Daily Bible Study Tips: Overview of Paul's Letters,
Romans and I Corinthians

Overview of Paul’s Letters: Romans and I Corinthians
Day 23, (Acts 27-28) – Romans 1 – 4
Day 24, Romans 5-10
Day 25, Romans 11 – 1 Corinthians 1
Day 26, I Corinthians 2-9
Day 27, I Corinthians 10-15

Overview of Paul’s Letters: II Corinthians - Philemon

Comments on Romans

Comments on 1 Corinthians

Comments on 2 Corinthians

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Comments on Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy

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Day 23, (Acts 27-28) – Romans 1 – 4

These overviews were written while our church was listening each day to “You’ve Got the Time,” the recorded New Testament available from Faith Comes by Hearing. It takes 28 minutes a day, and I enjoyed it tremendously. “Day23, Romans 1 – 4” and so on tell you what section to listen to.
We now begin to read a new section of the New Testament, the Epistles. Epistles just means “letters.” The first important thing to know about these scriptures is that they consist of letters originally written to specific churches and individuals.

When we write someone a formal letter today, we use a certain format.  We put the return address and the address at the top, and we begin, “Dear Susie,” and we end, “Yours truly, John.” I once heard my attorney dictate the body of a letter, and he ended by saying, “Love, Me,” which meant that his secretary had done all this a thousand times, and he didn’t have to tell her how to prepare the rest of the letter. In a business letter, there may also be a line that begins, “Re:” that tells what the letter is about.

Letters in the first century had an arrangement similar to today’s business letter. (Mostly they were carried by hand, so there wasn’t an envelope.) The beginning of Romans shows the format:
The second important thing to know about the Epistles is that they are not arranged in chronological order. They are arranged first by descending order of volume by author, and then by descending order of length of letters by each author. Paul wrote lots of letters, so he comes first. Jude only wrote one short letter, so he’s last. (He may also be chronologically last, but that’s a coincidence.)

Here’s a guide to the order of Paul’s letters. I compiled it from the study notes in The Jerusalem Bible, but for our purposes, it doesn’t differ all that much from other chronologies.
Day 24, Romans 5-10
Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches that he had established or to people that he knew. These people knew him well, and if they didn’t have a good grasp of theology, his tendency was to yell at them (e.g., “Are you people of Galatia crazy?! – Gal. 3:3; “Do you want me to come back there with a stick?” – 1 Cor. 4:21). In addition to theology and counsel, these letters contain incomplete sentences, incomplete thoughts, cajolery, threats, congratulations, and exasperation. They often have whole sections that are answers to questions that were sent to Paul; since we don’t have the questions, we have to figure them out as best we can from context.

Romans, however, is written to the church at Rome, which Paul had never visited. He was planning to go there to see them, which was in itself unusual, because he prided himself on always taking the Gospel to places that had never heard it before. There is no yelling in the book of Romans. Instead, Paul carefully and systematically lays out his theology by way of introducing himself.

Day 25, Romans 11 – 1 Corinthians 1
Yesterday I gave you some idea about the differences that you will see in Paul’s letters, so now I want to say a few things about “attribution.” (This is just my opinion, so you don’t have to pay attention to it.) Biblical scholars have expended a great deal of thought and ink over the centuries on this topic, which means “deciding who wrote a particular work.” They study each verse with a microscope. They study word usage, sentence structure, quality of Greek, internal clues about dates, and a bunch of other factors. Then they write papers concluding that Paul didn’t write Book X, or John didn’t write Book Y.

Before you get too excited about this kind of stuff, here are two questions you should ask yourself:
Furthermore, sometimes the attribution scholars conclude things that seem to me to be just plain silly. I wrote my first paper for publication in 1970. I published an abstract this year. For 38 years, I have been writing papers and editing other folk’s papers for publication, singly and in collaboration with many other authors. I assure you that sometimes it’s very easy to tell that the same person wrote two works, and sometimes it’s impossible.

We actually have no more information now about who wrote each letter than the early Church leaders did when they made the original attributions. If I change the attribution without new information, it must mean that I think I’m smarter than, say John Chrysostom or Jerome or whoever made the attribution in the first place. I do admit to thinking I’m pretty smart, but I don’t think I’m smarter than those giants. Apparently a lot of scholars think they are.

For all these reasons, I take the conservative view that Church tradition is correct in saying that Paul wrote or dictated all the letters attributed to Paul, John wrote or dictated the letters attributed to John, and so on. If you choose not to believe that, I’m not going to get too excited about it.

Don’t get me wrong – I read Biblical commentaries for fun and for edification. Scholarship is important. It’s just that so far I’ve never seen a case wherein the disputed authorship of a book or letter made any difference whatsoever to the story of salvation, and I am a lot more concerned about your salvation and mine than I am about who wrote the book of Ephesians.

Day 26, I Corinthians 2-9
Are you keeping up with the scripture listening? I’m not. I’m having trouble putting away my old, time-wasting habits and developing a new, productive habit. When I can, though, I listen for longer than 28 minutes. I’m really enjoying the dramatization of the New International Version – it’s like reading a new translation. I’m looking forward to the day when I get an MP3-compatible player in my car (probably about 10 years from now, when the world has moved on to NQ4), which is where I play most of my music. Maybe I should hijack my husband’s iPod (a Christmas present that neither of us have learned how to use yet). Don’t worry if you have fallen behind. Make a new start and pick up where we are now. Skip the study tips and spend the time listening.

The city of Corinth was a pit of sin and depravity. It was an important and prosperous port, located on a narrow isthmus over which ships were hauled by hand to avoid going around the southern part of Greece by sea. The port was full of wealthy residents seeking the latest forms of dissipation and drunken and violent sailors looking for easy women. The sailors did not have to look far, because more than 1000 temple prostitutes served at the temple of Aphrodite. (Never be fooled into thinking that Aphrodite/Venus was a love goddess. This idol was a sex goddess.) In its own day, Corinth had a reputation for wealth and for drunken, immoral debauchery.

In this setting, the little church full of Gentile converts had a tough time putting away their old, pagan habits and developing new habits of holiness. Paul first spent a year and a half there around 51 or 52 AD (Acts 18) and later may have spent another three months with them (Acts 20:2-3, 2 Cor. 1:15). In spite of Paul’s instruction and example, the converts bickered about church politics, argued over who was the most important person in the church, ignored open sin, and presented a bad example to the unbelievers. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Naturally, they did not write to Paul about these things, but he found out anyway. Chapters 1 to 6 of I Corinthians are devoted to Paul’s response to what he had been told.

Day 27, I Corinthians 10-15
One of the really great things about the Epistles is that they show us problems that earlier churches have had. Maybe – just maybe – we can learn from their problems and avoid them in our own churches.

The church at Corinth had some questions (actually, knowing the Corinthians, they probably had some arguments). They wrote to Paul (I Cor. 7:1), ostensibly to ask for guidance, but probably because each person in the church thought Paul would agree with his or her position. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Chapters 7-14 of I Corinthians are devoted to answering these questions.

There are two important points about these chapters. First, we don’t know what the questions were. We need to figure out the questions as best we can in order to understand the answers – for example, if I answer, “Four dollars,” it’s important to know whether the question was “What’s the price of gas?” or “How much is your pension?” We don’t know for sure what the questions were, but we try to figure them out from context.

Second, the answers were written specifically to the church at Corinth, which had specific problems. We need to be a little careful in deciding how to apply these scriptures to our church and our problems. It would be an error, for example, not to serve meat at Wednesday Night Live for fear someone would be offended. On the other hand, it would be a worse error to decide that since there are no idols in meat-packing plants, the scripture doesn’t apply to us at all.

So with those two warnings in mind, here’s a guess at what the questions were.
After answering these questions, Paul reviews the Gospel (Ch. 15). In Ch. 16, he appeals to the Corinthians to take an offering for mission work, and he takes care of some business items.

Copyright 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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