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The Letters of Paul

Of the thirteen letters ascribed to Paul in the New Testament, scholars are agreed that seven were actually written by him: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.14 Apparently, not all of Paul's letters survived, at least in their original form. 1 Cor 5:9 refers to a previous letter written by Paul to the Corinthians. Also, the “sorrowful letter” referred to in 2 Cor 2:4; 7:8 is considered lost by most New Testament scholars. The others have all been suspected of being pseudonymous, mainly on the basis of style and vocabulary, but also sometimes because of content; and because this is a widely held viewpoint, we focus here on the seven letters listed for our synthesis of Paul's letter writing.

The seven letters of Paul are real letters, though most are substantially longer than ordinary private letters. With the possible exception of Romans they are all circumstantial. That is, they address concrete situations in the churches that were their recipients.

In opposition to Cicero, who wrote regularly to his friend Atticus just for the sheer pleasure of communication, Paul never put pen to paper except when it was absolutely imperative. A letter for him always had a definite goal; he designed it to accomplish something.15 Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 69.

Thus Paul was not writing for literary purposes or to provide a model of the Christian letter. More important for our purposes, Paul was not writing to lay out a systematic explanation of Christian theology. He never instructed his readers to preserve his letters for posterity. Indeed, Paul apparently expected Christ to return during his lifetime (1 Thess 4:17), so he did not envision the issues that future generations of Christians would face.

Paul followed the conventions of letter writing, borrowing from both Greco-Roman and Jewish practice. There are good indications that he employed a secretary or professional letter writer. The book of Romans contains a greeting added by the secretary, Tertius: “I Tertius, the writer of this letter greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22). Paul's greetings in his own handwriting at the end of other letters suggest that the use of a secretary was his standard practice:

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. (1 Cor 16:21)See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand. (Gal 6:11)I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. (Philem 19)



Paul's letters exhibit the three-part structure typical of Greco-Roman letters: an opening or prescript, the body of the letter, and a conclusion. In general, Paul seems to have followed the basic model of an official letter (as opposed to the personal or literary letter), and the prescripts are the best indicator of this.16 See the recent book by M. Luther Stirewalt, Jr., Paul, the Letter Writer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. 25–55, which provides the basis for the following discussion. Prescripts identified the sender and the recipients of a letter, accompanied with a greeting.

“Paul an apostle …”

Paul identifies himself by title, usually “apostle” or “servant of Christ,” in all of his genuine letters except 1 Thessalonians, his earliest. The use of such titles was common in official Roman letters. The title is especially expansive in Romans, where he was not personally acquainted with the church and was introducing himself and his preaching, and in Galatians, where he was defending his authority. Paul used his titles to assert his authority as Christ's representative to the bodies of Christians in the churches to which he wrote.

“and Timothy our brother …”

In addition to himself, Paul frequently names companions, especially Timothy, as cosenders of all of his letters. They served as Paul's support base, similar to a court or governing body that stood behind an official's letter. They were also witnesses to Paul's messages. Some of those with Paul also served as letter carriers and dialogue partners. Though he does not mention them as cosenders, Paul's letters sometimes name the individuals who carried the letters. They were likely present at the reading of those letters and could elaborate on or interpret them for the addressees. Thus Paul mentions Titus, who has reported to him the Corinthians' reaction to his previous letter (2 Cor 7:6–12). He also names Epaphroditus as a messenger whom he entrusts with bringing joy to the Philippians (Phil 2:25–30).

“to the church in …”

The seven so-called genuine letters of Paul were all addressed to communities rather than individuals. The form of the official letter in which a government official addressed a group was well-suited to Paul's purposes, but Paul also incorporated elements of personal correspondence in this feature because he typically addressed his readers affectionately as “brothers.”

“Grace to you and peace …”

Paul's greeting always consists of the words “grace” and “peace.” Grace (charis) puns on and replaces the common Greco-Roman word “greeting” (charein); “peace” was a salutation common in Hebrew and Aramaic. Paul may have combined the two greetings consciously as a way representing the availability of the gospel to Jews as well as Gentiles or his ministry to both.

“I give thanks to my God always …”

The prescripts of Paul's letters are expanded by his expressions of thanksgiving for his readers. These thanksgivings preview the main themes of the letters. In 1 Thessalonians, for example, the thanksgiving highlights that church's faith, love, and hope (1 Thess 1:2–8, NRSV):

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you, … And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.

The thanksgiving in this instance is especially long because of Paul's good relationship with the Thessalonians. In Galatians, by contrast, where Paul's message is largely one of reproof, he skips over the thanksgiving and instead launches into an expression of annoyed disappointment at the instability of their faith.


In the bodies of his letters Paul dealt with the specific matters that had occasioned his writing in the first place. This is sometimes called the epistolary occasion or situation, and Paul often stated precisely what the epistolary situation or setting was in the course of his letter.

The bodies of official letters in the Greco-Roman world typically had two parts: background information and the message.17 Ibid., 46–47. The background information often included an explanation of the basis for the decision leading to the letter's message. Similarly, the message sometimes incorporated a promise or threat. Paul's letters also generally reflect this structure in their bodies. At the same time, they display a good deal of flexibility in the elements they incorporate and in their order.

Paul's letters have many of the same functions and elements of other Greco-Roman letters: autobiographical information, requests, responses to questions, and announcements of travel plans, to name a few. In addition, these letters incorporate a mix of other genres, including blessings (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation” [2 Cor 1:3]); doxologies (“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” [Rom 11:36]); hymns (“Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being found in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” [Phil 2:6–11]); and confessions (“Jesus is Lord” [1 Cor 12:3]).

Above all, the letters record elements of Paul's teaching and preaching (or “paranesis”). They make use of different kinds of rhetoric—especially deliberative and forensic. They likely echo what he preached or taught in the past and certainly what he would have spoken in person. His frequent expositions on texts from the Hebrew Bible (cf. Rom 1:17–4:25) may reflect sermons delivered in synagogues or churches. Similarly his use of diatribe may draw on discussions he had with rivals. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 15:35, he raises a question, perhaps quoting opponents (“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’”), and then he proceeds to answer it.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that Paul did not write in the abstract. He tailored both his message and approach to the situations he faced. He mixed classes of rhetoric because the situations he faced were complex and demanded different approaches. When he sought to persuade, his approach was deliberative; when he defended himself or his ministry, he could switch to forensic rhetoric.


Paul usually leads into the conclusions to his letters by a discussion of his travel plans, followed by an exhortation. The conclusion proper may then include a doxology and personal greetings. It always includes his wish of grace (charis) for his readers. As with his prescript, Paul substitutes this word for the typical Greco-Roman “farewell.” Otherwise, the conclusions vary and include other items such as a request for prayer:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf. (Rom 15:30)

Beloved, pray for us. (1 Thess 5:25)

a wish for peace:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:23)

or the conveyance of greetings from a third party, and/or the command to greet one another with a holy kiss:

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Rom 16:16)

Timothy, my co-worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my relatives. I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. (Rom 16:21–23)

All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (1 Cor 16:20)

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. (2 Cor 13:12)

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor's household. (Phil 4:21–22)

Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. (1 Thess 5:26)

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philem 23)


14. Apparently, not all of Paul's letters survived, at least in their original form. 1 Cor 5:9 refers to a previous letter written by Paul to the Corinthians. Also, the “sorrowful letter” referred to in 2 Cor 2:4; 7:8 is considered lost by most New Testament scholars.

15. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 69.

16. See the recent book by M. Luther Stirewalt, Jr., Paul, the Letter Writer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. 25–55, which provides the basis for the following discussion. Find it in your Library

17. Ibid., 46–47. Find it in your Library

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