indeed seem to praise this group highly, in spite of that he calls himself a Pharisee.

We find exactly the same kind of treatment of the Essenes from another Pharisee, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, who wrote about the time of Jesus. He too saves his highest praise for the Essenes, who he says live as monks but also others live as ordinary people as well.

How can we understand this extraordinary praise from Pharisees for the Essenes? I suggest that the Essenes were Pharisees, but not identical with most Pharisees, differing in some points of Torah and practice sufficiently that they formed a distinctive group.

Therefore, Jesus might have been an Essene and as such similar to Pharisees. Moreover, other evidence supports that Jesus was an Essene. John the Baptist is now universally accepted to have been an Essene. John baptized Jesus which suggests strongly that Jesus was a follower of John and an Essene himself. Many of Jesus’ apostles and other disciples had been followers of John, showing the great affinity between John and Jesus. Many traditions, including in the Gospel of Luke, suggest that John and Jesus were relatives. Essenes were known as healers similar to Jesus.

There are other examples and questions that are added in my book, but this is sufficient to make the point that Jesus was an Essene, with all that might imply.

The Politics of Jesus

Did Jesus ever say or do anything political? Did Jesus ever indicate that politics was sinful?

Most believers think that Jesus did not do anything political and that he thought that politics was a sinful activity; however, the Gospels do not support these opinions. Quite the opposite, in fact, the Gospels show a man who was politically controversial making political claims.

Firstly, we must recognize the obvious: Jesus was Christ, meaning Messiah. Any good student of the Bible knows that the word means “anointed one.” In Jewish tradition, three types of people were anointed by God: kings, priests, and prophets.

For Jews of the time, the most important of these was the Messianic king of Israel, the “Son of David,” because his arrival signaled the Day of the Lord, also called the Day of Judgment. (Some Christians split these into two separate time periods with the Day of Judgment following the Day of the Lord.) However, none of the Gospels are really clear about Jesus being the Son of David Messiah, except in the genealogies and birth narratives.

All of the Gospels show Jesus behaving in priestly ways. Healing was also within the purview of kings and prophets; however, making pronouncements of doctrine was solely a priestly function. Rabbis could argue a view on the Torah, but only priests, especially the High Priest, had the authority of decrees. However, to complicate matters a bit, some rabbis were also priests, in the style of the prophet, priest, and scribe, Ezra. So, in his authoritative manner, Jesus claimed priestly authority, and in the Letter to the Hebrews Paul calls Jesus Christ the eternal High Priest of Israel.

Obviously, Jesus was also a prophet. We should also recognize that these categories were in no way exclusive. A king was not usually a priest, although there were precedents among the Hasmoneans (Maccabees), who claimed dominance of both state and Temple. However, King David himself was a prophet. And Jesus told the story of how David stole the show bread from the Temple, implying that he had supreme authority even there.

The Son of Joseph Messiah has been equated with the righteous suffering servant, but perhaps also a king, yet not equivalent to the expected Son of David Messiah.

Jesus spoke of the Son of Man, which has an apocalyptic meaning from the Book of Daniel. This figure is a reinterpretation of Ezekiel. Most, early understandings of the “Son of Man” in Ezekiel were as a reference to Ezekiel himself. The epithet distinguished him from the angels in heaven who were often called sons of God. However, later analysis of the texts by Messianic Pharisees, saw a problem with this interpretation, because both Enoch and Elijah must have also been in heaven at the time of Ezekiel’s revelation. As a result, especially among Christians and other Messianic Jews, some concluded that the Son of Man was a separate being in Heaven and not Ezekiel himself. Since the Son of Man was not discussed anywhere else in the past, he must have something to do with what Ezekiel was shown, the prophecies about the future restoration of Israel. So, the Son of Man was a heavenly prophet.

Most important of all to Christians was the claim that Jesus was the Son of God. Now, in a Jewish context this could be any Jew and probably referred to the Son of David Messiah, but it is clear from the Gospel of John (but not from the other Gospels) and in the letters of Paul that the Son of God was not just a man but a god, himself. Perhaps, and I think the texts support this, he was the God of Israel. If Jesus was the Son of God, then he was the heir to God’s throne, a kingly Messiah.

Is any one of these titles for Jesus outside of politics? Certainly, not in the time that Jesus lived. The Messiah was in all cases a person of supreme authority and political power. God’s representation on earth could not be otherwise, because God demands obedience always.

Then we have the activities of Jesus in the Gospels. He challenged the priests and rabbinical authorities, although he did so carefully. He condemned cities and religious groups. He disrupted the Temple offerings. He challenged the interpretations of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He refused to pay the Temple tax, although a fish paid it for him. He claimed to be king to the Roman prefect and to Herod Antipas. He healed people of other races and cared for sinners. He consorted with zealots and created disturbances. All of these actions had serious political implications in ancient Judea.

Christianity has danced around the political nature of Jesus Christ from the very beginning, obeying for the moment the established authorities. Nonetheless, the ultimate goal of Christianity has always been to establish a new world order. Is there anything more political than that?

The idea that Jesus thought that politics was sinful is an impression from the way Jesus did his politics, couched in religious doctrines and spiritual actions; but in ancient Judaism, in all ancient societies, even among the Romans, politics was always justified as the will of God. Even in our modern secular societies, the language of politics is a moral discourse. Is there any other way?

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Belief is truth, at least temporarily. It is the decisions that we have already made about what is true and what is not. We filter our perceptions through belief into an intelligible whole and a sense of continuity. Regardless of our processes of decision, our prejudices are simply our prior decisions made poorly, leading us into error.

In order to be useful, belief tends to become an abbreviated version of our evaluations of experience, otherwise we would become bogged down in reliving our previous thought processes every time we wanted to evaluate a new experience or thought. The abbreviated nature of our belief systems and hierarchies guarantee that they will inadequately represent the complexity of reality. Consequently, the greatest impediment to understanding is the beliefs that we hold strongly. Said another way, knowledge is the greatest obstacle to learning.

To open the mind, we must let go of our constant interpretations of everything. Much of the value of meditation, especially Buddhist meditation, is to quiet the interpretation process in order to experience the world as it really is. In meditating, we ignore our habitual process of prejudging according to our beliefs. If we do it well enough, we can reach a place called “new mind,” or as Jesus said, “We see through the eyes of a child.” The child is us without our habitual prejudices.

This is controlled ignorance, shutting down the constant interpretative process temporarily to gain insight into reality. Controlled ignorance does not make us dumb, but it brings us closer to reality from which true knowledge comes. In time, through practice, we learn that we do not need our prejudices and that they actually are hindering our awareness of reality and truth. Beliefs have their value in helping us to make quick decisions, but in quiet moments we seek greater accuracy.

The same precept can apply to our studies of history and religion. If we can ignore our views and appreciate the complexity of reality and thought in all times, new possibilities emerge.

The Primacy of the Gospel of John

Several reasons point to the Gospel of John as the earliest Gospel. I would refer readers and highly suggest a book by a lay scholar, Evan Powell, called “The Unfinished Gospel” that argues quite convincingly on this subject. His work has been widely ignored, because it relies on logical arguments and textual evidence rather than on the authority granted to an academic. Too bad, because the book’s argument is outstanding and convincing.

Additionally, I have several reasons for my own conclusion that John is the earliest Gospel. First of all is that John, for all its high theology, claiming that Jesus is not only the Son of God but God himself, has fewer miracle stories than any other Gospel. This suggests that it was written before many of the miracle traditions about Jesus were collected.

My second reason for suggesting that John was the earliest Gospel is that John strikingly differs from the other three in constructing the story of Jesus’ missionary activity. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar in recounting the story of Jesus that the three Gospels are called “Synoptic,” referring to the similarity in their overall narrative and theological views about Jesus. This consistency is powerful evidence of a more developed story that has grown over time, accumulating traditions. In other words, the Synoptic version is a later version.

According to current scholarly consensus, the Gospel of John was written significantly later than the others, perhaps even later than 100 CE. The reason for this later date is the clear deification of Jesus, which scholars call “high Christology.” If this were actually the case, if the Gospel of John was written later, however; we would need to explain why the Gospel of John totally disregarded the chronological story of Jesus mission that had already been established by the Synoptics for nearly forty years. If we consider this objectively, the later date for John becomes untenable, because the author would have discarded without comment nor explanation most of the narrative of Jesus’ mission in favor of a much reduced story that conflicted with the belief of most Christians at the time. Why would a Christian author do that? It is more likely that the Synoptic Gospels corrected the imperfect chronology of John than that the author of John totally disregarded the Synoptic Gospels in his own account.

The purpose to current scholarship of the later date for the Gospel of John is to create a theory of the gradual development of Christian theology, thus distancing Jesus from any extraordinary claims. This is an almost natural development from view Jesus as just another Jewish rabbi, who could not make any extraordinary claims. In other words, the current scholarly narrative distances Jesus, and even his apostles, from Christianity. In order to maintain this view, however, scholars have disallowed that most of the texts of the New Testament, and almost all texts outside the NT, have had anything to do with the persons named as authors. In fact, most of the New Testament canon is considered pious forgeries! An early date for John would disrupt this theory.

There is a great attraction to this view, because that allows scholars to carefully edit and pick and choose what is considered evidence. Very little of the New Testament or is taken seriously as evidence. In other words, scholars can edit to fit their theory in a patently circular fashion.

I disagree with this approach. We should consider that much of the New Testament is legitimate evidence. In fact, we can prove that the letters of Paul were his own, and the other letters also were probably correctly attributed by the ancient fathers. However, this would require accepting different paradigm, where Jesus and the apostles did make extraordinary claims that founded Christianity.

One answer to the differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels is that John was earliest. The author may not have been an eyewitness to all of the mission of Jesus, but he understood in depth the teachings and represented the teachings accurately. However, the message of the Gospel of John was controversial among the Jewish people, which at the time included all of Christianity. We must remember that originally Christianity was a Jewish sect. We know how Jesus was treated, and it is not surprising that his teachings continued to be controversial, so that the Gospel of John remained controversial until Christianity finally established itself separate from Judaism.

The Synoptics corrected the Gospel of John through eyewitness testimony in the chronology of events, but they also had their own political and religious agenda to remain closer to traditional Judaism. While the Twelve were close to Jesus in his mission and the likely eyewitnesses, even the Synoptic Gospels show them to be rather dense in understanding Jesus. In other words, the Synoptic Gospels are more accurate in describing the order of events, but less accurate in reporting what Jesus intended and claimed.

If Jesus actually made extraordinary claims, then his importance in forming Christianity is obvious. The reason for the violent reaction against him becomes quite understandable. The revolution that he started clearly belongs to him. In short, Christianity had a founder.

If Jesus made no extraordinary claim, why did anyone care? In other words, the very existence of a religion of Christianity argues that Jesus did say and do unusual and even extraordinary things, such things as what we now categorize as “high Christology.”

Moreover, we should notice what is missing from the Gospel of John: No Virgin Birth. No genealogy. No claim to be the Son of David. Few miracle stories. No subordination to John the Baptist, and no appeasement to Jewish authority. The lack of embellishment in the story suggests by itself an earlier date than the more elaborate narrative of the Synoptic Gospels.

Also, there is an interesting diversion of the Gospel of John in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John clearly declares that Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the Resurrection, announcing to the other disciples. The Synoptic Gospels include reference to women witnesses, diluting Mary Magdalene along with other women, but they deny any importance to them, even to the point of insulting them. We know from Paul’s letters, however, that women were extremely important in Christian communities, to the point that he calls Junia an apostle and Phoebe a deaconess. According to John only, Mary Magdalene announced the Resurrection to the other apostles. So the Gospel of John better reflects the contemporaneous situation, where women were equal to the men. Clearly, the Synoptics could not deny that women were present at the Resurrection, but they did not honor this fact; so why bother to mention the women at all? The answer is that the presence of the women, especially Mary Magdalene, was already well known from the Gospel of John. They could not ignore the fact, but they attempted to reduce its value to the Christian tradition.

Therefore, logically we must consider that the Gospel of John is earlier, and that the idea that Christianity had no real founder is without foundation itself. We need a new paradigm.

The Lord said to my Lord…

Perhaps the most important text in the Gospels is when Jesus refutes that the Messiah is the Son of David. Few Christians actually get what is happening in these sayings of Jesus, because one of first things that believers are taught is that Jesus is the Son of David. His descent from David is an important part of the birth narratives. However, the Gospels create a lot of ambiguity about this in other stories.

For Christianity, it is much more important that Jesus is the Son of God, but fulfilling the Messianic prophecy is also significant. The claim that Jesus is the Son of David contradicts that he is also the Son of God. This is addressed in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, connecting Jesus to God through David back to Adam, whom he calls the son of God. This is not satisfactory to most people, because theoretically then we are each the Son (or daughter) of God.

The argument made mostly by Catholics that Jesus descended from David through Mary is clearly defective and thoroughly unconvincing, because Jewish inheritance was patrilineal. Moreover, the argument deliberately misreads the text in an attempt to obfuscate the contradictions between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. Yet both genealogies represent the inheritance of Joseph, and neither concern Mary. Of course, the Virgin Birth makes both genealogies moot in any case.

Two of the Gospels omit both the birth narrative and any attempt at a genealogy. The Gospel of John never claims that Jesus is the Son of David at all. In the Gospel of Mark, one person calls Jesus the Son of David in 10:47-48, a blind man. Again in Matthew, setting aside the birth and genealogy sections, Jesus is called the Son of David, by a Canaanite woman, by two blind men, and by the ecstatic crowd on his entrance to Jerusalem, but Jesus never acknowledges the title directly. Likewise, outside of the birth and genealogy sections, Luke only has the story of a blind man calling Jesus the Son of David, to which Jesus does not respond.

We must understand something else which even more deepens this ambiguity. People in the ancient Jewish world who were seriously ill were often thought to be unclean and suffering from demons. Foreigners of alien races, like the Canaanites, were obviously unclean and subject to demons. So these identifications of Jesus could be demonic lies. Matthew tends to depict the crowds as fickle and senseless, easily swayed, so we cannot take too seriously their identification, especially since they cry for his blood later the same week.

Paul identifies Jesus as being “of the seed of David.” This seems rather straight forward, but the wording is odd. Why does Paul avoid the word for “son”? He uses it in calling Jesus the Son of God. Why does he evoke “sperm,” the literal meaning of the Greek word? This directly contravenes the idea of the Virgin Birth, yet neither does it point to the Messianic prophecy of the Son of David. This cannot be accidental.

If we still have reservations in recognizing the ambiguity around identifying Jesus as the Son of David, then we still have the words of Jesus himself. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus himself refutes that the Messiah could be the Son of David by bringing David as a witness, quoting the 110th Psalm. Christians of all kinds generally use these verses to argue that Christ is God without ever acknowledging that they deny that Jesus was the Son of David, which is the actual meaning of the argument. To add to the confusion, if that be possible, Acts quotes the same Psalm out of context and concludes that it means that Jesus is the Son of David! The argument in Acts is nonsensical but believers do not mind ignoring a few details; few even notice the contradiction.

What this shows is that at the time that the Gospels were written there was a consensus among many early Christians that Jesus was not the Son of David Messiah, but a different kind of Messiah. Later, probably after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the birth narratives and genealogies proving that Jesus was the Son of David were added in order to set aside the expectations of a second Messiah, other than Jesus Christ.

The Order of the Pauline Epistles

© 2014 by Michael LaFond

Paul map

We begin our quest starting with the letters of Saint Paul. This chapter will circumvent theories about which of Paul’s letters are authentic by addressing the letters directly. The letters themselves permit the reconstruction of a definite order through the internal details that Paul provides. Once the order is proven, forming a definite and harmonious narrative of Paul’s journey, the idea that any of these letters does not proceed from Paul becomes extremely unlikely.

The oldest Christian texts are the fourteen letters of Saint Paul. Older than even the Gospels, these fourteen texts provide us a window into the earliest Christian doctrine and practice. However, the letters lack clarity for modern readers, because we are deprived in large part of the context behind the letters.

The letters of Saint Paul are found in the New Testament after the Acts of the Apostles. They are arranged in order according to length with longest first and shortest last, except for the Letter to the Hebrews. Consequently, the chronological order of the Pauline letters has been unknown and subject to speculation and educated guesses. This disorder, along with certain reasonable but incorrect assumptions, has helped to conceal the real story behind the letters.

Attempts to place the letters in order and within a rough context using the Acts of the Apostles have for the most part failed; not surprisingly, because Acts is not in the modern sense, an historical document. This text has a religious and political agenda, glossing conflicts and difficulties in the early Church in order to serve the legend of the perfect Church. The legend of the Church having a golden age has been an important doctrine, offering believers confidence that the Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit, by God himself. Even an uncritical observer, however, can detect the contradictions within the narrative of Acts, and we can learn much from understanding its concoctions.

Knowing that this text is not entirely accurate, it would be better not to rely upon Acts in interpreting the letters of Paul. Yet, we have until now lacked reasonable alternatives; we had no other solid historical evidence to provide support for any other conclusions. This assessment, however, has always been mistaken; surprisingly, it has always been possible to build an historical context from Paul’s letters themselves, without relying on the Acts of the Apostles. Unlike the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Saint Paul are documents contemporaneous with the events, and both the author and the hearers were in the midst of the situations described. Therefore, the letters are naturally truthful and they are supremely authoritative; they are the best possible source we could imagine. So, before we look to any other source— adding speculations, errors of bias, and problematic inferences— we should glean every possible unvarnished detail provided by Saint Paul himself.

Our method will be simple, therefore: Firstly, we shall order the letters using the significant information provided in each letter. Paul writes to his communities including salutations from those he is with to those who will hear the letters, naming both whom he is writing to and whom he is with. He also includes news and administrative directions to his followers, and he discusses his past, his plans, his successes, and sometimes even his failures. From all of this data, it becomes a simple matter to logically arrange the letters in sensible order according to Paul’s discussion of the situation. Secondly, following the order of the letters, we will be able to reconstruct a coherent narrative and understand why Paul was writing and to what purpose. Finally, we will be in a better position to compare our findings to the other texts in the New Testament, including the Acts of the Apostles, and to determine what other information is useful for filling out the story. In doing so, we will be able to achieve a deeper understanding of Paul’s mission and how Christianity came to be what it is.

The epistles of Paul follow a defined structure, demonstrated in nearly all of them. The letters begin with a greeting, followed by a prayer of thanksgiving, one or more homilies in the body of the text, and ending with a parting salutation. The greeting is sometimes quite formal and it usually consists of three parts: a sometimes elaborate identification of the author, an often complex or even poetic identification of the audience, and a formula of benediction. The prayer of thanksgiving follows, and it flows into the homilies as seamlessly as possible. The homilies address contemporary issues of importance, generally flowing into one another and finally entering into the parting salutation. The parting salutation may contain an elaborate blessing, a personal greeting or acknowledgment of the hearers, and a formula of benediction to end the letter called a “doxology.”

This structure is not inviolable, but from Paul’s consistent adherence we can surmise that it was clearly an already well established formal genre, perhaps imitating formal Greek letters. Supporting this conclusion is that the other letters of the New Testament also resemble this structure, although with much less formality. The consistency of Paul’s letters suggests that this style of letter already had some currency with those whom he corresponds and that public letter writing between communities was already a common feature of Judaism, at least in the Diaspora.

Within his letters, Paul often greets persons by name and places authority on his messengers, some who presumably carry the letters in question. He sometimes mentions his own location indirectly, and sometimes he discusses other churches. These details may occur anywhere in the text, but usually they are contained in the parting salutation. Through a systematic examination of places and persons named and the content of the message, we will determine where Paul was and where he was going and when, carefully reconstructing a coherent narrative of his career as an apostle of Christ.

As an aid to the reader, I have listed important details that Paul provided about his missionary activities from all of his letters in Appendix 1. For the sake of clarity, the data are ordered chronologically as I have reconstructed the order of the letters. Here is the list of the letters arranged by my conclusions regarding the evidence:

Saint Paul’s Letters (in chronological order)

1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
Galatians
2 Corinthians
Romans
Hebrews
Titus
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Ephesians
Philemon
Colossians
Laodiceans (apocryphal)
Philippians

Laodiceans is included in the list for the sake of completeness, because I believe the extra-canonical text, now only preserved in Latin, to be genuine and not pseudonymous, meaning a pious forgery. It may have been left out of the New Testament at an early date to achieve the magical number fourteen, replaced by the later addition of Hebrews, and also because it is tiny and contains nothing obviously significant. Most scholars and even many ancient Church fathers have rejected this letter as pseudonymous, but without strong arguments or evidence, although it was included in some copies of ancient Latin Bibles.

I will demonstrate that the above ordering of the letters is correct, with some minor caveats, starting with the earliest letter and working methodically to the last, developing the chronology of each letter relative to the others. It is natural that the reader will wonder if other orders are possible. Of course, any number of improbable scenarios is possible, but we should believe the simpler, more reasonable explanation. By the end of the discussion, I believe it will be clear that this order is not only the simplest, the most reasonable, and the most probable; but it is the correct one.

Before we begin our detailed examination of the Pauline letters, it might serve us to refresh our memory from Paul’s own summation of his missionary activity that he wrote in Galatians and other letters: Paul had been a Hebrew born of Hebrews, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, adhering to Mosaic law as a Pharisee. He was a practitioner of Judaism, which he does not define, although he equates religious zeal with persecuting the Church. That last point— zeal in Judaism assumes persecution of the Church— is extremely interesting and important for our later discussion of his mission.

Paul had a revelation of Jesus Christ at Damascus. He immediately went away into Arabia for some mysterious purpose. He then returned to Damascus. After three years, Paul went to Jerusalem for the first time as a Christian, and he stayed only fifteen days. He then proceeded with his missionary activity into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.

Then, during a total of fourteen years, Paul went to Jerusalem a second time and had a confrontation with some unnamed apostles and with Cephas, whom we commonly know from Greek and Latin as Peter, and with James, the Lord’s brother. Paul returned to Syria. Cephas, however, when visiting Antioch, followed the demands of others who came from James concerning purity of fellowship. Paul confronted him openly and called him a hypocrite.

Because Paul speaks so directly and specifically about his history as a Christian in Galatians, we can easily deduce from the details that all of his epistles in the New Testament are the product of his missionary work after the confrontation with Cephas in Antioch. We know this because Paul gives a full accounting in Galatians of his Christian career up until the time that he preached at Galatia, including the confrontation with Cephas, but does not refer to lands west of Cilicia. Therefore, all of the communities addressed by the other letters, being west of Cilicia (excepting the Letter to the Hebrews) and unmentioned in his recounting of his time before preaching in Galatia, are later in his journeys. Paul does offer a few additional details regarding his earlier work in other letters, but this recounting will suffice for now as an introduction to the missionary journey described by the letters.

1 and 2 Thessalonians

Scholars have long been virtually unanimous that 1.Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest epistle followed by 2.Thessalonians, although some have argued that 2.Thessalonians is pseudonymous. Temporarily putting aside the dispute over 2.Thessalonians, from the internal evidence alone we have good reason for considering these two letters as earlier than the other letters.

First, in both of these letters, Paul indicates that he is writing jointly with Timothy and Silvanus (also known as Silas). Paul is treating Timothy and Silvanus as equals in the greeting, but we know from the other letters that he considered himself to be a father in the faith to Timothy, at least. The status of coauthors that Paul gives them in the letter indicates not only that the Thessalonians knew Timothy and Silvanus, but that these two had played a strong role in evangelizing the community at Thessalonika.

Secondly, we should focus on the fact that Sylvanus is with Paul. Paul refers to Silvanus only one other time in all of his other letters, when he says that Silvanus and Timothy had preached the gospel together with him in Corinth. As we shall see in the details of these letters, Paul is preaching at Corinth now, so this is the time to which he refers in 2.Corinthians. Although we cannot know from Paul’s silence a reason for the disappearance of Silvanus from his later discourse, the fact that Paul does not mention Silvanus beyond this part of his journey probably indicates that some sort of split occurred. We can also see that Timothy, Silvanus, and Paul very likely preached the gospel at Thessalonika and Corinth relatively close in time. This corresponds well with the fact that Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy were driven out from Antioch together not long before preaching in Macedonia.

When Paul reassures the Thessalonians that the dead are not lost in Christ, he confirms to us that they have not been Christians long enough to have witnessed many deaths in their community. It is surprising that the Thessalonians appear to be ignorant of basic Christian teachings concerning the Resurrection of the Dead. Both their inexperience and their ignorance of basic Christian dogma attest that the Thessalonians were extremely recent converts.

Paul says that the Thessalonians have been an example to all of Macedonia and Achaia and even beyond. Considering the short time that the Thessalonians have been Christians, this would strongly suggest that Paul is writing from somewhere near Achaia. The coincidence of Silvanus being a co-author in the two Thessalonian letters and also named as preaching with Paul at Corinth, but not being mentioned in regard to other communities, also argues strongly that Paul wrote both letters from near Corinth, when Silvanus accompanied him.

That Paul wrote from Corinth is further supported when Paul says that he had stayed alone at Athens, from where he sent Timothy to the Thessalonians, because Athens was just north of Achaia, between Corinth and Thessalonika. Timothy must have returned quickly to Paul in southern Greece to bring him news of the Thessalonians, news that prompted the first letter. Whoever carried the first letter to Thessalonika, probably Timothy again, must have reported to Paul additional information, prompting an immediate second letter. This explains the precisely equivalent situations within the two letters (some manuscripts treat these as a single letter) and the lack of references to other, newer communities. Therefore, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians twice from Achaia, very close in time, probably within days or weeks, while preaching the gospel in southern Greece.

Of course, if Paul was just then preaching the gospel in southern Greece when he wrote the Thessalonian letters, and the Thessalonians are an example to the Corinthians, then these letters with certainty must predate the Corinthian letters, because the Corinthian letters refer to Paul’s time among them and presume that the Corinthians were already Christians.
Suppose that we can show that other letters are later than 1.Corinthians? Those letters naturally would also have to postdate 1 and 2.Thessalonians. In this manner, carefully and in succession, by proving that one letter must be earlier or later than others, we can build a chronological chain in order to restore the true order of the letters, thereby reconstructing a context for them.

Although 1.Thessalonians enjoys wide acceptance as being prior to 2.Thessalonians, the evidence for this is more subtle and subjective. First, 1.Thessalonians contains many details about Paul’s missionary activities, especially at Thessalonika itself, while 2.Thessalonians offers none. This suggests that 2.Thessalonians followed on 1.Thessalonians so soon that little had changed and there was little to tell. Had 2.Thessalonians been first, it should have contained the news about Paul’s missionary activities. Furthermore, the second letter is very short and unadorned in comparison with most of Paul’s letters, which would be expected in a quick follow-up because the general situation has not changed. Also, Paul’s extended explanation about his reason for sending Timothy so soon makes far more sense if he wrote 1.Thessalonians first and only a short time before. Therefore, we have little reason to challenge the traditional order, and some good reasons to trust it.

Obviously, I am accepting 2.Thessalonians as a genuine letter from Paul based on the tradition, and the content and the context support this conclusion. Most importantly, the inclusion of an apologetic explanation for sending Timothy again gives this letter outstanding credibility, because apologies and excuses weaken the appearance of Paul’s authority to readers. Moreover, the alternative is that a pseudonymous author had an extraordinarily creative and convoluted imagination, which I count as an improbable and strained explanation.

The principal argument against the authenticity of 2.Thessalonians is the high Christology, referring to the well developed doctrine and deification of Christ. The high Christology, however, is entirely natural to Paul’s theology. Paul often speaks of Christ as God, such as when he states that “we are Christ” or “we are all in Christ.” What else could he mean except that Jesus Christ was a divinity? This is not to say, at this point, that Paul was a Trinitarian, but neither have we eliminated that possibility.

1 and 2 Corinthians

As discussed above, 1.Corinthians must be later than both of the letters to the Thessalonians, because Paul wrote those letters while he was first evangelizing in Achaia. We need only to show that the remaining letters were later to establish the place of 1.Corinthians in the chain of events. However, there was another letter to the Corinthians that we do not have, although we know about it because of 2.Corinthians 5:9. Nothing else is known about this lost letter.

First, we should note that in 1.Corinthians Paul again addresses some very basic issues in Christian life, which says that here also not much time has passed since Paul evangelized them. Especially, he discusses marriage and sex, as well as food issues. These basic questions of daily life could not have been ignored long; therefore, Paul has not traveled long from Achaia before writing to the Corinthians.

Paul did not teach the Thessalonians basic dogma and he did not teach the Corinthians about daily life, strongly begging the question: what did his preaching did consist of? Later, we may be able to make some positive statements on this subject; however, for now we should just note that Paul’s preaching was extremely limited. Therefore, as we should suspect, he did not require much time to evangelize. Paul corroborates this view in 1.Corinthians when he indicates that it is time for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and then he writes that he will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost because of an opportunity to preach the gospel. This means that Paul expected to need less than seven weeks to evangelize the new community. This corresponds well with the apparent minimal nature of his instruction.

Paul says the Corinthians should follow the instructions that he gave to the Galatians regarding the collection for the saints. This collection was a major project that Paul discusses in many of the epistles, and here Paul writes about it for the first time. Paul reveals here that he discussed the collection at Corinth and dispatched someone to Galatia from there, allowing the Corinthians to know Paul’s instructions to the Galatians. The absence of any mention of the collection in the Thessalonian letters indicates that Paul had not begun the collection before reaching southern Greece, and Paul verifies this later in 2.Corinthians, writing that Achaia had more time than Macedonia to produce their gift for the saints— the Corinthians have had since last year to work on their collection. This further certifies that both letters to the Corinthians were later than both of the letters to the Thessalonians.

In 1.Corinthians, Paul is at Ephesus saying that he will travel to Macedonia and, in 2.Corinthians, Paul is in Macedonia explaining how he came there from Ephesus. Therefore, we can see that Paul wrote 2 Corinthians within a couple of months after 1.Corinthians, during the summer of the same year. Second Corinthians also indicates that Paul had been in Achaia, beginning the plans for the collection, at least six months before, but it could not have been too much more than six months. This timing becomes very important because Paul gives us a concrete benchmark, by stating that he received his revelation of Christ fourteen years before. This benchmark dates 2.Corinthians close in time to Galatians, where he also mentions the fourteen-year timing.

Paul tells the Corinthians in his second letter to them that he is about to come to them for a third time. We only have evidence, however, for one previous visit to Corinth at this point. This problem is cleared up if Paul went northwest to Illyricum from Corinth after his first visit and then passed through Corinth a second time, the easiest path by ship, before reaching Ephesus.

Galatians

Now we are ready to address Galatians, although a little out of order, because Paul wrote Galatians between 1 and 2.Corinthians in the late spring or early summer. Because Timothy is not aware in 1.Corinthians that Paul was detained at Ephesus, it seems likely that Paul sent Timothy by land east to Galatia carrying this letter from Ephesus. Apparently, he had told Timothy to meet him in Corinth but he was afterwards delayed in Ephesus, which is why he expected the Corinthians to see Timothy first. The reason that we should believe that Paul was at Ephesus when he wrote Galatians is because of his reference to the Galatians and the collection in 1.Corinthians, implying that at the time of writing 1.Corinthians, he was still positive about the Galatians’ faith. The content of the Letter to the Galatians, however, shows that he has become disillusioned.

In Galatians, as we have mentioned, Paul summarizes the important events of his career until the time of his preaching to the churches of Galatia, until the confrontation with Cephas at Antioch. Paul recounts his Christian mission in Galatians arguing that he has never depended upon certain persons in Jerusalem for the authority to preach. As support for his argument, Paul insists that he has not been to Jerusalem much at all, thus demonstrating his independence from certain persons there. He recounts his last visit, stating that he went to Jerusalem again, for only the second time in fourteen years.

This understanding of Galatians 2:1, that Paul means he has been a Christian for fourteen years at the time of his writing, requires some discussion. Traditionally, this pericope has been translated as “then after fourteen years again I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas taking with me also Titus;” the word “after” seemed to be needed in our modern languages in order to logically connect the previous verse to the following. However, the Greek word, διὰ, means “through” or in referring to time “during,” and it does not mean “after” anywhere else in Greek literature. Therefore, this is a highly suspect translation, creating a new and unique understanding of the word for this one purpose. Scholars have long known that this translation is weak, but there was no clear alternative that made sense, given the chronology of the Acts of the Apostles and our traditional assumptions about the nature of Paul’s mission. Fourteen years just seemed too short of a time for Paul to found and build all of those congregations from scratch. We have already seen, however, that Paul required less than seven weeks, and not years, to establish a church. Therefore, if we set aside the traditional assumptions about the chronology, we can take Paul at his word.

Perhaps, this translation of the Greek word, διὰ, might be justified as a mistake made by an ancient scribe, but there is no evidence or even a plausible speculation of how such an error happened. Adding to the desire to blame a scribe is the fact that the modern literal translation “then through fourteen years again I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas taking with me also Titus;” sounds clumsy in our modern languages. But it was not necessarily clumsy in the ancient Greek. Moreover, if we just parenthesize “through fourteen years”— the original document would not have included any punctuation— we arrive at the sense befitting the context of the argument in Galatians: that Paul is stressing how relatively little time he had spent in Jerusalem over the length of his Christian career in order to show that he was independent of certain persons in authority there.

It is also important to reiterate that the time frame that Paul gives in Galatians 2:1 is his entire time as a Christian since his first revelation of Christ until the time of the letter itself. This understanding of Paul’s statement corresponds well with the order of the letters and the chronology we are building from them, because Paul is still in his fourteenth year from his original revelation when he writes to the Corinthians the second time. Moreover, we can see now that this is the only reading that makes sense, because Paul could not have spent fourteen years in Syria and Cilicia and have visited Jerusalem the second time in his fourteenth year but then still be in his fourteenth year on his second visit to Macedonia writing 2.Corinthians. Therefore, Paul wrote Galatians in his fourteenth year from his revelation of Christ, between the letters 1 and 2.Corinthians.

The fact that Paul does not at all mention the collection in the Letter to the Galatians tells us that he already considered the project a failure there. Perhaps, he had given up on the Galatians as apostate, for he does not begin nor end this letter on a strong positive feeling of love that he does in his other letters.

That Paul does not mention the Galatians in relation to the collection in 2.Corinthians is also strong evidence that he had already given up on their part by the time he wrote that letter. This places 2.Corinthians shortly after Paul wrote to the Galatians, although still in Paul’s fourteenth year as a Christian, as he says.

A previous letter to the Galatians written from Corinth about the collection probably existed, as he mentions in 1.Corinthians, but it is lost. Paul does not mention a previous letter to the Galatians; but it is difficult to imagine him sending verbal instructions on the important matter of the collection without also sending a personal communication as well.

Romans and Hebrews

In 2.Corinthians, Paul was in Macedonia planning to return to Corinth for a third time and he hoped they would do well with the collection. In Romans, Paul says the collections of Macedonia and Achaia have been completed. This strongly implies that Paul wrote Romans in Achaia and not long after 2.Corinthians.

Paul commends to the Romans Phoebe, who is a deaconess at Cenchreae, a town near Corinth in Achaia. Paul mentions her first in passing along greetings and says that he is sending her to the Romans, which suggests that he is near Corinth, at Cenchreae in Achaia where she ministers. Also, Paul states that Erastus is the city treasurer, and later in 2.Timothy Paul informed his coworker that Erastus remained in Corinth, a coincidence which corroborates strongly that Paul was writing Romans at or near Corinth.

Closely to be associated with Romans is the Letter to the Hebrews, a very unusual letter. Many, if not most, scholars think that it is not a letter at all but a homily, and most think that someone other than Paul wrote it. There are some good arguments for these ideas— the Greek is different and the ideas are unusual when compared with the other letters. My answer to these objections is that Paul is writing to a very different community for a very different purpose. Paul wrote all of the other letters to Greek-speaking communities or to his Greek-speaking lieutenants, composing them or dictating them, naturally, in Greek. Hebrews, on the other hand, can only be addressed to a Jewish Christian community, probably Jerusalem, and as such, Paul would have composed this letter in Aramaic. Later, a scribe translated the letter into Greek for the sake of Greek Christians. This also explains why Hebrews is found out of order at the end of the collection of Paul’s epistles— although it is longer than some of the others— because it was a late addition to an already existing collection. As to the unusual nature of the ideas, this is not the simple preaching that the Greek communities received, but a scholarly, even priestly, justification of Jesus Christ as the Messiah of the Jews and the head of a new priesthood. Hebrews is Paul’s gospel for the Jews as Romans is Paul’s gospel for the Hellenes.

Scholars have believed Hebrews to be a homily because it lacks much of the structure of Paul’s other letters. Specifically, Hebrews lacks the introductory greeting and thanksgiving prayer. On the other hand, the concluding salutations and the discussion of his plans in Hebrews 13 show definitively that this was originally a letter. Perhaps, the translating scribe felt embarrassed by the manner that Paul addressed the Jews in greeting them— probably because he was either too harsh or too meek— but the letter was too rich and eloquent for the translator to discard it completely. Without the usual greeting and thanksgiving, the letter is now in fact truncated artificially into a homily.

This letter should be coupled with Romans partly because Paul is with persons from Italy. There is a slight possibility that I am mistaken in the timing and that Hebrews belongs just prior to 1.Corinthians, since Paul apparently had met many from Rome during his first visit to Corinth, as we see in the concluding salutations of Romans. This is also mentioned in Acts. On the other hand, coupling this letter with Romans makes more sense, because Paul states he will return to Jerusalem soon. This probably means that Paul is in Achaia and the collection is ready— the same situation found in Romans. Paul promises to bring Timothy with him soon but, as we shall see presently, he does not bring Timothy. Paul’s subsequent actions would not correspond with his statements in Hebrews, if the letter preceded his second circuit around the Aegean. Therefore, the community that Paul addressed was almost certainly Jerusalem, just prior to his return with the collection.

Since Romans and Hebrews were probably composed at nearly the same time in Achaia, an ordering with Romans being prior to Hebrews makes a bit more sense. Paul says that he will bring Timothy with him, if Timothy comes in time. If, however, Romans, in which Timothy sends greetings, followed Hebrews, then Paul must have promised casually and then reneged, because we later find that Timothy did not accompany Paul but stayed at Ephesus. This is something Paul would not and could not do because, as we see in 2.Corinthians, failure to fulfill even the least commitment would cause great discredit on his mission. Had something of such importance arisen that he would risk discredit by not fulfilling his word, we should expect some mention in later letters, but we find no such mention. Therefore, it seems very likely that Romans predated Hebrews by a little bit, and Timothy did not return in time to travel with Paul to Jerusalem.

Titus and 1 Timothy

The epistles Titus and 1.Timothy are so similar in style and content that we should address them together, because they obviously address a common situation. The Letter to Titus is shorter and less detailed than 1.Timothy, but the similarities are nonetheless striking. Paul addresses Timothy as his “loyal child in the faith” and Titus as his “loyal child.” In the greeting, Paul blesses both of them in almost exactly the same manner. In 1.Timothy, Paul attacks certain false teachers and false doctrines, and he tells Titus the same. He instructs both Titus and Timothy on establishing elders including bishops. He instructs them both on proper comportment for leaders and brothers and sisters. The fact that Paul is offering by means of a letter this important instruction on apostleship, suggests that he believes that he may not see them again. Paul ends both letters with a near identical benediction. Therefore, we can clearly see the parallels between these two letters, which demonstrate that Paul wrote them for the same purpose in a similar situation and very close in time.

Timothy was not able to return to Paul before he left for Jerusalem with the collection for the saints, and Paul was at the time of writing 1.Timothy either en route or already arrived in Judea. Titus on the other hand was left at Crete, which was on the way to Judea from Achaia, so we should expect that Paul wrote from somewhere east of Crete.

All the remaining letters describe Paul in prison at Rome. Titus and 1.Timothy cannot be later than Paul’s imprisonment at Rome, because Titus deserts Paul upon his imprisonment. Therefore, the letters Titus and 1.Timothy are obviously earlier than the remaining letters.

A reason to place Titus and 1.Timothy closer and not farther in time from 2.Timothy and Ephesians is the confluence of the details that are shared. Of course, Timothy is in Ephesus, but also in Titus 3:12 Paul mentions Tychicus for the first time, who Paul treats as an apostle in 2.Timothy and Ephesians. Furthermore, the traditional material of the Acts of the Apostles says that Paul faced trial in Jerusalem on his last trip there, while the Letter to Titus shows Paul requesting a lawyer in Titus 3:13 and asking for the apostle Apollos. Therefore, Paul probably wrote Titus and 1.Timothy in Jerusalem, immediately before he was tried and convicted.

Between Titus and 1.Timothy, the priority is not obvious. Although the many parallels listed above place these two epistles in a common milieu, the wording of the content is not identical. This suggests that the two letters were composed separately, although probably within a week of each other. My feeling is that Paul wrote Titus first in order to explain his hasty departure from Crete, which appears to have been unexpected, and to give instructions for Titus in his absence— primarily that Titus should remain at Crete to finish their work. This suggests that very little time has passed. Then, in 1.Timothy, Paul gives far more extensive instructions regarding apostleship, which may indicate that he has become more pessimistic about his own future. He finally names— which he has been up to now noticeably reluctant to do— two who have opposed him, Hymenaeus and Alexander, saying that he turned them over to Satan. If he had written to Titus later, we should expect Paul to warn Titus about the same two enemies; the fact that he does not is significant evidence in favor of the priority of the shorter letter.

2 Timothy and Ephesians

Second.Timothy is patently later than Titus and 1.Timothy, because Paul is now imprisoned at Rome and Titus has forsaken Paul. On the other hand, 2.Timothy is clearly earlier than Colossians, Laodiceans, and Philippians, because, among other reasons, Onesiphorus was forced to search for Paul in Rome, showing that he did not know Paul’s location. We will discuss further reasons for placing these two letters earlier than the remainder when we deal with those other letters.

In 1.Timothy, Paul specifically directed Timothy to remain at Ephesus, so we should in fact expect Timothy to be there until Paul sends for him. In 2.Timothy, we see Paul doing exactly that— requesting Timothy to come to him at Rome. Paul also says that Timothy is aware that all in Asia have turned against him, and this implies that Timothy is in Asia where he could know that. Paul sends greetings to the household of Onesiphorus, who is in Rome with Paul and who we learn was with Timothy at some time in the past at Ephesus. Paul greets the household of Onesiphorus a second time at the end of the letter and, in this same pericope, Paul sends greetings to Prisca and Aquila. Paul wrote about them in 1.Corinthians, when he was at Ephesus, saying they had a church in their house. Paul’s mention of them in 2.Timothy, therefore, further implies that Timothy is at Ephesus.

There is, however, one statement of Paul’s in 2.Timothy that may be confusing. Paul says that he is sending out Tychicus into Ephesus. In the usual English translation, this sounds like Timothy must be at some third location, especially when we realize that the likely bearer of this letter is Tychicus himself. The answer, I suspect, is that Paul is here using the traditional phrasing that expresses the bestowal of apostolic authority, because the meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent out” with authority. So Paul means that he is assigning Tychicus to work as an apostle at Ephesus, because Paul needs Timothy at Rome.
The Letter to the Ephesians would be difficult to place without its close association to 2.Timothy, because it provides few details about Paul’s situation. Paul is in prison but he does not say where or why. Paul sends Tychicus, but without 2.Timothy we would not know when or why. We know, however, that 2.Timothy and Ephesians were sent together at the same time, not only because of the similarity of the situation, but because other possibilities are not sensible. If Paul had sent Ephesians before 2.Timothy, then Timothy is still at Ephesus and Paul would certainly have greeted Timothy in the Letter to the Ephesians. But he does not. If Paul had sent Ephesians after 2.Timothy, then Timothy would be with Paul, and Paul would have certainly sent regards on his behalf to the Ephesians. But he does not. Therefore, 2.Timothy and Ephesians were sent together, Ephesians being a letter for public reading and 2.Timothy remaining a private letter to his coworker in the gospel.

Philemon, Colossians, and Laodiceans

With the Letter to Philemon, we have another case of Paul sending a direct personal letter along with a community letter, or rather, in this case, two community letters, Colossians and Laodiceans.

Laodiceans is extremely short and does not offer much information, which is probably why it was left out of the New Testament maintaining the number of Paul’s epistles, after the addition of Hebrews, at the magical fourteen. This letter does indicate that Paul is in prison and that Paul asked the Laodiceans to exchange letters with the Colossians. Both of these statements corroborate what is said in the Letter to the Colossians, promising that this is the missing twin letter. We can be skeptical, but we have no solid reason to doubt its validity.

It is clear that Paul wrote both Colossians and Philemon (and therefore Laodiceans) after 1.Timothy and Ephesians because Timothy is with Paul while Paul is in prison. Although Paul does not say where his prison is, he must be in Rome because the context is so similar to Ephesians: Paul is suffering for the Church and he is sending Tychicus with the letters.

We can easily see that Colossians was sent together with Philemon because of the confluence of details from the two letters. Timothy is with Paul. Epaphras, who ministered at Colossae, is with Paul and sends greetings to Philemon. Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke send greetings to the Colossians and to Philemon. Onesimus, who is Philemon’s slave and the main subject of the Letter to Philemon, is one of the Colossians. This is sufficient to show with great confidence that these letters were sent together.

Philippians

We only have to establish that the one remaining epistle, Philippians, is later than Colossians in order to complete the chronological order. Paul is still with Timothy and still a prisoner at Rome. Therefore, this letter is at least later than Ephesians and 2.Timothy. Furthermore, because Paul says in Philippians that he will send Timothy, it is unlikely that Colossians and Philemon followed Philippians. Few of the other details can help us to determine if Philippians is earlier or later than the Letter to the Colossians, except one especially significant one: Paul tells the Philippians three times that he is dying.

To the Colossians, Paul had significantly omitted that he planned to come to them, suggesting that he knew he would not be able to visit them. He also did not tell the Ephesians that he would visit them. This is something that Paul does say often to the communities in his letters, so that its absence in these letters may be seen as significant. It means that Paul probably knew he would not leave Rome from the time that he arrived there or even before. The fact that his situation does not change much in his last letters, all from Rome, shows that only a short time passes until he dies, probably a couple weeks. In these letters, there is a definite progression: in Ephesians, Paul is a prisoner; in Colossians, Paul is suffering greatly; and in Philippians, Paul says he is dying. It is true that Paul tells the Philippians that he hopes to come to them, but it is also clear from his other statements that this is a vain hope. Furthermore, the fact that Paul, while he is ailing, intends to send even Timothy away probably means that his fate is sealed, and his trusted companion will be of better use elsewhere. From this serious turn of events, progressing from bad to worse, it follows that Paul wrote Philippians last of all.

Now, we have established by the internal evidence a definite order of the epistles of Paul. This is important because no other source can carry the same authority regarding Paul’s mission as Paul himself. If other sources differ with Paul, even the Acts of the Apostles, we will have to defer to Paul’s own words.

Some scholars have argued to invalidate some of Paul’s letters based on content to support specific theories, discrediting those with more advanced doctrine (2.Thessalonians, Hebrews, Ephesians, Colossians) or those describing an advanced Church organization (Titus, 1.Timothy, 2.Timothy). Also, scholars consider as evidence the writing style and vocabulary, analyzing through a comparison against the “real” letters of Saint Paul, to discern some evidence of forgery. These manipulations were valid only as long as the letters had no real historical context. Once a context has been established, however, this extreme action of disallowing the evidence is no longer tolerable. The letters, chronologically arranged by internal details and connections, can now be clearly seen as integral members of a unified collection. Events progress from letter to letter. No longer can 2.Timothy be separated from Ephesians or from Colossians or from Philippians, because these letters are clearly interrelated. Further, the mere fact that they are so interrelated— especially because this interrelation has been hidden from earliest times by the arbitrary ordering in the New Testament— makes it impossible to separate any of these letters from their author, Saint Paul.

This is not to say that no part of Paul’s letters is suspect. Specifically, I think we can consider highly suspect certain problematic passages that float from one place to another in different collections of Paul’s letters. Especially questionable are those passages stating that women should not speak in Church, because Paul praised Phoebe as a deaconess and Junia as an apostle, roles which obviously give them speaking authority. Yet, clearly none of the letters can be entirely discarded wholesale, because they together present a sensible and coherent story, which only becomes clear once we restore the original chronological order.

Notes
1. Gal. 1:13; Philip. 3:5-6.
2. Gal. 1:15-21.
3. Aramaic for “rock.”
4. From the Greek and Latin for “rock.”
5. Gal. 2:1-14.
6. 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes.1:1.
7. 2 Cor. 1:19.
8. 2 Tim 3:11; 2 Thes. 2:15.
9. 1 Thes. 4:13-18.
10. 1 Thess. 1:7-9.
11. 2 Cor. 1:19.
12.1 Thess. 3:1-2.
13. 1 Cor. 5:8.
14. 1 Cor. 16:8-9.
15. 1 Cor. 16:1.
16. 2 Cor. 8:1-11.
17. 2 Cor. 8:10.
18. 2 Cor. 12:2.
19. Rom. 15:19.
20. 1 Cor. 16:10.
21. 1 Cor. 16:2.
22. Gal. 1:13-2:14.
23. Gal. 2:1.
24. 1 Cor. 16:8-9.
25. 2 Cor. 12:2.
26. 1 Cor. 16:1.
27. Rom. 15:26.
28. Rom.16:1.
29. Rom. 16:23.
30. 2 Tim. 4:20.
31. Heb. 13:19-24.
32. 1 Tim. 1:3.
33. 2 Cor. 1:15-2:1.
34. 1 Tim. 1:6-7.
35. Tit. 1:10-11.
36. Tit. 1:5-9; I Tim 3:1-9.
37. 2 Tim. 4:10.
38. 1 Tim. 1:19-20.
39. 2 Tim. 1:17.
40. 2 Tim. 1:15.
41. 2 Tim. 1:16-17.
42. 2 Tim. 1:18.
43. 1 Cor. 16:19.
44. 2 Tim. 4:12.
45. Laod. 6.
46. Laod. 19.
47. Col. 1:1; Col. 4:10; Phile. 1.
48. Col. 1:24.
49. Col. 4:7-8.
50. Phile. 1; Col. 1:1.
51. Col. 1:7.
52. Phile. 24; Col. 4:10-14.
53. Col. 4:9.
54. Philip. 1:1.
55. Philip. 1:12-13.
56. Philip. 1:19-25, 2:17, 3:10.