Summary of Paul and His Letters
By Alan D. Griffin
Paul was responsible for the creating the framework of Christianity through letters to Gentile churches in northeastern Mediterranean region. Paul’s missionary career historically began when he was 32 years old in the year 49 CE and continued until about 62 CE. According to Acts Paul was a persecutor of early Christians as a member of the Pharisee party until he had a life changing encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul’s mission was driven by a message focusing on the person of Jesus as a deity, a savior, and intermediary between the one true God and man as interpreted in the patron –client relationship of the Greco-Roman World in which Paul lived. Paul did not focus on promoting the teachings of Jesus instead he developed a somewhat cohesive theology about Jesus the man. There are many discrepancies between the chronology and events in Paul’s life described in his epistles and the description given in the book of Acts written later. Some of these discrepancies include what happened after his revelation of Jesus. In Acts he immediately went to Jerusalem to consult with the Twelve Apostles but in his own letters he says he went to “Arabia” immediately after his revelation for an unspecified period of time and did not go to Jerusalem until after three years had passed. When he did go to Jerusalem it seems he goes out of his way to say he only interacted with Peter and James the brother of Jesus. In the book of Acts Paul agrees to impose dietary restrictions on Gentile converts, but in his letters, he refuses to accept any legal restrictions preaching justification by faith in Jesus alone. There are several other discrepancies between the Paul depicted in Acts and the Paul depicted in his letters. Paul is key in introducing ideas that become central to Christian Doctrine such as the idea of original sin, justification by faith, Jesus as the one and only intermediary between God and man, the sinless blood of a sacrificial Christ that atones for the sins of the world and creates the framework of the idea of Parousia that is later expounded upon in the book of Revelation. Paul’s earliest written letter is 1 Thessalonians composed about 50 CE probably in Corinth. This letter as with all his letters focus on particular problems within a certain congregation. It was not necessarily meant to apply to the new Christian church in general. The focus of 1 Thessalonians is to first show his approval of the work being done in Thessalonica and to encourage them to improve their behavior in the area of sexual activity. He stresses the need for an immediate change in behavior by over emphasizing the immediacy of the return of Jesus as the divine judge of the Cosmos. He also uses this letter to ease the minds of this congregation about concerns that their fellow believers who have died before Jesus’ return would be left out of the chosen group upon his return. In 2 Thessalonians which is arguably was not written by Paul. He seems to draw back his emphasis on the immediacy of the Parousia which was seemingly taken out of context and was leading believers to refuse to work, and causing an apocalyptic fervor that was upsetting others. 2 Thessalonians inserts signs that will precede the return of Jesus seemingly to show a longer period of time will pass before the Parousia to calm the apocalyptic fervor that was consuming the congregation.
First Corinthians which was actually the second letter to the congregation in Corinth the first letter has been lost. First Corinthians is written to unify the Corinthian Church which was riddled with divisions of class, gender, cultural background, morality, and even theology. Paul needs to correct the abuse of his teaching about freedom from Torah restrictions which had led to immoral behavior especially in the realm of sexuality. Paul uses the imminent Parousia to instill urgency behind his corrections to promote immediate modification of the member’s behavior. This is a useful tool and one still used today in many congregations. Paul uses an analogy of parts of the human body to make a whole person compared with individuals in the church as parts of the whole body of the church to try to persuade believers that social positions have no merit within the church. Paul goes to great lengths in this letter to put all members of the congregation on equal ground. He uses the second part of this letter to directly answer questions that where causing divisions within the church such as law suits against each other, conflicts concerning marriage, divorce, celibacy, dietary laws, gifts of the spirit and the proper way to conduct the Eucharist. You can see the early formation of his theology about the need to be weak so you will seek God through Christ for strength thereby receiving salvation and his introduction of his vision of the afterlife and resurrected body. Paul seems to contradict himself when addressing the role of women in the church between the Corinthian letters and the later letter to the Romans. To the Corinthians he points out the subordinate and secondary nature of women using Genesis 2 for support to this claim. In the letter to the Romans he exalts women and puts them in power positions such as Phoebe who is sent as a deacon and presiding officer and I believe this contradiction is a result of Paul’s belief to be all things to all people therefore such contradictions was of little concern to Paul. Second Corinthians is a rebuke to the congregation being led away from his teaching of Justification by Faith back to observing Torah restriction and Pagan Rituals. The result it seems of religious syncretism that was exploding in the Roman Empire at the time of Paul. Paul goes to great lengths to defend his authority which he claims comes directly from God and not from the Christian authorities in Jerusalem. This appears to be in direct conflict with the book of Acts that shows he got approval and endorsement from Jerusalem. I find it interesting that the central figure in Christianity whose teaching set up the basic tenements of the Christian faith was losing authority and credibility even in congregations he formed himself. The letter to the Galatians also seems to be in part a defense of his credibility and authority. In this letter you begin to see the loose outline of his complete theology of Christianity including original sin, Justification by Faith, the role of the Mosaic Law in salvation, the equality of all believers, and the responsibility of freedom of the law and to weaker members of the congregation and his concept of the afterlife and bodily resurrection. The letter to the Romans seems to be a polished version of Paul’s Theology which has slowly been forming through his letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and others.
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