In September I’m going to be hosting an online conference of Bible scholars discussing their work for laypeople at a level that most anyone will be able to follow easily.  This will be the second of our conferences, “New Insights into the New Testament” (if you don’t know about the first one from this past year, focused on the Gospels, you can learn about it here: New Insights into the New Testament Conference).  The topic will be The Life, Letters, and Legends of Paul, and we’ll have 8 or 10 scholars making presentations with Q&A for each.

We’ll be announcing the course later (date, etc.), but just now as I’ve started thinking about it, I’ve been reflecting on some of the issues involved with trying to figure out what Paul actually preached.  In addition to his hints and statements in his surviving letters, we have actual speeches allegedly delivered by him in the book of Acts in the NT.  But do these accurately reflect what he really said?

I’ve addressed the question on and off over the years, and thought it might be useful to devote a couple of posts to it here.  This is taken from my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford, 2006).


A friend of mine once pointed out that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.60  I’m definitely of the former persuasion.  Since the 1980s, teaching graduate students year in and year out, I’ve found two different kinds of students.  Some of my students look at a range of ancient Christian texts and everything looks the same.  All the texts are mashed together into one big mega-text, so that, basically, at the end of the day, each text is saying the same thing.  Others of my students look at a range of texts and everything looks different.  Every text is taken as its own discrete entity with its own author, its own message, its own assumptions so that, basically, at the end of the day, every text is saying something different.

I must confess that when I was in college and a bit later, when I was a beginning graduate student myself, I belonged to the first set of people.  Everything looked pretty much alike.  When it came to the New Testament, the Gospel of Mark seemed a lot like Luke which was very much like John, which had a good deal in common with the writings of Paul, which reflected the things said in the book of Acts, and so on.  But the more rigorously I was trained in reading these texts in their original languages, the more I developed a refined sense of just how different they really are from each other.  I guess this was a conversion experience of my own, away from thinking everything is basically the same to seeing that everything is richly unique.

my basic assumption now is that Paul is the best authority for knowing about Paul; and that if an author living thirty years after Paul indicates that Paul said or did something that contradicts what Paul himself says, then it is probably Paul who has gotten the facts right and the other author has given a modified version.

The Message of Paul in Acts

Nowhere is this more clear to me today than in the comparisons and contrasts I see between the book of Acts and the writings of Paul.  As I’ve indicated before, my basic assumption now is that Paul is the best authority for knowing about Paul; and that if an author living thirty years after Paul indicates that Paul said or did something that contradicts what Paul himself says, then it is probably Paul who has gotten the facts right and the other author has given a modified version.  I don’t mean to say that this modified account is therefore of no value: it is extremely valuable, but principally for what it is, not for what it is not.  It is less valuable for knowing what Paul was actually like, what he really said and did.  But it is more valuable for knowing how Paul was remembered in the generation after his death.  That too is a historical matter and of real interest to anyone concerned to know about the development of the Christian religion in its formative years.

It is relatively easy to contrast what Paul says about his proclamation of the gospel with how Acts portrays it.  Simply take one of Paul’s speeches in Acts and see how it stacks up against Paul’s own statements.  We have already seen some points of contrast, when I noted the differences between what Paul allegedly said about pagan idolatry in the book of Acts in his speech on the Athenean Areopogus (Acts 17) with what he himself says in the letter to the Romans 1:18-32.  The perspectives of these two passages are not simply different, they are at odds with one another.  In Acts, “Paul” indicates that God overlooks the error of the pagans in committing idolatry, since, after all, they are ignorant of his existence and don’t know any better.  In Romans, Paul says just the opposite: God does not forgive the pagans, but pours his wrath out on them, because they know full well that he is the only God and they reject this innate knowledge in order to worship idols.



60. Dale Martin, who scribbled comments all over a first draft of this book in a vain attempt to make me improve it, has asked me to tell you, the reader, that he is the one who came up with this keen, compelling, and life-transforming insight.



I’ll continue these thoughts in the next post


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2024-04-04T10:54:51-04:00April 9th, 2024|Acts of the Apostles, Paul and His Letters|

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  1. Telling April 9, 2024 at 9:48 am

    A Great Courses class focuses on Paul’s letters, Timothy Luke Johnson giving an excellent delivery on Paul and his letters which Johnson believes all his 14 letters were written or dictated by Paul. My internal source Seth confirms. Johnson reads between the lines, assuming Paul is responding to letters from the particular church he is writing to, The famous line indicating the rapture where the dead will rise first from their graves and be caught up in the clouds followed by us, was for purpose of keeping the church together which was losing converts because the Lord hadn’t yet come as was promised and because of concern loved ones who had died would not see the promise realized. Paul’s varying tones had to do with particular issues with the various churches. And a 5th journey happened after Paul was released from captivity in Rome, of which the pastoral letters emerged. In my book The Incarnation guided by Seth a non physical entity, all of Pauls letters find a neat place. “Ephesians” was written . . . In Ephesus! Paul arrested there blamed for the great fire in Rome, writes from prison to Timothy heading the Ephesus church.

  2. Telling April 9, 2024 at 10:05 am

    Paul’s purpose, per my internal sources, was to build a peaceful sect favorable to the Jews. He knew that Simon of Cyrene (the Zealot) had been crucified and wrongly identified as Jesus, but Paul was well versed in pagan religions and he had a feel for what the population would respond favorably to. Just like our Christian population today, the people wanted an easy out from their miseries and the Crucifixion story gave them that. No need to think, just believe in a narrative that actually makes no logical sense. The simple narrative being a common theme in other religions, the repetitivity gave believers a familiar landscape. But take the more harsh Egyptian mysticism and try to give it to people who have not heard such thing. Paul’s fellow travelers who wrote the NT Bible divided the teaching to Jesus’ inner circle and an outer population who wouldn’t understand such things. The parables were fabricated by aurhors John Mark, Luke, John the “disciple” who was also John the Baptist and Apollos (named as Paul’s traveling companion), and by Gaius Luke’s son. Mark’s gospel is the “oldest” because he knew Jesus. The parables are myth.

  3. jsgleeson April 9, 2024 at 10:07 am

    Dale Martin seems to have an uncommon grasp of the obvious. 😂

  4. hankgillette April 9, 2024 at 3:37 pm

    As a former computer programmer, I think there are 10 kinds of people in world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

    • Silver April 12, 2024 at 6:27 am

      I like to think there are two kinds of people – those who are like me and those who wish they were!

  5. haydenps April 9, 2024 at 7:33 pm

    Hi Dr. Ehrman, I just picked up your Misquoting Jesus and saw the dedication to Dr. Metzger, who you’ve spoken about being your mentor and thesis supervisor. My question is, if we put you in Metzger’s position, do you have your own Bart?

    • BDEhrman April 16, 2024 at 8:12 pm

      I suppose not. I was Metzger’s last student and closer to him, I’m pretty sure, than any other, and continued on his work. I do have former students that I’m very close to, but none who is doing the kinds of things I do — I suppose in part because I do a pretty broad range of things in stead of focusing on one area.

  6. Jesse80025 April 10, 2024 at 1:32 pm

    Excellent post, Bart! Thanks! I’m excited for the next one!

  7. Jill_L April 11, 2024 at 2:23 pm

    “The perspectives of these two passages are not simply different, they are at odds with one another.”

    Acts 17:31 does point out that he (God) has appointed a day when he will judge the world. Also, both speeches call for a change of heart. I think the two speeches are two different ways of coming to the same basic conclusion.

  8. daniel.calita April 12, 2024 at 2:23 am

    Hi Bart,

    All of my questions are on the topic of the understanding of hell:

    1) Do the other NT authors apart from the Gospels and Revelation believe and write about an eternal punishment where you’ll be tortured forever or do they understand death to be the eternal punishment?

    2) Does Revelation talk about an eternal torturing in the fire?

    3) ‭Could you please comment this verse in Matthew 25:41 NRSV‬?
    [41] Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

    Is this the same as gehenna? Will the devils also go there? What is the meaning here?

    • BDEhrman April 16, 2024 at 8:33 pm

      1. Death is the eternal punishment for all of them. 2. Just for the Devil and the anti-Christ.

  9. Zena April 14, 2024 at 6:07 pm

    My guess FWIW. Paul probably said both. In Acts, Paul’s audience was a group of potential converts , and his agenda was to put out a welcome mat. In Romans, Paul’s audience was the already-converted, and his agenda was to keep them in the fold with a scary store about what awaits those who turn away.

  10. Zena April 16, 2024 at 4:07 am

    >>>my basic assumption now is that Paul is the best authority for knowing about Paul; and that if an author living thirty years after Paul indicates that Paul said or did something that contradicts what Paul himself says, then it is probably Paul who has gotten the facts right and the other author has given a modified version.<<<

    With respect, I don't think this assumption is warranted at all. (1) People are not very objective when it comes to evaluating what they themselves have done or said, and will tend to present a sanitized version. (2) Paul might have had a certain opinion at one point in his career, but modified his opinion later on. In any given instance, your assumption might be correct, but it could equally well be wrong.

    • BDEhrman April 22, 2024 at 8:01 pm

      That’s right, it’s possible. But if someone who doesn’t konw me disagrees with what I say happened to me 30 years ago, based on something he’s heard, on balance I’d say you’re probably better of thinking that I’m the one getting it right, or at least closer to right. And in this case, Paul is not remembering something he once said in Romans: he is saying it at the time.

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