once-and-future-bible‎ > ‎resources‎ > ‎easter‎ > ‎

03 letters of Paul

The authentic letters of Paul

The authentic letters of Paul represent the oldest set of surviving documents from earliest Christianity. The seven letters widely accepted as authentic by critical NT scholars are:
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Philippians
  • Philemon
  • Romans
While absolute certainty is not possible, we can proceed on the basis that 1 Thessalonians and Galatians represent the earliest stage of Paul's activity, while Romans is the last of the authentic letters and represents a more considered statement of Paul's ideas. The other 4 letters most likely come from the middle part of his activity and can be dated to somewhere in the 50s of the first century.

For the sake of our discussion, we can review these letters in turn to see how the death of Jesus features in Paul's correspondence.

In Paul's earliest surviving letters (both dated to around 49/50 CE) we find virtually no mention of the death of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians, but several references in Galatians. This difference also reminds us that our data is both incomplete and variable. We might have expected both these letters to have made similar use of the traditions about the death of Jesus, but this is not the case.

The only reference to the death of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians is a statement widely regarded as a later interpolation. In any case, this section of the letter treats the death of Jesus as a fact, and blames the Jews for his death (while also accusing them of treating the OT prophets in a similar way). This is a vivid piece of Christian anti-Semitism, and almost certainly was added to the manuscript at a later stage as we cannot imagine Paul speaking of his own people in this way. We are hearing a later Christian voice here, rather than a perspective from the late 40s of the first century.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.  For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last. [1 Thess 2:13–16]

This lack of interest in the death of Jesus is surprising in a letter whose major pastoral motivation seems to be to address the problem caused by some deaths among the Christian community at Thessalonika. Paul does not exploit the death of Jesus as a ground for hope in the face of death, but rather invokes the belief that Jesus will soon arrive from heaven to save his devotees, whether alive or dead at the time of his coming.

We see a very different situation in Galatians, where the death of Jesus—and specifically the cross—is repeatedly invoked in Paul's argument:

But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? 

In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. [Gal 5:11]

... those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. [Gal 5:24]

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. [Gal 6:11–14]

Unlike the letter of the Thessalonians, here we find the cross functioning as a central symbol of Paul's (new) religion. The cross—that is, the death of Jesus by crucifixion—is both a central element of his message, and a source of offence to Torah-observant Jews who have become devotees of Jesus but do not wish to be conspicuous as devotees of a crucified messiah. In seeking to avoid the "scandal" of the cross, as Paul will later describe it, these people have missed the very point of Christianity. For Paul, it is all about the cross of Jesus. The cross has changed everything. 

We shall see some of these ideas developing further in Paul's writings from the middle phase of his ministry. As some of these writings may be composite documents created out of fragments of several other letters, we shall not seek precision in their dating or worry about slight variations in emphasis. Rather, we take these texts as precious literary scraps that illustrate a theme within Paul's thinking.

From Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians, we have the following statements:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.  For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. [1 Cor 1:17–18, 22–24]

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. [1 Cor 2:2]

None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [1 Cor 2:8]

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. [1 Cor 11:26]

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. [1 Cor 15:21]

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [2 Cor 5:21]

For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. 

For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. [2 Cor 13:4]

From the letter to the Philippians we have these statements:

And being found in human form, 

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross. [Phil 2:8]

... and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [Phil 3:9–12]

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. [Phil 3:18]

In these letters of Paul from the 50s of the first century, we observe a consolidation of the "cross" as a key metaphor for Paul's understanding of Jesus, his self-understanding, and his way of capturing the very heart of the Christian gospel. It was all about the cross. So far as we can tell, Paul had no interest in—and perhaps no knowledge about—the historical Jesus, his typical actions, his core teachings, his use of parables, etc.

Finally, in the letter to the Romans, we find a more complex and considered set of statements about the death of Jesus, and specifically about the cross:

... but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,  who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.  [Rom 4:24–25]

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  ...  Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. … If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. [Rom 5:6–10, 12-16, 17]

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. [Rom 6:3–6]

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; 

death no longer has dominion over him. 

The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; 

but the life he lives, he lives to God. [Rom 6:9–10]

Over the space of less than twenty years, and across a handful of letters to early Christian communities, we can trace the development of Paul's thinking about the death of Jesus on the cross. For Paul, it seems the means of death (crucifixion) was an integral part of the meaning of Jesus' death. It is not simply that Jesus had been killed, but that he had been crucified. This counter-cultural and confronting historical event was reclaimed and transformed. Rather than being a shameful and embarrassing episode, it became a defining moment in the Christ story. All other reality was cast in question by this event, understood as an act of faithfulness to God by Jesus (rather than as something imposed on Jesus by God).