The Receivers of the Pauline Epistles

Paul’s journeys to evangelize to the citizens and churches of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor provinces do not seem to cover a significant area by 2015 standards. However, in the first century, the journeys must have been arduous and time-consuming in the absence of modern conveniences. The communities Paul visited must have had their own isolated and unique socioeconomic backdrops and traditional values. By examining Paul’s correspondences to these early Christians, can we compare and contrast his audience’s understanding and perspectives on Christianity? Are there similarities and differences influenced by their distinct backgrounds at each locality? Using the undisputed Pauline Epistles—Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians—which are letters written by Paul, we can research more about the churches and early Christians in these cities and provinces.

Paul’s Journeys (Source)

Paul’s undisputed epistles chronologically start with First Thessalonians. In this particular letter, he expresses his thanks to the Christians of Thessalonica. Ehrman states that “the majority of the letter is taken up by the thanksgiving. This is clearly a letter that Paul was happy to write…” (Ehrman 210). The people of Thessalonica seemed to have adopted Christian practices and posed no threat to Paul and his companions. Paul was quite pleased with the congregation. They seemed to understand the concept of Christianity and were willing to help each other in faith. Paul complimented them, saying, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). However, the congregants were not without any questions regarding the faith. Paul had to explain to them how salvation worked for people who had already passed. Based on Paul’s teaching of purity and leading a moral life in contrast with the outside world, we can assume that immorality was socially acceptable outside of the church.

An agora in Thessaloniki (modern Thessalonica). These were central spots that are used as gathering places. (Source)

First Corinthians takes a huge turn of events. Paul established the church at Corinth after leaving Thessalonica. Corinth was a large metropolis with a population of more than seven hundred thousand people. However, within the first chapter, Paul described the Corinthian church demographic, writing, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). Most of the people Paul was preaching to were of the lower class. However, Ehrman adds that “at least some of the Corinthian converts must have been well educated, powerful and well born, or else Paul would not have said ‘not many’ of them were” (218). He supported this statement by noting that during some communal meals, the Christian community were able to enjoy a lot of food and drink. However, people of Corinth had a warped view of salvation. They assumed that they were already saved, so they could do whatever they wanted. Ehrman points out that this was the complete opposite of Paul’s teachings: that life would be a struggle full of pain and suffering until Christ returns (220). In Second Corinthians, based on how Paul warned the congregation, there were teachers already preaching what Paul considered false. Paul was concerned that the Corinthian church he founded would be pulled away from the belief in his teachings.

This is an ancient fountain found in the ruins of Corinth. (Source)

Galatians is unique; unlike the other epistles that were written to specific cities, Galatians was written to a province called Galatia. Ehrman states that it is not clear which church this letter was directed toward; however, it appears that the Christians in Galatia misunderstood the requirements for salvation according to Paul’s teaching. Paul expressed his anger in his letter to the Galatians about their foolishness in being influenced by teachers Paul deemed false (Galatians 1:6).  We do not know exactly what the teachers taught, but by reading Paul’s letter, we learn that he tried to persuade Gentile converts that they did not need to be circumcised in order to receive salvation. According to Ehrman, “Paul interprets his opponents to mean that a person has to perform the works prescribed by the Jewish Law to have salvation” (234). By studying Paul, we know that this is exactly what he was trying to prevent.

Galatia was not a city, but a region in Asia Minor. (Source)

Philippians, the epistle to the members in the city of Philippi, is quite complex. Ehrman explained that in First Thessalonians, Paul mentioned how he was “shamefully treated in Philippi prior to taking his mission to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:1-2)” (241–42). Even though the Philippians were hostile on Paul’s initial visit, we suspect that Paul and his fellow travelers might have introduced some people to Christianity, and allowed them to set up a church in Philippi before he left quickly. Paul was able to firmly create a church within the short time he was there. When Paul visited the Philippians again, the congregation was willing to send a stalwart member named Epaphroditus to deliver gifts and financial contributions to Paul. Though there was mention of internal fighting, the congregation seemed to be considerate and cared about each other’s well-being. They expressed concerned when they learned of Epaphroditus’s illness, and Epaphroditus felt bad for causing them to worry.

A large archaeological site of Philippi. (Source)

Romans, the longest of Paul’s epistles, was not directed toward any church but, instead, to a general populace of Rome. His letter to the Romans was intended to gain support for his travels to Rome and Spain. Ehrman explains that Paul possibly “thinks that he has some opposition. He [Paul] writes a letter to persuade this congregation of the truth of his version of the gospel” (253). Known for their polytheistic pagan religion, the Romans were poor candidates to want to understand the new Christian doctrine. The recent converts might have a skewed view of the gospel. Paul’s suspicion of the Romans was a fitting assessment of the local situation in Rome.

In addition to Rome specifically, Paul mentioned other localities. Ehrman also asserts that “Paul has collected funds for the poor Christians of Judea from his Gentile converts in Macedonia and Achaia and appears uneasy over his upcoming trip to deliver them” (252). The converted Gentiles appeared to be not only faithful but also financially stable Christians. Meanwhile, in Judea, the poor Christians required outside assistance. Because it was not likely that the Jews would support the Christians, this could mean that either the rich Christians in Judea were not willing to help those in need or that all the Christians in Judea lived in poverty.

The Forum of Rome contained many pagan temples and altars. (Source)

In summary, through Paul’s epistles we definitely notice that the progress of Christianity varied from place to place. While it was difficult to spread the Christian faith in Rome, other localities, such as Thessalonica, appeared to be more accepting. There were degrees of understanding of the Christian religion. The Corinthians thought they had received the full benefits of salvation already, so they could keep their old lifestyle, while the Galatians followed strict behaviors as dictated by the Jewish laws to try to earn salvation. Meanwhile, the Philippians appeared to have built a caring community. From an economic viewpoint, Paul’s followers also varied significantly, ranging from those who could enjoy banquets, provide gifts to those who needed financial assistance, but there is no specific evidence in Paul’s epistles to indicate that followers’ economic status made a difference in cultivating their faith. We can conclude that the churches’ perspectives and their understanding of Christianity varied , primarily due to the isolated thinking or teaching at each locality.

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