Paul: A Brief Biography
- See Paul’s firsthand accounts in Galatians 1:11-24 and Philippians 3:4-7. He was a bilingual, educated, Jewish Pharisee who was zealous for his ancestral traditions.
- The book of Acts adds that he had the Semitic name Saul (7:58), was raised in Tarsus (21:39; 22:3), trained under the Pharisee Gamaliel (22:3; cf. 5:33-40), held Roman citizenship (16:37; 22:25-29), and worked as a tent-maker (18:3).
- Paul’s appearance (?): “And he saw Paul coming, a man little of stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace . . .” (Acts of Paul and Thecla 2:3)
- Marital status: see 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 (cf. 9:5)
- Work ethic: see 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 and 1 Corinthians 9:6-18
- Paul went on three major missionary journeys according to the book of Acts.
- Martyrdom: see 1 Clement 5:5-6; Ignatius, Ephesians 12:2; Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 36; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5-8
Paul’s “Conversion” or “Prophetic Call”
- Should the radical transformation of Paul’s life be described as a “religious conversion” or does this assume an anachronistic separation between two religious traditions, “Judaism” and “Christianity,” at a later period? Or does Paul describe his experience as a prophetic calling in which he is commissioned to preach to the nations what the God of Israel accomplished in the Messiah Jesus.
“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism [Ioudaismos]. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.” (Galatians 1:13-24; see also Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-26)
- Should Ioudaismos be translated as a “religion” (“Judaism”) or rather be understood as a specific way of defending Jewish customs in opposition to cultural assimilation (Hellenismos or Hellenistic customs). See the examples in 2 and 4 Maccabees.
- The story of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, and the purification of the great temple, and the dedication of the altar, and further the wars against Antiochus Epiphanes and his son Eupator, and the appearances which came from heaven to those who strove zealously on behalf of Judaism, so that though few in number they seized the whole land and pursued the barbarian hordes, and recovered the temple famous throughout the world and freed the city and restored the laws that were about to be abolished… (2 Macc 2:19-22)
- But Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kinsmen and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand men (2 Macc 8:1)
- For in former times, when there was no mingling with the Gentiles, he had been accused of Judaism, and for Judaism he had with all zeal risked body and life. (2 Macc 14:38)
- … when, then, his [Antiochus’] decrees were despised by the people, he himself, through torture, tried to compel everyone in the nation to eat defiling foods and to renounce Judaism (4 Macc 4:26)
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in [of] Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith[fulness].” (Philippians 3:7-8)
Different Perspectives on Paul
*Note: these are general summaries and there are many different variations under each approach. I have also not discussed other debates such as the “salvation-history” or “apocalyptic” approaches to Pauline theology.
The Old Perspective on Paul (OPP):
- Pauline theology is interpreted in light of Martin Luther’s protest against Catholicism and the Reformation battle cry “sola fide” (by faith alone).
- In Paul’s former life, he practiced Torah to merit divine favour and as a way to boast of his self-righteousness.
- After his “conversion,” Paul became convicted of universal human sinfulness, regardless of whether one is under the Torah (Jews) or apart from it (Gentiles), and the solution is the atoning death of Christ which took on the “curse of the Law” on behalf of the rest of humankind.
- Humans are made righteous or justified by “faith in Christ” and given the “righteousness of God” in exchange for their sinful nature. The Spirit transforms one into a “new creation” and guarantees future salvation.
- Scholars who advocate the OPP have softened the depiction of “Second Temple Judaism” as a legalistic system of works-righteousness, allowing that it may be a system of variegated nomism in which grace and deeds factor in, but most see the plight as divine wrath against sin and solution in the justifying faith in Christ.
- Some key scholars: Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Kaseman, Donald Carson, Mark A. Seifrid, Peter Stuhlmacher, Donald Hagner, Robert Gundry, Seyoon Kim, Douglas J. Moo, Thomas Schreiner, Stephen Westerholm, Simon Gathercole, Francis Watson
The New Perspective (NPP)
- Unlike Luther’s worries over how to be accepted by a holy God, Paul did not struggle with an introspective conscience and describes his life under Torah as “blameless” (cf. Stendahl).
- E. P. Sanders described the “pattern of religion” in Second Temple Judaism as “covenantal nomism.” Torah observance was the appropriate response to God’s gracious election of Israel; it was not a means of “getting in” but “staying in” as a member of the covenant. Those who flagrantly disobey Torah show themselves to have rejected the covenant, but repentance or cultic atonement was an available means of restoration. A criticism is whether there was a monolithic “pattern of religion” and whether these categories are Protestant influenced, leading to nuanced discussion about election, covenant, and nomism among Second Temple groups.
- Paul’s criticism was not against works-righteousness apart from grace. “Works of the Law” represent a particular Jewish mode of life, but Paul aims his critique at the areas that exclude Gentiles from the covenant and focuses on “boundary markers” that separated Jews from the nations (e.g., circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath). Paul attacks “ethnocentrism” and defends a universalistic vision in which the “righteousness of God” or God’s faithfulness to his plan for blessing to go out from Israel to the world.
- In reasoning why the nations can be adopted into Abraham’s family apart from practicing Torah as the sign of covenant membership, Paul argues that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin and in need of the saving effects of Christ’s death and resurrection. All Christ followers are justified – either made righteous or declared to be in the right in the divine court (cf. Wright) – by “faith in Christ” or through “Christ’s faithfulness.”
- The universal family “in Christ” is no longer obligated to obey Torah, though Paul has a similar pattern of election followed by faithfulness to the law of Christ or fruits of the Spirit that fulfill the commandments, and Paul allows for diversity of social practice among Jewish and non-Jewish Christ followers.
- Some key scholars: Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, N. T. Wright, Heikki Räisänen, Richard Hays, Frank Thielman, Don Garlington, Daniel Boyarin, Terence L. Donaldson
The Radical New Perspective (RNP) or “Paul within Judaism”
- Assumes the NPP view of covenantal nomism as a basic framework and Paul’s overriding concern with how the nations can become co-heirs of salvation with the covenant people (Israel) as the starting point.
- Paul remained a faithful Torah-observant Jew and never encouraged his fellow Jews to abandon Torah.
- His letters are addressed exclusively to non-Jewish readers and his polemic against “works of the Law” is solely against those who force non-Jews to become proselytes to “Judaism.” Paul believes that the new eschatological age has arrived and that the Scriptures speak of nations streaming into Zion in the last days without the requirement to become Jews (“to Judaize”).
- For some scholars, the only major difference in this approach is that Paul continued to value Torah observance for Jews, even though he expected Jews and Gentiles to embrace Jesus as Messiah. Other scholars insist on a “two covenant” approach in which faith in the atoning effects of Christ’s death is only necessary for Gentiles as Jews are already “in” the Sinai covenant and inherit salvation through it (i.e. election, Torah, and the cultic means of atonement).
- Some key scholars: John Gager, Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, Mark Nanos, Paula Fredriksen, Pamela Eisenbaum, Caroline Hodge, Neil Elliott, Magnus Zetterholm, Kathy Ehrensperger, Matthew Theissen
Paul as a Writer of Letters:
- Format: Salutation/Opening, Thanksgiving/Prayer Report, Body (scriptural interpretation and paraenesis), and Closing/Benediction.
- The Epistles were written for a specific purpose. For example:
- 1 and 2 Thessalonians tempers eschatological enthusiasm.
- Galatians confronts Gentile “Judaizers” in the congregation of Galatia.
- 1 and 2 Corinthians span multiple letters dealing with the conduct of the Corinthian congregation.
- Romans systematically outlines Paul’s “gospel” for a congregation in Rome that he had not founded and hopes for support for his mission to Spain.
- Philippians is a joyful letter written to a congregation that has supported Paul during his imprisonment in either Ephesus or Rome (cf. the prison epistles of Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians).
- The epistle to Philemon mediates on behalf of the run-away slave Onesimus.
Useful Online Resources: