In What Order Were Paul's Epistles Written?

1869 313 [This paper professes to be simply an inquiry, commits none but the writer, and is intended, if it may be, to elicit the judgment of others. Ed.]

He who values the New Testament as a revelation from God finds rich quarries open to research in every department of it. As every science connected with God's marvellous works in creation branches out into so many directions that most men are obliged to limit themselves to one or two only of its known departments, so it is with the word of God. If "the heavens declare the glory of God," "the law of the Lord is also perfect." One is richly repaid in studying it. One branch of inquiry connects itself with another, and thus we find our hearts interested in examining further and further into His truth; and the more we know, the more we love Him who has manifested Himself in it.

The order (not necessarily the dates) of the Pauline writings is one of these branches, on which we may profitably spend a little time. Let no one think the subject trivial. We shall find in the study of it some remarkable traits in the apostle's character, and be assisted in tracing the progress and development of truth in His own mind.

The views to be given out are quite open to criticism, for they present only the method of research, without insisting that the steps by which conclusions are reached are strictly to be relied on. One can say however on this subject what cannot be said on all Biblical ones, that a mistake can do but little harm, whilst the very detecting of it is sure to lead into new fields of thought.

The writer would only mention as an encouragement to those who may succeed better, that he has never read any human writing on the subject.

To begin: in reading 2 Timothy one finds these passages: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course" (2 Tim. 4:6-7), conclusive evidence that this was the last of all his epistles. It was doubtless written from Rome. (2 Tim. 1:17.) We may take it then as the starting-point of our inquiries and reason upwards. The next which arrest the attention are those to the Colossians and Philemon, which we may assuredly bracket together. They were written at the same time and certainly before 2 Timothy, for in the latter Demas had forsaken him. In Colossians he had not. Mark and Aristarchus too were with him in Colossians; in 2 Timothy they were not. (Philemon 24; Col. 4; 2 Tim. 4:11.) We must then undoubtedly place Colossians and Philemon prior to 2 Timothy, but with a reasonable gap, in order to give time for the desertion of Demas, and also for the journey of Mark, who, not having left Paul when he wrote to the Colossians (comp. Col. 4:10), was to be brought back from his mission when he wrote to Timothy. (2 Tim. 4:11.) These are sufficient reasons for thinking that the two which next precede were Colossians and Philemon, Timothy being at the time with Paul, his name being conjoined in the address.

There is a temptation to consider Ephesians as of the same date, from the remarkable similarity in truth between that and the Colossians, as if, on that account they may have been written at the same time, and because of Tychicus being, as with that to the Colossians, apparently the bearer. But I think we may regard the visit of Tychicus to Ephesus as an independent one, at a time when Timothy was not with the apostle at Rome, inasmuch as he is not conjoined in the address as he probably would have been, had it been written at the same time with the Colossians. Moreover, in writing at the last to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-2), he mentions having sent Tychicus to Ephesus. He might, therefore, have sent him at the last with this epistle to a circle of churches of which Ephesus* was the centre. It becomes therefore a delicate question to know where to place it — a question of internal evidence. We can isolate it for the present.

[* The best copies agree to omit "at Ephesus." It was probably delivered there first, and this has given rise to the insertion of the words.]

The letter to the Philippians was certainly from the metropolis (Timothy being with him: chap. 1:1); for it sends salutations from persons in Caesar's household, and mentions his bonds, but hopes for deliverance, and consequently to see them again (chap. 1:24 — 26), which he does not in 2 Timothy. We must place the epistle still earlier than that to Colosse, before any terrible burst of persecution; but, as I judge, after the close of the Acts, and when declension in the churches began to be apparent. (Phil. 2:21.) Be it remembered we are only for the present offering standing-ground for the feet.

The Epistle to the Hebrews next claims our attention. The words, "They of Italy salute you" (chap. 13:24), give the impression that it was sent from Italy immediately after his landing there, perhaps before he reached Rome itself. May we not suppose that it was meditated upon after that singular disclosure (Acts 21:18–21) made to him by James and the elders of the condition of the Jewish believers at Jerusalem, got ready during some part of the journey, and sent immediately on his landing, with a postscript added (Heb. 13:22 to end*), before he knew anything or much of the state of things in Italy, except to say, "They of Italy salute you?" One remark is well here — Timothy, who had sailed with him out of Asia (Acts 20:4), was not with him. (Heb. 13:23.) He had been put in prison somewhere not in Rome, had been released and was shortly expected. This shows that we are sure of none of those who embarked with Paul having reached Rome with him, except Luke and Aristarchus. (Acts 17:2, compare Philem. 24.) I say Luke, because in the Acts "we" and "us" (Acts 25, Acts 27:2) always include Luke the writer. The others may have been left at the various places they touched at.

[* The fair and usually adopted translation, "They from (apo) Italy," does not invalidate the order of the writing, although it may throw doubt upon the country whence it was written. We place it after Acts 21:20, and therefore on the apostle's way to Rome. It is possible it may have been written during his two years' imprisonment at Caesarea. The suggestion that it came from the pen of any but Paul, I do not think worthy of consideration.]

Let me now recapitulate the order of these letters, but in the simpler form of earlier to later. 1. Hebrews, during his journey to or immediately on his arrival in Italy. 2. Philippians, when his bondage was not very severe. 3. Colossians and Philemon (bracketed), Paul an aged man in prison. 4. Ephesians, (?) Paul in prison. 5. 2 Timothy, Paul expecting to be offered, having been before the judgment, no man standing by him.

We have now got some few landmarks, although discrepancies could be easily pointed out, which might in some measure be met by supposing the apostle to have had a release, to have made a journey coming back by Asia, and to have been again and finally imprisoned. Tradition seems to have embalmed this opinion (which has certainly a show of reason) by the subscription in our English New Testament that 2 Timothy was written from Rome when Paul was brought before Nero the second time. The other epistles, the ground of which is, in some instances, still more difficult and uncertain, have now to be considered.

These are the two to the Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Titus, the two to the Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians.

It is best to begin with those to the Corinthians, whence we shall more easily come to the others.

The First Epistle to the Corinthians may have been written from Ephesus somewhere in the time taken up between Acts 19:21 and Acts 20:1, for the following reasons: Paul, in his first European journey, comes from Philippi through the country to Thessalonica, thence (by sea?) to Athens, and thence to Corinth (Acts 18:1) for the first time, and in that chapter we find also mention of Sosthenes, the same person who is joined with him (unless good reasons be shown to the contrary) in the first letter. Paul continued there eighteen months (Acts 18:11), Silas and Timotheus being with him. (Ver. 5. Compare 2 Cor. 1:19.) Thence he went to Ephesus and Syria, but Apollos came to Corinth. (Acts 19:1.) Now, as in his first epistle, continued mention is made of this brother (who was with him at the time, 1 Cor. 16:12), it is evident it could not have been written before Acts 19, when Paul was at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8), for at that time "he sent into Macedonia two of them that ministered unto him, Timotheus and Erastus; but he himself stayed in Asia for a season." (Acts 19:22.) Now as in 1 Corinthians 16:10 Timothy is mentioned as likely to come, it is probable that he was to go there from Macedonia, but, although probable, there is no strict necessity for supposing that he bore the letter, which could hardly have been written until after the uproar about Diana the goddess of the Ephesians. (1 Cor. 15:32; Acts 19:23.) Notice particularly 1 Corinthians 16:5, "Now I will come unto you when I shall pass through Macedonia, for I do pass through Macedonia," compared with Acts 19:21, his anxiety in both instances being about a collection for Jerusalem, which he was to carry. This occupation of the apostle's mind about the poor Jews is not a bad mark for showing us that they could not have been written before he had determined to go to Jerusalem with a collection, and that hardly more than a year could have elapsed between the two epistles.

Before, however, I touch upon 2 Corinthians, it is better to consider the date, or rather order of Titus, who occupies such a place in that second epistle. The letter is addressed to him in Crete, where he had been left by the apostle on one of his numerous voyages.* When written, Apollos was also in the island; indeed, I judge that he may have carried the letter, and by this fact, whether he was the bearer or not, we may be assured that it was written after 1 Corinthians, at which time, as we have seen, Apollos was with Paul. (1 Cor. 16:12.)

[* The only voyage likely to suit noticed in the Acts, in which Paul could have left Titus in Crete, is that mentioned in Acts 18:19–22 from Ephesus to Caesarea. On this occasion it need not have caused him one day's delay to have landed Titus. The very school-maps make him pass within sixty miles of the island. But "left" seems to imply that Paul had made some stay there.]

Titus is desired to meet the apostle at Nicopolis,* a city not far from Philippi, where he had determined to winter. Is it not then next to certain that he (Titus) did all the work among the Corinthians (as sent from that city), which is narrated in 2 Cor. 2:12-13; 2 Cor. 7:6-7; 2 Cor. 8:16, etc.? Was he not the intervening messenger between that church and the apostle, pending the, latter's hesitancy as to going there himself? I place it then between the two epistles. In like manner, I judge that 1 Timothy was written between the two same Epistles to the Corinthians. In Acts 19:22 Paul sends Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia, whilst he remains in Asia. In Acts 20:1-2 he goes into Macedonia and, as I would suggest this to be the time alluded to, leaves Timothy at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3); after which time then he writes 1 Timothy, "Hoping to come to him shortly." (1 Tim. iii, 14, 15.) They had met before 2 Corinthians was written, because Timothy is conjoined with him in the address. I can only bracket Titus and 1 Timothy, inclining to the opinion that Titus was the later. Very briefly would I advert to the contents of these two letters, as moral evidence that they cannot come much out of the order in which I have placed them. Thus, they are full of directions as to the government of churches, and as to the character of mischief which these two agents of the apostle would be sure to fall in with, whether from fallen human nature itself, or from the bad education it had received; but there is little or no supposition either in the way of prophecy or from individual experience of the rapid declension into which the churches would fall, as is exhibited in 2 Timothy. There is in Titus a direction how to deal with a single heretic, otherwise there are only warnings, as to what everyone, who is in the habit of dealing with his own heart or with those of others, is liable to meet. I cannot assign, then, a later date to either of these epistles, and I think it would be difficult to put that to Titus earlier on account of Apollos.

[* Paul desired Titus to meet him at Nicopolis, a city in Macedonia. (Titus 3:12.) It appears from 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 that on one occasion he expected to find him at Troas in Asia Minor, and had to go over to Macedonia after him. (Cp. 2 Cor. 7:5, 13) I know not where to place this voyage — I can find no record in the Acts of this voyage; but he tells us in 2 Corinthians 13:25 that he had then thrice "suffered shipwreck." The salient points in the apostle's life being preserved in the Acts, all else to human eyes left vague.]

We now come to 2 Corinthians. From the Epistle to the Romans (Rom. 15:26) it is easy to show, that he cleared up all his questions with the Corinthians, through the mediation of Titus and eventually left Corinth by land for Philippi, and thence by Troas to Jerusalem, and through an imprisonment of more than two years at Caesarea to Rome thus reaching that city in a way, and by a journey far longer and far different than he had expected (see preceding footnote). (Comp. Rom. 15:22, 24.) This 2 Corinthians was, in my judgment, written from Philippi by Titus and Luke, "The brother whom we have often proved diligent in many things." The two names are attached to the end, and it is a question upon which such a thing as tradition may have its weight. Timothy was with him, and, after sending it, I believe Paul followed in person to Corinth, whence, as just mentioned, he left for Rome by the route just mentioned.

Our task now becomes much easier. The letter to the Romans was written from Cenchrea by Phoebe in the full belief of himself making a visit to Rome. I judge it was the very last he wrote before quitting Greece and Corinth (Acts 20:2-3) to return by Macedonia to Jerusalem. (Compare chap. 15:25.) "But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints." "For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem." This and the salutation of Gaius and Erastus (compare 1 Cor. 1:14) leave no doubt on my own mind that it was written from Corinth, and that all differences with the Corinthians had happily terminated. Three more epistles have only now to engage our attention, Galatians, and the two to Thessalonians. Tracing upwards from Corinthians, the Thessalonians came next. In each Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy are joined with Paul in the address. Now as we only know of these two being in company together with Paul from Acts 17 down to Acts 18:5, we must suppose they were both written from Corinth, the one soon after the other, Timothy, be it observed (1 Thess. 3:2), having made a journey there between whiles.

The Epistle to the Galatians requires a little more consideration. As there is not a salutation in it, we must judge of its date entirely from internal evidence. I should put it early, and I think it possible from Gal. 2:1, that the Galatians were acquainted with Titus and Barnabas before the quarrel, and that it may have been written even before Paul first left Asia for Europe; but one cannot speak with any certainty. The same line of internal evidence may be applied here as to Titus and 1 Timothy. It is a concise and logical discourse on the difference between Christianity and Judaism (Paul's own life, doctrinally considered, being the illustration), in respect to justification and sonship; as the Epistle to the Hebrews is on the difference between Christian and Jewish worship. But all particulars as to his own practical experience so largely detailed in 2 Corinthians are wanting, although he was bearing in his body the stigmata of the Lord Jesus. (Cp 2 Cor. 11:24.)

He was at least twice in Galatia (Acts 16:6; Acts 18:23), and the churches appear to have been organized there before he writes at all to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:1); and the internal evidence is strong, that it must have been sent when he had been feeling the positive mischief which had resulted from the attempt to mix up law and grace, in other words Christianity with Judaism. He had now taken a thoroughly independent position, but the strife was only as yet between the two: corruption from within had not yet appeared. If not earliest of all, it would come after 2 Thessalonians; but where all is conjecture, tradition may have preserved the truth that it came from Rome, though there is no mention of any imprisonment.

How often has the writer, in thus briefly reviewing the subject, been tempted to break out into disquisitions, which might have carried him away from his direct object. Certainly, he has found that not to be a barren occupation by which he has got an insight into the various phases which Christianity has assumed, and which were, so to speak, gone through beforehand in the apostle's experience.

A tabular view is appended. But before closing, I would devote a few lines to the probability of 2 Timothy having been written a considerable time after the others, and apparently after a recent journey from Asia Minor.

The reader will remember that I have suggested the isolation of Ephesians from Colossians and Philemon, notwithstanding the similarity of the truths in the two epistles, which would make us think they were written almost at the same moment. Upon this supposition Tychicus accompanied Onesimus with the Colossian epistle, and went another time to Ephesus, whether with or without the Ephesian epistle; Timothy being with the apostle when Tychicus went to Colosse, but not when he went to Ephesus.

Supposing the order to be as I have indicated, we want a considerable time between Colossians and 2 Timothy (still isolating Ephesians) to allow for the apostasy of Demas, the release of Aristarchus, the bringing back of Marcus, who had not as yet reached Colosse, where that letter was written (compare Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11), and for the general isolatedness in which we find the apostle at the last. We must find time for all this, and either do it by allowing a gap between Colossians and 2 Timothy, during the whole of which time he was in prison, and had been brought before Nero, his circumstances having become gradually worse; or else we must send him on another journey. I now give briefly the proofs of this, although still allowing difficulties, which perhaps I see better than my reader. Are not the very solemn and final warnings to Timothy inconsistent with the simple doctrinal statements in Colossians? The apostle's mind appears in the interim to have undergone a great revolution. But, space enough being given, all this is compatible with his not having left Rome. Does not, however, verse 13, "The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus … bring with thee." "Erastus abode at Corinth; but Trophimus have I left at Miletum sick," look as if he had just come from Troas? And does not "Erastus abode at Corinth," seem as if his route had been the ordinary one, that is, from Corinth to Macedon, then to Troas and Miletus? Now we know that on his last recorded journey Trophimus (Acts 20:4) had accompanied and had gone on with him past Miletus even to Jerusalem, and was (Acts 21:29) partly cause of the disturbance there. If even we could get over this difficulty, and make this account serve for an account of himself when he first reached Rome, it carries on the face of it so many discrepancies that it will not stand: for the account of his earlier detention at Rome makes one suppose that it was a very mild one (Acts 28:17, 31); whereas this letter to Timothy describes himself as in prison, and as having once stood before the emperor, all men having forsaken him.

For these reasons it seems best to suppose that Paul did get a release from Rome (his history in the Acts of the Apostles not going down nearly so far); that on this release he made a journey, which took in Corinth, Troas, and Miletum.

By supposing such a journey, we can account for his desiring Philemon to prepare him a lodging (ver. 27), trusting that through his prayers he (Paul) should be given unto him.

If then he was released, his journey could hardly have occupied two years, time would have been given for the forsaking of Demas, for his sad discovery that "All they which are in Asia be turned away from me" (2 Tim. 1:15), and for the general tone of despondency regarding the falling away of his friends from himself and from the truth, which had come about during his long imprisonment.

As in the table I have put a query after Galatians and Ephesians, it may be worth while to point out some marks by which my reader may exercise an independent judgment as to their place. I have little to add about Galatians. In point of evidence it might have been written at any time, and its general curtness and absence of names and salutations may be accounted for by the irritation, if I may so speak, under which it was penned. Only we must remember that the failure so largely depicted is rather ignorant than wilful on their part, and has reached them from a well-understood Jewish inroad, rather than from deliberate attacks on the part of the enemy within, and the apostle was hoping, as it would seem for a general recovery, even although those who brought in the error were cut off. Now as we find him in great conflict with the Jews throughout Acts 18, in which chapter he goes into Galatia for the second time, I think it likely it may have been written after that visit, this constant opposition having forced him into the mastery of the whole subject of law and grace. It is not unlikely that his breach with Barnabas was an epoch in his life, and may have delivered him from trammels, the power of which until then he had felt. If my surmise of its being written after this second visit to Galatia be correct, my reader will see that it must be placed after the two Epistles to the Thessalonians.

Now with regard to Ephesians, a question or two must be asked. First, what bearing will the omission of "at Ephesus" have as to forming an opinion of its historical order? Secondly, what relation do Colossians and Ephesians bear to one another, and which is the more general? Answering these questions, the omission of "at Ephesus" would leave us at liberty to look upon the epistle as a general one — so general as to be considered a circular whether as a last legacy or not to faithful Gentiles in the mass, and an anchor to which they might hold in the midst of an incoming apostasy. In answer to the second question, Ephesians is the more general writing, and Colossians a special example of the use of it, or an enlargement of a particular part of it. But the two Epistles are correlative, or one might say, complementary, the Ephesians being a treatise on the body, the Church, whilst that to the Colossians is on the Head, and therefore they must be read together, whilst still each had its own salient points. But this is quite compatible with Ephesians being more general and Colossians more particular; for the apostle, fearing the Colossians were falling into the state of "not holding the Head," writes a particular treatise of what the Head, Christ, is and ought to be to them. Afterwards he writes a more general treatise or last legacy to the whole Gentile church or churches. I am constrained to say "afterwards" (however much in the general one would prefer the general statement to precede the particular example), because in feeling one's way along this intricate path two only kind of landmarks have directed us: first, the names of persons mentioned in the epistles themselves; secondly, the character of these writings. Now it appears to me that the first kind of landmark is plainer than the other; that is, Paul in writing his very last letter, namely, 2 Timothy, especially mentions his having sent Tychicus to Ephesus, and in the letter itself he says that Tychicus "shall make known to you all things." He therefore, as I judge, bore this general letter to a circle of churches, of which the principal was Ephesus. In this way too, that is, by omitting "in Ephesus," we account for such expressions as "after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus." "If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God, which is given me to youward "— unaccountable language if addressed to a church, among whom he had laboured personally for years; but which passages admit of a solution when one allows that the letter may have been a general one.

But on such points, and indeed on the whole inquiry, this paper is only tentative, and glad should I be, if it elicited the criticism of those more versed in the subject. W.

in the order of Writing
According to accompanying paper Textus Receptus and Vulgate Syriac According to accompanying paper Textus Receptus and Vulgate Syriac
1 Thessalonians Corinth Athens Athens     Timothy? The mention of Phrygia Pacatiana is important as giving us an idea of when these places were inserted Phrygia was not so divided until the later period of Constantine's reign, who reigned from 306 until 337.
2 Thessalonians Corinth Athens Laodicea in Pisidia     Tychicus?
Galatians?   Rome Rome      
1 Corinthians Ephesus Philippi Ephesus Timothy? Stephanas Fortunatus Achaicus and Timothy  
1 Timothy Macedonia Laodicea capital of Phrygia Pacatiana Laodicea      
Titus Macedonia Nicopolis Nicopolis Apollos?   Zenas and Apollos?
2 Corinthians Philippi Philippi Philippi Titus & Luke Titus & Luke Titus?
Romans Corinth Corinth Corinth Phebe Phebe Phebe
Hebrews Caesarea or Italy Italy        
Philippians Rome Rome Rome Epaphroditus Epaphroditus Epaphroditus?
Tychicus and Onesimus
Tychicus and Onesimus
Philemon Rome Rome Rome Tychicus and Onesimus Tychicus and Onesimus Onesimus?
Ephesians Rome, after a release? Rome Rome Tychicus Tychicus Tychicus
2 Timothy Rome, after a second imprisonment Rome after being brought before Nero a second time Rome