Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Dating Game II: Getting Paul's letters in order

One of the easy mistakes in the dating game is to shoot too quickly for absolute dates, to look in a given document for hints that might help us to pin it to a a specific date. Some of our documents, though, are not of the nature that will allow us to pin them to a particular decade, let alone a particular year, and in such circumstances, it is important to try to get them into the right relative order, to make sure that we are stacking them up in the right order with respect to one another. Our general reluctance to do this may have something to do with our general reluctance to get our hands dirty doing serious work on the Synoptic Problem, or to do the related, equally difficult work on other big issues that make some of us recoil, Pauline chronology, John's familiarity (or not) with the Synoptics, Thomas's use (or not) of the Synoptics. But if we are to make progress on dating our crucial sources, these are the kinds of specialist areas that we need to invest in.

Let us take what is perhaps the most straightforward area first, the issue of getting Paul's letters in order. We are lucky here to have a degree of consensus on the parameters and general shape of the question. We agree, broadly, that Paul's letters were written in the 50s, with the late 40s the very earliest we can go. And we have general agreement on the basics of how to frame Paul's life. No one seriously thinks that 1 Thesslaonians is a late letter, or that Romans is an early one. If there are serious disagreements about the integrity of 2 Corinthians, and the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, there is nevertheless broad consensus that the order of the undisputed letters goes something like this:

1 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians

It is easy to be sure about Romans. Paul is explicit that he has preached the gospel fully in a circle from Jerusalem to Illyricum (15.19), and that he is on the way now to Jerusalem with the collection for the saints there, with a view to heading off next to Rome and then to Spain (Rom. 15.23-9). Now the collection provides us with the most helpful basic piece of sequential dating material because it is mentioned, at different states of development, in three other epistles, all of which predate Romans.
Gal. 2.10: Only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do.

1 Cor. 16.1-4: Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. 2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. 3 And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.

2 Cor. 9.1-4: Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the offering for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brethren so that our boasting about you may not prove vain in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be; lest if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we be humiliated - to say nothing of you - for being so confident.
This is a fine example of the way in which sequential biography mentioned in documents can help us to date those documents. Clearly the collection is at an early point in 1 Cor. 16 -- Paul has recently instructed the Galatians about it, and he is only beginning now to talk to Achaia about it; presumably he has not yet begun to talk to Macedonia about it. By 2 Cor. 9 it has advanced much further. At least a year has passed; Paul is expecting Achaia to be ready, and Macedonia is ready too. So 1 and 2 Corinthians are placed in their expected sequence with respect to one another, but both also earlier than Romans.

There is actually one more opportunity the material here provides, but it is an invitation often and surprisingly refused. The major, marked difference between 1 Cor. 16 on the one hand and 2 Cor. 8-9 and Rom. 15 on the other is that Galatia has dropped out. Where Paul, when he was writing 1 Corinthians, had expected the Galatians to participate, they are out of the picture by the time that he was writing 2 Corinthians, something further confirmed by their absence from Romans. The crisis in Galatia, therefore, appears to have taken place between the writing of 1 and 2 Corinthians. This is when Paul lost the allegiance of the Galatians who had turned to what Paul saw as "another gospel" and getting circumcised (Galatians). The order of Paul's letters, then, goes something like this:

1 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians

Getting the relative dating of 1 Corinthians and Galatians right illustrates the value of dating questions in the study of Christian origins. The hints provided by Paul's biography for establishing that 1 Corinthians precedes Galatians correlate with other factors of interest in the study of Paul. What is the source of his gospel? Is it through human agency (1 Corinthians 15.1-11) or directly from God (Galatians 1.6-12)? What about his use of Jesus material? Is it a coincidence that his earlier epistles, 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, are rich in Jesus material but his later epistles are not? What about Paul, the Law and justification? Is it significant that the earlier epistles, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, are light (to put it mildly) on the forensic language while the later epistles (Galatians, Romans, Philippians 3) feature it heavily?


Aubrey said...

Interesting post. I want to offer a brief response on the adjustment of Galatians date relative to the other letters (specifically 1 & 2 Cor). Obviously, there are host of old thorny issues involved in dating Galatians -- most of which twist around what one does with Acts (specifically for questions of provenance and the Jerusalem council). I'll not retread any of that ground here. But I will offer a related judgment: all of those old questions/issues still seem to me to outway the interesting new evidence you set forth here. Mainly because the issue of dating the letter to the Galatians (a precise point on the timeline) can not be precisely correlated with the Galatian crisis (a range of time) and the point at which Paul "writes off" the Galatians with respect to the collection (a sort of end point -- however it is questionable whether it should be considered ultimate in the relationship of Paul and the churches there).

Daniel Kirk said...

Big YES on Galatians! Lou Martyn dates Galatians early simply because there's no mention of the collection. That seems to miss the big alternative: what if Paul discovered the problems in Galatia when he wrote instructing them about the collection or shortly thereafter? The fact that Galatia falls out of participation in the collection might also explain the decision to take the money back to Jerusalem himself, and the content of Romans as a reprisal/reimagining of the arguments of Galatians in anticipation of that trip.

I think 1 Cor-Gal-2 Cor-Rom explains an awful lot.

Leo said...

I concur with Aubrey that the problem of the collection is a problem of the sort of endpoint. The break point between Paul and Galatian is likely between 1Cor and 2Cor. But it is difficult to say the Letter to Galatian was written between 1Cor and 2Cor. It could be that Gal came first, then 1Cor, then the break up, then 2Cor. The Gal crisis could have taken some time before coming up a conclusion. By the way, Phil also mentions Thess and traditionally be taken as a late letter, but Phil does not mention the collection at all. This could make its date some time before the writing of 1Cor but after Paul's visit to Thess and Philippi. Yet Paul's rhetoric in Philippi is still harsh. Any opinion?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the comments; I have argued the case for the dating of Galatians subsequent to 1 Cor. in a series of other posts on this blog (just follow the Pauline chronology link above); I have also argued here for the identity of the event behind Gal. 2 and Acts 15 and for Paul's loss of Galatia as a result of events there. I find Philippians tough to date but wonder if it could in fact be pretty late and post-collection, post Romans.

Gregory said...

I would locate Galatians even more particularly between 2 Corinthians 10-13 and 2 Corinthians 1-9 on the basis of the shift in Paul's rhetoric concerning his ministry, his weakness, and his opponents. (The rhetoric of 2 Cor 10-13 is pre-Galatians whereas the rhetoric of 2 Cor 1-9 reuses the language Paul generated in response to the Galatian crisis.) Likewise, Philippians 3 reflects Paul's reworking of Galatian language refering to opponents and the possibility of his own death while 2 Cor 1-9 takes this Philippian language for granted. Thus:
1 Thess
Jerusalem Conference
Antioch Incident
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians 10-13
2 Corinthians 1-9
See Gregory Tatum: New Chapters in the Life of Paul (available via Eisenbrauns or the Catholic Biblical Association) and a forthcoming article in the Revue Biblique on the shifts in Paul's rhetoric between 1 Thess and 1 Cor (which I ascribe to the Galatian Conference and the Antioch Incident)(Gregory Tatum, Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise, Jerusalem)

Richard Fellows said...


your argument relies on the assumption that when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians he "has recently instructed the Galatians" on the collection, yet it seems very unlikely that the instructions had been given 'recently':

1. 1 Corinthians indicates that Paul had been in Ephesus for quite some time and Acts confirms this. Paul says in Gal 2:10 that he had been eager to 'remember the poor'. Why then, on your hypothesis, did he wait at least 2 or 3 years before initiating a collection?

2. Why did Paul not instruct the Galatians when he passed through Galatia on his way to Ephesus? Or, if he did, why, on your assumption, did he need to do so again?

3. In 1 Cor 16:1-5 Paul is trying to convince the Corinthians that the collection is all above board. His reference to the Galatian collection is explicable if it had already been delivered without any suspicions arising. Paul is saying, "follow the tried and tested procedure that I gave to the Galatians". His argument has force if the Galatian collection was known to be complete.

Is it not better to suppose that Paul responded to the request of Gal 2:10 by sending Titus-Timothy Immediately from Jerusalem to organize a collection in (south) Galatia (where Paul catches up with him in Acts 16:1)?

I have nothing against placing Gal after 1 Cor, but I don't think your argument has force unless you can show that the Galatian collection was still in progress when 1 Cor was written.

Durant Kreider said...

If Romans is written after the others then does this mean they were all written before Acts 18 when Priscilla and Aquila are in Corinth after fleeing Rome under Claudius' command?
In Romans 16:3 Paul greets Priscilla and Aquila and the church that meets in their home. This presumably would have been before the Jews expulsion from Rome and before the met up in Corinth to tentmaker and before they went to Ephesus where they still resided when Paul wrote one of his last letters to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:19)