What future did Paul see for his letters?


For most of the year Christians hear a part of a letter of St. Paul read during Sunday worship. But if you had stopped Paul on the street in some place like Corinth and asked him if he thought his letters would become a permanent part of Christian liturgy and that his faith would make him the father of Christian theology, he probably would have laughed at you, in between dodging stones.

Paul started local. In almost every authentic letter he was addressing a particular Christian community he knew personally in some way or another, teaching, criticizing, praising, exhorting, praying for them.

Paul, though, did not write private letters as a private person. He wrote as an apostle, missionary, church planter, teacher, and preacher. A messenger like Timothy would carry the letters to their destination, read them to the assembled community-"I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them," says 1 Thessalonians 5:27-and interpret them.

It is also likely Paul's letters started circulating or being swapped among churches. "And when this letter has been read among you," says Colossians 4:16, "have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans." We hear as well of how Paul's letters were becoming more widely known when the Second Letter of Peter talks about how "our beloved brother Paul wrote to you . . . as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Ah, those things "hard to understand." They point to yet another sense in which what Paul wrote was broadening beyond his letters. Many of the letters, such as Romans, contain complex theological arguments and soaring expressions of faith. Without knowing it, Paul was laying the foundation of much of Christian theology to come.

In addition to circulating his letters, the time around the end of the first century witnessed the collecting and preserving of letters written by key early Christians, such as Paul. This collecting showed the value and reverence in which the early community held them.

It was also about this time that Paul's letters, instead of only being read in meetings of Christians, actually became part of a service of the word Christians were attaching to their eucharistic celebrations. One of the earliest records of Christian worship comes from St. Justin Martyr in the second century. He says that two readings were part of the service of the word: one from the prophets and the other from "memoirs of the apostles"-gospel stories and also possibly letters of the apostles, Paul's included. In these ways and others Paul the missionary letter-writer became Paul the apostle for the ages.

This article appeared in the July 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 7, page 41).