The epistles are a significant part of the New Testament and play an important role in shaping our understanding of the
Gospel message. The epistles of St. Paul are the oldest documents in the New Testament and help us understand what was going
on in the Church only a few years after Christ's death and resurrection.
The word "epistle" is Greek for letter. The letters of St. Paul are just that, letters. They can not be read or understood
as a systematic presentation of the basics of Christianity. They are correspondence from a teacher to a community of believers
that he taught and helped organize. The letters were written by St. Paul in reaction to particular needs in a certain community.
If they were having a problem with morality, he addressed that issue. If they were having troubles with confusing interpretations
of Christian belief, he addressed that specific problem. He wrote from a position of authority, since he was recognized as
a leading Christian teacher. Like all letters, many things are left unsaid because the author assumed that the reader shared
a similar understanding on basic issues.
The letters of St. Paul give us only a partial view of his thought and teaching, as they are only a few surviving letters
from a much larger correspondence. It is almost as if we found a bundle of letters from our great-grandfather to our great-grandmother
in the bottom of a trunk. Our only understanding of the relationship between our long dead great-grandparents is based entirely
on that bundle of letters. Of course, we do not have all their letters and we have only one half of the conversation. We can
guess some of the broader strokes of the relationship from what the letters reveal but we do not have a full comprehension
of the relationship. In like manner we only have the few letters in the New Testament from which we can guess the full teaching
Paul offered in his presentation of the Good News.
While there are 14 letters traditionally assigned to Paul, most Scripture scholars argue that only seven were actually
written or dictated by him. The "authentic" Pauline letters are considered to be Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians,
Thessalonians, Philemon, and Philippians. The remaining letters are thought to have been written by later Christians, perhaps
disciples of Paul, who attempted to use his style and ideas. This was not uncommon at the time and was considered a valid
way to honor a master teacher. Even though all the epistles in the New Testament are accepted by the Church as inspired, only
these seven are considered reliable sources of insight on how Paul viewed his ministry and the Gospel message he proclaimed.
It might be fun and instructive to experience what it would be like to receive a letter from Paul. So, let's pretend that
that Paul is working his way across the Pacific on a missionary journey, as he through the Mediterranean region many years
ago. He is planning to visit the Mariana Islands and has written a letter to let us know he is coming. This is similar to
his purpose in the letter to the Romans. While he may know individuals in the Marianas he has never been here and this is
not a Church he founded, so his tone will be a bit more formal than normal in a letter to a community he has previously visited.
Such a letter will emphasize his basic teachings and be less oriented to particular problems in the community. You will note
that Paul follows a letter writing style common to the era in which he lived.
So, let's bridge the gap of centuries next week and enjoy Paul's letter to the Marianas. Afterwards, I will provide a short
Letter to the Marianas