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Scope: 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 figure in extending membership to gentiles. Embattled during his lifetime, Paul continues to polarize opinion. This lesson sketches some of the ways Paul has been regarded by admirers and despisers, suggests some reasons for such widely variant views, and provides an overview of the approach taken in this course: We read Paul’s letters to gain a better understanding of his distinctive experience, the issues he faced, his way of thinking, and how all these left an indelible impression on the Christian religion.
I. Paul’s importance for understanding the Christian religion is based both in his historical activity and in the influence of his writings.
a. Paul was an important missionary of the first generation who founded churches across the Mediterranean world. He started out as a persecutor, then became Christianity’s most passionate advocate.
b. He was a key figure, if not the key figure, in the gentile mission by which Christianity became a world religion rather than a Jewish sect.
i. Gentiles were accepted into Christianity without having to be circumcised or having to observe Mosaic law.
ii. The paradox is that Paul did this as a Pharisaic Jew: a man, who in his former life would not have eaten with a gentile, is now the fiercest defender for their inclusion in the People of God.
c. Paul’s letters, written 50-68 A.D., provide the earliest extant interpretation of Jesus and of the movement connected to the name of Jesus.
d. Paul dominates the New Testament canon: His adventures form the climax of the Acts of the Apostles, and his 13 letters are the core of the collection that became the New Testament.
e. 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.
II. The evaluation of Paul’s role has always involved controversy.
a. For all Christians, Paul has been “The Apostle,” the source of authoritative teaching and the spirit of reformation. For some Christians, Paul is the “canon within the canon” of the New Testament.
b. For Christianity’s detractors, Paul is equally central, as the source of what is wrong in the Christian religion. This is often stated in terms of a “good Jesus, bad Paul.”
i. Jews regard Paul as the source of Christian anti-Semitism, for example, when, in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that the God of the world has blinded the Jews’ eyes or when he suggests that Jews have fallen away.
ii. Feminists see Paul as the cause of sexism in Christianity. For example, in I Timothy, Paul is notorious for telling women to be silent in the assembly.
iii. Enlightenment thinkers blame Paul for Christianity’s supernaturalism, superstition, hatred of sex, and authoritarianism.
iv. What is remarkable in our contemporary generation is that these criticisms of Paul, which originated among Christianity’s detractors, have now become internal to Christian scholars and theologians themselves.
v. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, one of the most phenomenal movements is that of the historical Jesus studies – the attempt to recover Jesus as he really was without the coloration of Christian doctrine and belief. Jesus is taken to be the measure of Christian life and morality in opposition to Paul, who seems much more problematic.
III. Paul’s significance continues to be debated for good reasons.
a. During his lifetime, Paul was at once a deeply ambiguous and a polarizing figure.
i. His mission was opposed by those who did not trust his motives or his credentials. He had been a persecutor of Christians; then he suddenly became a passionate and fanatical proselytizer for this movement, with no credentials except his own claim to an experience of Jesus. He was not a follower of Jesus during Jesus’s lifetime, he was not one of the 12 chosen by Jesus, nor was he an original witness to the resurrection.
ii. His manner of dealing with churches and his motivations were often open to several interpretations. For example, Paul used women as agents, yet he said that women must be silent in the assembly and must be submissive to their husbands. He portrays himself as a fierce defender of the gentiles and resists the impetus to circumcise gentile converts, yet he himself was circumcised. Most of all, he was slippery in the use of money: He emphasized that he preached for free, but he did not tell the Corinthians that he was being supported by his Macedonian churches.
iii. His teaching tended to demand a choice between sharp alternatives; for example, flesh or spirit, law or grace, disobedience or faith.
iv. His own churches often preferred other leaders to Paul.
b. His letters continue to provide the basis for many different interpretations.
1. All the virtues celebrated by Paul’s admirers are found in his letters. He is a champion of freedom, someone who demonstrates how the spirit can transform human life, a passionate poet of the divine.
2. But equally present are the elements decried by Paul’s critics: Reflecting the biases of his age, gender, and ethnicity, he had little use for gentiles who were not converted, he represented the androcentrism of his age, and he engaged in rhetorical hardball, using language that is much harder than we are used to today.
c. The “Protean Paul” resists all easy definition.
i. The evidence of the letters confounds reduction to any system.
ii. All interpreters approach Paul with an angle of vision that affects their reading.
IV. This course approaches Paul as a teacher of early Christian communities, whose “thought” is formed in response to real-life problems and is expressed through the rhetoric of individual literary compositions.
a. Other approaches are possible but more hazardous.
i. Paul can be analyzed psychologically as a “great man” of antiquity.
ii. Paul can be engaged theologically as a source for Christian doctrine.
b. We approach Paul as a pastor dealing with the problems of first-generation Christianity.
i. We begin by negotiating several critical questions perspectives on Paul, then consider his career and correspondence as a whole.
ii. After sketching a range of issues that faced the first urban Christians with whom Paul dealt, we move through all 13 letters, organizing our treatment as illustrations of the issues we have identified.
iii. We conclude by suggesting some of the ways in which Paul has influenced Christianity and the culture of the West.
W.A. Meeks, “The Christian Proteus,” in Meeks, pp. 437-444.
Questions to Consider:
- What basis can be found in Paul’s letters for the contemporary perception of him as authoritarian, sexist, and anti-Semitic?
- How does the negative evaluation of Paul as the “creator of Christianity” help explain the remarkable popularity of the search for the “historical Jesus”?
“How Should We Read Paul?”