Paul the Apostle was one of the most prolific contributors to the New Testament canon. Despite not being one of the original 12 apostles, Paul was handpicked by Jesus to carry the gospel far and wide to “the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
But did Paul himself know that he was writing Holy Scripture when he wrote his 13 letters (or epistles) to the early Christian communities he founded?
We have reason to believe that he did. Let’s start by examining who Paul was and why we can reasonably presume that he knew he was writing the inspired Word of God.
Who Was Paul?
Paul was initially named Saul and was born in the city of Tarsus in modern-day Turkey. He was raised in the Pharisee sect of Judaism, a sect known for its strict adherence to Old Testament laws.
Saul went on to become an expert in Jewish law and historians believe that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court who was most infamously known for turning Jesus over to the Roman authorities to be tried and crucified.
In his religious extremism, Saul displayed no compassion for any Jew believed to be violating the Jewish laws. For example, Scripture tells us that Saul witnessed and consented to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58; 8:1).
As a religious zealot, Saul would have believed that he was acting in the name of God in persecuting Christians. This relentless persecution forced all of the Christians in Jerusalem to flee except for the apostles (Acts 8:1).
Ironically, Saul’s attempt to smother Christianity actually had the effect of fanning its flames beyond the city of Jerusalem. More specifically, the exiled Christians did not go into hiding but became missionaries who spread the Good News of Jesus Christ wherever they went (Acts 8:4).
Outraged by the spread of Christianity beyond Jerusalem’s walls, Saul left Jerusalem to hunt down and imprison the Christians who were preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:1-2).
It was on the road to Damascus that Saul literally saw the light and heard the voice of Jesus asking Saul for the account of his role in the persecution of Christians (Acts 9:3-6). Saul would go on to repent and go from being a zealous persecutor of Christians to a zealous evangelist of Christianity (Acts 9:18-20).
Saul preached so extensively throughout the Roman Empire that he eventually adopted the Roman version of his name, Paul.
During these missionary journeys, Paul wrote letters to the churches he founded in Asia Minor and Europe.
In these letters, Paul further educated the new Christian communities about Jesus’ teachings and how they should live as brothers and sisters in Christ.
While writing these letters, Paul arguably believed that he had been empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak on Christ’s behalf.
Paul Believed His Letters to Be Divinely Authoritative
No one can prove for certain that Paul knew his letters to the early churches were scriptural in nature. However, a review of Paul’s writings shows that Paul believed that Jesus had granted him divine authority to impart the Word of God.
In addition, the Apostle Peter explicitly includes Paul’s writings when he speaks of scriptural texts. Let’s briefly explore these two points.
1. Paul refers to his own writings as a command of the Lord. Paul himself declared the divine authority of his writings to the Christian communities he addressed.
In particular, Paul tells the Christians of Corinth that if any of them believes himself to be a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, he should testify that Paul’s writing “is the Lord’s command” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
This passage demonstrates Paul’s belief that he was commissioned by Jesus to speak with His authority when instructing the Christian communities on doctrine and moral living.
Moreover, Paul warned that any Corinthian who failed to acknowledge that Paul’s words were the Lord’s commands would “themselves be ignored” by the remaining Christian community (1 Corinthians 14:38). This further illustrates Paul’s belief in the divinely authoritative nature of his writings.
Paul also emphasized the inspired nature of his words in his First Letter to the Thessalonians. There, Paul recounts how the Thessalonians received the Word of God from Paul and his companions, and that the Thessalonians accepted their preaching not as words spoken by mere humans but as words spoken by God Himself (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Therefore, if we consider that Paul refers to his verbal teachings as the Word of God, it can only make sense to believe that Paul also considered his written teachings to be divinely inspired as well.
Importantly, Paul identifies in his letters when he’s stating his own opinion versus that of the Lord’s.
For example, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives the community marital advice and specifies when he’s imparting the Lord’s command on marital conduct versus when he’s giving his private opinion (1 Corinthians 7:10,12).
Paul also gives advice to unmarried Christians and indicates that he’s doing so of his own accord because he has no command from the Lord on the matter (1 Corinthians 7:25).
Paul’s overt separation of his personal feelings on an issue versus the Lord’s commands illustrates Paul’s belief in his authority to impart the Word of God.
2. The Apostle Peter regarded Paul’s writings as Scripture. Peter was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Of the apostles, Peter is the apostle who correctly identified Jesus as the Son of God, the apostle whom Jesus referred to as the “rock” upon which He would build His church, the apostle to whom the keys to the kingdom of heaven were given (Matthew 16:16-19), and the apostle whom Jesus commissioned to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17).
Thus, as an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry as well as the apostle singled out to receive Christ’s special blessings and instructions, Peter would’ve been keenly aware of Jesus’ teachings.
With knowledge of the Savior’s teachings in mind, Peter arguably regarded Paul’s letters as inspired Scripture when he declared that Paul wrote: “with the wisdom that God gave him” (2 Peter 3:15).
In addition, Peter identified Paul’s writings as divinely authoritative when he stated that Paul’s letters include passages that are hard to understand and which ignorant and unstable people distort, “as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
Here, Peter is clearly putting Paul’s letters on par with the rest of Holy Scripture.
What Does This Mean?
While we’ll never know for sure if Paul regarded his letters to the early churches as sacred Scripture, we could reasonably presume that he did based on Paul’s own assertions on the matter as well as the Apostle Peter’s regard for Paul’s letters as Scripture.
This should delight many Christians who hold fast to the latter half of the New Testament for Paul’s example of how God can make an ardent believer out of anyone and for his well-known discussion on the importance of love (1 Corinthians 13).
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Dolores Smyth is a nationally published faith and parenting writer. She draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Connect with her @LolaWordSmyth.