The Epistles of Paul
The proper manuscript order has the fourteen epistles of Paul following the seven General Epistles. There is, however, a major variation that differs from the present arrangement of the King James Version (and maintained by virtually every other version since the invention of the printing press). Modern editions have placed the Book of Hebrews at the very end of the Pauline collection of books. This is what some church officials of the Western Church (Carthage and Rome) did in the late 4th century contrary to the best manuscripts and the opinions of most officials in the Eastern Church.
The proper positioning of the Book of Hebrews in the manuscripts is right after Second Thessalonians — just before First Timothy. Nearly all the best manuscript evidence supports this. Prof. Scrivener writes:
“In the Pauline epistles, that to the Hebrews immediately follows the second to the Thessalonians in the four great codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Ephraemi.”
Scrivener, Introduction, vol. l, p. 74 1
In the margin of his work, Prof. Scrivener lists some of the many manuscripts which position the Book of Hebrews in this fashion. The evidence for this arrangement is so strong that one wonders why Hebrews was moved out of its manuscript order and placed at the back of Paul’s works? The reason is not difficult to discover. Scrivener mentions a major purpose why the Western Church relegated Hebrews to last position. It was:
“... an arrangement which at first, no doubt, originated in the early scruples prevailing in the Western Church, with respect to the authorship and canonical authority of that divine epistle.”
Scrivener, Introduction, vol. l, p. 74
The Latin section of the church found it difficult to believe that the epistle was from the pen of Paul and because of this many refused to accept it as belonging in the New Testament. Most easterners had no major reservations about the book. Jerome, the great western scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate version (a translation from the Hebrew and Greek into the Latin language), shows the differences of opinions among the eastern and western sections of the church regarding the Book of Hebrews. In his letter to Dardanus, Jerome wrote:
“To our own people [Christians], we must say that this Epistle, which is inscribed `To the Hebrews,’ is received as the Apostle Paul’s, not only in the churches of the east, but by all the ecclesiastical writers of former times. But the Latins do not receive it among the canonical scriptures.”
Whytehead, Handbook, p. 131 2
There was a belief that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, had no reason to be writing to the Jews. This, of course, is not a proper evaluation, When the apostle Paul was commissioned by Christ on the road to Damascus, he was told to teach to Israelites as well as Gentiles (Acts 9:15), and throughout the history of Paul’s ministry he always went to the Jews first. Indeed, he understood that it was absolutely essential to do this. Paul said: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you [the Jews]” (Acts 13:46). Paul’s motto was: “The Jew first, and also the Greek [Gentile]” (Romans 1:16).
There was every reason for Paul, the finest Christian intellect of the time, was thoroughly trained in Jewish law and customs (Acts 22:3), to have written a treatise to Jewish people (or those with strong Judaistic tendencies) about the typical nature of the Temple services ordained by Moses. The New Testament canon would have suffered from a prime deficiency had not such a work been included. And the Book of Hebrews fits this to a tee.
Most Christians of the east simply accepted it as Paul’s (or written by a secretary of Paul). It certainly had “Pauline” characteristics associated with it, especially since the majority of manuscripts placed it in the interior of Paul’s collection of canonical letters. And another point. If Hebrews is not Paul’s, then there are 13 epistles of Paul, whereas 14 (2 times 7) has a canonical symmetry to it, with the number 7 (or its multiples) having the theme of completion and finality associated with it. Prof. Bacon comments:
“The anonymous epistle anciently superscribed ‘To the Hebrews,’ was connected in the east with the letters of Paul. Even in the west, where the statements of all the Fathers down to the fourth century are opposed to Pauline authorship, its position in the Canon, when admitted, was next to those of Paul.”
Introduction to the New Testament, p. 140 3
Moffatt, the translator of the Bible, said, regarding the manuscript location of Hebrews:
“The position of Hebrews within the Pauline body of letters is usually between the ecclesiastical and private epistles (Eastern Church) or after the latter (Western Church).”
Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, p.17 4
The ecclesiastical letters to which Moffatt had reference are: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians. The Easterners and the best manuscripts placed the Book of Hebrews immediately after his letters to those seven congregations, and just before Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, those to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
The fourteen epistles of Paul are arranged into three parts in the New Testament canon. The First Section consists of nine epistles to seven church congregations:
(2) Corinthians (2 epistles),
(6) Colossians, and
(7) Thessalonians (2 epistles)
The Second Section is composed of one general letter, the Book of Hebrews. The Third Section is called in modern circles the Pastoral Epistles: the private letters to individual pastors: Timothy, Titus and Philemon.
Look at the first section, which, from ancient times, has been technically named “Paul’s Letters to Seven Churches.” In the Muratorian Canon (written about 180 AD, though some recent scholars date it much later), there is a general reference to this first section:
“The apostle Paul himself, following the example of John [in the Book of Revelation], wrote by name to Seven Churches. True, he wrote twice to the Corinthians and Thessalonians for their correction, but he shows thereby the unity of the Church; for John also in Revelation, though he writes to seven churches only, yet speaks to all.”
Bacon, Introduction, p. 52
Victorinus, who wrote about 290 AD, also gave an interesting comment about Paul’s seven congregations. After observing that God rested from all his labors on the seventh day, Victorinus continued to mention the symbolic use of the number seven in biblical matters. In the course of his discussion, he stated:
“That in the whole world there are Seven Churches; and that those churches called seven are one general church as Paul has taught; and that he might keep to it, he did not exceed the number of Seven Churches, but wrote to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians. Afterwards, he wrote to particular persons, that he might not exceed the measure of Seven Churches: and contracting his doctrine into a little compass, he says to Timothy: ‘thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the Church of the living God.’”
Lardner, Credibility, vol. III, p. 177 5
Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250 AD) also recognized the symbolic teaching behind the fact that Paul wrote only to Seven Congregations. In the first book of his Testimonies, having quoted the words of Hannah:
“the barren has born seven, and she that has many sons is waxed feeble,” [he continued by saying:] ... “the seven sons represent Seven Churches; for which reason Paul wrote to Seven Churches; and the Revelation has Seven Churches, that the number seven may be preserved.”
Lardner, Credibility, vol. III. p. 41
In another book, after having mentioned the seven golden lampstands in the Book of Revelation and the seven pillars in Solomon’s Proverbs upon which Wisdom built her home, Cyprian added:
“And the Apostle Paul, who was mindful of this authorized and well-known number, writes to Seven Churches; and in the Revelation our Lord sends his divine and heavenly instructions and commands to Seven Churches and their angels.”
Lardner, Credibility, vol. III, p. 177
Many other ancients took note of this significant number of congregations (precisely seven) to which Paul wrote. Among them were Jerome (about 400 AD) 6 and Isidore of Seville (near 600 AD). 7 More recently, Dr. E.W. Bullinger made some pertinent remarks showing the symbolic reasons why Paul wrote to Seven Congregations.
“Seven Churches [by Paul] were addressed as such by the Holy Spirit, seven being the number of spiritual perfection, the. ... Is it not remarkable that the Holy Spirit addressed seven churches and no more: exactly the same number as the Lord himself addressed later from the glory [in the Book of Revelation]?”
Bullinger, The Church Epistles, p. 85 8
Dr. Bullinger is correct in his appraisal of the number seven being associated with this particular collection of Paul’s epistles which are called the “Church Epistles.” But there is also another numerical factor that accompanies this collection. That is the number nine. It will be noted that though there were exactly seven congregations to whom the epistles were sent, there were in fact nine epistles in the group (Corinth and Thessalonica both got two epistles each, making nine altogether). There is a point of emphasis that this number nine has within the seven. Since the emphasis by Paul in this collection is a concentration on high spiritual teachings, the fact of the Spirit and its actions is seen in a profound way that is not found in any other section of the Holy Scriptures. And the number nine is closely associated in the Bible with the Holy Spirit. It will be appraised there are nine graces comprising the fruit (not fruits) of the Spirit. They are:
(9) temperance (Galatians 5:22–23).
But there are also nine gifts of the Holy Spirit:
(1) the word of wisdom,
(2) the word of knowledge,
(5) the working of miracles,
(7) discerning of spirits,
(8) diverse kinds of languages,
(9) the interpretation of languages (1 Corinthians 12:8–10).
In the book of Revelation (chapters 4 and 5, particularly 4:5), a major part of the divine hierarchy is described as being God the Father (who is a Spirit John 4:24), Christ Jesus (who is also a Spirit — Romans 8:26, 34), and the seven spirits (who are the seven angelic powers associated with the throne of God). This makes nine spirits in all.
In Paul’s epistles to his Seven Congregations there is to be found the main New Testament doctrinal teachings concerning spiritual matters that should be taught to the Christian community of believers. This is why the subjects of repentance, faith, baptisms [that is, the real spiritual meaning of baptisms], and details concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, etc. are discussed at length in the letters to these Seven Congregations. These spiritual doctrines are all a part of subjects that Paul called the “fruit” and the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit. It is no accident that the number was seven (with nine parts), and no more, was associated with these congregations and the collection of letters sent to them. This number seven, as the early Christian authors mentioned, was also found in the Book of Revelation. Though John could have written the first edition of the Book of Revelation with his seven congregations before Paul’s collection of epistles first appeared, it may have been the other way around. Frank W. Beare, Professor of New Testament Studies at Trinity College, Toronto, goes so far as to say that John in Revelation followed the example of Paul.
“The device of introducing an apocalypse by a sequence of letters addressed severally to seven churches but issued together under cover of a general letter ... can only be explained as indicating that the author [of Revelation] had before him a corpus of Pauline letters similarly constructed.”
Beare, “Canon of the New Testament” 9
The number seven was universally acknowledged by the biblical world as signifying completion and perfection, and with many features of the Old and New Testaments being typically dominated by this number, it would have been odd for Paul not to have used it in some capacity. There was a definite reason why the General Epistles were seven in number; why Paul’s collection of letters for the New Testament canon came to fourteen in number (but written to seven congregations). Recall too that the Old and New Testaments together amount to seven divisions with 49 (7 times 7) books in the original enumeration.
It is well recognized by scholars that Paul’s letters are not arranged in any chronological order. “It is notorious that the order of epistles in the book of the New Testament is not their real, or chronological order.” 10 Indeed, the earliest book was no doubt Galatians but it appears in third position after Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Corinthians which were written some 5 or 6 years afterwards. The seventh congregation of Paul was represented by the Thessalonians, but those two epistles were composed about 14 years before Ephesians and Colossians which were positioned before Thessalonians. This shows that the collection of Paul’s letters was not arranged with any chronological factors in mind.
Some have thought they were placed to indicate the authority of the various congregations since the Book of Romans appears first in the Pauline corpus of books. This may be, especially in regard to the first two areas of Rome and Corinth to which Paul wrote. [I will say more on this later.] Yet, it is obvious to anyone who studies the contexts of those epistles to seven congregations that the real reason for Paul’s ordering of the letters to his Seven Congregations is based on the principle of progressive teaching.
In any book for teaching a subject, one starts with the simple and general instruction first and then proceeds in a step-by-step manner until the advanced and sophisticated teachings are reached. As stated in the last chapter, the five books of the Christian Pentateuch give the “Elementary School” of divine instruction, the seven General Epistles proceed to “High School,” and the Epistles of Paul present the “College.” But even here, Paul starts out with the “Freshman Year” first, the “Sophomore” second, etc. All books of instruction even in our modern world arrange their material in this fashion. It would be absurd to do otherwise. How could one perceive how to perform calculus without first knowing simple arithmetic, then algebra, etc.? And so it is with the various divisions and books of the New Testament. The elementary teachings are given first, and the more advanced instruction comes later. This is the principal manner in which the epistles of Paul are arranged.
Early Christians were quite aware that this was the reason for the disposition of the New Testament books. Euthalius (c. 450 AD) mentioned Paul’s epistles in the proper manuscript order and then proceeded to explain why they were positioned that way. He said the order was according to the Christian growth that the readers had, to whom they were sent, beginning with the least mature and proceeding to the more advanced.
To Euthalius, in his comments about the epistle to the Ephesians, he said this was evident from several points. For one, the epistle to the Romans was placed first because it contained instructions for those who had just learned the first principles of the Gospel. But after Ephesians came Philippians. That epistle was written to the faithful who had made progress and had brought forth much fruit. And at the end of his enumeration of Paul’s fourteen epistles, Euthalius expressly said that they were arranged according to the maturity of the readers. 11
This same opinion was stated by another Church Father, Theodoret. “The Epistle to the Romans has been placed first, as containing the most full and exact representation of Christian doctrine in all its branches.” 12 It comprised the ABC’s of Christian doctrinal discussion, especially to show the basic teachings of repentance, faith, etc.
The best appraisal showing why the books of the New Testament canon are arranged the way they are comes from the apostles themselves. Since they wrote the books, they ought to be better equipped to explain why they placed them in the order they did. The Book of Hebrews contains information on what the apostles considered were the step-by-step doctrinal subjects for Christian growth and understanding. They are found in Hebrews 6:1–2. Paul gave seven steps that lead to a full maturity in the knowledge of Christ. He called them the principles of the doctrines of Christ. They are:
(1) Repentance from dead works,
(2) faith toward God,
(3) the doctrine of baptisms,
(4) the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit and its gifts,
(5) the resurrection of the dead,
(6) the judgment of the future, and then
Paul began his discourse in the Book of Hebrews on these steps by mentioning perfection first, and then he gave the six progressive factors which would lead a Christian to the attainment of that seventh and final phase which was perfection.
Remarkably, this is the exact order of doctrinal teaching which people must master and perform in order to be mature Christians in Christ (at least, this was the method utilized in the early history of the Christian community). People were first required to repent, then express faith, then be baptized, and then obtain the Holy Spirit. This made it possible for them to share in the resurrection at Christ’s return, and be able to receive their rewards in judgment, and finally reach a perfection in Christ. The apostle Paul called those seven doctrines the first principles of the Christian faith. Let us now observe how these seven principles of progressive doctrinal teaching are found in the epistles to the seven congregations in Paul’s collection of letters.
(1) The teaching of those seven doctrinal principles as found in Hebrews 6:1–2 are progressively followed in Paul’s writings and in the order of his epistles. Notice Paul’s instructions in the Book of Romans. In the first two chapters Paul talked of turning from sin. He was instructing people to repent of their ways, and he concluded his first doctrinal discourse by saying: “The goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). So, just like in Hebrews, Paul starts with repentance.
(2) The next three chapters (3, 4 and 5) concern the doctrine of faith just as the Book of Hebrews mentioned the second principle as being faith. Paul summed up this doctrinal teaching in Romans with his classic statement:
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith unto this grace wherein we stand.”
(3) The third principle of the Christian doctrines in Hebrews was baptism. And following the same pattern, in Romans chapter 6 Paul continues his subject of faith with a discussion on baptism. “Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). Paul was clearly being guided by step-by-step principles he later wrote in the Book of Hebrews.
(4) The next topic in Hebrews was the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit. And, true to form, chapters 7 and 8 of Romans follow the progressive pattern with Paul’s discussion on the need and the work of the Holy Spirit.
“But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. ... But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you.”
(5) (6) The fifth and sixth principles mentioned in the Book of Hebrews were the resurrection and the judgment. And chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Romans give a discussion on how God will bless all Israel and the Gentiles with a resurrection and a righteous judgment. (Biblical judgment is not always a punishment for sin. It can mean, and often does, a judgment to receive righteous rewards. See Psalm 98.)
(7) The seventh principle in the Book of Hebrews was perfection. And the doctrinal portion of Romans ends with Paul’s teachings that a full redemption will come to all Israel and mankind, and man will become just like God in perfection. “For of him, and through him, and to him are all things: to whom be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).
So we see the Book of Romans provides the Christian with an introduction to the essential doctrines of Christianity. And Paul gave them in the perfect step-by-step order of the first principles that he recorded in Hebrews 6:1–2.
The same formula of progressive doctrinal teaching is found in First Corinthians. While the first three principles of Christian doctrines (repentance, faith and baptism) were discussed more extensively in the Book of Romans in a technical sense, the practical side of those subjects is found in the first eleven chapters of First Corinthians. But more sophisticated matters dealing with the Holy Spirit and the resurrection (the more mature doctrines) are more fully discussed in First Corinthians. Three chapters (12 to 14) are devoted to the gifts and operations of the Holy Spirit, and a whole chapter (15) is given to the subject of the resurrection from the dead.
This shows that First Corinthians is also a basic doctrinal book (like Romans) and it illustrates the “first principles” in precisely the same order as those given in the Book of Hebrews 6:1–2. Though Paul gets progressively stronger in his teaching in First Corinthians, he still made comment that those in Corinth, because of their newness in Christ, only were able to receive the “milk of the word.”
“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not meat: for hitherto you were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able.”
1 Corinthians 3:1–2
This assessment of Paul shows that he, himself, considered his teachings to the Corinthians to be for spiritual infants. While the Book of Romans was written to people he had never met before (and those who needed the ABCs of his essential doctrinal teachings), the Corinthians received more personal attention (and correction) yet his instructions to them were still intended for children in the faith.
Still, the Corinthians received teachings which were slightly more advanced than those to the Romans. Recall that he had never met the Romans face to face when he wrote them (Romans 1:11; 15:16, 20), but he had already spent some 18 months among the Corinthians before he composed his two letters to them (Acts 18:11). In spite of that length of time in personally ministering to them, they still needed the firstfruit teachings of Christ. He appealed to them not to be children any longer (1 Corinthians 14:20), but they still were very much like children in their spiritual demeanor. In his second epistle, written just a few months later, he was still reminding them: “I speak unto you as children” (2 Corinthians 6:13).
The next book of Paul in the canonical order is that to the Galatians. The Galatian congregations had been graced with much more personal teachings of Paul (than those in Rome or Corinth) when he wrote them — perhaps as much as four or five years. But they had become so far removed from the true Christian faith that Paul reprimanded them for returning to the “schoolmaster” (the Law of Moses) (Galatians 3:24). They had reverted to being a child once again (Galatians 4:1–6).
Notice the progression of teaching within the epistles of these first three churches of Paul. He had never seen the Romans and presented them with the ABC’s of Christian doctrines. The Corinthians had learned a little more having had Paul in their midst for 18 months. The Galatians had been given even more teaching with four or five years of instruction — but all three groups were still children in the faith. Hardly any of them was spiritually mature. But it became a far different story with the next three congregations.
When one reaches these three epistles in the canonical order of the New Testament books, the childhood phase of Christian teaching has finished. The people receiving these teachings were those who progressed into a mature stage of Christian development. In those epistles the apostle Paul no longer instructed them in the basic principles. Nowhere in these later books does he discuss in detail anything about repentance, faith, baptisms, the Holy Spirit, the resurrection or judgment. His main interest now is perfection. In the highest sense Paul tells these readers that they are at present joint heirs, joint bodied, and joint partakers of Christ in glory.
The mature phase had arrived for those who had advanced to the “Ephesian message” which he called “the Mystery,” and such people were expected to act like adults and not spiritual children any more. Paul stated that God’s spiritual gifts had been given:
“for the perfecting [maturing] of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect [mature] man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”
The doctrines discussed in these later three epistles represent the fullness of the Gospel of Christ. Paul said that such teachings were the full Gospel message.
“Wherefore I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given me to fulfill [that is, to fill to the top] the word of God, even the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but now [with the writing of Colossians] is made manifest to his saints.”
The three epistles of Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians provide mature teachings at the highest level of instruction. If people can satisfactorily reach the capabilities of mastering the information in these three epistles, then they have gone beyond the “milk stage” and into the “meat.” Romans, Corinthians and Galatians could be reckoned the “Freshman and Sophomore” stage of “‘College,” while Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians are the ‘Junior and Senior” phase.
The Seven Churches of the apostle Paul end with the two to the Thessalonians. As the number seven symbolically means completion and finality, so there were two books of instruction written to this seventh group which deal, primarily, with end-time events. In both, the theme is the coming of the Man of Sin (also called the Wicked One or the Son of Perdition), the second advent of Christ, and the resurrection from the dead for the righteous saints. In a word, the letters to the seventh congregation speak of the conclusion of the age. And what a fitting place to discuss such issues dealing with the finality of things. If Christians would progress in their development through the milk (or children) phase of their spiritual growth (shown in the First, Second and Third congregations of Paul) and then succeed in their advancement through their meat (or mature) phase (shown in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth congregations of Paul), then they would be expected to obtain their rewards described in the two epistles to the Seventh Congregation.
The reason the epistles to the Thessalonians are positioned in seventh place (though they are two of the earliest epistles written) is that no one can procure the rewards of the first resurrection associated with Christ’s return unless the person has mastered the progressive teachings (from the ABCs of doctrine to the XYZs of doctrine) as recorded in the previous six congregations.
A reflection of this end-time teaching (reserved for Paul’s seventh congregation) are the Mosaic holy days. It is interesting that the Mosaic holyday which typified the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth and the resurrection from the dead was the Day of Trumpets. This was a festival which ushered in the seventh Hebrew month in which the final Mosaic holydays occurred. There were seven such holydays, and the last four were ordained to be observed in the seventh month (Leviticus 23).
The Day of Trumpets which commenced this final, seventh month of the festival year was introduced by the blowing of trumpets, hence the name “The Day of Trumpets.” (Indeed, each month was proclaimed with the blowing of a trumpet, Numbers 10:10.) Since the Mosaic festival year was seven months long, the blowing of the trumpet at the beginning of the seventh month was, in calendar and prophetic significance, “the last trump.” And when the seventh trumpet sounds in the Book of Revelation, the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of Christ and he then begins to reign (Revelation 11:15). And what do we find in Paul’s teaching to his seventh church (Thessalonians)? We find that its central theme concerns this end-time event and the blowing of the trump of God.
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first.”
1 Thessalonians 4:16
There could be no better position to place the two epistles of Paul’s seventh congregation, which focus on the time of Christ’s advent, than in the seventh position among Paul’s letters to the congregations. And in the manuscripts this is precisely where they are found. It was no accident that this was the case.
In the proper manuscript order of the New Testament books, Hebrews comes immediately on the heels of the Seventh Congregation. This treatise gives very advanced teaching. In fact, Paul made the explicit statement in Hebrews 6:1–3 that he would not speak of the first principles in the Book of Hebrews. He devoted the entire book to mature doctrinal matters on the typical meanings behind the Temple services. It was essential for such subjects to be covered, and who better to do it than the apostle Paul (who was trained at the feet of the great rabbi Gamaliel)?
Though the Book of Hebrews by Paul’s own definition is very mature instruction, why does it follow the Seventh Congregation (Thessalonians)? Why could it not be allotted its modern position at the end of Paul’s epistles? An analysis of the contents can show why it should be retained in its proper order as found in the early manuscripts. Let us look at the matter closely.
It is important to note that the first two chapters are devoted to showing the superiority of Christ over all angels. This was important for Paul to demonstrate because it was well recognized in the 1st century by the Jewish authorities that the Mosaic Law had been given to Israel through the agency of angels — and Paul mentions this fact in Hebrews 2:2. Indeed, this present age (until the second advent of Christ) was reckoned as being in the charge of angels, both good and bad (Daniel 10:13–21; Matthew 4:8–10). But Paul, in the Book of Hebrews, was not going to discuss the kingdoms of this world during the time angels are in a limited control. He was going to give some advanced spiritual teaching about the role of the Temple, the priesthood, the festivals, and the ceremonies in the future millennial kingdom of God once Christ Jesus would be back on earth. Paul, then, introduces the reason for writing the Book of Hebrews:
“For it is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, ABOUT WHICH WE ARE SPEAKING.”
This is the real title to the book. Paul’s theme of which he was speaking was the world to come — the “Sabbath rest to the people of God” (4:9). Paul’s subject was about the “Millennial rest,” and the whole section from Hebrews 3:7 to 4:12 is about that “rest.”
Thus, the whole Book of Hebrews is symbolic teaching about rewards to the millennial saints after Christ returns. This is why the book must be positioned after Paul’s two epistles to the Seventh Congregation (Thessalonians) which speak about the events associated with Christ’s Second Advent. And this is exactly where the best manuscripts position Hebrews. That is where it should remain.
The apostle Peter may have referred to this epistle of Paul in his last letter (2 Peter 3:15–16). He mentioned that the people of Asia Minor had received a technical letter from Paul. Peter said this writing of Paul concerned matters relating to the time of the end and the Day of the Lord (as Peter himself was discussing in his third chapter). It could well be that it was the Book of Hebrews that Peter had in mind. Recall that Paul had been commissioned to teach the Israelites as well as Gentiles (Acts 9:15) and this treatise about the real meaning behind the Temple services (both those of the past and that one to occur in the future) is probably the book to which Peter had reference. 13
From all this, there is a logic to the manuscript order in which we find the Book of Hebrews. Its major subjects pertain to the fulfillment of the promises which Christ said he would perform once he returns to earth as depicted in Paul’s Seventh Congregation (the two books to those of Thessalonica).
The remainder of Paul’s letters were personal communications which he wrote to ministers of Christian congregations.
The four epistles of Timothy, Titus, and Philemon contain matters on ecclesiastical government and discipline. They were written from one professional minister to other ministers. It should be self-evident that instructions intended solely for practicing ministers would concern very mature matters. This is why they appear in last position among Paul’s writings. These were letters to those who had already gone through “College” and had “graduated from a Theological Seminary.” Within their contexts there is not a shred of instruction on what the first principles of Christian doctrine represent. The reason for this is because those doctrinal principles had adequately been covered in the previous books positioned in the canonical order of Paul’s writings.
The Pastoral Epistles, on the other hand, have information on how to maintain a proper government, a pure doctrine, and a correct discipline in established congregations of Christians. It would have been daft indeed to position such books at the beginning of (or distribute them among) the former doctrinal epistles of Paul. This is why they must be left in their last position (following the Book of Hebrews) as shown in the early manuscripts.
But there is more. Why do we find the four Pastoral Epistles in the order that we do? There can be little question here. Just as James, Peter, John and Jude were arranged by their order of rank within the seven General Epistles, so it is with these three men. Timothy had the superior distinction (and given two epistles) because he was the minister in charge of the congregations under Paul in Western Asia Minor. Titus was in the lesser responsibility of managing the congregations in the island of Crete, a smaller and less significant area. As to Philemon, we are not told in what region he ministered (or even if he was a full-fledged minister), though it seems that he was a resident of the eastern part of the province of Asia.
Surely, the greater responsibility of Timothy gave him first position, and it must be the same of Titus over Philemon. We might even recognize a degree of prominence among these three men by the length of Paul’s letters to them. Timothy was given two epistles in ten chapters; Titus, one epistle in three chapters; and Philemon received only a very short letter from Paul. On this point, the scholar Lardner, who spent considerable time surveying the literature of early Christian writers in the first centuries of Christianity, came to this conclusion:
“Among these epistles to particular persons those to Timothy have the precedence, as he was the favorite disciple of Paul, and those epistles are the largest and the fullest. The epistle to Titus comes next, as he was an evangelist. And that to Philemon is last, as he was supposed by many to be only a private Christian. Undoubtedly Titus was a person of greater eminence, and in a higher station than Philemon. Moreover, by many, the design of that epistle was thought to be of no importance.”
Lardner, Credibility, vol. VI, pp. 338–339
There may even be a nationality order maintained in the four Pastoral Epistles. Paul always held to the concept that the Gospel should go to the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles. It is well known that Timothy was half Jewish (Acts 16:1), which rendered him a “full Jew” in the eyes of the Jewish people because his mother was Jewish. We know that Titus was a Greek (Galatians 2:3) and since Philemon follows him, this no doubt indicates he was also a Gentile.
From the foregoing discussion, we have seen some clear internal evidence from Paul’s epistles why the early manuscript order of his books must be retained in all versions of the New Testament today. The theological and social teachings found in the New Testament which dominated the psychological thinking patterns of the apostles demand that the manuscript arrangement of the books be maintained by all publishers of Bibles today. And though we later find a few manuscripts which saw some differences of arrangement, these can be recognized as exceptions to the rule. Indeed, these exceptions (which can normally be explained as sectarian variations) help to prove the rule rather than the establishment of another. Thus, even the Sinaiticus manuscript which places Paul’s letters between the Gospels and Acts (an oddity if there ever was one) would not encourage anyone to believe that its order of books should be preferred over the vast majority of other manuscripts.
There are other variations in a few isolated manuscripts. The order of the Gospels or that of the General Epistles are on rare occasions different from the normal manuscripts, and the Book of Hebrews has been rarely found next to Galatians (no doubt because Hebrews was thought in some circles to have been written to the people in the Galatian area). Again, these are clear exceptions to the rule and could never be seriously considered as having apostolic approbation. Such odd positionings are at variance with the social and religious customs of rank and the etiquette of protocol maintained by the Jewish and Christian societies in the first centuries. However, the manuscript order of Paul’s collection accords most remarkably (in a symmetrical way) with those social customs and religious principles showing rank and authority.
The manuscripts show a prime difference in the arrangement of the biblical books which has dominated all modern versions of the Bible that Jerome established in the 5th century AD when he produced his Latin Vulgate. The influence of Jerome (and his theological dispositions and opinions of one man, Jerome) has been the main reason that all modern versions of the Bible have been so topsy-turvy in their order of books.
Professors Westcott and Hort along with Professor Gregory (the great textual scholar), have made it clear that the Greek manuscript order should be retained in all Bibles. It “is the order to which we should hold.” 14 And, in my view, there is not the slightest doubt that this opinion of these textual scholars is not only correct, it is essential that all publishers of Bible versions return to the original manuscript arrangement of the various books of the Old and New Testaments.
1 F.H.A. Scrivener, A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament for Use of Biblical Students, 4th ed., Edward Miller, ed. (London: G. Bell, 1894), p. 74
2 R. Whytehead, The Warrant of Faith: Or, A Handbook to the Canon and Inspiration to the Scriptures, 1854, p. 131.
3 B.J. Bacon, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, c1900), p. 140.
4 Moffatt, Introduction, p. 17.
5 Nathaniel Lardner, The Credibility of the Gospel History, vol. III, first published in 17 vols, (8 vol., London, 1727-1757, and in his collected Works, ed. by A. Kippis), (Kippis, London, 1788), p. 177.
6 Thomas H. Horne, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, ed. by T.H. Horne, J. Ayre, and S.P. Tregelles, vol. I (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., c1872.), p. 75.
7 Lardner, Credibility, vol. V, p. 137.
8 E.W. Bullinger, The Church Epistles, 3rd ed. (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1928), p. 85. See also Bullinger's Companion Bible, Appendix 192: "The Pauline Epistles" where the same sentiment is expressed differently.
9 Frank W. Beare, "Canon of the New Testament" in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible: An Illusytrated Encyclopedia, vol. A-D (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), p. 522.
10 John D. Davies, "Paul" in Dictionary of the Bible, 4th rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1936), p. 744.
11 Lardner, vol. V, p. 71.
12 Lardner, vol. V, p. 71.
14 C. Gregory, Canon and Text of the New Testament (Edinburgh: Clark, 1924), p. 469.
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