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Paul, Letters of

There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to have been authored by the apostle Paul. Most scholars, however, think that some of these letters were not written by Paul himself but by a secretary or by disciples of Paul during a later period. These later authors may represent a kind of Pauline school in a broad sense, attempting to adapt Paul's theology to new situations. Most scholars assume that these letters stem from the latter part of the first century or the beginning of the second century.

The letters considered authentic were all composed at various locations in Asia Minor and Europe during the 50s and the beginning of the 60s. It should be noted, however, that the dating of Paul's letters is highly dependent on the general Pauline chronology. Yet, it is not possible to reconstruct Paul's career only from his letters, which only occasionally give relevant biographic information. Scholars thus also refer to the detailed accounts in Acts, whose historical value is disputed. Most scholars would, however, agree that Acts has to be taken into account and almost all theories regarding how to date Paul's letter are consequently based partly on Luke's account in Acts.

Paul's authentic letters were, in almost all cases, sent to communities founded by Paul during his extensive missionary travels. In general they address local problems in the communities and in several cases they are direct responses to questions posed by those communities.

The marked occasional nature of Paul's letters makes it difficult to extract a systematic theology from his writings (if such theology indeed ever existed), which is evident from the many and often contradictory suggestions made by contemporary scholars. The historical analysis of Paul's letters has, of course, been complicated by Paul's importance for normative Christian theology and the strong connection between Pauline scholarship and Christian theology. In contemporary debates within faith communities on women ministers, same-sex relations and marriage, and within the Jewish-Christian dialogue, Paul's letters still play an important role.

From a purely historical point of view, Paul's authentic letters are important because they belong to the earliest writings in the New Testament and thus constitute the earliest witnesses to the Jesus movement. Together with the letters, which probably stem from the generation after Paul (and thus deal with the situation at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century), they are important sources for our understanding of the emergence and development of the religious movement that would later be known as the Christian church.

In addition to the canonical letters (letters included in the New Testament), there are also a number of

Paul, Letters of

The locations of the recipients are italicized.


noncanonical letters associated with Paul. They clearly date from a later period and are thus not authentic in the sense of having been authored by Paul. The Epistle to the Laodiceans, from the second to the fourth centuries, although claiming to be the letter mentioned in Colossians 4:16, is merely a compilation of passages from Paul's letter to the Philippians. In 3 Corinthians, on the other hand, the author (as Paul) is involved in the dogmatic controversies of the second century and is fighting against Gnostics and docetists in Corinth. The Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul (third century) and the Apocalypse of Paul (second century) both expand on Paul's description of being elevated to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:1–4. Finally, the Correspondence between Paul and Seneca is a collection of fourteen letters, of which six are written in Paul's name, intended to give the impression that Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca were good friends and that Seneca eventually converted to Christianity. These writings contribute nothing to the research on the historical Paul but are important evidence for the reception of Pauline literature during the centuries after his death. As such, this literature has great historical interest.

Authorship and Pseudonymity.

A combination of philological, rhetorical, theological, and historical evidence has led most scholars to conclude that Paul did not write all letters attributed to him. Nearly all scholars consider Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon as authentic. Conversely, most would agree that Paul did not write 1 and 2 Timothy or the letter to Titus (the so-called Pastoral Letters), although a few scholars maintain that these letters are also authentic. With regard to Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians there is an ongoing discussion regarding authorship, but most scholars think that Paul did not write Ephesians, and the same is the case for Colossians. The authorship of 2 Thessalonians is still an open question. Thus, the (canonical) Pauline letters may be divided into three groups: (a) almost certainly genuine letters (authentic) (Rom, 1–2 Cor, Gal, Phil, 1 Thess, Phlm); (b) letters concerning which there is an ongoing discussion regarding authorship (disputed), (Eph, Col, 2 Thess); and (c) letters almost certainly not written by Paul (pseudonymous or deuteropauline) (1–2 Tim, Titus).

That the New Testament contains letters that were not written by Paul but nevertheless claim to be so, raises the question of pseudonymity in antiquity. There are many reasons why an ancient author chose to write in someone else's name. Authors could, for instance, write in the name of their teacher as an act of humility, or to take advantage of the status of a famous person, often from a distant past. While outright forgeries indeed occurred (see e.g., 2 Thess 2:2 where the author warns against false teachings in the form of letters), a person could also assign the task of composing a writing to a trusted coworker or secretary. It is not altogether clear to which category or categories the assumed pseudepigrapha of the New Testament belong. It is, however, probably correct to assume that the discussion about New Testament pseudepigrapha is not entirely based on historical grounds but also on matters of religious convictions.

History of Modern Research—Trends and Developments.

The publication of E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) can be regarded as the starting point for the modern study of Paul and Pauline literature. Before Sanders it is fair to say that Pauline scholarship was almost entirely dominated by the dichotomy between Paul and Judaism. Until the publication of Sanders's study, most New Testament scholars relied on an image of ancient Judaism that had emerged during the nineteenth century in an intellectual tradition dominated by Protestantism and rising political anti-Judaism. In sharp contrast to the prevalent view, Sanders presented first-century Judaism as a religion characterized by grace and forgiveness. Furthermore, Sanders described Torah-observance as a dialectic relationship between the God of Israel and the people of Israel in a covenantal context, which he labeled “covenantal nomism.” The Jews of antiquity did not observe the Torah in order to earn their righteousness, Sanders argued, but to remain within a covenantal relationship with the God of Israel.

Even though some scholars before Sanders had pointed in the same direction, it was Sanders's book that eventually convinced the scholarly community that the prevalent view of ancient Judaism was indeed a questionable historical reconstruction. Sanders's interpretation of Paul was perceived as less convincing, however, but served as a starting point for a new discussion on Paul's relation to Judaism and thus to Pauline literature as a whole. While Sanders thought that Paul did not fit into the pattern of covenantal nomism, others held that he did. In his influential article, “The New Perspective on Paul” (1983), J. D. G. Dunn, establishing the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP), argued that Paul did not react against the Torah as such, but only against those parts that separated Jews from non-Jews, especially food regulations, purity rules, and male circumcision.

While many scholars found Dunn's suggestion convincing, the NPP also gave rise to two opposing trends. Some scholars have maintained that Dunn did not go far enough, and argued that Paul was even more Jewish than Dunn viewed him. Scholars working from this more radical perspective assume that Paul remained faithful to his Jewish identity and that he also observed the Torah. Other scholars think that Dunn had gone too far and maintain a traditional, often Protestant, perspective on Paul, which has led to a much-needed discussion of Sanders's original idea of Judaism as a religion of grace. Paul's relation to Judaism remains one of the most important issues within Pauline studies.

The discussion of Paul's relation to Judaism has also brought Paul's relation to Hellenism and Greek philosophy to the fore. Paul's relation to Greek religion was a recurrent theme at the beginning of the nineteenth century when representatives of the so-called “history of religion school” made far-reaching comparisons between Paul and Greek mystic traditions. More recently scholars have focused on the relation between Paul and popular philosophers, especially the Stoics, and have found similarities, especially with regard to morality.

Pauline scholars have employed a great variety of methodologies in trying to uncover the ideological world of Paul's letters: rhetorical criticism, social-scientific criticism, political, postcolonial, feminist, and queer perspectives are only the most recent. Another recent development is interest from some radical atheistic philosophers, such as Alain Badiou (2003) and Slavoj Žižek (2003), who aim at developing a secular political-philosophical critique of Western society. This focus on the political potential in Paul's letters represents an interesting connection between philosophy and exegesis. However, even the most radical philosophical readings of Paul are not based on the most radical portraits of the apostle within New Testament scholarship.

The Authentic Letters.

Scholars generally agree that Paul is the author of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. They are commonly referred to as the authentic or genuine letters.


Romans, Paul's longest letter, was written around 57, probably in Corinth. Paul intends to extend his mission to Spain (Rom 15:28) and expects to visit the community in Rome on his way westward, presenting himself as the apostle to the gentiles, and probably to get their support as well (15:24).

Due to its highly theological content Romans is considered to be Paul's most important letter, and its significance for the development of Christian (especially Protestant) theology cannot be overrated. The interpretation of the letter, however, differs considerably among scholars depending on the overarching theological outlook of the individual interpreter. This is, for instance, evident in the discussion concerning why Paul wrote to the community in Rome. Traditionally, scholars have regarded Romans as Paul's theological testament without any direct bearing on the local situation in the Roman community. More recently, scholars have suggested that Paul indeed addresses local problems, such as the power relations between Jews and non-Jews in the community. Perhaps the Roman community, while certainly emerging from within a Roman synagogue, had become predominantly non-Jewish, probably due to Claudius's expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 C.E. This may have affected the relations between Jews and non-Jews, and some scholars suggest that one reason why Paul wrote Romans was to admonish the non-Jews of the community (to which the letters seems addressed) to recognize the general status of the Jewish people as God's chosen.

This discussion is related to a significant area of disagreement among Pauline scholars, namely Paul's general relation to Judaism, especially his view of the Torah. In traditional Protestant scholarship, the main theme of the letter is found in Romans 1:17, with its sharp contrast between Christian “righteousness by faith” and Jewish “work-righteousness.” Some scholars, however, tend to stress Paul's Jewishness to various degrees, and some even assume that Paul remained Torah-observant after he joined the Jesus movement. Scholars holding this view often consider Paul's discussion in Romans 9–11 as the climax of the letter.

Paul's letter to the Romans consists of the following main parts: after the prescript (1:1–7) in which Paul presents himself as the apostle to the gentiles, and a thanksgiving (1:8–12) follow the major sections of the letter (which are quite differently interpreted depending on the individual scholar). In 1:18—3:20 Paul claims that all humans, Jews and Greeks alike, stand before God on equal terms, a section followed by an exposition on the righteousness of God and of the believer (3:21—8:39). Thereafter follows a section (chs. 9–11) on the status of the Jews in the divinely ordained salvation plan, which culminates in an eschatological vision of the salvation of both Jews and of the nations. A parenesis and salutations conclude the letter (chs. 12–16).

First Corinthians.

Paul composed 1 Corinthians around 55 while residing in Ephesus. The community in Corinth, the capital of the Roman province Achaia, was founded by Paul around 51 during his second missionary journey (according to Acts 18) and he stayed in close contact with its members through letters and personal visits. Paul wrote to the Corinthians because of rumors of various problems in the Corinthian community (1:11). Paul had also received a letter (7:1), perhaps delivered by a delegation from Corinth (16:17), with specific questions. In order to deal with the problems that had arisen, Paul sent Timothy to Corinth, and also the letter that we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter seems to have been preceded by another letter, now lost (5:9–11), which did not have the effect Paul hoped for.

The specific issues Paul addresses include the following: evidently, the community had been divided into several factions, depending on which of the apostles—Paul, Peter, or Apollos—was favored (1:11—4:21); there existed sexual immorality—someone was even living with his father's wife (5:1–13); the community seems to have been unable to handle internal conflicts, taking their controversies to the civic courts instead of solving them within the community (6:1–8);

Paul, Letters of

Corinthian Artifacts.

Left: Marble relief with three menorahs. Right: Greek inscription that reads “[Syna]gogue (of the) (H)eb[rews].” Both artifacts probably date to the fifth century C.E. and are evidence of a Jewish population in Corinth at that time. No synagogue has been found in Corinth, but according to Acts 18:4–17, Paul preached in it.


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questions on celibacy and marriage had been raised (7:1); issues on food offered to “idols” and participation in Greek cultic meals had been brought up (chs. 8–10); traditional gender roles were being called into question (11:3–16); the poor were discriminated against at the Eucharist (11:18–21); some even denied the resurrection (15:12).

Scholars have used various methodological approaches for analyzing Paul's argumentation in 1 Corinthians, such as ancient concepts of the body, rhetorical criticism, and comparisons with halakic discourses in rabbinic literature. While there have been many efforts to find an underlying ideology within the Corinthian community that could explain all the problems Paul encountered, scholars today rather consider the Corinthian situation to be a sample map of the issues that would naturally occur in a Jesus-oriented community in a Greco-Roman environment. Paul's general communication strategy in 1 Corinthians involves stressing an imminent eschatological perspective while simultaneously emphasizing the future bodily resurrection.

Second Corinthians.

The two most important areas of discussion with regard to 2 Corinthians concern the unity of the letter, which has been called into question, and the identity of Paul's opponents who appear in chapters 10–13. Even though the authenticity of the letter has rarely been questioned, and a minority of scholars still argues for the unity of the letter, many scholars nevertheless assume that the evident contrast between chapters 1–9 and 10–13 indicates that the letter in its present form is a compilation of several letters (as many as five have been suggested).

The first section of the letter (chs. 1–9) indeed speaks of a disagreement between Paul and an individual in the community (1:23–2:11). This conflict, however, appears to have been resolved and the section reflects this reconciliation. On the contrary, the concluding chapters show a harsh conflict between Paul and a group, which he ironically labels “super-apostles” (11:5), or more aggressively, “false apostles” (11:13). This has led some scholars to draw the conclusion that the order of the two sections should be reversed. Thus, shortly after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the situation worsened in Corinth and Paul sent a letter basically consisting of chapters 10–13. According to this view, this would be the letter Paul refers to in 2:4. This very sharp defense of Paul's apostolic authority is thought to have been efficient in convincing the community about its wrongdoing and Paul sends a letter of reconciliation, partly found in chapters 1–9.

The evident problem with this theory is that no “false apostles” are mentioned in chapters 1–9, only one individual opposing Paul. Some scholars thus assume that the letter mentioned in 2:4 is now lost and should not be identified with chapters 10–13. This otherwise unknown letter only dealt with the troublesome person opposing Paul, while the letter now found in chapters 1–9 was sent in response to the Corinthians’ positive reaction to Paul's (now lost) letter. Only after new problems had arisen in the community did Paul send the letter we now find in chapters 10–13. Both the question of the identity of the “opponents” and the unity of the letter are still under discussion. The dating of 2 Corinthians is dependent on the dating of 1 Corinthians and which standpoint is taken regarding the unity of the letter.


The letter to the Galatians is generally considered to be one of Paul's most important theological contributions. Together with the letter to the Romans, Galatians has been of utmost importance for the development of Christian (especially Protestant) theology. It was probably written from Ephesus circa 54–56 (although adherents to the so-called south Galatian hypothesis would argue for a much earlier date). As in the case of Romans, the interpretation of the letter is highly dependent on the theological outlook of the individual scholar and many interpretative models have been suggested.

Scholars belonging to the dominant Protestant research paradigm have traditionally reached the conclusion that Paul deals with the opposition between two irreconcilable religious systems in Galatians: Judaism as representing salvation through “works of the law” (2:16; 3:2, 5, 10, 12) and Christianity as representing “grace” (1:6; 2:21; 5:4). Scholars belonging to this tradition usually attach great importance to Paul's so-called “doctrine of justification by faith” (see 2:16) and regard this as a complete nullification of the Jewish law. Scholars representing the so-called New Perspective on Paul usually downplay the traditional dichotomy between Paul and Judaism, arguing that Paul only turned against those parts of the Torah that created a boundary between Jews and non-Jews. More recently, scholars emphasizing Paul's Jewish identity have focused on the interaction between Jews and non-Jews, the general political situation in Greco-Roman cities, and the intra-Jewish character of the letter.

The fundamental problem in Galatians seems to have been that Paul's gospel was being challenged by people advocating what Paul labels “a different gospel” (1:6). Paul interprets this as if his apostolic authority has been called into question, and the first part of the letter (1:11—2:21) is a vigorous defense of his apostolic status. It is not through any human effort that Paul became an apostle of Jesus Christ, and not by receiving instruction from any human, but through a direct revelation and as the result of divine election (1:15–16).

The identity of the “influencers” and the content of their claims have been subject to an extensive debate. Traditionally, they have been thought of as “Judaizing Jewish-Christians,” who argued that non-Jewish adherents to the Jesus movement had to become Jews in order to be saved (cf. Acts 15). The so-called Antioch incident (2:11–14), where Paul relates a conflict between himself and Peter in Antioch, may have been provoked by Jewish followers of Jesus from outside Antioch, and has usually been taken as evidence for this view. Recently, this interpretation has been challenged by scholars who rather point to the socio-political context and intra-Jewish affairs, resulting in more complex scenarios in which the traditional dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity plays a subordinate role, if any. It has, for instance, been suggested that Paul's unwillingness to accept non-Jewish converts to Judaism is more a question of ethnicity than of Paul's negative view of the Jewish law. Paul would thus consider it natural for Jewish followers of Jesus to observe the Torah, but would oppose non-Jewish involvement in the Torah or conversions to Judaism (see, e.g., 1 Cor 7:18). In such reconstructions the focus is consequently on the relation between Jews and non-Jews within the Jesus movement.

Paul argues in Galatians that the non-Jewish followers of Jesus should resist the temptation to avoid persecution by adapting to the pressure from outside. He tries to convince them that they already have full access to the God of Israel as non-Jews through Abraham and his offspring—Jesus Christ. Gradually, the aggressive tone in the introduction of the letter yields to a more conciliatory attitude (but see 5:12) and the letter ends with a section of ethical admonitions that shows how a life in the spirit does not result in lawlessness but in love, joy, and peace.


Paul founded the community in Philippi, a small but important city in eastern Macedonia. According to Acts (16:12–40) this took place during his second missionary journey around 49 C.E. The city was located northeast of Thessalonica, along the Via Egnatia, one of the major trade routes linking Rome with the provinces in the east. Very little is known about the community, which presumably was made up mostly of non-Jews. It appears that Paul was imprisoned at the time he wrote Philippians (1:12–18), although it is not clear where. Rome (ca. 60–63) or Ephesus (54–56) are the most likely places, but some scholars would favor Caesarea (ca. 58–60). Yet none of these suggestions are without difficulties: the considerable distance to Rome from Philippi is problematic considering that Paul mentions frequent visits to and from the community in Philippi (2:25–30). As for Caesarea, where Acts claims that Paul was held captive during two years (23:22—26:32), there are no indications of Paul's life being in immediate danger, which seems to be the case in Philippians (1:20–23, 2:17). Ephesus, on the other hand, where Paul resided for two years (Acts 19) is attractive due to its proximity to Philippi and had like Rome a praetorium (cf. 1:13). However, no record of Paul being imprisoned in Ephesus has survived.

As is the case with 2 Corinthians, some scholars have raised doubts about the unity of Philippians. Because of the sudden shift of tone in 3:2, where the gracious and friendly character of the first two chapters abruptly changes to an aggressive attack on people perceived as Paul's enemies, some scholars have reached the conclusion that Philippians also is a compilation of two (or more) letters. The arguments in favor of this view seem, however, less convincing than those for 2 Corinthians, and it is likely that the letter is a literary unit even though it exhibits some peculiarities.

There are several reasons for Paul to write the letter to the Philippians. Apparently, the community in Philippi had sent a certain Epaphroditus to assist Paul during his imprisonment (2:25–30, 4:18). This Epaphroditus had also brought gifts from the Philippians. One reason for Paul to write is evidently to convey his gratitude for the gift. Epaphroditus had, however, taken ill and Paul also writes to explain why he now sends him back to Philippi.

The letter contains some important biographical information regarding Paul's background. He recognizes his Jewish identity, while also expressing joy over his new faith in Christ (3:4–8). Traditionally this passage has been taken as evidence of Paul's repudiation of Judaism, but it could indicate only a reorientation within a Jewish context—Paul the Pharisee becomes a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Philippians also contains an early, beautiful Christ hymn (2:5–11) describing Christ's self-humbling and exaltation. The letter furthermore reveals the existence of groups who opposed Paul's interpretation of the gospel (3:2–3), and internal conflicts in the community (4:2). Above all, however, the letter is a letter of friendship, expressing joy over the community, admonishing the members to take Christ, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus as role models for unity and self-sacrificing love.

First Thessalonians.

First Thessalonians is widely accepted as the earliest of Paul's extant letters. This means that it is also the oldest writing in the New Testament and the earliest source for the Jesus movement in general. It addresses the community in Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, which Paul founded, probably in the late 40s. The letter is usually dated to circa 50 and was written from Corinth. Paul and his two cowriters, Silvanus and Timothy, appear to have been forced to suddenly leave Thessalonica (2:15, 17; cf. Acts 17:5–10) for Athens where Paul, filled with anxiety for the community, sends Timothy to Thessalonica to check on the situation (3:2). Upon Timothy's return with good news, Paul writes 1 Thessalonians (3:6), mainly in order to express joy over the community and to strengthen the bonds between himself and the community.

There is a discrepancy between the description of Paul's mission in Thessalonica in Acts and Paul's own account in 1 Thessalonians. According to Acts 17:1–4, Paul began his missionary activity in the synagogue of the city, where apparently non-Jews were also present, so that both Jews and non-Jews were attracted by his proclamation. This account follows the standard pattern of Paul's missionary strategy in Acts and seems probable from a sociological perspective. It is more likely that people with some knowledge of Jewish traditions would be attracted to Paul's gospel, than people without such familiarity with Judaism. First Thessalonians, however, seems to imply that Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus directly addressed non-Jews, who above all were encouraged to turn from “idols.” The letter does not mention any Jews or synagogues in Thessalonica (cf. Acts 17:1).

Some scholars have concluded that Paul may instead have used his business as a point of contact with potential converts and that Paul's assurance that they have worked night and day (2:9) thus should be taken quite literally. While this certainly cannot be ruled out, it should be emphasized that non-Jews who were engaged in the life of the synagogues almost certainly were also involved in the cults of the city, not least for political reasons. In this regard the Jesus movement seems to have demanded a higher degree of religious commitment. Paul's commendation of the Thessalonians for having turned away from “idols” says nothing about their previous contacts with Judaism.

The persecution the community had suffered (2:14–16; a passage with a rather gloomy history of reception, by some considered an interpolation) was probably a result of conflicts with the civic authorities over the members’ refusal to participate in the official cult, because of Paul's demand for a higher degree of commitment to the God of Israel. In general, the main part of 1 Thessalonians (1:2—3:13) is dominated by thanksgiving. Only at the end of the letter (4:13), does Paul bring up an important issue raised by the community. Paul's apocalyptic teaching on the imminent Parousia had evidently given rise to cognitive dissonance as members of the community had died. In the remaining part of the letter Paul deals with this question, assuring the Thessalonians that the eschatological drama presumes that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (4:16).


The letter to Philemon is the shortest of all Paul's letters, with only twenty-five verses, which makes it the average size of a private letter of the period. It appears to have been directed primarily to one individual. It should be noted, however, that even if Philemon is the real recipient of the letter, Paul (and his cowriter Timothy) also conveys greetings to two other individuals (Apphia and Archippus) as well as to the whole community (v. 2). It thus seems that the letter's case is not entirely a private matter but of some concern for the community as well. The letter was probably written either 58–60 when Paul was imprisoned (v. 1) in Caesarea, or 60–63 during his captivity in Rome. Because of its proximity to Colossae, Ephesus has also been suggested as the place from which it was sent, but as is the case with Philippians, the problem is that we do not know of any imprisonment during Paul's stay in that city. The letter differs from most Pauline letters in that it lacks an explicit theological discourse. Its importance lies rather in the glimpses it gives of the social relations within the early Jesus movement.

The recipient of the letter, Philemon, seems to have been a wealthy and important adherent to the Jesus movement; he evidently owned slaves; he could provide a guest room when asked for (v. 22). Philemon is usually considered to be one of Paul's converts (v. 19), although in an indirect way, which is indicated by the fact that Paul never uses the father-son metaphor with regard to Philemon, but does so in relation to Onesimus (v. 10). Philemon is also described as one of Paul's coworkers (v. 1) and it is possible that he had spent some time in Paul's company.

It is commonly assumed that Philemon's house was located in Colossae, partly because Paul conveys greetings from a certain Epaphras (v. 23), who is also mentioned in Colossians (4:12) as “one of you,” and partly on the assumption that the slave Onesimus in the letter to Philemon is the same person mentioned in Colossians 4:9.

Paul writes on behalf of the slave Onesimus, who usually is believed to have run away from his master and for some unclear reason has ended up with the imprisoned Paul. It has been suggested that Onesimus uses the legal practice of seeking protection from one of his owners’ friends or trusted associates, who thus would act as a mediator in the case of a controversy between master and slave. Other scholars have pointed to the fact that the letter lacks all references to flight and suggests that Onesimus simply was Philemon's envoy carrying a message to Paul. During his stay with Paul, Onesimus has evidently become a believer (v. 10) and it is as such Paul now sends him back to Philemon urging him to welcome Onesimus back.

It seems clear that Paul expects something from Philemon. The nature of this request is however less clear. Some, who assume that Onesimus is a fugitive, believe that Paul simply wants Philemon to receive Onesimus without punishing him, or even to manumit him. Another possibility is that Paul, who has grown fond of the slave, expects Philemon to present Onesimus as a gift to him. The fact that Paul does not unequivocally reject the slave system resulted in a certain hermeneutical openness; for instance, during the debates about the abolition of slavery in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Paul's letter to Philemon was used by both sides.

The Disputed Letters.

With regard to Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, there is an ongoing discussion regarding their authorship. Most scholars, however, think that Paul is not the author of Ephesians or Colossians. As for 2 Thessalonians, the problem of authorship is more of an open question.


There are many circumstances that indicate that the letter to the Ephesians was originally not written specifically to the community in Ephesus. Many of the oldest and best Greek manuscripts lack a specific reference to Ephesus and the majority of textual experts think that the reference to Ephesus was added only after the letter had been in circulation for some time. It is thus more likely that Ephesians originally was a circular letter intended for several communities in Asia Minor. At some point a copyist in Ephesus chose to personalize the letter to give the impression that the letter was only intended for the community there. In addition, there are no references to any local situation nor greetings to or from people in the community as in the letters considered authentic, and the letter seems to imply that the recipients did not know the author personally (1:15; 3:2–4), which seems strange considering the fact that Paul, according to Acts 19:10, spent two years in Ephesus.

Today, most scholars regard Ephesians as pseudonymous. In comparison with the authentic letters, there are obvious differences with regard to style and vocabulary. The author of Ephesians often writes long sentences in a way that has no equivalent in Paul's authentic letters. Furthermore, Ephesians contains more than one hundred words that are unique to this letter and are not found in the letters considered authentic.

Also, the theological outlook differs significantly from the undisputed letters. In contrast to the endless struggles with the ethnic identities of Jews and non-Jews in the authentic letters, Ephesians claims that this tension has been resolved (2:15–20). It is evident that the author believes that the law has been abolished for both Jews and non-Jews and this is the reason why a common, new identity has emerged, “one new humanity in place of the two” (2:15). This seems to differ from the relation between Jews and non-Jews in the authentic letters, where Paul rather emphasizes the need for preserved ethnic identities (e.g., 1 Cor 7:17–24) and it is both as Jews and non-Jews that humanity will ultimately be saved.

There is another peculiar shift of perspective in Ephesians as compared to the authentic letters, which further strengthens the hypothesis that Paul did not write Ephesians. In the authentic letters, Paul is very clear about the future character of the resurrection and the blessings of salvation (e.g., Rom 6) whereas the author of Ephesians argues precisely the opposite; that the believer already has been raised and given a place in the heavenly places. Moreover, the exaltation and universal lordship of Christ is emphasized, not his death.

These circumstances all indicate a setting at the end of the first century and it is likely that the letter rather reflects a development of Paul's theology and the emergence of a common Christian identity in contrast to the mixed identities of the earlier period.

Ephesians, which generally bears close resemblance to Colossians, can be divided into two main parts: 1:3–3:21, in which the non-Jewish recipients are reminded of their new status as “members of the household of God” (2:19), followed by a long parenesis (4:1—6:20) with ethical and moral exhortations.


Colossae, a minor market town during the first century C.E., was located in Phrygia in the Lycus Valley on the main road from Ephesus to Tarsus. The community there had not been founded by Paul, but by his coworker Epaphras and it is likely that it originally had emerged from within Jewish circles, that is, from one or several of the synagogues that most likely were present in the city.

The discussion regarding the authorship of Colossians is similar to that concerning Ephesians. The many scholars who doubt the authenticity of the letter point to stylistic and rhetorical differences between Colossians and the letters accepted as authentic. As in the case of Ephesians, the author of Colossians writes in a more complex style than Paul usually does and this has led many scholars to doubt, for linguistic reasons, that Paul wrote Colossians. Some scholars have, however, drawn attention to the possibility that some of the stylistic peculiarities could be explained by liturgical influences and by allusion to the “heresy” the author is fighting.

But, as in the case of Ephesians, there are also major theological obstacles to regarding Colossians as an authentic Pauline letter. In Romans 6, Paul emphasizes the future aspect of the believer's partaking in Christ's resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15), which should be compared with the insistent claim of the author of Colossians that the believer has already been raised together with Christ (2:12). Either Paul has changed his mind on this particular issue, or the theology in 2:12 represents a later development.

It has been suggested, however, that the letter was composed by one of Paul's fellow workers, such as Timothy, either as Paul's coauthor or by being authorized to compose the whole letter, as indicated by 4:18 where Paul claims to write his greeting “with his own hand.” Such a scenario could account for the differences but still connect the letter to a Pauline school of sorts, thus making the question of who really wrote the letter less important. While such a scenario cannot be ruled out, it seems more likely that Colossians represents a truly pseudonymous writing in which an unknown author at the turn of the century used Paul's authority in order to create an ideological foundation for combating a perceived threat.

The dating of the letter is of course connected to the question of authorship. If the letter was written during Paul's lifetime, the references to his imprisonment (4:3, 18), possibly in Caesarea or Rome, would point to the mid 50s or the beginning of the 60s, shortly before an earthquake destroyed Colossae. If the letter is considered pseudonymous, the reference to Colossae must be regarded as fictional and the time of composition becomes more of an open question. The main theme of the letter (2:6—4:6) concerns “false teaching” defined as “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8), the nature of which has been subject to a considerable debate. Some scholars have seen Hellenistic or Gnostic syncretistic movements behind the quite meager description in Colossians. More recently, scholars think that the “philosophy” in Colossae should rather be identified with quite normal Judaism, which makes sense considering the blurred boundaries that characterized the first centuries of the history of Christianity.

Second Thessalonians.

The occasion of 2 Thessalonians seems twofold: on the one hand, the author writes in order to comfort the community, which evidently is exposed to fierce persecution (1:4–6). The author of the letter assures the community that God's justice will shortly replace the injustices they now experience: the faithful will be rewarded while those who now oppose the community will suffer the punishment of “eternal destruction” (1:7–12). On the other hand, some within the community have apparently come to believe that the end time has already arrived, resulting in anxiety and idleness, which has severely affected the social structure in the community (2:2; 3:6–15), perhaps by some individuals’ refusal to work while being dependent on the goodwill of others.

The author thus writes in order to come to terms with such inappropriate behavior, assuring the recipients that a specific set of dramatic apocalyptic events will precede the final judgment: the appearance of “the lawless one,” who will take seat in the temple of God, “declaring himself to be God” (2:2–4), and, as it seems, an apocalyptic end-battle. The message is clear: even though the community indeed lives in the last days, the end time has not yet come, which is evident by the absence of relevant signs. The author also claims that the community should be well informed about this since the author already has revealed this eschatological state of affairs to the Thessalonians during a previous visit (2:5).

This, however, seems to contradict the apocalyptic plan presented in 1 Thessalonians where Paul stresses the imminence of the day of the Lord, which will come, suddenly “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2–8). Second Thessalonians seems to be written precisely to counteract conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians, that the end of days has already come.

From this, many scholars have reached the conclusion that 2 Thessalonians was not authored by Paul. Those who doubt the letter's authenticity also point to various stylistic differences such as longer sentences, and to the close similarities between the letters, as if the author of 2 Thessalonians has copied parts of 1 Thessalonians and retained its basic structure.

Others find ways of explaining the peculiarities in the letter. It has, for instance, been pointed out that the imminence of the day of the Lord and apocalyptic signs do coexist in other apocalyptic literature. As for the similarities between the letters, some scholars have pointed to the fact that this could easily be explained by assuming that Paul wrote both letters. As with the question of authorship, no consensus exists with regard to the date of 2 Thessalonians. If the letter is authentic, it was probably written shortly after 1 Thessalonians, circa 50. If it rather stems from a Pauline school, the end of the first century seems most plausible.

The Pseudonymous Letters.

Most New Testament scholars think that 1 and 2 Timothy and the letter to Titus were not penned by Paul, but by an otherwise unknown follower of Jesus at the end of the first century or at the beginning of the second century. These letters are thus called pseudonymous or deuteropauline.

The Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus).

Most scholars agree that Paul did not write 1 and 2 Timothy, or the letter to Titus, although a small number of scholars maintain that these letters are also authentic. Compared to the disputed letters dealt with above, however, there is broad agreement among scholars that the Pastoral Letters are pseudonymous.

The Pastoral Letters are the only canonical letters attributed to Paul that are directed to individuals (Paul's letter to Philemon is also directed to Apphia and Archippus and to the whole community): Paul's trusted coworkers known from Acts and Paul's undisputed letters—Timothy and Titus, the former residing in Ephesus, the latter on the island of Crete. The author, who claims to be Paul, communicates pastoral advice concerning a broad range of subjects such as the internal organization of the communities, and the proper way of dealing with false teaching.

Even though there are small differences between the three letters (especially between 2 Timothy and the two others), the general problems they address are quite similar. They all belong to the genre of parenetic letters, that is, personal letters of moral and exhortative character. Consequently, moral instructions for the members of the community and lists of credentials for the leadership dominate the discourse.

The reasons for assuming that Paul did not write these letters are philological, theological, and historical. The Pastorals share a common style and vocabulary that clearly distinguishes them from Paul's acknowledged letters. There are, for instance, a large number of non-Pauline words in the Pastorals, words that are common in later Christian works. Theological concepts used in Paul's authentic letters are either missing or are used differently in the Pastorals. The church order found in the Pastorals bears closer resemblance to that in the early church fathers, than to that described in Paul's authentic letters, and represents church offices as being more institutionalized than merely the various functions of the earliest church era. Finally, the Pastorals are missing from important early manuscripts and are cited only at the end of the second century, a strong argument in favor of a non-Pauline authorship. The Pastoral Letters were probably written at the end of the first century or at the beginning of the second.



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Magnus Zetterholm

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