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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: May 2006

18 - The Pauline Letters

from Part 2 - Biblical books in modern interpretation


Paul is undoubtedly the most important Christian thinker of all time. His letters are the only Christian writings we can confidently date to the first generation of Christianity; they define the first distinctives of Christian faith as do no other New Testament documents. They reflect and document the most crucial period in Christian history - the expansion of a Jewish messianic sect into the non-Jewish world, the emergence of Christianity as a (soon to be) predominantly Gentile religion. And their theology has been a primary formative influence in most of the great theological confessions and statements of the Christian churches to the present day. Their interpretation has therefore always been at the heart of attempts to understand Christian beginnings and to reformulate Christian faith and life.


The initial task in the study of the Pauline Letters has traditionally been the introductory issues of authenticity, date and circumstances, and these remain basic to sound interpretation. Fortunately the areas of disagreement have been relatively few. The letters were written in the course of Paul's work as a Christian missionary. That work extended from the mid-3os AD (soon after his conversion) to the early 60s, when he was executed, according to popular tradition, in Rome. The period of the letter-writing was much briefer, covering only the last ten to fifteen years of his life. This means, among other things, that the letters come from Paul's most mature period; none of them is the work of a young Christian or inexperienced missionary; they all reflect considerable experience and developed reflection on the Christian gospel. We may not deduce from this that there is no development in Paul's thought from letter to letter; but we should be cautious about assuming that such development was inevitable.