In a previous post I began to answer the question of which lost books of early Christianity I would most like to have discovered, and I started my answer with the earliest writings of which we are familiar, the letters of Paul, most of which (presumably) have been lost. I would love for us to find some of them. I doubt if we ever will, but who knows? Maybe someone will announce that one is to be published later this year!
Seriously, we would all love to have more letters from Paul, and not merely for sentimental reasons (Oh, wouldn’t that be *nice*?). Paul is without a doubt the most important figure in the Christian tradition next to Jesus himself. His writings have served as a basis for Christian ethical and theological thought for centuries. And yet we know so little about what he thought and taught.
When people read Paul’s letters, they frequently neglect to realize that these are all “occasional” writings. By that I do not mean that Paul occasionally wrote letters, but that Paul wrote his letters for particular occasions. The letters are addressed to situations that have arisen in his churches that need to be addressed, problems of belief and practice. When a church was having problems in one area (whether they knew it was a problem or not) Paul dealt with it in a letter – since he couldn’t be there to deal with it in person.
With the partial exception of Romans, that’s what Paul’s letters are: attempts to deal with problems as they have occurred. But what that means is that these letters are NOT systematic expressions of Paul’s thought, where he picks a topic and explains what he really, and fully, thinks about it. You will look in vain in these letters for a detailed and systematic exposition of Paul’s doctrines of God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit and so on; or Paul’s teachings on important ethical issues. Whatever the problem is at hand, he deals with, often rather succinctly.
It is a huge mistake when readers – including scholars who should know better – try to
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