How to Read Paul’s Letters Chronologically

Old Woman Reading a Lectionary (So-called Portrait of Rembrandt's Mother), circa 1630. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Back when I was asking Google how the Bible was written, I stumbled across a variety of supposedly “chronological” reading plans for the Bible. Nearly all of them were pious lists that emphasized reading in an order that reinforces a particular theology. They purposefully carry you through the texts in a way that suggests a certain view of Jesus, a view that would change if you simply read the texts in a different order.

Since the word “chronological” in that sense has absolutely nothing to do with when the original texts were written, I thought I’d offer an alternative: a 30-day plan for how to read Paul’s letters chronologically. But first: an explanation.

The late Marcus Borg urged us to read the New Testament in the order in which the books were actually written rather than the order in which they appear in modern Bibles. We should start with the letters of Paul because they are our earliest texts from the Christ movement. Don't read Acts, don't read the gospels. Save those for later. Paul's letters came first.

Although many letters in the New Testament are claimed to have been written by Paul, most scholars who have studied them have reached the conclusion that only seven of the letters were actually written by Paul when he lived in the early 1st century, around 20 to 30 years after the death of Jesus. Where did the other letters come from? They were written by other people in Paul’s name in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. "Beginning with seven of Paul's letters," Borg writes,

illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a "window" into the life of very early Christian communities.

The seven authentic or “undisputed” letters of Paul, in roughly chronological order, are as follows:

  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Philemon
  • Philippians
  • Romans

By far the easiest way I’ve found to read these letters in chronological order is to read The Authentic Letters of Paul (Dewey et al), which not only puts the letters in chronological order but also grapples with places where others may have edited and rearranged the letters, and/or added new material.

Full disclosure: I was involved, albeit only slightly, in the editing process of this book, but I truly have yet to encounter another book that refuses to pull punches on this issue. Why should it be difficult to find Paul’s letters arranged in some sort of chronological order? It shouldn’t be. This sort of resource is the work of good historians, and that’s what I appreciate about it. They took a risk and put an answer out there. I'd have loved to take a New Testament class that gave me a couple attempts like this and asked me to compare the portraits of Paul that emerged.

Related Resource: Listen to a free 2-part interview with the authors and translators of The Authentic Letters of Paul with Ron Way on AuthorTalk Radio.

Have you been meaning to read (or re-read) Paul's letters? We'll be hosting a 30-day challenge here on the Westar blog. How to participate.

Read Paul's Letters Chronologically

This reading plan should get you through the seven authentic letters of Paul in 30 days based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. That's a pretty intense reading schedule, given that Paul's arguments can be a real pain to follow. You may find that you want to slow the pace down to 60 days instead (which you can accomplish by reading 1 to 2 chapters a day instead of 2 to 3).

If you try it, let me know how it worked for you! What sort of Paul did you discover? Did you reach the same conclusions as Bernard Brandon Scott? Do you know of other attempts to arrange Paul's letters chronologically?

Day 1: 1 Thessalonians 1–3

Day 2: 1 Thessalonians 4–5

Day 3: Galatians 1–2

Day 4: Galatians 3–4

Day 5: Galatians 5–6

Day 6: 1 Corinthians 1–2

Day 7: 1 Corinthians 3–4
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 8: 1 Corinthians 5–6

Day 9: 1 Corinthians 7–8

Day 10: 1 Corinthians 9–10

Day 11: 1 Corinthians 11–12
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 12: 1 Corinthians 13–14
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 13: 1 Corinthians 15–16

Day 14: 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:18 Defense of Paul’s Credibility (part 1)

Day 15: 2 Corinthians 4–6:13; 7:2–4 Defense of Paul’s Credibility (part 2)

Day 16: 2 Corinthians 10–13 Parody of “A Fool’s Speech”

Day 17: 2 Corinthians 1:1–2:13; 7:5–16 Letter of Reconciliation

Day 18: 2 Corinthians 8 Collection Appeal to Corinth

Day 19: 2 Corinthians 9 Collection Appeal to Achaia

Day 20: Philemon

Day 21: Philippians 4:10–20 A Thank-you Letter

Day 22: Philippians 1:1–3:1a; 4:4–9 Letter from Prison (part 1)

Day 23: Philippians 21–23 Letter from Prison (part 2)

Day 24: Philippians 3:1b–4:3 Paul’s Testimony and Advice

Day 25: Romans 1–3

Day 26: Romans 4–6
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 27: Romans 7–9

Day 28: Romans 10–12

Day 29: Romans 13–15
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 30: Romans 16 Letter of Recommendation
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

6/3/2015 12:00 pm update: A couple gracious readers have reminded me that, of course, Marcus Borg himself published a chronological reading of the New Testament in 2012, a couple years after The Authentic Letters. He uses the NRSV translation, and he places Philemon and Philippians before 2 Corinthians.

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

22 replies
  1. Sheli Hampl says:

    This is great! I appreciate the breakdown/suggestion of how to read the letters of Paul – I’d never thought of how much the chronology matters. And the accompanying Authortalk radio interviews are a great mention. Have heard some of his other interviews and the show is always top notch. Looking forward to discovering Paul in this way. Thank you so much!

    • Cassandra says:

      Thanks, Sheli! I’m so glad to hear you found both resources helpful. I’d love to actually carry out a 30-day read-through of Paul on the blog; I just have to figure out how to do it in a timely fashion. Time is forever my obstacle!

  2. Gene Stecher says:

    Cassandra, thank you for this interesting and creative suggestion for how to read Paul in an orderly fashion. My opinion is that we should engage in the process realizing that such an enterprise is a lot of guess work on what came before and what came later, both in terms of the full letters and the subsequent additions and modifications to them. Also, BeDuhn’s work on Marcion’s First New Testament probably hasn’t been factored into the outline. Still and all, you’ve presented a nifty, if challenging, idea.

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, hey, good thinking! There’s another a 30-day list right there — the Marcionite version of Paul’s letters! I wonder how different that would be to the one proposed by the authors of The Authentic Letters of Paul? I’ll investigate a bit.

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Read the “authentic” Paulines chronologically? Since none are “authentic,” that takes no time at all!

    • Cassandra says:

      Ouch, that’s clearly a more extreme view of Paul’s letters than average, Dennis. Care to expound?

      • Peter Kane says:

        Tubingen school. Try Schweitzer, Paul and His Interpreters, around page 120. Dennis can elaborate, if he wants to go down that road.

        • Cassandra says:

          Thanks, Peter. I have read some Schweitzer, but I would have thought his stance was more arguable regarding Jesus than Paul inasmuch as we have only second-hand evidence for Jesus, whereas we do have some concrete material from Paul (albeit not in its original form).

  4. Peter Kane says:

    Just a general comment. When most people set out to read Paul, what they are doing is attempting to extract his abstract thought – his theology – from the letter. The Platonic approach. I would suggest trying to read Paul in his cultural context. His social, political context. Not, ‘what is he thinking’, but ‘what is he trying to get people to do, and why’.
    The more you know about the 1st century setting, the easier this is, but anybody can do it to some extent, if they try. And an entirely different Paul emerges. The community organizer Paul rather than the theologian Paul. Which has serious implications for doing church today.

    • Cassandra says:

      I love this, Peter! Well said. I’m also trying to be conscientious of literary, artistic, and spiritual readings, but I still think all of the above should be responsible readings that maintain awareness of context.

  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Cassandra, it would take far too long to expound. Darrell Doughty’s criticism of Pauline studies (“Forum, New Series,” 5.2) was the best I’ve read written in the last 100 years. “Unlike any other field in the study of early Christianity, traditional Pauline studies deals with writings whose authorial authenticity and literary integrity are taken for granted. The critical methodologies – historical criticism and compositional criticis – that we apply to other early Christian writings have no place here, not because the historical integrity of these writings was demonstrated long ago, but because of the assumption of authenticity is foundational for Christian theological hermeneutics. The Pauline writings enjoy a privileged place because these writings more than any others in the Christian canon, whose historical integrity succumbed long ago to the skepticism of historical criticism, continue to uphold view of authority and identity that are fundamental for the Christian religion – the apostolic origin and unity of the Christian religion (1 Cor: 15:1-11; Gal 2:1-10); the universal mandate of the Christian mission (Rom 1:14; 15:18-21; 2 Cor 2:14-16) bourgeois morality (Rom 12-13; 1 Cor 7:1-16; Gal 5:13-6:10 etc); and the superiority of Christianity over Judaism (Gal 3-4; Rom 9-11; Phil 3:2-9.“ I haven’t seen any evidence that these were written in the middle of the first century. There are hints of “Paul as legend” (or “retrospective tone”), of the destruction of the temple, treatises for instruction, Stoic “bad behavior” lists, talk of persecution, Docetism, all kinds of wonderful things that are out of place. But, hey! Christianity can’t look too critically at that, since it wouldn’t exist without “Paul,” so the only job for the exegete is to place all of this within a pre-war Jewish milieu. It’s easy to do that. Just look at Acts of the Apostles.

    • Cassandra says:

      Dennis, thank you, I think this is a helpful perspective also to take into the 30 days of Paul reading challenge. Regarding this statement by Doughty — “Unlike any other field in the study of early Christianity, traditional Pauline studies deals with writings whose authorial authenticity and literary integrity are taken for granted” — it is my impression that this is what is so different about the approach taken by the authors of the Authentic Letters, as well as Bill Walker in his lifetime of work on interpolations in the letters. That is, they acted on the likelihood that the letters are composite and heavily edited, and have presented the letters in a way that takes that seriously. Of course it is plausible to argue that they haven’t taken that far enough (I wonder about the P.S. from Paul in Galatians, for instance), but the fundamental approach does honor that concern. Nevertheless, it sounds like you are in favor of pushing that still further even in terms of when we date the letters.

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        I think it is impossible to separate the letters from Marcion, Cassandra. Peter knows me for my look at various letters in the old fb Westar and probably beliefnet. I have been studying them seriously, in conjunction with Stoic/Cynic and Jewish writings of the first and second century. I think my look at the skinny Philemon is over 7000 words, so my “stuff” when I put it on the internet is on a yahoo group, where I can get some review by a scholar and a couple of others who have masters in the area. I screwed up a Greek word last time, but my last thesis was pretty good. (I’m what Dr. Elliott would call a “pseudo-scholar,” so my opinions are just more hot air. My scholarship is in another area, which makes me painfully aware of people who don’t know what they are talking about giving opinions!) The two I haven’t tackled, except holistically, are 1 & 2 Corinthians. I don’t see the Authentic Letters as breaking new ground, looking at Van Manen, FC Baur, Eysinga, Detering and others, but it is a beginning.

  6. LeGrand Smith says:

    Ref: suggesting “Fourth R” or other venue to comment on July/August, 2015 BAR on Simon Gathercole’s article on “The Gospel of Thomas; Jesus Said What?” Gathercole wrote 2012, Cambridge U Press book on “The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas”. Both BAR article and book do not mention JSeminar, at odds with Westar’s position. Response would be appreciated! Thanks, LS

    • Cassandra says:

      Welcome to the blog, LeGrand, and thank you for the suggestion! I have passed it along to our Fourth R editor, Robert Miller.

    • Cassandra says:

      LeGrand, a note for you:

      I read the BAR article, and I too was a bit disappointed that it didn’t mention the work of the Jesus Seminar. I say “a bit” because most scholarly discussions of Thomas that do refer to the Seminar usually misrepresent it as taking the position that Thomas has a lot of sayings from the historical Jesus. In fact, the Seminar found only two sayings (97 and 98) that are unique to Thomas that perhaps go back to Jesus himself. In The Five Gospels, there are a good number of pink (and even two red) sayings, but except for the two just mentioned, all of those are sayings that are also found in the synoptic gospels, and so are nor unique to Thomas.

      Cordially,
      Bob Miller

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    Here’s one way to read 1 Thessalonians, found at: http://www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/demke.html

    Theology and Literary Criticism in 1 Thessalonians by Christoph Demke

    JHC 3/2 (Fall, 1996), 194-214. “Theologie und Literarkritik im 1. Thessalonicherbrief. Ein Diskussionsbeitrag,” Festschrift für Ernst Fuchs, eds. G. Ebeling, et. al. (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1973), 103-124. Published with permission of J.C.B. Mohr. Translated by Darrell J. Doughty.

    “The difficulties in the structure of 1 Thess and the tensions in its terminology and theology…can be attributed to the fact that a post-apostolic author created this writing using (parts of) an authentic Pauline letter. In this process, he shaped above all the beginning (1:2-2:16), the middle (3:12-4:8), and the conclusion (5:23-27)…presents the apostle, witnessed to by the church, as the true example and teacher for imitation by the faithful, and…provides guidance for faithful perseverance in holiness by raising up the apostolic tradition. A precise determination of the parts of the authentic Pauline writing must begin with 2:17-3:2a, 5b-11; 4:9, 10a, 13-17; 5:1-22.”

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Earlier this week I posted a 30-day plan for how to read the letters of Paul in chronological order. Several thousand visits and a ton of Facebook comments later, you’ve let me know you’re ready for the challenge! […]

  2. […] The publisher of The Authentic Letters of Paul posted a blog post that amplifies our Interview and provides some interesting insight in how to read the letters of Paul. It is entitled “How to Read Paul’s Letter Chronologically” by Cassandra Farrin. She is an amazing woman, and I’m lucky to call her my friend. Click on the link and check it out. http://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/how-to-read-pauls-letters-chronologically/ […]

  3. […] The publisher of The Authentic Letters of Paul posted a blog post that amplifies our Interview and provides some interesting insight in how to read the letters of Paul. It is entitled “How to Read Paul’s Letter Chronologically” by Cassandra Farrin. She is an amazing woman, and I’m lucky to call her my friend. Click on the link and check it out. http://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/how-to-read-pauls-letters-chronologically/ […]

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