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In What Order?

by Tim O'Hearn

To a historian, timelines are important. Too often American history is taught as if the country were in isolation. Most people have no idea what was happening in Europe (or Asia or Africa) when certain events happened in America. For instance, many people do not associate the War of 1812 with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, although that association is vital to an understanding of both conflicts. Victoria was queen of England from the presidency of Andrew Jackson through William McKinley. Hong Kong became a British territory during the presidency of James Polk. Many other examples could be given. Even a comparison between the timelines of various European and Asian countries yields interesting correspondences. Sometimes knowing what was happening at the same time as other events helps us to understand the events. Sometimes what was happening when books of the Bible were written helps us to understand the books themselves. So it is with a timeline of the letters of Paul.

It is easy to assume that Paul’s letters were written in the order we find them in most Bibles. That would be a mistake. Generally, they are placed according to length and not chronology. Romans, for instance, is actually theProbably 2 Corinthians 12 refers to an incident of which we have no other record. fourth, fifth, or even sixth of Paul’s letters. It is interesting to find that the Thessalonian letters are probably the first, and written within a couple of years of the establishment of that church. In terms of the book of Acts, Paul’s letters can generally be divided into three groups: written on journeys, written from the first Roman imprisonment, written after Acts closes.

Journey Letters

These letters include Romans, the Corinthian letters, Galatians, and the Thessalonian letters. Most scholars are in essential agreement as to when each was written, except in the case of Galatians.

Paul preached in Philippi on his second journey. From there he went to Thessalonica, then Athens and Corinth. He spent a year and a half in Corinth. It was during this time that he wrote both letters to the Thessalonians (approximately 55 AD). This means the errors that he was correcting cropped up quickly in the Thessalonian church. The most prominent of those errors was the idea that the Christians could stop working because Jesus was to return imminently. This leads one to ask whether there was something in that city that predisposed them to this belief (commonly associated with many modern cults) or whether someone was following Paul and teaching this doctrine. Either one is possible. What is clear, though, is that young congregations may be vulnerable to strange teachings. In modern terms, that should teach those who plant churches and then ignore them that such a policy is dangerous to the new believers.

Probably a little over a year later Paul began his third journey, and spent over three years in Ephesus. (Acts 19) It is possible that he wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, but some scholars place it after leaving the city. (Acts 20:1) In either case, it is again evident that error can creep into a church very quickly. This first letter to the Corinthians shows it to be a church with many problems. In it Paul addresses partyism, marriage, the Lord’s Supper, misuse of spiritual gifts, and benevolence.

The second letter to that church is generally considered to have been written shortly after the first, because of a reference to forgiving a brother mentioned in the first letter. Most scholars place it just before or just after his visit to Greece in Acts 20:3. This means that it was written probably less than a year after the first letter.

If this letter is dated approximately 56 AD, it poses an interesting issue with a common assumption. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of a person who was caught up into heaven and given visions of things he could not repeat. Many preachers believe that Paul is talking of himself, and some say this may have happened when he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra during the first missionary journey (about 48 AD). This poses a problem. Paul claims that the catching up happened over fourteen years before he was writing in 2 Corinthians. If he wrote the letter when most scholars believe, that would put the heaven incident before 42 AD, when Paul was in Tarsus before going to Antioch. It could refer to the events on the road to Damascus that led to his conversion, but then he would have said it was over twenty years, not the very specific fourteen. If he was referring to the incident in Lystra, then 2 Corinthians would have to have been written about the time he was released from his first Roman imprisonment, which doesn’t fit with the idea that it was written shortly after the first letter. Probably 2 Corinthians 12 refers to an incident of which we have no other record.

The letter to the Romans is commonly dated at about the same time as 2 Corinthians (and possibly a few months earlier). Most scholars place it in Acts 20:1-3. This would indicate that Paul hoped to come to them as soon as he delivered the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. (Which, it so happens, is what occurred, although not as he had expected.)

The letter to the Galatians is problematic. Some place it as early as the beginning of the second journey. (Acts 15) Others place it during his first time in Corinth (Acts 18). These dates would make it possibly the first letter written. Others date it to his three years in Ephesus or the same time as Romans and 2 Corinthians. The earlier dates would mean that he had never visited the congregations to which he was writing. Yet in the letter he marvels that the Galatians are “so soon removed” from the truth they had received. This seems to indicate that he had visited the congregations, and was writing shortly thereafter. This fits with the later date. Galatians 4 also indicates that Paul had personally met with some in the churches to which he was writing. That would place it at the later dates, and possibly the last letter written (of which we have a copy) before Paul’s imprisonment. That Paul addresses issues related to early Gnosticism would also place this closer to the letters of John than his own early letters.

Prison letters

The prison letters (Acts 28) are generally considered to be Philemon, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. They were all presumably written from Rome, although some scholars date Ephesians as early as his time in Caesarea while awaiting transfer to Rome. In either case, this would place these letters three to five years after the earlier ones. These are letters of a more mature Paul to more mature churches or individuals.

Philemon lived in Colossae, a city that Paul had apparently never visited, although Paul seems to have known him personally. The letter to him had a very specific purpose, and was clearly written after he had spent some time in Rome, but before his release from the first imprisonment. It is probable that it was written at the same time as the letter to the Colossians. Paul was pleading with Philemon to accept back his former slave, Onesimus. Colossians 4 says that the letter was being delivered by Onesimus. So the letter to Philemon was probably a personal letter of reference so that the other letter could be delivered without incident. This would argue that Colossians was also written from Rome and not Caesarea.

Some date the letter to the Ephesians to some unrecorded imprisonment, presumably during one of the first two journeys. Some date it to the two years of imprisonment in Caesarea. The letter bears a striking resemblance to Colossians, however. Sometimes it is almost word-for-word identical. This would seem to indicate that they were written and delivered at the same time. One is a copy of the other, modified for the specific circumstances of the target audience. Since it is probable that the Colossian letter was written from Rome at the same time as the one to Philemon, then it is likely that Ephesians was also written from Rome.

Philippians is a thank-you letter for years of assistance. This was probably the last letter he wrote (that we know of) from his first imprisonment, and the last to a congregation rather than an individual. Because of Paul’s situation and the maturity of the congregation, it only indirectly addresses some minor problems in the congregation, but is mostly in praise of their faithfulness. This is the letter established congregations today would wish to receive.

After-Acts letters

The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome for the first time. Although under guard, he lived in a private house for two years. After that, he was apparently freed for a time and traveled extensively. Thus he was not in Rome when Nero burned the city and The letter to the Galatians is problematic.blamed it on the Christians. Four years later he was again imprisoned and then executed. This coincides with the first Jewish revolt, and may have been a direct result of that rebellion. While he was traveling and during his last imprisonment he wrote letters to individuals, more as a father guiding his adult children than as a preacher guiding a congregation.

The first letter to Timothy may have been written shortly after Paul was released from prison. It cannot be one of the journey letters, because Paul urged him to stay in Ephesus while he went to Macedonia. In all the journeys in Acts, Timothy was with Paul in Macedonia. It is probably early in the post-Acts period because it doesn’t mention any other places, unlike the two remaining letters.

Titus can be placed late in the period between Roman imprisonments. Paul may have been to Spain. He had certainly been to Crete, and left Titus there. This cannot be during the trip to Rome in Acts 27, so was probably later in Paul’s life.

The second letter to Timothy is clearly the last letter we have from Paul. It was probably written from Rome, but may be dated only slightly earlier. Paul had spent some time in Asia Minor, but had apparently not visited Timothy in Ephesus.

Some would mention Hebrews. It is intentionally left out of this timeline because its date is difficult to determine, and it may have been written by someone else, such as Silas or Priscilla.

What does all this mean? Knowing when the letters were written may help us understand why they were written. The earlier letters tend to deal with problems of young churches. The prison epistles encourage more mature congregations. The post-Acts letters are those of an elder to his younger protégés. It all makes sense when you see it as it really is.