Paul and his Letters

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project and is related to the Ancient Letters page.

Paul as Letter Writer

The canonical portrait of Paul is of a church leader who used letters and personal emissaries (who delivered the physical letter as well as reading it to the recipients, most likely with additional verbal communication from Paul) to manage his growing network of Christian communities.

While Acts is strangely silent on Paul’s letters, the NT now has 13 documents attributed to Paul:

  • Romans
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • Philippians
  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 & 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon

This list almost certainly contains texts not written by Paul, just as the prophetic scrolls of the Hebrew Bible are anthologies that collect material from the prophet as well as others within the community that treasured and preserved the message. In an earlier time Paul’s writings may have been gathered up into a single scroll, “The Book of the Apostle Paul,” rather than being preserved as a collection of separate letters.

In fact there are reasons for thinking that 2 Corinthians and Philippians may be comprised of fragments from several letters.

Following ancient conventions, the letters that were finally accepted into the NT were grouped first by author (Paul, Peter, John, James, Jude), and then sorted by length. As the longest of Paul’s letters, Romans comes first while the short letter to Philemon is listed last.

Where more than one letter was addressed to the same recipient, the longer of the two was given its appropriate place in the sequence based on length, and then the shorter letter to the same recipient followed immediately after it. In such cases (Corinthians, Thessalonians and Timothy), the Greek NT refers to them simply as Corinthians A, Corinthians B, etc. The label has no relevance to the relative sequences of the two letters, but simply to their relative length (c.f. 1 John, 2 John, 3 John).

For the opening and closing formulae used in Paul's letters, see Paul - Jesus and God

Paul to Philemon

Paul’s brief letter to Philemon seeking the forgiveness (and return to him) of Onesimus, a runaway slave illustrates well the use of letters within Paul’s own activities:

Opening Formula

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer of thanksgiving to the Gods

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.

Body of the letter

I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.
I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Closing formula

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.