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The Importance of Thinking about Paul’s Chronology

In thinking about Pauline chronology, there are three applications: there is a theological application, there’s a historical application, and there’s a practical application. Theologically, understanding the chronology helps us put his letters in the context of his life. His theology doesn’t fall from heaven, ready-made and complete. He’s developing his ideas in response to situations that he is encountering, resistance, questions that are being brought about him and his message. As we understand his chronology and his movements throughout his life, we can place the letters within those contexts and that may give us a better framework for understanding why Paul might say certain things the ways he says them in certain contexts.

There are also specific issues that relate to chronology. So the letters that we have from Paul in the Bible are in order of length, not in order of chronology. And a particular case where this is important is the connection between Romans and Galatians. Galatians is written first, and in that letter Paul says some strong things about the law, and then people react to those things. And in Romans, Paul is reacting to people reacting to Galatians, and if we don’t understand that then we might misunderstand some of the arguments Paul’s making in Romans and some of the reasons for the argument that he’s making. So chronology plays a role there. Historically, the question of the Acts of the Apostles is enormous. What do we do with the Acts of the Apostles? Because the other primary character in the text is Peter. Do the Acts of the Apostles give us an accurate view of the first generation of followers of Jesus after Jesus’s life or not? It’s a significant question for the Jew-gentile relationship, for church structure and leadership, and a number of other issues that come out of Acts, and the question is what do we as historians do with that information.

And third, a practical application. For those working to bring gospel principles into the world, it can be discouraging, because sometimes it feels like things are not happening fast enough. Looking at Paul’s chronology lets us know that he worked for at least thirty years, and the primary issue of Paul’s life was integrating Jews and gentiles under this new gospel community. It was ancient racism. Paul spent thirty years fighting ancient forms of racism. He didn’t give up; he never stopped. And so perhaps now for others who are trying to implement gospel principles in our society, it is a reminder that even the Apostle had to struggle and didn’t lose heart. Maybe that can encourage some of us to continue in our own fights in our own communities.

  • David L. Eastman

    David L. Eastman is Sherrill Chair of Bible at the The McCallie School in Chattanooga,TN. In his research he employs archaeological, textual, liturgical, and artistic evidence for the study of early Christian constructions of identity, the cult of the saints, and the reception and expansion of the apostolic histories. He is the author of Paul the Martyr: The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West (Society of Biblical Literature and Brill, 2011) and The Deaths of the Apostles: The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (SBL Press, 2015).