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Paul’s Exalted Self-Image: The Fulfillment of Ancient Prophecy

I am off today to Boston for a week of various professional activities.  Tomorrow morning I will be filming a documentary with an independent film maker on some aspect of the New Testament.  After that I’ll be having lunch with about a dozen members of the blog, and then dinner with three or four.   Following that, on Friday, I will be giving a talk at the Biblical Archaeology Society FEST (a gathering of interested lay folk to hear lectures by scholars for a couple of days).  And then it’s off to my annual professional meeting, with thousands of other biblical scholars from the U.S. and around the world, the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.

My talk at the Biblical Archaeology Society will be about Paul and his understanding of his mission.  About a year ago I realized something I had never thought of before.  Paul actually understood himself, personally, to have been predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament as the fulfillment of God’s plan.  Wow.   Here is how I have thought about and explained the matter recently:

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It is easiest to understand Paul’s subsequent missionary activities and evangelistic message by realizing how an appearance of the living Jesus would force him from “fact” to “implications.”  For him the “fact” was that Jesus was alive again, as he knew from having seen him.   From there Paul started reasoning backwards.  This backward reasoning must have proceeded through a number of steps ending in a remarkable place: Paul came to believe that he himself had been chosen and commissioned by God to fulfil the predictions of Jewish Scripture.  Divinely inspired prophecies delivered centuries earlier were looking forward to his day, his labors, and him personally.  Paul cannot be faulted for thinking small.

Paul’s vision made him realize that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection, and nothing else –e.g., not the Jewish law – that established a person in a right standing before God.  Thus, to be members of God’s covenantal people, it was not necessary for gentiles to become Jews.  They did not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, or follow any of the other prescriptions of the law.  They needed to believe in the death and resurrection of the messiah Jesus.   This was an earth-shattering realization for Paul.   Prior to this, the followers of Jesus – the first Christians – were of course Jews who understood that he was the messiah who had died and been raised from the dead.  But they knew this as the act of the Jewish God given to his people the Jews.  Certainly gentiles could find this salvation as well.  But first they had to be Jewish.  Not for Paul.  Jew or gentile, it did not matter.  What mattered was faith in Christ.

Once Paul came to realize this he was blinded yet again by a further insight.   Throughout the prophets of Scripture …

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Jesus Rejected by His Own Townspeople in Mark
What Is the Original Text of the Gospels?

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Comments

  1. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  November 15, 2017

    Paul, if he was a true historical person, was a SELF-PROCLAIMED apostle. That is important to remember. Basically, all of his virtues were presented by the writing of his own pen.

    He is the pioneer of Christianity; the first to introduce the blood-atonement death of Christ. That’s the Gospel of Christianity. But, it does not mesh with the Gospel of the Kingdom that Christ preached (Mat. 4:17), and that which He said would be proclaimed at the end of the age (Mat. 24:14). Christianity’s Gospel is an interruption of the true Gospel of the Kingdom.

    Light in the world > Age of darkness > Light returns

    Gospel of the Kingdom preached > Christianity’s corrupted Gospel preached > Gospel of the Kingdom preached

  2. Avatar
    godspell  November 15, 2017

    Though it has long been obvious that Paul saw himself as having a divinely ordained mission, it’s an interesting insight into his mind, to realize he believed he himself had been prophesied in scripture.

    But his mind worked like that–this fits with his belief that Jesus had been a pre-existent divine being (an angel, perhaps, as you’ve suggested), waiting in heaven for his time to be briefly made flesh.

    So the question is–did Paul at times entertain a belief that he also was pre-existent in heaven? He would have known that he could not work miracles, and was not in any way omniscient. He would have believed Jesus was superior to him. I don’t think he could have believed he was an angel, any more than Jesus believed he was God. But might there not be special souls created for special purposes?

    And what hunger in him was waiting since his youth–looking for some mission to achieve? Something conventional religiosity could never appease. He started by persecuting Christians, but recognized in the ones he met a fervor and conviction that appealed to him. And Judaism, as practiced by his fellow Pharisees, was such an inward-looking faith. Not given to proselytize at this time.

    And Paul was born to proselytize, and I don’t mean it was divinely ordained. I mean it was his nature. Some people are just like that. They can be raised in an environment entirely devoid of any religious belief–they will look for something to believe in, that they are supposed to convey to others. An ideology of some kind. It could be atheism as much as anything else.

    And that impulse that exists among people found in all cultures can be a source of great good–or evil. Or both.

  3. Avatar
    Adam0685  November 15, 2017

    Very interesting. It appears god calling the gentiles to salvation was in the imagination of many Jewish thinkers, Paul seems to be the main one of them that focused on actually calling gentiles.

    Terence L Donaldson, Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE)

    https://books.google.ca/books?id=Ayf057kcuJsC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

  4. Avatar
    Silver  November 15, 2017

    “Paul’s vision made him realize that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection, and nothing else –e.g., not the Jewish law – that established a person in a right standing before God.”
    If this is indeed the case, did the truth of this realisation strike Paul having heard it from others (obviously others already believed that Jesus died and rose again) or was it something which was his completely original insight and interpretation of what this signified? If the latter is the case, would this not indicate that, in fact, Paul IS the creator of Christianity – something which, I always thought, you do not hold to?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      Not necessarily. He could be recognizing something that others before him also recognized.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  November 15, 2017

    I also came to a realization about Paul recently. I’ve been re-reading the epistles, and I came to realize that Paul was a bit of a jerk. That is, sometimes his sense of self-importance got the better of him and he turned into a bit of an a-hole. For example, Paul’s dressing down of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:6-13 is dripping with vituperative sarcasm: “Oh, you are all so special, now? Well, maybe you’re all kings and I’m just a cipher. Don’t mind me, over here slaving away for Jesus. I’m here risking my life to spread the gospel message, but, no, you guys are the real heroes!”

    This is probably a good reflection of what Paul was like in real life: a pugnacious, abrasive, in-your-face hothead.

    • Avatar
      lesliehint  November 17, 2017

      Your comments echo so many of my thoughts about Paul. My husband, even when we were Christians, would always point out that he didn’t necessarily like Paul. HIs sarcastic tone and self-importance seemed antithetical to the gospel that we believed. Ah, but the more I study, the more I realize that I was sold a gospel that was not based on truth.

      The scales have definitely fallen from my eyes and I consider myself a skeptic.

  6. Avatar
    jhague  November 15, 2017

    1. Did Paul think he saw Jesus (someone he never met) or did he think he saw the Christ?
    2. If he was a Pharisee as he claims, who taught and explained to him initially about the Christ so that he actually accepted this message and then thought of himself as the fulfillment of God’s plan?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      He thought he saw Jesus. He knew *something* about Jesus since he was persecuting people who declared him the messiah.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 17, 2017

        My understanding was that he claimed to have seen a blinding light and heard a voice. Not that he saw Jesus in the flesh, as it was claimed the disciples had. To have seen him that way would require a mental image of somebody he never met.

        Paul believed Jesus had walked around in the body of a man, but that doesn’t mean he saw him as a man. He believed the mortal body had only been a shell housing some radiant spirit. Jesus the man was not important to him. Jesus the divine being was.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 19, 2017

          The light and voice are from the accounts from Acts, not Paul’s own account in Galatians 1.

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 19, 2017

            Which is frustatingly sketchy. He does not say he saw Jesus in bodily form. He says almost nothing about it, though presumably some of the people he’s writing to have heard that he had a vision of some kind.

            Is it possible that this is deliberate? He knows he’s entering a cult that will be suspicious of him, for good reason. If his account is too different from their own visions of the resurrected Jesus, they may reject him.

            Paul is such a good writer, I tend to assume nothing he does is by accident.

      • Avatar
        jhague  November 17, 2017

        It seems that Paul thinks he saw Jesus in his Christ form, especially since Christ is the only thing that Paul talks about.
        You and I have discussed that Paul’s persecution of people was likely him giving approval to the leaders of the synagogue flogging Jesus movement Jews. I am thinking that in addition to being apart of this, Paul must have also been “studying” or being taught by friends or having discussions about Jesus’ resurrection to the point that he agreed with the message and then determined that he was the fulfillment of God’s plan. Then his three years in Arabia must of been for him to get his thoughts together before beginning his ministry. Does this seem correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 19, 2017

          No, I don’t think he was off in the Arabian desert thinking things through for three years. He appears to have begun his missionary work then, in the Nabatean kingdom.

          • Avatar
            jhague  November 20, 2017

            Ah! I didn’t think about him beginning his missionary work during this initial three years. He obviously did not receive the message he was preaching from the vision he claims to have had. And he states that he was completely opposed to the Jesus movement message before the vision. For most people, a change in thinking happens over a period of time. What are your thoughts on how Paul went through his change in thinking?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 20, 2017

            I deal with this in my forthcoming book The Triumph of Christianity! It’s a bit of a long story — but his realization that Jesus had been brought back to life led him to try to figure out then why he had died (been crucified) in the first place…

          • Avatar
            Corntree  November 28, 2017

            Dr. Ehrman, I have just started to really think about Galatians 1-2 after pondering the doctrine of apostolic succession. I have seen Catholics claim that in the NT all authority was originally bestowed by the 12 Apostles and that even today bishops and priests are a part of that line and you have to have authority bestowed on you. I don’t have a scholarly knowledge of Galatians, so I will say it’s not totally clear to me that Paul started his missionary work right after his conversion, but he was preaching for 14 years after he met with Cephas and James, and it seems to me like he was only given authority by the other apostles after those 14 years. That’s how I interpret the “right hand of fellowship” given to Paul when he went back to Jerusalem, anyway. Do you think I’m on the right track with this? I think it would poke a hole in the idea of apostolic succession, at least b/c there would be an example in the Bible of a pillar of the church not waiting for authority to be conferred on him before he started his mission. Though you could still argue Paul wasn’t supposed to do that. One of the reasons I started thinking about this is b/c I read the intro to “Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity” by James D. Tabor. I felt some of Tabor’s ideas were faulty but it seemed like the book would be a worthwhile read anyway. Do you know this book and, if so, can you say anything for or against it?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 28, 2017

            Paul, of course, considered himself an apostle and did not think he needed approval from the others to justify his mission (which had been going on for 17 years — the first three were apparently in the Nabatean kingdom “Arabia”); he appears to have wanted agreement with the others simply to get the others on his side, not to sanction his message (which he “knew” was right already). Not sure if that helps!

          • Avatar
            Corntree  November 28, 2017

            I think it helps. Paul is a little confusing to me in Galatians 2, though. He says he went to Jerusalem after 14 years “in response to a revelation” and told the leaders there the gospel he’d been proclaiming to make sure he “was not running, or had not run, in vain.” That sounds humble; he wanted to make sure he was preaching the right message. But then he says the acknowledged leaders contributed nothing to him; instead they saw he had been entrusted to minister to the Gentiles. And he says Peter, James and John recognized the grace that had been given to him. That sounds like Paul already knew he was right, or at least that he was proven to have always been right. I don’t know how much he wanted the leaders’ approval but he did seem determined to prove that his mission and message came directly and only from God.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 29, 2017

            Yes, my sense is that Paul very much “knew” he was “right,” from teh very beginning. He was trying to persuade the Jerusalem apostles not to get in his way.

        • Avatar
          godspell  November 19, 2017

          The disciples who had dreams and visions of Jesus after the crucifixion were reacting to the death of somebody they had known and loved as a man, but then came to see as somehow semi-divine. God’s adopted son, the Messiah.

          Paul is the opposite. He probably never met Jesus, did not witness the crucifixion. He went from despising and persecuting Christians to being one of the most zealous of them. He knows Jesus was a man, had a physical body, but for him it’s the vision he had that was the true Jesus–and it makes sense, in that context, that he’d see a blinding light, and hear a voice. We know many at the point of death, or in a state of delirium, as he would have been, have had such visions.

          So he was deliberately vague in his epistle to the Galatians, because he knew what he saw was different from what the disciples had claimed to see. But over time, as he became established as a major figure in the new church, he did tell the story in some detail to good numbers of people, and it was preserved in Acts. Perhaps not 100% accurately, but it’s the best explanation for why they would tell such a different story about Paul’s experience.

  7. Avatar
    Colin P  November 15, 2017

    Completely unrelated to this post, but are you aware that Robert Price is writing a book about you? It is called Bart Ehrman Interpreted (See link to Amazon):

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bart-Ehrman-Interpreted-Robert-Price/dp/1634311582/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510759630&sr=1-12&keywords=bart+ehrman

    Strange huh? What do you think about it?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      Ha!! What a scream!

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 17, 2017

        Quite the compliment, when you think about it.

        I don’t imagine you’ll be returning the compliment. 😉

      • Telling
        Telling  November 17, 2017

        I think Price is correctly realizing that the word “Ehrman” will sell more books than the word “myth.

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  November 21, 2017

        He’s going to make some cool cash off that book

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 17, 2017

      “Taking a collegial approach and rejecting polemics, Price defends Ehrman’s writing against conservative attacks but also suggests a number of points at which Ehrman may be insufficiently or inconsistently critical.”

      Dr. Ehrman, I’m thinking of writing a book called “I Bart Ehrmaned Bart Ehrman, and so can you: Bart Ehrmaning with Bart Ehrman on Bart Ehrman’s Bart Ehrman”. I think it’s really gonna sell.

    • Avatar
      epistememe  November 18, 2017

      Publishing date : April 1, 2018. hmmm

  8. webo112
    webo112  November 15, 2017

    “Wow” indeed…again, I ask: this is your own theory you developed correct? what has been the response from Academia and historians on this? I never heard you mention this in books or lectures/debates before – has this been published?
    Very intriguing view – what led you to fascinating view ?

    Finally, are there any writings (other than what you quoted at the end) of Paul that either back up this view further, or perhaps now make better sense in this context?

    Thanks,

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      No, I’ve never published it before. It will be in my book Triumph of Christianity. And it is backed up by the accounts of Paul’s realization of why God called him, e.g., Galatians 1-2

  9. Avatar
    Todd  November 15, 2017

    I usually view Paul’s role in Christianity as one who disrupted Jesus’ message of love and compassion, but your article today has gotten me to think about the role of Paul in a different way !!

    Perhaps I should see Jesus and Paul as part of a single divine plan. I had not considered that. Thank you…and have a great trip.

  10. Avatar
    ask21771  November 15, 2017

    How much proof is there for the apocalyptic origins of Christianity

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      Pretty abundant, rooted, for example, in the evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist.

      • Avatar
        ask21771  November 17, 2017

        You’re saying that all the evidence rests on Jesus being apocalypticist?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 19, 2017

          No, I’m saying that’s an important piece of the puzzle.

  11. Avatar
    Skepticalone  November 15, 2017

    I agree ..Paul saw himself as the fulfillment of scripture in that he was aware that it was by grace , i.e Christ in him ..”I live yet not I but Christ in me .” Paul understood that Jesus Christ was God’s grace . This was the fulfilling of Joel ..”and I will pour out My spirit on all flesh” as was witnessed at Pentecost and afterwards. Jesus also pointed this out in the synagogue ..that God shows mercy to whom He shows mercy..the examples that Jesus used was Nathan the Assyrian ( who did not keep the law of Moses) and there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah , a time of great drought and famine but Elijah was sent to a widow of sidon …again not one of “God’s chosen ones” ..a gentile . This of course got Jesus carried to the brow of a hill by an angry mob. It would be the equivalent of God revealing His love and mercy to a Muslim/Buddhist/etc. or a university professor while Billy Graham ( nothing against Mr Graham ) and the “very religious Christians” were overlooked….you can imagine the gnashing of teeth over that scenario.
    I do take exception that Paul had an exalted view of himself . I believe he was chosen by God because he knew better than most that his keeping of the Jewish law only worked self-righteousness and hate. His own history kept him from exaltation. I see this same ” spirit” in many “devout ” religions and it has worn many religious clothes throughout history. We often view someone’s motives , actions , words , etc. through some dirt on our own lens …at least I believe that to be true. ( The Speck in my eye as it were. ) I think God’s grace humbled Paul …it did not exalt him . ( How could the murderer of Stephen have an exalted view of himself ? ) This is, I believe the wisdom of God for He gives grace to the humble ..the proud either do not see their need, too proud to admit it or like Wolsey , Thomas More and other religious people who ” burnt ” heretics that published the gospel in English ..the truth came at too great a cost . ( What will my friends think while I am burning at the stake though I cause people to be lost for eternity ? )

  12. Avatar
    nbraith1975  November 15, 2017

    History is full of stories of self-proclaimed prophets who insist they received revelations directly from God and/or Jesus. Paul, the self-anointed Apostle of the NT, can be counted among the many self-proclaimed prophets.

    What sets Paul apart from the others is that he is essentially the principal architect of the Christian doctrine. And what’s rather astounding regarding this is that Paul admits in his letter to the Galatians that “his” gospel message is based solely on a revelation from Jesus Christ.

    “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

    It seems from this passage that Paul, who never met Jesus personally, did not gain any knowledge of Jesus or his gospel message from any of Jesus’s apostles or eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry.

    Most scholars believe the Pauline epistles pre-date the synoptic gospels, and therefor they probably influenced whoever wrote them. This would seem to be problematic for Christians because the majority of Christian doctrine stands or falls on the dubious revelations of but one man. A man who never knew Jesus personally, who admits he learned nothing from any of Jesus’ “chosen” apostles, and who humbly said in chapter 15 of 1st Corinthians that he was the “least” of the apostles, but in the next sentence arrogantly proclaimed that he “worked harder than all of them.”

  13. Avatar
    wostraub  November 15, 2017

    This sounds like the same “calling” that Jesus likely also heard, believing himself to be the Messiah of scripture and the deliverer of Israel. Could it be that Paul and Jesus alike were gifted in words but completely deluded as to the supposedly God-called nature of themselves? In that same sense, how were they different from any of the current glib pastors of today’s American mega-churches, whose congregations far exceed those of Paul and Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      There might be similar mutatis mutandis; but it’s that mutatis you have to pay very careful attention to!

    • Avatar
      Eric  November 17, 2017

      Well, they differ in their individual and/or joint success in imprinting their messages! (some of them at least)

  14. Avatar
    gavriel  November 15, 2017

    Does Paul say some place that Jesus was killed in Jerusalem? Does Rom 9:33 unambiguously point to Jerusalem?

  15. Telling
    Telling  November 15, 2017

    Bart,
    I believe scholars agree that the message of salvation through the crucifixion story came from Paul’s hand. And the rift that happened between him and Peter at Antioch appears to have been more serious than is commonly supposed. This puzzles some historians because the issues of circumcision and dietary requirements had been resolved at the earlier Jerusalem conference.

    It breaks down to faith versus the law of Moses, respectively Paul’s Crucifixion story versus what Jesus taught, which was not at all strict adherence to the letter of Jewish law.

    Can you offer some illumination regarding the rift between Paul and Peter and his entourage at Antioch?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      Ah, that’s a good and involved question. I’ll add it to my mailbag.

      • Lev
        Lev  November 18, 2017

        I would be very interested to read what you have to say on this.

        It’s a really good question.

  16. Avatar
    Matt7  November 15, 2017

    If Paul was the one God had chosen to bring salvation to the “world”, how do Christian apologists answer the question of why it took hundreds of years for an all-powerful and all-knowing God to communicate this message to the millions of people living outside of the Roman Empire (e.g., in North and South America)? If I didn’t know better, I would say that God didn’t know about these people until the Europeans found them.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      God’s plan is mysterious! And who are *we* to question it? (!)

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 17, 2017

      I don’t believe it is a universal Christian belief that Paul was the special one chosen for this purpose. Bart is putting a fairly new spin on Paul’s words, that I happen to agree with, but the fact that he’s just recently come to this conclusion would prove pretty conclusively that most Christians never believed this about Paul. That he had a vision, yes. But so did many others.

      To Jews of that era, ‘the world’ means the Roman world. Nobody knows about the Americas.

      And anyway, Mormons say Jesus appeared to the Indians. Well, the Angel Moroni said that.

      😉

  17. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  November 15, 2017

    Hi Bart, appreciate all you do. Regarding the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, can you give us a brief report? Especially if any new discoveries or innovative insights are reported/discussed?

  18. Avatar
    anthonygale  November 15, 2017

    How do you think Paul’s assertion that a person is nothing without love plays into belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection being the “only” thing bringing one into a right standing with God? I’ve always read it as “necessary but not sufficient”. That is, you have to believe, but you still have to live a certain way, and if you don’t live that way you dont really believe. There are people though who believe that as long as you believe it doesnt matter how you live or treat others. As much as I try to respect others beliefs, I think that is horrid. I get the sense that people who believe this cherry pick 1 Corinthians.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      Yes, Paul’s letters are specifically directed against those who think it doesn’t matter how you live once you have faith.

  19. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 15, 2017

    I’m a bit surprised you only realised that a year ago.

  20. Avatar
    Jayredinger  November 16, 2017

    Hi Bart, did Paul fit into the mold of Mark 16 verses 17 and 18? Apart from having been bitten by a snake he didn’t seem to be following in Jesus’ footsteps, casting out demons and healing the sick. Would Paul and Jesus be preaching different gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 17, 2017

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. Mark was written after Paul’s lifetime, and vv. 17-18 were not added to Mark until even much later by scribes. We also don’t know what miracles Paul was reputed to have done, given our limited access to Paul’s life.

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