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The Early Church and the Creedal Affirmation of Paul

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Like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus has been reinvented numerous times by theologians and historians alike, mostly in an effort to provide an explanation for the origin of the Christian movement other than the simplest or most obvious one provided by the testimony of the New Testament scriptures. Contrary to the well known theory of explanatory simplicity proposed by William of Ockham, such reconstructed “Pauls” tend to be based upon numerous assumptions that ultimately complicate the explanation itself and require that the most plausible evidence is rejected.

But, do we have any reason to believe that Paul of Tarsus, the late-coming Apostle of Jesus, was not who he claimed to be, or that the testimony of the New Testament is rife with contradictions in regards to his identity? My argument would be a simple “no,” given that the majority of historical information that is used by anyone even trying to reconstruct the life of Paul comes from the New Testament. In other words, historians, both religious and secular, rely upon the Bible as their primary source of information about the life of the Apostle Paul. To be sure, the New Testament does not provide a comprehensive biographical account of Paul, not because it is in some way incomplete or inadequate, but because it’s primary purpose is not to educate people about Paul, but to provide a testimony of God’s relationship with His people, especially in the culminating events surrounding the life of Jesus. However, many attempt to fill in the gaps in the life of Paul through traditional accounts that mention him, such as the writings of early church fathers like Clement, Eusebius, Gaius, and Bede, and other documents.

One particular non-canonical account of Paul comes from a second-century Coptic document known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This apocryphal story describes Paul’s missionary travels and his relationship with a virgin girl named Thecla, who is miraculously delivered from persecution several times, presumably protected by God in reward for her purity. According to the story, Paul primarily preached on the virtues of chastity, which reflects the asceticism of some of the divergent Christian sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It also includes the earliest physical description of Paul, who is described as short, stocky, bald and having a rather large nose. While there is good reason to reject the theological implications of the Thecla story, on the basis that it heavily contradicts earlier and better attested accounts, such as Paul’s own letters, it could be possible that Paul did in fact look as this document describes him. In other words, like other apocryphal works which likely contain bits of historical truth, they will not necessarily be helpful in creating a more accurate understanding of who Paul was and what he did.

Even factoring in the various apocryphal accounts of Paul, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the character of Paul and his significance to the Christian faith does not dramatically change. Rather, incidental details are added, such as remarks about possible stops he made on his journeys, the circumstances of his death, and the location of his burial which most scholars and theologians would agree have little to no theological relevance. This means that alternative accounts of the identity and legacy of Paul, no matter how ‘reinforced’ by collected historical hints and snippets, are actually peculiar reinterpretations of the existing scriptural record on the basis of various political or religious presuppositions with an aim to discredit Christian orthodoxy.

The most typical conclusion of the many reinterpretations of Paul is that Christian doctrine, and in the most extreme cases the person of Jesus, is the creation of Paul for variously argued political reasons. These types of theories, however, are generally defended on the basis of ad hoc assumptions about the veracity of Paul’s statements in his letters. For example, one popular reconstruction comes from the late British scholar Hyam Maccoby, who alleges that Paul invented Christian doctrine by basing the legend of Jesus on the traditions of existing Pagan mystery religions. He comes to this conclusion by arguing that Paul was not a Pharisee, as he claimed to be, nor even a Jew familiar with Hebrew! Specifically, Maccoby argues that Paul’s statements in Romans 5:10, 5:17, 11:15, and 11:24 would not have been made by a Pharisee because they are not in doctrinal agreement with first century Orthodox Judaism. Of course, this claim is outright laughable since no scholar would argue that Paul is writing to defend the perspectives of a Pharisee- these passages are written in direct opposition to the Jewish messianic scheme. No, the validity of Paul’s identity as a Pharisee has little to do with Paul’s defense of Christ, nor are such passages valid in arguing against it. Actually, Maccoby’s entire theory begins and ends with the same presupposition- that the early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ, nor could such a belief be possible anyway. Therefore he concludes that Paul must have been a liar and a manipulator. This type of circular reasoning is typical in Pauline ‘reconstructions.’

Yet, on the basis of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures for a defense of this), I think that it is quite obvious that Paul is not the subversive figure that some scholars like Maccoby have made him out to be. While Paul is responsible for an enormous portion of the growth of the Christian church, and is without a doubt the most influential apostolic voice in the scriptures, it does not follow that Paul is the creator of Christian doctrine. Neither does his influence as a man merit the great suspicion with which some skeptical scholars approach his writings and the truth of Christianity at large, unless a predisposition towards conspiracy theories is considered valid scholarship.

Having little to hide, Paul freely admits the details of his conversion after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the fact that he was well known as a former persecutor of Christians. Furthermore, Paul seems quite clear that he desired to use the influence he had for the sake of the Gospel, rather than to dictate or manipulate for personal gain. The evidence that his post-conversion life was one of great trials and suffering should speak for itself. Paul, in his letter to the Galatian church, speaks to the fact that though he had encountered the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road, the details of the Gospel were provided to him by the apostles Peter and James, to whom he submitted and checked with in regards to doctrine. In his letter to the Corinthian church, he elaborates:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)”

This information, given to Paul by James and Peter, can be dated to at least 3 years after the death of Jesus, meaning that it preceded the writing of any Gospel and was taught and believed by the early church independent of any document! This again supports the conclusion that the incidentals of Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances were not Pauline inventions, but facts shared and experienced by the entire Christian community and established as oral tradition before Paul’s conversion.

Paul clearly is not writing with the pretense that this information is unique to him. In fact, many of his letters include material that is now recognized as pre-established Christian hymns and creeds (see Rom. 1:3-4;1 Cor. 11:23 ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 2:6_11; Col.1:15-18;1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8; see also John 1:1-18; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 John 4:2). New Testament linguistic scholars have discerned that the quality of the language used in these passages is different from what has been recognized as typical of Paul’s writings, suggesting he did not formulate the verses but was actually referring to them. Also, these passages show a remarkable simplicity in being translated from Paul’s Greek into Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect spoken by Jesus and His followers, suggesting that they originated in this language as part of the pre-Gospels Hebrew/Christian oral tradition. Specifically, the terms ‘delivered,’ and ‘received’ derive from Rabbinic oral tradition, presumably an integral part of the early Christian tradition as well. This is remarkably significant considering the fact that all of these passages clearly affirm the doctrines of the death, resurrection and divinity of Jesus.

Another compelling example comes again from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, which was a Greek-speaking community, in which he uses the Aramaic phrase ‘maranatha,’ which refers to Jesus as ‘God’ (mar)*(see Scott Pruett's comment below) and looks forward to his imminent return (anatha). This inclusion of an Aramaic phrase in addressing a Greek audience indicates that the Corinthians were familiar with the phrase and its religious significance prior to Paul’s writing them, which again shows the importance of the early establishment of an oral tradition prior to the writing of any documents.

Lastly, many critics remark that since Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that we have, it is somewhat incriminating how little biographical information about Jesus they contain. Such skeptics conclude that this is because the information about Jesus contained in the four Gospels was mythological and developed over time. While I think that my above remarks refute this claim satisfactorily, I think it is also important to consider that most of Paul’s writing makes little sense outside of a scheme of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, the communities to whom Paul wrote would not have needed any kind of ‘recap’ on the life of Jesus in these letters, as they were already part of established Christian church communities assembled on the basis of such truths about Jesus!

It was the judgment of the early Christian community that the teaching and words of Paul were not only consistent with the teaching of Christ, but inspired by the Spirit of God. While many scholars are free to reject that particular spiritual conclusion, the cumulative weight of the evidence affirms that Paul sincerely participated in the growth of a church based upon the historical events of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it seems likely that with or without Paul, the Gospel of Jesus would still have been preached.