Why do you take up Paul’s letters in a different order?

You say at the start of your study guides that they won’t jump around in the Bible. But your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters begins in First and Second Thessalonians, then jumps back to First and Second Corinthians and Galatians, and then jumps even farther back to Romans.  What’s going on?

The guide to Paul’s Journey Letters takes up his first six letters, the ones he wrote while on his missionary journeys, in the order in which he likely wrote them. This allows groups to understand these letters within the course of Paul’s life and journeys and to appreciate how they express the development of his thought.

In traditional Bibles, Paul’s letters are placed in order of length, from longest to shortest. This makes it difficult to catch the flow from one letter to another as Paul travels from place to place and interacts with different communities of Jesus’ followers.

Someone once told me that they’d been to seminary and taken a New Testament background course, but they still didn’t “get” Paul until they read his letters in The Books of the Bible, where they’re placed in the same chronological order as in this study guide. (The just-published guide in this series to Paul’s Prison Letters takes up the rest of his letters in chronological order.)

If we’re used to the traditional order of the books of the Bible, we may indeed feel that we’re jumping around when we move “backwards” from Thessalonians to Corinthians and Galatians to Romans. But it’s important to realize that a fixed order of the books of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon. The order we know dates to the advent of printing a little before 1500. Prior to that, the books of the Old and New Testaments appeared in a great variety of orders.  (You can read more about this in chapter 2 of my book After Chapters and Verses.)

So we’re really not locked into any particular order and can use other orders to reach important goals. Reading and discussing Paul’s letters in the order he wrote them expresses respect for the way the word of God came to us in place and time as God inspired the Scriptures. It helps us appreciate how these God-breathed documents took form amidst the real-life experiences of flesh-and-blood people.

So even if this guide takes you through Paul’s letters in an order you’re not used to, let the newness of that experience help you develop a fresh appreciation for this man of God who became a powerful instrument to bring us the word of God.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

One thought on “Why do you take up Paul’s letters in a different order?”

  1. There’s still debate among scholars about whether Galatians was written around the same time as Romans, or whether it was the first of Paul’s letters. The guide to Paul’s Journey Letters briefly addresses this debate and explains why it takes the former view.

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