In the second episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks into Paul’s letters as the earliest writings in the New Testament.
Episode 2 – St Paul’s path from preacher to author – is available here:
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- Episode 2: St Paul’s path from preacher to author - Transcript
Episode 2: St Paul’s path from preacher to author - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Welcome back. Last time we were looking at the way in which the early church moved from the great fermentation of oral traditions that were flowing very freely around the communities of the early church. Keep in mind, too, that the church at this time is a number of local communities around the Mediterranean basin. It wasn’t sort of the big monolithic church as we might think of it now. Though, God knows the church is never as monolithic as it may seem.
So, you’re dealing with communities around the Mediterranean basin that were, in a sense, quite isolated and in culturally very diverse settings. And it’s only eventually that the New Testament, in fact, in its later texts will give a sense of the Church as somehow ‘the Church’ rather than ‘the churches’, the plural. And there’s always that tension in the church between ‘the Church’ universal as we might say in Catholic parlance. And the local community. So, there’s always that tension between local and universal. But you find that in the New Testament itself.
Now, I’ve suggested that it was it was pastoral, urgent pastoral need that led to the first of these texts that broke the ice in the New Testament or paved the way for all that followed and that was the first letter to the church at the Thessalonica. One of the problems that Paul addresses in that letter, which isn’t very long, but it is, it’s intense and dense, as it were. But one of the problems is that he had left Thessalonica at a time when that church was under enormous pressure. And there were people saying that when things got too hot, he just skedaddled. That he had hightailed it out of town because he was under such pressure and the community was under such pressure facing persecution. And Paul didn’t want to take the heat.
So, Paul, one of the things he has to say in the letter, and he says it early so it was clearly on his mind. Is that I didn’t sort of run away from you and the pressure that you were facing. I’m not like those charlatans for whom religion is just a cover for profiteering. He says, I was gentle among you like a nurse taking care of her children. So, he presents himself almost as a mother. Paul is often presented as a rather macho sort of a figure. But here he says, I was, our appeal, he says, doesn’t spring from error or uncleanness, nor is it made with guile. Not to please human beings, not using words of flattery or a cloak for greed.
There was plenty, these religious charlatans were everywhere in the Mediterranean world at this time. He says, no, no. My relationship with you is like a parent. Even like a mother with a child at the breast. So, I didn’t run away from you because I wanted to abandon you, on the contrary. You are still, you are very dear to me, he says. And so on. So that was one of the, he had to reassure the community that he hadn’t just abandoned them in a moment of crisis. Like some two-bit religious charlatan.
Now, there was nothing magical about that first letter. Because in fact, we have in the New Testament a second letter to the church of Thessalonica. Which addresses in a more focused way. Something you do find addressed in the first letter. But it clearly remained a problem for this church in Greece. So, in Europe. And we get a second letter to the Church of Thessalonica where the pastoral problem that Paul addresses is the delay of the parousia. Now, this was a big thing in primitive Christianity. Because Jesus, when you, certainly when you read his words in the gospel. Words that would have circulated in the communities before we ever had the gospels. You have a strong impression that Jesus thinks that the Parousia, the end is coming very soon. And there were many, many in the early church who had exactly that sense. That the end, the Parousia, is the Greek word sometimes used, the second coming of the Lord. The end of history. The turn of the ages, call it what you will. That this was going to come very soon, but in fact, it didn’t come soon.
So, you had disappointed expectation. And what are you going to do about that? Well, one possible response is to say, well, it was all false, it was all a con. But there were other ways of addressing the delay. And one was to reinterpret the end and to reinterpret the words of Jesus. And we still do that ourselves. I mean, we, it still hasn’t happened. 2000 years later. And yet whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, for instance, we talk about the Lord’s return. So, we’re still looking towards the end, even though it hasn’t come yet, all these years later.
So, there’s all kinds of pastoral challenges, crises, problems that Paul and his team. And keep in mind, Paul is not just a lone ranger. He has a large, complex missionary operation that he heads. With a core team of leaders. But all kinds of people, both local and traveling. So, Paul is addressing all the problems of these infant communities. And I mean, if you think the church was going through a golden age in these early years, think again. Just go and read the Pauline letters, you’ll see that’s not true. There was blood on the floor from day one. And if the church looks a bit of a mess now, then we’re in good company. Or at least we’re in the company of the early church. In one sense, one very real sense. The church has always been a bit of a mess, and you see it in these Pauline letters.
Now, eventually the letters become longer. And there are reasons for that too. One of the most vibrant, energetic and gifted of all the Pauline churches was in the raunchy port city of Corinth. And we have two letters, long letters, really, and very important texts to the church in Corinth. Just by the way, when you see the Pauline letters in the New Testament, they’re not arranged in chronological order. I mean, if they were obviously 1 Thessalonians would be number one. But it’s not, it comes towards the end of the Pauline corpus. They’re arranged in terms of length. It’s as simple as that. So that the first of them is Romans because it’s the longest and then you get 1 and 2 Corinthians. So, if you ask, how do we get the ordering of the Pauline letters it’s simply, they’re arranged in terms of length.
Now, the letters to Corinth are much longer. Another much longer letter is Romans. Romans is really the only letter that Paul wrote to a community he didn’t found. But it was a community about which he knew a great deal. And the other thing is he was heading to Rome. We know that for certain. And basically, he needed to introduce himself to reassure the Roman church. And he needed a bed, I suppose you could say.
So, Romans is a kind of self introduction by Paul to the church in Rome that had a particular prestige and profile. Because it was the church of the imperial capital. But Paul didn’t found the Roman church. We’re not sure who did. It wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t Paul. They were both there and both died there. But they didn’t found it. It seems to have been founded by Jewish pilgrims who encountered Christianity at the Feast of Pentecost and came back to Rome having encountered the Lord. So, they were still Jewish, but they had become Christian. And they wouldn’t have seen any contradiction in that. And the Roman church always had a particularly Jewish character to it. And I suspect that was the reason why, the way it was founded.
But Paul also writes the long and deeply theological letter to the Romans as a way of explaining to the Jewish Christian community in Rome what he really meant when he fired off the letter to the Galatians. When he was in, he was in a red hot mood. Paul was very angry when he dictated Galatians. Because he had heard that the Christians in Galatia, in this community. Had gone back to Judaism. They had believed those who came in Paul’s footsteps saying, no you’ve got to keep the law of Moses and all its requirements and provisions. You can’t be a Christian unless you’re a Jew. Even if you’ve got a Gentile background. And that was the exact opposite of what Paul had been saying. So, Paul gets news of this, and he explodes. And he explodes into a text that we call the letter to the Galatians. And this is not the place for us to go into any detail about Galatians. But he says certain things about the Jewish law and about Judaism, which was his whole religious cosmos.
But he says certain things that you say when you are angry. And we all know what this is like, you say certain things under the pressure of anger that perhaps you should have said in a more temperate way. Well, what he actually said in Galatians in white hot anger. He says in a far more systematic and a far calmer way in the letter to the Romans. I know what you’ve heard, he says, but this is what I really meant. Take it from me, from the horse’s mouth. Don’t believe the reports you’ve heard or the gossip. Here is what, here is the gospel that I proclaim. So again, my point is simply that the letters are radically situated. Don’t think of them as like a theological thesis or treatise of some kind. That’s not what, they are profoundly theological. And keep in mind too, that the only resource that Paul had to elaborate his extraordinary theology was what we call the Old Testament. Again, it was the only Bible he knew, and he certainly knew it. He had it in his bones. But this is where you get the creativity of Paul and indeed of primitive Christianity. We call it primitive, but it was hardly primitive.
I mean, for instance, that Paul in his letters comes up with the description of the church as the body of Christ. And we take it for granted now though we shouldn’t. But this was an extraordinary insight. The church is the body of Christ. The more, I have to say this, the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more extraordinary I think it is as a description. And Paul didn’t have 2000 years of Christian theology and tradition to build upon. He was blazing a whole new trail. But on the basis of his reading of the Hebrew Bible.
So what comes to birth in Paul, and this is important for understanding the way the New Testament works. Is that a tradition comes to birth, a tradition of apostolic, and in some ways prophetic preaching comes to birth in Paul. Because Paul, I suspect he saw his calling and commissioning on the road to Damascus as a kind of prophetic commissioning, rather like the Prophet Jeremiah.
So, something comes to birth in Paul. Paul has his head chopped off in Rome sometime in the mid-sixties. But the tradition of Pauline witness continues long beyond him. So that, for instance, in the Pauline tradition in the New Testament. We have seven letters that are considered to be authentically Pauline, though that description itself needs to be questioned. So, there are seven letters which I think almost everyone agrees unquestionably are Paul’s own work. There are disagreements about the detail of how those letters were put together. Some claim that they were one or two of them were combinations of fragments of other documents and so on. Who knows? But they are authentically Pauline in that sense that they go back to him wherever he was, dictating letters and firing them off.
And Romans is one and Galatians is another. And the two letters to the church in Corinth, the two letters to the church in Thessalonica, as we’ve seen. And another, the seventh text is one of my favourites that doesn’t get much publicity. But it’s a bijou at the heart of the New Testament. It’s Paul’s letter to Philemon. Very short indeed. It really is a letter. It doesn’t go on for pages and pages, but it’s written to a Christian, a wealthy Christian who had slaves. And this was standard practice in the world at this time. And one of his slaves is called Onesimus and he runs away. Now, a runaway slave in the world at this time was liable to the most severe punishments under law. Dreadful punishments in Roman law for runaway slaves. But when he’s run away, Onesimus encounters Paul and becomes a Christian. Doesn’t meet just Paul, meets the Lord. And now what Paul is writing to Philemon saying, I’m sending Onesimus back to you. Not as a runaway slave, but as a dearly loved brother. So, welcome him back.
Now, we don’t know exactly what happened. But we do know that this little letter, this jewel. Is in the New Testament, because what Paul effectively is saying is the encounter with Jesus changes the whole social and economic order of the Roman, Greco-Roman world. It changes the way human beings relate to each other. It’s no longer master and slave, it’s brother and brother. So even a little letter like Philemon is a theological bomb. Not just a theological bomb, but a kind of evangelical bomb. A bomb under a world where the structures of oppression seem non-negotiable, but in fact they’re overturned by the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ.
So, you’ve got the authentic Pauline letters. Then you’ve got a second level of the tradition. And it’s, sometimes it’s called the Deutero-Pauline letters. Now, these are letters like Ephesians and Colossians. Not Philippians, Philippians again, is one of the seven authentic letters. But a second level after Paul had gone. Perhaps these letters were written by someone else. Now, another possibility is that Paul didn’t have time to dictate a letter. But left instructions as to what he wanted said in a letter. And someone else took those instructions or points that Paul left. And wrote out the letter trying to encapsulate it or express those points.
So, it’s a bit hard to know exactly how it happened, but there are letters that are so different in style, not in theology or in the apostolic witness. But in the kind of language used that they are considered to be a second level of the Pauline tradition. So, this tradition of apostolic preaching and witness that comes to birth in Paul continues beyond Paul. And we find this throughout the New Testament. It’s very important for understanding what the New Testament is, how it works and how it came to be.
Then you’ve got a third level of the Pauline tradition, often called the pastoral letters, and these are 1 and 2 Timothy. And these are certainly later. Because their theology of the church is, you can see has developed in a way that is subsequent to the those early years of Paul. It’s still based upon the Pauline witness. But expressed in another age. So, you’ve got to imagine this tradition of apostolic witness. Of apostolic preaching that comes to birth in Paul continues late into the first century. And continues still in various ways through the whole history of the church. I mean, the voice of Paul in that sense doesn’t fall silent.
So, it’s not the only case of a tradition. And we will in later podcast of this series, we will, in fact, look at traditions like the Johannine tradition and the tradition that looks back to Saint Peter and so on. So that sense of, and to us it seems strange that someone would claim to be Paul when they’re not Paul. This didn’t seem at all strange in the ancient world. And even today when the Pope speaks sometimes we’ll say, this is not Pope Francis, this is Peter who speaks. It is the voice of Peter that we hear. So, Peter is long dead, but his voice is not. And similarly, in the New Testament, you see traces of that with Paul. Paul has gone. But he his voice continues. So, that death doesn’t mean silence for Paul.
Now, the question at this point is, how and why does the early church, primitive Christianity, move from letters which were so effective that they did the rounds? You see these letters that Paul wrote to particular communities for particular purposes were read in those communities and found to be so powerful and so helpful and so creative that they were circulated in other communities, and they’re still being circulated. That’s why we read them in our own liturgical assemblies 2000 years later, because they still speak to us. Well, that was the experience in the first century as well. So, they passed the letters around saying, this letter has really helped us. It might help you. And it did. So, given the power of these letters and the preaching they contained of Paul. Whatever level of the tradition. The question to which we will turn next time is why did Christianity move from letters to gospels?