Paul - Lesson 3

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 3 – How Should We Read Paul?

By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

 Scope:  Any interpretation of Paul and his role in shaping the Christian religion must begini with decisions concerning three critical issues.  All three concern the definition of the subject and the way into its investigation.  The first is “personality or rhetoric?”  Do we seek the psychology of Paul or an understanding of his letters?  The second is “genius or tradition?”  Is Paul the inventor of Christianity, or is he part of a larger movement: is he a transmitter of tradition or a creative thinker?  The third issue, which concerns the sources for studying Paul, is “where is the real Paul?”  This issue has two parts:  Do we follow the Acts of the Apostles or his letters?  And among the letters attributed to Paul, which ones really come from him?




I.               Personality or rhetoric?  Who is the I in Paul’s ego?

a.     The dominant way of reading Paul’s letters is as a direct revelation of his personality: The style is the person.

b.     Paul’s apparently outsized ego is the biggest hurdle for some readers.

c.     Some even find Paul’s personality to be unhealthy.

                                     i.     He is overly concerned for his authority and is suspicious of rivals.

                                   ii.     He has apparent mood swings, and the classic text of Romans 7 seems to reveal a divided, troubled self.

d.     Psychological interpretations of Paul based on such clues in the letters abound.

                                     i.     Paul is viewed as the “creative genius” who invented Christianity.

                                   ii.     Part of Paul’s “genius” is his erratic, if not sick, psyche.

                                 iii.     The “sickness” in Christianity is the result of the sickness in Paul.

e.     Such analyses can be countered by other considerations.

                                     i.     Paul does not really invent Christianity.

                                   ii.     Psychology is a hazardous proposition when applied to ancient religious figures.

                                 iii.     In any case, Paul shows the signs of a healthy personality structure.  He was capable of sustained relationships with people that extended over 20 years; he established communities and brought to completion large and worthwhile tasks over a period of 20 years.

f.      In addition, concentration on Paul’s personality is mistaken.

                                     i.     The most important insight of the last 40 years has been the rediscovery of ancient Greek rhetoric and its application to Paul.

                                   ii.     Paul uses the conventions of ancient rhetoric deliberately as instruments of persuasion.  One of the key conventions was the capacity to speak and write in character, so that one spoke and wrote in a manner appropriate to circumstances.

                                 iii.     Thus, the ego in Paul’s letters is a rhetorical ego.

g.     We read his letters for argument, therefore, rather than for the revelation of personality.

II.             Genius or company man: Did Paul invent Christianity?

a.     The question of whether Paul invented the Christian religion is stimulated by the perceived distance between him and Jesus.

                                     i.     The Jesus of the Gospels is an itinerant rural preacher who proclaims the kingdom of God.  He is not a cult figure, at least not in the synoptic gospels.

                                   ii.     In Paul’s letters, Jesus is the center of a “Christ cult” as the resurrected Lord.

b.     Paul is better seen as standing in a broader stream of early Christianity.

                                     i.     He was not alone as a missionary to the gentiles, and other early literature shows that Paul does not invent the Christ cult.

                                   ii.     His letters reveal multiple ways in which Paul uses earlier tradition, including baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the words of Jesus (although he does not quote Jesus often), and the story of Jesus.

c.     At the same time, Paul is a creative thinker.

                                     i.     Paul demands of readers that they think with him, even though his premises and modes of argumentation are not always clear.

                                   ii.     It is fair to call Paul a radical thinker because of his tendency to establish polar oppositions (e.g., flesh and spirit) and to reconcile social separations (e.g., male and female).

d.     Paul, then, stands within a tradition, but is a creative interpreter of that tradition.

III.           The problem of sources: Where do we find the real Paul?

a.     The sources used to reconstruct Paul’s life and thought dramatically affect the resulting interpretation.

b.     For Paul’s life, two basic sources exist, The Acts of the Apostles and his letters.

                                      i.     The sources have areas of agreement and disagreement.

                                    ii.     A reconstruction of Paul’s career must use both sources critically.

                                   iii.     The Acts of the Apostles is a primary, second-hand source, that is, it is written after Paul’s life, probably from the 80s to 100.

c.     For Paul’s thought, only his letters can serve as a source.

d.     Which of the 13 letters attributed to Paul should be regarded as authentic?

                                      i.     The authorship of at least six letters is challenged on the basis of style, placement in Paul’s career, and consistency in theme.

                                    ii.     The conventional position is that seven letters come from Paul in his lifetime (Romans, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, I and II Corinthians, and I Thessalonians), three of them have some claim to authenticity (II Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians), and three of them are certainly pseudonymous ( I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus).

                                   iii.     Problems exist with the current consensus and the arguments used to reach it.

e.     An alternative construal of Pauline authorship-namely that he may not have actually written all he letters, (he may have used scribes, but did author all of them - enables a reading of all the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        letters as informative for Paul’s place in early Christianity.

Supplementary Reading:

Nietzsche, The First Christian and the Jewish Dyangelist.

G.B. Shaw, The Mysterious Imposition upon Jesus.

A. Von Harnack, “The Founder of Christian Civilization,” in Meeks, pp. 288-308.

Questions to Consider:

1.     What are the implications of regarding Paul as the “founder” of Christianity rather than Jesus?

Next Week:

Paul’s Life and Letters