In my upcoming course I’ll be talking about whether Peter and Paul were at odds.  That might seem like a strange and implausible idea to some people.  But from a historical perspective, there is nothing at all unlikely about it.  We know that Paul had enemies (among the Christians!) all over the place.  Some of these anti-Pauline Christians were surely authors.  It would be absolutely fantastic if we were to discover some of the letters of Paul’s opponents.

Let me put this into a wider historical context.  In BROAD terms Paul appears to have agreed in major ways with those who were followers of Jesus before him.

I get asked all the time if I think that Paul is the true founder of Christianity and whether we should call it Paulinanity instead of Christianity (and related questions).  My answer is decidedly NO.   One reason that seems obvious to me, but not apparently to everyone, is that Paul did not himself invent Christianity.  He inherited it.

It is difficult to establish a firm chronology of Paul’s life.  There are scholars who have devoted many years just to this topic.  It’s messy and complicated.  My colleague from Duke, Douglas Campbell, has just written an-over-400-page book dealing just with the chronology of Paul’s *letters*, Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography.   It is about how to situate the surviving letters of Paul (Douglas accepts ten of the thirteen as authentic – all but 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) chronologically in relation to one another.  I haven’t read it yet, but Douglas is a very smart fellow and I imagine it will be a standard work for a very long time (though I doubt that he will convince the majority of scholars that Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians are authentic.  But maybe he will!)

In any event, however one arranges Paul’s letters, it is possible to give a *rough* sense of the chronology of his life, which would suggest that he was about the same age as Jesus (I would suppose) and that he converted to be a follower of Jesus some three years or so after Jesus’ death, before starting in on his own missionary endeavors.  We get to that rough chronology of the date of his conversion by considering some of his personal autobiographical/chronological statements (after three years I did this; after fourteen years I did that) and tying them together with incidental other pieces of information from his letters and, less so, from information found in the (not altogether reliable) book of Acts.

Paul himself and the book of Acts are both quite explicit that he was persecuting Christians rigorously *before* he converted.  Which means there were Christians before him.  He also indicates that he *received* information about Jesus’ death and resurrection from those who came before him (see 1 Cor. 11:22-24 and 15:3-5).  Those who were Christians before him were certainly declaring that Jesus had been raised from the dead; and they certainly had drawn the conclusion that Jesus was God’s suffering messiah and that therefore his death was a fulfillment of God’s plan and of the Jewish Scriptures.

Paul was not the one who made all that up.  He inherited it.  It’s true that he may have worked out the implications of these views more fully than any of his predecessors, and that he developed the early theology of the Christians with particular flair and emphasis.  But developing the theology (understanding of God) and Christology (understanding of Christ) and soteriology (understanding of salvation) and ecclesiology (understanding of who makes up the people of God) of the Christians is not the same thing as *inventing* them.

Paul did have some unusual views, though, and these are almost certainly what led to the most controversies.  For a long time, for example, I think Paul himself came up with the idea that gentiles could be members of Christ’s body, the church, without converting to Judaism.  And he certainly saw himself as the one called by God to make this proclamation to the gentiles.  Some or all of the Jerusalem apostles (Jesus’ own disciples and his brother James) may not have been totally comfortable with this view (as suggested in Gal. 2:11-14).  And other aspects of his view may have been found offensive to them or others.e make a very big mistake if we think that early Christianity represented Pauline Christianity. 

We make a very big mistake if we think that early Christianity represented Pauline Christianity.  I don’t think that was the case at all.  Paul did put a very distinctive stamp on early Christianity, and that had a very large impact on the subsequent history of the church and its theology.  But in his own day, Paul was simply one voice among many.

We don’t see that because of how the New Testament itself was later formed, with the core being The Gospels on the one hand and the writings of Paul on the other hand (I had a friend in graduate school who used to refer to the “general” epistles [also called the “catholic” epistles] as “the junk mail at the end of the New Testament”).   Paul is claimed to be the author of 13 of the 27 books of the NT; another book (Hebrews) was admitted into the canon because church fathers thought (wrongly) that he wrote it; another book (Acts) is largely written *about* Paul.  So from a canonical perspective it seems that early Christianity is all about Jesus and Paul.

But historically I don’t think it was that way.  And here’s one piece of evidence.  In five of Paul’s six “church” letters (the letter to Philemon is written to an individual, not to a church) he indicates clearly that in each of the communities he has Christian enemies who are saying nasty things about him and who are advocating views of the Gospel that are different from his (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians; the exception is 1 Thessalonians).

That means that in Paul’s own churches there were alternative forms of Christianity that were alive, well, and, evidently, flourishing.   And what about the churches not associated with Paul?  Surely that would be most of the churches of his day.  I don’t think there is any way they were “Pauline” in their character.

Let me stress, Paul’s enemies, in all these letters of his, are within the church.  That is, they were Christians with other perspectives.  Surely these people were not idiots.  They must have included intelligent and possibly literate Christians who disagreed with Paul just as avidly and vociferously as he disagreed with them.  We have his letters to see what he says about them.  What we don’t have are letters that they themselves wrote to explain, justify, and support their alternative views, and to express what they thought about him.  I really wish we did!

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2024-03-25T12:09:16-04:00March 26th, 2024|Paul and His Letters|

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  1. balivi March 26, 2024 at 6:08 am

    Here is this letter to the Hebrews. If we look at the ninth chapter of this, it becomes obvious that Jesus is not written here before or after Christ/anointed! No! And why isn’t there? Because this chapter and this letter are not talking about Jesus. You don’t have to read it as Christ and think Jesus is behind it. No! Because this is not about someone being someone’s messiah. This is about the anointed one! And this is about the Son! He says exactly what I say about Paul.
    Where is the blood from? If the Son is another spiritual entity, then he has no blood, it is not even possible for him to sacrifice himself. However, since he sacrificed himself to God while being innocent, he died for the redemption of the sins of the first covenant and became anointed/Christ. He had to die, since the will is valid after death, and if the testator is alive, it is not valid at all.
    Paul is completely misunderstood

  2. AndrewMcLean March 26, 2024 at 8:43 am

    Hi Bart, as usual, thanks for another very interesting post. Regarding a biography/chronology of Paul, what do you think of “Paul: A Critical Life” by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor? Thanks.

    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 7:44 pm

      Yup, it’s probalby a good place to start. I haven’t read it but he was a bona fide scholar, a major figure in some parts of NT studies.

  3. proctorr March 26, 2024 at 9:12 am

    “He also indicates that he *received* information about Jesus’ death and resurrection from those who came before him (see 1 Cor. 11:22-24”

    But in I Cor. 11:23, Paul said he received this information “from the Lord,” not from those who came before him. Some have argued that this passage on communion/eucharist was Paul’s “invention” and adopted later by the gospel writers rather than vice versa. What do you think?

    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 7:48 pm

      Yes, he says he got it from the Lord, that’s right. Given teh wording of the way he phrases it though, it appears he means that he got it “from the Lord” through a human intermediary. The terms are similar to those in 1 Cor. 15:3-5, and are common to describe how a teacher received a tradition (say, orally) and then passed it on. I don’t think there’s any good reason to think Paul invented it, in particular because Mark has a different *version* of the same event (Matthew agrees with Mark’s; Luke with Paul’s), and so Paul’s was not hte only version floating around.

  4. HugoB March 26, 2024 at 10:28 am

    If you put together Galatians 1:8 (“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”), Galatians 1:13 (“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.”), and 2 Thessalonians 3:17 that Paul didn’t write and contradicts himself (“I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”), you get the feeling that for Paul, his worst enemy is… himself.
    Quite a personality struggle between his past, violent self named Saul, his current, equally passionate newly converted self named Paul, and however his future self may change his mind again either accidentally on another road to Damascus or as a malevolent impersonation by someone else.

    Emmanuel Carrère has a lot of fun going over these personality conflicts in The Kingdom.

  5. Silver March 26, 2024 at 11:19 am

    In recent days I have been reading your past blog entries about the Son of Man. If I accept that Jesus was not, in fact, referring to himself but rather to a cosmic judge who will come at the end of the age, then who is this judge? Is he an angel? God himself? Satan? Did he always exist or was he created for this specific role? Why was this figure introduced into history and God’s judgement task passed to him?

    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 7:51 pm

      He’s one sent from God to perform his judgment on the earth — so he can’t be God himself and can’t be Satan. He appears to be a mighty angel. As with all such beings, he would have been created long before, probalby before the world began. Some scholars even interpret the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 (which is the source for the idea) as an angel, specifically the archangel Michael.

  6. charrua March 26, 2024 at 3:48 pm

    “What we don’t have are letters that they themselves wrote to explain, justify, and support their alternative views, and to express what they thought about him.”

    But we do have the Didache, arguably the earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament.

    Didache 11:4-6 states:

    Let every APOSTLE who cometh unto you be received as the Lord.

    He will remain one day, and if it be necessary, a second;
    but if he remains three days, he is a FALSE PROPHET.

    And let the apostle when departing take nothing but bread until he arrives at his resting-place;
    but if he asks for money, he is a FALSE PROPHET.

    Contrast this with Philippians 4:16-17:

    “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.”

    Paul not only remained far more than three days; in the meantime
    , he received help for his “needs” from other churches, time and again.

    But, behold ! Paul only received this help in order to help his helpers !

    “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit”

  7. SBrudney091941 March 26, 2024 at 3:58 pm

    Paul persecuted the Church of God. How do we know that was a Christian thing?

    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 7:59 pm

      Paul never refers to the EKKLESIA to refer to something other htan the Christian church, and used “ekklesia of God” about 9 times or so in his letters, always in reference to Christians in a certain community.

  8. Silver March 27, 2024 at 11:18 am

    When Paul and Peter were at loggerheads and confronted one another do you think that Peter (you often remark that he would have been an uneducated peasant) would have been equal intellectually to challenging Paul?

    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 8:18 pm

      No way. Paul would have intellectually ridden over him. But that doesn’t mean Peter and his group would think Paul was right. More likely that he was just an elite intellectual who used big words….

  9. J.J. March 27, 2024 at 1:51 pm

    You don’t think James 2 is a response to Paul or at least Paul’s views?

    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 8:20 pm

      It’s definitely a response to one understanding of Paul’s views, especially as found, for exampe, in the Deutero-Pauline letter to the Ephesians. In my book Forged (nad in greater length, Forgery and Counterforgery), I argue that the author of James is attacking what he takes to be Paul’s views but he has heard Paul’s views by Pauline Christians after Paul’s death who understand Paul’s views of “words of the law” to mean “doing good things,” which is not at all what Paul had in mind.

  10. daniel.calita March 27, 2024 at 6:23 pm

    Hi, Bart,

    1) I’ve seen different translations on ‭‭Luke 22:40 NRSV
    [40] When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
    –What is the correct translated english wording here from greek? What do the verses mean? Is this what Jesus said?

    2) At what age do you think Jesus started his ministry? For how many months/years did he preach? And lastly, as the NT tells the stories in sequence, over what period of time do we have the ministry portraied in the Gospels?


    • BDEhrman March 31, 2024 at 8:30 pm

      That’s a perfectly fine translation. The issue is the final word, iin Greek PEIRASMON. It can mean “temptation,” “trial,” “test.” It appears to mean something like a “difficult time where it will be tempting to do the wrong thing to escape harm or suffering in opposition to God and one’s own conviction” (how’s *THAT* for a “definition”?. So the verse coudl be tranlated “Pray that you not enter into temptation.” But I think “temptation” could be misinterpreted pretty easily (“I’m tempted by the chocolate mousse”), so “time of trial” may be the best way to put it.

  11. Old_Agnostic March 28, 2024 at 4:48 pm

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When you say “early Christianity”, how do you/scholars define that? From the day Jesus began his ministry until…. Paul started his? Until Constantine? Until the destruction of the temple? Or when Paul met the apostles and all agreed gentiles didn’t have to become Jews? …

    • BDEhrman April 1, 2024 at 6:47 pm

      Different scholars have different views. Many these days refuse to use the term “Christianity” for the NT period as a whole! For me personally, when I say “early Christianity” I mean from the time Jesus’ followers came to believe he got raised till the emperor Constantine, or possibly up to the fifth century.

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