Part I: R. Brown and L. Keck on Paul’s Letters and Their Nature as Epistolary Writings

Paul’s letters constitute approximately one-half of the New Testament corpus and are typically classed by scholars as protoPauline and deuteroPauline letters.  ProtoPauline letters are judged with a large degree of certainty to have been written by Paul.  According to Raymond Brown, these letters are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans.[1] The deuteroPauline group is thought not to have been written by Paul himself.  These letters are 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Titus, 1-2 Timothy.[2] As Brown observes, though in the canonical order of the New Testament, both the Synoptic Gospels and Acts appear prior to Paul’s letters, and the latter were likely the first New Testament letters to be written.  We must also keep in mind that these letters were addressed to specific communities (and individuals), at specific geographical locations, and deal with particular issues that have arisen within the community.  In other words, Paul’s letters were occasional letters.  Consequently, we must exercise caution when interpreting the letters, taking care not to turn particular, cultural and often crisis-inspired instructions into timeless truths to be applied in the very same way in all times and all places.[3] Yet, as orthodox Christians and those who believe in the incarnational analogy of Scripture as the work of both human authors and a divine Author, neither ought we view Paul’s writings (or the Bible as a whole) as entirely culturally and contextually bound such that it must remain silent in the past, having nothing whatsoever to say to us today.

At this point we should ask, what is an epistolary writing, and is there a difference between an epistle and a letter?  A. Deissmann, for example, offers the following criterion as a means to distinguish between an epistle and a letter.  An epistle is “an artistic literary exercise, generally presenting a moral lesson to a general audience, and intended for publication,” whereas, a letter is “a nonliterary means of communicating information between a writer and a real correspondent separated by distance from one another.”[4] If one accepts Deismann’s distinction, then Paul’s writings are letters rather than epistles.  However, many scholars find this classification too rigid and either qualify it with their own refinements or simply reject the schema altogether, highlighting the fact that “ancient rhetorical handbooks show a wide range of Greco-Roman letter types.”[5] As we shall see shortly, Paul’s letters both reflect aspects of his cultural context, yet they also expand and add new features to the typical structural format for such letters.   Before discussing the structural details of Paul’s letters, we should say a few words about the editorial aspects of Paul’s letters.

Both Keck and Brown note that Paul’s letters were in fact edited.  In a few instances, such as the varied placement of the concluding benediction of Romans, the manuscript discrepancies lead us to conclude that editorial work has occurred.[6] However, in most cases, editorial work comes to light via internal evidence.  Keck provides the following example:  “Phil. 1:1 mentions bishops and deacons.  Since it appears that our Philippians is a compilation of shorter letters, one suspects that here the editor has updated the greeting to include church officials.  Apart from this reference, there is no indication that such offices existed during Paul’s own time.”[7] Two common indicators of editorial work are tensions in the content itself and awkward transitions.  Keck points to Phil 3:2-21 as an example of an abrupt interruption of the theme of joy, which begins at Phil 3:1 and resumes at Phil 4.[8] As to an example of a tension in the account, Keck cites 2 Cor 8 and 9, “both of which deal with the collection of funds for Jerusalem, but from different points of view.”[9] In short, generally speaking, Paul’s letters were in a very real sense co-authored by way of editorial additions[10] and deletions and scribal interpretations.[11] Nonetheless, one should also emphasize God’s providence over the entire process, which of course includes redaction and editorial work, the choice of certain amenuenses and so forth.


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament.  (New York:  Doubleday, 1997), p. 419.

[2] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 419.

[3] Leander Keck, in his chapter entitled, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” in Paul and His Letters.  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1988):  [16-32] provides a helpful discussion along these lines on p. 20.  See also Wall’s discussion of Paul’s letters as occasional correspondences in “An Introduction to Epistolary Literature,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol X.  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002):  [369-391], p. 371.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 410.

[5] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 410.

[6] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 17.

[7] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 17.

[8] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 17.

[9] Keck, “The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 18

[10] Keck divides assertions into two kinds:  “interpolations (new material) and glosses (interpretive comments originally made in the margin, then incorporated by a copyist” (“The Theology of Paul and the Theology of the Letters,” p. 18).  For example, 1 Thess 2:14-16 is an interpolation in which the most likely referent, the fall of Jerusalem, is explained “as God’s punishment on the Jews for killing Jesus and persecuting Christians” (Ibid., p. 18).

[11] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 410.