This is our interpretation of the time and place of writing of each of the epistles of Paul of Tarsus. However this is only meant to serve as a summary, and in many cases there is further evidence to support our conclusions, which we have presented in our commentaries for each of the epistles of Paul or in our commentary on the Book of Acts.
- William Finck
Paul's epistles before he was arrested:
The first epistle to the Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul's surviving epistles and was written in Corinth (Acts 18, 1 Thessalonians 3:6). Paul had already been to Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:1), and was reunited with Timothy and Silvanus in Corinth (Acts 18:5).
The second epistle to the Thessalonians followed the first in short time and was also written from Corinth during Paul's long sojourn there. He is still with Timothy and Silvanus.
The epistle to the Galatians was written during Paul's stay in Antioch which is described in Acts 18:22-23, where he also had his final meeting with Peter described in Galatians chapter 2. It could not have been written before that time. Paul visited the Galatians soon thereafter, and his epistle reflects an anticipation to visit them in its fourth chapter (4:18, 20).
The epistle which we know as 1 Corinthians was written from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8, 19), during the three-year period that Paul stayed in Ephesus described in Acts chapter 19.
The epistle to Titus was written as Paul journeyed from Ephesus to Makedonia through the Troad.
The first epistle to Timothy was written from Makedonia around this same time, as the circumstances indicate in conjunction with Paul's own comment at 1 Timothy 1:3.
The second epistle to the Corinthians was written as Paul journeyed from Makedonia to visit Achaia for the last time, while wintering at Nicopolis in Greece, and before he reached Corinth for his final visit there. Titus and Timothy had each rejoined him in Nicopolis after receiving the epistles he had written to them, and that is reflected in this epistle.
The epistle to the Romans was written from the Troad, during Paul's stay there described at the beginning of Acts chapter 20, which is evident from both the lists of men who were with Paul provided in Acts 20 and Romans 16, and also from Paul's comments concerning his ministry and his plans to visit Rome which were made in Romans chapter 15 (15:22-28).
Paul's epistles after he was arrested:
The epistle to the Hebrews was ostensibly written while Paul was under arrest in Caesareia. Hebrews was written from Caesareia (Hebrews 13:23), or Timothy as well as Aristarchus would have been mentioned as going with Paul to Rome.
There were two letters written from Rome before Timothy was with Paul:
Ephesians was written from Rome, which is evident in 2 Timothy 4:12 where Paul explained that he had sent Tychicus to Ephesus, and we see that Paul is a prisoner when he wrote Ephesians (i.e. Ephesians 3:1), and Tychicus had brought that letter to Ephesus (Ephesians 6:21) before Paul wrote 2 Timothy (2 Timothy 4:12). Perhaps the “full armor of Yahweh” prayer at the end of the epistle reveals that Paul had not yet defended himself before Caesar, something there was no mention of in the epistle, but that he was about to do, which he mentions later in 2 Timothy.
2 Timothy was written from Rome, after Paul had already offered his first defense of Christianity. This agrees with his statement that he sent Tychicus to Ephesus, ostensibly with the epistle to the Ephesians in hand. Now this certainly seems to be the case, however it cannot be explained why Aristarchus was not mentioned where Paul said “only Luke is with me”, and it must also be supposed that Demas had returned to Rome after Paul told Timothy that Demas had forsaken him, since Demas is again with Paul when Colossians was written later on. In 2 Timothy (4:9, 11, 13), Paul asks Timothy to come to Rome, and to bring Mark with him. In the other surviving epistles which Paul later wrote from Rome, it is evident that Timothy indeed complied.
There were three letters written from Rome while Timothy was with Paul:
Philippians was written from Rome while Paul was with Timothy (Philippians 1:1, 7). As he had mentioned his first defense of Christianity in 2 Timothy, he did likewise in Philippians chapter 1, after Timothy had come to Rome to be with him.
Colossians was written while Timothy was with Paul (Colossians 1:1), and it was written from Rome while Paul was a prisoner and Aristarchus was still a prisoner along with him (Colossians 4:10). Tychicus had gone to Ephesus, delivering that epistle. Then Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy that he had sent Tychicus to Ephesus. However in Colossians 4:7, we can see that Tychicus also delivered this epistle to Colossae, which Paul wrote when he was with Timothy! So Tychicus must have returned to Rome after he delivered the epistle to the Ephesians, and was there with Paul again while Timothy was there.
Finally, Philemon was also written from Rome while Timothy was with Paul. In the salutation Mark, Luke, Aristarchus and Demas are all mentioned as being with Paul.
Was Paul ever released from imprisonment by the Romans?
With no evidence outside of an interpretation of 2 Timothy chapter 4 by the 4th century ecclesiastical writer Eusebius, later Christians have imagined Paul to have been released from his initial imprisonment in Rome, to have then been arrested again, to have written 2 Timothy during a second imprisonment, and then to have been executed.
However reading 2 Timothy chapter 4, I do not find such an interpretation to be a necessarily valid one. And furthermore, why, if 2 Timothy was written after his second arrest, would Paul find a need to explain the fates of all those who were with him leading up to his first arrest?
Rather, the writing of 2 Timothy is consistent with Paul's first and only arrest, and his later having joined Paul in Rome, as requested of him in 2 Timothy, which is when Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon were written.
In 2 Timothy Paul informed Timothy of the status of his relationship with many of the men whom they had worked with together in the past, and he does so whether Timothy should have known of that status or not. Ostensibly, Paul did this so that it may also serve as a form of public notice. Then when Timothy comes to Rome to be with Paul, all of the surviving epistles which he writes from that time, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, are written no longer written from Paul, but from Paul and Timothy. Luke was with Paul. Aristarchus was with Paul. They were Paul's “fellow-workers”. But there are no epistles from “Paul and Luke” or “Paul and Aristarchus”. The second epistle to the Corinthians was also written in this manner, nearly a year before Paul's arrest and even though Titus was also in Nicopolis with Paul when it was written.
What we are informed of in all of this, is that Timothy was chosen by Paul to be the heir to his ministry, the man he hoped would continue his own work, so Paul associated himself with Timothy in these epistles, and probably also in the missing epistle to the Laodiceans. Paul had told Timothy in his epistle to him, that he expected his end to come soon, in 2 Timothy chapter 4 where he says: “6 For I am already offered and the time of my departure approaches. 7 Having struggled the good struggle, I finished the race. I kept the faith.”
It cannot be taken for granted that we have all of Paul's epistles. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul mentions a previous letter which he had written to them, which is apparently now lost. In Colossians 4:16, one of the letters written from Rome, we see that Paul had also written an epistle to the Laodiceans, and Laodicea was not far from Colossae. This epistle is also lost. In 1 Corinthians 16:1 Paul mentions having given instructions to the assemblies of Galatia, which were apparently in a now-lost epistle. It would not be fantastic to imagine that Paul had written many more epistles during his ministry, all of which are also now lost.