Construction Status: Begun March 27. Material from memory or in books I have at home.
This is not a question one hears every day. Most people who know about St. Paul would just assume that he was a historical person based on Christian Scripture and the traditions of the Christian Church. Nevertheless, some argue that Paul was a fictional character and I decided to look into the question.
It might be useful to set some expectations at the outset. What kind of evidence would we expect to find? Ancient writers don't write history and biography the way modern western historians do it. Ancient biographers tried to demonstrate the virtues and heroic nature of their subjects rather than to portray them "warts and all". We should not be surprised that a biographical account of the life of Paul might look more like a novel than a history book. Further, I should caution the reader about arguments from the absence of evidence, because many ancient historical documents have been lost; for example, a considerable portion of the Roman historian Tacitus is missing.
Going into this project, I would invoke Occham's Razor and assert that the simplest explanation for the writings and traditions of St. Paul is that there was a real person by that name who wrote the literature attributed to him and upon whom the traditions are based. We know from Roman historical records that the Christian religion existed in ancient times. It had to come from somewhere.
I am going to try to get good evidence for this essay and in particular to avoid overly pious, crank, popular (i.e. not scholarly) or obsolete material. The primary evidence for Paul is the New Testament, and that is where the bulk of the discussion must lie.
Citations from the Britannica article on "The Study of History" in the section on ancient history and biography:
The writer of history was supposed to aim at giving a true story, but the biographer was entitled to treat historical personages in a manner that resembled legend.
In antiquity a writer of history was usually preoccupied at least as much with style as with content.... The historian was to introduce all manner of literary embellishments but was also to stress the moral lessons of his story. At its worst this type of historiography could lead to serious misrepresentations of the past. Among the Roman historians, Livy (died AD 17) was an important practitioner of this kind of writing, which was particularly well suited to the patriotic myths that he was trying to immortalize, of a Rome that owed its magnificent destiny to the unique virtues of its citizens and the perfection of its antique institutions. Some outstanding historians, such as Polybius (2nd century BC) and Caesar (died 44 BC), eschewed these rhetorical precepts, but in all the ancient writers an important element of literary artifice was always present. This is one of the reasons why they offend modern standards, which demand absolute accuracy in the presentation of evidence. One of the most striking contrasts is the reluctance of the ancient historians to quote documents. Tacitus might rely heavily on the archives of the Roman Senate, but he never mentions his documentary sources....
The only avowedly historical book in [the New Testament] is the Acts of the Apostles.
Between the Acts of the Apostles, dating probably from the late 1st century, and the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea (died c. 340) and his contemporaries in the first quarter of the 4th century, there is an almost complete gap in Christian historiography.
From the 1997 Britannica article," The Apostle Paul":
The Apostle Paul is an outstanding figure in the history of Christianity. Converted only a few years after the death of Jesus, he became the leading Apostle (missionary) of the new movement and played a decisive part in extending it beyond the limits of Judaism to become a worldwide religion. His surviving letters are the earliest extant Christian writings. They reveal both theological skill and pastoral understanding and have had lasting importance for Christian life and thought.
There are no reliable sources for Paul's life outside the New Testament. The primary source is his own letters. Of these, Romans, I and II Corinthians, and Galatians are indisputably genuine. Most scholars also accept Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon. Opinion is divided about Ephesians, Colossians, and II Thessalonians. The Pastoral Letters (I and II Timothy and Titus) are held by many scholars to have been written considerably later than the time of Paul. The story of Paul's conversion and missionary career is given in Acts, probably written many years after his death. Some sections dealing with sea journeys may be derived from the diary of a companion of Paul. Traditionally this was thought to be Luke, the evangelist and author of Acts, a view still held by a number of scholars.
Paul was a Jew, born, perhaps in AD 10, at Tarsus, a city in Cilicia on the main trade route between East and West, and the home of famous Stoic philosophers. Like many of the Jews there he inherited Roman citizenship, probably granted by the Romans as a reward for mercenary service in the previous century. This fact explains his two names. He used his Jewish name, Saul, within the Jewish community and his Roman surname, Paul, when speaking Greek. Though he had a strict Jewish upbringing, he also grew up with a good command of idiomatic Greek and the experience of a cosmopolitan city, which fitted him for his special vocation to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). At some stage he became an enthusiastic member of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect that promoted purity and fidelity to the Law of Moses. According to Acts, he received training as a rabbi in Jerusalem under Gamaliel I. His knowledge of the Law and of rabbinic methods of interpreting it is evident in his letters. Like most rabbis he supported himself with a manual trade--tent making--probably learned from his father. It is clear that he
never met Jesus while in Jerusalem, if, indeed, he was there before the Crucifixion. He learned enough about Jesus and his followers, however, to regard the Christian movement as a threat to the Pharisaic Judaism that he had embraced so eagerly. Thus he first appears on the scene of history as a persecutor of the newly founded church.
Serious persecution of Christians first arose in connection with converts among the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) in Jerusalem. When one of them, Stephen, was stoned to death, the murderers "laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58). At that time Paul shared the sense of outrage aroused by the Hellenist converts. They had not only proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and heavenly Lord, a man who had been crucified and therefore accursed by God (Deut. 21:23), but they also claimed that the temple and its sacrifices were superseded by the sacrificial death of Jesus and that therefore the Law could be disregarded (the subject of another curse, Deut. 27:26). Paul thus joined in the effort to stamp out the Christian movement. The Hellenist converts fled to the foreign cities where they had family connections, while the original Aramaic-speaking group in Jerusalem kept a low profile to avoid giving provocation.
Paul, in Galatians, bears out the impression given in Acts that he was converted as a result of a vision on the road to Damascus, on his way to apprehend some of the scattered converts. His own account is tantalizingly brief: "he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles" (Gal. 1:15-16). The longer description in Acts, given three times, dramatizes what may have been essentially an inward experience. It was certainly a moment of revelation, changing Paul from bitter enmity to lifelong dedication to the Christian cause.
Paul's conversion has often been explained psychologically as the resolution of an inner conflict. But the notion that Paul was tormented by scruples rests on a misunderstanding of Rom. 7. This chapter is concerned not with autobiography but with universal experience seen in the light of mature Christian
understanding. Paul would not have spoken in these terms before his conversion. In fact, it is clear from other passages that his early life was free from such struggle. He excelled in zeal for the Law, and by its standards his life was blameless.
Paul's own account is much more in keeping with Old Testament callings of a prophet. Though it is impossible to state exactly what happened, the central feature was certainly his vision of Jesus in glory. It convinced him that Jesus was risen from the dead and exalted as Lord in heaven, as the Christians claimed. It also was proof that Jesus had been crucified wrongfully. Hence the curse did not apply, and his death could be understood as a sacrifice on behalf of others. To Paul this had universal significance. Believing, like many Jews of his time, that God's final Day of Judgment, on which he would come to free the world from evil and to establish lasting peace and righteousness, was imminent, Paul then saw his vocation to be a missionary to people of every nation to prepare them for God's coming. The new feature of this expectation was the place accorded to Jesus Christ. In agreement with the earliest apostolic preaching, Paul believed that Jesus, having died for the sins of mankind, was now reserved in heaven as God's agent for the judgment. Those that believed in him and acknowledged him as Lord would
have him as their deliverer on that day. Thus faith in Christ became the foundation of Paul's preaching. Along with this he proclaimed the love of God shown in the sacrificial death of Christ, who "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). All his devotion was transferred to this new centre. Formerly his energy had been directed to preparing people for God's Kingdom by imposing on them strict Pharisaic interpretation of the Law. Now all that seemed useless in the light of what God himself had done for humanity through Jesus. Henceforth his one aim was to proclaim the faith of Jesus as Lord everywhere.
Immediately after his conversion Paul spent a period of solitude in Arabia. He then took up residence in Damascus. There presumably he established contact with the Christians he had originally planned to harm and received from them information about Jesus and his teaching as well as experience of Christian fellowship. Damascus was the base for his first missionary work, but nothing is known of the effects of his mission in the region.
Paul in Antioch.
After three years his work in Damascus came to an abrupt end. Somehow he had fallen foul of the ethnarch (governor) of the region of Nabataean Arabia. The ethnarch set a watch on the gates of Damascus, but Paul escaped over the wall in a basket and made his way to Jerusalem. There he met Peter, the Apostle, and James, the Lord's brother. This was an important meeting, for it established Paul as a recognized Apostle alongside the founders of the church at Jerusalem. The visit was brief, and Paul did not meet the Christian communities in the vicinity. Most likely this was due to the danger of reprisals from the Pharisees, who regarded Paul as a renegade. Therefore, after only two weeks, he set out on a new mission to Cilicia and Syria, with a base in his native city of Tarsus. About this mission, again, there is no information.
At some point Paul moved to Antioch, the capital of Syria, to assist Barnabas in his successful mission there. The converts included a large number of Gentiles. This eventually led to a serious crisis, in which Paul emerged as the champion of the Gentiles. The controversy, which lasted several years, stimulated Paul's most important contribution to Christian theology. His stand on behalf of the Gentiles ensured that Christianity became not just a Jewish sect but a universal religion. The point at issue was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Primitive Christianity was a closely knit fellowship with the common meal and the Eucharist (thanksgiving for the sacrificial death of Christ) at the heart of it. But the Jewish purity rules made Jews reluctant to eat with Gentiles for fear of transgressing the Law. Jesus had taught that purity of heart was more important than attention to rules, but this did not lead his followers to abandon them. But at Antioch the accession of Gentile converts created a mixed congregation, in which the Jewish members were content to eat with the Gentiles for the sake of Christian fellowship. In Jerusalem, however, since the death of Stephen, the Christians had had to take great care not to offend Jewish susceptibilities, and the prospect of making headway in the mission there depended on their being seen as faithful to the Law. Thus reports of the liberal attitude of the Christians in Antioch were bound to be extremely damaging. Some of the Jerusalem Christians who were converted Pharisees even held the view that Gentile converts should be required to accept circumcision and the obligations of the Law.
Paul states in Galatians that he did not revisit Jerusalem for 14 years, and, when he finally did so, it was to deal with the problem of Gentile membership of the church. This conflicts with the information in Acts, which tells of a visit by Paul and Barnabas to bring relief during a famine at some time in AD 47-49. Acts then describes a further visit to deal with the Gentile issue. Most scholars today identify the latter visit with that described in Galatians. This means that Luke, in writing Acts on the basis of various sources, either presented twice what was actually one visit or wrongly included Paul's name in the earlier relief visit.
Antioch continued to be Paul's base for further pioneering work. Acts records three itineraries, generally referred to as missionary journeys, spanning a number of years. The second visit to Jerusalem probably took place at the end of the first of these.
First missionary journey.
Acts describes how Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Barnabas' cousin John Mark, set out for Cyprus, visiting Salamis and Paphos. They then crossed to the mainland (modern Turkey), landing at Perga (near modern Murtana), but Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. They worked in Pisidia and Pamphylia, which formed the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia, beginning in Pisidian Antioch (near modern Yalvaç). Acts records a sermon that Paul preached in the synagogue, which is a fine specimen of the presentation of the faith to a Jewish audience in New Testament times. After further stops at Iconium (modern Konya), Lystra (near modern Hatunsaray), and Derbe (unidentified), they retraced their steps to Perga and the port of Attalia (modern Antalya) and then sailed back to Antioch.
It is unclear from this account how many of the new converts were drawn from local Jewish communities and how many were Gentiles. The monotheism and strong morality of the Jews always attracted to the synagogues Gentiles who proved to be receptive to the Christian mission, especially as Paul did not require circumcision and observance of the Law for Christian fellowship. In some places the new congregations may have been entirely composed of Gentiles.
At this time Greek and Roman traditional religion was losing its hold, and a deputation had come from Jerusalem to Antioch to insist that the Gentile converts should be circumcised. This led to Paul's second visit to Jerusalem. Paul says that he and Barnabas went "by revelation," perhaps meaning as a result of a message from a prophet, not in response to a summons from Jerusalem as stated in Acts. The party from Antioch included Titus, a Gentile whom Paul had taken into his mission team.
It is almost impossible to harmonize the information in Acts 15 and Gal. 2, but it is best to regard them as accounts of the same occasion. In Jerusalem there seem to have been three main actions. First, Paul and Barnabas had a private consultation with James, Peter, and John, in which they compared the content of their mission preaching and established that they were in basic agreement. This confirmed Paul's contention that the gospel message did not require the circumcision of Gentile converts. A campaign by the hard-line party to have Titus circumcised was firmly resisted. Second, a larger conference was convened in order to inform all about the Gentile mission so that they should have no doubt that the power of the Holy Spirit had been at work. This resulted in the decision that the Gentile mission should continue without pressure to Judaize converts. Paul would carry this on from Antioch, while Peter would continue the mission among Jews from the base at Jerusalem. Paul, however, was urged to bear in mind the precarious position of the Jerusalem church. Third, a letter was sent to Antioch with minimum rules for Gentile converts: to abstain from meat used in pagan sacrifices, to use only kosher meat according to Jewish custom, and to observe Jewish restrictions on sexual relationships. Later events show that the contents of this letter were unknown to Paul, and it is conjectured that it belongs to a later attempt to
regulate relationships with the numerous Jewish Christian congregations of Judaea and Syria after Paul had ceased to have close contact with Antioch.
Paul's view had been endorsed by Peter, who subsequently visited the church in Antioch. Apparently he had no difficulty in sharing in the life of the mixed congregation. Yet when some hard-liners came from Jerusalem, Peter felt compelled to withdraw from meals with Gentile members. Other Jewish members also yielded to the pressure, including even Barnabas. Paul, however, was adamant in his conviction that this was fundamentally wrong. This crisis could never have arisen if the letter from Jerusalem had already been sent; it must have been due to differing views of the implications of what had been agreed. Not only Paul but also Peter and the main body in Jerusalem had assumed that the purity rules would not be allowed to interfere with table fellowship in mixed congregations. But it is clear from the trouble over Titus that the hard-liners would demand separation into two groups and then claim that the unity of the congregation would require Judaizing of the Gentile converts. Paul insisted on his own understanding of the agreement, and the visitors left.
Second missionary journey.
Paul then planned to revisit the churches of south Galatia. Barnabas wished to take Mark, but Paul refused in view of his previous failure. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, and nothing more is said about them in Acts. The subsequent account is entirely concentrated on Paul, who took with him Silas, also a Roman citizen (Roman name Silvanus). They went overland to Galatia. At Lystra Paul took into his team Timothy, a Gentile with a Jewish mother, who is mentioned with Silas in Paul's letters. The claim of Acts that Paul circumcised him seems improbable in view of the earlier decisions but is not impossible if the work was mainly among Jewish communities.
Because Paul hoped to establish the church in large centres of influence, he planned to go to Ephesus, the principal city of the province of Asia and a port on the Aegean coast. He was, however, prevented from doing so "by the Holy Spirit" (perhaps another reference to Christian prophecy). Instead he turned toward the large cities of Bithynia in the north. Possibly the Gentile churches of north Galatia, to which the letter to the Galatians is addressed, were founded on the way. Once more his plans were prevented, and so he moved northwest to Troas. From there, in response to a vision, he sailed to Macedonia and founded churches at Philippi, Thessalonica (modern Thessaloníki, Greece), and Beroea. Philippi, a Roman colony on the Via Egnatia, the major route across Greece, produced a loyal group of Gentile converts, who frequently contributed funds to Paul in later years. Acts tells how Paul and Silas were imprisoned there but released when they revealed their Roman citizenship. At Thessalonica and Beroea trouble from hostile Jews compelled Paul to move on to Athens. After a short stay there, during which he is said to have addressed the council of the Areopagus, he went on to Corinth. The speech, as given in Acts, was an attempt to meet the needs of a philosophically trained audience. No church was founded in Athens.
The events of that time are reflected in I Thessalonians, perhaps the earliest of Paul's letters, written after Silas and Timothy had joined Paul at Corinth. The letter expressed his great anxiety for this newly founded church in Thessalonica, which he had had to leave hurriedly, having been accused of treason for proclaiming Christ as a rival emperor. It emerges from the letter that he had taught the Gentile audience to turn "to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1:9-10). This can be taken as a good example of Paul's basic mission preaching. Timothy had reported that the converts were anxious about their fate because some of them had already died. Paul explained that the time of Christ's coming (Parousia) for judgment was unknown, but both living and dead who had faith in him would be claimed by him as his own and saved for the everlasting kingdom. II Thessalonians is regarded by some as a supplementary letter, written shortly afterward, but there is doubt about its authenticity. It contains details of the events that are to precede the Parousia (unfortunately these details are by no means easy to understand).
Paul was in low spirits when he reached Corinth after the failure at Athens. At Corinth he met a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, tentmakers like himself, who became his lifelong friends. They had recently come from Rome, following an edict of the emperor Claudius expelling all Jews from the capital. Possibly they had already become Christians in Rome. In Corinth Paul at last was able to exercise a long and fruitful ministry in a great trading centre. Acts records an incident in which Paul was brought before the proconsul Gallio. This is important for dating Paul's career because an inscription discovered at Delphi proves that Gallio began his year of office in AD 51. Paul had probably arrived in the previous year. When he left Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla accompanied him to Ephesus, but he went on alone by sea to Caesarea for Jerusalem and from there to Antioch.
Third missionary journey.
Paul had by then established churches in Asia Minor and Greece, with a major centre at Corinth, and had begun work in the equally important Ephesus. Then followed a period of consolidation. He went overland to Ephesus, which became his base for the next three years. Acts gives little detail, but he must have founded the churches at Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea in the Lycus Valley during this period. A group of followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus is mentioned, and there were probably other Christian missionaries working in the same region. References in his letters to fighting wild beasts at Ephesus and to imprisonment show that he faced great hazards.
This was the period of Paul's most important letters. His correspondence with Corinth shows the grave difficulties that were liable to arise. I Corinthians refers to a previous letter urging the Christians not to associate with immoral persons, but it has not survived. In I Corinthians Paul tackles a whole array of problems. Rival groups were claiming the authority of different teachers (Peter, Apollos, and Paul himself). A case of incest had gone unrebuked. Paul's teaching on freedom from the Law had been twisted to justify licentiousness. There were problems of marriage and divorce. The question of which foods a Gentile Christian might eat was causing problems of conscience. There was disorderly conduct at the Eucharist (Lord's Supper). In dealing with these matters Paul showed knowledge of Jesus' teaching on marriage, and he gave the account of the Last Supper in its oldest known form. A section on the gifts of the Holy Spirit includes his famous chapter on love (chapter 13) and regulates the practice of speaking with tongues. A long section on resurrection shows that, while teaching that Christian life was already participation in the risen Christ, Paul still thought that the Parousia was near and that the full experience of eternal life lay beyond this event.
Before long, however, there were fresh troubles at Corinth. Intruders from another church were trying to undermine Paul's authority. He dashed to Corinth but failed to restore confidence. He returned to Ephesus and wrote a severe letter (possibly partly preserved in II Cor. 10-13), which he regretted as soon as Titus had left with it. Paul had intended to work at Troas but was so anxious about Corinth that he went on to Macedonia instead in the hope of meeting Titus on his return. Titus returned with the good news that the severe letter had accomplished its purpose. With tremendous relief Paul wrote II Corinthians (perhaps only chapters 1-9), which is full of the theme of reconciliation: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (5:19). Paul also gave further teaching on the resurrection of the body in terms of renewal and transformation into the state of glory.
Another theme of II Corinthians is a collection for the poor church of Jerusalem, a gift that Paul intended to symbolize the unity between the Jewish and Gentile churches. Behind this project was the continuing problem of the Judaizing party. This comes to the fore in Galatians, probably written during this period. The letter is concerned with the attempt of some Jewish Christians to persuade the Gentile Christians of Galatia to be circumcised and keep the Law. Here Paul lays out his doctrine of justification by faith, generally reckoned his most important contribution to Christian theology, which was to reach its classic expression in Romans.
From Macedonia Paul went to Corinth, and it was during his three months there that he wrote to the Christians in Rome. The letter was written ostensibly to seek their help in his plan to evangelize the far west (Spain is mentioned) after taking the collection to Jerusalem. In fact, he clearly felt the need to win their support for his position on the Judaizing issue, and he presented the case at length. God's plan, he argued, is for universal salvation. This is God's gift available through faith in the sacrificial death of Christ. By itself the Law cannot bring salvation. It can show the nature of human sin but is powerless to make people righteous. Paul's opponents feared that without the Law the Gentile converts would be liable to libertine behaviour (as had happened at Corinth). Paul replied that faith in Christ opens the believer to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. Then the opponents complained that Paul's argument left no room for the privileged position of the Jews as God's chosen people. Paul replied that, though many Jews had failed to respond to the gospel, the success of the mission to the Gentiles would prompt them to seek salvation at the end of time, "and so all Israel [would] be saved" (Rom. 11:26). Then the universe would reach the fulfillment of its purpose, and the final transformation could begin.
Arrest and imprisonment.
At the end of the letter Paul expressed his fear of danger from the Jews in Jerusalem and even hinted that the church there might not feel able to accept the collection. It seems that both these fears were realized. Acts tells that Paul was accompanied by delegates from the Gentile churches but does not mention the
collection. This omission is best explained on the assumption that Luke did not wish to say that the church in Jerusalem did not dare to accept it. If so, Paul's hope that it would symbolize the gathering of the Gentiles into the one family of God was disappointed. In Jerusalem Paul was mistakenly accused of bringing one of the Gentile delegates into the inner courts of the Temple, beyond the barrier excluding Gentiles. He was arrested, partly to save his life from the mob, but given good treatment on account of his Roman citizenship. When a plot against his life came to light, he was removed to Caesarea, the Roman military headquarters. The governor Felix kept him in prison to avoid antagonizing the Jewish authorities. Two years later Felix's successor, Festus, wanted to send him to Jerusalem for trial,
but Paul refused to go and appealed to Caesar.
The journey to Rome began in late autumn, but a shipwreck delayed the travelers for three months at Malta, so that they arrived in Rome in the spring of AD 60. There Paul was kept under house arrest for two years awaiting trial. At this point the narrative of Acts closes, and it is left to the reader to guess what
happened. As long as the Pastoral Letters were accepted as genuine, their evidence demanded the hypothesis of acquittal, further work in Greece, Asia Minor, and even Crete, before a second arrest, return to Rome, and sentence to death. Now that these letters are recognized to be pseudonymous, there is no reason to suppose that Paul was acquitted at all.
Paul wrote several letters during captivity. These might have been written during an earlier imprisonment in Ephesus or, perhaps, while he was at Caesarea, but Rome seems most likely. Of the four captivity letters, Philippians and Philemon are generally accepted as genuine; Colossians and Ephesians are questioned. The letter to Philemon, a Christian of Colossae, concerns his runaway slave whom Paul has converted in prison and now sends back to him "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother" (verse 16). This letter, with its sensitive handling of a delicate situation, is a gem among the Pauline writings. Philippians is a serene acknowledgement of the generosity of the Christians at Philippi. Colossians is concerned with trouble from false teachers at Colossae, conjectured to be an unorthodox fringe sect of Judaism. In response, Christ is presented as the true wisdom of God, embodying his whole plan of salvation. Ephesians is an eloquent, perhaps overly rhetorical, statement of the privilege of the Gentiles, who in Christ enjoy the status of God's chosen people. Through his death Christ "has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility" (2:14).
Achievement and influence.
Paul's lasting monument is the worldwide Christian Church. Though he was not the first to preach to the Gentiles, his resolute stand against the Judaizing party was decisive for future progress. It can be justly claimed that it was due to Paul more than anyone else that Christianity grew from being a small sect within Judaism to become a world religion.
Paul's influence continued after his death. The Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus were written in Paul's name to promote fidelity to his teaching, probably around the end of the 1st century. At the same time, Paul's surviving letters were collected for general circulation. They quickly became a standard of reference for Christian teaching. In particular, theories of atonement (the reconciliation of mankind to God through the sacrificial death of Christ) have always relied heavily on Paul.
In the Western (Latin) half of Christendom Paul had a profound effect upon the history of the church through the writings of St. Augustine. The Pelagian controversy concerning grace and free will turned on the interpretation of passages in Paul's letter to the Romans. In arguing for the necessity of divine grace for salvation, Augustine built on Paul's idea of predestination, correctly interpreting Paul's idea as a reference to God's predestined plan of universal salvation and as a concept that did not necessarily conflict with the exercise of free will. The reformers of the 16th century were also deeply indebted to Paul. Martin Luther seized on the doctrine of justification by faith and made the distinction between faith and works the basis of his attack on the late medieval church. John Calvin drew from Paul his concept of the church as the company of the elect, using the idea of predestination and adding that predestination to salvation belongs only to the elect. Thus Paul's teaching came through the influence of Augustine to dominate the Reformation and its legacy in the Lutheran and Calvinist churches of modern Protestantism. These issues, however, never had the same prominence in the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Modern study of Paul has tried to reach behind these controversies and to see Paul in his true context of the rise of Christianity. Once the basis of Paul's thought in the context of Jewish concepts of his time is understood in the light of modern scholarship, uncompromising predestinarian views of some of Calvin's followers can be seen to be an overly rigid interpretation of Paul's meaning. Attempts to derive Paul's ideas from Greek or Gnostic influences have been largely abandoned. Paul stands out more clearly as a Christian Jew, whose conversion experience convinced him that Christ was the universal Lord under God, the agent and leader of God's kingdom. Paul thus maintained that through Christ every barrier is broken down: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). (B.L.)
St. Paul, according to Christian Scripture was a Jew, a Pharisee, converted to Christianity who became a zealous preacher of the Christian Gospel and a founder of Churches. Tradition has it that Paul was executed in Rome some time prior to 64 AD. Biographical material about Paul is found in the New Testament book of Acts and a number of epistles (letters) attributed to Paul make up a large part of the New Testament.
There is some dispute among scholars as to whether all of the epistles attributed to Paul are actually by him or whether some are written in his name by others. The technical term for spurious writings attributed to biblical characters is "pseudepigrapha".
At this point, I will catalog the references to St. Paul in the New Testament:
The New Testament book of Acts is part 2 of a two part work which modern scholars frequently refer to as "Luke - Acts". Acts, according to tradition, was written by Luke, a physician and companion of Paul on some of his journeys. Acts is an exciting story in the literary sense. In fact, it is such a good read that the argument has been made that it is fiction. We'll spend some quality time with that assertion later. Suffice it to say at this point is that given the literary genre's of the time, we would expect a story like Acts to read like a hero story whether it is based on fact or not.
Here I'll want to discuss some of the "personal touches" in Acts and Paul's letters that distinguish them from hero stories--i.e. that Paul is more than a 2-dimensional character.
For a discussion of the Epistles of St. Paul, see New Testament Introduction by Donald Guthrie.
2 Peter may have been written around the year 125 AD and probably not by the Apostle Peter.
The Apostolic Fathers were those writers who traditionally were the disciples of the Apostles (the 12 disciples of Jesus plus St. Paul). There are three Fathers from whom we have surviving writings. They are Clement of Alexandria, Ignatious of Antioch and Polycarp. All three make mention of Paul. [Note: The Apostolic Fathers wrote to churches as did the New Testament writers and as a result the names given to these letters sometimes duplicate the names of New Testament Books.]
The authorship and dates of the works cited below is a topic of debate among scholars. The arguments fill many books. Suffice it to say at this point that there are disputes on the topic. Lightfoot [The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, Second Edition by J. B. Lightfoot] treats these writings in 5 volumes. He says regarding the genuineness of the letter from Clement, "Few writings of antiquity are guaranteed by so many and various testimonies."
Lightfoot argues that the phrase "the good Apostles" implies that Clement had personal acquaintance with them [Lightfoot, Clement, Part 1, p. 73].
Again, I would caution the reader that there are disputes about ancient writings. You may well find an argument that Polycarp's letter is a forgery, or that the reference to St. Paul is a forgery. However, one must examine both sides of these arguments. For this, I would again mention Lightfoot who discusses both sides of these questions. Note: Polycarp was most likely born too late to have personally known Paul.
In dealing with these accounts, we must ask two important questions: Is the document genuine and do we have any reason to think the writer knew what he was talking about.
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