The Dating of Paul's Epistles

Discoveries, if they are important, usually have repercussions on existing ideas. An accepted notion is overthrown, as if by an earthquake; and presently we become aware that re-adjustments of ideas, hitherto accepted without question, have become necessary. Such re-adjustments are unpleasant and often painful, yet they have to be made for the sake of truth. As we grow older and richer in experience, we come to realize more and more how much of what we have taken for granted as certain is, in fact, largely supposition, and frequently largely superstition. So, if we are wise, the establishment of a fresh discovery leads us to re-examine all cognate matters to find out whether they too are as soundly based as we had thought. By now it is plain that the four Gospels were already regarded as Scripture when the Apostle Paul visited Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17). At that time, the authority of the Twelve Apostles was still absolute and unquestioned; so by then the Gospels were circulated not only widely but with the full knowledge and approval of the Twelve. This means that their contents were vouched for by the Twelve, for at that early date no Christian would have dared to go against them. Already this has profoundly changed our outlook, not only on the Gospels themselves but on the remaining historical book, Acts; so that now we are faced with the possibility that our ideas about Paul's Epistles may require modification also. A whole doctrinal system has been erected on two pillars, the accepted chronological order of Paul's Epistles and the belief that the Gospels were written at a later date than most, if not all, of them. The latter pillar has been swept away. What of the former?

This subject is beset with many difficulties, of which perhaps the most curious is that "no satisfactory proof can be made out that the author of Acts had ever seen Paul's epistles" (Salmon: "Introduction to the New Testament," p. 318). This has been used as evidence that Acts was a compilation of a much later date than the events it records. Yet, if this is relevant evidence at all, it suggests, rather, that Luke wrote Acts before ever he saw any of Paul's Epistles; and this further suggests that the earliest of them were written during the time covered by the last chapters of Acts, which is in line with the suggestion later in this paper that Romans was the first of them to be written. Another possible reason exists; and Salmon must have had some inkling of it, though he does not seem to have got so far as to state it; for he points out that although Paul's speeches in Acts have the authentic Pauline character, they avoid "anything like a direct echo of any passage in the Epistles." Exactly so! Paul's speeches in Acts were primarily to Jews, made with the purpose of joining to the witness of the Twelve, already set out, his own testimony to them. So in any circumstances, the "difficulty" referred to above is therefore no difficulty at all, but a proof of the skill of Paul in framing his testimony and of Luke in recording only what came within the bounds of his purpose in writing the account.

Salmon sets out very interestingly a number of points which critics had alleged prove Luke's ignorance at Paul's Epistles; but we need not waste time on them. If one is writing to a Bank Manager about a purely business matter,—one does not intrude small talk about somebody's family affairs or discussion of the troubles of a foreign government. Both Luke and Paul were entirely free from mind-wandering of any kind. All that these efforts of the critics prove is the utter illogically of their own thinking. The fact that I have no intention of, discussing Chemistry or Astronomy in this paper does not prove ignorance of them.

What does emerge from this is that we need not feel at all surprised that Acts throws no light on the direct chronology of the epistles. In fact, such light would in the circumstances be so surprising as to call for explanation. Consequently, we are left to consider this matter on its merits. Perhaps it might be asked why we should consider it at all. Scripture is silent on the subject; and if Christians had been content to avoid speculating about it and to maintain silence, we would—probably all have been better off. As it is, such speculations have confused this issue and others as well.

Many think that I Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul's Epistles, some on the ground that it is the simplest of them, others on account of the prophecy of I Thess. 4:13-17. For the latter, it is contended that only the very earliest Christians regarded "the second corning" as an immediate expectation. We need hardly say by now that this is only a guess, and a far from plausible guess at that. Apart from what we read in Acts and Paul's Epistles, we know nothing at all about what the earliest Christians believed; and it is hopelessly illogical first to assume that I Thessalonians was the earliest epistle and then to deduce from its earliness what the earliest Christians thought. We will return to this presently.

The talk about the simplest of the epistles conceals a fatal ambiguity; for what does "simple" mean in this connection? If it means freedom from complexity, I Thessalonians certainly is simple; but if it means "easy to understand," we have only to point to the almost universal misunderstanding of the epistle. The very fact that it is supposed to refer to what is called "the second coming" proves this. Even now, in spite of all that has been written about the epistle, few, very very few, appreciate what it is all about. Many, perhaps most, of those who have some understanding of the tremendous truths set out in Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians seem to stop at them and to fail to appreciate that they are incomplete without what follows in the Thessalonian Epistles. These consummate and conclude the series of epistles addressed to churches. Everything before them leads up to them, they themselves lead up to nothing, because they are the last word on their theme.

For all that is said to the contrary apart from I. Cor. 15:12-28 and 51-53, the conditions envisaged in the other Church Epistles might well go on in perpetuity; and even these two passages lack any immediacy, as also does the closing chapter. But I Thessalonians brings to an end abruptly and finally the story on earth of the church which is Christ's body, and II Thessalonians equally abruptly and finally the closure at the conditions against which we have been carrying on our spiritual warfare. There are no further instructions for churches, as churches. What Paul has to say in his own name beyond all this is to individuals-to Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Reason itself suggests that Paul's final message to churches might well be the last message also in order of time but there is no "must" about the matter. We can get further light only by careful observation of the facts.

Once the point here made is appreciated, we no longer have to think of these two epistles in terms of earliness or lateness. We do not know for certain when they were written, so it ought not to matter at all. This means, what' has been several times argued in these pages, that not only is the chronology of Paul's Epistles not been disclosed, it is not in itself important. Yet we may well discover eventually that there is more to it than this. One pointer is the importance attributed by so many teachers to the generally accepted chronological order. That this supposed order is unproven and probably incorrect means that reliance on it must lead people astray.

The outstanding characteristic of the Apostle Paul, as disclosed in everything he said and wrote, is the logic and orderliness of his mind. Yet we are generally expected to regard his epistles as collected together at random or else written haphazard as need arose. Why should this be? Can anyone suggest a reason for this supposition, let alone prove it to be fact? It is likely, it is even possible, that so orderly minded a man as the Apostle Paul set out his Evangel in so slipshod a way? When one begins to ask these questions, the negative character of the answers becomes immediately obvious; the trouble is that nobody ever seems to have asked them. The traditions of men have somehow put us into a weary treadmill, out of which we lack the initiative to force our way. It is "accepted fact"; and that is good enough for most people. Yet history is littered with "accepted facts" which, when questioned, have crumbled to dust and become objects of derision when considered at all. The hard indestructible atom, Euclidean geometry as the only possible sort, the phlogiston theory of heat, the earth-centred cosmos—these all were universally accepted facts until someone arose to question them and thus blow them to pieces

Look at any of Paul's Epistles with open eyes and ask yourself the plain question: What is there haphazard and casual about this? The answer leaps to the mind: Nothing at all. Order and discipline are the outstanding features of everything he did or wrote. The trouble is—and it is not the least of the handicaps the "Catholic Church" has bequeathed—we all unconsciously view the apostles and the saints around them as figures in a mediaeval tapestry or in a stained glass window, instead of as real living human beings like ourselves, every bit as intelligent and civilized, and often much more in the things that matter. The Apostle Paul lacked television, radio and tape recorders; but he most assuredly had something to say, and he said it. He had a vital message direct from the Lord Jesus Christ; and one will have to listen a very, very long time before one hears an equally vital message on the radio, if one ever does.

The Gospels were fully accepted as Scripture by the time Paul's ministry to the Thessalonians began. This implies that their contents and their order were known to the Apostles and fully approved by them. Why, then, should we assume that that order of Paul's Epistles was not determined by him before his farewell to this earth; that the whole set was not worked out by him and set in order according to his plan? This means that the order we have is the order of their composition. This need not necessarily mean that I Corinthians, say, may not have been set to Corinth a short while before Romans was sent to Rome; but it does mean that Paul did not prepare them and send them out in a casual and piecemeal manner—in fact, that the order we have is the order of their composition, the order as it originally existed in Paul's mind, except perhaps the three second epistles, which will be discussed later.

As yet this cannot be proved; but it would be folly to overlook that the generally accepted chronological order cannot be proved either. This leaves us free to accept provisionally whatever seems the most reasonable order. With this in mind, let us turn to examination of such evidence for the dates of Paul's Epistles as has been presented by various scholars.

More than seventy years have passed since George Salmon, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, wrote his book" A Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament," yet he still stands head and shoulders above all others who have touched this subject in the enlightened good sense he shows. Even when he has failed to rid his mind of inherited tradition, his caustic wit and robust common-sense remain and explode many errors. This is no doubt due to the fact that he was both Doctor of Divinity and a Fellow of the Royal Society, that is, a distinguished scientist, a very rare combination. For our present purpose we need not go far beyond Salmon. His condemnation (p. 367) of the destructive critics, quoted below, is so admirable that it leaves nothing more to be said, except that after “document” one might well add "and doctrine": "Now considering the paucity of documents from which our knowledge is derived of the growth of opinion in the Apostolic age, and for half a century after the death of the last Apostle, I cannot sufficiently admire the courage of critics who, from their own sense of the fitness of things, assign dates for the first appearance of each phase of ritual or doctrine, and then condemn any document that refuses to fall in with their theory."

The enemies of God's Word are very fond of wielding the weapon of sarcasm against us, but they dislike being at the receiving end. How they must have hated Salmon!

Regarding the Thessalonian Epistles he draws attention to the remarkable fact that it is in these epistles only, namely in II Thess. 2:2, 3:17, that there is any suggestion of the existence of false epistles from Paul. The latter passage, read with I Thess 5:27; Co1. 4:16-18, strongly suggests that a time has come when there was real danger of Christians being misled by forgeries. Salmon comments, "It is remarkable that precautions against forgers should have been so early found necessary"; but it is even more remarkable that Salmon should have stood the argument on its head, so to speak; and an outstanding example of how we can all be blinded by inherited tradition. For, surely, what this phenomenon demonstrated is the relative lateness of the Thessalonian Epistles!

Another point that appears to have been missed is that Phil. 4:16 strongly suggests, perhaps even implies, a second visit by Paul to Thessalonica. If so, and in view of the link with Colossians referred to above, there seems no reason at all why the Thessalonian Epistles should not have been written after Phillippians and Colossians.

Difficulty arises at first sight over the references to Timothy. It appears that Timothy was specially sent by Paul from Athens for the purpose of establishing and consoling the Thessalonians for the sake of their faith (I Thess. 3:2), a very suitable assignment for one of the Apostles. Thereafter followed a period of affliction for Paul. The epistle does not state how long it lasted; but it could hardly have been brief, and v. 5 speaks of Paul's inability to continue to refrain from seeking to learn how they were fareing. Now, it would be altogether unreasonable to expect either that Timothy's mission occupied only a short time or that Paul was being unreasonably impatient. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that the return of Timothy from Thessalonica related in I Thess. 3:6 is the same event as his return with Silas in Acts 18:5. Even, by the standards of those days, the journey from Thessalonica to Athens or Corinth was not excessively long or arduous, and Timothy was a young man. Identifying these two returns would place Timothy's mission in I Thess 3:2-6 within the framework of Acts 18:2-5. There is nothing to compel us to suppose that the synagogue ministry of Acts 18:4 covered the longer period; for after it the residence in the house of Titus Justus must have lasted a considerable time for the results recorded in the latter part of v. 8 to be accomplished. This identification, then, turns the mission of Timothy in I Thess. 3:2-6 into a very brief affair; if we bear in mind that on this assumption it had to include his journey from Athens to Thessalonica and thence to Corinth, while Paul had only to travel from Athens to Corinth in the time. It can hardly be contended that such a flying visit would have been adequate for the purpose declared in 1. Thess. 3:2; and, moreover, there is no suggestion in Acts 18 of affliction for Paul until after the return of Silas and Timothy. The identification, then, seems unlikely and unsatisfactory, particularly as there is no reason to suppose that the flying visit was not that of Silas and Timothy to Corinth.

Salmon himself points out (p. 364) that the period of three weeks in Thessalonica is suggested by Acts 17:2 to be the whole period available for founding and developing the Thessalonian church, and that this is incompatible with Phil. 4: 16. And there is a further discrepancy, which Salmon rather strangely describes as trifling, between Acts 17:14 and I Thess. 3:2. The former says that Silas and Timothy remained at Berea when Paul was conducted to Athens, the latter that Paul sent Timothy from Athens to Thessalonica. But we must not assume that this is a discrepancy. Both statements could be exactly true if they referred to different visits to Athens; and there is no reason knowable to us why they should not have been different visits. As pointed out already, the distances between the cities are not great.

So we have to ask ourselves just why we have to assume that Paul visited Thessalonica (and Athens) only once and that Timothy's visit was extremely brief. Must we? Surely not! The assumption clears up no problems. It merely creates them and confuses all the issues. More than that, the assumption is the only ground for believing that I and II Thessalonians were written at a very early date. Salmon himself speaks of "how much there is arbitrary and uncertain in the chronological arrangement" of Paul's Epistles (p. 365). How true! How careful we should be to avoid accepting anything so arbitrary! Behind all the various assumptions people are expected to make about Acts is one concealed assumption : that Acts records the complete history of the earliest Christian churches, and therefore that what is not recorded in Acts could never have happened. Anything more absurd would be hard to imagine, yet its absurdity dawns on one only when the issue is plainly stated.

We can turn now to the first four epistles: Romans, I and II Corinthians and Galatians. As their earliness never appears to have been, disputed, we might almost take as read the case for it, but for the confusion of thought that still exists.

Since Romans has a direct bearing on the question of circumcision raised in Acts 15:1, and also since it is the foundation document of the evangel of Paul which he calls "my evangel"; the bulk of the material of which it is composed, if not the actual epistle itself as addressed to Rome, must have been the first Scripture to be the product of Paut's pen. Certain subsidiary matters were then set out in I Corinthians; but this is not to say that they were subsidiary in importance, but simply in logical sequence. In the former Romans, Paul sets out foundation doctrine with calm assurance and in an atmosphere free from strife, apart from a referent to his personal troubles in Judea (Rom. 15:31, compare Acts 1:27). This seems to place the epistle approximately within the Acts framework. But in the latter (I Corinthians) it is evident that the foundation doctrine had not been properly understood by these people, and strifes had arisen. All this called for amplification of the Romans teaching. In the other two epistles, trouble had gone even further, in one attack on Paul personally, in the other on his Evangel. This, logically, places them in the same order of composition as we now possess them.

Some strongly contend that Galatians is the earliest of the four, perhaps the first Paul ever wrote; but this depends on identifying the conference of Gal. 2:1-10 with Paul's visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30. This matter was gone into fully in our Vol. 25, pp. 264-270 (December, 1963). In the light of this there is no reason for dating Galatians earlier than Acts 18 and it may have been written considerably later.

We can safely place Ephesians, Philippians and Colossian next in order chronologically and the epistles to individual last of all. One relatively minor point remains. A second epistle naturally dates later than the first epistle, and from the contents of the three we have they are probably much later. There must have been a considerable gap between I and II Corinthians, a greater gap between I and II Thessalonians and an even greater gap between I and II Timothy. On the other hand, in assembling the epistles into a complete collection, logic, and indeed, common sense, dictates that first and second epistles should be placed together. Thus, II Thessalonians might well be later than I Timothy, and II Timothy later than Titus and Philemon.

Apart from this, we have seen that there is no good reason why the order we have of Paul's Epistles should not also to their chronological order. Admittedly this does not posses such cast-iron certainty as would compel us to accept it as a matter of binding faith; but its probability is relatively so high that we ought to accept it provisionally and weigh very carefully any doctrines not compatible with it. All along, I have stedfastly contended that the generally accepted dating of Paul's Epistles is so uncertain that it is most rash to build doctrine on it and even worse to build a "dispensational" system. In the light of the fresh ideas outlined above, though we still may not build absolute dogma, we have at last some elbow room and we have removed several difficulties. Paul's imprisonments at once come to mind. One prominent teacher writes: of Paul after Acts 28:28:

"From that point he ceased to be bound for the hope of Israel, he became the prisoner of Jesus Christ for 'you Gentiles' . . ."

This is a dogma manufactured to suit the Coles' frontier theory, for Scripture nowhere supports it. Certainly Paul's chain in Acts 28:20 was on account of the expectation of Israel; but nothing is said in Acts about a chain afterwards, and there is no room for any in the account.

From II Cor. 6:5; 11:23, it is plain that already Paul was no stranger to prison. Indeed, as Dr. Pohorlak wittily put it in his delightful satire on modern missionary boards, "Paul not up to Standard" (Vol. 20, p.I64, August, 1958), he had a "jail record" in addition to numerous other disabilities. This indicates that the epistle can hardly be so early as many suppose and it also shows the absurdity of talking as if Paul suffered only one or even only two imprisonments. Most, if not all, of the happenings listed in these two passages are right outside anything related in Acts. It is, in fact, quite possible that II Corinthians, Galatians and the Prison Epistles were all produced after the period covered by Acts. Why not? Only that it does not suit certain theories. Nor can we affirm that the absence of such references in the Thessalonian Epistles indicate for them an early date. The two passages fit eminently suitably into their context. They would be altogether inappropriate in 1 and II Thessalonians and, for that matter, in Galatians and Ephesians.

All these considerations underline the folly of building on the generally accepted chronological order of Paul's Epistles.

Apparently the credit for first appreciating the extreme importance of the canonical order of the Church Epistles (the epistles addressed to churches), which is the ordinary order in our Bibles, belongs to Dr. E. W. Bullinger; even though, bemused by the speculations of others, he accepted the chronological order popularly taught. Later on, exalting this man-made teaching to the seat of absolute authority, he wrote (The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p.85):

"It is not within our object now to go further in the canonical order of the Pauline Epistles. This must wait till we deal with it in its proper place. What we are now concerned with is the chronological order, for this belongs to the foundation of Dispensational truth."

But now we are able to scrap this so-called Dispensational truth as a thoroughly unsound theory, and recognize that the "supposed chronological order" which supports it and which it supports is thoroughly unsound as well. We cannot build truth on mere human tradition. Bullinger tried in this book, and produced a mass of contradiction and confusion; for his declared aim was to clear up what he called "difficulties connected with the earlier Pauline Epistles written before Acts 28." If, instead, he had begun by seeking to discover which epistles were definitely written before Acts 28, he would have reached a very different conclusion. So in the end, having turned his back on the generally sound teaching in his earlier book "The Church Epistles," he never was able to recover the ground he had lost. We seldom can, once we have deliberately turned away from the truth.

The views of "modern scholars" need not detain us, as their crazy accepticism has turned Paul's Epistles into an astonishing collection of bits and pieces. One "authority" has broken II Timothy 4 into ten fragments!

As often happens when one has had time to meditate on some matter, just as this paper was due to go to press a further point came to light on reading again the demonstration that the Gospels were written at a very early date. The objection, based on II Tim. 3:15, that Timothy could not have been acquainted with them from a babe, dealt with in our Vol. 24, p.65, falls to pieces once we become aware that they were authoritative Scripture very soon after Pentecost. Timothy must have been very young at the time when Paul evangelized Thessalonica, yet by the time he wrote 1 Thessalonians, Paul acknowledged Timothy as an apostle with him (1 Thess. 1:1, 2:6). Although when I and II Timothy were written, Timothy was evidently regarded by Paul as still young (I Tim. 4:12;. II Tim. 1:2, 2:1); yet all this, taken together, strongly suggests that I Thessalonians was written not long before the epistles to Timothy.

A further pointer is the Table in Vol. 25, p.9 of the number of occurrences of such words as Jew, Israel, Israelite, Abraham, Moses, circumcise and circumcision, covenant, baptize and. baptism, in the various groups of epistles. The result of further study is very illuminating, for it shows that the total number of occurrences of these words from Romans to Galatians inclusive is one hundred and twenty-one, in the Prison Epistles it is fifteen, and in I and II Thessalonians together, one only. This shows the Thessalonian Epistles to be far closer in character to the Prison Epistles than to the other Church Epistles; and thus strongly supports the notion that they were written after, perhaps quite a long time after, the other Church Epistles. That is, indeed, no more than one might expect. The problems connected with Jewish matters were naturally the first to confront Paul, so it is only to be expected that they loom largest in his earlier epistles. By the time he came to write to the Thessalonians they had already been settled, and in the Prison Epistles they were no more than background ideas.

Perhaps the frequency of those words in Hebrews (45 in all) may indicate its early date; but one must be very cautious with the idea, for such a treatise could not have been written at any time at all without using them. In fact, this point is implied on the same page as the Table.

None of these further considerations actually prove that I and II Thessalonians were written after the other Church Epistles; but their influence is cumulative. When one item after another suggests one conclusion and none go against it, the effect becomes overwhelming. R.B.W.

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