Spirituality for Today – November 2008 – Volume 13, Issue 4

The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series
Part 4: The Forest and the Trees

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Photo of a bench and a tree without leavesMy previous column mentioned in passing that Saint Paul is the most prolific writer in the New Testament. In this column and the next, I'd like to dwell on that point.

To begin with, about 25 percent of the New Testament is Pauline. Regular Mass goers know this. Often the second Scripture reading on Sunday is taken from Saint Paul. In the daily cycle of readings, the Church at times invites us to read continuously, over a period of days, one or another of Saint Paul's letters (currently we're reading Galatians). It's wonderful that the Church's liturgy gives us so much contact with Saint Paul's writings. But usually we are given only a relatively few verses at a time. And sometimes when we hear that the reading is from "Paul's letter to the Romans" or "Paul's letter to the Ephesians," we may not have a ready frame of reference. In other words, we may be seeing trees but not the forest.

The modest scope of this effort is simply to offer you a Fodor's guide to the writings of Saint Paul. With the help of a few reliable authors, I'll list the writings of Saint Paul, mention when they were written and what the main themes are, and try to co-relate what was going on in Saint Paul's life when those epistles were written. Of course, one could fill an encyclopedia on this subject; this will be just a little sketch and even this will take two columns.

Yet if the scope of these articles is modest, the goal is large. Like the writers of guidebooks who hope that their readers will actually visit the countries and cities they are describing, I'm hoping you'll go to the Bible and read the letters of Saint Paul for yourself. At the very least, I hope these columns will cause a few bells to go off in your head the next time you hear that the second reading is from Galatians or Colossians or First Corinthians.

There are 14 letters which were written by Saint Paul or are historically attributed to him (counting the Letter to the Hebrews). Paul or his co-workers wrote them in Greek approximately between the years 51 through 70 A.D. and addressed them to local churches he had established in the course of his missionary visits. So in addition to pastoral visits and to sending his co-workers to these churches, Paul also wrote letters to convey important teaching and to address practical problems and practices in those congregations - and many of these sound familiar to our ears twenty centuries later.

Most scholars believe that Thessalonians 1 and 2 are the oldest of Saint Paul's letters. They were likely written in Corinth in the year 51, just after the completion of Saint Paul's second missionary journey in the year 50, a journey that brought him to Thessalonica (see Acts 17:1 ff). Although Paul planted a vibrant church at Thessalonica, he suffered persecution there from both Jews and Gentiles. Together with his companions Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy, he went to Beroea (in Macedonia, see Acts 17:10, 13) and then to Athens (see Acts 17:16 ff). Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to continue the work of establishing that newfound Christian community (1 Thes. 3:1-5).

Afterwards, when Timothy, together with Silas, were reunited with Paul in Corinth in the summer of 51 (Acts 18:1-18), Timothy told Paul about conditions (both good news and bad) in the church at Thessalonica.

In response, Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thes. 3: 6-8).In that letter, Paul expresses deep thanks for the faith of this new community, his earnest prayer for them, and his desire to return to them (1 Thes. 2-3). Paul also encourages them to lead lives pleasing to God, especially to practice charity (1 Thes. 1-12). While urging them to remain vigilant for the Lord's return, Paul instructs the Thessalonians that those already dead will be awakened when Christ comes in glory (1 Thes. 4:13-18; 5:1-11). He closes by urging the community (1 Thes. 5: 12-24) to work quietly and to encourage one another, to rejoice and pray constantly, and to "test everything" (1 Thes. 5:21) to see which prophecies come from God and which do not.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addresses the persecutions the church at Thessalonica is experiencing. Paul encourages the members of this church and urges them to stand fast (2 Thes. 1:3-12). He reminds them that, at the coming of Christ, their steadfast faith will be rewarded and their persecutors will be punished (1 Thes. 1:5-10). Paul also warns them against a counterfeit prophecy purported to be his but, in fact, is the work of the Evil One (2 Thes. 2:1-17). This false prophecy caused confusion among them.

The main part of the letter seeks to quell speculation about the second coming of the Lord. Paul reminds them what must happen before the Lord returns, namely, apostasy and false signs (2 Thes. 2:8-11).

These two letters with similar content and likely written within the same year raise questions. Scholars wonder if the first letter was addressed to Gentile converts, whereas the second was addressed to Jewish converts. Some also speculate that the second letter was not directly written by Saint Paul but contained a message he wished to convey by his authority as an apostle.

We turn now to Paul's letter to the Philippians. Many scholars seem to think the letter was written between 54 and 57 but others date it between 61 and 63. If we accept 54-57, then we would conclude that Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote to the Philippians; it was also at Ephesus that he wrote Corinthians 1 and 2. Just to anchor this time frame, the emperor Claudius died in 54 and Nero was elected emperor on October 13, 54.

Philippi was an important Roman town in northeastern Greece. In a previous column, we already saw that at Philippi Paul, together with Silas and Timothy, established the first Christian community in Europe. This took place most likely during his second missionary journey, around 49 or 50, just before Paul and his companions moved on to Thessalonica.

In Philippi Paul met some interesting people: Lydia, an industrious woman who was converted along with her household (Acts 16:14); a slave girl from whom an evil spirit was driven out (Acts 16:16-18); the jailer whom Paul and Silas ended up baptizing, along with his family (Acts 16:25-34). Note that these household conversions may have entailed the baptism of infants and children. We also meet the magistrates who freed Paul and Silas and asked them to leave (Acts 16:35-40). Later Paul would return to Philippi on his way from Ephesus to Greece (Acts 20:1-2) and on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:6).

Paul's letter to the Philippians was written while he was in prison for treason and even in danger of death (Philippians 1:7; 20-23). In it, Paul urges the Christian community at Philippi to remain united and to continue to grow in humility and peace (Philippians 1:23-26). In that context Paul presents the beautiful hymn which exalts in Christ's humble gift of self for the sake of our salvation and as a motive for praise and worship (Philippians 2:5-11). Paul urges this church, evidently very beloved to him, to model their lives on Christ's example, so that on judgment day they would be a credit to him (Philippians 2:12-18). Paul is grateful to the Philippians who sent Epaphroditus to look after him during his imprisonment and illness (Philippians 2:25- 3:1). Paul also warns against those who would place on the Christians the burdens of Mosaic Law. In that context, Paul, recalling his own conversion, vigorously teaches that we are saved by faith and urges this community to be steadfast in hope (see Philippians 3:4-16).

As mentioned previously, Paul also wrote Corinthians 1 and 2 in the years 54-57 (see Acts 20:1-6). Paul had begun a Christian community in Corinth about the year 51 during his second missionary journey. He had Jewish converts but some turned against him. Paul seemed to have more success with Gentile converts. After Paul moved on to Galatia, Apollos, a convert from Judaism, tirelessly continued Paul's work at Corinth of preaching Christ (Acts 18:24- 28).

At Ephesus, however, Paul heard of deep divisions in the church at Corinth, each faction claiming allegiance to a Christian leader and asserting that their chosen leader's teaching was preferable (see 1 Cor. 1:10, ff). In the meantime, the conduct of the Corinthians was scandalous. This included a member engaged in incest (1 Cor. 5:1- 13), others engaged in legal conflicts against one another in the courts (1 Cor. 6:1-11) and still others involved in pagan worship (1 Cor. 6:12-20; 10:14-22) - and that's the sanitized version! These deep divisions, not surprisingly, came to light in the celebration of the Eucharist.

In addressing those ills, Saint Paul provides us with early teaching on the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:14-22; 11:17-34). Paul also answers the questions posed by the Corinthians regarding marriage and virginity and offers to idols. As always, Paul does not hesitate to assert his authority as an apostle and teacher and call the erring Corinthians back to unity, authentic faith, and, above all, charity.

Second Corinthians seems also to have been written in Ephesus in 57, but we don't really know what prompted it. In it, Paul, reflecting on the disorder in the Corinthian community, calls into question his relationship to them even as he expresses affection for them. All this was brought to head by Paul's change in his plans to visit the church at Corinth as well as his observations about other visiting missionaries who were sowing a certain amount of confusion and dissension. On both accounts Paul offered a spirited defense of his own ministry. He also urged the Corinthians to take up a collection for the church at Jerusalem, stressing the need to support the mother church.

Some believe that 2 Corinthians includes materials written at other places and times, and some also think it may even be a compilation of shorter letters. Whatever the case, it is clear that 1 and 2 Corinthians offer an important view of life in the early Church – a view that reminds us that the difficulties we face today, twenty centuries later, are really nothing new.

Around 54 or 55 Paul also wrote his letter to the Galatians (though opinions about the letter's date vary among scholars). It appears that Paul also wrote this letter while he was at Ephesus. Galatia was an important Roman Providence in the interior of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey, near its capital city, Ankara). As noted earlier, Paul had visited and preached in Galatia – most likely the northern part of the Province – though there has been a long and vigorous debate about where Paul established the church and thus the precise destination of his letter.

There has also been a long debate where the Galatians came from (some say Celtic tribes from Gaul). Though there is still not unanimity, many modern scholars believe that Paul wrote to converts from paganism in the north rather than from Jewish and Gentile converts in the south (see Galatians 4:2:1-10).

Paul opens his letter by expressing disappointment that the Galatians had so soon departed from the Gospel under the influence of those who would impose on them the requirements of the Jewish law (Galatians 1:6-9). He goes on to establish the authenticity of the Gospel he preached (Galatians 1:13-24) and that his mission to the Gentiles was approved by the other apostles (Galatians 2:1-10). For the coup de grace, Paul even mentions that he corrected Peter when he wavered in his relationship with Gentiles and Jews in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21).

Paul forcefully argues that salvation is from faith in Christ crucified not from the works of the law (Galatians 2:15-21): "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me!"

Sometimes in our private reading or even at Mass we are startled by how Paul upbraided them: "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes was Jesus Christ publicly portrayed as crucified? (Galatians 3:1-2)" Paul also warns that Christ freed his new converts not only from slavery to the law but also urges them not to fall into moral slavery. Christian freedom is not permission to give in to the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:13; 6:10).

Your tour guide has run out of room! So next time we'll resume our tour of Paul's epistles beginning with Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy 1 and 2, Titus, and Philemon. If there is time and space, we'll also look at the letter to the Hebrews.

The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series