Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 12
Paul and His Letters

[p.279]Paul occupies a central place in the history of Christian thought and in the Christian canon, the New Testament. Of the twenty-seven documents which comprise the New Testament, ten were either written by Paul or in his name. His first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the earliest document in the New Testament collection. All of his letters were written earlier than the Gospels. Of great significance, moreover, is the probability that Paul and Paulinism stand behind the writing of other major works of the canon. Some scholars hold that the synoptic Gospels, the epistles of James, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and the Gospel of John all contain allusions to Pauline concepts and interpretations or to Deutero-Pauline doctrines, which are ideas expressed in epistles traditionally assigned to Paul but whose authenticity of authorship is now seriously questioned.1

Peter and Paul

Aside from Jesus, Peter and Paul are the most prominent persons in New Testament literature. Rather early in the development of Christianity, they came to represent two different and at times conflicting doctrinal positions. During the later years of the first century, there were strong efforts to reconcile these divergent positions and thereby unify the faith, efforts which may be seen even in the synoptic Gospels. The hostility toward Peter expressed in the Gospel of Mark on the occasion of the Confession at Caesarea Philippi, for instance, was greatly tempered in the Gospel of [p.280]Matthew by elimination of the verb “rebuke” in describing Jesus’s response to Peter.2 In Matthew’s account of the Confession, Peter became in effect the successor to Christ as head of the Christian church—”upon this rock.” In Luke’s second book, Acts of the Apostles, Peter became a major transitional figure standing between the “Judaizers,” the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem with their strong commitment to the Law and works, and the Hellenistic and mystical tendencies emphasizing the doctrine of grace that characterized the Pauline writings.

Luke and Paul

Paul died ca. 60-64, several years before the end of the Jewish-Roman war which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The Jews and their institutions, especially in Jerusalem, were decimated by the war, and consequently the Christian community, which was presumably established in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus, faced possible extinction. Apparently prior to the siege of Jerusalem, some Jewish Christians fled north across the Jordan to Pella and into the rugged hills of the upper Galilee.3 Although some may have returned to Jerusalem, the most viable alternative for the Christians after the war, considering the destruction and the occupation by the Roman military, was to gather in Galilee where they might survive as a community of faith awaiting Christ’s imminent return. Communities of Christians were planted in Capernaum and Remmon and across the Jordan in Cochuba.

It was probably during this critical post-war period that Paul’s letters were collected and the Pauline doctrines of grace and salvation through Christ became prominent in Christian thought. Paul’s eschatology and doctrine of the Spirit were preserved and pro-[p.281]moted in the Gospel of Mark. Luke’s writings, especially Acts of the Apostles, show how the Spirit, which was present in Jesus during his ministry, entered the church on the occasion of Pentecost with power to convert and transform the gentile world. Paul became the central figure in the account of this conversion. The Pauline documents which often are not considered to be the authentic work of the Apostle—2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians—were written and added to the original Pauline collection. Ephesians was perhaps intended as a cover letter for the entire Pauline corpus.4

Several of Paul’s religious teachings were apparently opposed by some Christians in the last quarter of the first century as leading toward anarchy. For those chiefly concerned about order, succession, and authority in the structure of the Christian church, Paul’s ideas were unacceptable. S. Sandmel is probably correct in holding that Acts of the Apostles and other New Testament documents, the Epistle of James and the Gospel of Matthew, for example, were in large measure responses to Paulinism, intended to correct and neutralize the individualistic emphasis and mystical tendencies in Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit, the imminent aspect of his eschatology, and the trend toward antinomianism in his pronouncements on freedom from the Law.

Christianity seems to have developed through several phases during the first century: (1) The Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem prior to the Jewish-Roman war was probably dynastic or family in format. (2) The early gentile Christianity showed gnostic and montanist-spirit tendencies, which were probably based upon Paul. (3) Mark’s proposal in the period of reconstruction following the war was for a new beginning on the basis of Paul’s doctrine of the spirit, including a devaluation of Peter and the Judaistic-Christian faith. (4) Matthew’s Gospel was a reinstatement of Peter as the successor to Jesus and head of the church. (5) Finally, Luke’s synthesis of the Pauline and Petrine traditions in Acts of the Apos-[p.282]tles became the church’s official account of Christian origins and its own development.5

Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s Ministry

Because of the abundance of extant primary materials on Paul and his teachings, it is often assumed that an account of his ministry should be simple to construct. On the surface this assumption might seem justified, for the letters should be reliable and productive sources—personal and in at least one case intimate correspondence. However, there have been many diverse and sometimes conflicting interpretations of Paul, his life, and teachings. Some of these have been flawed, mainly because the traditional accounts of Paul have depended almost entirely on the narrative of his life given in the Acts of the Apostles: that Paul was a Jew named Saul, who was born in Tarsus in Cilicia and was educated at the feet of Gamaliel; that he persecuted the Christian community; that after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:3-8), he engaged in three great missionary journeys and was finally arrested at Jerusalem and sent to Rome for trial.

The problem with this well known account from Acts is that several of its most important elements are not substantiated from Paul’s own writings.6 For example, the pattern of the three missionary journeys in Acts is not found in his letters, and in some important respects the chronology followed in Acts does not agree with the data provided in the letters, particularly in Galatians and the Corinthian epistles.

Other important differences are evident: In Acts of the Apostles the unique status of the Jerusalem church is emphasized. Here Paul is represented as accountable to the leadership in Jerusalem, a base of operations and center for the Christian communities. [p.283]However, according to Paul’s letters, Ephesus, not Jerusalem, seems to have been the headquarters for much of his ministry. On several occasions he went to Jerusalem but primarily to confer with the leadership there. The authority of the Twelve over the entire Christian movement is also asserted in the Acts account, and Paul is represented as submissive to the Jerusalem council. However, on the witness of Paul’s own letters, he was not submissive, nor did he consider his authority inferior to that of the Jerusalem council.7

Today Acts is almost universally accepted by scholars as a second volume written by the author of the Gospel of Luke, the two volumes being frequently referred to as Luke-Acts. Studies of Luke’s Gospel have shown that its author selected and arranged his sources, edited the details, and ordered events in accord with his own religious interests. This fact provides the key for understanding Luke’s second volume, that it is to be interpreted in light of his overall concern to tell the story of Christianity; that God’s spirit, which was in Jesus, came to the Christian church with great power and that the expansion of Christianity was straightforward and inevitable, a natural development toward the fulfillment of God’s plan. In Luke’s account of the expansion of the Christian church, Paul and Peter were the central figures in initiating the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect to a major religion in the Roman world.8

Paul lived during a critical time for the infant church; his letters speak of much internal conflict and strife. He felt strongly [p.284]about rival factions developing among Corinthian Christians and about the Judaizers, presumably Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who were undermining his efforts in Galatia. According to his letters, decisions important to the church were pending. The precarious condition of the Christian congregations, Paul’s relation to them, and the threat posed to the unity of the early church by its internal disputes—all of which appear so clearly in Paul’s letters—seem to have been intentionally glossed over in Acts. This book was apparently written in retrospect, some time after Paul had faced the crucial issues of his day.

In Acts Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit (“in Christ Jesus,” “in the Spirit”) is brought to a prominent position in the Christian gospel (Rom 8:1, 9f; 2 Cor 5:17, 13:5; Gal 2:20). In Acts, Luke adopted a modified Pauline position on the coming of the Spirit and speaking in tongues. To the Corinthians Paul had exclaimed, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor 14:19.) Considering Paul’s attitude toward tongues, Luke may have converted the mystical Pentecostal tongues-of-fire experience into a miracle of understanding in which the gentiles from foreign lands heard in their own languages the message of the apostles. This interpretation of the coming of the Spirit and tongues became the guideline for the church later on in its struggle with Montanist Christians. However, Luke’s dependence on Paul was never total, for he seems to have rejected some of Paul’s views and modified others. For example, Luke apparently had serious reservations about Paul’s claim to be an apostle, probably because this claim was founded on a personal vision of the Christ. The “Coming of the Spirit” at Pentecost, according to Luke, was not to individual persons as in the case of Paul but rather to the apostles as members of an official body. Apparently Luke wanted to provide controls for developing the structure of the church by formalizing and regularizing the coming of the Spirit as well as the procedure for selecting replacements in the apostolic council.

In the early church the “Twelve” seem to have been regarded primarily as missionaries, who were to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. In this early period (ca. 35-44 CE), it is difficult [p.285]to establish primacy in the church for one of the three claimants for succession: the family of Jesus for whom Davidic descent was basic; the prophets, whose claim to succession was derived through the power of the Holy Spirit; and the apostles, whose credentials rested upon the fact that they walked and talked with Jesus. In Acts the trend is toward the recognition of a formal, authoritative body, “the Apostles,” whose status and role were enhanced and formalized as an apostolic council. Luke shows Paul accepting the preeminence of the Jerusalem Council led by James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter.

Paul’s Jewish Environment

Certainly environmental factors play a major role in the development of a person’s perceptions, presuppositions, ideas, and attitudes. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paul’s early intellectual and spiritual nurturing in the Jewish culture and religion. The Jewish heritage into which Paul was inducted through his home, synagogue, and community was clearly the chief factor conditioning his attitudes and beliefs even after his conversion to Christianity.

Little is known of Paul’s childhood and youth. According to his letter to the Philippians, he was a circumcised Jew “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5f).9 However, it is known from both Acts and his own letters that Paul was a Jew of the Diaspora. First-century Judaism was not a unified system of beliefs and practices. The accounts by Philo and Josephus of the religious and political parties and sects in their day, recent archaeological studies, and the knowledge that has issued from the discovery of ancient documents such as the Essene scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicate that even in Palestine Judaism was not a simple monolithic faith and culture. Religious ideas and moral ideals [p.286]were involved inextricably with political, economic, and regional interests and traditions. There were Messianic movements expecting the end of history, zealous revolutionaries yearning for rebellion against Rome, purist-separatist movements, as the Essenes, protesting against the controlling Jewish parties in Jerusalem. Others accommodated their Judaism to Greek ideas, Hellenistic culture, and Roman power.

But while there was such variety in Palestinian Judaism, there was equal diversity in the Judaism of the Diaspora, with Jewish communities extending from Rome to Babylon and Egypt. The impact of foreign cultures, especially Greek, produced types of Jewish faith that deviated from Palestinian norms. In the late nineteenth century the historian Adolf Harnack wrote in History of Dogma, “The Judaism of the diaspora was long since surrounded by a retinue of half-bred Grecian brethren, for whom the particular and national forms of the Old Testament religion were hardly existent.”10 But W. D. Davies, writing in 1964, insisted that the evidence has mounted that it is impossible to distinguish definitively between Diaspora and Palestinian Judaism.11 According to S. Sandmel, Paul “was a Greek Jew,” but this “does not asperse Paul’s loyalty and allegiance to Judaism.… It means simply that the content of his Judaism, like that of other Greek Jews, had undergone a subtle, but radical shift.”12

Tarsus, Paul’s native city, was in his day a cosmopolitan center of commerce and culture. It was an old city, thoroughly Hellenized, and from at least the time of Antiochus IV supported a substantial Jewish population. The Roman proconsul Pompey made it the capital of the province of Cilicia in 66 BCE, and after the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony granted Roman citizenship to its free inhabitants, an endowment later honored by the emperor Augustus. Apparently this was the basis of Paul’s claim to citizenship that in his later years entitled him to a hearing [p.287]before Nero. That Tarsus was a center of philosophical thought is well known. The geographer Strabo, an older contemporary of Jesus, mentioned its philosophical schools, favorably comparing them to both Athens and Alexandria.13 Stoic and Epicurean philosophy flourished there and Platonic influences of the kind that generally pervaded the intellectual life of the Hellenistic world.

Although educated no doubt in the Jewish community of Tarsus, Paul may have been influenced as well by the northern Judaism of Galilee. Jerome refers to a rumor that Paul’s family was originally from the village of Gischala in Galilee.14 The German scholar Adolf Deissmann, responding to this brief note in Jerome, raised an interesting question, “Jesus and Paul—were they actually ‘fellow-countrymen’?”15 More evidence would be required to answer this question definitively, but if Paul’s family was from Gischala, north of Galilee, he might well have shared with Jesus the Jewish religious tradition which emphasized the power of the Spirit, a heritage from Moses, Samuel, and Elijah. This tradition became a foundation element of the Christian religion.

Apparently Paul was also trained in the Pharisaic tradition as a student of the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel I.16 He had been taught from childhood to cherish the Torah as the standard for Jewish belief and practice, and in his later years he may have been preparing to become a rabbi. In all likelihood he was conditioned to hold himself aloof from alien culture and religious concepts notwithstanding the subtle influences from his Greek intellectual and cultural environment. These factors in Paul’s background not only shaped the Judaism to which he gave his early allegiance but undoubtedly gave form to his later religious attitudes and theological doctrines as a Christian.

[p.288]Although his conversion to Christianity was a turning away from some basic commitments to Judaism, even as a Christian and as the chief creator of Christian theology, Paul did not abandon his fundamental allegiance to the Jewish religious tradition. His religion as a believer in Christ became a religion of grace rather than law, but he remained committed to the monotheistic foundations of Judaism and to the moral principles of the Hebrew prophets. His reverence for Moses and the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, and his devotion to the Hebrew scriptures were typically Jewish. He understood and shared the popular eschatological expectations of his time. Christianity was for him the consummation of Judaism, the continuation of God’s chosen lineage until the end of the age. Christ crucified and risen was the fulfillment of the promise.

Paul’s Hellenistic Environment

No doubt even as a youth Paul was concerned with the differences between the religious beliefs and practices of his home and synagogue and those of his Gentile neighbors with their temples and multiple gods. Even if he deliberately avoided contacts with non-Jewish practice and thought, in Tarsus he could not have failed to acquire considerable knowledge of gentile ways and ideas. His own writings reveal his effective usage of the common Greek dialect, the Koine, the language of the New Testament and chief bearer of Hellenistic culture. It is significant, moreover, that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was the scripture from which Paul quoted. This was typical of a Hellenistic Jew of the Diaspora. Greek and Roman architecture, sculpture, and religious art and symbols were elements of the environment in which he was nurtured. Much of the lifestyle of the Hellenistic cities was Greek in character. The theater, the stadium games, even the names of many Jews, expressed Greek habit, interests, and values. Notwithstanding his commitment to Judaism, Paul must have been strongly influenced by religious beliefs and practices of the gentile world in which he lived, both before and after his conversion to Christianity.

[p.289]Three elements of Hellenistic thought and practice are of particular importance for any analysis of the religious concepts of Paul: Graeco-Roman Stoicism, which in this period was a major philosophical movement; the Oriental mystery cults that were increasingly important, especially in the eastern part of the empire; and the Gnosticism which pervaded much Hellenistic religion. To what extent these movements affected Paul’s religious attitudes and beliefs has long been a matter of scholarly dispute. If they influenced him, questions remain about whether he borrowed directly from Stoic literature, for instance, or simply imbibed Stoic ideas from the philosophical atmosphere in which he lived; whether the similarities between his teachings on salvation and some of the popular beliefs of the mystery religions were influenced by one or more of the prevalent mysteries or were simply additional evidence of what was becoming commonplace belief and practice relative to the ultimate destiny of the human soul. The extent to which Paul was influenced in the cosmic and psychological dimensions of his theology is a matter of debate, but that there were important gnostic facets of his thought is obvious.

Stoicism, the Mysteries, and Gnosticism

Whether Stoicism directly impacted Paul’s thinking is conjectural. However, Tarsus, his early home, was an important center of Stoic learning and there are in Paul’s writings interesting parallels with Stoic thought. For example, the presence of the divine in all creation, a basic concept of Stoic philosophy, is suggested in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Rom 1:19f)

This statement has overtones of typical Stoic metaphysics, but its context is anything but Stoic. And the idea of creation expressed here is Judaic rather than Stoic. In the past scholars have called attention to other phrases in Paul’s letters that are similar [p.290]to those of prominent Stoic writers. George P. Fisher, for instance, a major historian at the turn of the century, says, “We may reasonably assume a familiarity on the part of Paul with Stoic ideas and phrases, since Tarsus was a prominent seat of Stoic teaching. The quotation in Acts XVII.28, is from the hymn of Cleanthes, and from the Stoic-Poet, Aratus, who was connected with Tarsus.”17

It is not possible to show that Paul consciously borrowed from Stoicism. But Stoic concepts and expressions were widely dispersed throughout the Hellenistic world and, despite his Jewish upbringing, Paul surely assimilated to his own thought much that had become common in the thought and expression of his time. There is, of course, another side to this coin. Considerable attention has been given to the possibility that Stoicism was influenced by both Judaism and Christianity. The pantheistic inclinations of Roman Stoicism, however, indicate that it differed fundamentally from both Jewish and Christian theism with their concept of God as creator of, and therefore distinct from, the world. Still scholars generally agree that Paul was influenced by Stoicism in his literary style, as in his use of the so-called Stoic-Cynic diatribe.

The relation of Paul’s religious teachings to the widespread mystery cults has long been a matter of study and dispute, and even today a definitive resolution is impossible. That similarities, if not identities, appearing in Paul’s Christianity and in the chief mysteries suggest direct influence is obvious. But a careful examination casts serious doubt on the once common idea that Paul’s early Hellenistic conditioning taken with his conversion revolt against Judaism produced a religion in the typical style of the Oriental mysteries.

[p.291]Although they were probably at the height of their influence a century or two later, the mysteries, which originated especially in Egypt, Persia, Syria, and Greece, were growing in strength and popularity in Paul’s day, and it is unlikely that he entirely escaped their influence. Whether they were the cults of Cybele and Attis from Phrygia, of Astarte and Adonis from Syria, Isis and Osiris from Egypt, or the Persian Mithraism or the Greek Eleusinian religion, the vitality and popularity of the mysteries were grounded in the concern of the general urban masses of the empire for the salvation of the individual person, if not in this life at least in a blessed hereafter. In a world where the individual was burdened by totalitarian power, bureaucracy and military repression, even slavery, redemption from life’s bondage was the dominant hope and substance of religion. The possibility, and indeed the reality, of personal immortality was found in identification with the dying and rising savior gods of the mysteries, an identification achieved especially through the rituals of baptism or washing and a sacred meal.

The similarity of such central mystery beliefs to Paul’s Christianity is obvious, and leading scholars of a few decades past argued persuasively that Paul, a Hellenized Jew of the Diaspora, had as a convert to Christianity transformed Christianity into a pagan mystery cult.18 This simple explanation that resulted from the study of comparative religions has now been largely aban-[p.292]doned, or at least severely modified, by the increased understanding of ancient religion and reaction against interpretations of religious history commonly issuing from liberal scholarship. It has become evident that the major contacts of Christianity with mystery religions developed after Paul, especially in the second century, and linguistic studies have indicated that important accommodations to the language of the mysteries were probably made by Christian writers to facilitate understanding of their doctrines. Moreover, in recent studies, differences often count for more than similarities in considering causal influences.

While the surface similarities of the Christian and pagan mysteries are manifest, the differences are sometimes profound. The Hellenistic mysteries were grounded in myth and mythological deities; Paul’s Christianity was grounded in temporal events and an authentic historical person. It is possible to overstate the differences in the area of Paul’s emphasis on the moral life in contrast to the pagan mysteries, as some of these, for instance Mithraism, generated more moral substance through their ritual and ceremony than is sometimes recognized.19 In The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, Albert Schweitzer defined the ground of Paul’s religion of redemption as his “Christ-Mysticism,” which, he insisted, was radically different from the “God-Mysticism” of the Hellenistic mysteries. Schweitzer argued that the religion of Paul, like that of Jesus, was rooted in Jewish eschatology rather than mystery religion. While affirming that in the second century Christianity was transformed into Hellenistic teaching due to the decline of the eschatological faith when Jesus failed to return, Schweitzer argued that “the Hellenization of Christianity does not come in with Paul, but only after him. … Paul was not the Hellenizer of Christianity. But in his eschatological mysticism of the Being-in-Christ, he gave it a form in which it could be Hellenized.”20

[p.293]Schweitzer, who more effectively than any other scholar of this century insisted on the eschatological interpretation of the gospel, held fast to the thesis that Paul’s doctrine issued not from Hellenistic thought but from Jewish eschatology. “Paulinism,” he wrote, “in its essence … can be nothing else than an eschatological mysticism, expressing itself by the aid of Greek religious terminology.”21 However, today the rigorous distinction between Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism, which Schweitzer assumed, is generally rejected by scholars of first-century Judaism and Christianity who have been influenced by recent archaeological findings and a reconsideration of earlier evidences. Some hold that the interaction of Greek and Jewish cultural elements from the time of Alexander’s invasion in 332 BCE, and especially after the Roman occupation in 63 BCE, produced a culture that Schweitzer had ignored. Even if Paul is described as a Jewish “Rabbi become Christian,” his Jewish religion was not free from Hellenisms.22 Even Emil Schürer in his monumental work The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, first published toward the end of the last century, wrote that at the time of Jesus “the line of demarcation between [the literature of Palestinian Judaism and of Hellenistic Judaism] is of a somewhat fluctuating and indefinite character and … the designations applied to them are to be taken very much cum grano salis.”23

Although Paul was by no means a Christian gnostic when compared to later gnostics in the church, his conception of the world being under the dominion of evil, his treatment of the spirit and the body, his doctrine of salvation by grace, and his doctrine [p.294]of predestination echoed gnostic notions. These will be treated in the following chapter on Paul’s theology.

Paul’s Conversion

Paul’s conception of salvation through Christ issued from his profound religious experience on the road to Damascus, which was crucial in changing him from a persecutor of the Christians to their most effective advocate and influential theologian. This experience was the ground of his faith and inspired his preaching, thinking, and writing through his remaining years. According to some interpreters, Paul’s vision of Christ came to him as a “bolt from the sky,” a supernatural “revelation” of the risen Lord. For others his conversion experience was the culmination and convergence of psychological factors which had produced strong internal conflicts in his religious beliefs, attitudes, and loyalties.24 Thus Paul may have suffered severe psychological tension associated with his religious zeal.

Paul’s Jewish home life and his strict formal training in the synagogue may have been difficult to reconcile with the Greek-pagan cultural values to which in all probability he was daily exposed. His own statements express the intense seriousness with which he embraced the religion of his people. He was zealous in observing the Law, perhaps more than most young Jewish men. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14). In the matter of righteousness under the Law, crucial to a practicing Jew, Paul felt blameless, for he had observed the tradition of his fathers to the letter (Gal 3:6). Yet his consciousness of evil and the pressures of sinful desire were increased by the very prohibitions and restrictions which the Law enjoined. The Torah, Paul’s hope for life, brought only keener awareness of the presence of sin, increased desire, and eventual death. “For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me” (Rom 7:11). Thus Paul’s early life under the Law was one of inner conflict and [p.295]turmoil; his experience with the legal aspects of Judaism as he understood it was distressing. Only gradually did he realize the inadequacy of his inner striving under the Law, and the full and final recognition of this fact culminated in the conversion experience.

Paul’s inner conflict seems to have reached a critical point during his contacts with the early Christian followers of the Way. Although the Christian movement began in Palestine among the disciples of Jesus, in Paul’s time it was spreading among the Jews of the Diaspora, at least in Syria. Some members of this new sect, probably Hellenist converts, eliminated from their religion certain Jewish practices, among them circumcision. For most Jews this was a most grievous error, and for Paul, who appears to have been a Pharisaic missionary in the Diaspora, it was intolerable. The sensitiveness which had driven Paul to the point of fanaticism with respect to the Law now impelled him to act against the Christians.25 But this only intensified his inner conflict, for apparently the followers of Jesus had a sense of security and freedom and of certain victory which sustained them in the face of danger and death. At least something like this picture of internal tension and conflict has often been held to explain Paul’s conversion experience.26

Paul’s own letters must be taken as the primary source in any discussion of his conversion. However, the traditional interpretation of his vision of Christ is based largely on Acts of the Apostles, where three references to the event are recorded (Acts 9:1-9, 22:6-11, 26:12-18).

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, … approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who [p.296]are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. (Acts 9:1, 3-7)

In all three accounts of the conversion in Acts, the vicinity of Damascus is mentioned as the location of the theophany. The word “light” is emphasized; “a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me” (Acts 22:6). In all accounts Paul heard a voice and in one the voice spoke to him “in the Hebrew language” (Acts 26:14). One discrepancy in the three accounts recorded in Acts is especially noticeable: In the first report (9:7) those who were traveling with Paul stood and heard the voice which spoke to him, but they saw no one. However, in the second account (26:14) they fell to the ground, and in the third account (22:9) his companions saw the light but did not hear the voice. Some scholars have interpreted the accounts of Paul’s blindness and conversion in Acts as symbolic of the beginnings of Christianity: Paul, like the early Christians, had been blind in Judaism but had received spiritual illumination.

Paul’s letters allude to the conversion experience. According to his own account, the experience came without warning while he was actively persecuting Christians. A powerful light or illumination had a dramatic effect upon him. In the Acts accounts Paul fell to the ground, saw a great light from heaven, heard a voice, and his companions also either saw the light or heard the voice. But these details do not appear in Paul’s own references to the experience (1 Cor 9:1f, 15:3-8; Gal 1:11-16). However, one assertion is consistently maintained both in Acts and in the letters: Paul claims to have seen Jesus Christ. “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you” (1 Cor 9:1f). He had not received his call from other men but God himself had revealed his son to him. “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:11f).

[p.297]The conversion experience was for Paul the basis for his authority; it made him a witness to the resurrected Christ and this qualified him as an apostle. Paul does not distinguish between the validity of his own experience and that of the other apostles. Peter and James the brother of Jesus were leaders of the Jerusalem church. But for Paul even their personal intimate relationship with Jesus carried no greater status than his own vision of the risen Christ.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. … I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. (1 Cor 15:3-5, 7f, 10)

Paul’s letters make remarkably few references to Jesus and his teachings. There is no evidence that he had a serious interest in the Jesus who walked the pathways of Galilee, healed the sick, promised forgiveness for repentance, and proclaimed the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. His concern rather was with the crucified and risen Christ. Paul’s faith in Christ was more than simply intellectual assent or belief. His conversion meant a total commitment to Christ and the gospel, for the fact of Christ’s presence in his life was a powerful force. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20.)

Paul the Missionary

The dating of important events and the chronology of Paul’s letters are controversial problems among historians of the New Testament. Scholars have commonly relied on Acts to provide the narrative framework for Paul’s statements. However, Paul’s letters provide more relevant information than is generally realized.  [p.298]Here it is possible to reconstruct from brief autobiographical statements a reliable sketch of Paul’s missionary activities while relying on Acts only as a supplementary source.

Following his conversion experience Paul went into Arabia, the territory east and south of Syria. “I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus” (Gal 1:16f). Because of the meagerness of the reports, where precisely Paul went and what he did during the three-year period which followed is difficult to determine. He probably retired for a period to reflect on his theophany and conversion and the responsibilities which these imposed on him. Then he began his active proselytizing for the gospel in the cities of Arabia and Syria.

Paul’s visits to Jerusalem were decisive events in determining his role in the life of the church. According to his own statements, after returning from Arabia he went to Jerusalem to visit and acquaint himself with the leaders of the Jewish Christian community.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (Gal 1:18f)

After this brief visit he pursued missionary activities in the areas near his homeland, in Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21). During the next eleven years (possibly fourteen), Paul expanded his field of activity. His independence and adventurousness, expressed in his desire to find new, untouched areas, led him eventually toward the west. Here he was so successful that in the accounts of his work Syria and Cilicia fade into the background. His center of activity shifted to the great cities of the west in Galatia, Macedonia, Greece, and the Roman province of Asia, where he evangelized and founded Christian fellowships among the Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles.

Paul’s success was not without considerable opposition. When he was unable to handle critical problems in person he endeavored to resolve them in his letters, which were to become a rich deposit of faith for the Christian church and the chief foundation of its theology. In First Thessalonians, for example, he was concerned [p.299]with the small community which he had established in Thessalonica in Macedonia and wrote, probably from Athens or Corinth, to instruct and encourage the Christians there in the face of persecution. In the Graeco-Roman city of Corinth, he found immediate response to his message and a young, though immature Christian community was founded. Second Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is often accepted as a fragment of an early letter of Paul to this church written after he had arrived in Ephesus.

There are several theories concerning Paul’s imprisonment and the writing of the so-called imprisonment letters, Philippians and Philemon. According to the traditional view, he was imprisoned only once—in Rome near the end of his life. Some scholars have held, however, that he was imprisoned earlier at Caesarea in Palestine.27 Others allege that he was imprisoned earlier in Ephesus in the province of Asia on the Aegean coast. The evidence is inconclusive, but the latter thesis seems to present fewer difficulties than either of the other two. In 1 Corinthians Paul refers to a personal crisis in Ephesus:

Why am I in peril every hour? I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? (1 Cor 15:30-32.)

Other statements concerning afflictions in Asia also suggest Ephesus as the place of imprisonment from which Paul sent his letters to the churches in Philippi and Laodicea (the letter to Philemon).

Soon after his release from prison, Paul made his second visit to Jerusalem, his so-called conference visit. His purpose was to resolve the important question of admitting non-Jews to fellowship in the churches. “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation, and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles” (Gal 2:1f). That he was successful in presenting and defending his case seems evident from his own reference to the event. “And when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and [p.300]Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9).

The period which followed his return to the west, however, was probably the most trying of Paul’s career. He was eager to cooperate with the Jewish Christian leaders in gathering an offering for the poor of Jerusalem and possibly to help overcome the tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians, but his desires were not easily attained (Gal 2:10). Serious problems were developing in the young church in Corinth; internal dissension threatened to break the unity of the Christian community into rival factions, some professing to follow Paul, others Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Cor 1:10-17). Paul was distressed by the situation which certain groups had provoked, especially those of the Spirit (the Spiritualists or pneumatics), and wrote his long letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians) in which he attempted to establish rules for governing the gifts of the Spirit (speaking in tongues and prophecy), to revive their allegiance to his gospel, and to restore their unity. Confusion among the Corinthian Christians seemed imminent. For Paul, this was a critical situation, and in response he wrote two of the bitterest letters of his career: one to the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 10-13) and the other to the Galatians. Discipline and determination prevailed in the end, for Paul learned from his companion Titus that his harsh letter had taken effect. Rejoicing in the good news, he wrote again to Corinth but this time with the spirit of reconciliation and gratitude for their change of attitude (2 Cor. 1-9).28

The crisis period in Asia, as reflected in Galatians and 2 Corinthians 10-13, is significant for what it reveals about the chronology of Paul’s missionary ventures. Both letters identify the height of the struggle which, according to the record, occurred “fourteen years” after Paul’s conversion experience and his first visit to Jerusalem. Some difficulty arises at this point in determining whether the “three years” period mentioned in Galatians 1:18 should be included in the total “fourteen years” period. In any event, all of [p.301]the chronological data, including all of Paul’s work in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Greece and all of Paul’s letters except 2 Corinthians 1-9, the letter to Phoebe (Rom. 16) and Romans 1-15, must fit into this eleven-to-fourteen-year period. Paul’s statements about the crises which he faced are pertinent not only for what they reveal about the difficulties of the time but also for the pertinent chronological information they supply. One of these crises occurred when Jewish-Christians or Judaizers in Galatia sought to discredit Paul’s teaching about freedom from the Law through faith in Christ.

Paul wrote his letters to the Galatians and to the Corinthians in order to resolve their conflicts. His success in both instances attests to the power of his written word (1 Cor 1:10-13). With the problems largely resolved, he was free to turn his attention to other matters. In his letter to the Romans, he clearly expressed his desire to visit the church in Rome (Rom 1:13). He had preached his gospel over an extensive area, “from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum,” and he had ambitions to reach new areas yet untouched, possibly Spain, to build, but not on another’s foundations (Rom 15:19f). He probably felt that his work was completed in the regions where he had already preached and established Christian congregations. Moreover, the field was too crowded for a man of his temperament. “But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little” (Rom 15:23f).

But Paul had another obligation which required his attention: the collection for the poor at Jerusalem. For him, this was more than just a gift from one Christian group to another; this offering symbolized his longing for peace between the Jewish Christian and Hellenistic Christian churches. The collection was the basis for his agreement with the Jerusalem leaders and had been encouraged among the churches since his return from his conference visit (Gal 2:10). At first he had hoped to send others with the gift to Jerusalem, but as the time arrived he realized that his own personal appearance before the Jerusalem community would be most effec-[p.302]tive. Reconciliation and unity with the Jerusalem leaders were so important that he was willing to sacrifice his personal desires and face certain danger if not death in Jerusalem. “I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints” (Rom 15:30f).

At this point the narrative that can be reconstructed from Paul’s letters appears to end. It is continued, however, in the book of Acts, where Paul took the offering to Jerusalem. He was attacked by his opponents, arrested, imprisoned for two years, and eventually sent to Rome to be tried. His transfer to Rome was the result of his appeal on the basis of Roman citizenship (Acts 25:10-28:31). The problem of assigning dates to these events is difficult. The date of Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem and of the apparent termination of his active career is of central importance, but the date cannot be ascertained from evidence in his own letters. The book of Acts states that Paul was in prison during the change of administration between the procurator Felix and his successor Porcius Festus (Acts 24:27). If one accepts this assertion, a date of 60-62 CE can be assigned to this imprisonment. His release in Caesarea and the long journey to Rome involving a shipwreck at Malta must be accounted for. Since there is no scriptural record of Paul’s death the historian must depend on the tradition preserved among the early church Fathers that Paul suffered execution in Rome during the reign of Nero. This may have occurred as late as 64 CE.

The Pauline Letters

Fourteen documents in the New Testament canon are traditionally attributed to Paul. However, many scholars maintain that the claim for Pauline authorship of some of these is not authentic. Few students of the New Testament now question the authenticity of seven of the letters: 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans.29 First Thessa-[p.303]lonians, Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians make up what is known as the Pauline classics, documents so indisputably authentic to Paul that they provide the standards of internal evidence, ideas, vocabulary, and writing style against which the authenticity of other so-called Pauline writing is judged.

Many scholars seriously question Paul’s authorship of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians and conclude that they were written by followers of Paul who were inspired by him and wanted to bring to their writings the support and prestige of his name. These letters seem to reflect the interests of a later generation and are often classified as deutero-Pauline. None but the most conservative scholars would accept Hebrews or the pastoral letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, as authentically Pauline. These are generally assumed to have been composed well beyond Paul’s time during the period of emerging Catholicism, probably in the early decades of the second century.

The chronology of the genuine letters is assumed by many students of Paul to be: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, the Corinthian correspondence (including canonical 1 and 2 Corinthians), the imprisonment letters (Philippians and Philemon), and the letter to the Romans. If this ordering is in fact accurate, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest document in the New Testament, composed around 50 CE.

The letter to the Romans, the most important theological document in the Christian religion, will be discussed in the chapter on Paul’s theology.

First Thessalonians

That 1 Thessalonians is an authentic letter of Paul has been almost universally accepted. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, all important ancient authorities, regarded it as genuine. The same opinion is shared by almost all modern scholars. The vocabulary and style seem to be thoroughly Pauline, and the chief Christological views expressed in the letter—as for example references to the Parousia in 4:15-5:11, where it is declared [p.304]that God has raised up his son and that soon he will return to the earth—are consistent with the eschatological ideas found elsewhere in the Pauline classics.30

Moreover, it is commonly held that 1 Thessalonians has no interpolations and few textual corruptions. All elements fit neatly into Paul’s period and his type of ministry; no unusually abrupt shifts in thought or style are evident in the letter. It was addressed to the church at Thessalonica in Macedonia (modern Salonika in Greece). This predominantly Gentile community, a free city, had been visited by Paul after his expulsion from Philippi. After a stay there of uncertain duration, Paul had continued on his way to Beroea and Athens and finally reached Corinth (1 Thes 2:1f, 17, 3:1). In Corinth in the winter or spring of 51 CE, Paul was reunited with his missionary co-workers, Philip, Silas, and Timothy (1 Thes 3:2, 6). Encouraged by the good news of their work, he composed this letter to the Thessalonians.

The purpose behind the composition of 1 Thessalonians was fourfold. The most obvious concern of Paul was the confusion among the converts about the Parousia and the physical resurrection (1 Thes 4:13-18). Also, there was the influence of popular nature-cult religions, which were often without strong commitments to a genuinely moral deity. Paul preached a strict monotheism with a characteristic Jewish emphasis on morality. The third occasion for the letter, though not mentioned directly, seems to have been the suspicion, suggested in 2:3-3:13, that some in the church at Thessalonica regarded Paul as merely another mercenary street preacher. Finally, Paul found it necessary to encourage the Christians of Thessalonica to stand fast in the face of almost certain persecution (1 Thes 5:1-11).


Paul’s letter to the Galatians, though brief, is one of the most significant writings in the New Testament. Its theological and moral concepts will be discussed in the chapter on Paul’s theology. Historically, Galatians presents a primary account of Gentile Christian beginnings, for in defending his claim to be an apostle [p.305]of Christ, Paul reviews here his own background in Judaism and his early years as a Christian, including his first encounters with Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem. The theological importance of Galatians lies in the fact that it provides the earliest statement of Paul’s Christology. Presumably his teaching and his authority had been under attack by conservative Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, who had been proselytizing among the churches which he had established earlier in Galatia. He apparently saw the need to clarify his own doctrinal position and to reaffirm his claim to authority as an apostle. As a religious document Galatians holds a unique position in the Pauline collection for it is written from the point of view of the emerging church. Until Paul’s day, it had been assumed by many—Jews, Romans, and probably by some Jewish Christians as well—that the early Jewish Christian community (The Followers of the Way) was simply another of several splinter groups or sects of Judaism. Paul’s account in Galatians of the pre-eminence of faith in his scheme of salvation and the place of the Law and the meaning of freedom in Christ clearly described Christianity as an independent religion.

Most scholars agree about questions of authorship and about the unity of Galatians. The letter stands in the canon essentially in the form given it by Paul. The date and audience to whom it was addressed are inconclusive. Some scholars speculate that it dates after Paul’s so-called conference visit to Jerusalem, ca. 54-55 CE.

News had come to Paul while he was in Ephesus that there was great turmoil among the members of his churches in Galatia. Many were at the point of abandoning his new gospel of freedom from the Law in Christ and returning to a more distinctively Jewish faith. Antagonism toward Paul eventually grew so strong that he went to Jerusalem to lay the issue before Peter and the council. In Jerusalem, according to Acts, Paul’s views and his authority as an apostle were vindicated, but the opposition continued. Some Jewish Christians persisted in their campaign to undermine Paul’s position, his stand on the Law, particularly the Jewish practice of circumcision. Paul was profoundly disturbed by the crisis and wrote his letter to the Galatians, reiterating his claim to be an [p.306]apostle of Christ and declaring the validity of a new foundation for salvation—”that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). This principle, of course, was to become an essential element in the foundation of the Christian theology and religion.

The Corinthian Correspondence

Paul’s letters to Corinth (including 1 and 2 canonical Corinthians) are a composite; this is a particularly accurate estimate of 2 Corinthians since it seems to include fragments of three, or possibly four, letters. First Corinthians is probably the best example of a genuine Pauline letter. Early Christian writers Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian attest to its authority. Some small parts of verses may include the insertion of marginal notes made by later scribes in order to smooth out or to supplement a particular text, but with relatively few exceptions the text of 1 Corinthians probably remains essentially as Paul wrote it.

The Greek city of Corinth was a thriving seaport located on the narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus and the Greek mainland and had two harbors, one facing the Aegean Sea and the other the Adriatic. Because of this excellent geographical location, Corinth was a major center of commerce and attracted a cosmopolitan population from throughout the Roman empire. Archaeological excavations in the area have uncovered temples, baths, a large marketplace, and theaters. It was a city with a variety of religions and a reputation for vice and corruption, a city capable of producing the multiple problems concerning Paul in his Corinthian correspondence. Most of the Corinthian letters were probably written from Ephesus ca. 52-54 (1 Cor 16:1, 8, 19).

The events and circumstances which prompted the Corinthian letters can be reconstructed from internal evidence. Paul first visited Corinth and established a church there about 50-51. Acts recounts his activity there, particularly his trial before Gallio, the Roman proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17). He probably left for Syria to journey to Antioch shortly after his trial in the fall of 51 but returned [p.307]later to Ephesus, where he remained for approximately two years (Acts 19:8-10). During this visit, apparently between the summer of 52 and the fall of 54, he wrote 1 Corinthians. Sometime later he received word of serious difficulties within the Corinthian Christian community. In 1 Corinthians Paul alluded to a letter he had sent earlier charging the Corinthians to drive from their congregation the male members who were sexually immoral (1 Cor 5:9-13). Second Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is believed by some scholars to be a fragment of that earlier letter. News of the failure of the attempt to reform the congregation was received from Chloe’s people in Corinth (1 Cor 1:11), perhaps conveyed to Paul by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor 16:17f).

In response to this apparent failure of his first letter, Paul wrote what is known as 1 Corinthians. In this letter he referred to several difficult internal problems confronting the church. Schism was perhaps the most threatening, for the Christians in Corinth were divided into contending factions, each claiming allegiance to their preferred teacher—some following Apollos, others loyal to Paul or to Cephas (Peter) (1 Cor 1:10-13, 3:3-7). One group, referred to as the Christ party, the pneumatikoi (the Spiritualists) claimed to have received superior gifts of the spirit. They believed themselves to be saved and, therefore, above the moral law. These persons, obviously gnostics, apparently were among the earliest identifiable Christian libertines. In response to this distressing situation, Paul rebuked the spirit-enthusiasts for their misguided loyalties and factionalism, their easy acceptance of immoral practices under the guise of their new-found freedom. He chided them for their boasting, self-deceit, and complaining against each other in the civil courts (1 Cor 6:1-8, 12-20).

Certain questions were conveyed to Paul in letters from the Corinthians concerning social practices: conduct in matters of marriage and celibacy (1 Cor 7:1-40), whether or not to eat food offered to an idol (1 Cor 8:1-13), and the meaning of rights and freedom (1 Cor 9:1-23). Paul also addressed the much misunderstood doctrine of the resurrection for Greek Christians totally unfamiliar with the doctrine. Paul’s treatment of these practical matters and his great discourse on the true nature [p.308]of spiritual gifts has given 1 Corinthians a central place in the Christian canon (1 Cor 12:1-14:40).

Paul had sent Timothy ahead to Corinth (1 Cor 4:17, 16:10f), but apparently this effort to bring order out of the confusion among the Corinthian Christians was a failure. Paul himself then made a brief and stormy visit to Corinth in order to correct the problems which threatened the integrity of the Corinthian church, but he was rebuffed. His efforts (as implied in 2 Corinthians 2:1-11) were fruitless and unpleasant. As a result, Paul wrote his “harsh letter” (2 Cor. 10-13) alluded to in 2 Corinthians 2:3f, which was carried to Corinth by Titus.

Some time later Paul met Titus in Macedonia and learned from him that this harsh letter had been effective (2 Cor 7:5-16). Paul then wrote his letter of reconciliation (2 Cor. 1-9, except the fragment of the first letter, 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), an enthusiastic plea for forgiveness on both sides. On the basis of his expressed intention in 2 Corinthians 9:3f and 13:1, Paul went to Corinth a third time, where presumably he found conditions within the church stabilized and in good order.

There are two issues in Paul’s Corinthian letters which require some additional clarification: the rationale underlying Paul’s stand on marriage and celibacy and the historically important implications of the spirit-enthusiasts’ position on “spirit,” “knowledge,” and freedom. Clearly, the latter issue is the more significant in terms of the history of Christian thought. However, Paul’s seemingly strange views on marriage need further explanation.

Paul’s Views on Marriage

Paul’s comments on marriage arose in the context of questions which the Corinthians had directed to him, mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7, presumably about the status of the unmarried and widowed. “It is well” he wrote, “for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:8f). He continued, “I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very [p.309]short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none” (1 Cor 7:29).

The key to Paul’s position on marriage and on the status of the unmarried and widows is to be found in the imminent eschatology contained in his references to “the impending disaster,” his insistence that the “appointed time has grown very short” and that the “form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). The historian Michael Grant offers a somewhat different explanation of Paul’s position. He maintains that some passages in Paul, 1 Corinthians 5:5, for example, show a “general contempt for the flesh and fleshly things” and suggests that this bias may explain his negative attitude toward marriage. Imminent eschatology, he argues, cannot be the only relevant consideration.31 Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that Paul’s counsel on this practical social issue was controlled by his conviction that the end of the age was very near and that Jesus the risen Lord would return soon. Imminent eschatology is implicit in his letter to the Thessalonians, which explains the order of events in the resurrection.

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, … and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thes 4:15-17)

Then Paul adds that as to the time and seasons, “For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” They did not know the precise time when these events would take place, but it is amply clear that both the Thessalonians and Paul believed that they would occur within their own lifetimes.

Under the urgency of the imminent coming of the End, the follower of Christ was expected to give full loyalty to Christ rather than to divide his or her loyalties and commitments with another person, as would be the case in marriage (1 Cor 7:32-35). Widows, who presum-[p.310]ably were without legal protection, constituted an especially difficult case for the church. In time their support was assumed to be a benevolent responsibility (Acts 6:1).

Gifts of the Spirit

Much of Paul’s discourse on gifts of the Spirit is best understood in the context of his responses to the spirit-enthusiasts, whose views and practices were regarded by him as a major threat to the integrity of the Corinthian church. Evidently there were converts in Corinth who assumed that as Christians they enjoyed a privileged position based on their claim to possess the Spirit of Christ. They boasted of receiving special revelations of wisdom or knowledge beyond that given to other Christians. A precedent for this view of the Spirit was grounded in Old Testament accounts of God’s Spirit coming upon Moses, Samuel, and Elijah to do miracles and to prophesy and to reveal the secret or hidden meaning of events. On the basis of such claims, these spirit-enthusiasts maintained that they were an elect group, that their newly found freedom in Christ meant freedom from the Law, that since they were of the Spirit, nothing done by the body could affect the status of their inner spiritual natures, such as eating food offered to idols or having sexual relations with prostitutes. However, for Paul freedom from the Law did not mean license to ignore or to flout the moral law. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you. … So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19f).

Paul himself held a view of the Spirit which he undoubtedly taught to his gentile converts. This is evident in the fact that the expression, “in Christ” or “in the Lord,” occurs many times in Paul’s writings. According to A. Deissmann, “It is really the characteristic expression of his [Paul’s] Christianity.” Deissmann assumes that these mystical expressions were meant to be taken literally, that Paul thought of the Spirit-Christ as actually present in him “just as the air of life which we breathe is in us and fills us.”32 Some scholars are inclined to interpret Paul’s expressions [p.311]”in Christ” and “Christ in me” metaphorically, evoking oneness or a unity of mind and purpose with Christ and not oneness in a literal mystical, ontological sense. In any event, Paul’s problem was partially of his own making; his rather ambiguous doctrine of the Spirit had been misread and misunderstood by some of his converts in Corinth who were attracted to the more sophisticated, esoteric, and mystical aspects of his doctrine.33

Unlike the position of confirmed Gnostics, who held that the true spirit was possessed only by an elite, Paul held that the gospel of Christ was not founded on esoteric knowledge or wisdom reserved for a few. His own witness, he maintained, was not proclaimed “in lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1). “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20). “Yet among the mature,” he continued, “we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age”; it is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:6f) which is to be comprehended, spiritually discerned, interpreted, and taught through the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:10-13). Here Paul applied his doctrine of the Spirit to practical life in the church. The Spirit is not divisive. Of those who threaten to fractionalize the community into rival parties—”I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Christ”—he asks, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:12f). Then “you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?” (1 Cor 3:3) According to Paul, “the unspiritual man,” the natural man or man of the flesh, “does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:14).

Paul’s memorable and lengthy discourse on the gifts of the Spirit was delivered in such a context. Later Christians had great interest in Paul’s doctrine, particularly the idea that Spirit preserved the unity of the church. This emphasis upon one Spirit, one body, and one doctrine became the format which guaranteed that unity. “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33). Gifts of the Spirit may vary among individual members, but according to Paul all are inspired by one and the same Spirit and [p.312]though its manifestations are given to each person, they are “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). The gifts of the Spirit should not divide the membership—they are all of one body, each part adjusted by God to the whole so that “there may be no discord” (1 Cor 12:14-26). This principle was in fact employed by the early church as a strategy for social control, and it explains the historical connections between Paul and his disciples revealed in the so-called Deutero-Pauline period and later in the pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) and in other Christian literature. Also, the influence of Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit is possibly found in Luke-Acts and in the Gospel of John.

Paul admonished the members to seek the higher gifts, especially the most excellent gift—love or agape. “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). Perhaps no statement from scripture has elicited more attention and comment than this remarkably succinct definition and admonition. In this century intensive scholarly work about the religious context of Paul’s teachings has given rise to careful distinctions between eros and agape, human love rooted in sensual experience and divine love.34

Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) had become a special problem for Paul. Apparently members of the Corinthian church were eager for manifestations of the Spirit and speaking in tongues was the most dramatic, spectacular, and mysterious of all of the experiences called spiritual. Left without restraint or control, subjective personal interpretations of living in the Spirit would have resulted in chaos in the church. Hence Paul’s insistence that the higher gifts should edify the church: “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Cor 14:4). This was the rule which was to provide order and stability within the Christian community from Paul’s time forward, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 cor 14:29). “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19).

The Letters from Prison

[p.313]Reference was made earlier to a crisis in Ephesus and of the probability that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus ca. 52-54 CE and that he wrote letters from there to the churches in Colossae, Laodicea, Philippi, and to the person named Philemon.35 Of these several letters only three are extant and in the canon: Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. However, the authenticity of Pauline authorship of Colossians is questionable, which leaves Paul’s letter to the Philippians and his private letter to Philemon to be considered.


The letter to the Christians of Philippi in Macedonia, the first congregation established by Paul in Europe, exhibits a genuine Pauline vocabulary and style as judged by the standard provided in the Pauline classics, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans. Also, early church fathers Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp all supported the judgment of authenticity. Some scholars have argued that the canonical letter to the Philippians is a composite made up of fragments from at least three letters: (1) 4:10-20; (2) 1:1-3:1, and (3) 3:2-4:9.36 This conclusion is supported by Polycarp, who in his own letter to the Philippians referred to other letters which Paul had written to them.

In 4:10-20 Paul expresses his joy for the gift he had received from the Philippians through Epaphroditus. He recounts for them how in the beginning they alone had entered into partnership with him on the matter of his material support. Now that he has received the gift, he is fully supplied and is gratified by their loyal devotion.

In part two Paul speaks of the joy he receives from his strong personal relationship with the Philippians, and he writes with great warmth about their affection for him. He is torn by his desire to be with Christ, but his longing for his friends at Philippi who need his assistance finally prevails. He urges them to stand [p.314]firm in the faith, loving one another and having a common care for the unity of their beliefs. Paul is not completely certain of his own fate, but he hopes to send Timothy to assist them.

Assuming the composite structure of Philippians, in the third letter Paul’s tone changes markedly. He rails against the Judaizers, those Christians who regard circumcision under the Law as essential for salvation. “Look out for the dogs,” “Look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2). In this connection Paul recites his own credentials as a Jew, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin and with respect to the Law a Pharisee. But all such assets he has written off as non-essential baggage. Having accepted Christ, Paul claims no righteousness of his own, no legal rectitude. He urges them to keep to his way of thinking, to accept him as their example and model. They are his beloved friends, his joy and his crown.

Philippians is a highly personal letter or collection of letters. However, it does contain references to some of Paul’s basic doctrinal views. His view of the imminent end appears in the context of his exhortations to his friends at Philippi to encourage one another and study the faith. He writes of “The Day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6, 10, 2:16) “the Lord is at hand” (Phil 4:5). He also explains the significance of life in Christ,

… Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)

This passage is clearly one of the most important in the Pauline corpus. It has been cited by churchmen and theologians over the ages in support of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. According to A. Deissmann, these words are “a confession of the primitive apostolic cult, made by Paul, the prisoner, in order [p.315]to rally his fellow-worshippers of Jesus Christ around the object of their cult.”37 This was Paul’s confession of Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Lord (Kyrios). Nevertheless, Paul’s primary interest here was pastoral, not theological. He was concerned for the unity and integrity of the members at Philippi—that as disciples of Christ they be as humble and obedient as Christ, the suffering servant.


Philemon is the only example in the Pauline collection of an intimate, private letter. It is a personal note containing an appeal to a fellow worker, Philemon, a leading member of the Christian community in Colossae, on behalf of his slave Onesimus. This letter was not intended to be doctrinal; nor was it written as a tract on the Christian attitude toward slavery.

Onesimus had run away from his master. Presumably he hid in Ephesus but was discovered and arrested. In prison he met Paul and was converted to the Christian gospel. Punishment for runaway slaves under Roman law was severe, and Paul endeavored to bring about a reconciliation between Philemon and his slave. He hoped to convince Philemon that brotherly feeling founded upon the love of Christ transcends the legal distinctions between masters and their slaves. He appealed to Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother in Christ and as a substitute for Paul himself.

It has been observed, perhaps correctly, that “Paul at his best belongs not to theology, but to religion.”38 In this letter Paul is clearly manifest as a man of religion. His primary concern was with Philemon and Onesimus as real living persons. Sometimes his attacks on opponents were harsh and his language coarse, but in the letter to Philemon Paul’s genuine concern for the man and the depth of his compassion and affection are revealed.


[p.279]1. S. Sandmel, The Genius of Paul, a Study in History (New York, 1970), 208, goes so far as to claim that “except for Revelation, every writing in the New Testament is by Paul, or attributed to Paul, or deals with issues and problems created for the Church by reason of Paul’s tremendous contribution.”

2. This rebuke by Jesus is omitted from Luke’s Gospel. Cf. Mark 8:32f with Matthew 16:22f. The view that Mark’s Gospel contains an anti-Petrine interpretation is supported by Sandmel. It is Sandmel’s view that Matthew’s revitalization of Peter’s status as successor to Jesus and chief among the apostles was intended to neutralize the pro-Pauline bias in Mark. Sandmel is probably correct that one major effort of Luke in Acts of the Apostles was to synthesize the Petrine and Pauline traditions into a continuous, unified account (Sandmel, 165-92).

3. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 5:3, trans. by Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1926), 380.

4. E. J. Goodspeed, making use of the opinions of earlier scholars, Julicher and Weiss, is largely responsible for the formulation of the thesis that Ephesians was written by a disciple of Paul as an introduction to, or a cover letter for, the Pauline letters. See Edgar J. Goodspeed, An Introduction to the New Testament (Chicago, 1946), 222ff.

5. On these phases in Christian development, see S. Sandmel, 183-86.

6. For a discussion of the primary sources on Paul and the status of Acts of the Apostles as a source, see Günther Bornkamm, Paul, trans. by D. M. G. Stalker (New York, 1971), xiv-xxi. Also, John Knox, “Acts and the Pauline Letter Corpus,” and Hans Conzelmann, “Luke’s Place in the Development of Early Christianity,” in Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia, 1980).

7. John Knox argues persuasively that Luke, the author of Luke-Acts, must have known of the letters of Paul, despite the fact that Paul’s letters are not mentioned in Acts nor is Paul mentioned as a letter writer. Knox assumes that Luke deliberately omitted reference to the Pauline letters because they were being misunderstood and misinterpreted by Gnostic Christian writers. See John Knox, “Acts and the Pauline Letter Corpus,” Studies in Luke-Acts, eds. Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn (Nashville, 1966), 279-87.

8. Martin Hengel argues for the basic importance of Acts as a source on Paul. He warns that “without the account written by Luke, incomplete, fragmentary and misleading though it may be, we would not only find it almost impossible to put Paul and his work in a chronological and geographical setting; we would still be largely in the dark about the development of Paul’s great mission around the Aegean and the events that led up to it, and about his concern to go to Rome and to Spain (Rom 15:22-29)” (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, trans. by John Bowden [Philadelphia, 1980], 38).

9. Although Paul’s own account of his birth and education has in general been accepted by most historians, both Jewish and Christian, it is occasionally challenged. The Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby in The Myth Maker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York, 1986) has argued that Paul was a convert to Judaism and was not a Pharisee. Maccoby holds that Jesus was a Pharisee.

10. A. Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma, 1893 (Boston, 1957), 22f. For the impact of Hellenistic Judaism on Christianity, see also Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (New York, 1945).

11. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London, 1979), chap. 1.

12. S. Sandmel, 9, 15.

13. Strabo, Geography, XIV, v, 13 (Loeb edition, 347).

14. Jerome, Epistle to Philemon, 23-24.

15. G. A. Deissmann, Paul, A Study in Social and Religious History, trans. by William E. Wilson, 2nd ed. (New York, 1927), 90f.

16. Acts 22:3. Some scholars have questioned the reliability of the reference to Gamaliel, while others point out that Paul handles the scriptures in the rabbinic manner of Hillel. Hyam Maccoby, in The Myth Maker (New York, 1986), chap. 6, argues that Paul could not have been a student of Gamaliel.

17. The Beginnings of Christianity (New York, 1891). The passage from Acts reads, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.'” In his The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931), 6-8, Albert Schweitzer questioned the authenticity of the attribution of this and other Stoic statements of Paul by the author of Acts. See chapter 1 on the distinctive character of Pauline mysticism. Schweitzer held that the Hellenization of Christianity came after Paul, with Ignatius and the Fourth Gospel, for example, though Paul’s historically oriented “Christ-Mysticism” in a sense prepared Christianity for that Hellenization.

18. The work of Richard Reitzenstein, Wilhelm Bousset, and others in studies of the history of religion provided a generation of scholars with historical data and arguments supporting this thesis. R. Reitzenstein, Die Hellenistischen Mysterien-religonen (Leipzig, 1927), and W. Bousset, Kyrios Christos (Göttingen, 1921). More recently the philosophers John Herman Randall, Jr., and Irwin Edman have insisted that Paul simply converted Christianity into a Hellenistic mystery cult: “Christianity, at the hands of Paul, became a mystical system of redemption, much like the cult of Isis, and the other sacramental or mystery religions of the day. Salvation is not forgiveness of sins, as it is for Jesus himself, but a transformation of human nature from the Flesh to the Spirit, from human to divine: it is literally a process of deification.” J. H. Randall, Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis (New York, 1970), 154. In his The Mind of Paul (New York, 1935), 123, Edman held that Paul deserted Judaism in turning to Graeco-Roman religious culture in his treatment of Christianity as a mystery and insisted that if there is no connection between Paul’s Christianity and the Hellenistic savior-cults, “we are faced with one of the most fantastic coincidences in religious history.”

19. The Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner has argued, “Christianity is a mystery of revelation; it is a mystery of ethical law; it is a mystery of salvation by grace. And in these three points it contrasts sharply with Hellenistic mystery religion.” “The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries” in Joseph Campbell, ed., The Mysteries (Princeton, 1955), 358.

20. Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul, trans. by William Montgomery (New York, 1968), viii-ix. Chapter 1 of H. J. Schoeps’s Paul: [p.293]The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, trans. by Harold Knight (Philadelphia, 1961), is a useful discussion of the research on Paul and the Hellenization of Christianity. For a careful examination of the Hellenistic elements in Paul’s religion, see Arthur Darby Nock, Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background, Part 3 (New York, 1964).

21. See A. Schweitzer, Paul and His Interpreters, trans. by W. Montgomery, 1912 (New York, 1964), 241. Also, page 238: “The Apostle did not Hellenise Christianity. His conceptions are equally distinct from those of Greek philosophy and from those of the Mystery-religions.”

22. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 16.

23. The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus (New York, 1972), f.

24. Riddle gives a somewhat speculative account of the psychological factors underlying Paul’s conversion experience. See Donald Riddle, Paul, Man of Conflict (Nashville, 1940).

25. See Bornkamm’s arguments that Paul could not have been a persecutor of the Jerusalem Christians, as indicated in Acts 8:3, because they were practicing Jews, but rather that he persecuted the Christians of the Diaspora, who were not faithful to the Law. Paul, trans. by D. M. G. Stalker (London, 1971), chap. 2. Stephen, in whose persecution Paul was apparently implicated, was a Hellenized Jew.

26. For a more traditional treatment of Paul’s conversion experience, see The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 79:12-14. Here the vision on the Damascus road went beyond Judaism and Hellenistic “cultural roots,” for it was a “revelation of Jesus” that “gave Paul an ineffable insight into ‘the mystery of Christ'” (79:14).

27. This view depends entirely upon passages in Acts (Acts 23:35, 24:27).

28. See 2 Cor 1-9 (except the fragment from an earlier letter—2 Cor 6:14-7:1).

29. See N. Perrin’s assessment of this problem in The New Testament, an Introduction (New York, 1974), chapters 5 and 6. For a different resolution to the [p.303]question, see H. C. Kee, et al., Understanding the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1973), Part II.

30. Also, see 1 Thes 1:10, 2:19f.

31. Michael Grant, Saint Paul (New York, 1982), 25, 28.

32. See A. Deissmann, Paul, 140f, for a detailed treatment of Christ-mysticism in Paul. Also see A. Schweitzer’s The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle.

33. The widespread influence in the Hellenistic world of various forms of Gnosticism no doubt affected the thought and attitude of the Corinthians and Paul. It certainly made massive inroads on Christianity in the next centuries.

34. The classic work is Agape and Eros by Anders Nygren, trans. by Philip S. Watson (New York, 1969).

35. See G. Bornkamm’s discussion of the imprisonment in his chapter on Ephesus. G. Bornkamm, Paul, 80-84. Michael Grant argues that these letters and others were written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. M. Grant, Saint Paul, 4.

36. The contents of the remnants of three letters are sketched in Perrin, New Testament, 105f.

37. A. Deissmann refers to this passage as Paul’s “Kyriosconfession,” which Deissmann claims “can be understood only by the pious simplicity of silent devotion.” A. Diessmann, Paul, 194.

38. Ibid., 6.