Paul the Apostle

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PAUL THE APOSTLE (d. 62 ce), also called Paul of Tarsus, known to Jewish Christians as Saul, was a Christian apostle and saint. A controversial missionary, Paul provoked intense opposition both during his career and after. His letters, which make up a substantial portion of the New Testament canon, stimulated diverse reactions and attracted problematic adherents to his beliefs. Modern research has uncovered the efforts of the post-Pauline church to soften his legacy of theological radicalism.

Some of Paul's letters, such as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, were edited a generation after Paul's death in an effort to mold them in directions suitable for the conservative consolidation of Christianity. Other letters, for example, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus, were composed in Paul's name to serve the same purposes. In addition, several interpolations, such as 1 Corinthians 14:33b36 and Romans 16:1720, skew Paul's message in authoritarian and sexually chauvinistic directions. Acts of the Apostles also presents a conservative picture of Paul.

The result is that the indisputably genuine letters (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 Thessalonians, and, with less unanimity, 2 Thessalonians ) have traditionally been interpreted in light of the later writings. This has resulted in serious confusions concerning Paul's theology, his relations with his churches and with other early Christian leaders, his outlook on major ethical issues, and the chronology of his life. Scholars have tended to be divided along ideological lines in resolving these issues, eliminating the possibility of consensus even on the most elemental facts about Paul's life.

Another problem is the tradition of theological abstraction in interpreting the Pauline letters. Because Christian theology has been shaped so largely by Pauline thought, the tendency has been to argue over every nuance, on the premise that Paul was a systematic theorist setting down doctrinal truth for all time. In fact, his letters are highly situational responses to complex congregational problems. The letters should be interpreted in light of those social realities, requiring the interpreter to reconstruct the situation largely on the basis of evidence within the letters themselves. This is rendered more difficult by traditional scholarly biases against the charismatic, sectarian, apocalyptic, and mystical experiences that animated Paul and his communities. Modern scholarship has detected the long-standing "fallacy of idealism," to use Bengt Holmberg's expression in Paul and Power (Philadelphia, 1978), by which Paul's theological response to problems arising from these sectarian communities has been wrongly interpreted as if it were the structuring principle of those communities.

The application of modern research techniques has allowed the apostle Paul to emerge from the mists of later orthodoxy and hagiography so that the fusion of his charismatic religious experience, his cooperative missionary activities, and his dialogical theology can be grasped. In contrast to traditional preferences that still persist among interpreters, Paul's view of salvation was cosmic rather than individualistic. His worldview was apocalyptic rather than bourgeois. He participated along with his churches in sectarian experiences of radical transformation, spiritual enthusiasm, and the expectation of future vindication. The preaching that evoked those experiences is accessible only by inferences from his letters, while his theology was the inspired but largely impromptu response to missional and congregational imperatives. The vitality and profundity of Paul's occasional remarks in the letters led to recognition of "the genius of Paul," which is the title of Samuel Sandmel's significant study (Philadelphia, 1979).

In order to break from the framework of Acts and the later writings of the Pauline school, it is necessary to reconstruct Paul's career primarily from the authentic letters.

From Pharisee to Christian missionary

The evidence in Philippians 3:34 and Galatians 1:1324 indicates that Paul came from a Hellenistic-Jewish family in the Diaspora. His zeal for the law and his persecution of early Christians in Diaspora synagogues as heretics place him close to the school of Shammai in the Pharisee party. If he ever studied under Gamliʾel the Elder as reported in Acts 22:3, he rejected his teacher's tolerance. Because he was a complete stranger to residents of Judaea (Gal. 1:22), it is likely that Paul was educated in Tarsus rather than Jerusalem. His Roman citizenship and his mastery of Greek, including a sophisticated grasp of Greco-Roman rhetoric, indicate he came from a prominent family that had rendered loyal service to the empire and was in a position to offer him a classical as well as a Hebrew education. Paul's trade of tent making, probably learned in the family shop, allowed him thereafter a degree of independence as a journeyman leatherworker, according to Ronald F. Hock in The Social Context of Paul's Ministry (Philadelphia, 1980).

In the two laconic references to his conversion in 34 ce (1 Cor. 15:8, Gal. 1:1517), Paul alludes to a theophanic experience of encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. In the context of his persecution of diaspora Christians as violators of synagogal legalism, this encounter indicated that Jesus, who had been crucified for lawlessness and blasphemy, was indeed the promised Messiah. The correctness of Jesus' message and the sin of his persecutors were proven by his resurrection and appearance to Paul. Paul's robust and confident commitment to legal obedience as the path to the messianic kingdom, characteristic of Phariseeism, was therefore shattered and replaced by a mystical identification with the Messiah (Phil. 3:48).

Krister Stendahl is correct in insisting that Paul's references to the Damascus experience preclude any interpretation in terms of resolving guilt concerning Paul's previous performance as a Pharisee. "There is no indication that psychologically Paul had some problem of conscience," producing a conversion along the lines of Augustine or Luther, Stendahl writes in Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia, 1976, p. 13). Paul speaks of being "called" rather than converted, impelled by the encounter with the risen Christ to become a missionary to lawless Gentiles (Gal. 1:1516). Paul's zeal for the law changed into its opposite: a commitment to the inclusion of Gentiles in the messianic community without imposing the burden of the law. Paul's previous intolerant exclusion of "heretics" was transformed into a lifelong commitment to messianic pluralism so offensive to zealous legalists that from that moment on Paul became the target of reprisals (1 Thes. 2:2, 1416).

In the seven to eight years after his Damascus experience, Paul was aligned with the Hellenistic Christians of Arabia, Syria, and Cilicia who had been driven out of Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen (1 Thes. 1:15, Acts 8:14). Accepting their version of Christianity, which was critical of the Temple cult, legalistic obedience, and racial-religious zealotism, Paul became an artisan-missionary involved in creating charismatic communities of faith consisting of Jews and Gentiles (Gal. 1:23, 2:1216). Troubles with political authorities, which began quite early in his career (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3233), were probably provoked by the highly charged, sectarian apocalypticism that marked these radical communities. For a brief period of fifteen days, he visited the apostle Peter in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:1820), but in Paul's letters there is no evidence of theological influence from the more conservative branch of early Christianity. By the early 40s, Paul was working in cooperation with the dynamic center of Hellenistic Christianity in Antioch. Sharing their commitment to interracial, charismatic leadership (Acts 13:1), to intense community life of prayer and ecstatic worship (Acts 13:24), and to the eucharistic meal as an expression of unity (Gal. 2:1216), Paul became one of the leaders in the first organized mission to Cyprus and southern Galatia around the years 4345 (Acts 1314).

Judging from Paul's earliest references to his missionary preaching (1 Thes. 1:910, 2:913), his message centered in the apocalyptic dawn of a new age that opened salvation to Gentiles. The "gospel of God" included an exposure of idolatry and a promise of escape "from the wrath to come." The resurrection of Jesus and the expectation of his return are given prominent expression. The invitation of Gentiles to "faith in God" (1 Thes. 1:8) without the imposition of the law implies a substantial break with Pharisaic Judaism as well as with conservative Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem. Yet at this early stage there is no indication of a systematic critique of the law; in fact, a positive assessment of legal holiness is visible as late as 50 ce in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, a position consistent with the negative view of "lawlessness" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7, 8. The hostile reactions of Jewish zealots to Paul's early preaching (1 Thes. 2:1516; Acts 13:45, 13:50, 14:25, 14:19) can be understood on the grounds of the inclusion of despised Gentiles, without assuming the abrasive rhetoric of Paul's later teaching about freedom from the law.

Beginning in approximately 46 ce, Paul entered a fully independent phase of missionizing. While two earlier colleagues traveled to Cyprus, apparently with the support of the Antioch church, Paul, Silas, and Timothy struck off for the west (1 Thes. 1:1, Acts 16:612). Revisiting the churches of Cilicia and southern Galatia, they spent as much as a year in the northern Galatia cities of Ancyra, Pessinus, and Germa founding several churches (Gal. 1:2) of purely Gentile members of Gallo-Grecian background (Gal. 3:1) despite an illness that Paul suffered at this time (Gal. 4:1315). A period of shifting plans followed, in which Paul and his colleagues were dissuaded from traveling to the populous provinces of Asia and Bithynia. They ended up in Troas, where a church was founded (Acts 16:810, 20:612) and where they were joined by the author, traditionally identified as Luke, of the "we-source" material in the second half of Acts.

Sailing to Europe in the spring of 48 ce, they founded the important congregation in Philippi. Predominantly Gentile in background, this church entered into a formal arrangement with Paul, forming what Paul J. Sampley has called "a consensual partnership in Christ for preaching the gospel" (Pauline Partnership in Christ, Philadelphia, 1980, p. 51). Paul thereafter received financial support from Philippi for the extended activities of an increasing circle of missionary colleagues while continuing to work as a tent maker. Among the male and female co-workers whose names are known to us from this period are Timothy, Titus, Silas, Luke, Epaphroditus, Clement, Euodia, and Syntyche, along with local patrons and patronesses such as the Philippian jailor and Lydia. The charismatic, apocalyptic piety of this congregation contained some divisive tendencies (Phil. 4:23) and it experienced a traumatic expulsion of heretical libertinists during the founding mission (Phil. 3:1720). The Philippian mission came to an end in the spring or summer of 49 with a humiliating episode of mob violence followed by judicial beating and imprisonment (1 Thes. 2:2, Acts 16:1940).

Continuing in a westward direction after the expulsion from Philippi, Paul and his traveling companions arrived in Thessalonica, where a rapidly expanding ministry was cut short after several months by riotous opposition from the local synagogue (Acts 17:19; 1 Thes. 2:1417). A congregation marked by enthusiastic radicalism was formed out of Jewish and Gentile converts, including a house-church patron by the name of Jason and several prominent women. Because the Thessalonian letters were composed so quickly after Paul's departure, one gains a vivid picture of a freshly established congregation. It was troubled by conflicts over sexual irregularities (1 Thes. 4:18), the status and control of ecstatic forms of worship (1 Thes. 5:1922), and tensions between leaders and followers (1 Thes. 5:1213). A key factor in these troubles was the misunderstanding of Pauline apocalypticism (1 Thes. 5:111, 2 Thes. 2:112), which ultimately led to the incredible announcement by a Thessalonian ecstatic that "the day of the Lord has already come" (2 Thes. 2:2). Apparently the radicals interpreted their experience of the spirit in a way that made them believe that history had come to an end. Some of these leaders had dropped out of their daily occupations to be supported by the congregation as full-time charismatics, free from restraint (1 Thes. 5:14, 2 Thes. 3:615). This highly inflated enthusiasm was severely shaken by the unexpected violence that had forced Paul to leave Thessalonica and thereafter resulted in the harassment and death of congregational members. Having erroneously concluded that the age of the spirit had released them from the risks of history, these shock waves led to the crisis addressed by Paul's first congregational letters composed in the spring of 50 ce.

Paul's letters were written as a substitute for his personal presence, as emergency efforts to resolve congregational issues that neither he nor his traveling colleagues could deal with in person. The creativity and power of these letters are the result of his efforts to improvise responses to the unique and highly volatile situations that marked the sectarian congregations he had helped to found. In the case of 1 Thessalonians, the innovations are immediately apparent. Building the argument into the most broadly extended thanksgiving in the annals of Greco-Roman or Hebrew letter-writing, Paul clarified the realistic potential of the charismatic faith, hope, and love that the congregation had experienced (1 Thes. 1:23:13). Rather than eliminating the "old" age of persecution and labor for daily bread, such ecstatic experiences provided the means to face life with courage and realism. But Paul's confident statements of hope and his effort to explain a traditional Judaic apocalyptic scheme to a Hellenistic audience led to the misunderstanding of the first letter, which was taken to support the view that the end of history had indeed occurred (2 Thes. 2:2). Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians was apparently composed shortly thereafter to summarize the message of the earlier letter and to squelch the ecstatic understanding of eschatology.

The Thessalonian crisis shows that Paul's missionary success was in part the cause of the troubles that marked his career (see 2 Cor. 11:2329, 6:310). The intense religious fervor evoked by his proclamation broke down traditional restraints to create interracial and multiclass congregations with strong but immediately divisive charismatic leadership. Sectarian congregations with this level of social innovation and a consciousness of having been redeemed from a corrupt environment naturally became the target of reprisals by synagogal and civil authorities as well as by neighbors and family members. This pattern of successful mission, provoking strong local opposition, repeated itself in the short Beroean ministry in the early fall of 49 ce (Acts 17:1014). After a less successful effort to establish a congregation in Athens (Acts 17:3334), Paul came in the winter to Corinth, where he began a ministry of eighteen months with the most formative and troubled congregation in his career.

The Corinthian ministry appears to have had a decisive influence on the evolution of Paul's theology. The scope of this evolution can be measured by comparing the Thessalonian letters, written at the beginning of the Corinthian ministry, with the Corinthian correspondence, which was composed five to six years later. The Corinthian correspondence deals in part with conflicts between forms of apostolic teaching. Many of Paul's most distinctive ideas appear to have arisen out of the interaction with the Corinthians: the church as the "body of Christ"; marriage as mutual submission "in the body"; respect for conscience even when it is ill-informed; the theology of the cross in dialectic with human wisdom on the one side and human weakness on the other; and the superiority of love over faith or hope.

The social context for Paul's Corinthian ministry was a series of house churches under the patronage of middle- or upper-class leaders such as Prisca and Aquila, Jason, Chloe, Stephanas, and Titius Justus. According to Gerd Theissen in The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Philadelphia, 1982), it is likely that these socially superior leaders practiced a kind of loving patriarchalism in their sponsorship of socially diverse churches. Competition between house churches came to focus on their different attachments to early Christian missionaries who functioned alongside Paul. This helps to explain the subsequent evolution of parties that boasted the superiority of their particular traditions: "'I belong to Paul' or 'I belong to Apollos' or 'I belong to Cephas' [i. e., Peter] or 'I belong to Christ'" (1 Cor. 1:12). The latter group, claiming to transcend human leaders, was most likely protognostic in outlook, providing radical challenges to Pauline teachings and ethics. The forces dividing the Corinthians also included racial and cultural diversity, as well as the lack of space for all the house churches to meet together regularly, as shown by the archaeological evidence of Jerome M. O'Connor (St. Paul's Corinth, Wilmington, Del., 1983, pp. 155158). The strategic location of Corinth as a commercial and transit center and the large crowds drawn to the biennial Isthmian Games contributed to the recruitment of co-workers and the establishment of churches in satellite cities, for example, Cenchreae under the patronage of Phoebe (see Rom. 16:12). The Corinthian ministry ended with a judicial hearing of charges raised by influential members of the local synagogue. Paul was arraigned before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaea (Acts 18:1217) whose tenure in Corinth provides one of the reliable dates in the reconstruction of Pauline chronology. Because Paul was free to return to Corinth, he must have been exonerated, but he left Corinth soon after the hearing to take part in the apostolic conference at Jerusalem, one of the crucial events in the history of first-century Christianity.

The Judaizer crisis and its aftermath

The background of the apostolic conference (51 ce) was a campaign to circumcise Gentile Christians and thus incorporate them into a Jewish-Christian mode of adherence to the Torah. Acts 15:1 provides a reliable account of the origin and content of this campaign: "But some men came down [to Antioch] from Judaea and were teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Paul's account of the conference in Galatians 2:110 reflects the mortal threat this campaign posed against the "freedom" of Gentile Christians to live without the burden of the Torah and to enjoy an inclusive fellowship with Jewish Christians despite differences in lifestyle. Some of the motivations for the sudden interest of the Judean Christians in the affairs of the Antioch church are alluded to with considerable sarcasm in Galatians 6:1213. Wishing to avoid persecution "for the cross of Christ," the Judeans wanted to "make a good showing" to some unnamed third party by getting the Gentiles circumcised. The most likely explanation for the Judaizer campaign was the Zealot pressure that was intensifying during the procuratorship of Ventidius Cumanus (4852), enforcing conformity with the law and acceptance of circumcision along with noncommunication with the uncircumcised. That the Christian communities in Judaea had experienced such violent pressures is revealed in 2 Thessalonians 1:1416. The promotion of circumcision among Gentile Christians thus promised to relieve the threat of persecution. But Paul saw that this temporary expedient would shatter the hopes of a successful Gentile mission and destroy the inclusive quality of Christian fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. His key doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works such as circumcision emerged out of this crisis, providing a distinctive and radical cast to all of his later theology. While claiming in Galatians 2:1516 that all Christians, including Jewish Christians, "know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ," Paul insists on the antithesis "not by works" as the essential premise of "freedom."

In Paul's version of the apostolic conference, he was supported by Barnabas, the key leader of the Antioch church, and Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile Christian, in providing an account of "the gospel which I preach among the gentiles" (Gal. 2:2). The leaders of the Judean churchesJames, Peter, and Johnacknowledged the truth of this message and the fact that its success among Gentiles provided divine confirmation (Gal. 2:8). They agreed on a practical division of the mission along cultural lines, "that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised" (Gal. 2:9), but that the Gentile churches would undertake a financial campaign to aid the impoverished Christians in Judaea. Despite the continued opposition of a Judaizer faction, which Paul castigates as "false brethren," the integrity of the Gentile mission was preserved.

The question of coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in the worship life of local churches was left unresolved. Herein lay the seeds of later controversies, because Paul understood the agreement in principle on the legitimacy of his gospel to mean the acceptance of equality and solidarity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Shortly after the apostolic conference this issue came to a head when a delegation sent by James prevailed on Peter not to eat with Gentile Christians at Antioch. Paul accused Peter and the other Jewish Christians at Antioch of insincerity and inconsistency in forsaking the common meal that had been a crucial element of the inclusive form of the faith at Antioch. The repercussions of this conflict are visible throughout Paul's subsequent ministry in his attempts to defend the integrity of his gospel and his apostolicity against pressures ranging from political expediency to violent opposition against the doctrine of freedom from the law.

Paul's letter to the Galatians, written in 53 ce, reflects an intensification of the Judaizer crisis after the apostolic conference. A delegation of Judaizers was sent by the "false brethren" in Judaea to the exclusively Gentile churches in northern Galatia, arriving there shortly after Paul had revisited these congregations on his journey from Antioch to Ephesus. As reconstructed from his highly polemical defense in Galatians, the emissaries proposed circumcision as a means to gain perfection and enter into the mystical promise of being "sons of Abraham" (Gal. 3:618). They advocated conformity to Jewish festivals by sanctioning their role in appeasing the astrological powers (Gal. 4:910). They insinuated that Paul himself had previously preached such conformity to the law as derived from the Jerusalem apostles, but that he had trimmed the gospel to win quick converts (Gal. 1:1014, 1:182:2, 5:11).

Paul angrily refuted these allegations and provided a systematic defense of the freedom of the gospel. He contended that the charismatic experience of the Galatians proved that salvation comes through faith in the gospel rather than by works of the law (Gal. 3:15). Scripture itself reveals the correctness of this message, because Abraham's faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6) and the principle from Habakkuk 2:4 is that the just shall live by faith (Gal. 3:614). Paul went on to show that the status of being "sons of God" was conferred by faith through baptism so that a new relationship of solidarity developed among racially, economically, and sexually distinct groups (Gal. 3:2629). To accept the law as binding for salvation was therefore to repudiate Christ and to again become enslaved to the principalities and powers of paganism (Gal. 4:111).

An explosive allegory concerning the two sons of Abraham was developed to show that the slave Hagar corresponds to the Jerusalem of the Judaizers, bringing a flesh-bound oppression against the children of the free woman, Sarah (Gal. 4:2131). Thus the antitheses of flesh versus spirit, slavery versus freedom, and law versus promise were related to an ongoing political and ideological struggle in the church, now seen as a conflict between "the present Jerusalem" and the "Jerusalem above." The crucial issue of freedom was then used as the leitmotiv of the moral exhortation of Galatians 5:16:10. According to Hans Dieter Betz, the thrust of this argument is that "'freedom in Christ' is a gift of God, but a delicate one. It is a gift, but it is not to be taken for granted. Freedom exists only insofar as people live in freedom. Those who were liberated by the Spirit can protect their freedom only by 'walking by the Spirit'" (A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia, Philadelphia, 1979, p. 32).

Whether Paul's powerful argument was convincing to the Galatians is an open question, in light of their nonparticipation in the Jerusalem offering and the lack of evidence about their later activities. The Judaizer movement continued to be a threat to Pauline congregations, as evidenced by the polemical warning in Paul's next letter, the letter to the Philippians (3:26), probably written from an Ephesian prison in the winter of 5455. A modified form of the Galatian argument also appears in Paul's last extant letter, the letter to the Romans. The political pressures from the increasingly violent Zealot movement in the diaspora communities as well as in Judaea also directly affected Paul's mission. The results were riots, charges of subversion, and plots against his life (e.g., Acts 20:3, 23:1222).

The ministry in Asia

From the latter part of 52 ce through the next several years, Paul's center of missionary activities was Ephesus, the administrative and commercial hub of the province of Asia. An intensification of the collegial mission during these years involved Prisca and Aquila, who had moved from Corinth to establish their business in the new location in support of the expanding activities. Other colleagues, such as Apollos, Archippus, Aristarchus, Demas, Epaenetus, Epaphras, Erastus, Jesus Justus, Luke, Mark, Silas, Timothy, Titus, Trophimus, and Tychichus, are mentioned in the writings deriving from this period. Their activities account for the establishment of satellite churches in such cities as Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae.

Perhaps for the first time in his career Paul had access in Ephesus to a larger facility, the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), but he appears to have maintained his regimen as a self-supporting artisan. The availability of rapid communications between Ephesus and the cities of the Aegean Sea as well as of the hinterland brought Paul into the vortex of competing leaders, church conflicts, and societal pressures that marked the first generation of Christianity. This vivid description pertains to the Asian years:

danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Cor. 11:2629)

The controversies involving the "weak" and the "falling," as well as the threats from Jews and Gentiles, resulted in Paul's writing a number of letters during the Asian period, including those to the Galatians, the Philippians, the Colossians, Philemon, and the Corinthians. Philippians was drafted during an incarceration that apparently followed the riot described in 1 Corinthians 15:32 and Acts 19:2341. It reflects conflicts with heretical libertinists, roving Judaizers, and rival missionaries who took advantage of Paul's imprisonment by insinuating that his inflammatory gospel imperiled the future of the church. In the opening chapter, Paul gives thanks that the Philippians have shared in the suffering, conflicts, and growth of the gospel. Then on the basis of an early Christian hymn cited in Philippians 2:611, Paul develops a theology of self-emptying love and solidarity capable of resolving conflicts and enduring persecution. He requests cooperation with his emissary Epaphroditus, who is visiting Macedonia while Paul is detained.

After warning about the threat of Judaizers from outside the community (3:211) and from libertinists within Philippi itself (3:1721), Paul urges local leaders Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled. The theme of apocalyptic urgency and joy is expressed with the memorable lines "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand" (Phil. 4:45). The letter ends with thanks for the financial support the Philippians have provided for the activities of the Pauline mission. Resilient joy in the midst of tribulation is the note struck repeatedly in the letters of the Asian period.

The extensive Corinthian correspondence allows one to grasp the issues raised by that congregation as well as the evolving shape of Paul's theology. References in 1 Corinthians 5:9 and 2 Corinthians 2:39 make it likely that at least four and perhaps as many as seven separate letters are contained in the canonical 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. Reconstructions of the interaction between Paul and the controversialists make it likely that the opening issues related to shifts in sexual roles, disturbances in the celebrations of the Lord's Supper, and the rise of sectarian divisiveness. In 1 Corinthians 11:234 Paul argues the abandonment of sexual differentiation in the form of women adopting male hairstyles to express their powerful new sense of equality in the church. Paul argues that men and women should retain culturally determined indications of sexual differentiation even while leading Christian worship, but he does not question the right of women to play an equal part.

The problem of sacramental disorder was closely related to class differences that arose in connection with the common meal. In The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, Gerd Theissen has related this problem to the pattern of Greco-Roman banquets in which upper-class hosts treated guests "differently depending on their social status" (p. 58). Since poorer members of the congregation would be humiliated by such practices, Paul is indignant at the violation of the unity of the church. The peculiar warning that those eating and drinking without "discerning the body" would fall under divine judgment (1 Cor. 11:29) makes it likely that theological issues were mixed with sociological factors in this instance. Walter Schmithals has suggested that spiritualists critical of the bodily elements in the sacramental meal aimed "to sabotage the cultic observation and to transform it into a profane feast" (Gnosticism in Corinth, Nashville, 1971, p. 255). This is rendered more likely by Paul's assertion that the disruptions were connected with theological factions in the congregation (see 1 Cor. 11:1819).

The next phase of the Corinthian controversy involved resistance against traditionally Judaic sexual ethics, a rejection of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection, and an interpretation of the sacrament as a kind of spiritual medicine of immortality. Paul responds to the report of these developments brought by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor. 16:17) by developing a concept of the body as the basis of human identity and relationship. Against the gnostic tendency to downplay the significance of bodily relations, Paul insists that "the body is for the Lord and the Lord is for the body" (1 Cor. 6:13), which means that casual sexual liaisons are excluded. Bodily disciplines are therefore required by faith (1 Cor. 9:2427). Sacramental experiences do not relieve persons from such responsibilities (1 Cor. 10:113) because "sharing in the body of Christ" creates a unity between believers and their Lord that excludes immoral relations with pagan prostitutes and temples (1 Cor. 10:1422).

Gnostic skepticism about the Christian tradition of bodily resurrection is countered by reiterating the early Christian gospel, warranted by the firsthand witnesses of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:119). A new concept of the "spiritual body" is developed to render the doctrine of resurrection less vulnerable to the charge of mindless crudity. The gnostic teaching about the original spiritual Adam of Genesis 1 degenerating into the bodily Adam of Genesis 23 is repudiated by insisting that Christ is the second Adam, the spiritual redeemer from heaven (1 Cor. 15:3541). The hope of Christians is that "as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man from heaven," that is, Christ (1 Cor. 15:49).

Responding to reports from "Chloe's people" (1 Cor. 1:12) about divisions in the congregation and to a list of controversial questions they had brought, Paul wrote the so-called answer letter from Ephesus just prior to Pentecost in 54 ce. The prideful wisdom that lay behind the competition among house churches in Corinth was contrasted with the word of the cross and the experience of humble hearers transformed by it. "God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:2829). The gospel of grace brought and nurtured by various apostles aimed at creating a new, unified community animated by the spirit rather than by pride (1 Cor. 2:14:7). As for the gnostic leader living in arrogant incest, rather than taking pride in his capacity to transcend moral compunctions, the congregation should ban him in the hope that he would see his error (1 Cor. 5:113).

Responding to questions from the Ephesian congregation about the preferability of platonic marriages, Paul defends marriage as a permanent and mutual covenant to fulfill bodily needs (1 Cor. 7:124). Paul's own gift of celibacy is well suited to the uncertain conditions of missionizing in the end time, but he insists that each Christian should discover the path of personal responsibility in such matters (1 Cor. 7:2540).

The difficult question about whether Christians should eat food offered to idols is dealt with by a new doctrine of the autonomous conscience. Paul argues that while conscience is socially conditioned, it must be followed as the guarantor of personal integrity. Those whose conscience allows them to eat such food are cautioned not to use their freedom irresponsibly so that the weak are led into destructive violations of their integrity (1 Cor. 8:113, 10:2311:1). On the issue of whether glossolalia is the supreme gift or whether it ought to be repressed, Paul develops a doctrine that "there are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit," so that members of the congregation should exercise their various gifts in love for the sake of the common good (1 Cor. 12:414:40).

After Paul's departure from Ephesus under conditions that made it impossible for him to return, he wrote the later portions of the Corinthian correspondence. In that correspondence he dealt with the revolt stimulated by the arrival of "super-apostles" with a success-oriented theology. The humiliating circumstances of an Ephesian riot and imprisonment, the latter reflected in Philippians, may have rendered Paul more vulnerable to the charge that his misfortunes showed the inadequacies of his gospel. Paul admits his limitations on the principle that the treasure of the gospel resides "in earthen vessels" (2 Cor. 4:7), but pleads for reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:186:13, 7:24). He then revisited Corinth at the height of the controversy and was summarily dismissed by the congregation, thereupon writing the so-called letter of tears (2 Cor. 10:113:13), which apparently caused a softening of heart. The plans for collecting the Jerusalem offering were reactivated (2 Cor. 9:115), and the final phase of the correspondence reflects the "comfort of Christ," which Paul experienced upon meeting Titus in Macedonia the following year with news that the revolt was over (2 Cor. 1:32:13, 7:58:24).

In the meantime Paul had suffered the "affliction in Asia" (2 Cor. 1:8), probably the imprisonment reflected in the letter to Philemon, a tactful plea for the freedom of the converted slave Onesimus. During this same imprisonment, Paul apparently helped to plan the letter to the Colossians, which dealt with the threat of gnostic syncretism in churches founded by Paul's missionary colleagues not far from Ephesus.

From Corinth to Rome as diplomat and prisoner

While wintering in Corinth and its neighboring city of Cenchreae in 5657, Paul developed the plan to deliver the offering to Jerusalem and then to begin a mission westward to Rome and Spain. Working under the patronage of Phoebe (Rom. 16:12), Paul undertook extensive preparations to become informed about the fragmented and suspicious churches in Rome so as to make possible a cooperative mission in the thoroughly gentile and nonhellenized area of Spain. The letter to the Romans was written to elicit support for this mission, proclaiming the triumphant power of God manifested in the gospel, which reveals that all humans are equal in sin but also in unmerited grace (Rom. 1:163:31). Although it proved to be Paul's most influential theological statement, the letter to the Romans served the practical purpose of finding a common basis in faith to further cooperation between conservative and liberal factions in Rome.

In contrast to the Corinthian letters, which are a jumbled composite of correspondence over a lengthy period of time, Romans is a well-organized and brilliantly composed essay on the theme of the righteousness of God revealed through faith (Rom. 1:1617). That divine righteousness is impartial (Rom. 2:11) is the premise on which the status of Jew and Gentile is shown to be equal, so that Abraham becomes the "father of all who have faith" (Rom. 4:11) rather than merely the progenitor of circumcised Jews. Since all humans are saved by faith rather than by works of self-justification, the baptism of Christians is described as the inauguration of a new life in which slavery to sin and the law has been broken (Rom. 6:123).

The problem Paul finds with the Jewish law is that it lures humans into aggressive self-righteousness that produces death in place of life (Rom. 7:125). True righteousness is the gift of God in Christ, inaugurating the new age of the spirit in which the good is accomplished not because it gains something but because it expresses the new status of belonging to "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:116). Yet this new life occurs in the midst of a fallen world of decay, sin, and hostility, so faith is sustained by an eschatological hope in the triumph of righteousness by the ongoing experience of the love of God that death itself cannot thwart (Rom. 8:1739). That the bulk of Paul's fellow Jews had not accepted this message does not negate the power of the gospel or the freedom of God over creation (Rom. 9:129). Despite the zealous resistance of legalists, the gospel will achieve its goal of converting first Gentiles and then Jews, unifying the human race under grace: "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all" (Rom. 11:32).

Paul's great letter then takes up the question of ethics, arguing for the principles of responsible love and charismatic equality derived from the shared experience of the "mercies of God" (Rom. 12:113:14). The special problems of intolerance among the Roman house churches are dealt with by the admonition to pass on the same welcome to each other that they had already experienced in Christ (Rom. 14:115:7). If that occurs, the world mission that Paul had already brought as far west as Illyricum would have a chance of succeeding in uniting Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians from Jerusalem to Spain, the end of the Mediterranean world (Rom. 15:833). Paul closes his letter by greeting a wide variety of Roman house churches, leaders, and missionaries, giving diplomatic expression to his lifelong commitment to messianic pluralism (Rom. 16:323).

Paul's final journey to Jerusalem, in the spring of 57 ce, was undertaken against dangerous opposition in order to deliver the offering and thereby seal the unity of the church, which had been fractured by tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians of various persuasions. His plan was to sail from there to Rome. Paul construed the offering as a sign of mutual indebtedness between Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 15:27), which explains the hostile reactions of Jewish Zealots who plotted his assassination. A substantial delegation of Gentile Christians sailed with Paul (Acts 20:4) in this diplomatic venture, but the Jerusalem church refused to accept the offering without a legalistic subterfuge (Acts 21:24). The Zealot pressure against collaboration with Gentiles expressed itself also in a Temple riot when Paul and his delegation arrived, and in a subsequent plot to assassinate him before he could reach the safety of the Roman garrison at Caesarea. Paul suffered an imprisonment of two years duration in Caesarea, at the end of which he appealed his case to the emperor in Rome. Thus he arrived at his desired destination in the spring of 60 ce, but in chains. Two years later, when Nero restored the treason law, Paul was summarily executed.

Influence of Paul

The riotous opposition that marked the end of Paul's life was a formative element in the final decades of the first century and in the shaping of the New Testament itself. Right-wing and left-wing factions vied for the legacy of Paul in a struggle that had many counterparts in later Christian history. The splits already visible within Paul's lifetime evolved into full-scale conflicts between gnostic and orthodox congregations, both of which called on Paul as their apostle.

Written in the latter decades of the first century, Acts devotes about half its length to a depiction of Paul as a successful missionary who warned against heretics who would later arise (Acts 20:2830). The author of Acts includes no references to Paul's controversial letters, his radical doctrines, or his involvement in church conflicts at Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, or Thessalonica. The use of Paul's letters and ideas by left-wing factions was countered by the composition of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus by the Pauline school toward the end of the first century. The Paul of these letters is authoritarian, sober, uncharismatic, and morally conformist, teaching faith as a set of beliefs to be learned rather than as a revolutionary relationship based on unmerited grace. Other epistles, such as Jude, James, and 2 Peter, were drafted to counter libertinistic and gnostic interpretations of Pauline doctrine. The fact that about half the New Testament is directly related to Paul and his story or is written in the epistolary form that he popularized makes it clear that his theology and example provided the raw materials of later controversies. Down to the time of the Christian gnostic Marcion (d. 160?) and beyond, pro- and anti-Paulinists vied for the domination of the Christian mind.

The impact of Pauline thought on later theological revolutions is well known. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, as well as moderns like Barth, Brunner, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann, were decisively shaped by rediscovering Paul's doctrine of grace, his analysis of the problem of the law, and his revolutionary grasp of the righteousness of God. Their opponents in many instances cited the same materials both within and outside the authentic Pauline corpus that traditionalists in the early church had used. These conflicts leave a permanent stamp on the interpretation of Pauline materials, as shown by Krister Stendahl in Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia, 1976). Although it is a mistake to view Paul as the second founder of the Christian church, it is true that he remains at the center of its most vital controversies.

See Also

Biblical Literature, article on New Testament; Biblical Temple; Israelite Law; Messianism; Persecution; Pharisees; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity.


The best nontechnical introduction to the problem of understanding Paul is Leander E. Keck's Paul and His Letters (Philadelphia, 1979). An excellent supplement in more technical style is available in the essays of Nils A. Dahl collected in Studies in Paul: Theology for the Early Christian Mission (Minneapolis, 1977). For the sequence of Paul's activities, see my A Chronology of Paul's Life (Philadelphia, 1979). A competent though somewhat dated introduction to the problem of interpreting epistolographic materials is William G. Doty's Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia, 1973). A stimulating sketch of Pauline theology is available in Robin Scroggs's Paul for a New Day (Philadelphia, 1977), while more detailed treatments from innovative viewpoints are available in J. Christiaan Beker's Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia, 1980) and Daniel Patte's Paul's Faith and the Power of the Gospel: A Structural Introduction to the Pauline Letters (Philadelphia, 1983). For a more traditional overview, see Frederick F. Bruce's Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Exeter, Pa., 1977). Ralph P. Martin explores a theme with broad implications in Reconciliation: A Study of Paul's Theology (Atlanta, 1981). Hans Hübner's Law in Paul's Thought (Edinburgh, 1983) is a basic study comparable to Victor P. Furnish's Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville, 1968) and my own work Paul's Anthropological Terms (Leiden, 1971). See also Halvor Moxnes's Theology in Conflict: Studies in Paul's Understanding of God in Romans (Leiden, 1980) and my Christian Tolerance: Paul's Message to the Modern Church (Philadelphia, 1982).

Alongside works cited in the article above by Holmberg, Hock, O'Connor, Sampley, and Theissen, basic explorations of the social context for Paul's ministry are provided in John H. Schütz's Paul and the Anatomy of Apostolic Authority (New York, 1975) and Wayne A. Meeks's The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, 1982). Explorations of the Hebraic setting in W. D. Davies's Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 4th ed. (Philadelphia, 1981) and E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia, 1977) are matched by Helmut Koester's Introduction to the New Testament, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1982), which offers the best current summary of the Pauline letters in the context of Greco-Roman culture. Technical articles dealing with the identification of Pauline opponents and the later evolution of his tradition are accessible in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honour of C. K. Barrett, edited by M. D. Hooker and Stephen G. Wilson (London, 1982). The struggle over the Pauline legacy is reflected in Elaine H. Pagels's The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (Philadelphia, 1975) and Dennis R. MacDonald's The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (Philadelphia, 1983).

The most significant recent commentaries on Paul's letters are Ernst Käsemann's Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1980), with bibliographies mainly in German; C. K. Barrett's A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2d ed. (London, 1971), written in nontechnical style; Victor P. Furnish's II Corinthians (Garden City, N. Y., 1984), a technical, comprehensive but readable study; Hans Dieter Betz's Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, 1979), the definitive commentary on Galatians; and Ralph P. Martin's Colossians and Philemon (London, 1974) and Eduard Schweizer's The Letter to the Colossians: A Commentary (Minneapolis, 1981), both standard works. Ernest Best's The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (London, 1972) and F. W. Beare's A Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (New York, 1959) are the best available on those letters.

Robert Jewett (1987)