Paul of Tarsus

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An early portrait of the Apostle Paul.
An early portrait of the Apostle Paul.
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Paul of Tarsus (originally Saul of Tarsus) or Paulus, also known as Saint Paul the Apostle, (CE 367) is widely considered to be central to the early development and adoption of Christianity. Many Christians view him as an important interpreter of the teachings of Jesus. Paul is described in the New Testament as a Hellenized Jew and Roman citizen from Tarsus (present-day Turkey), and as a great persecutor of Christians prior to his "Road to Damascus" experience, which brought about Saul's conversion to the religion. He made the first great efforts through his Epistles to Gentile communities to show that the God of Abraham is for all people, rather than for Jews only, though he did not originate the idea; for example, see Isaiah 56:6-8 or proselyte.

Paul is venerated as a Saint by all the churches that honor saints, including those of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican traditions, and some Lutheran sects and he is the patron saint of the City of London. He did much to advance Christianity among the Gentiles, and is considered to be one source (if not the primary source) of early Church doctrine, and the founder of Pauline Christianity. His epistles form a fundamental section of the New Testament. Some argue that he was instrumental in establishing Christianity as a distinct religion, rather than a sect of Judaism.

Due to his body of work and his undoubted influence on the development of Christianity, many modern scholars have considered him the founder of Christianity, who modified Jesus' teachings and added important new doctrines. However, this view remains controversial. Many Christian scholars say that no teachings were modified, and assert that Paul taught in complete harmony with Jesus.


Textual challenges

In reconstructing the events of Paul's life, we have two sources, written either during, or soon after, the period of his life: Paul's own surviving letters (although his authorship of some of these has been disputed; see below), and the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, which at several points draws from the record of an eyewitness (the so-called "we passages"). However, both sources have weaknesses: Paul's surviving letters were written during a short period of his life, perhaps only between AD 50 and 58, and the authenticity of some is questioned; and the author of Acts makes a number of statements that have drawn suspicion (e.g., the claim that Paul was present at the death of Stephen [7:58]).

There is also the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. However, the events recorded in this work do not coincide with any of the events recorded in either Paul's letters or Acts, and scholars usually dismiss this as a 2nd century novel.

Because of the problems with the two contemporary sources, as Raymond E. Brown explains (An Introduction to the New Testament, 1998), historians take one of four approaches:

  1. the traditional approach is to completely trust the narrative of Acts, and fit the materials from Paul's letters into that narrative;
  2. the approach used by a number of modern scholars, which is to distrust Acts; sometimes entirely; and to use the material from Paul's letters almost exclusively; or
  3. the approach to completely disregard anything that Paul has written. (Ebionite and Restorationist view)
  4. an intermediate approach, which treats Paul's testimony as primary, and supplements this evidence with material from Acts.

The following construction of a possible chronology is based on this fourth approach. There are many points of contention, even among scholars, but this outline reflects an effort to trace the major events of Paul's life.


Early life

Paul described himself as an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, a Pharisee (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5), and of the "Jews' religion ... more exceedingly zealous of the traditions" (Gal. 1:14 KJV). He was born as Saul in Tarsus of Cilicia and received a Jewish education. Paul had at least one brother Pudens according to Romans 16:13. An ancient text Acts of SS. Pudentiana and Praxedis indicates that Pudens' mother (and therefore Pauls), was Priscilla mentioned in Romans 16:3. According to Acts 22:3, he studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel; Thomas Robinson depicts Paul as coming to study in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, when Shammai became Nasi of the Sanhedrin, and during the rise to supremacy of the house of Shammai from AD 20. However, some scholars, such as Helmut Koester, have expressed their doubts that Paul either was in Jerusalem at this time or studied under this famous rabbi. Paul supported himself during his travels and while preaching -- a fact he alludes to a number of times (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:13–15); according to Acts 18:3, he worked as a tentmaker. According to Romans 16:2 he had a patroness (Koine Greek prostatis) named Phoebe [1]. On marriage, 1 Cor 7:8-9(NRSV), he wrote: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." On divorce, 1 Cor 7:10-16(NRSV), he cited Jesus: "To the married I give this command — not I but the Lord — that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife" (from Mark 10:11 and parallels), but then gave his own teaching: "To the rest I say — I and not the Lord — ... But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound."

Acts 22:25 and 27–29 also state that Paul was a Roman citizen -- a privilege he used a number of times to defend his dignity, including appealing his conviction in Iudaea Province to Rome. Because Paul himself never mentions this privilege, some scholars have expressed skepticism as to whether Paul actually possessed citizenship; such an honor was uncommon during his lifetime. The Ebionites and Restorationists argue that Paul was a Roman who tried to convert to Judaism so he could marry or court a Jewish woman and that his conversion was denied. They state that citizenship would have required participation in the Imperial Cult, which would have been in conflict with Hebrew religious ideals. Furthermore, this view contends that Paul embraced ideas from esoteric mystery religions of the time, later superimposing them on the teachings of Jesus.

Conversion and early teachings

Paul himself admits that he at first persecuted Christians (Phil. 3:6) but later embraced the belief that he had fought against. Acts 9:1–9 memorably describes the vision Paul had of Jesus on the road to Damascus, a vision that led him to dramatically reverse his opinion. Paul himself offers no clear description of the event in any of his surviving letters; and this, along with the fact that the author of Acts describes Paul's conversion with subtle differences in two later passages, has led some scholars to question whether Paul's vision actually occurred. However, Paul did write that Jesus appeared to him "last of all, as to one untimely born" (1 Cor. 15:8 KJV), and frequently claimed that his authority as "Apostle to the Gentiles" came directly from God (Gal. 1:13–16). In addition, an adequate explanation for Paul's conversion is lacking in the absence of his vision.

Bab Kisan where St. Paul escaped from Damascus
Bab Kisan where St. Paul escaped from Damascus

Following his stay in Damascus after conversion, Paul first went to live in the Nabataean kingdom (which he called "Arabia")for an unknown period, then came back to Damascus-- 18:55, 1 November 2005 (UTC) and, after three more years(Gal. 1:17;20) was forced to flee from that city under the cover of night (Acts 9:23;25; 2 Cor. 11:32ff.). By this time, Damascus was under Nabatean rule, being king Aretas IV Philopatris, which happened because emperor Caligula, in year 37 CE,ascending to roman throne after Tiberius death,transferred Damascus, formerly a Decapolis city, to the control of the king of Petra, as a good neighbourhood move.--Thomas Bawden 19:15, 1 November 2005 (UTC) He traveled to Jerusalem, where he met Saint Peter and James the Just.

Following this visit to Jerusalem, Paul's own writings and Acts slightly differ on his next activities. Acts states he went to Antioch, whence he set out to travel through Cyprus and southern Asia Minor to preach of Christ -- a labor that has come to be known as his "First Missionary Journey" (13:13, 14:28). Paul merely mentions that he preached in Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:18–20); and though Acts states that Paul later "went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches" (Acts 15:41), it does not explicitly state that these were churches founded by Paul on a previous journey.

These missionary journeys are considered the defining actions of Paul. For these journeys, Paul usually chose one or more companions for his travels. Barnabas, Silas, Titus, Timothy, John, surnamed Mark, Aquila and Priscilla all accompanied him for some or all of these travels. He endured hardships on these journeys: he was imprisoned in Philippi, was lashed and stoned several times, and almost murdered once (2 Cor. 11:24–27).

Consultations with the Apostles

About AD 49, after fourteen years of preaching, Paul travelled to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church—namely James the Just, Saint Peter, and John the Apostle; an event commonly known as the Council of Jerusalem. Here the accounts of Acts 15 and Paul's Galatians 2:1-10 come at things from fairly different angles. Acts states that Paul was the head of a delegation from the Antiochene church that came to discuss whether new converts needed to be circumcised. Some interpret this to mean whether Christians should continue to observe all of the Mosaic Laws, the most important being considered the practice of circumcision and dietary laws. This was said to be the result of men coming to Antioch from Judea and "teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 15:1 KJV) (see Legalism). Paul states that he had attended "in response to a revelation", to "lay before them the gospel ... [he] preached among the Gentiles" (Gal. 2:2 KJV), "because of false brethren secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage" (Gal. 2:4 KJV). He stated (Gal. 2:2) that he wanted to make sure what he had been teaching to the Gentile believers in previous years was correct— one interpretation is that his teaching was that Christ's fulfillment of the Mosaic Law by death and resurrection had freed Christian believers from the need to obey Mosaic Law. (see Antinomianism, Supersessionism). A rumor that Paul aimed to subvert the Law of Moses is cited in Acts 21:21, however, according to Acts, Paul followed James' instructions to show that he "kept and walked in the ways of the Law".

Returning to Acts 15, after much debate and discussion, Peter says that "[God] made no distinction between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], but cleansed their hearts by faith." (Acts 15:9 KJV), and James the Just states that "we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19 KJV). They sent a letter accompanied by some leaders from the Jerusalem church back with Paul and his party to confirm that the Gentile believers should not be overburdened by Mosaic Law beyond abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. (Acts 15:29). The letter also refers to Barnabas and Paul as "beloved" (Acts 15:25 KJV); compare Paul's account "James, Cephas [Peter] and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship" (Gal. 2:9 KJV).

Despite the agreement they achieved at the Council as understood by Paul, Paul recounts how he later publicly berated Peter (accusing him of Judaizing) over his reluctance to share a meal with gentile Christians in the "Incident of Antioch" (Gal. 2:11–18). Acts recounts nothing of this, saying that "some time later", Paul decided to leave Antioch, (giving the impression he lost the argument with Peter) -- usually considered the beginning of his Second Missionary Journey -- with the object of visiting the believers in the towns where he and Barnabas had preached earlier. However, Paul and Barnabas then had a severe falling-out over whether they should take John, surnamed Mark (Barnabas' cousin) with them, and they went on separate journeys (Acts 15:36–41)—Barnabas with John Mark, and Paul with Silas. Later on, there is some reconciliation—Paul mentions that John Mark is in prison with him, and tells the church in Colossae to welcome him if he comes to them (Col. 4:10).

Founding of churches

Statue of St Paul on the south door of St Mary's Church, Aylesbury, United Kingdom
Statue of St Paul on the south door of St Mary's Church, Aylesbury, United Kingdom

Paul spent the next few years traveling through western Asia Minor -- this time entering Macedonia -- and founded his first Christian church in Philippi, where he encountered harassment. Paul himself tersely describes his experience as "when we suffered and were shamefully treated" (1 Thess. 2:2 KJV); the author of Acts, perhaps drawing from a witness (this passage follows closely on one of the "we passages"), explains here that Paul exorcised a spirit from a female slave—ending her ability to tell fortunes, and reducing her value—an act the slave's owner claimed was theft, wherefore he had Paul briefly put in prison (Acts 16:22). Paul then traveled along the Via Egnatia to Thessalonica, where he stayed for some time, before departing for Greece. First he came to Athens, where he gave his legendary speech in Areios Pagos and said he was talking in the name of the Unknown God who was already worshipped there (17:16–34); then he traveled to Corinth, where he settled for three years, and wrote the earliest of his letters to survive, 1 Thessalonians.

Again he ran into legal trouble in Corinth: on the complaints of a group of Jews, he was brought before the proconsul Gallio, who decided that it was a minor matter not worth his attention and dismissed the charges (Acts 18:12–16). From an inscription in Delphi that mentions Gallio, we are able to securely date this hearing as having occurred in the year 52, providing a secure date for the chronology of Paul's life.

Following this hearing, Paul continued his preaching (usually called his Third Missionary Journey), traveling again through Asia Minor and Macedonia, to Antioch and back. He caused a great uproar in the theatre in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income due to Paul's activities. Their income relied on the sale of silver statues of the goddess Artemis, whom they worshipped, and the resulting mob almost killed him (19:21–41). As a result, when he later raised money for victims of a famine in Judea and his journey to Jerusalem took him through the province once again, he carefully sailed around Ephesus -- instead summoning his followers to meet him in Miletus (20:17–38).

Arrest, Rome, and later life

Upon Paul's arrival in Jerusalem with the relief funds requested at the Council of Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10), Ananias the High Priest made accusations against him that again resulted in his imprisonment (Acts 24:1–5). Paul claimed his right, as a Roman citizen, to be tried in Rome; but owing to the inaction of the governor Antonius Felix, Paul languished in confinement at Caesarea Palaestina for two years until a new governor, Porcius Festus, took office, held a hearing, and sent Paul by sea to Rome, where he spent another two years in detention (Acts 28:30).

Acts describes Paul's journey from Caesarea to Rome in some detail. The centurion Julius had shipped Paul and his fellow prisoners aboard a merchant vessel, whereon Luke and Aristarchus were able to take passage. As the season was advanced, the voyage was slow and difficult. They skirted the coasts of Syria, Cilicia, and Pamphylia. At Myra in Lycia, the prisoners were transferred to an Alexandrian vessel transporting wheat bound for Italy, but the winds being persistently contrary, a place in Crete called Goodhavens was reached with great difficulty, and Paul advised that they should spend the winter there. His advice was not followed, and the vessel, driven by the tempest, drifted aimlessly for fourteen whole days, being finally wrecked on the coast of Malta. The three months when navigation was considered most dangerous were spent there, where Paul is said to have healed the father of the Roman Governor Publius from fever, and other people who where sick, and preached the gospel; but with the first days of spring, all haste was made to resume the voyage.

Acts only recounts Paul's life until he arrived in Rome, around 61;and although the details are not specific it is clear that he traveled much of the eastern Mediterranian Sea coastal area for the twenty years, around 40 to 60, in what are often referred to as the Four Missionary Journeys, some argue Paul's own letters cease to furnish information about his activities long before then, although others (NIV Study Bibles, for example) date the last source of information being his 2nd letter to Timothy, describing him languishing in a "cold dungeon" and passages indicating he knew that his life was about to come to an end. While Paul's letters to the Ephesians and to Philemon may have been written while he was imprisoned in Rome (the traditional interpretation), they just as likely may have been written during his earlier imprisonments at Caesarea (first suggested in 1799), or at Ephesus (suggested in the early 20th century).

We are forced to turn to tradition for the details of Paul's final years. One tradition holds (attested as early as in 1 Clement 5:7, and in the Muratorian fragment) that Paul visited Spain and Britain; while this was his intention (Rom. 15:22–7), the evidence is inconclusive. Another tradition, that can also be traced to the first century, places his death in Rome. Eusebius of Caesarea states that Paul was beheaded in the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero; this event has been dated either to the year 64, when Rome was devastated by a fire, or a few years later, to 67. One Gaius, who wrote during the time of Pope Zephyrinus, mentions Paul's tomb as standing on the Via Ostensis. While there is little evidence to support any of these traditions, there is no evidence contradicting them either, nor any alternative tradition of Paul's eventual fate. It is commonly accepted that Paul died as a martyr in Rome. However his mortal remains were given to Oswy, King of Britain, by Pope Vitalian in AD 665 according to Bede in Ecclesiastical History from Vatican library sources.

Theological teachings

Paul had several major impacts on the nature of Christian doctrine. The first was that of the centrality of faith within the life of Jesus, and the ability to attain righteousness through such. (Romans 3:22, Galatians 3:22, etc.). It was not until his later letter to the Corinthians that he alluded to the possibility of eternal life, and in turn was held to supersede the value of the Mosaic Law -- a belief often expressed as "Jesus died for our sins." It is unclear how much of this idea is original to Paul; Jerome notes the existence in the 4th century of a Christian sect in Syria called the Ebionites who still observed the Mosaic Law, thus suggesting that at least some Christians may not have believed in the salvatory qualities of the Passion. The Didache does not have this concept. The Ethiopian Orthodox, who claim to be the only church free of Marcionism, still observe some Mosaic Laws.[2] The Apostolic Constitutions, generally dated around the 3rd century, though they claim to be from the Council of Jerusalem, are pro-Mosaic Law (see 2.36, 6.19, 7.23). The Acts of the Apostles definitely depicts Paul as a Mosaic Law-observant Jew. For example, in Acts 15 he accepts a subset (see Noahide Laws) of the Law for new Gentile converts; in Acts 16 he personally circumcises Timothy, a Greek, even though his father is Greek, because his mother is of the Jewish faith; and in Acts 21, James challenges Paul about the rumor that he is teaching rebellion against the Law. Paul goes to Herod's Temple with four Nazarite pledges to show that he is not; however, when some people from Asia Minor (Paul's home area) see him, it starts a major riot. The assumption that Paul was anti-Law, (indeed that even Jesus was anti-Law), found its largest proponent in Marcion and Marcionism. However, there is some evidence suggesting that Paul's concept of salvation coming from the death of Jesus was not unique amongst early Christians; Philippians 2:5–11, expounds a Christology similar to Paul's, and has long been identified as a hymn of early Christians dated as existing before Paul's letter.

This belief leads directly to the modern argument of justification by faith vs. justification by faith and works. Most Protestant denominations assert that Paul's teachings constitute a definitive statement that salvation comes only by faith and not by any external action of the believer. Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology disputes this, asserting that passages cited in Paul are being misinterpreted (as stated in 2nd Peter 3:16), and that this interpretation is directly contradicted by James 2:24(KJV): "man is justified by works, and not by faith alone."

Related to Paul's interpretation of the resurrection are his concepts of faith, which he explains through his explanation of Abraham, and of righteousness and the forgiveness for sins, using language that Augustine of Hippo later elaborated upon in his formulation of original sin.

In the New Testament, the doctrine of original sin is most clearly expressed by Paul's writings. His writings also express the doctrine that salvation is not achieved by conforming to Mosaic Law, but through faith in (or the faith of) Jesus. It is claimed this doctrine was confirmed at the Council of Jerusalem (see above). Paul was also one of the first Christians to expound the doctrine of Christ's divine nature.

One development clearly not original to Paul, (for example see Isaiah 56:6-8, Acts 10, proselyte), but for which he became a chief advocate, was the conversion of non-Jews (specifically those not circumcised) to Christianity. While a number of passages in the Gospels acknowledge that Gentiles might enjoy the benefits of Jesus, Paul claims to be "The Apostle to the Gentiles" -- a title that can be traced to Galatians 2:8. His missionary work amongst Gentiles helped to raise Christianity beyond its initial reputation as a dissident (if not heretical) Jewish sect (see Jewish Christians), at least with the populace, if not the Roman Imperial party (see Constantine the Great).

Paul also manifests a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Much of Romans, and particularly the ending to 2 Corinthians, portrays the Spirit in equality with God the Father and the Son. These references would later take shape as the doctrine of the Trinity. Paul's notion that the Holy Spirit dwells within all believers at the time of their conversion, is integral to his soteriology, ecclesiology, missiology, and eschatology.

Social views

A 19th-century romanticised portrait of Paul of Tarsus (his exact appearance is unknown)
A 19th-century romanticised portrait of Paul of Tarsus (his exact appearance is unknown)

Paul's writings on social issues were just as influential on the life and beliefs of Christian culture, as were his doctrinal statements.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul expounds on how a follower of Christ should live a radically different life - using heavenly standards instead of earthly ones. These standards have highly influenced Western society for centuries. He condemns such things as impurity, lust, greed, anger, slander, filthy language, lying, and racial divisions. In the same passage, Paul extols the virtues of compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude (Col. 3:1-17).

Paul condemned sexual immorality, saying "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body" (1 Cor. 6:18) -- based on the moral laws of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus (Matt. 5:27|27-28; see also 1 Cor 6:9ff.; Eph. 5:21–33, Col. 3:1-17). Other Pauline teachings are on freedom in Christ (Gal. 5, 1 Cor. 8, Col. 2:6-23), proper worship and church discipline (1 Cor. 11), the unity of believers (1 Cor. 1:10-17, Eph. 4:1-6), and marriage (1 Cor. 7, Eph. 5:21-33).

Paul may have been ambivalent towards slavery, saying that pending the near return of Jesus, people should focus on their faith and not on their social status (1 Cor. 7:21ff.). Due to his authority, these views have had an influence in Western society into modern times; Paul's apparent failure to explicitly condemn slavery in his Epistle to Philemon may have been sometimes interpreted as justifying the ownership of human beings.

Paul was not only establishing a new cultural awareness and a society of charity, but was also subverting Roman authority through language and action. Paul used titles to describe Jesus that were also claimed by the Roman Caesars, the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Seleucid Empire, and Alexander the Great. Augustus had claimed the titles "Lord of Lords", "King of Kings", and "Son of God" (as he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, whom he declared to be a god). Alexander the Great claimed to be the son of Zeus and a virgin. When Paul refers to Jesus' life as the "Good News", evangelion in Koine Greek, he is using another title claimed by Augustus. Ancient Roman inscriptions had called Augustus the evangelon (good news) for Rome. Paul used these titles to expand upon the ethic of Jesus with words from and for his own place and time in history. If Jesus is lord, then Caesar is not, and so on. The ethic being that the Christian's life is not to be lived out of hope for what the Roman Empire could provide (legal, martial and economic advantage) or the pharisaical system could provide (legalistic, self-dependent salvation), (against this view see E. P. Sanders), but out of hope in the Resurrection and promises of Jesus. The christianity which Paul envisioned was one in which adherents lived unburdened by the norms of Roman and Jewish society to freely follow the promise of an already established but not yet fully present Kingdom of God, promised by Jesus and instituted in his own Resurrection. The true subversive nature of Paul's ethic was not that the Church seek to subvert the Empire (vindication in full had already been promised), but that the Church not be subverted by the Empire in its wait for Christ's return.


See also Authorship of the Pauline Epistles

Paul wrote a number of letters to Christian churches and individuals. However, not all have been preserved; 1 Corinthians 5:9 alludes to a previous letter sent by him to the Christians in Corinth that has clearly been lost. Those letters that have survived are part of the New Testament canon, where they appear in order of length, from longest to shortest. A subgroup of these letters, written from captivity, are called the "prison-letters", and tradition states they were written in Rome.

His possible authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews had been questioned as early as Origen. Since at least 1750, a number of other letters commonly attributed to Paul have also been suspected by some of having been written by his followers in the 1st century.

The Pauline Corpus:

Note: those considered to be the "prison-letters" are marked with an asterisk (*).

Undisputed Pauline Epistles (almost certainly authentic)

The "Deutero-Pauline Epistles" (so called by those who suspect them to not be of Pauline authorship)

The Pastoral epistles of Paul (sometimes considered a separate category; and suspected by some not to be of Pauline authorship)

Two further epistles attributed by some to Paul have been lost:

  • Epistle to the Alexandrians (lost) Nothing is known of this letter apart from a brief mention in the Muratorian fragment that claims it was a Marcionite forgery.
  • Epistle to the Macedonians (lost)

The following epistles, agreed to be pseudepigraphical (non-canonical), present themselves as if written by Paul:

The Legendary tradition

From the mid-2nd century, orally transmitted legends that had grown up about the figure of Paul were embodied in written narratives, that applied contemporary literary conventions of realism and authenticity in order to give weight to this legendary oral core. Their tradition has been characterized (MacDonald 1983) as being in competition with the Pauline pastoral epistles. The pastoral epistles were accepted into the canon, as it developed in the 3rd century, while the legends continued their parallel, apocryphal career. The oral tradition was transmitted above all among women, MacDonald has asserted, and women appear more centrally in the legend than in the epistles, where they are relegated to the periphery.

Main article: Acts of Paul and Thecla.

The main vehicle for the Pauline legend-cycle is the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which Origen mildly approved, but which attracted Tertullian's attention at the end of the 2nd century; he complained that the example of Thecla was being employed to legitimize women teaching and baptizing. According to the writing, she had been commissioned to do so by Paul himself. The simple folk who were endorsing such material were not reading it from a text, but transmitting oral traditions that seem to originate in the eastern Mediterranean (MacDonald). The literary version of these traditions was so despised by the Church, that only in the 20th century has a coherent text been pieced together from surviving fragments.

MacDonald suggests that the context of the Pastoral Epistles associated with the name of Paul -- emphasizing order within conventional family formulas and the social legitimacy of the Church -- should be seen as counter to the radical preaching and story-telling of roaming celibate women, represented in the legends. (MacDonald, 1983).

Alternative views

Christianity as mystery religion

In his books The Mythmaker and Paul and Hellenism, Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby proposed a theory that Paul was actually a Gentile raised in an environment influenced by the popular Hellenistic mystery religions centered on dying and resurrected savior deities, who later converted to Judaism, hoping to become a Pharisee scholar. He found work in Jerusalem as a police officer of the Sadducee High Priest, who was at that time a de facto Roman quisling in Jerusalem. Paul's work persecuting the enemies of the High Priest led to an internal conflict in his mind, which manifested itself while he was travelling to Damascus on a covert mission. Maccoby believes that Paul's revelation was thus actually a resolution of his divided self; Paul subsequently fused the mystery religions, Judaism and the Passion of Jesus into an entirely new belief, centered on the death of Jesus as a mystical atoning sacrifice. Maccoby considers Paul's claims to a Jewish background and Pharisaic education to be false, claiming that a number of passages in Paul's writings betray his ignorance of the Jewish Law. Maccoby also contends that Paul invented many of the key concepts of the Christian religion, and that the Gospels and other later Christian documents were written to reflect Paul's views rather than the authentic life and teaching of Jesus. Maccoby questions Paul's integrity as well:

Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence towards Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances. (Maccoby, 1986)

In this regard, 1 Corinthians 9:20-22:

"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some." NRSV

Some small modern religious groups share Maccoby's views on Paul's doctrines. They see Paul as an apostate from Judaism. While the teachings of Jesus may be the basis of Christian ethics, they view Paul's teachings as the true basis of modern Christian beliefs such as the atoning death of Jesus and the concept of original sin.

Paul as usurper of the Apostles

A more critical view of Paul of Tarsus comes from the comprehensive work of A. Victor Garaffa. He maintains that Paul of Tarsus effectively usurped the authority of the remaining disciples, and the original Jerusalem Church operating under James the Just. Using the New Testament works themselves as his primary source, Garaffa offers a reinterpretation of key passages, and suggests an aggressive power struggle is preserved in the canonical New Testament writings themselves. (An assessment of Paul of Tarsus from this viewpoint can be found online at The Pauline Conspiracy.)

Paul as inclusionist

Another alternative view was first set forth by Rabbi Jacob Emden (16971776). His view, based on the medieval Toledot Yeshu narratives, was that Saul of Tarsus was a devout and learned Pharisee, who (turning away from his early Shammaite views) came to believe in salvation for the Gentiles and under the guiding authority of the very learned and devout Simon Kepha (i.e., Saint Peter) set about refining a Noahide religion for the Gentiles based around the Jesus movement. Paul believed the advantage of the Jews was their being entrusted with the oracles of heaven, and that the law was upon them. But he opposed the Jewish Christians who insisted (under some kind of Shammaite influence) that Gentiles were beyond salvation unless they became Jews. Paul insisted that they need only their purified faith and was firmly against proselytizing. He did however insist that any man born of a Jewish woman be circumcised (for example Timothy upon whom he himself carried out the ceremony) and live under the Law. In recent years perhaps the most exemplary developers of Emden's view are the Orthodox Rabbi Harvey Falk and Pamela Eisenbaum.[3] In this view, Paul is seen as a rabbi who understood the ruling that, although it would be forbidden to a Jew, shittuf (believing in the divine through the name of another) would be permissible for a Gentile despite the Noahide ban on idolatry. This is further backed up by Paul in his first letter to the Romans when he compliments them on their religion. Again when he spoke to the Greeks about a divinity in their pantheon called "The Unknown God", it can be understood that he was trying to de-paganise their native religions for the sake of their own salvation.

New Perspective on Paul

The "New Perspective on Paul" rose to prominence as a result of the work of E. P. Sanders in his 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism, in which he argued that the Judaism of Paul's day had been wrongly caricatured by Protestant theology. Traditionally, it had been assumed that 1st century Judaism was a religion of "works" whereby Jews believed they had to earn their salvation by keeping the Law, and therefore when Paul spoke about "justification by faith" or the "justification of faith", he was referring to a new non-works-oriented way of salvation (being declared righteous by God) announced in Christ. Sanders reframed the context to make law-keeping and good works a sign of being in the Covenant (marking out the Jews as the people of God) rather than deeds performed in order to accomplish salvation. If Sanders' perspective was true, the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine of justification may have needed rethinking, for the interpretive framework of Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, which had dominated Christian thinking for almost two millennia, was called into question.

Agent of Rome?

Joseph Atwill, in his book, Ceasar's Messiah, and David Icke, among others, believe that Paul was an agent of Imperial Rome in general and of the Roman Emperors in specific. Both state their belief that Paul was used, along with Josephus, to start a peaceful messianic movement to undermine the unrest and rebelliousness of Judea. (See also: Bible conspiracy theory)


  1. ^  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, CNEWA.
  2. ^  Pamela Eisenbaum, "Is Paul the Father of Misogyny and Antisemitism?," Cross Currents 50, no. 4 (Winter 2000–2001).
  3. ^  John Shelby Spong, "The Man From Tarsus," in Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, reprint ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).


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