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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?



  1. Avatar
    Gary  January 25, 2018

    At what point in the history of the Church do the teachings and epistles of Paul become prominent? Third century? Fourth? When are the majority of church leaders (later known as Church Fathers) referencing him?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      In proto-orthodox circles, definitely by the end of the second century (eg., Irenaeus, Tertullian, then later Origen)

  2. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  January 25, 2018


    Totally off topic, but wanted to share something with you. I am a regular listener of the Joe Rogan Experience (“JRE”) podcast. It’s a really fascinating show. Guests on the podcast range from movie stars (Mel Gibson was on last week) to MMA fighters to rock stars to professional athletes to retired Navy SEALs to atheist philosophers (most recent JRE episode featuring Sam Harris has 1.4 million views on YouTube alone), etc.

    Anyway, Rogan is basically an agnostic/atheist who has expressed a great interest in the origins of Christianity several times on his show, though his podcasts typically cover a broad range of topics. Yesterday (January 24, 2018), Joe Rogan’s guest on the podcast was famed skeptic Michael Shermer, who was promoting his new book on the afterlife (that particular podcast episode already has 316,000 views on YouTube after being online for only 17 hours). At one point, their conversation led to the topic of early Christianity and Shermer cited you as a leading expert on the matter and also his favorite Bible scholar. He had very nice things to say about you. I immediately thought about how cool it would be to hear/see you on Rogan’s podcast! Just to give you an idea, Rogan’s podcast, JRE (Joe Rogan Experience) has over 2 million subscribers on YouTube alone. His podcast does anywhere from 30-50 million downloads every single month! Talk about exposure for the blog!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      Yes, we’re trying to get me on, but it ain’t easy.

  3. cheito
    cheito  January 25, 2018

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    What is striking is that in this most recent work edited by Still and Wilhite, several essays are devoted to the question of why Paul was NOT influential on some of the Apostolic Fathers.

    My Comment and Question:

    I briefly read some of Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to Polycarp, and I also briefly read some of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. I see Paul’s influence on both these Apostolic father’s.

    Which Apostolic father’s were not influenced by Paul? Please name one.

    Polycarp 3:2

    For neither am I, nor is any other like unto me, able to follow the
    wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who when he came among you
    taught face to face with the men of that day the word which
    concerneth truth carefully and surely; who also, when he was absent,
    wrote a letter unto you, into the which if ye look diligently, ye
    shall be able to be builded up unto the faith given to you,

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      Shepherd of Hermas, interestingly since he was from Rome.

      • cheito
        cheito  January 26, 2018

        As you, DR Ehrman, most likely know,’The shepherd of Hermas’ is an allegory whose author, or authors, are unknown.

        Do you believe, That ‘The Shepherd of Hermas’ was written by the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome, about 140-154.

        Or do you believe, that we don’t know who wrote, ‘The Shepherd of Hermas?’

        Was the author of the shepherd of Hermas a church father?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 26, 2018

          Yes, Hermas was an apostolic father. You may know that I produced a translation of the text with an introduction and notes, for the Loebs.

          • Avatar
            AnotherBart  January 26, 2018

            I saw it at one of the largest Theological Libraries a few days ago! Nice.

  4. Avatar
    Seeker1952  January 25, 2018

    Are the views of most of the Apostolic Fathers consistent with and/or similar to those of Paul? I understand that wouldn’t necessarily mean Paul influenced them. The Apostolic Fathers could have been influenced by the same ideas that influenced Paul. That’s at least one of the big points you’re trying to make, isn’t it?

    Still, any significant differences in in the ideas expressed by Paul and those expressed by the Apostolic Fathers are interesting in their own right. It occurs to me that one big difference might be about hierarchical authority in the church and the role of women.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      Most of them are talking about things other than what Paul was dealing with. But writers like Ignatius and the anonymous author of 1 Clement certainly saw themselves as standing in Paul’s tradition.

  5. Avatar
    Seeker1952  January 25, 2018

    With regard to the single most influential figure in Western Civilization, I’ve seen an argument that Mohammed was more influential than Jesus because the former not only initiated a major new religion but also spread it. The influence of Jesus was said to be heavily dependent on Paul because Christianity probably would have died out if Paul hadn’t spread it to non-Jews. (Though maybe Paul had no bigger role in the spread of Christianity than other early missionaries whom we don’t happen to know much about..)

    So who would you say is the single person most influential person in the spread of Christianity? Paul? Constantine? Or should I just hold the question for now and wait for the book?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      Without Jesus there would not have been a Mohammed.

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  January 27, 2018

        Now that’s a very intriguing comment. I’m interested in hearing more about that.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 28, 2018

          Islam emerged out of Christianity (just as Christianity emerged out of Judaism)

          • Avatar
            Seeker1952  January 28, 2018

            Can you recommend a book or author describing islam’s emergence from Christianity or address it as a blog topic some time?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 29, 2018

            Good question. I don’t have a recommendation: maybe someone else on the blog can give one?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  January 29, 2018

            While I have yet to read it, from what I’ve heard, Reza Aslan offers a really engaging introduction to the birth of Islam in his book “no god but God”.

            As for whether there would be a Muhammad without a Jesus, there absolutely would not be a Muhammad without a Jesus. Muhammad specifically put himself within the lineage of the prophets of God — from Abraham, through Moses, through Isaiah et al., all the way up through Jesus. And Muhammad was also steeped in the very same apocalyptic milieu that started with the Maccabees, went through Judas of Gamla, through Jesus, the Zealots, the destruction of the Temple, Simon bar Kokhba, and culminated in Nehemiah ben Hushiel during Muhammad’s own lifetime. It’s all interconnected.

    • Avatar
      AnotherBart  January 26, 2018

      History treats Peter and Paul together as equally influential. https://fraangelicoinstitute.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/fig-48-p173-e1340746683279.jpg

      Paul is visible to us in writing today due to his benefit of
      1) being a highly educated, great writer, and
      2) having a great writer like Luke,
      3) Roman Citizenship.
      4) Wealth. (Acts 24:26, Acts 23:16-35)

      Peter’s enormous influence is hidden in the New Testament due to
      1) his status as a prison escapee (Acts 12)
      2) His being the person who sliced off Malchus’ ear. (Matt 26:51), (Mark 14:47) (Luke 22:50), (John 18:10)
      3) Non-Roman Citizenship
      4) He was “ordinary, unschooled”

      But all historical evidence supports that Peter founded the church in Rome, some 18 years before Paul arrived. https://archive.org/stream/cu31924029214918#page/n7/mode/2up

    • Avatar
      dagrote  April 9, 2018

      I think it safe to say Christianity would certainly have died out if it hadn’t been spread to non-Jews. Ironically, the persecution by the Jewish authorities pushed it in that direction. We might even argue that the most important figures in the spread of Christianity was the collective 1st century Sanhedrin.

  6. Avatar
    Seeker1952  January 25, 2018

    Were most/all of the Apostolic Fathers non-Jews? If so that seems very significant at such an early stage of Christianity.

    None of the “purported” NT authors were non-Jews, were they? But, except for Paul, they probably were all non-Jews, weren’t they? For one thing they all wrote in Greek.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      I think probably all of them were non-Jews. I also think that of virtually all of the writers of the NT, with the exception of Paul (and possibly Matthew?)

  7. Avatar
    ardeare  January 25, 2018

    Happy “Feast of the Conversion of Paul Day.” I had never heard of it but evidently it is celebrated on Jan. 25th. It refers to the ‘Road to Damascus’ encounter between Paul and Jesus. After digging into a bit, I was surprised to learn that there is serious debate as to whether Paul was converted to a new religion that day or was merely convinced that his persecution of Christians was in error. I had always assumed that Paul was converted that day and any other changes he underwent were in addition to this. I guess everything is debatable.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 25, 2018

    Way OT: I sometimes have oddball thoughts. This just occurred to me. About the author of “Matthew”: Might he have thought that God, *for a reason*, had *caused* the scribe producing the Septuagint to mistranslate “young woman” as “virgin”? The reason, of course, being that God wanted *him* to suggest a tie-in?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      I doubt if he thought about it, since he didn’t know what the original Hebrew text said.

  9. Avatar
    Candlestickone  January 25, 2018

    Once again, if Paul said he wished all could be as he( celibate) the result of that wish would be the eventual end of human race ?

  10. Avatar
    Candlestickone  January 25, 2018

    Once again, if Paul said he wished all could be as he( celibate) the result of that wish would be the eventual end of human race ? Was he serious ?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      Completely! The end was coming soon! No need to marry.

  11. Avatar
    NathanStanton  January 25, 2018

    Request for the “Request Pile”

    Can you do a post on what we know about the deaths of the Apostles from the early sources and include your opinions?

  12. Avatar
    Hume  January 26, 2018

    Do you think Jesus is based on the teacher of righteousness as found in the pesharim in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Also, have you read John allegro’s book mushrooms and the cross?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      Nope. And yes, it’s one of those classics that convinced precisely no one (among scholars)

  13. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  January 26, 2018

    The church fathers were antisemitic. Perhaps you should write a book about how antisemitism influenced the development of Christianity.

  14. Avatar
    rburos  January 26, 2018

    1) But it seems to me that the gospel writers didn’t know Paul, though are indebted to contemporary Jewish eschatological expectations which Paul simply shared. Isn’t Mark collating his generation’s view of the war and Christ’s prediction of the End times? I see in it Zechariah, Psalms, Isaiah, but no Paul. Matthew surely can’t be a Paul fan. Are these books an answer in search of a question?

    2) Were you thinking in Greek when you wrote this? (“the historical movement that started with the Jesus”)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 26, 2018

      1) Mark’s soteriology is similar to Paul’s. 2) Uh, don’t think so! I don’t know Greek that well!

  15. Avatar
    AnotherBart  January 26, 2018

    Dear Sir:

    My grasp of the New Testament indicates to me that you see several groups here, where I only see two.
    1) The ‘dogs’ in Philippi, the judiazers in Galatia– they were certainly different people, but they were of one basic philosophy: They were the ‘circumcision group’. Mentioned many times (either the issue, or the people) within the Epistles, including the ones you see as pseudepigraphic.

    The Circumcision controversy, which led to the council of Jerusalem in 49 AD was a BIG DEAL!!!!! Which makes 49 AD a pivotal year in the history of the early church. This is one (of many) reason(s) why I believe Matthew and Mark were written before 49 AD. The issue was so not on their radar that they didn’t even include the fact that Jesus was circumcised. But Luke and John sure did.

    Titus 1:10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group.
    Colossians 3:11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
    Philippians 3:2-3 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—
    Ephesians 2:11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)
    Galatians 6:13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.
    1 Corinthians 7:18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.
    Romans 4:9-10 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!

    2) Same with the Apostles and Super-apostles. They were mainly Peter, John, James +(?)x(?) — the ‘pillars’, the ‘super apostles’. They weren’t his enemies. Not at all. When we read about the confrontations, the differences between Paul and Peter or Mark, we best not assume these were longstanding grievances stretched over years. They were part of the record that had to be included, but these were dear friends over many years.

    “His authentic letters show that everywhere he turned, he had enemies. Not just among outsiders to the Christian movement, but within – whether among the apostles in Jerusalem, or the super-apostles in Corinth, or the Judaizing missionaries in Galatia, or the “dogs” in Philippi. These various Christian leaders had their own views, which, in every case, stood at odds with those of Paul. And those are just the groups we know about.”

  16. Avatar
    Eskil  January 26, 2018

    Doesn’t Paul himself tell us or at least hint what the other Christians thought and believed?

    Paul: “Already you have become rich. Without us, you have become kings. How I wish you really were kings, so that we might be kings with you.” (1 Corinthians 4:8)

    Thomas: Jesus said: He who has become rich, let him become king (Gospel of Thomas 81)

    Paul “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 4:10)

    Thomas: And he [Jesus] said: Man is like a wise fisherman (8)
    Thomas: Jesus said: The kingdom of the Father is like a merchant was who had a load (of goods) and found a pearl. That merchant was wise. (Gospel of Thomas 76)

    Paul: “men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.” (2 Timothy 2:18)

    The Treatise on the Resurrection: “flee from the divisions and the fetters, and already you have the resurrection”

  17. cheito
    cheito  January 27, 2018

    DR Ehhrman:

    Your Comment:

    Not only that, but we will never know what Christians who came before Paul (or lived completely outside his limited realm of influence) thought and believed. How much of what we think of as the views of “Paul” were the views of those who preceded him in coming to the faith?. How many “distinctively” Pauline ideas, theologoumena, and phrases came from others – both before and contemporaneous with him? How many were simply in very widespread use, so that the what we now might classify as “allusions” to Paul were simply commonplaces among the broader Christian communities at the time, commonplaces that Paul did not invent or even particularly propagate, but that we know about for the very simple reason that of all the Christian discourses, oral and written, that were formulated, delivered, and deliberated upon from prior to the year 70, we have precisely none, except seven that happen to have been written by Paul?

    My Comment:

    Of course you’re only speculating.

    As you said, DR Ehrman, ‘we have precisely none’, ( i.e. writings of the persons who lived before, and/or during Paul’s lifetime, and prior to the year 70.)

    I would, maybe, agree with your speculation; your theory may be correct.

    However, because, I do believe Paul’s words, and I understand, that Paul spoke not from his own inspiration, but literally, Paul spoke and wrote, the words of the resurrected Christ.

    In fact, Paul’s message was not His own message, but the message of Jesus Himself.

    Paul states that the Gospel which he preached, he didn’t learn it from any person.

    Paul did not have a Doctorate in religion either.

    The message and theology Paul was teaching was a direct revelation from Jesus Himself.

    This is what Paul says of Himself, and this is what I personally have accepted and also believe. ( i.e., Paul Saw Jesus after He, Jesus, rose from the dead, and Jesus, in person, spoke to Paul and instructed Paul, what to say and what to teach. )

    If Paul is correct in what He says of Himself, If Paul is not lying and making up stories, witnessing, that he saw Jesus in the same manner, that all the other apostles claimed to have seen Jesus, etc, then, perhaps your theory, about Paul’s writings not really saying anything new may be true.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 28, 2018

    Given what you say about the Apostolic Fathers, whom I presume would be considered proto-orthodox, mostly ignoring or not knowing of Paul’s writings, I wonder if we have Marcion to thank for his enormous influence on the later history of the Church and western civilization. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the two most important people in the making of Christianity were themselves a nobody and a self-appointed apostle who never got the respect they thought they deserved, rescued respectively from the dustbin of history by a) peasants who outmultiplied the followers of all the Roman gods combined and b) a heresiarch who decided which first generation writings of the Church his orthodox opponents would have to deal with?

  19. Avatar
    madmargie  February 9, 2018

    Not all Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus. I believe it is impossible. I follow the “message” of Jesus. That. to me, is the important thing.

  20. Avatar
    balivi  May 23, 2018

    “What did these people think? What did they believe?…We will probably never know.”

    Dear Prof! I think we would know some things. Examples:
    1. They doesn’t teaching the resurrection of the dead (1Kor15:12) “how shall some say”? because they (Corinthian believers) heard these from someone.
    2. “the resurrection has already happened” (2Tim2:18)

    I think imaginable. What do you know?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2018

      Sorry — I’m not sure which people you’re talking about! I’m lost in the thread of the comments on the post.

      • Avatar
        balivi  May 23, 2018

        Oh sorry! I speak of Paul’s enemies. “…how can some of you say…” asked Paul to the Corinthians. They (Corinthians) maybe would heard it from someone else. Whom you called the enemies of Paul, on the post. We know (partly) what they believed 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2018

          Yes, we know that some of them were denying the resurrection. And a few other things (“it is good for a man not to touch a woman” 7:1, e.g.)

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