In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pauline Letters

  • Introduction
  • General Treatments

Biblical Studies Pauline Letters
Magnus Zetterholm
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0082


Thirteen letters in the New Testament bear the name of Paul, a Jewish follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who probably was born in Tarsus (in modern Turkey) in the beginning of the first century CE and who was, according to tradition, executed in Rome in the mid-60s. The letters were composed at various locations in Asia Minor and Europe and typically deal with local problems in the communities. In several cases they are direct responses to questions posed by those communities. However, the majority of New Testament scholars generally agree that Paul is not the author of all letters that bear his name. The Pauline corpus can thus be divided into two groups: (1) letters almost certainly written by Paul (authentic), (2) letters concerning which discussion is ongoing regarding authorship (disputed). Within this latter group, some letters are more disputed than others. In addition to the letters included in the New Testament, a number of noncanonical letters are also associated with Paul (e.g., the Epistle to the Laodiceans, 3 Corinthians), which clearly date from a later period. Among the authentic letters of Paul we find the earliest writings in the New Testament, and accordingly, the earliest witnesses to the Jesus movement. As such, they are of immense value for historical research on the emergence and development of the religious movement that would eventually be known as the Christian church.

General Treatments

Discussions of authorship, communication situation, date of composition, and other issues are best found in commentaries to the individual letters. Brief introductions can also be found in Dunn 2003; Freedman, et al. 1992; and Meeks and Fitzgerald 2007. An important study for understanding letter writing in Antiquity (and thus also Paul’s letters) is found in Stowers 1986. For a very useful sourcebook for reconstructing the possible ideological background of Paul’s thinking, see Elliott and Reasoner 2010. Overviews of the reception of Paul’s letters in the early church can be found in the relevant volumes of Oden 2001–. An important task for Pauline scholars has been to determine Paul’s relationship to the Greco-Roman world and to Judaism. Traditionally, Paul’s relationship to Judaism has been regarded as oppositional. During recent decades, Paul’s Jewish identity has, however, gained in importance and has become one of several essential hermeneutical keys. An overview of this development can be found in Zetterholm 2009. The recent interest in Paul’s relationship to Judaism has also provoked a new interest in his relationship to Greek and Roman culture, a theme that occupied scholars belonging to the so-called History of Religion School at the beginning of the 19th century. An excellent starting point to this approach is Engberg-Pedersen 2000.

  • Dunn, James D. G., ed. The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521781558

    Comprehensive collection of articles on Paul’s life, letters, and theology. Includes a concluding section on the reception of Paul in the 2nd century and contemporary perspectives on Paul as well as a selected bibliography.

  • Elliott, Neal, and Mark Reasoner, eds. Documents and Images for the Study of Paul. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.

    Focusing on various themes in Pauline studies, this volume provides a vast collection of background material, such as literary sources and images as well as very useful suggestions for further study. Also includes study questions.

  • Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Paul and the Stoics. London: T&T Clark, 2000.

    The author reads Paul (predominantly Philippians, Galatians, and Romans) using a model derived from Greek and Roman Stoicism. The comparison between Paul’s theology and Stoic thinking shows a high degree of similarity between the two religious systems.

  • Freedman, David N., et al., eds. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Extensive dictionary to the Bible, with introductions to each book and more than six thousand entries in total.

  • Meeks, Wayne A., and John T. Fitzgerald, eds. The Writings of St. Paul: Annotated Texts, Reception and Criticism. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 2007.

    Apart from being an excellent introduction to the letters of Paul, this volume also treats the reception of Paul in the early church and within modern scholarship. This is indeed a very useful volume.

  • Oden, Thomas C., ed. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. 29 vols. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001–.

    The aim of this series is to provide an easy, accessible way to patristic interpretations of the Bible (one volume is dedicated to the Apocrypha). Each volume is individually edited by a specialist and all of Paul’s letters are covered.

  • Stowers, Stanley K. Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: Westminister, 1986.

    This is a short, excellent introduction to letter writing in Antiquity and contains both an introduction to the cultural setting of letter writing and a representative selection of examples of various types of ancient letters.

  • Zetterholm, Magnus. Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.

    Suggests that three major schools exist within contemporary Pauline scholarship: the Protestant perspective, the New Perspective on Paul, and a radical new perspective, which takes Paul’s Jewishness even further.

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