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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.

Marcus Borg: A Collection of Tributes

Learn more about Marcus BorgDear Westar Community,

It is with sadness that we received the news of Marcus Borg’s death on January 21. Marcus Borg was a major contributor to the work of the Jesus Seminar in its seminal period.  In his career, he modeled the ideal of a Westar Fellow. Marcus ably bridged the gap between the academic guild and the general public. His books are cherished by Westar associates for their clarity and honesty. We at Westar will miss him terribly. Our sympathies go out to his family.

From Marcus

"Me and Jesus, the Journey Home"
Marcus Borg, The Fourth R

A few years ago I received an invitation from an Episcopal group in the San Francisco Bay area. “We want you to talk to us about Jesus,” they said, “and we want you to make it personal.” Nobody had ever asked me to “make it personal” before. Trying to figure out what to say, I wrote the words “Me and Jesus” on a page. I reflected on those words. What emerged was the story of “me and Jesus”—of what I could remember about Jesus from my childhood, adolescence, early adulthood all the way to the present. I see now that my “personal and academic pilgrimage” has been tied to the figure of Jesus from the very beginning...

Tributes to Marcus 

We have been overwhelmed by the number of tributes poured out to Marcus across social media, news sites, and blogs, a selection of which appears below.

"Much will be said, and deservedly so, of Marcus Borg’s career and contributions," wrote Westar Fellow Arthur Dewey. "No one can forget that his writings and lectures spoke to people far beyond the scholarly pale. But I cannot forget that notebook he forever carried to catch something unexpected, nor that shuttle ride to Atlanta’s airport, when he gently detailed his personal quest for his Christian roots. As he finished, I looked into that gentle face and found compassion again, as if for the first time."

Looking for a place to share your own response? We invite you to contribute here or on the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar Facebook page, where there is already a growing collection of anecdotes, favorite quotes, and expressions of gratitude for his work.

Memorial to a Beloved Advisor, and Friend - Marcus Borg
Fred Plumer, ProgressiveChristianity.org

It will be impossible to ascertain just how big of an influence Marcus has had on the Progressive Christian movement, but I believe his biggest gift was the fact that he was a consummate teacher. It did not matter if it was one of his books, one of his lectures or if you were lucky enough to experience it, one of his quiet conversations, he always wanted to communicate in such a way you would get it...

My Friend, Marcus Borg
Rev. Barkley Thompson, God in the Midst of the City (blog)

Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble. Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?” He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, "I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right." ...

Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus scholar, dies at 72
David Gibson, Religion News Service, The Washington Post

Borg emerged in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels. Alongside scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which brought a skeptical eye to the Scriptures and in particular to supernatural claims about Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection from the dead...

In Honor of Marcus Borg
Brian D. McLaren (blog)

Hardly the hard-bitten “liberal theologian” out to eviscerate Christianity of any actual faith, Marcus Borg impressed me as a fellow Christian seeking an honest, thoughtful, and vital faith, ready to dialogue respectfully with people who see things differently. ... Some friends of mine wrote about Marcus somewhat uncharitably on a few occasions. I remember a dinner where he asked me many questions about them, utterly non-defensive, sincerely trying to understand where they were coming from and how he could still seek common ground with them, something I wish his critics had done more earnestly with him...

Beloved Bestselling Author Marcus Borg
HarperOne, on Patheos

Marcus Borg was an internationally revered speaker and scholar who authored or co‐authored 21 books, some which were New York Times and national bestsellers. His books have won multiple awards and been translated into twelve languages. The New York Times called him, "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." ...

Marcus Borg Reintroduced Me to Jesus
Katherine Willis Pershey, Christian Century

Marcus Borg modeled how to doubt faithfully, how to believe rationally, and—most importantly—how to move “beyond belief (and beyond doubt and disbelief) to an understanding of the Christian life as a relationship with the Spirit of God.” Though his progressive take on scripture was anathema to many, to others it was a revelation...

Local Renowned OSU Jesus Scholar Marcus Borg Dies at 72
Anthony Rimel, Corvallis Gazette-Times

Borg’s scholarship was aimed to make Jesus a figure of the present that people can have a relationship with, rather than focusing on literalist interpretations of the Bible...

Marcus Borg didn't just study Scripture; he lived its message
Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter

I interview a lot of people -- wonderful people -- for "Interfaith Voices." Many are outstanding scholars and people of deep faith. But sometimes, someone really stands out. That was the way it was with Marcus Borg. Memories of my interviews with him came rushing back when I got the news that he had passed away on Wednesday...