There are so many legends, and only so many facts, we know about Paul from our surviving sources.  Is there a way to tell which is which?   How much of what we read — in the New Testament letters of Paul, the book of Acts, the Acts of Paul, the letters of Paul from outside the New Testament, such as the Letter of 3 Corinthians, the Letter to the Laodiceans, and the exchange of letters between Paul and Seneca — how much of all that can be seen has historically reliable information and how much intriguing but unhistorical fiction?

That’s what I started to ask in my previous post, and I continue here, once again, in an excerpt from my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press, 2006).


Separating History from Legend

How do we know the difference between what really happened in the life of Paul and what has come down to us as pious legend?   An early account indicates that on one of his missionary journeys Paul arrived on the Island of Cyprus, where he met a certain magician, who was a “Jewish false prophet named Barjesus” (literally: “Son of Jesus”; he also went by the name Elymas) who had the ear of the local Roman official, Sergius Paulus.   Barjesus is said to be afraid that Sergius Paulus would convert to become a follower of Jesus, and that he would thereby lose a patron.  And so he tries to prevent him from accepting the message that Paul proclaims.   When Paul realizes what is happening he confronts Barjesus, telling him “Now see, the hand of the Lord is against you and

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