The Occasional Nature of the Pauline Letters

Even though 21st century readers of the New Testament letters usually find them bound in one volume, it is erroneous to assume they were written with that purpose—as a part of the whole. The writers of these letters did not realize their writings would eventually be combined with additional letters and other literary treatises by various authors. These combined versions did not appear until centuries after they were individually penned. Each New Testament letter was written to a specific audience and with a specific purpose in mind (1). The following observations will be limited to the letters of Paul with special attention given to 1 Corinthians.

Written about 56 CE, Galatians and 1 Thessalonians were Paul’s earliest letters. He had established churches in Galatia and his letter indicates a false gospel was being circulated among some of them. This “occasion” necessitated the need for the Galatian Christians to better understand the true gospel (Gal 1:6-9). The occasion of the Thessalonian letters is not as easy to determine although their content indicates confusion regarding Jesus’s return.

Unlike the Christians in Galatia and Thessalonica, the churches in Rome and Colossae did not personally know Paul. This fact alone makes his letters to them unique (Col 2:1-3; Rom 1:11; 15:23-29). The edict of Claudius had been overturned, consequently Jewish Christians had returned to Rome and a mostly Gentile church. This merger was creating friction and Paul was concerned about division. The church in Rome needed to be united because Paul planned to use it as a support base for his future evangelistic efforts in Spain (15:24). These future plans “occasioned” him to write Romans—a letter intended to help the Jewish and Gentile Christians better understand the implications of the gospel and in so doing create harmony in the church (1:14-16).

Paul obtained information from Epaphras that a false teaching was invading the Colossian church (1:7). This “occasioned” the need for a counter and Paul’s letter to the Colossians was his response. The exact nature of this teaching is unknown, but from Paul’s words it is safe to assume it included convincing arguments (2:4), angel worship (2:18), religious days (2:16), false humility (2:23), harsh treatment of the body (2:23), human tradition (2:8), and deceptive philosophy (2:8). Paul’s rebuttal to all of these issues was the nature and work of Christ (1:15-3:4).

The targeted audience of the letter to the Ephesians is vague, but scholarship generally places its destination as the churches up and down the Lycus valley. Apparently Paul had not personally interacted with the Christians in these locations because this letter lacks the personal references of his other letters and he states that he had “heard” of their faith. This would not have been the case if the letter were intended only for the church in Ephesus. He had previously spent three years with the Ephesian church (Eph 1:15) and knew their elders (Acts 20:31). The Ephesian letter was “occasioned” by the need to encourage spiritual development among these churches. This is demonstrated by Paul’s use of the indicative (who you are) in chapters 1-3 followed by his use of the imperative (how you should live) in chapters 4-6.

The church at Philippi can be considered Paul’s “sweetheart” church because of its faithful support of his evangelistic work (4:15-16). However some of the members were not getting along (4:1-2), and the church was experiencing division and selfishness (2:3). Apparently this letter was “occasioned” by a divided church. Paul addressed still another issue in chapter three—too much self-confidence. Because Philippi was a community for retired Romans, this could have easily been an issue. To resolve the two-fold “occasional” problem of this church—selfishness and self-confidence, Paul admonished the Philippian Christians to adopt the attitude of Christ (2:5) and to strive to know him (3:10).

Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter. It was “occasioned” by Paul’s desire to reunite a runaway slave with his Christian owner (1:19). Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and after converting the guilty slave, Paul offered to reimburse the stolen money to Philemon as part of the reconciliation process.

Perhaps 2 Corinthians is the most difficult of Paul’s letters to classify, in part because it lacks the continuity found in his other writings (2). Quite possibly it is a compilation of several of his letters. Within this treatise Paul provided a strong defense of his ministry (2:12-6:13) and gave instruction concerning a future collection (8:1-9:15).

The pastoral letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, were “occasioned” by Paul’s desire to offer direction to two young evangelists serving churches in Ephesus and Crete. He dealt with the appointment of church leaders, issues facing the churches, godly behavior, and the spiritual well being of Timothy and Titus (1 Tim 3:1-15; Titus 1:5-9). He also made some personal requests of Timothy (2 Tim 4:13).

Judging from its wording, 1 Corinthians appears to be the most “occasioned” letter of all of Paul’s writings because it is a direct response to information he had obtained from Chloe and the questions he had been asked (1:11). It reflects not only Paul’s personal perceptions and beliefs but also peripheral issues influencing the church. At the time of his writing, the church was experiencing the challenges of a present crisis—most probably a famine (7:26), and an extremely immoral society (7:2). Shadowing all of Paul’s responses were his views of eschatology (7:29, 31) and his belief that the single life style was best for every Christian (7:32-35) (3). Prior to answering the questions beginning in 7:1, Paul was confident in his directives. He instructed the church to be united (1:10-15), and attributed their division to a lack of spirituality (3:1-23). He provided directions regarding an immoral man (5:1-5) and lawsuits among Christians (6:1-8). He took a strong stance against immorality (6:9-20). His answers to the questions of 8:1, 12:1, 16:1 and 16:12 carry the tone of a confident inspired apostle, (4) and in 14:37 he emphasized his teachings were not his own, but the Lord’s command.

Paul’s answers to the questions in chapter 7 show a tentativeness not seen in any of his other responses, (5) nor in any of his other letters. Only in this chapter does he declare he has no information from the Lord and will rely on his own judgment to provide instruction for mixed marriages, virgins, and widows. (6) Significantly, Paul’s teachings on sexuality and marriage are limited by the questions he received and the time the letter was penned. In no way should I Cor 7 be regarded as his complete theology on the topic. For example, the instruction Paul gave the widows in 7:8 and 7:40 is not the same instruction he gave widows in 1 Tim 5:14. The “occasion” that prompted the writing of 1 Timothy did not include the “occasion” of a present crisis and Paul’s belief in the imminent coming of Jesus.

By acknowledging and attempting to understand the circumstances that occasioned Paul’s letters, we can better understand his teachings. We can also gain a better grasp of the issues that were facing individual churches in the first century world.


Footnotes:

1. Colossians 4:16 is an exception. The synoptic gospel writers did not envision their letters being copied, but only read (Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14). Reading was a part of the synagogue service (Acts 13:15; Luke 4:16; 1 Tim 4:13).

2. See Appendix D Arrangement of 2 Corinthians. Jerry Jones, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Seen through the Character of God and the Mind of Jesus. (Joplin: College Press, 2016),160.

3. The Torah did not support Paul’s view of singleness (Gen 2:18; Ps 127:3-5; 1 Sam 1:9-11).

4. Paul appealed to the teachings of Jesus in defending the support of preachers (9:14). In answering a question about the Lord’s Supper, Paul emphasized his teaching was “received from the Lord” and was not his own judgment (11:23).

5. “I say,” “I think,” “I wish,” “what I mean” and “I would like” are examples of his tentativeness.   In an apparent hesitation or even lack of confidence in his teaching, he claimed trustworthiness (7:25) and possession of the Spirit of God (7:40).  Twice Paul said he had no information from the Lord (7:12, 25) and was providing his judgment (7:25, 40).

6. 7:12; 7:25; 7:40.

Comments

  1. Norman Morrow says:

    Thank you, Jerry, for your scholarship and your ability to communicate.

  2. Charley Bazzell says:

    Jerry, great stuff. Thank you, my friend, and may God continue to bless you and Lynn and the work you’re doing for his kingdom.

  3. Mike Bucchi says:

    Jerry – A superb overview of Paul’s letters which provide greater appreciation and insights into Paul’s ministry!! Well done to my college professor and match-maker!!

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