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The Life and Message of Paul

I return now to the next portion of a longer post I’m composing on the New Testament, a general survey in what is now looking like 10,000 words or so?  My most recent segment was an explanation of what we can know about the life and teaching of Jesus:  https://ehrmanblog.org/who-was-jesus/   This one is a corollary: what we can know about the life and message of Paul.

Next to Jesus himself, Paul was the most important figure in the entire history of Christianity. Nearly half the books of the New Testament claim to be written by him; one other book (Acts) is largely written about him.  More than anyone else we know of, he was responsible for the spread of Christianity through much of the Mediterranean world.  And perhaps most important, he significantly developed the theological understanding of the significance of Jesus.  For Paul, far less important than Jesus’ earthly life and teaching were his death and resurrection, which were God’s means of salvation to the world.  It may be too extreme to say that Paul is the “founder” or even the “co-founder” of Christianity, but he certainly is the key figure in the faith after Jesus.

The difficulties in knowing about Paul’s life and teachings are different from what we saw with Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, Paul did leave us a written record.   One problem is that scholars have long argued that six of the thirteen New Testament letters that name him as the author are probably not from his pen, but were written by later followers, probably after his death, claiming his name in order to provide authority for their views.  When exploring his own ideas, scholars therefore limit themselves to Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon – the “undisputed Pauline letters.” We have no authentic writings from him outside the New Testament.

Even the undisputed letters pose difficulties, however, since they are all ….

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  1. Avatar
    Riad Multoni  December 29, 2019

    Please can you help me understand .
    Is the gospel of Matthew telling its readers that the Jewish rituals must be kept until “judgement day” ?

    Matthew said :
    You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they set it on a lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven


    5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    Is Matthew having a problem with public prayer or is Matthew saying that one should not have people in mind and think as if he is praying in secret? so is the problem more to do with state of mind or the ritual in the open?

    when people are to teach others how Jesus taught how to pray, how do they avoid “to be seen by others” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2019

      It’s a much debated point. Think I’ll repost on it. Matthew insists that his followers keep all the law in every detail, but then when he explains, it is noever about what we might call “ritual” laws or “ethnicity” laws (circumcision; sabbath, kosher, etc.) but only practical/ ethical (murder, adultery, false oaths, etc.). But he is certainly opposoing people who practice their religiosity openly *so that* others can see them and recognize them as highly righteous. Better just to help others without any concern for self-promotion, so that others will see and follow your example.

  2. Avatar
    dankoh  December 29, 2019

    Excellent post, as usual! I see one point somewhat differently, though; I think Paul has to be labelled as at least the co-founder of Christianity. Without him, there would have been less of an outreach to the Greek world (perhaps none at all), meaning that the Jesus Movement would have consisted almost entirely of Jews living in Judaea and therefore vulnerable to being killed in the Great Revolt of 66-73. We do know that the Roman destruction meant the end of the Jerusalem church and effectively shifted the balance of power away from the Jewish members to the Greek ones. It is likely that, without Paul, nascent Christianity would have died with Jerusalem. Not certain, I’ll grant, since it might have survived in the same way Pharisaic Judaism did, but it would have been a very different religion.

    (And that doesn’t even get into the Greek influence on Christianity, a great deal of which comes from Paul.)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2019

      Yes, if that’s what one means by it, I would probably agree. Usually people mean that he wsa the one who developed the religion that Jesus propounded into a religion focused on Jesus himself, esp. his death and resurrection. I don’t think that part’s right — others were already saying that. But yes, good point about his massive significance in taking the message to non-Jews.

  3. Avatar
    tteichma  December 29, 2019

    “Paul was original incensed when he learned that the followers of Jesus were claiming he was the messiah.”

    original -> originally?

  4. Avatar
    Manuel  December 29, 2019

    We know that Paul persecuted the Jewish converts to Christianity. We know also know that various passages in the NT have been used for centuries to persecute Jews. Today we read about various hate crimes in synagogues. So my question is can you say a few words about the persecution. if any, of Jews in the Roman/Greek world prior to Jesus and his movement? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2019

      Ah, long story that. Short answer, there is very little evidence at all for Jews being physically persecuted for being Jews — that is, keeping their own customs, rituals, festivals, and so on. They were made fun of a lot. So were most groups that were “different.” that is, most groups. But Jews were almost never singled out. Jews in Israel *were* attacked when they sponsored a military/social uprising. But that was for “political” not “religious” reasons.

  5. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 30, 2019

    What do we know about congregations outside Palestine that were established in the period 30-64 CE by people other than Paul? Apparently there was at least one at Rome, but is there any indication of others? On the one at Rome, can we deduce much about its nature from Romans or other sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      All we know is what Paul and Acts tell us; all of our later sources are based on those two. But certainly there were communities in Antioch, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, throughout the region of Galatia, and other places in Asia Minor, macedonia, and Achaia.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 30, 2019

    Wow! What a clear, concise, and helpful summary. Thanks

    Those new to the blog might want to read Dr. Ehrman’s “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.”

  7. Avatar
    Thespologian  December 30, 2019

    What information exists that details donations or any monetary gifts to emerging churches? Did Paul receive remuneration for this missionary work in some way do you think? I’m curious if there was a way to monetize a growing religion. Televangelists make a killing at what I perceive them not to believe in. But they know their material well. And they convince hundreds of thousands of their faith.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      All we have is the informatoin in Paul’s letters and Acts; Paul indicates that he did collect money from Christian churches for the poor. In some passages he indicates he refused financial assistance, in others that he accepted it. So he probably did some of both. In the later work the Didache it is clear that traveling missionaries “apostles” are receiving financial support. So it did happen.

  8. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 30, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What do you think was Paul’s main issue as per his persecution of the early church? We always hear things like the Isaiah verses were not really supposed to be about one man, but Israel as a whole, and that being hung on a tree was a scandal, but would the most obvious objection have been that the messiah was not supposed to die before the arrival of the kingdom here on Earth? or for Paul and others would it have been a combination of things?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 2, 2020

      I think he couldn’t imagine that a man publicly tortured to death by his enemies was the messiah sent to save God’s people from their enemies. Jesus was the *opposite* of a messiah.

  9. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  December 30, 2019

    Hypothesizeing on the real history of Paul’s Epiphany
    There is a question about Paul’s “conversion” that I have always wondered.
    There is no doubt that what is narrated in his letters and in Acts is an invention in order that he could achieve authority and prestige among the early Christians, presenting the fact as supernatural. I am sure of this, for Paul himself wrote:

    “For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?” (Romans 3: 7)
    “But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile.” (2 Corinthians 12:16).

    Therefore, it would be very interesting, rather than knowing – what is impossible – to have reasonable and plausible guesses and hypotheses of how it actually happened. Or as we said, to know the true story.
    Although Paul lies – once again; he seems to be a “compulsive liar” – in saying that:
    “11 But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. ” (Galatians 1: 11-12),

    it is an absolutely necessary fact, to understand Paul’s persecutory mania against Christians, that he had a good knowledge of the beliefs and rites of those early Christians, information he could obtain in Christian circles.
    So what made him change his way of thinking about Jesus and his meaning in something as important to him as his Judaism was?
    It must have been a long process of reflection in which the strong influence of Hellenism, especially the Platonists and Stoics, cannot be set aside.
    Although he is quite ambiguous and cheater when writing about the Law of Moses, it seems clear that his rejection of it, which must be prior to his change of criteria regarding Jesus and his movement, has a lot to do with the fact that Judaism is an orthopraxis and not an orthodoxy.
    Although then the paradox is that when he changed his mind about early Christianity, such orthodoxy was just being born. But seeing the potential of the rudiments of the Christian faith they had to be a true orthodoxy that could be grounded in Platonism and Stoicism, he must have thought that he was the best person to develop that source of rich theological orthodoxy in which soon Hellenized Christianity would become.

    (To be continued)

  10. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  December 30, 2019

    This may not be more than a speculation of mine, without much documented historical basis. But taking into account the confusion of Paul’s own story and that of Acts of his change of mind about Jesus, the margin for assumptions with a certain sense of psychological (naturalistic) plausibility is very wide.
    By way of a post scriptum, I would like to add that talking about Paul’s conversion to Christianity is to some extent an anachronism, because even if that is the absolutely predominant idea among Christians today, it is not correct, since it could hardly be Paul converted to a religion that did not exist and that was his own creation to a great extent.

  11. Avatar
    hankgillette  January 3, 2020

    Next to Jesus himself, Paul was the most important figure in the entire history of Christianity.

    Would it be going too far to say that Paul was the most important figure in the entire history of Christianity? Yes, Jesus was necessary, but modern Christianity seems to be based much more on what Paul taught than the teachings of Jesus.

    Without Paul, Christianity may have been just a minor sect of Judaism that died out before the end of the first century.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      Some have argued that. But Paul makes no sense without Jesus (and not vice versa)

  12. Avatar
    Hngerhman  January 12, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    In Romans, Paul appears to have believed that, via some mystery that God would reveal at a later date before the end, ‘all Israel’ (not just the then-current ‘remnant’) would be brought in.

    In Romans 11:12, Paul refers to this set (all Israel) by employing the term ‘pleroma’.

    Thus it would seem, in the end: Remnant + The Rest = Pleroma = All

    The usage of ‘pleroma’ in 1 Cor 10:26 seems suggestive of a sense of “all” (totality) as well.

    Question: If Paul (often?) uses ‘pleroma’ in a way that seemingly maps onto *all* (of Israel, of the earth), why then should we not think (on linguistic grounds) he means *all* Gentiles in Romans 11:25?

    Thanks much in advance – I don’t know how to adjudicate this, not least because I utterly lack the linguistic and textual chops…


  13. AstroBoy
    AstroBoy  February 14, 2020

    Greetigs Dr. Ehrman;

    Though I do not like to tag myself as a label, a d to quote Neil Degrass Tyson, I am not an “…ism”; a close description of my stance is that I am agnostic, who prefers critical thinking and empirical evidence over dogma. I am not a fundamentalist anything. Thank you for recomending your blog; there may be one or two YouTube videos of you I have not yet seen 🙂 I used to be a christian, but I can no longer reconcile the incongruencies of this religion.

    So what about Paul?

    1. Paul was not an disciple, and claims Jesus appeared to him in a vision
    2. Theologically I find this incongruent… as the premise is when Jesus died he completed his mission, he ostensibly said “it is finished” he did not say: “to be continued by Paul”
    3 Paul ostensibly does not hold jewish observances to the same level… Jesus ostensibky stated something to the effect that not one single word will be changed.
    4 Jesus ostensibly stated that when he would come back everyone would see him, there woould be no doubt, so I find it unlikely that that the “message” had to be edited by Paul
    5 I understand that Paul was not optimally received by his contemporaries
    6 so if we accept that additional individual revelations would take place post crucifixion, sans witnesses… then why not accept the message of Joseph Smith (LDS)

    So why is Pauls theology rather than direct disciples such a cornerstone to christian theology, I have listened to your speeches regarding that there is scholarly work putting in question that Paul is the author of many of his attrubuted works. Paul is an a posteriori stance, de oid of any authority, except for an unproven, unwitnessed “vision”.

    What are your thoughts on Paul’s influence?



    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      I think Paul was the most important follower of Jesus ever, but not for the reasons usually maintained. I have a long discussion of it in my book Triumph of Christianity, all of chapter 2. Short story: it’s NOT that he came up the “Christian message” but because he insisted vehemently that followers of Jesus did not have to become Jewish. Made all the difference int hew world and completely altered the face of the new faith. Read my chapter and let me know what you think!

      • Avatar
        jhague  July 15, 2020

        Paula Fredriksen has a short article called Paul and Judaism where she says,

        “Christ, Paul taught, had come to fulfill God’s “irrevocable” promises to Israel as preserved in Jewish Scripture (Rom 11:26-29; see also Rom 15:8). Paul saw his mission to Gentiles through the analogy of working in Jerusalem’s temple (Rom 15:16). All of the building blocks of Paul’s gospel are quarried from Jewish tradition.”

        For a message that came from Jewish tradition, it does not seem that the Jews of the day agreed with this message. Is this correct?

        And above you say,

        “Paul’s major innovation was his claim that God’s salvation through the Christ, Jesus, had now reached the gentiles, who decidedly did not have to “become Jewish” first…”

        Do you have a thought on why Paul was seemingly obsessed with taking the message to Gentiles?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 17, 2020

          That’s right. The vast majority of Jews didn’t buy it. Paul believed God had called him to be the one who brought salvation from the Jews to the nations, in fulfillment of the predictions of Isaiah. I discuss all this in nmy book Triumph of Christianity if you want to pursue it furhter.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 20, 2020

            Did the vast majority of Jews not buy Paul’s definition of “nations?” If so, how did the Jews define nations?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 20, 2020

            It’s not a definition — I was trying to explain that our word “gentile” comes from the Greek word “nation” (through the latin: gens). But no, very few Jews at *all* thought Paul was right. They mainly thought he was either crazy, deluded, or heretical.

          • Avatar
            jhague  July 20, 2020

            So I know that Paul says that he received his mission to be the apostle to the Gentiles directly from the Christ. Knowing that he did not really have a conversation with the Christ, it seems that something in his life must have lead him to desire to bring the Gentiles to his gospel. Was it multiple friendships with Gentiles in the Diaspora, or something else going on in his life to cause a Jew to want to mainly engage with Gentiles? I know we can’t really know but do you have any thoughts?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 21, 2020

            You’re right, we can’t know, and I don’t think we can psychoanalyze him (it’s hard enough to psychoanalyze someone you’ve known for years; we don’t have much of a clue what Paul was all about). But he does seem to indicate that he interpreted his Bible as saying that all nations would be brought to believe int he God of Israel (e.g., in Isaiah) and he came to see Jesus as the way that was going to happen. And he appears to have thought that God called *him* personally to bring it about. As a fulfillment of prophecy!

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