© 2014 by Michael LaFond
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the Acts of the Apostles have for the most part failed; not surprisingly, because Acts is not in the modern sense, an historical document.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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.