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Is Paul Given Too Much Credit?

Is the apostle Paul given more credit than he deserves by modern scholars?   Here is what has (recently) raised the question for me.

As many readers of the blog know, the corpus of early Christian writings known as the “Apostolic Fathers” is a collection of ten (or eleven) proto-orthodox authors who were, for the most part, producing their writings just after the New Testament period.  For anyone interested I have a two-volume edition  / translation of these important texts, The Apostolic Fathers, in the  Loeb Classical Library series (Harvard University Press, 2004) (it gives the original Greek on one side of the page and an English translation on the other) (the books are included, only in English, in my anthology After The New Testament).

These are fascinating books – they include a number of letters (e.g. by Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and one later attributed to Clement of Rome – the last of which was actually written before some of the books of the New Testament), some treatises (e.g., the book of Barnabas), an apocalypse (called “The Shepherd” written by an author named Hermas), and our first full-length account of a martyrdom (of the aforementioned Polycarp).

One of the questions that has long fascinated scholars of these texts is the degree to which their authors were familiar with the writings that later came to be called the New Testament.  Just this past year a book came out that explored the relationship of these writings to the letters of Paul (Todd D. Still and David E. Wilhite, eds, The Apostolic Fathers and Paul. T&T Clark, 2017).   I read the volume carefully, and found it scholarly and insightful.  It made me think about lots of things, but one of them was whether it was a volume that scholars actually needed or not.

Over the past eight years, there have been five other learned books on pretty much the same topic (or closely related ones)….

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Are Paul and Jesus on the Same Page?
Was Paul a Misogynist?

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Comments

  1. fishician  January 24, 2018

    Given the rarity of literacy in that day, how much of Paul’s influence is simply from the fact that he could write, wrote reasonably well, and took the time to write?

  2. Adam0685  January 24, 2018

    Very interesting.

    There is a lot that we do not know about earliest Christianity (pre-70). We build our knowledge from mainly Paul and the synoptic Gospels. While valuable for giving us a glimpse into the views of a few writers/communities, I’m sure there is much more we do not know about and these few writers/communities probably represent only a small minority of Christians.

    Your comments can be related to the Gospels as well, I think. Our “historical” understanding of Jesus on the basis of the synoptic Gospels reflect “remnants of a traditional theological orientation that – for canonical reasons” receive our focus and while subject to rigorous historical criteria, they offer a very limited picture that probably represent the views of only a small minority of Christians. To that end, we learn about the views of a very small group, not necessary of the historical Jesus.

  3. Todd  January 24, 2018

    I would be very interested in reading a book or books which discusses the key thoughts of the apostolic fathers, but, not being a scholar, I would prefer reading a book about them by a respected scholar giving an overview with interpretations of their thoughts without reading their actual writings.

    Do such books exist (At a reasonable price) and any recommendations? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      You might try William Pratscher The Apostolic Fathers or Clayton Jefford Reading the Apostolic Fathers.

  4. Lev
    Lev  January 24, 2018

    Awesome post, Bart!

    I wonder if Paul was a bright light among many other bright lights in the first century, and the reason his light shone the brightest in later times was due to only his works being preserved?

    I find it a great pity that none of the works of Paul’s co-workers and peers were passed down – it would have been fascinating to read what Silas, Timothy, Apollos, Barnabus, Sosthenes, Titus, Priscilla and Aquilla thought. Perhaps they never wrote anything of note?

    What is your sense – was it just happenstance that Paul’s works were preserved above his co-workers and peers? Or did Paul enjoy a special status within the early church that meant his works were treasured above others?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      I think Paul came to have a bigger importance for later Christians than he had, generally, in his own day, partly because his message resonated with so many gentile converts.

      • Lev
        Lev  January 26, 2018

        But many of his co-workers, some of whom were listed at the beginnings of his letters, also ministered to the Gentile converts. Why weren’t their works preserved? Perhaps they just weren’t as gifted as Paul?

      • JoeH  January 29, 2018

        Dr Erhman , could it be a possibility that Apostles Paul was deceived by satan ?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 29, 2018

          Sure — if you believe in Satan. I myself do not, so for me it is not a possibility.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  January 24, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I notice a common historical trope that fits this Pauline dynamic. For example, much of the philosophy of Confucius that comes down to us has been filtered through Mencius, a student of a student of Confucius. And yet, when we look at Confucianism in and around the time of Mencius we see many — if not dozens of — “Confucian” schools. One “student of a student” of Confucius was Xunzi, the exponent of a Confucian school that essentially went extinct by the time Confucianism was codified during the Han dynasty. So, in a way, we can say that the Mencian school of Confucianism won out in the end, just as the Pauline school of Christianity won out.

    And we don’t just see this in the immediate period right after the rise of a religio-philosophical movement. We see it in later splitter-movements within an already established faith or school. For instance, we look back at Maimonides as a titan of Medieval Jewish thought, but there were certainly critics of Maimonides who, within his own day, were seen as Maimonides’ equal, if not superior, by other Jewish theologians and philosophers of the time. One example was R. Moses Isserles, who was a Polish Jewish jurist and philosopher of equal respect and clout as Maimonides. And Isserles’ critique of Maimonides works, especially of the Guide for the Perplexed and the Mishnah Torah, were considered worthy treastises in their own right. At the time, Maimonides and Isserles were seen by all Jews as more or less on par, intellectually and authoritatively — if not substantively. But over the filter of time, it’s Maimonides who is more revered and considered more authoritative. The modern, authoritative Jewish book of proper halakhot, the Shulchan Aruch by R. Josef Caro, is based on Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, with commentary by Isserles in the margins.

    The filter of time has a way of turning a man who is merely one among equals in his time into a man who, in hindsight, we make into a towering, peerless figure. This may be because of our human need to idolize, almost apotheosize the founders of our worldview, but it is also just as likely has to do with our bandwidth problem, where the average person doesn’t have the time and resources to comb through centuries of internal, inside baseball debates within their inherited faiths, but, rather, it’s much easier and convenient to simply accept the school of the person who ultimately “won out”.

    • llamensdor  February 6, 2018

      In the 1940s there was a highly successful radio program, known as “The Quiz Kids.” My friend, Harvey Bennett Fishman (later, in his TV/Film,career, Harve Bennett) was the longest, continuously active contestant. Along the way, one of the contestants was a beautiful and brilliant young woman whose last name was Caro and she was indeed a descendant of the Joseph Caro you referred to.

  6. bcdwa288  January 24, 2018

    How authentic were Paul’s claims of large amounts of inspired information coming directly to him alone from the resurrected, spiritual, Jesus? It seems to me that Christianity stands or falls on those claims.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. If you’re asking whether I personally think that the resurrected Jesus gave Paul inspired information, then the answer is no.

  7. Wilusa  January 24, 2018

    Do you still accept that Paul “transformed the religion *of* Jesus into a religion *about* Jesus” – while acknowledging, as I think you have before, that he’d *gotten the idea* from someone else, an unknown source? You think Paul was important enough to make the change?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      I think it happened before Paul. It was the view among hte followers of Jesus after they came to believe in his resurrection.

      • godspell  January 26, 2018

        But Paul was the most influential figure in the first few decades who didn’t know Jesus.

        It makes a huge difference. And it’s probably one reason why Paul was so much more influential later, after all living memory of Jesus had died out, and only texts remained.

      • llamensdor  February 6, 2018

        I’ve always wondered who was the guy (or gal) who first stood up and said, “You know, this man was the Messiah–the son of God!

  8. godspell  January 24, 2018

    This isn’t really so very unusual, of course.

    Most very influential works tend to become influential over time. They take a while to sink in. You could say the same about the books of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the dialogues of Plato, the plays of Shakespeare. To argue that everybody just KNEW, right off the bat, that Paul was the founder of Christian theology, is really asking a bit much. It was a chaotic time for Christians–they did not all read the same things, they did not all believe the same things.

    Clearly Paul was an influence in his own lifetime, and in the century that followed it, but the full force of his ideas probably wasn’t felt for some time after that.

    Teleology is always a thing in historical study. “Because this happened, it was always going to happen, and nothing else could have happened.”

    You can guard against it, but it’s going to get you sooner or later. Because it’s hard to deal with the sheer random-ness of existence, and because, after all, there are discernible patterns that suggest it’s not completely random.

  9. hinerman  January 24, 2018

    The more I study Paul, the more he begins to seem – to me, at least – a fairly conventional rabbinically schooled figure with one unconventional idea. That idea, of course, is the fulcrum of his project, that Jesus was raised from the dead as the sign of the coming general resurrection. (This is no small thing, as it completely changes his life and inflects every idea he has from that point on.) But I am beginning to wonder if much of the source of tension that arises around Paul is the clash of his essential Jewishness with a culture that is anything but. Of course, running around announcing the end would make you a figure of some controversy, but I wonder if we haven’t underestimated the degree of Paul’s conventional side – his Jewish side, if you will – that, when it hits up against a Greco-Roman value system, creates both confusion among his followers and opposition from people who can’t comprehend his Judaism.

  10. Tony  January 24, 2018

    Most Apostolic Fathers had never heard of Paul. The reason we have Paul in the NT is Marcion. The later NT canon compilers, in a brilliant move, took Marcion’s apostle and turned him into a proto – orthodox apostle, and theirs. Of course, they had to make some additions in the process. For example Roman 1:3, “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh”. The notion that Jesus was descended from David completely contradicts the very basis of Marcionism and would have been anathema to Marcion.

    Even so, Paul’s letters represented a danger to orthodoxy and needed further neutering That is where Luke’s Acts comes in. Here Paul is portrayed as an obedient lap dog, and in harmony with the very people he thought so little of in his letters.

    The placement of Paul’s letter in the NT is also brilliant. The reader first slugs through four orthodox gospels, followed by a fabricated orthodox history narrative called Acts, until finally coming to Paul’s most lengthy and convoluted letter to the Romans. At that point the reader reads Paul exactly as was intended by the NT compilers.

    It worked.

  11. J--B  January 24, 2018

    A fascinating perspective!
    Wer schreibt (und verbreitet wird), der bleibt.

  12. Telling
    Telling  January 24, 2018

    There are universal teachings from various Masters and teachers of old and of the present. Saying of Jesus are quickly recognized as such sayings, generally of receiving by asking and by believing it will happen, treating others equally, and the Kingdom being here in front of us.

    Turning to Paul, we do find these same ideas to be present with exception of the Kingdom being here in front of us, but central to Paul’s message is salvation through faith by believing Jesus was crucified and rose on the third day. This is utter nonsense, yet is the central Christian teaching. And I think we can attribute this whole thing to Paul.

    Frankly I think Paul and the Church didn’t understand the elevated teachings of the Master and so clung to a bogus story of a Crucifixion and Resurrection and a need for a triumphant return of Jesus that will never happen. I’ve said this earlier.

    My question is, from these early Church fathers, is a greater message (as I mention above) dominant in their writings or is it all about Paul’s Crucifixion message?

  13. Nichrob  January 24, 2018

    This maybe one of my favorites. Thanks for your thoughts.

  14. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  January 25, 2018

    From some of your works and the works of others I have read it does seem, at least in the proto-orthodox era, that there were competing theologies other than Paul’s theology. Since Paul’s theology eventually became the orthodox view it does seem his shadow now looms larger in that photo-orthodox era larger than it actually was,.

    On a related note, I wonder if Paul’s theology had any influence on those that wrote the gospels, either supporting Paul’s views or not? If his writings were thought to have influenced the gospels in the past does this new theory impact that Paul’s influence on the gospels?

    1
    1
    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      It’s debated. Mark may have been influence by Pauline thought. Luke, oddly enough, not so much. Matthew may be arguing against aspects of it (the role of the Jewish law for followers of Jesus)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 26, 2018

        Is it possible that we have the Pauline letters that we have today primarily because they suggest a view different from Luke? That is to say, maybe Luke actually was more in line with Paul’s general beliefs, but the letters of Paul that were preserved were preserved essentially because they suggested a deviation from Luke?

    • dagrote  April 9, 2018

      You might like to read James Tabor’s Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (2013). That’s precisely his thesis, that Pauline theology had an influence on the NT gospels.

  15. ardeare  January 25, 2018

    It’s interesting because it seems that Paul’s gospel was not the same as Jesus’ gospel. Some of the writers such as the author of James did not share the same gospel as Paul or Jesus. I would argue that today’s churches, when taken in their totality, most closely align with Paul but have created their own gospels. I suppose the degree of difference or the importance of the differences will inevitably be rationalized individually.

  16. tompicard
    tompicard  January 25, 2018

    i’d like to recommend ‘After the New Testament’ a real diversity of fascinating writings (including talking dogs) that i was completely unaware of.

  17. nbraith1975  January 25, 2018

    Growing up in a very conservative Christian church and then as a member of about 6-7 other conservative churches in several different cities and states; looking back, I remember the majority of pastors’ sermons were based on the words of Paul and not Jesus. The irony for me is that Paul never quotes Jesus or mentions any miracles or even his alleged divinity. And that Paul only says he saw Jesus in visions and only met one other apostle – Peter – and Jesus’ brother James. From some of Paul’s letters, it seems he had a shaky reputation among many Christians and even some apostles. And he mentions very little information found in any of the four gospels.

    Looking at Christianity now as a skeptic – after almost 40 years as a believer – it seems likely that Paul set himself up as the titular head of a new religion. And based on what is preached and taught in most Christian churches, Paul was very successful.

    • llamensdor  February 6, 2018

      Paul set himself up as the titular head of….something, but he didn’t think he was creating a new religion. He thought he was inventing a way for the Nations (the Gentiles) to be admitted to the cult/covenant of the God of Israel. Do you agree with that, Bart—-or not?

    • dagrote  April 9, 2018

      Paul does “quote” Jesus once in Acts : “It’s better to give than to receive.” Unfortunately, that saying is nowhere else attributed to Jesus in the NT.

  18. Wilusa  January 25, 2018

    This is sort of OT here, but not closely related to the previous topic, either.

    I got to thinking, were Jesus’s followers more likely to believe he’d “risen from the dead” because of their apocalyptic beliefs about a coming *general* resurrection?

    Then I had another thought. In the decades that followed, it was mostly non-Jews who became Christians! Had *they* believed, *ever*, in a coming earthly “Kingdom” and a “general resurrection”?

  19. RonaldTaska  January 25, 2018

    Readers of the blog might find Dr. Ehrman’s “Great Courses” course entitled “After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers” of interest. Just go to the “Great Courses” website and search “Bart Ehrman” and see all 8 of his courses. Unfortunately, the “Great Courses” prices have steadily increased over the years so try to get these courses when they are “on sale.”

    I have always been puzzled by my childhood church’s focus on Paul because of three reasons:
    1. Paul never met Jesus so how in the world can he be “the” expert on Jesus? Indeed, Paul rarely refers to the teachings of Jesus.
    2. Paul evidently met Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, only twice so he was not directly influenced much by the teachings of the disciples. So, how did he become such an expert on Jesus?
    3. For me, Paul has always been hard to understand. HIs writing is like “Greek ” to me most of the time.

    Now, Dr. Ehrman has added a fourth reason to my list:

    4. Evidently Paul was not considered to be appropriate enough to be quoted by early Christian authors.

    Hmm?

    So, why all the fuss about a sentence or two written 2,000 years ago by Paul about women?

    • llamensdor  February 6, 2018

      Paul came upon the Jesus folks somewhere and was attracted to their thinking, but he found it too complicated, too cumbersome and he told them so. They responded, you didn’t know Jesus, we did, and he wouldn’t take to your ideas. Paul trumped them by meeting Jesus — in the words of the old spiritual — “in the air.” In other words, Paul was one up on the Apostles, they only knew him as human, He knew him in heaven. Worked pretty well, too.

  20. AnotherBart  January 25, 2018

    “Throughout Christian history Paul has been seen, regularly, as the single key player in the early Christian movement, the most important figure apart from Jesus himself.”

    I now disagree completely, and totally with this statement.

    Most of my life, I agreed with it for the reasons stated.

    Yes, Paul and his story takes up a massive % of the NT.

    But Peter founded the church in Rome, 42 AD, his ‘footprints’ are found everywhere and for Centuries this was acknowledged.

    You just have to look in the right places.

    Dr. Ehrman, it is past time to read George Edmundson’s eight “Bampton Lectures” to Oxford University 1913.

    https://archive.org/stream/cu31924029214918#page/n69/mode/2up

    page 51 THE PETRINE TRADITION
    Now probably never was any tradition accepted so universally, and without a single dissentient voice, as that which associates the foundation and organisation of the Church of Rome with the name of Saint Peter and which speaks of his active connexion with that Church as extending over a period of some twenty-five years.

    It is needless to multiply references.

    
In Egypt and in Africa, in the East and in the West, no other place ever disputed with Rome the honour of being the see of St. Peter ; no other place ever claimed that he died there or that it possessed his tomb.

    Most significant of all is the consensus of the Oriental, non-Greek-speaking, Churches. 


    A close examination of Armenian and Syrian MSS.(footnote) and in the case of the latter both of Nestorian and Jacobite authorities, through several centuries, has failed to discover a single writer who did not accept the Roman Petrine tradition.

    No less striking is the local evidence (still existing) for a considerable residence of Saint Peter in Rome.

    ‘ There is no doubt,’ is the judgment of Lanciani, once more to quote his well-known work ‘ Pagan and Christian Rome ‘ (p. 212), ‘ that the likenesses of Saint Peter and Saint Paul have been carefully preserved in Rome ever since their lifetime, they are familiar to every one, even to school-children.

    

These portraits have come down to us by scores.

    
They are painted in the cubiculi of the Catacombs, engraved in gold leaf in the so-called vetri cemeteriali, cast in bronze, hammered in silver or copper, and designed in mosaic. 



    The type never varies. 


    Saint Peter’s face is full and strong with short curly hair and beard, while Saint Paul appears more wiry and thin, slightly bald with a long pointed beard. 



    The antiquity and the genuineness of both types cannot be doubted.’

    Other noticeable facts are : (i) the appearance of the name of Peter, both in Greek and Latin, among the inscriptions of the most ancient Christian cemeteries, especially in the first-century catacomb of Priscilla.

    The appearance of this unusual name on these early Christian tombs can most easily be explained by the supposition that either those who bore it or their parents had been baptised by Peter. 


    In any case it may be taken that his memory was held in especial reverence by them. 


    (page 52) ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE

    Again, on a large number of early Christian sarcophagi now in the Lateran Museum the imprisonment of Peter by Herod Agrippa and his release by the angel is represented. 



    The French historian of the ‘Persecutions of the first two Centuries,’ Paul Allard, was the first to point out that the frequency with which this subject was chosen might be accounted for by the existence of a traditional belief in a close connexion between this event and the first visit of Saint Peter to Rome. 



    Orazio Marucchi, the learned and accomplished pupil and successor of De Rossi, in his latest volume upon recent researches in the catacombs, commenting upon this suggestion of Allard, adds that this scene is often limited to others, in which Moses and Peter appear as the representative founders of the Jewish and Christian Churches with particular reference to the Church in Rome.

    In some representations may be seen the Lord handing to Peter a volume on which is written Lex Domini, or beneath which is the legend Dominus Legem Dat.

    More remarkable still are those in which Moses, with the well-known traits of Saint Peter, strikes the rock out of which flow the waters of cleansing through baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.

    Taken together all these authentic records of the impressions that had been left upon the minds of the primitive Roman Church of a close personal connexion between that Church and the Apostle Peter cannot be disregarded.

    

They are existent to-day to tell their own tale. 


    (page 54) INSCRIPTIONS. MOSAICS. FRESCOES
    Once more the number of legends and the quantity of apocryphal literature that grew up around the Petrine tradition are witnesses not merely to the hold that it had upon popular regard but to its historical reality.

    Many of these legends, much of this literature may in the main be evidently fictitious, but even in those which are most clearly works of imagination, there is almost always a kernel of truth overlaid with invention.

    It is perfectly well known that most of these documents have behind them other documents, which are now lost, but out of which those we now possess have grown by gradual accretions and interpolations.

    But it is not impossible even now for sound and scholarly criticism to arrive with fair certainty in many cases at the ultimate basis of fact on which the edifice of fiction rests. 



    One of these apocryphal documents we have in a very early form— the Ebionite ‘Preaching of Peter’ — which was produced in the first decade of the second century ; as a proof of its early date it may be mentioned that it was used by Heracleon in Hadrian’s time.

    (page 55) PETRINE MEMORIES AT ROME
    The work bears on the face of it testimony to the fact that Peter did labour and preach at Rome, for it was written at a time when some of those who actually saw and heard him may have been still alive, and there must have been numbers whose fathers were grown-up men even in the time of Claudius. 



    The traditions connected with the cemetery ‘ad Nymphas’ where Peter baptised, with the primitive chair now in Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the very ancient churches of St. Pudenziana, St. Prisca and St. Clement, with the “Quo Vadis?” story, whatever their real historical value or lack of value, undoubtedly stretch back long before the fifth and sixth centuries, when pilgrims flocked to Rome with their ‘ itineraries ‘ in their hands, and they spring from a general and deep-rooted belief in a long and active ministry of the Apostle in the See that had become identified with his name.

    Returning then once more to the undisputedly historical ground of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, we find that in 57 A.D. there was in Rome a Christian community not of yesterday, but of many years’ standing : an important community, whose faith and whose high repute were well known in all churches of the Empire with which the writer was acquainted.

    

Further that Saint Paul himself for some years past had been longing to visit this Roman community, but had been hindered from doing so by the restriction he had imposed upon himself of not building on another man’s foundation. 


    (page 56) PETER, THE ENVOY OF THE TWELVE
    
If again the question be repeated — “Who was this man?” with greater emphasis than before the same answer must be returned — It cannot be any other than Saint Peter.

    But having arrived so far, we are confronted with certain difficulties that arise in making this earlier ministry of Saint Peter at Rome fit in with the New Testament records relating to the same period.
    
These difficulties will be dealt with in the next lecture. 

………..

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      I think more members of the blog would read your comments if you would keep them brief.

      18
      • AnotherBart  January 26, 2018

        My bad. I type faster than I speak. For real. Its a neuro thing.

        Why does Acts 12:17 say Peter went to “Another Place” without specifying? Where did he go?

        Acts 12:17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 28, 2018

          I think it simply means he went somewhere else.

          • AnotherBart  January 28, 2018

            Do you not find “left for another place” to be odd?
            Ἡρῴδης δὲ ἐπιζητήσας αὐτὸν καὶ μὴ εὑρὼν ἀνακρίνας τοὺς φύλακας ἐκέλευσεν ἀπαχθῆναι,
            1) Peter escapes,
            2) The Guards go berserk.
            3) The search reveals nothing,
            4) Herod interrogates & executes 16 guards.

            After which Peter simply ‘went to another place’? A stroll through Walmart? A guided tour of the Pyramids?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 29, 2018

            It’s a bit odd, but not hugely odd, I would say.

    • llamensdor  February 6, 2018

      Wiry and thin? How about short, bald and pot-bellied? It’s amazing what exuberant wine fermented in that rickety barrel.

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