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ClassicsOnline Home » NEW TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 2: The Mature Letters of Paul - Romans / Philippians / Colossians / Ephesians / Philemon
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Set One: The Early Letters of Paul – Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians
Set Two: The Mature Letters of Paul – Romans, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon
Set Three: The Gospel according to Mark
Set Four: The Gospel according to Matthew
Set Five: The Gospel according to Luke
Set Six: The Acts of the Apostles
Set Seven: Letters and Documents
Set Eight: The Revelation to John
Set Nine: The Gospel according to John: 1 John
The scriptures, Old and New Testaments, were shaped into their present form over centuries. From a range of documents, first the Hebrew and later the Christian community selected certain writings authorised for reading in public liturgy. That is the whole point of the canons of scripture. The Christian Church adopted the Hebrew canon in its entirety as being part of its own canon. In arriving at their choice, our forebears also made decisions about the order in which the documents were to be placed within the canon. The New Testament possesses a rationality in its order, placing the story of Jesus first, followed by Luke’s account of the missionary growth of the church, then the body of letters and concluding with Revelation—a broad chronology of events.
I have chosen to arrange the recordings in the order of composition, so far as that order is generally agreed upon by scholars. The letters of Paul were written before any of the gospel accounts. Mark’s gospel was followed by Matthew, then Luke, a book in two halves, the second half being the Acts of the Apostles. John’s gospel can be read as a reflection back on the entire tradition.
My objective in making these recordings is to present the scriptures to my contemporaries in a manner that will, I hope, capture their imagination and attention. Most of the biblical books are finely nuanced, and it can take the art of reading to bring out those nuances. Through nuance we capture imagination. Each of these documents was a response to a need that passionately involved both the writer and their readers. We are able today, in some measure, to recapture what those circumstances were, and therefore approach the texts with a light unavailable in the past. In commencing with 1 Thessalonians, for example, we can listen as a people for whom there was nothing at all in writing relating to their new-found faith. In the letter, Paul’s own thinking is far from mature. Thessalonians shows us a community of faith just beginning to grapple with themes that have occupied Christians ever since.
Even by the last of Paul’s letters to be written, not one of the gospels has appeared. Paul knows little of the details of Jesus’ life and teaching. Even in the Judea of that period the stories of Jesus’ life must have been little known or little valued, since otherwise Paul would have been instructed during his times in Jerusalem. When Mark was published, it may have come as a shock and revelation to the whole church. By reading Mark after hearing Paul, we can enter in some measure into the experience of learning about the earthly life of Jesus against the background of the significance Paul has assigned to the man.
Mark presents a picture of Jesus that fits the Pauline theology of justification by faith. Matthew, writing a decade later, appears to shape his account to contradict Mark and show Jesus as the man of the Law, the establishment man. By reading Matthew after Mark and possibly as a reaction to Mark we bring new
light to our understanding of both.
This arrangement of texts also allows the connection of Luke and Acts into the continuous narrative they were originally intended to be and which the placement of John’s gospel between them destroys. John’s gospel, and the first Letter of John, is placed at the end of this collection not only because they were written around the turn of the century, with just a few of the New Testament documents subsequent, but principally because this gospel provides a supreme reflection upon the whole tradition and makes a fitting climax.
Here, then, is an invitation to listeners to bring new life and understanding of the scriptures that I believe will, in turn, invigorate our engagement with the scriptures in all our manners of approach.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulders above other contemporary translations.
Any gift that I may have which is expressed in these readings is just that—a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N Thompson, and to Dr Raymond Foster, whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife Barbara and daughter Ruth have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren,
for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? The story commences in mid-2006 as I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative. The early broadcasts were poor in quality, both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but these gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time—recording, editing and making ready for broadcast—and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and well-being on each day. The logical next step was to record whole books of the Old and New Testaments and then break up the recordings into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices; for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz.
David Guthrie, 2009
Set Two: The Mature Letters of Paul
Romans, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon are grouped here as “the mature letters of Paul”. Scholars will immediately identify problems with this. Unquestionably Romans belongs here. Philippians, however, appears to be a compilation of two letters, one of which may rank among the earliest of Paul’s writings, while the other appears to come from his time in prison in Rome. Colossians and Ephesians present scholars with a much more difficult problem; namely, whether Paul is the author. I am not equipped to make a judgment on that so I am treating them as from Paul’s hand. Finally, we have no means of dating Philemon so it is here treated among the mature letters. I suspect that Paul may well have written dozens of such brief and single-issue letters. It is a great wonder that even one has survived.
Paul’s place in the Christian story
Nothing detracts from the pre-eminence of Jesus as the initiator of the faith we now call ‘Christian’. Without Paul, however, the newborn faith may have remained as a sect within Judaism and confined to Jewish participation. It was Paul who broke the mould of Jewishness and set Christianity on the path of being a universal faith. Crucial to this development was his grasp of the revolutionary notion that we are justified before God not by the keeping of the commandments of the Law but simply by accepting in faith that God Himself acted in Jesus to effect the reconciliation of humanity with Himself.
For all subsequent Christianity, this is still the turning point around which everything revolves. Even if Paul is not credited with the cosmic Christ vision of Colossians and Ephesians, his central place in the Christian story would be assured on this insight alone.
The Letter of Paul to the Romans
In contrast to the passionate, issue-driven letters that constitute Paul’s earlier writings (Set One: The Early Letters of Paul), the letter to the Romans is written in a period of profound reflection, probably from Ephesus. In this letter he argues that we are justified by faith, not by keeping the Law. It is not easy reading for the modern Christian so I will try to lay out the structure simply.
To begin with, he argues that, although the Mosaic Law does not apply to the non-Jewish world, that world still ‘knows’ the Law of God: God’s ethical claim is universal. While Jews are judged by their faithfulness to the Mosaic Law, gentiles are judged by their faithfulness to the Law of God as they perceive it. Under this dual standard both Jew and Gentile stand condemned; all have sinned. Neither Jew nor gentile is capable of keeping God’s commandments. As a God of justice can have no relationship with sinners, this means that all are condemned and subject to divine retribution.
Paul then proceeds to show that Judaism has misunderstood its own tradition. The salvation that came to Abraham came not because he obeyed God’s commandments but came prior to that obedience; it came by promise and was accepted and received by Abraham simply through believing the promise. Thus, in Paul’s interpretation, the authentic Jewish tradition is not obedience to the Law but of following the example of Abraham and simply trusting in God’s promises. That act of trust is called ‘faith’. Abraham’s faith in accepting the promise that he would, against all ‘scientific’ evidence, be granted a son, is the model for how Christians are to relate to God.
Then Paul goes on to describe what it is that God promises to us. First, we are delivered from sin, death and the Law. Paul tells us that Jesus died and that, in his death, sin was put to death also, by God’s action. When we, as Christians, are baptised, we become fully identified with that act of God so that all the sin that causes us to be under God’s retribution is killed in us and we are set free from sin—and therefore set free from death because death is the ultimate punishment for sin. Baptised into the death of Jesus, we are also identified with his resurrection to life, a life that is inextinguishable and a life that is lived in the immediate presence of God, a life for which the written law is no longer of any relevance.
Second, we are promised the Spirit, the gift that accompanies our baptism. God promises the gift of inner direction and strength that works in our lives to being holiness and sanctification.
The next section of the letter, from chapters 9 to 11, was important to Paul, perhaps less important to us and we lose nothing by passing over them if that is what we will to do. The issue that concerns Paul is the ongoing place of the Jewish people in the community of faith.
The final section of the letter, from chapter 12, is the practical outworking of the message of salvation through faith as expressed in the daily life of the church.
The Letter of Paul to the Philippians
As mentioned earlier, the letter to the Philippians appears to be a compilation of two distinct letters, the boundary marked by the concluding comment of chapter 3 verse 1 “Finally, brothers, I wish you joy in the Lord”. The ‘first’ letter, chapters 1 and 2, appears to have been written from his prison cell in Rome and it is a happy and joyful letter, the lightest of Paul’s correspondence. The ‘second’ letter seems more in keeping with his time of struggle as exemplified by the Galatian and Corinthian letters. My advice is not to get hung up on sorting out this letter—leave that to the scholars for, in the most part, it is unimportant to us. Remember that if we find ourselves puzzled by the abrupt changes of time and subject, there is an explanation for that—and leave it at that.
The letter of Paul to the Colossians
Occasionally we have brilliant insights into faith or some aspect of life and we ask in wonder, ‘Where did that come from?’ Christians readily attribute such leaps of intuition to a charisma of the Spirit. So it is as we come to read Colossians and Ephesians. We know nothing of the circumstances behind the composition of the letters, even if they are authentically by Paul at all.
Taken together, though, these letters are a colossal leap forward in the intuitive grasp of the place of Jesus in the cosmos. The core of the Colossian intuition is found in chapter 1 from verse 15.The writing of this letter may have originally been in the form of a hymn or could have originated elsewhere. Whatever, we are presented with the vision of the cosmic Christ who exists with God from the beginning. He voluntarily ‘shed’ his godhead to become human so that, through his death, the world would be reconciled to God. When we identify with his life we are taken into his divinity and become new human beings ourselves. Our true home now is not here on earth but in heaven with Christ. The final section of the letter can be read as some general rules of conduct for life that flows from this vision.
The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians
So to the letter to the Ephesians and perhaps the apex of this development of intuition: this is a letter best absorbed slowly and reflectively, to meditate upon and assimilate into our bloodstream of life. It calls upon our imagination, not our rationality. It leads to worship, not dogma. If this is indeed by the hand of Paul, then it is his supreme statement. If not authentic Paul, then in the early Christian community there was a mind that was at least the equal of Paul if not the greater—and we have not the slightest idea who that might have been. For us, it is enough to soar the heights with the writer, who was surely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The Letter of Paul to Philemon
The brief letter is a gem. A runaway slave, Onesimus, now a Christian, has ended up serving Paul imprisoned in Rome. His old master, Philemon, is a friend of Paul’s and also a Christian. In the Law of Rome, Philemon would have been justified, had he caught Onesimus, in executing him. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, confident that Philemon will receive Onesimus as a brother. Though not theologically weighty, this letter is a treasury of insight into Paul’s life.
So we come to the conclusion of the corpus of correspondence attributable to the Apostle Paul. Mark and the other gospels were yet to be written. All these letters pre-date the gospels which would have been written in the light of knowing Paul’s letters (or at least some of them).
From Paul to Mark
All of Paul’s letters pre-date the first of the gospels, that written by Mark. Paul inherited a newborn Christian faith when he was converted on the Damascus road: Christianity was a Jewish sect, Jesus someone who stood within the tradition of the Law. Paul, perhaps single-handedly, changed all of that, bringing a radically new and liberal interpretation of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and its implications for life and faith. He enabled the Christian community to break out of Judaism and become the foundation for a universal religion. Paul, though, had his limitations; the prime limitation was that his view of Jesus was essentially mythic and only very tenuously linked to the concrete circumstances of Jesus’ life. Had Christian development stopped with Paul it might have died stillborn. It was Mark, probably one of Paul’s companions, who was, a year or two after his master’s death, to publish the work that would take Christianity decisively forward.
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