The New Testament is made up mostly of the apostle Paul's letters; in fact, he wrote two-thirds of it. He penned thirteen letters in about a twenty-year time span. Nine letters were written to churches in different cultures, at different times, experiencing different problems. Four letters were written to individual Christians. The people who received those letters were also dealing with different issues at different times.
Take note: twenty years—thirteen letters—all written to different churches at different times in different cultures—all experiencing different problems.'
In the early second century, someone began to take the letters of Paul and compile them into a volume. The technical term for this volume is "canon."5 Scholars refer to this compiled volume as "the Pauline canon." The New Testament is essentially this compilation with a few letters added after it, the four Gospels and Acts placed before it, and Revelation tacked on the very end.
At the time, no one knew when Paul's letters were written.
I See Donald Guthrie's New Testament Introduction, revised edition (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press, 1990). For a good discussion on how we got our Bible, see Christian History 13, no. 3, and Ronald Youngblood, "The Process: How We Got Our Bible," Christianity Today (February 5, 1988), 23-38.
Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 465. Scholars refer to Paul's canon as the "Pauline corpus." To learn about the history of the New Testament canon, see F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press, 1988), ch. 8-23.
Even if they had, it would not have mattered. There was no precedent for alphabetical or chronological ordering. The first-century Greco-Roman world ordered its literature according to decreasing length.'
Look at how your New Testament is arranged. What do you find? Paul's longest letter appears first.' It is Romans. First Corinthians is the second longest letter, so it follows Romans. Second Corinthians is the third longest letter. Your New Testament follows this pattern until you come to that tiny little book called Philemon.'
In 1864, Thomas D. Bernard delivered a series of talks as part of the Bampton Lectures. These lectures were published in 1872 in a book entitled The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament. In the book, Bernard argued that the present order of Paul's letters in the New Testament was divinely inspired and commended. This book became very popular among Bible teachers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, virtually every theological text, exegetical text, or biblical commentary written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries follows the present chaotic order, which blinds us from seeing the entire panoramic view of the New Testament. Canonical criticism is big among seminarians. This is the study of the canon as a unit in order to acquire an overall biblical theology. What is needed today is a theology built, not on the present canon and its misarrangement, but on the chronological narrative of the early church.
Here is the present order as it appears in your New Testament. The books are arranged according to descending length:
I Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 121, 120. This practice is known as stichometry.
1 For a thorough discussion on the order of the Pauline canon, see Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, ch. 3. Hebrews does not appear to be Pauline, so it was not part of the Pauline corpus.
Ephesians9 Philippians Colossians
What, then, is the proper chronological order of these letters? According to the best available scholarship, here is the order in which they were written:10 Galatians
2 Corinthians Romans Colossians Philemon Ephesians Philippians
1 Timothy Titus
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