(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Several years following the death of Jesus of Nazareth (30 c.e.), a young Jewish scholar, from the town of Tarsus in what is now Turkey, experienced a dramatic transformation on the road to Damascus. A persecutor of the fledgling Christian movement, Paul had a vision in which Jesus appeared to him and called him to become his apostle to the Gentiles. As part of his missionary journeys across the northern Mediterranean region, Paul was a prolific letter writer, offering direction, support, encouragement, and correction to his network of congregations.

There are several ways to approach the letters. The most common way is to speak in terms of canon. By the late second century, Paul’s letters were accepted into the New Testament and given authoritative status for the life and faith of the Church. Thirteen letters are ascribed with the name of Paul. Many are named for residents of cities where congregations were located: Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians. One is the name of a region: Galatians. Several are names of individuals: Philemon, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus.

In the canon, the organizing principle is not chronological. Rather, the letters are arranged according to length. Paul’s importance led composers of the King James Bible to attribute to Paul also the anonymous letter to the Hebrews, a conclusion rarely accepted today. The canonical approach also recognized the possibility that Paul wrote other letters including two other letters to the Corinthians (1 Corithians 5:9, 2 Corinthians 2:4) and one to Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). These letters, and possibly others, were assumed to have been lost. Other letters attributed to...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Dunn, James. Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006. Basing his work primarily on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Dunn constructs a theology around topics such as God, humankind, sin, Christology, salvation, the Church, and the Christian life.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. Paul: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An account of Paul’s letters based primarily on information gathered from the letters themselves rather than from the Acts of the Apostles. Includes contextual information from numerous first century sources.

Roetzel, Calvin J. The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Treats each letter in terms of possible dating, situation, and literary structure. Includes arguments for dividing later letters from authentic letters of Paul.

Stendahl, Krister. Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays. Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1976. A series of essays, based on careful word study, that show that Paul’s primary goal was to incorporate Gentiles into the family of God.

Wright, N. T. Paul in Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2006. Part 1 focuses on themes of Creation and covenant, Messiah and apocalyptic, Gospel and empire. Part 2 deals with structures such as rethinking God, reworking God’s people, and reimagining God’s future.