Reading Apostle Paul 1

Reading Apostle Paul 1

In thinking each year about what we should be interested in covering in a Christian Sunday School class, I often think that well, we should try to return to something about Paul at least once a year, even if it for only a few weeks.

Paul is the most important, most controversial, and least understood figure in earliest Christianity. A Jewish persecutor of Jesus’s first followers, he became Christianity’s most visible and provocative advocate, a key agent in extending membership to gentiles. Embattled during his lifetime, Paul continues to polarize opinion.

Paul dominates the New Testament canon: His adventures are in the Acts of the Apostles, and his 13 letters are the core of the collection that became the New Testament. Paul’s has been the most distinctive, if not the most dominant, voice in Christian theology, so that coming to grips with Christianity has meant coming to grips with Paul.

The Importance of Paul in Christianity

Because his letters became part of the Christian Bible, Paul had the misfortune of becoming memorialized as Scripture.

His writings have been endlessly scoured as sources for Christian doctrine and morals.

His personality has been just as endlessly analyzed as one of the great converters (or turncoats, depending on one’s perspective) in history.

His views on women, slaves, and homosexuals continue to be contentious.

Paul was and is hard to understand. And if you sometimes do not understand why he said some things don’t forget that you are in good company. For our own New Testament we find Peter commenting on Paul’s letters in 2nd Peter 3:16:

15 …“our dear friend and brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, 16 speaking of these things in all his letters. Some of his remarks are hard to understand, and people who are ignorant and whose faith is weak twist them to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.

Paul’s Life and Timeline

c. A.D. 6 Born a Roman citizen to Jewish parents in Tarsus (in modern eastern Turkey)

c. 20–30 Studies Torah in Jerusalem with Gamaliel; becomes a Pharisee

c. 30–33 Persecutes followers of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem and Judea


c. 33–36 Converted on the way to Damascus; spends three years in Arabia; returns to Damascus to preach Jesus as Messiah

c. 36 Flees Damascus because of persecution; visits Jerusalem and meets with the apostles

36–44 Preaches in Tarsus and surrounding region

44–46 Invited by Barnabas to teach in Antioch

46 With Barnabas visits Jerusalem to bring a famine relief offering

47–48 First missionary journey with Barnabas, to Cyprus and Galatia.

49 At the Council of Jerusalem, Paul argues successfully that Gentile Christians need not follow Jewish practices; returns to Antioch; confronts Peter over question of Jewish practices.

49–52 Second missionary journey with Silas, through Asia Minor and Greece; settles in Corinth; writes letters to Thessalonians.

52 Visits Jerusalem and Antioch briefly; begins third missionary journey.

52–55 Stays in Ephesus; writes the letters to Galatians and Corinthians.

55–57 Travels through Greece and possibly Illyricum (modern Yugoslavia); writes letter to Romans.

57–59 Returns to Jerusalem and arrested; imprisoned at Caesarea.

59–60 Appears before Festus and appeals to Caesar; voyage to Rome.

60–62 Under house arrest at Rome; writes letters to Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.

62–64 Released; journeys to Spain?; writes letters to Timothy and Titus.

64 Returns to Rome; martyred during persecution of Nero.

Controversial Paul

Some may be surprised about the idea that Paul has been very controversial. If you grew up in a Christian tradition all of your life you may not be that aware of how controversial the Apostle Paul has been to many scholars, both religious and secular.

But it is important to understand that Christianity is the world’s largest religion by far, with adherents in every part of the world. It’s principal narrative (Christian New Testament) is fairly small compared to many sacred texts. And the stories and writings regarding Paul make up a significant part of the text. As a result there are many outside critical scholars who have studied the New Testament canon extensively and see a significant difference between Paul and Jesus, which as outsiders they do not understand.  Their resulting interpretation often ends up being “good Jesus – bad Paul”. His letters, often sounding angry and emotional set up further controversies about his mental stability.

What is most surprising in all the controversy Paul creates is how little attention his critics actually pay to the things with which he was most concerned: the stability and integrity of the tiny Christian communities to which he wrote letters.

In our study we will pay some  attention precisely to a few of these letters to learn something about Paul in the context of early Christianity. What were the problems with which his congregations had to deal? What were the ways in which Paul characteristically dealt with his communities? How did his letters themselves sometimes create as many problems as they solved?  In reading in this way we can learn a great deal about some of the characteristics of these early churches. In particular, they all were quite different in their understanding of this Jesus movement, and it shows in the letters.

If we try to read Paul’s letters in this way, as attempts to improve the stability and integrity of the tiny communities he was caring for, we find a picture that is far more complex than simple positive or negative stereotypes of Paul, because it is a picture drawn from life, not from holy scripture.

We find a Paul who struggles to establish the authority to teach even in a community that he has founded (1 Corinthians), then finds its allegiance slipping away (2 Corinthians). We discover a Paul who writes to relieve a community’s mind (1 Thessalonians) only to find that he has enflamed its imagination (2 Thessalonians). We appreciate a Paul who seeks to realize an egalitarian ideal, and succeeds on some fronts (Galatians), but has only ambiguous results (Philemon & 1 Timothy) on others.

We see a Paul who sets out to raise money for a future trip and ends up creating a theological masterpiece (Romans), who finds himself captive in Roman prisons, yet able to reach into ever greater extensions of his mission (Colossians, Ephesians).

Perhaps most remarkably, we learn the heart of a Paul who became known as the Apostle of the Gentiles, yet to the end of his days, yearned for the saving of his own Jewish people.

If we are willing to work with Paul in this way as he thinks his way through the problems he faces in his many different communities,  the payoff is learning why Paul had such an enormous influence through these letters and remains a vital force in the religious life of millions of Christians today.

So, How Should We Read Paul?

Any interpretation of Paul and his role in shaping the Christian religion must begin with decisions concerning three critical issues. All three concern the definition of the subject and the way into its investigation.

The first is “personality or rhetoric?” Do we seek the psychology of Paul or an understanding of his letters?

The second is “genius or tradition?” Is Paul the inventor of Christianity, or is he part of a larger movement; is he a transmitter of tradition or a creative thinker?

The third issue, which concerns the sources for studying Paul, is “where is the real Paul?” This issue has two parts: Do we follow the Acts of the Apostles or his letters? And, among the letters attributed to Paul, which ones really come from him?

The dominant way of reading Paul’s letters by some scholars is as a direct revelation of his personality: The style is the person.

Paul’s apparently outsized ego is the biggest hurdle for some readers.

Some even find Paul’s personality to be unhealthy.

He is overly concerned for his authority and is suspicious of rivals.

He has apparent mood swings, and the classic text of Romans 7 seems to reveal a divided, troubled self.

But, in contrast, Paul shows signs of a healthy personality. He maintained stable relationships with many people, in trying circumstances, that extended over 20 years, he established communities and brought large tasks to completion over those 20 years.

1st Question: Personality or Rhetoric?

Concentration on Paul’s personality is mistaken.

The most important insight of the last 40 years has been the rediscovery of ancient Greek rhetoric and its application to Paul.

Paul uses the conventions of ancient rhetoric deliberately as instruments of persuasion. One of the key conventions was the capacity to speak and write in character, so that one spoke and wrote in a manner appropriate to circumstances, and audiences.

Thus, the “ego” we read in Paul’s letters in a rhetorical ego!

Instead of reading for personality, we will read them for argumentation.  And it changes your understanding of what he was saying.

2nd Question: Did Paul Invent Christianity?


His letters reveal multiple ways in which Paul uses earlier tradition, including baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the words of Jesus and the story of Jesus.

At the same time, Paul is a creative thinker.

Paul demands of readers that they think with him, even though his premises and modes of argumentation are not always clear.

So we will argue that Paul did not invent Christianity out of whole cloth, as charged by some critics, and was instead a transmitter of a tradition taught to him by others. But he was a creative interpreter of that tradition.

3rd Question: Where is the Real Paul?

A rather complex question - and one that has been in active debate for a long time.

This question has two parts: Do we follow the Acts of the Apostles or his letters? And, among the letters attributed to Paul, which ones really come from him?

The sources have areas of agreement and disagreement.

A reconstruction of Paul’s career must use both sources critically.

The Acts of the Apostles is a primary, second-hand source; that is, it is written after Paul’s life, probably from the 80s to 100.

For Paul’s thought, only his letters can serve as a source.

Which of the 13 letters attributed to Paul should be regarded as authentic?

The authorship of at least six letters is challenged on the basis of style, placement in Paul’s career, and consistency in theme.

The conventional position is that seven letters come from Paul in his lifetime (Romans, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and 1 Thessalonians), three of them have some claim to authenticity (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians), and three of them are certainly pseudonymous (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus).

Problems exist with the current consensus and the arguments used to reach it.

So – it is important at this time to step back a little from our 21st century mindset of reality into the first century in the Greco-Roman world of the ancient near east and talk about letter writing.

Let’s start by defining a few things that are important in understanding what the world of letters was like in ancient times.

The first thing we need to understand was that almost no one could read or write. Illiteracy was the norm.

So in this alternate worldview letters were not even meant to be read by individuals, they were meant to be performed by a skilled orator to an audience.

In this context we need to understand two scholarly terms frequently found in New Testament scholarship.  Pseudepigrapha and  amanuensis.

Amanuensis -  A person employed to write what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under the latter's authority.

Pseudepigrapha are falsely-attributed works, texts whose claimed author is not the true author, or a work whose real author attributed it to a figure of the past. Pseudepigraphy covers the false ascription of names of authors to works, even to authentic works that make no such claim within their text. Thus a widely accepted but incorrect attribution of authorship may make a completely authentic text pseudepigraphical.

Did Paul Write all of His Letters?

Almost certainly not.  Paul clearly made use of people who could act as his personal secretary. We see this multiple times in his letters.

Romans 16:21-23

21 Timothy my coworker says hello to you, and Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my relatives. 22 I’m Tertius, and I’m writing this letter to you in the Lord—hello!  23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, says hello to you. Erastus the city treasurer says hello to you, along with our brother Quartus.

Galatians 6:11

11 Look at the large letters I’m making with my own handwriting!

So Where Are We Going With This?

As I have previously mentioned, in the late 20th century, there has been an increased intensity in studying Paul, and two different approaches have begun to challenge the “traditional” interpretation of Paul’s letters, particularly as  how the letters have influenced Christian theology.

Therefore I have concluded that “serious” Christians, and this class is certainly full of serious Christians, might want to better understand what these new approaches are.

One of these approaches I have alluded to already, is the emerging understanding of the importance of Paul’s use of classic rhetorical argumentation used to change the thinking of the emerging churches that he addressed his letters to.

The second, is an emerging study that has been labeled “New Perspectives on Paul”, which has raised the issue that the basic assumptions inherent in Luther and Calvin’s interpretation of Paul are based on a misunderstanding of first century Judaism.

So over the next few weeks we are going to try to learn about these new “approaches” to understanding Paul and to use them to reread some of the key letters of Paul.

We will then, beginning next week, to dive into the strange world of Aristotelian rhetorical argumentation and its use in an oral/aural culture.

We will begin that with a review of the principle argumentative mode of the book of Romans, namely the Scholastic Diatribe, as proponents of this approach have identified most of Romans as a Scholastic Diatribe.

Further studies will attempt to gain insight into at least two of Paul’s important letters – 1st and 2nd Corinthians. 

And later we will delve into the “New Perspectives on Paul” to understand how that view of reading Paul has been quite controversial and threatening to traditional Christian theology.

See You Next Week!

Reading Apostle Paul 1     Introductory

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