Chronological Order of Paul's Letters
Dane's Place © 2010
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Recently my wife and I went to the beach for vacation. As usual, I took my Bible. There on the beach, smothered in SPF 50, and tucked myself beneath the shade of an umbrella, I began to read the Pauline Epistles. I soon decided on a fun task: with nothing but my Bible and its maps, could I put Paul’s thirteen Epistles in chronological order?
As I did this study, I worked with an assumption that the reader should be made aware: that Paul was released from his imprisonment as found in the closing chapters of Acts, and that he was later jailed, and finally executed. This assumption is supported by a strong tradition that Paul eventually made his way to Spain, and that he also may have alluded to being set free from prison when he told Timothy that he had been “delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (2 Tim 4:17).
Therefore, taking into account only the internal evidence of the books – without regard to the Church Fathers, or any other commentary – this is how I chronologically align the epistles:
1) Galatians: This book was written to address the false teaching that Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the Jewish law. In this work, Paul labored hard to prove that he was not a second-generation apostle, and to show that he was commissioned by Jesus Himself.
(Now, there is a dispute among scholars as to whether Paul was writing to the Galatians – or “Gauls” – of northern Galatia, or to the Roman providence of southern Galatia. If it is to the northern Galatians then the letter has to be written much later because we have no record of Paul ever going into the area of the Gauls. However, as I have indicated below, I believe the internal evidence of the letter heavily favors an early writing – and may well be the oldest surviving letter of Paul.)
In order to prove his apostleship, Paul described his first trip to Jerusalem (Gal 1:18), which nicely parallels his first trip as described by Luke in Acts 9:26. He then tells the Galatians of his second trip (Gal 2:1), which could easily fit into what Luke also described in Acts 11:30. But what about Paul’s next trip as described in Acts 15?
If Galatians is a later letter, then Paul would almost certainly have included a description of his third trip, which is described in Acts 15 – because that trip was for the very purpose of deciding if circumcision was necessary – which is the reason for this letter to the Galatians! I find it nearly impossible to consider that Paul would not have recounted the results of his third trip to Jerusalem, since the results of that trip would proven his case against circumcision.
Therefore, I believe the internal evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the letter to Galatians had to have been written before the third trip to Jerusalem described by Luke in Acts 15. The most likely writing of this letter occurred in Antioch during the time period described in Acts 14:28.
2) 1 Thessalonians: The church in Thessalonica was founded in Acts 17, so, of course, the Epistle could not have been written before that chapter. In 1 Thess. 3:1-6, Paul indicated that he was waiting in Athens for Timothy. Then, in verse 6, Paul announced that “now” Timothy had returned.
In Acts 17:14-16, we find the account of Timothy and Silas remaining in Thessalonica while Paul goes to Athens to wait for them. By comparing 1 Thessalonians and Acts, it would seem that Paul wrote the letter in Athens just after Timothy and Silas caught up to him. I believe that this letter was written during the time frame of Acts 17:14-16, making it the second Pauline Epistle.
3) 2 Thessalonians: There is not much data in this letter indicating when it was written. I place it very close to the First Thessalonian letter for one simple reason: they are the only two letters in the New Testament collectively written by Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus. The three of them must have been together long enough for these two letters to be penned.
4) 1 Corinthians: There is little doubt in my mind for the timeline of this letter. Paul tells the Church in Corinth that he had sent Timothy to them (1 Cor. 4:17), and that at the moment of the writing he was in Ephesus, but would be passing through Macedonia (1 Cor. 16:5). This timeline is closely matched in Acts 19:22, where Paul remained in Ephesus, but sent Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia (where Corinth was found). Therefore, I believe Paul wrote this letter during the time described in Acts 19.
5) Romans: Two important findings aid me in placing this book next: 1) Two of the people whom Paul lists as being with him are Timothy and Gaius (Rom 16:21-22). And, 2) Paul mentions that he is on his way to Jerusalem with an offering (Rom 15:25-25).
Since Paul also told the Corinthians about an offering (1 Cor. 16:1-3), it would seem reasonable that he wrote to the Romans and Corinthians on the same missionary journey (Acts 18:23 – 21:17). But, we have something that may narrow this timeframe down even further. In Acts 20:4, a group of people reach Paul – two of them being Timothy and Gaius. As already explained, these two were with Paul when he wrote the letter. Therefore, the writing of Romans almost has to have taken place during the time frame found in Acts 20:1-4.
6) II Corinthians: Paul mentions in this letter that he has already visited them twice (2 Cor. 12:14). Since his second visit to that church was recorded in Acts 20:1-4, this writing has to be later that that passage.
Paul does not mention that he is a prisoner in this letter. Therefore, it was either written before the first arrest, or after the first but before the second. I believe that it is the latter time frame since Paul speaks as if he is already on his way to Corinth for a third visit (2 Cor 13:1), and we have no record of that taking place in Acts.
Another reason to place this letter beyond the memory of Acts is that Paul described some torturous things that occurred to him in 2 Cor 11:23-27. In that list he describes suffering shipwreck three times. We have only one account of this happening (Acts 27:41). Though it is entirely possible that he suffered shipwreck on other occasions that Luke did not mention, one must ask why it was important enough for Paul to mention, but not for Luke.
Therefore, this book must have been written after the book of Acts was completed.
7) I Timothy: Most chronological lists do not see this letter as early as I do.
I suspect that it was written after the book of Acts was closed, but before Paul’s second imprisonment, since he makes no mention of being in chains. He also seems to suggest that he and Timothy parted by choice (1 Tim 1:3), and that Paul will soon come to see him (1 Tim 4:13) – indicating that Paul is a free man. Unlike Paul’s second letter to Timothy, wherein he needs his immediate assistance, here Paul desires that Timothy remain in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3). There is no urgency in Paul’s voice, leaving me with the impression that it is an earlier letter.
8) Titus: Titus is in Crete when Paul writes this letter (Tit. 1:5). We know that Paul made a stop on that island while en route to Rome (Acts 27:8), but it is doubtful that he left Titus behind since he was being transported as a prisoner, and may not have had the freedom to make these decisions. It is more likely that Paul returned sometime after being released at Rome. Again, Paul does not make mention of being in chains, which places the letter after the first arrest, but before the second.
Of great interest to me, Paul apparently doesn’t know whether to send Aritemus or Tychicus to Titus (Tit.3:12) (this comes to play in subsequent letters).
9) Colossians: These next three letters are difficult to place in order. Paul now appears to be in prison (Col 4:3). Timothy is again with Paul (Col. 1:1). Paul mentions that he is sending Tychicus – with Onesimus – to the Colossians with word of his situation. Therefore, the previous indecision of who to send (Tychicus or Artemus) – as suggested above in Titus – has now been cleared up. Therefore, I place this letter after Titus.
10) Ephesians: Although Paul does not mention being with Timothy, he again suggests his plans of sending Tychicus to them (Eph. 6:21), making this letter very close to Titus, Colossians, and Philemon.
11) Philemon: In this short letter Paul is returning a runaway slave to his owner. The slave is Onesimus, who we already know is traveling with Tychicus (Col. 4:7-9). Therefore, these last four letters seem to have been written within a very short span.
12) Philippians: Paul makes reference to not only being in prison, but in the custody of Caesar’s guard (Phil. 4:22). Therefore, it must have been written in Rome, rather than in one of the many jails he seems to allude to in 2 Cor. 11:23. It is not clear, however, if it is the first or second imprisonment. Paul seems optimistic of his imprisonment, and seems to expect to be released. This would suggest the early imprisonment. However, it is quite possible that Paul is wrong about his release, and that things will change for him.
The reason I place it with the second imprisonment is because he uses a phrase that he uses in what appears to be a final letter to Timothy – of being “poured out as a drink offering” (compare Phil. 2:17 – II Tim 4:6-7). Though Paul admits that he does not know what is going to happen to him (Phil 2:23), there is a finality in the sentiment of “being poured out as a drink offering.”
13) II Timothy: In this letter Paul tells Timothy that he has sent Tychicus to Ephesus (II Tim 4:12). That would clearly place this letter after Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, & Philemon, where he promised that he was going to send him.
Demas, who was with Paul when he wrote to the Colossians and to Philemon, has now deserted Paul (2 Tim 4:10), leaving him alone – except for Luke. Paul requests that Timothy do his best to come quickly to Paul; hoping that he can arrive before winter sets in (2 Tim 4:9 & 21).
Paul tells Timothy that he is “being poured out as a drink offering,” and that the time of his “departure is at hand.” He claims that he has “fought the good fight,” and “finished the race” (2 Tim 4:6-7). The tone of the letter seems more solemn, and reads like a farewell address. For that reason, I place it last on my list.
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