Putting Paul in His Place

By Dr. Paul Holloway

Professor of New Testament

Sewanee School of Theology


I have divided my lecture into two parts.  First, I will address two questions essential to any critical study: what sort of evidence do we have and how are we to approach that evidence?  After this, and in a bit more detail, I will offer a portrait of Paul according to his self-understanding as “apostle to the gentiles” (Romans 11:13).

1. Evidence and Method


A. Evidence. 

If you have had a course on the Gospels, you will recall that in studying Jesus we have only secondary evidence: Jesus did not write anything himself and so we only have what others wrote about him.  In the case of Paul, however, we have both primary and secondary evidence.  The primary evidence is his authentic letters, which most scholars, myself included, believe to be seven: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.  As for secondary evidence, the New Testament canon contains six early forgeries written in Paul's name: Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, sometimes referred to has the Deutero-Pauline Letters, and 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastoral Letters.  There is also the book of Acts, roughly half of which is devoted to Paul; and there are various non-canonical documents, such as the Acts of Paul (which contains the much discussed Acts of Paul and Thecla) and the so-called pseudo-Clementines.

Needless to say, scholars interested in Paul rely principally on the primary evidence of his seven authentic letters.  The use to which they put the secondary literature varies from scholar to scholar, depending on how reliable he or she judges these documents to be.  My own view is that the secondary materials, including the canonical book of Acts, are of little value in talking about the historical Paul but are extremely useful in reconstructing the early reception of Paul.  For instance, one of the principal functions of the Deutero-Pauline letters was to domesticate the less-than-family-friendly Paul by introducing popular (i.e., "pagan") family values traceable at least as far back as book 1 of Aristotles's Politics: wives should submit to their husbands, children to their fathers, slaves to their (male) masters, and men should care for their wives, children, and slaves as appropriate to their respective roles and stations.

B. Method.

You may also recall from studying the Gospels that scholars have developed a number of helpful methods for analyzing the early Jesus tradition.  The best known of these include: Form Criticism, Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, and, more recently, Narrative Criticism.  None of these are particularly useful in the study of Paul, where what scholars have been most anxious to do is to learn how to read Paul's letters as letters.  Needless to say, letters are not stories about the, past as are the Gospels, but occasional communications deeply imbedded in ongoing situations, of which they are themselves, of course, constitutive elements.

For sometime now scholars have been practicing and fine tuning what is called Epistolary Criticism, which essentially compares Paul's letters to other ancient letters, a great number of which still survive.  This method has yielded a few solid insights, such as the identification of various epistolary clichés and letter types, but the gains have not been as great as was initially hoped, and what gains have been made have often needed to be supplemented with other types of study.  For instance, my own early work on Philippians as a letter of consolation (ἐπιστολὴ παραμυθητική) was certainly aided by the recognition of his common letter genre, but even more helpful was an in-depth study of the philosophical literature on consolation.

Another method now commonly deployed in reading Paul's letters is Rhetorical Criticism.  Here the letters, which were composed to be read publicly, are imagined as speeches of a sort.  Early applications of this method now seem rather wooden, but the basic insight—that Paul wrote to be heard and to persuade—seems a solid gain, if applied with sufficient nuance and attention to actual speeches and other ancient strategies of communication.

A variety of cultural critical methods and theories have also been deployed in the study of Paul: these include different types of Feminist analysis, Marxism, Queer Theory, various forms of Post-Modern and Post-Colonial reading, etc.  These are especially helpful to the modern preacher, for in so far as Paul's letters continue to shape contemporary cultural values it is important that his ideas be subjected to critical cultural analysis.  Indeed, this kind of critical analysis is precisely what is lacking today in much biblical interpretation coming from more conservative elements in the Episcopal Church.  Closely related to these methods is the Social-Scientific study of Paul, which helps to destabilize and demystify traditional theological readings that can now seem passé if not oppressive.

A classic method that I have reserved for last is the History of Religions approach, which treats Pauline Christianity as one Hellenistic religion among many.  Early formulations of this method entailed several methodological strictures about comparison that are no longer generally made.  But the idea that Paul, like all the other religious innovators of his day, was engaged in introducing a new divinity into the already crowded religious landscape of the eastern Roman empire is surely correct and gives the reader willing to inform herself or himself about ancient religions critical purchase on Paul and his apostolic writings.  This method fell into desuetude after WWII when it was largely replaced by the reactionary neo-Biblicism of Karl Barth, which has been continued in such folks as Brevard Childs, Richard Hayes, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Wright, and Stanley Hauerwas.  It is nevertheless the most logical historical approach to the New Testament in general and to Paul in particular.  It is this approach that I will deploy in what will now be the second part of my lecture: the religious self-understanding of Paul.

2. Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles

 A. Paul's Cultural "Hybridity." 

In approaching the historical Paul it is important to appreciate his cultural "hybridity."  Paul describes himself as a Pharisee of a particularly zealous type.  However, his first language, including the language in which he reads the Jewish scriptures, is not Hebrew but Greek.  Further, he is conversant with and often influenced by Hellenistic-Roman philosophical and religious ideas and practices, and he makes good use of Greek rhetoric and epistolary types, as already noted.  The author of Luke-Acts even claims that he was a Roman citizen of Syrian provenance (Syrian origins are also implied in Galatians 1).  Today, of course, we know Paul first and foremost as the self-described apostle of Christ to the gentiles.  This kind of cultural hybridity or creolization is precisely what we should expect in a person haling from the margins of a vast empire.


One thing this hybridity means for us practically is that if we are reading a passage in Paul and find something that looks Jewish, and a few lines later find something that looks characteristically Greek or Roman, and after that find something distinctly Christian, then we have every reason to accept this (from our point of view) jarring juxtaposition of cultural scripts and to read Paul as formed by all of them.  More pointedly, it also means that in constructing his version of Christianity Paul will have drawn repeatedly and intuitively upon each of these scripts as well as upon his own creative religious and intellectual energies.

So how then are we to imagine this Hellenized, Pharisee-turned-Christian apostle to the Gentiles from Roman provincial Syria?  Needless to say, there are many points of entry into such a complex personality as Paul's.  In the remainder of my lecture I will attempt to explicate Paul chronologically, looking first at his early Pharisaism, then his "conversion" experience, and finally his mission and message to the gentiles.

B. Paul the Pharisee. 

Paul says in Philippians 3 that prior to his conversion he lived as a Jewish Pharisee.  Any attempt to understand Paul must take into account this important fact.  The Pharisees remain a greatly misunderstood group.  In many ways, they were the theological progressives of their day, certainly much more than the Sadducees.  And it may be that Paul's Pharisaism lay behind his pronounced openness to the gentiles—we have a few stories of Pharisees proselytizing gentiles.  The greatest consequence of Paul's Pharisaism, however, was his apocalypticism.   Barbara Rossing will devote a whole plenary lecture to Paul's apocalypticism, but it is necessary to say a few things about it now, as it provided the theological framework in which Paul interpreted both his experience of Christ and his gentile mission.


As a Pharisee Paul will have imagined that history as he knew it was rushing towards an "end" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24), that the "present evil age" (Galatians 1:4) ruled by Satan was soon to be replaced by the age to come ruled by the Messiah, and that under Messiah's reign Israel would be restored to international prominence.  As part of this belief, Paul will also have believed in such things as a host of heavenly angels in the service of God's program for the ages, an eschatological or end-time community of the righteous being perfected by God for the age to come, and the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment of both the righteous and the wicked that would serve to usher in the new age.  Perhaps most characteristically, he will also have believed that both Jews and righteous gentiles would be included in the Messianic restoration, as the prophets on his reading seemed to indicate.  Very little of this changed with Paul's conversion to Christ-belief, except, of course, that he now believed the Messiah or Christ to be Jesus and that the end-time community of the righteous was none other than Jesus' followers.

C. Paul's "Conversion." 

It has traditionally been imagined that Paul came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah because of a crisis brought about by his frustrated attempt to keep Torah.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Paul became a Christian because as a morally sensitive person he experienced a deep sense of personal failure as a Jew—presumably other Jews who did not experience this moral crisis were not as morally sensitive as Paul!  One of the greatest achievements of the last century has been the repudiation of this profoundly flawed assumption traceable to the great reformer Martin Luther.  As for Paul's allegedly unique moral sensitivity before the law, Philippians 3 points instead to a robust conscience: "as to the righteousness of the law I was blameless."  There is clearly no crisis of conscience here.  And as for any heightened moral sensitivity as a Christian, here is what he says of himself in 1 Corinthians: "I do not know anything against myself, but I am not thereby justified; God will have to decide."  Paul apparently entertained the possibility that he had become perfect as a Christian, though he would leave the final judgment of that to God.  Obviously no hypersensitive conscience here either.


So how then was Paul converted?  Here is how he describes his conversion in Galatians 1: "it pleased God to reveal (Gk. apocalyptein) his son in me," clearly referring to what he understood to be an apocalyptic event.  And here is how he describes it near the end of his life in Philippians 3: "what was gain to me I considered loss because of the surpassing greatness of the knowledge of Christ Jesus."  Putting these two autobiographical comments together, we have something like an apocalyptic revelation communicating some kind of mystical knowledge of Christ.[1]  In his own words, Paul was converted by an ecstatic vision that he interpreted to be a post-mortem appearance of Christ and which he believed initiated an ongoing personal relationship with the divinity.  Paul elsewhere says that Jesus "became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45) after his death, and that he (i.e., Paul) was now possessed by that spirit: "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).[2]  Two of the most fruitful areas of research on Paul at present are his relationship to early Jewish mysticism (here see the work of Alan Segal and Christopher Morray-Jones), and Paul and spirit possession (here see the work of Chris Mount and John Ashton).

Having said this, we must be careful not to read too much into Paul's immediate conversion experience, as if the essential content of Paul's religion was conveyed in nuce in it.  Recent social and psychological studies of conversion have showed that a religious conversion is always interpreted and that (1) this interpretation is both a function of one's ongoing communal life and the re-socialization it brings, and (2) the interpretation of one's conversion is therefore subject to continued revision and reinterpretation (i.e., people explain key events in their religious lives differently over time).  In Paul's case this means that his conversion came to express in large part the religious ideas and practices of early Syrian Christ-believers, which according to Galatians 2:11-21 included both Jews and gentiles.

D. Paul's Mission and Message. 

This brings us to what is perhaps the most characteristic feature of Paul's religious life: his mission to the gentiles.  In exploring this we will need to answer two questions: what was Paul's rationale for pursuing a gentile mission and what exactly did Paul's preach to the gentiles, which is to say, what was Paul's gospel?


1. Paul's Mission.  The answer to the first question, the question of mission, is surprisingly straightforward: all early Christ-believers that we know of pursued a mission to the gentiles, and so in this regard Paul was simply one among many.  As apocalyptic Jews the earliest Christ-believers held that the age to come would include gentiles.  They also held that with the resurrection of Christ and the advent of the eschatological spirit (which some, like Paul, will have interpreted as the spirit of Jesus come back from the dead) the end of the present age was upon them and it was high time to begin gathering the gentiles in.  Where they differed was simply on the amount of Judaism that gentiles were presently required to observe.  The spectrum of opinion ranged from the minimalist position which stated that all that gentiles had to do was to abandon their prior paganism, worship the god of Israel, and follow his Messiah, to the maximalist position which required full proselyte conversion to Judaism, complete with male circumcision and whole-hearted submission Torah.  Few, it seems, took the maximalist position.  Paul, of course, was infamous for taking the minimalist one.  We can only speculate why he took this view, but it is reasonable to assume that he saw Torah observance as a significant obstacle to gentile conversion, and that it was at any rate not required, since even the gentiles inhabiting the age to come would still be gentiles and not proselytes (i.e., even they would not be required to become Torah observant).  Paul would, of course, also argue, first in Galatians and then especially in Romans, that the believer's possession by the "spirit of Christ" rendered Torah irrelevant as the believer's moral compass and guide.

2. Paul's Message: Some Prolegomena.  This leads us to the second question, which concerns Paul's message.  Here the answer is a bit more complicated, and to answer it we will need to back up and do a bit of historical theology regarding (1) the rise of Jewish remnant theology in the Persian period and (2) the advent of Jewish apocalyptic speculation shortly thereafter in the early Hellenistic period.

First, then, the rise of Jewish remnant theology.  Second Isaiah, the great but anonymous prophet who prophesied near the end of the Babylonian exile, had predicted a wholesale return of the exiles and a glorious restoration of the nation (Isaiah 40-55).  When this failed to materialize, his disciples modified his message to explain its failure (Isaiah 56-66; so-called Third Isaiah).  They blamed the majority of their co-religionists for not truly returning to the Lord with their whole hearts, and they began to speak of a smaller sub-group of the faithful (i.e., themselves!) who were now in effect the true people of God.  They described this group variously as the "righteous," the "holy ones" (or "saints"), the "pious," the "chosen" (or "elect"), and those who "trembled" at God's prophetic word.  It is not certain what happened to this original group or in what form or forms it continued, but it is certain that the "remnant" theology that they espoused took root in subsequent Jewish discourse, where over time a range of groups came to identify themselves as God's righteous few over against the unrighteous many.  The Pharisees seem to have held to this theology, as did the more extreme Essenes, whose theology is attested in the sectarian documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls.[3]

The second element of Jewish theology we need to consider is apocalypticism.  About the same time that Jewish prophecy was developing the concept of a righteous remnant it was also focusing more and more on an ideal future that was increasingly in discontinuity with present historical realities.  Initially, one suspects, this took the form of hyperbole (e.g., "a new heaven and a new earth"; Isa 65:17; 66:22), but over time these predictions were interpreted literally—it is something of the essence of early Jewish and Christian theology to misread hyperbole!—and gave way to a full-blown apocalypticism.  Apocalypticism quickly assimilated the key elements of remnant theology to produce a novel theology that contained the following elements, all of with would prove foundational to Paul's gospel: (1) the belief that God was gathering a small end-time community of the righteous; (2) that this righteous remnant would suffer persecution by their neighbors (including other Jews); (3) that they would be purified by this suffering; (4) that they would be sustained in their suffering by God's enabling grace, which included the gift of God's spirit; and (5) that as a result of this sanctifying process they would be saved for the world to come, while their persecutors would be sealed in their misdeeds and damned.

3.  Paul's Apocalyptic Gospel.  We are now in a position to describe Paul's apocalyptic gospel, which can, I believe, be seen most easily in 1 Thessalonians, his earliest surviving letter.  After this—especially in his letters to the churches in Galatia and Rome[4]—the waters are muddied by debate over the role of Torah in the gentile mission.  Fortunately, this debate is completely absent from 1 Thessalonians, where Paul summarizes his gospel at 1:9-10 as follows: ". . . you turned to God from idols the serve the 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."  Paul clearly imagines his communities of Christ-believers as the end-time people of God, who will soon be delivered from the final judgment or "wrath to come."  He just as clearly allows gentiles (in this case the Thessalonians) to join without converting to Judaism.[5]  The only requirement is that they give up their idolatry and serve "the living and true god" of Israel.

If 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 were all we had, we would be thoroughly justified in seeing Paul as adapting a Jewish apocalyptic theology.  But there is a great deal more in 1 Thessalonians supporting such an interpretation.  For instance, in chapter 3 Paul recalls teaching the Thessalonian Christ-believers that they would suffer in the last days (3:3; compare 1:6; 2:14; 3:7), and that this suffering would perfect them (3:2, 13).  Also, although they are already "sons of light" (5:5), he requires that they make further and further progress in "sanctification" so as to meet with God's final approval (3:13; 4:3, 10; 5:23).  He also makes repeated reference to the Spirit (1:6; 4:8; 5:19; compare also 4:9 "taught by God").  Most famously, he outlines what he understands to be the apocalyptic timetable (4:13-18), which he promises will unfold shortly (5:1-11).  Paul is also optimistic that God will sustain his converts in their progress in righteousness and that they will be found blameless in the final judgment (5:24).

I have already indicated that much of Paul's apostolic career was devoted to the ancillary question of the role of Torah observance and the inclusion of gentiles.  It is one of the great ironies of Western scholarship that this topic—thanks to Martin Luther's highly influential misreading of Paul—was interpreted as containing the essence of Paul's gospel.  Nevertheless, Paul's gospel did undergo important developments during this period, especially in the increasing importance he gives to the Spirit, which served as Paul's answer to Torah.  And because he came to equate that Spirit with the spirit of the resurrected Christ, Paul also during this time developed an increasingly robust "Christ-mysticism," as Albert Schweitzer famously observed.

But such developments notwithstanding, Paul's apocalyptic gospel remained largely the same throughout his career, as a quick glance at what was likely his last letter, the letter to the Philippians, will show.  Again it is clear that Paul imagines his readers as the end-time people of God (1:10-11; 2:15; 4:5), who are currently being perfected by their suffering (1:7, 29) and by the work of the spirit (1:19; 2:1).  For his part, God is sustaining them in their progress in righteousness (1:6; 2:13; 4:13), and they will be saved at the final judgment (1:11), while their persecutors will be destroyed (1:28).  It is worth noting, however, that coming as it does at the end of Paul's career, Philippians also contains one of the clearest accounts of Paul's desire for a mystical knowledge of Christ (3:7-11, 14).  This desire for mystical knowledge and the course Paul plots for attaining it (esp. 3:10)—not his ancillary doctrine justification by faith—doubtless marks the high water mark in his theological reflection.



[1] It is now generally recognized that apocalypticism and mysticism had not been clearly distinguished at this point in time in Judaism.

[2] Compare Romans 8:9: "if anyone does not have the spirit of Christ, that one does not belong to him"—where "to have a spirit" is technical language for spirit possession (e.g., Mark 3:30).

[3] John the Baptizer similarly preached repentance, but in his case the call seems to have been to the nation as a whole.  As a follower of John the Baptist Jesus will probably have preached a similar message, at least initially, which his disciples after his martyrdom (not unlike the disciples of Second Isaiah) will have adapted to a remnant theology, which is what we find in the remainder of the NT with its more or less pronounced sectarianism.

[4] In Galatians the debate is over the terms under which gentiles can be included in the end-time people of God, whereas in Romans the debate is over the role of Torah is the perfection of gentiles converts.

[5] Paul will later (esp. in Galatians and Romans) refer to this initial act of becoming part of God's eschatological community as "justification" which refers to God's proleptic judgment that the members of this group were righteous implication being, of course, that God would perfect the members of this group—make them actually righteous and not just proleptically so—and that this in turn would result in their final "salvation" from the coming wrath.  As in apocalyptic Judaism, Paul understood the means of this progress in actual righteousness to be suffering and the divine spirit, the latter of which Paul will increasingly emphasis in his writings.