Paul - Lesson 4

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 4 – Paul’s Life and Letters

By Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

 Scope:  By using all the available sources critically, we are able to reconstruct Paul’s career, at least in its broad outlines: his early life with its intellectual and spiritual influences from Greco-Roman culture and Judaism; his own religious commitments as a member of the pharisaic movement; his persecution of the Christian sect; his pivotal experience that changed him into an apostle; his subsequent journeys and sojourns as a missionary and founder of churches.  In this framework, it is also possible to locate some of his correspondence that now forms the main basis for our knowledge of Paul and describe the main literary features of his letters that are importance for their interpretation.  They are occasional, they are official, they are various in form and rhetorical type, and they result from a complex process of composition.

I.               Paul’s background combined elements of a multicultural Mediterranean world of the first century of the Common Era, and these elements were given focus by his religious commitments.

a.     As a Jew born in the diaspora (Tarsus of Cilicia – southwestern coast of Turkey), he was familiar with the commonplaces of Greco-Roman philosophies, religion, and especially, rhetoric; if Acts is correct, he also enjoyed the privileges of citizenship in the city of Rome.

b.     Whether or not he was educated in Jerusalem (as Acts claims), his letters show the influence of distinctively Palestinian Jewish concerns.

                                      i.     He is familiar with the modes of scriptural interpretation known as midrash.

                                    ii.     He shares that view of history known as apocalyptic.  The apocalyptic worldview divides history into two periods.  The first is an age in which the people of God are oppressed.  In the second period, God will intervene to save his people.

c.     His specific religious loyalty was to the Jewish law (Torah) as understood and practiced by the sect called the Pharisees (Philemon 3:5).

                                      i.     Torah is the law of Moses, Prophets, and other writings of what Christians call the Old Testament, as well as the whole tradition of oral scriptural interpretation as carried out by the Pharisees.

                                    ii.     What is noteworthy is that Paul carries out these early interpretive practices on the Greek Septuagint, rather than the Hebraic text – a remarkable fusion.

                                   iii.     Paul considered Torah to be observable in all its aspects by all Jews.

                                   iv.     He regarded Torah as the absolute norm for measuring human and divine righteousness.

d.     Paul singles out one fact for special attention in his early life:  He was a persecutor of the church (Philemon 3:6; Galatians 1:13; I Corinthians 15:9).

                                      i.     He did so because of the Christian belief that an executed criminal – Jesus – was resurrected by God.

                                    ii.     Such a view was inconceivable to the Jews, who believed that criminals “hanged upon a tree” were cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23).

                                   iii.     For Paul, the unconverted Jew, Jesus was simply a criminal who was cursed by God.

II.             Paul’s life changed direction because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.  (Paul, who never describes this event, is the only writer of the New Testament who claims that he saw the resurrected Jesus.)

a.     Although Acts and Paul’s own recollections differ in detail (see Acts 9:1-9, 22:3-16, 26:9-18; Galatians 1:11-17; I Corinthians 9:1, 15:8-11), they agree that Paul was changed from persecutor to apostle by an encounter with Jesus.

                                      i.     This was not a religious conversion in the contemporary sense:  Paul always thought of himself as a Jew throughout his life.

                                    ii.     Neither was it a moral conversion:  Paul had no tortured conscience about his persecution of Christians, for example.

b.     Psychological explanations make sense to us at the expense of ignoring some of the evidence.

                                      i.     We might see Paul’s conversion as a sort of psychological breakdown:  He had trouble keeping the Jewish law and in a classic hysteric reaction, he broke down.

                                    ii.     No evidence suggests, however, that Paul experienced any cognitive dissonance before his experience.

c.     The view of Paul’s conversion as a religious experience helps account for distinctive emphases in his letters.

                                      i.     He focuses on the risen Jesus and the importance of life “in Christ.”

                                    ii.     He regards the “new age” a haing begun with the resurrection.

                                   iii.     He regards Jesus not simply as a Jewish messiah but as a “New Adam,” the start of a “new creation.”

                                   iv.     The gentile mission is grounded in Jesus’s resurrection as Lord of all humanity.

III.           Paul’s subsequent life was spent as an apostle, founding and caring for communities in Asia Minor and Europe.  Acts and Paul’s letters disagree on some points concerning Paul’s movements but agree on the basic pattern of his ministry.

a.     Acts portrays three great missionary journeys centering in Jerusalem; in the letters, Jerusalem is important to Paul, but there appear to be no discrete missionary journeys.

b.     Acts offers a different sense of disputes involving the leadership of the Jerusalem church and gives a different chronology and purpose for Paul’s collection.

c.     The sources agree that Paul worked primarily among gentiles, traveled frequently, founded communities in large urban centers (for example, Philippi, Corinth, Antioch, Rome), worked with a team of co-workers and delegates, and was imprisoned several times (two of his imprisonments lasted up to two years each).

d.     Acts provides an invaluable narrative framework that enables the placement of some of Paul’s letters but never describes Paul as a correspondent.

e.     Paul preferred to advise his ministries through personal visits to them.  If such visits were not possible, he would send delegates.  His letters to his communities were his least preferred approach.

IV.           Composed in the context of a highly active itinerant mission, four features of Paul’s correspondence are noteworthy.

a.     His letters are occasional.  They are written in response to real situations rather than as the vehicle for systematic theology.

b.     His letters are official.  They are not written for personal news or entertainment but as a message from an apostle to the “church of God” or his delegates in a certain place.

c.     His letters are complex in composition.  They make use of community traditions and are written with the help of secretaries and co-sponsors.

d.     His letters are various.  Although they share certain formal features, they differ in length, style, and rhetorical type.

Essential Reading:

Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-31; 13:1-28:31

Supplementary Reading:

L.T. Johnson, “Paul’s Ministry and Letters,” in Johnson, Writings, pp. 259-278.

Questions to Consider:

  1.  How does the portrait of Paul in Acts differ most dramatically from that drawn from his letters?
  2. Paul is a classic example of a “charismatic person.”  What are the strengths and weaknesses of his reliance on his personal experience as the basis of his authority?

Next Week:

Problems of Early Christianity