Wikipedia (March 4, 2014) notes that “There is wide consensus, in modern New Testament scholarship, on a core group of authentic Pauline epistles whose authorship is rarely contested: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.”
For the moment, I would like to ignore Romans and replace it with 2 Thessalonians. I don’t really see the significant grounds for dismissing 2 Thessalonians as inauthentic and it makes the development of the epistle writer clearer. I will deal with Romans in a separate blog.
It is easy to see that the seven “authentic” letters of Paul are rhetorical exercises written by someone pretending to be the Apostle Paul. They are paradigms showing how Paul might react to a certain set of possible developments in churches. They are not about resolving real situations but promoting a certain ideology. The ideology is a cross between Judaism and Greco-Roman Polytheism. Basically the deal proposed in the ideology is that the Jews give up their laws and the Greco-Romans give up their polytheism and they all come together to worship the Jewish creator god.
We need only look at the reason Paul has for writing the letters in each one of them to see that the writer is mainly interested in propagating his ideology. The letters to the churches are the vehicles that he is using. As his writings develop, the writer becomes increasingly concerned with proving the authenticity of the letters. The seventh letter, “Philemon” has almost no ideology at all, but is designed to be authentic sounding and to prove that Paul wrote all these letters.
Here are each of the seven and the reason the text gives for their coming into being:
1. Ephesians: The text does not tell us why Paul is writing to the Ephesians. He just decides to tell them his ideology because he has heard that they believe the gospel. They are a good Church and Paul has never met them. The writer is just giving Pauline ideology and hardly pretending that it is a real letter at all.
2. 1 Thessalonians: The writer realizes that he has to at least give a reason for why Paul is writing and giving his ideology to make the epistles sound believable. This is a good church where the members are faithful. It is the first church that has converted outside Jerusalem and Paul just wants to say, “keep up the good work, and by the way, here is my ideology on the gospel.”
3. 2 Thessalonians: This is the resolution and sequel letter supposedly written a year or two later. It is basically a reinforcement of the first letter. Paul repeats for them to keep up the good work and warns them against straying from it.
4. 1 Corinthians: The writer reverses the earlier scenario of writing and encouraging Good churches to continue their work. This time Paul is writing to a bad church that he founded where things have gone wrong. The members are fighting over which Apostle to follow. Paul tells them not to fight, but be like the Thessalonkians, and be unified.
5. 2 Corinthians: This is another resolution and sequel letter. He tells them again to stop the fighting, straighten out and be like the good Thessalonians.
6. Galatians: This is another bad Church, only instead of other apostles being the problem, the problem is that the whole Church has decided to go fully over to Judaism and follow all the Jewish laws. There is some Pauline ideology and this is the only one of the epistles where there are stories about Paul and the other Apostles.
7. Philemon is the only letter not concerned with ideology, but completely concerned with proving the authenticity of the other epistles. We may conclude that the writers got feedback that the other letters did not sound real, but exercises in rhetoric. He is producing a real sounding letter to counter that criticism. This is the only letter which is actually addressed to a person, the head of a church. The other letters are addressed to churches which are corporations. Corporations do not have physical bodies so they cannot receive, read and hear letters. If I want the Coca-Cola company to change the formula for their soft drink or change the size of their bottles, I do not write a letter addressed to the Coca-Cola company, but a letter to the President of Coca-Cola or maybe the person in charge of formulas or bottle sizes. Philemon is more of a memo than a letter. Paul has borrowed a slave, Onesimus from Philemon and used him without Philemon’s permission. Paul is worried that Philemon might punish the slave for listening to Paul and not returning to him instead. Paul asserts his right as head of the church to confiscate Onesimus’ services for his own purpose. The letter is meant to show the authority of Paul and all apostles to use the property of heads of churches for their own purposes. At the same time, Paul is shown to be a nice guy concerned about a slave being beaten for obeying an apostle instead of his master. This is the one letter that imitates the form of an actual letter rather than a piece of rhetoric. It is designed primarily to lend authenticity to the other letters that the author has written.
Thus we have Paul writing to six churches. Three letters are to good churches. One letter to a church that Paul has never met (Ephesus), the next two to a Church that Paul founded (Thessalonians). The next three letters are to bad churches. There are two to a church that Paul founded but things have gone wrong and one to a church that Paul did not found. The Church of Corinth (founded by Paul) has fallen victim to the preaching of other apostles and their different immoral – too Greco-Roman – interpretations, while the Galatia Church (not founded by Paul) has missed the mark by turning too Jewish and accepting the laws.
Each of these churches are representative of types of churches: Ephesian – Good Church not founded by Paul, Thessaloniki – Good Church founded by Paul, Corinth – Bad Church founded by Paul, but taken over by other apostles’ ideas, and Galatia – bad church founded by Paul, but taken over by Jews.
The seventh letter, Philemon, is designed as a counterpoint to the other six letters. It shows that Paul does not always write rhetorical speeches to corporations, but writes real letters to the heads of churches about ordinary things like borrowing a slave.
The rhetorical structure between the letters show them to be definitely not spontaneous letters responding to actual events, but they are altogether a single rhetorical power-point type presentation. The presentation could be named “Good Churches and Bad Churches and How Paul Might Have Handled them”.
The epistles are meant to cover four situations (a good church not founded by Paul, a good church founded by Paul (2 letters), a bad church not founded by Paul, and a bad church founded by Paul (2 letters). The churches are not real but imaginary inventions to allow Paul to express his ideology in four different situations.