- The Epistles by Paul of Tarsus


Saul was born in Tarsus (c.10 AD), capital of the Roman province of Cilicia. His hometown had an excellent philosophical academy considered by the Greek Strabo to be better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria. Tarsus was governed by the Stoic philosopher Athenodrous and his successor Nestor who ruled when Paul was growing up. He received religious training in the strict Pharisee sect (Acts 22:3; 26:5) from rabbi Gamaliel while growing up in Tarsus. He was also well versed in Greek philosophy since Gamaliel taught his students Greek philosophy so that his pupils would return to their Greek-speaking provinces prepared to be Jewish leaders. As a Pharisee he was fanatically hostile towards Christians and, with the consent of his sect's leaders, he persecuted them assiduously.

After his conversion to Christianity Paul aimed to open this religion to Gentiles through bypassing the Mosaic Law which demanded circumcision and certain eating rituals. The Christianity preached by Paul allowed the certainties of Judaism to remain and also made it possible for the Hebrew religion to become universal.

There is scholarly consensus that Paul wrote seven of the epistles: Galatians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians. Three of the remaining letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are in his name but not authored by him. It is debated as to whether he wrote the remaining epistles: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians.


The leaf format for written texts was probably not usual before the early second century A.D. when it was used extensively by the Church. However previous to that texts were unrolled from scrolls in the same way as we often read on a smartphone today. The scroll offers a symmetrical view of the written words and leads the eye to the centre of the unfolding papyrus. It was thus natural for writers to format their content to fit in with this natural centring in a chiasmic structure, so called because it took on the form of the Greek letter chi which resembles a modern X. Formally the text states the first topic then the second and so on until it comes to the middle concept when it repeats the topics in reverse order. Chiasmus is essentially a binary literary technique which creates only two sides of an argument for the listeners to consider, and then leads them to favour one side of the argument. 

Middle eastern texts followed this formatting. The following passage from Corinthians 13:8–13 is an example of a macro-chiastic structure:

A. Love never ends 

    B. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end 

      C. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 

            X. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, when I became an adult I put aside childish ways 

       C’ For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known 

    B’ And now faith, hope and love abide, these three 

A’ and the greatest of these is love    

The entire text of The Iliad is framed in this way. The last chapters recall the end of Achilles "rage", announced in the first line, thus completing a thematic circle. This format of composition is also of practical help to the oral narrators since it is an aid to memory.


Romans: This is a letter to prepare Paul's visit to the christians in the city. He writes of salvation, faith, grace, sanctification, and the practical problems of living in a culture which rejects Christianity. In general Paul focuses on doctrine and its application in his epistles. Romans provides a good example of this.

1 and 2 Corinthians: The core message of these letters is to avoid the corrupt morality in Corinth and unite as Christians.

Galatians: Paul had founded the Christian church in Galatia around 51 AD. During his missionary journeys groups of Jewish teachers had taught that the Old Testament Laws were those of God, not the new Christian tradition. Paul appeals in his letter for a return to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith and rejection of the legalisms preached by the false teachers. 

Ephesians: Ephesus was an important trading city and its inhabitants were drawn from many different ethnic traditions. The author emphasises salvation through God's grace and the rejection of legalistic Jewish practices. He also writes of the importance of unity in the church and its unique mission. 

Philippians: Paul probably wrote this from a Roman prison, yet living joyfully as christians is the main theme in these epistles. 

Colossians: This was also written from a Roman prison. It corrected the Colossian worship of angels and the Gnostic teachings that Jesus was not fully God, only a man. To counter these beliefs the author insists on the centrality of Jesus in the universe, his divinity and his place as the head of the church.

1 and 2 Thessalonians: There was an intense persecution of Christians in Thessalonica and the author had to flee the city on his second missionary journey there. The epistle was aimed at encouraging the small church there and clarifying some points of belief: the second coming and the nature of eternal life.

1 and 2 Timothy: These letters were addressed to an individual rather than the church congregations. Timothy had been mentored by Paul and so the tone is professorial. The letters contain advice on pastoral matters, proper doctrine, worship and qualifications for church leaders. 

Titus: This letter was written to another protegee sent to lead Christians on Crete. It deals with leadership advice and personal encouragement.

Philemon: This text responds to a specific situation. Philemon's slave, Onesimus, had run away and had served Paul during his imprisonment in Rome. The letter appeals to Philemon to accept his slave into his household as a fellow Christian.

The remaining letters of the New Testament were written by a diverse collection of leaders in the early church:

Hebrews: The principal theme of this epistle is a warning to Jewish converts to Christianity not to return to the practices of the Old Testament. The author emphasises the superiority of Christ over all other beings.

James: This is a practical guide to Christian living, focusing on mutual help.

1 and 2 Peter: Peter wrote his epistles while under arrest in Rome. The themes treated are suffering, persecution for beliefs and hope in eternal life. 2 Peter warns against false teachings.

1, 2, and 3 John: Written 10 years after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the first persecutions of Christians. These epistles were about encouragement and guidance in a hostile world. Love is a core theme.

Jude: This letter contains warnings about false teachings from infiltrators of the church, particularly that immorality could be pursued because God would forgive all.


Paul's main missionary aim was to convert and include Gentiles in the Christian faith. To achieve this he preached to the non-Jewish churches synthesising ideas from their own philosophical traditions with Christian teachings. The principal non-Christian thinking traditions of the time were Stoic, Platonic and Aristotelian.


Tarsus, where Paul grew up and was educated, had Stoic rulers and, despite his Jewish background, he must have had contact with the Stoic tradition. This becomes apparent in his interpretation of Christian thought.

In the Acts of the Apostles 17:16–28 there is a meeting between Paul and some Epicureans and Stoics which exemplifies his attempts to compare Christianity with these older Greek traditions:

16 "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) 

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To an Unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ "

The Stoics conceived of the divinity as part of the material pantheism of Nature. Paul believed that God transcended the material world. However the Stoic divinity imbued everything with a coherent meaning and Paul could use this conception by presenting Christ as “... before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).

Stoicism was deterministic in its worldview and rejected the existence of evil. It taught that even bad events lead to the welfare of the universe. Paul believed that evil existed but he also taught that God's providence provided well-being to the believer. He insisted on God's sovereignty in his knowledge of the future which might seem slightly deterministic.

The Stoics aim was to achieve happiness through self-control and striving for virtue. The call to virtue is common to both Paul and the Stoics. He even uses the Stoic distinction between vice and virtue in a list: Gal 5/19-26 of moral exhortations.

Paul draws on the Stoic concept of pneuma (wind, air, breath) to describe the constitution of the divine substance. In a mixture of Stoicism and Platonism human mental pneuma is described as an inferior version of the perfect divine form and assimilation to God means the refining of the human pneuma into the divine Form. In this Paul accounts for divinisation not directly in Platonic terms of mental & physical but in Stoic anthromorphism and rejection of a realm of the non-sensible.


Plato had studied for 13 years in the Egyptian capital Memphis under a Horite priest (Abraham's people were Horites.) There he learned concepts such as the eternal soul, the resurrection of the body and that earthly patterns reflected heavenly Forms. The theory of Forms was easily assimilated into Paul's christian tradition because it was consistent with Biblical cosmology. In Platonism, types are imperfect reflections of the true eternal and immutable Forms. This format is used by Paul in letters to the Corinthians and Romans who would be familiarised with this way of thinking. In Cor. 1/15 and Rom 5 he relates humanity to the divine: Adam as the first man is imperfect but the second man, Christ, is the perfect Form of humanity. Humanity was created in God's image and likeness but sin ruined that image and made it imperfect.

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." (Col. 2/16-17)

This conception of the present world as a copy of the perfect spiritual archetype of the city of God's people is repeated in the Jerusalem that is above” (Gal 4:26). The Platonic division of body and soul is also one which some Pauline epistles also used (Phil 4:11-13, 1Tim 6:6-8). This metaphor of the world as transitory, temporal and a shadow of reality also appears in Hebrews 10/1 and Paul used a similar image in his first epistle to the Corinthians to express his epistemology:

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor. 13:12)

However, Plato's essential knowledge was in the Forms whereas Paul's was in revelation


Aristotle uses the term energia to denote active, energy, operation, effectiveness, capacity. Paul makes use of the same word in Col. 1/29:

"...striving according to Christ's working, which is being made effective in me."

The missionary uses the word in two senses: to mean that the divine energia is transforming him from within; simultaneously he sees himself as the agent of God's work.

Telos is another Aristotelian concept Paul uses. In this case it is to explain that his purpose in life is being driven by divine energy.

Aristotelian logic had recourse to syllogisms to test its factual knowledge of what is true. Paul uses enthymemes which are tests of probable knowledge very similar to syllogisms : 

Major premise: All professors are arrogant. 

Minor premise: Dr. Jones is a professor. 

Conclusion: Dr. Jones is arrogant.

As oral arguments these checks on knowledge do not include all the parts. In this way a conversational exchange based on the above enthymeme might be this:

A: I’d like you to meet Professor Jones.” 

B: “No thanks, I don’t like arrogant people.”

The major premise is not said, just assumed by speaker B who reaches a possible conclusion from a probable premise.

Paul uses this Aristotelian tool of persuasion, the enthymeme, to convince the early church audiences to connect scriptural concepts with everyday practice.

The author of the second letter to Tomothy employs a enthymeme to persuade him to follow scripture. In II Timothy 3:16 the author writes:

"All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” 

The major premise is that God inspired scripture which is a good guide to life. The minor premise is missing: if this is true it will be good for Timothy, too. The eliptic conclusion would be: Timothy should continue to study scripture. This encourages Timothy to commit to God's design for him as outlined in scripture. 

In the tenth chapter of the epistle to the Romans Paul is conveying to the faithful that they are special to God and if they respond through belief salvation is theirs:

“So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Rom.10/17)

The enthymeme analysis of this quote would be:

Major premise: Faith comes through hearing. 

Minor premise: Hearing comes by the word of Christ.

There is no explicit conclusion. Implicitly the reader understands that faith requires engaging with the word of God. Gentiles can receive salvation by hearing the scriptures.

The epistle to the Thessalonians uses the enthymeme in another way. In Thes. 5/22 Paul writes:

"Abstain from every form of evil.”

This is a conclusion and the audience must provide the major premise: 'Nothing good comes from evil'. The minor premise is: 'Evil can't do anything for me.'


Greek terminology distinguishes between the body (soma) and the soul (psyche) in a dualistic conception where the material body was the prison of the immortal soul. The Orphic-Dionysian myth envisages the body as a tomb and salvation entailed the release of the soul. However, Aristotle used 'psyche' to refer to the principle of living as opposed to dead. This is similar to the Jewish Old Testament conception of the unitary nature of humans.

In Paul's epistles body (soma) is a reference to the whole person, including the psyche which covered the non-physical aspects of a person. Soma was, then, his principle of individuality.

Paul also makes a distinction between soma (body) and sarx (flesh) and even opposes them in his epistle to the Galatians (5/13-18) Sarx is his code word for the fall from grace after the original sin. 'Flesh' is reference to material, worldly desires, which can tyrannise human spirituality and freedom. The body (soma), on the other hand, is a divine creation and thus positive. This contrasts with the Greek Orpheic religion and Platonic anti-material philosophy which envisaged matter as a low level of reality with a consequent belief the immortality of the spirit.

Paul uses several terms in reference to the immaterial aspect of humans: mind, soul and spirit (nous, psyche and pneuma). However, they are not interchangeable. 

The Romans are encouraged to be transformed by a renewal of the nous, not the psyche and pneuma. When he writes of the conflict between the pneuma and the sarx (flesh) this is no reference to the material against the immaterial in the person.

The psyche is not used by Paul in a Platonic sense, but nearer the Jewish usage of nephesh, (Genesis 2/7), the living breathing creature of the creation myth. Psyche in Pauline letters means creature, in modern terms 'person'. There are several other references indicating the same thing: 1 Thess 2.8; Phil 1.27; 2.30; Rom 2.9; 11.3; 13.1; 16.4; 2 Cor. 1.23. All refer to ordinary human life.

The psyche is not immortal in Paul. Only God is immortal. Future immortality will belong to the resurrected human being (pneuma), not the psyche.

In the epistles the adjective psychikos, (merely human) is opposed to pneumatikos (animated by the divine spirit). In 1 Cor 2/14 Paul writes that the psychikos person does not participate in the things of God's spirit since these belong to the pneumatikos, a spiritually discerning person. The psychikos person is akin to the sarkinos person in Cor. 3/1., which refers to the human result of the fall from grace after the original sin. 'Flesh' is a reference to material, worldly desires, which can tyrannise human spirituality and freedom.

For all Jews and Christians in the first century 'resurrection' referred to bodies. For Paul psyche is the breath of life, the animation of the body in life. Pneuma is what animates the resurrected body. In Romans 8/9-11 the believer already possesses the pneuma. 

In Corinth Paul faced the ethical problem of the faithful visiting brothels. He argued that this practice would damage the body (soma), (not the soul). And the body is meant for the Lord, not for fornication. (1 Cor. 6/13). The resurrection will give a new life (pneuma) to the body (soma) so that your use of it during life matters. The resurrected Christ who visits his apostles is describe as having a pneumatikos body.

It was Gnosticism, not Christianity, that focused attention on the soul. Gnostic Christians in the second century AD believed in a special personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) which denied the teachings of the religious authorities. Material existence was held to be flawed and evil and so they proclaimed that the soul was immortal. Bodily resurrection was therefore denied.

Thus, for instance, sarx (flesh) refers to the entire human being but connotes corruptibility, failure, rebellion, and then sin and death. Psyche denotes the entire human being, and connotes that human as possessed of ordinary mortal life, with breath and blood sustained by food and drink.

Paul uses Aristotle's term telos to point to the end goal of an immortal soma (body) beyond sin, pain, corruption and death. This body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit and it will be rebuilt as a pneumatikos (spirit) after physical death (Rom. 8.5/11). The risen Christ is described by Paul as the difference between Adam/living being and Christ/spirit:

"So it is written: “The first man, Adam, became a living being psychēn; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit (pneuma)." (1 Cor 15/45)

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