Tuesday, January 12, 2016

St. Paul's "Other" Letters

Thirteen letters in the New Testament bear the name of Paul. However, they were not the only correspondence written by the great apostle-missionary. We know by his own words, for instance, that he wrote a letter to the Corinthians prior to what we know as 1 Corinthians (1 Co. 5:9). Between what we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, he also wrote what he describes as a “painful letter” to this same church (2 Co. 2:3-4), and this letter is unlikely to be 1 Corinthians. We know he also wrote a letter to the Laodecians (Col. 4:16). Some have speculated that it may have been what we know as Ephesians, based on the fact that our earliest copy of Ephesians (p46 ca. AD 200) as well as several other early manuscripts do not have the words “in Ephesus” in the Greek text. Indeed, I have personally examined p46 at the University of Michigan where it is housed in the Hatcher library, and indeed, this early papyrus copy is missing those words. The Ephesian letter may have been a circular letter to several congregations, but then again, Paul may have written to the Laodecians completely apart from what we know as Ephesians. Ephesians also contains the intriguing parenthetical statement, “as I wrote before in a few words”, which might refer to what he said earlier in the same letter but might also refer to some other letter he wrote. All these are phrases actually appear in Paul’s known letters, and it is certainly not a stretch to suppose that he may have written other letters of which we know nothing.

This, then, raises an interesting speculative question. Though by this late date it is unlikely, what if one or more of these other correspondences of Paul were discovered? Would we consider them canonical? Would they be of merely historical interest? I, for one, would be riveted by what other things he may have written, but at the same time, I would be doubtful about including them in the canon of the New Testament. I think the long canonical tradition of the church is better left undisturbed, and at a more theological level, I am content that the Holy Spirit has preserved through the vicissitudes of history those writings which were necessary. Still, it is an intriguing idea!


  1. Dan: Excellent post and a fascinating question about the possible "canonical" status of other Pauline letters.

    Some scholars see II Corinthians as a composite document with "other" letters possibly embedded in the larger text. But I don't find this very convincing. It seems to me that while there are abrupt shifts in topic in the II Corinthian letter, the argument of the letter as a whole stands together as a single document. Perhaps we could impose on our friend Mark Roberts - who wrote his dissertation on the Corinthian correspondence - to offer a little more insight into the unity of II Corinthians.

    Have you read Douglas Campbell's "Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography" (Eerdmans, 2014)?

    In this incredibly rigorous work, Campbell moves away from the "chronology of Paul's life" methodology that builds a framework for Paul's biography and then places his letters in this context. This approach centers on the harmony or disharmony of the story told in the Acts of the Apostles and the details of places, people, and events found in Paul's letters and the “privileging” of the data in the letters over that in the Acts. (The best examples of this approach are found in the debate about Paul’s chronology between John Knox, Robert Jewett, and Gerd Ludemann.)

    Instead, Campbell looks solely at the data found in the letters themselves to construct an "epistolary framework" to uncover a basic "frame" - the core being the Romans and the Corinthian correspondence - upon which he then situates the other Pauline letters. While the earlier approach always “privileged” the evidence in the letters, Campbell provides an entirely new and convincing way of understanding the order of the letters and their relationship to one another.

    Interestingly, his study has led Campbell to see the disputed letters of Ephesians, Colossians, and II Thessalonians as authentically Pauline.

    Not a book for the faint-hearted, Campbell’s "Framing Paul" sets a new standard for seeing the interrelations of Paul’s letters. In turn, this has terrific impact on how to read Paul as a whole. I cannot say I agree with all Campbell’s arguments, but I am compelled to take them seriously.

  2. I guess I'm still undecided about 2 Corinthians. The abrupt change in tone between chapters 9 and 10, or so it would seem to me, either comes from different letters or perhaps some recently communicated information that reached Paul while the writing of 2 Corinthians was still in process.

    I'm afraid you are ahead of me with respect to Douglas Campbell's work. It looks like a book I should read, however, and a very interesting approach!