The Letters of Paul


    Paul was a strict Pharisee and a primary persecutor of Christians soon after Jesus's death. After Paul had been doing this for some time, Jesus came to him in a vision (Acts 9:1-28), and Paul converted to Christianity. He spent the rest of his life as a traveling missionary, spreading the gospel (good news) to the world; and his letters were part of this. Because of his writings, we know more about him than any other person mentioned in the New Testament; but there are still notable gaps. Paul did not intend these letters to be kept for posterity. He wrote them to communicate with distant churches, to encourage, to cajole, to inform, and to respond to events that he had heard about. The reason they have been kept is because they are full of timeless wisdom, as well as being the earliest writings of the Christian church.


    Paul lists himself as the author of each of his letters. From the earliest references we have (early second century) until relatively recent times (nineteenth century), all of these letters were accepted as written by Paul. The external attestation is both wide (many sources) and ancient. Therefore, using arguments from tradition like those we used for the Gospels, there is no reason to doubt Paul's authorship. However, because of the popularity of the arguments, we must discuss why doubt is cast on some of Paul's letters. What follows is an outline only. To get the complete arguments, and if you have a lot of time on your hands, read the relevant sections of Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, which defends Pauline authorship and/or Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, which accepts Pauline authorship on some letters, but not others. Both introductions attempt to describe both sides of every argument.

The following kinds of arguments are used to disparage Pauline authorship:

    Stylistic: The author uses different vocabulary and grammar in a not-trusted set of letters verses a trusted set of letters.

    Theological: The theology of one letter is not that consistent the theology of another. The author uses theological terms differently or emphasizes different points.

    Excessive Similarities: One letter has very similar wording to another, except that parts have been added or removed. That is, someone copied a letter but changed it to meet his needs.

    Not Corroborated by Acts: Paul describes events that do not appear in Acts.

    Anachronisms: Concepts are discussed and heresies are argued against that could not have been issues in Paul's time.


    Because the argument from tradition is so strong, arguments against Pauline authorship should only be accepted if they are overwhelming. They are not. In every case, we can give reasons for how Paul could have written the letter in question, in spite of the objections.

    Stylistic: When writing a different letter, Paul was writing on a different topic, in a different emotional state, to a different audience, and at a different stage in his life. Each of these will cause stylistic changes of varying degrees that are very difficult to quantify. Any stylistic argument is therefore a very subjective one. Also, it is quite possible that Paul used an amanuensis (personal secretary). This amanuensis could have had some freedom to write in his own words, while working under the direction of Paul. Before the days of e-mail, this sort of arrangement was common. The author would still be considered Paul, because he decides the actual content and themes of the letter, though not necessarily every word.

    Theological: It is plausible that Paul could use words in different ways in different contexts. For example, he can speak of faith as belief in Jesus, or he can speak of "the faith" as the complete tradition about Jesus, which must be handed down to the next generation. It is also plausible that he decided to emphasize one theological point in one letter, but a different point in another, because of the different circumstances under which the letter was written.

    Excessive Similarities: Paul spoke and wrote on the same themes often, to many different audiences. It would not be surprising if the same wording came out from time to time, but with changes to match the different circumstances. Paul (or an amanuensis) may even have kept copies of his old letters, so that he did not have to start from scratch every time.

    Not Corroborated by Acts: These arguments generally rely on the assumption that Acts is a complete record of Paul's life. However, this is just not the case. Most especially, Acts ends with Paul's imprisonment in Rome, from A.D. 58 to 60 (see below), while he was not martyred until A.D. 67. A lot could have happened in these seven years, and the events that Paul refers to could have come from this time. It is also possible that Luke left some events out from before A.D. 58.

    Anachronisms: Arguments along these lines are extremely subjective, because they require that we understand exactly when certain theological or ecclesiastical concepts became common in the years after Jesus, which is difficult because of the relatively small number of writings that we have. Also, note that by the time of Paul's death, about thirty-five years had passed since the crucifixion of Jesus. It would not be shocking if certain concepts, both heretical and orthodox, had progressed quite far by then.

Chronology of Paul's Life

    From Acts, Paul's letters, and tradition it is possible to date Paul's life to fairly high accuracy. The Handbook of Biblical Chronology, § 673-698, by Jack Finegan gives a systematic exposition of these dates. A summary follows. Most of the dates are trustworthy to within a few years. Luke recorded how long Paul was at most of his stops, but he usually does not record how long it took Paul to travel from one point to another, and this leads to some small uncertainty. Also, some of the lengths of time that Luke gives may be approximate. Finally, there are some events for which the ordering is not certain, such as the Jerusalem conference, because of the thinness of the record for those events.

A.D. 33: Jesus is crucified (Finegan, § 620).

A.D. 36: Paul is converted (Acts 9:1-30), 14 years before the Jerusalem conference (Gal 2:1).

A.D. 38: Paul visits Jerusalem, three years after his conversion (Gal 1:18).

A.D. 38-47: Paul evangelizes in Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21) and possibly other regions. The record on these years is thin.

A.D. 47-48: Paul completes his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14).

Early A.D. 49: Paul attends the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:1-29, Gal 2:2-10).

Spring, A.D. 49 - fall A.D. 49: Paul begins his second missionary journey (Acts 15:30-17:34).

Winter, A.D. 49/50 - early summer, A.D. 51: Paul stays in Corinth for a year and a half (Acts 18:1-11).

Early summer, A.D. 51: Paul is brought before Proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-18:17). This is the primary fixed point in Paul's life, because it is the date that has the most narrow constraint on when it happened. We know this because of an inscription (found in Delphi in pieces from A.D. 1885-1910) with the date of Gallio's proconsulate, and we know the proconsuls had one year terms.

Late summer and fall, A.D. 51: Paul completes his second missionary journey (Acts 18:18-21).

Winter, A.D. 51/52: Paul winters in Antioch (Acts 18:22-23).

Spring, A.D. 52: Paul begins his third missionary journey (Acts 18:23-19:1).

Summer, A.D. 52 - fall, A.D. 54: Paul spends two years and three months in the Ephesus (Acts 19).

Fall, A.D. 54 - spring A.D. 55: Paul completes the third missionary journey and arrives in Jerusalem (Acts 20-21).

Summer, A.D. 55 - summer, A.D. 57: Paul is arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21:33) and transferred to Caesarea (Acts 23:33) under the control of the governor Felix. After two years, Felix is succeeded by Porcius Festus.

Summer, A.D. 57 - fall, A.D. 57: Paul stands before Festus and King Agrippa II, and appeals to Caesar (Acts 24-26), using his rights as a Roman citizen. This means that he would be tried in Rome instead of Caesarea. Paul is sent on his way to Rome by ship. They were blown off course by a storm and ship wrecked on Malta (Acts 27).

Winter, A.D. 57/58: Paul winters on Malta (Acts 28:1-10).

Winter, A.D. 58 - winter A.D. 60: Paul completes the journey to Rome. He stays there under house arrest, for two years (Acts 28:11-30). Acts ends, so the record becomes thin and less reliable at this point.

Winter, A.D. 60-67: According to Eusebius (Church History 2.22.2), Paul is released after two years in prison and continues his missionary work. We know that he had planned to go to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28). There are references by Clement of Rome (1 Clement 5) and the Muratorian Fragment that Paul did make this trip. Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus indicate that he made it back to Greece after visiting Spain. It is impossible to prove that this Spanish trip did or did not happen because of the thinness of the record. Afterward, he was martyred with Peter under Nero, on June 29th, A.D. 67 (Finegan, § 670-673).

Dating the Letters

    It is likely that Paul did not write many letters until the beginning of his second missionary journey in A.D. 49. There would not be much point in writing letters until he was already somewhat well traveled, and had people to write to. The oldest letter that we have is 1 Thessalonians, and it was written around A.D. 49-51. He continued writing letters up until his death in A.D. 67, so we have a range of A.D. 49-67 for all of his letters. Attempting to date the letters more accurately is like putting together an intricate puzzle that is missing many of the pieces. Some letters can be dated fairly precisely, such as 1 Thessalonians, and others not so much. I give the most probable dates of the letters below. Because of the arguments' length, their peripheral relevance to this book, and their tendency to put people to sleep, I do not put them here, but only give a very brief outline. For the full arguments, see the introductions mentioned above. They give slightly different dates, because they did not use Finegan as the source for the chronology of Paul's life.

1 Thessalonians A.D. 49-51:

Dating is based on traveling companions and cross references between 1 Thessalonians and Acts.

Galatians A.D. 49-54:

Dating is based on when Paul visited Galatia and his anger at them for having quickly forsaken his teachings (Gal 1:6-9). This is complicated because there are two possible definitions for Galatia. That is, did he mean the Roman province or the region where the ethnic Galations lived?

2 Thessalonians A.D. 52-54:

Based on the themes of the letter, it was likely written after 1 Thessalonians and before Paul's next visit to Thessalonica (in Macedonia) in A.D. 54.

1 Corinthians A.D. 52-54:

Paul wrote from Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8), probably during the lengthy visit from A.D. 52-54.

Romans A.D. 54-55:

Dating is based on persons' names and cross references with 1 Corinthians and Acts.

2 Corinthians A.D. 55:

This letter was written after 1 Corinthians, based on the internal references and logical consistency between 1 and 2 Corinthians. It is likely that 2 Corinthians is actually several letters, combined together, which complicates the issue. Because he had not yet been in prison, these letters were completed before his Caesarean imprisonment, which began in A.D. 56.

Philippians A.D. 58-60:

This is one of the four captivity epistles (Phil 1:7,13,17). Generally, the imprisonment in Rome is considered the most probable (A.D. 58-60) for all of the captivity epistles. This is the traditional answer, and there is also a lot of internal evidence that suggests that this is indeed the case. However, the case is not airtight, so it is possible that some or all of the captivity epistles were written during some other imprisonment at some other time.

Colossians A.D. 58-60:

This is one of the four captivity epistles (Col 4:18).

Philemon A.D. 58-60:

This is one of the four captivity epistles (Phlm 9).

Ephesians A.D. 58-60:

This is one of the four captivity epistles (Eph 4:1).

1 Timothy A.D. 62-67:

1 Timothy indicates events that have occurred after Acts, including substantial traveling. Allowing time for this traveling puts a minimum date of 62. The upper limit is his death in 67.

Titus A.D. 62-67:

The evidence here is the same as for 1 Timothy.

2 Timothy A.D. 67:

Paul indicates that he is about to be martyred, so it was likely written in 67. If his premonition is false, it would have been written earlier, but certainly after 62, for the same reasons as 1 Timothy and Titus.

This page was last changed on 2011/08/28