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The Addressees in Paul's Salutations

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The Addressees in Paul’s Salutations

The inaugural essay on ‘theological development’ was an introduction to the topic; this is the second essay in what will most likely be a long series. But to speak about Paul’s salutations—and specifically, the addressees in Paul’s salutations—may seem like an odd place to begin. Surely there are more important issues that can be addressed. That is true enough, but I wanted to begin with something that was simple and straightforward, easy to detect, and often overlooked. The addressees in Paul’s salutations fit the bill quite nicely.

In the corpus Paulinum there are thirteen letters purported to be from the apostle. There is also the epistle to the Hebrews, an anonymous work which most scholars today would say is not by Paul. But of the 13 that have his name affixed, I would agree with most conservative scholars that all are by the apostle.

Chronologically, we can lay out Paul’s letters as follows1:

  • Galatians (48-49)
  • 1 Thessalonians (50)
  • 2 Thessalonians (50)
  • 1 Corinthians (54)
  • 2 Corinthians (55)
  • Romans (56-57)
  • Ephesians (60)
  • Colossians (60)
  • Philemon (60)
  • Philippians (61)
  • 1 Timothy (63)
  • Titus (63)
  • 2 Timothy (64)

If we exempt those letters sent to individuals (1-2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon), and focus only on the ones sent to churches, an interesting pattern emerges. Note the following:

Gal 1:1–22:

From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia.

1 Thess 1:1:

From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Thess 1:1:

From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Cor 1:1–2:

From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

2 Cor 1:1:

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia.

Rom 1:1, 7:

From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. To all those loved by God in Rome, called to be saints

Eph 1:1:

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints [in Ephesus], the faithful in Christ Jesus.

Col 1:1–2:

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, at Colossae.

Phil 1:1:

From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.

There are several interesting things to note about these various salutations, but our focus is on the description of the recipients. In Galatians, Paul calls them ‘the churches of Galatia.’ In 1 Thessalonians, he describes them as ‘the church of the Thessalonians.’ Same thing in 2 Thessalonians. But in 1 Corinthians, he does something new. He calls his readers saints: “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints.” He does the same in 2 Corinthians: “to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia.” Ditto in Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians.

What should also be observed is that he addresses the Galatians, Thessalonians, and Corinthians as a ‘church’ (or ‘churches’), but does not do this after 2 Corinthians. The one constant in each letter is the place name, but the addressees are described variously. On a trajectory, however, we can see an interesting phenomenon: once Paul calls a group of believers ‘saints’ he never looks back. Further, he begins to do this in his letter to the Corinthians.

What are we to make of this? Are the salutations the only indicator of Paul’s view of his recipients? Doesn’t he use ‘saints’ to describe them elsewhere? Perhaps Paul does use ‘saints’ of believers in the Thessalonian correspondence (he doesn’t use the word at all in Galatians). On two occasions he uses the plural form ἅγιοι, 1 Thess 3:13 and 2 Thess 1:10. The first could possibly refer to believers, but hardly the second. It is of course not impossible for Paul to speak of human beings as ‘holy ones’; this was done, though infrequently, in the OT.3 But we should not assume that that he is doing so just because in most of his letters to churches he does address the believers as saints. This is one of the reasons that a chronological approach to the NT is important.

It may not be coincidental that Paul begins using the term ἅγιοι when addressing the Corinthians. One cannot argue that he did not use this word in Galatians because these believers were un-saintly, since he also does not use it in his letters to the Thessalonians (and they were saintly). Galatians may be the only letter in the Pauline corpus in which the recipients are not praised, but the lack of ἅγιοι in the salutations to the Thessalonians cannot be explained on this basis (cf., e.g., 1 Thess 1:2–10, which is in many respects one long thanksgiving for these believers). Further, the Corinthians were messed up folks, too! So why would he use the term in describing them?

Probably the reason why Paul used the term first in his salutations to the Corinthians is because here he wanted to focus on their saved status, even if their state was quite different from that. This was typical of Paul: focus on the indicatives of the faith as a sure basis for behavioral change. Imperatives can only come if indicatives are in place. In other words, one cannot obey without knowing that he or she has the ability to obey. And part of that ability is resident within our status before God. It may well be that Paul is thinking along the lines of the position of angels, or ‘holy ones’ (ἅγιοι) and is recognizing that those who are in Christ are every bit as holy as angels from heaven’s perspective (cf. Zech 14:5). However, it is more likely that Paul is thinking about what the people of God, in the OT, were commanded to be (cf. the LXX at Exod 22:31; Lev 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:6; Num 15:40). Rare is the statement that they already were ‘holy’ and when such a statement is used it most likely means that they were set apart to God, not that they were necessarily living in a holy manner.

What this means is that Paul is fleshing out a theological shift between the people of God in the OT and the people of God in the NT. In the NT, with the coming of Christ, our status before God has been determined by Christ’s place on the cross. It may have dawned on Paul that calling a group of squabbling, selfish Christians ‘holy’ is exactly how God thought of them because of what Christ did. Paul became hyper-sensitive to this issue, since he was charged with having a gospel that had lowered God’s standards of righteousness by allowing Gentiles into the community without having to become circumcised. He begins to articulate his thoughts in his letter to the Galatians, but they do not reach full maturity until Romans. There he will defend his gospel as upholding God’s righteousness at every turn (cf. Rom 3:21–26). But by the time he writes the Corinthians, you can almost see the wheels turning. Although these believers are not living godly lives, they are still, in God’s view, saints. And rather than lowering God’s standard of righteousness, this view actually elevates it above the OT standard in that it depends entirely on what Christ accomplished permanently in his sacrifice.

Some will object that Paul’s not calling the Galatians or Thessalonians is merely coincidental and that the chronological view really reveals nothing at all. But that is unlikely. This first usage is explained, as though it’s a new idea to the readers. Notice again 1 Cor 1:1–2: “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints…” The verb ‘sanctified’ is from the same root as ‘saints’ (ἡγιασμένοις, ἁγίοις). This is standard fare for Paul when he is connecting the theological dots in new ways.4 Further, although it is quite debatable whether Paul uses ἅγιοι anywhere in the Thessalonian correspondence to refer to Christians, this is not the case later. Once he does so in his salutation to the Corinthians, he continues to use the term as a badge of identification for the believers in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 3:17; 6:1, 2; 16:1, 15; cf. also 2 Cor 8:4; 9:1, 12) and elsewhere (Rom 12:13; 15:25, 26, 31; 16:15; Eph 1:15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Phil 4:21, 22; Col 1:4, 12, 26). At most, only one instance of ἅγιοι in Paul’s first three letters could refer to believers, while positive identification occurs in every one of the next six letters, often multiple times. This strikes me as more than coincidental.

If this view is right, then a couple of observations are in order.

First, the fact that Paul does not call the Galatians ‘saints’ does not mean that he did not regard them as true believers. Their spiritual status must be determined entirely apart from the lack of this designation, since the Thessalonians also are not called saints.

Second, the letter to the Laodiceans (a second-century forgery, as though written by Paul) is something of a pastiche of some of Paul’s letters. But the salutation begins by speaking of the readers as ‘the brothers and sisters who are in Laodicea.” It does not call them saints. If our trajectory of Paul’s articulation is correct, then this datum would be useful in denying authenticity to the Laodicean letter (as if there were any doubt!). I would argue on a larger scale that theological trajectories on the micro-linguistic/conceptual level may well be used, if done so with caution and cumulative force, to test authenticity.

Third, development in articulation is not necessarily development in understanding or theology. That is to say, Paul from the beginning of his ministry would see the cross as Christ’s finished work that saves us, as that which supplies our standing before God without merit of our own. He doesn’t need to call a group ‘saints’ before such an understanding is evident. At the same time, his changing terminology does seem to indicate a growing clarity in expression which, in turn, may indicate a certain depth of reflection about the cross-work of Christ for him. It is one thing to say that I believe that Jesus has paid it all; it is quite another to think about the ramifications of that truth for decades and to articulate those ramifications. In my view, even though Paul was writing scripture this would not preclude him from maturing throughout the space of his canonical letters in his reflections, expressions, verbiage, metaphors, and concepts about his Lord and Savior. After all, the Bible is both the Word of God and the words of men.


1 I won’t take time to defend this order or these dates; see my introductions to NT books (all at http://www.bible.org/series.php?series_id=220 ) to get the data. There you will also see the degree of certainty/tentativeness I have on several of these dates.

2 All scripture is quoted from the NET Bible.

3 “Only rarely are the members of the holy nation called saints or holy [that is, as a statement of fact rather than obligation]. In a late wisdom Ps. saints are mentioned in parallel to those who fear Yahweh (Pss. 34:9 [MT 10]; cf. 16:3, where the context is unfortunately corrupt). In Dan. 7:18 they are those who stand by their God in the war between Yahweh and the world powers, and receive the kingdom” (H. Seebass, “Holy, Consecrate, Sanctify, Saints, Devout,” 3 (c) ii in NIDNTT).

4 See my discussion of metaphors for Christ in Paul in Granville Sharp’s Canon and Its Kin: Semantics and Significance (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), in the section that discusses Titus 2:13.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines