With Paul, there are three riddles. (1) Why did he persecute the Christians? (2) Why did he later become the most zealous of Christian missionaries? (3) What did he write? The common element in Paul's life would appear to be zeal; Paul's character did not change at the time of his conversion; it was merely aimed in a different direction. Paul himself makes perhaps the most authoritative suggestions for his seeming change of attitudes:
- (1) His "zeal for the Law" (Gal 1:14) was the background of his persecution of the Christians. It is probable that Paul's Pharisaic sensibilities were outraged at the limited Mosaic code taught by Jesus (Mk 10:19), along with Jesus's rejection of the ritual minutiae added to the Law by (or at any rate identified with) the Pharisees. Mark, it will be remembered, shows Jesus in repeated conflict with the Pharisees over such points as Sabbath observance and purity practices, and notes that the Pharisees conspired to bring about Jesus's death. Paul, a Pharisee from Tarsus, at first seems to be behaving much like the Pharisees in Mark: he is hunting down Christians and handing them over to the authorities for punishment.
- (2) Paul himself repeatedly gives Jesus' resurrection as the central content of his Christianity (1 Cor 15:17, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins"). It is known that the Pharisees (in contrast to the Sadducees, as both Mark and Luke emphasize) believed in resurrection after death. If Paul first encountered, and opposed, a Christianity which rejected parts of the Law, and if he later encountered, and embraced, a Christianity which affirmed the resurrection concept, then both phases can be explained: It can be shown from the stratification of Mark (see Yarbro Collins p819) that the resurrection doctrine was a late addition to Christian ideas about Jesus. Then Paul did not convert to the religion he had been persecuting, which would have been strange indeed, but rather to a later form of that religion, one which had a different doctrinal content, and included the resurrection belief. In our terms, Paul first persecuted Alpha and later joined Beta. The key to understanding Paul is the historical sequence Alpha > Beta.
There is support for this possibility in Paul's treatment of the several churches. He seems consistently to oppose people who held what may be recognized as Alpha beliefs. For Paul, what was wrong with these people was that they did not give the Resurrection a prominent place in their theology. The later Beta writers call this "denying Christ." For Paul's diatribes, see for example Gal 1:8f and 1 Cor 16:22 ("anathema"). Paul, then, was never converted to the Christianity he began by opposing, but rather to a later and doctrinally different Christianity. Toward the primitive Alpha Christians, he seems to have maintained an undiminished hostility. This Paul is perhaps not entirely likable (see again the curse of 1 Cor 16:22), but he is no longer psychologically enigmatic. This is the Historical Paul, as our research project has come to understand him.
Epistles. Paul's letters are our obvious best source for Paul, but we cannot validly read Paul from his letters until the letters themselves have been philologically scrutinized. Previous scholarship has convincingly established that only these seven are genuine: 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans, and 1 Thessalonians (for a conjectural order of composition, see the box below). The most contested of the remaining epistles is 2 Thessalonians, whose spurious status was suspected by Baur and confirmed by Wrede (1903), with a further conclusive demonstration by Holland (1988). The process of detecting interpolations and other additions to the genuine Epistles is still going on; the most reliable results to date are those of Walker (2001 and subsequent articles). The general situation is this: very few interpolations have even been proposed for the spurious epistles, but very many for the genuine ones. None of the proposed interpolations is supported by manuscript variants, so if these are interpolations, they are very early ones. The obvious moment for them to have been inserted is during the editorial process which preceded their general publication, and thus their exposure to copyist errors and improvements. The obvious sources for interpolations during that editorial process are two: (1) Fragments of other genuine letters spliced into one complete genuine letter. This material is authentic but out of place textually. (2) Passages added by the editor to amend the public persona, and thus enhance the future influence, of Paul as an Apostolic authority for the later churches. This material is inauthentic and out of place chronologically; it speaks to, and comes from, a period after the death of Paul. In the present state of scholarship, one can only anticipate the results of ongoing close study; for a good example of careful consideration, see the work of William O Walker Jr. Our working suggestions are given here:
It will be noticed that the interpolations include some of the most beloved passages in the Pauline writings. This was to be expected: the point of the editorial additions (of which the most obvious is 1 Cor 13) was precisely to present Paul as a more amiable figure, and in particular a less theologically divisive one, than he appears in his own writings. In this aim, the interpolators, first among whom was almost certainly the editor of the original seven-letter Pauline collection, have admirably succeeded. There are a lot of people out there who can recite at least snatches of the "love chapter," 1 Cor 13, but know almost nothing else of Paul.
Integrity and Date. With this work behind us, and with the probable text of the Epistles thus at last before us, it becomes possible to reassess the perennial questions of their date and place of composition. Given the likelihood of editorial conflation in several of the letters, the number of letters to be reckoned with is greater than seven (several of them incompletely preserved), and their placement in time thus involves more than seven points on the chronological chart. Inferences about Paul's travels are affected. The sense of previous critical scholarship is that all the genuine epistles are from Paul's last years: the decade of the 50's, leaving the previous decade and a half completely undocumented (nor does Acts, which, however highhandedly is still based on the Epistles, have any ideas about that period). That general conclusion is not challenged here, but other adjustments seem to be necessary. Our suggestions for date are given on the above pages.
The DeuteroPaulines are an integral part of the picture of Paul as he came to be known to a wider Christendom, but we think it inexpedient to merge them on this page with the genuine epistles. See instead the DeuteroPauline page.
Life. Paul is one of the few NT figures for whom something resembling a chronological account can be constructed. His own letters, once we actually possess them as he wrote them, are highly relevant sources, though they are also inevitably biased (Paul, with his fiery temperament and his obsession to justify his Apostolic credentials, is not the ideal reporter of his own life). Acts is useful in a sort of inverse way: it is a revisionist and irenic composition, which seems to have been designed (1) to eliminate the doctrinal difference between Peter and Paul by blending the two into each other, making Peter (for example) the first missionary to the Gentiles; (2) to eliminate the ideological tension between Paul and Jerusalem by giving Paul a mythical period of schooling in Jerusalem under Gamaliel I, and by rewriting his missionary journeys so as to make Jerusalem (rather than the more likely Antioch, and in later years, Ephesus) their focus and point of departure, and to multiply the number of those journeys, thus bringing Paul into closer career harmony with Jerusalem; and (3) to eliminate the theological friction in Christianity by suppressing mention of Paul's controversial Atonement doctrine (for which, in real life, he was promptly attacked in a late passage in the Epistle of James), and making him preach instead from a Jewish view of history and scripture as foretelling Jesus, more or less as in Matthew. Once we eliminate these sources of distortion from Acts, nothing much is left of Paul, save a continuous effort to show Paul as appreciated, not persecuted, by Roman authority, all civil unrest being caused by malicious Jews or hostile Greeks. This too (like the soft treatment of Pilate in Mark and all subsequent Gospels) is likely to be a politically expedient fiction. As for the Spanish mission, which is implied in some of the DeuteroPauline material, including an early interpolation in Romans, and accepted by 1 Clement (c96), the best reading of the evidence is that this is yet another myth; it seems to be part of the Roman tendency to attract all Christian history to Rome. Other aspects of this self-interested myth are to link John Mark (via Peter) to Rome, thus annexing to Rome what was probably still regarded as the earliest Gospel. For more on the Spanish myth, see Spain.
For our reading of the life of Paul without these textual and mythical impedimenta, see the Pauline Chronology page.
What seems to be left from all this preparatory work is a clearer view of Saul of Tarsus, a lifelong Diaspora Pharisee, whose logical mind was at war with his zealous mind, and who tried to frame a theology out of that conflict. Paul is the best-known and perhaps the most vigorous exponent of the Atonement doctrine, which however he seems not to have invented. It was a Jerusalem theory, based on the image of the Temple and its sacrifices, and among other things fulfilling Paul's wish to be associated with Jerusalem tendencies, a wish perhaps especially strong in one who had never, in his formative years, visited Jerusalem, and who as he says of himself in Rom 11, remained a Jew, and continued to hope for the salvation of his people. Perhaps among other things he saw the sacrifice-based Atonement theory as appealing, more strongly than had Alpha Christianity, to the sensibilities of the Jews, who despite all were still his people.
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