First Steps in Reconstructing the First-Century Story

There are a few basic steps to take in order to get started when attempting to reconstruct the first-century story. First off, take that uninspired arrangement of the New Testament you’re holding in your hands and chuck it out the window. God may have inspired the writing of those books, but He surely did not inspire the order in which some guy back in the second century decided to put them.

Now, since Paul’s letters make up most of the New Testament, and since his part in the story is the one given the most airplay by Luke in the book of Acts, knowing the proper order of his letters is most important. Peter’s letters can be nailed down pretty well as to when they were written, and we know the writings of John came sometime after all the rest. That leaves James, Jude, and Hebrews, each of which can only be given approximate dates as to the era in which they were written. But the overall order we can be fairly certain of.

For starters, though, let’s take a look at Paul’s letters. Here is their traditional arrangement:

Romans
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Philippians
Colossians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Titus
Philemon

Thirteen letters, all out of whack. Now take a look at the actual order in which they were written:

Galatians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Romans
Philemon
Colossians
Ephesians
Philippians
1 Timothy (some may place this one a little earlier in the game)
Titus
2 Timothy

There you have it. No big deal, right? Maybe not at first glance. Merely placing the letters in their correct order doesn’t really change much, I agree. But set them in their proper historical context by reconstructing the story surrounding their development, thereby giving yourself an opportunity to see the actual circumstances which gave them birth, and you have yourself a whole new, New Testament.

That’s your first step, in my opinion. Once you’ve arranged the letters in their proper order you can begin to date them and find out where in the world each of them were written from. Discover how many of them were written within the time period covered in the book of Acts, and then place those letters within their historical setting. Read them not as stand-alones, but as part of the story. G.C.D. Howley had the following to say in this regard:

“The arrangement of the letters of Paul in the New Testament is in general that of their length. When we rearrange them into their chronological order, fitting them as far as possible into their life-setting within the record of the Acts of the Apostles, they begin to yield up more of their treasure; they become self-explanatory, to a greater extent than when this background is ignored.”

But don’t take my or his word for it. Try it for yourself. Start your own reconstruction project today and see what you discover. I guarantee you it’s more worthwhile than you might initially think.

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About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend. View all posts by Joshua

4 responses to “First Steps in Reconstructing the First-Century Story

  • Marshall

    Josh, may we encourage you to re-integrate Peter, James, John and the rest, with Paul’s journey and the first century story with its chronology?

    Paul’s is not entirely a success story (as from the partial review recorded to Revelation 2-3). We can learn a lot about what not to do from our brother Paul’s notes.

  • lawdawg23

    Of course, Marshall. I only focused on Paul’s letters in this post as an example to start with, since re-ordering and dating his letters is a bit easier than the others.

    I agree with your assessment of Paul as well. One of the things I’ve appreciated the most is learning the mistakes as well as the successes of all the men and women who served the Lord in the first century. The story is very “real” in that sense.

  • Craig

    Josh I have been looking for a chronological bible. The only one I know of is in nkjv which I don’t care for much.

    I found viola’s book “the untold story of the new testament church” enlightening. Gene Edwards also has a similar book that I can’t remember the title of offhand but it’s on his seedsowers website.

    • lawdawg23

      I assume you’re talking about the new NKJV Chronological study Bible. It’s good, though I agree with you on the translation issue.

      There is a One-Year Bible in chronological order that is put out in both the NIV and NLT translations, in case you are interested to check those out.

      I’ve read Frank’s book and enjoyed it. For further study you might check out Bill Heroman’s blog (www.billheroman.com). Bill devotes pretty much all of his spare time to researching the first-century story. Lots of helpful stuff there.

      Zondervan just came out with a book entitle “The Story”. I’ve only perused it but it looks good. Gene has a series called The First Century Diaries which is definitely worth looking into, especially the first one which covers the story behind Paul’s writing of Galatians. More recently Gene put out a book called “Revolutionary Bible Study”, but I would recommend the diaries over this one.

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