1. General Remarks on the Study of the Life and Thought of Paul


The academic discipline of "Pauline Studies" aims to reconstruct the life and thought of Paul, as fully possible, given the limitations of the sources. Thus the intention is to produce a biographical sketch of Paul's life, including Paul as a letter writer, and an outline of Paulís theology. That Paul set himself the task of teaching his converts is obvious and from several explicit statements to this effect (Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 2:5; 3:6). Likewise, Paul transmits received traditions to his churches (1 Cor 11.2, 23; 15.1, 3; Gal 1.12). (He insists, however, that he received his "good news" from "a revelation of Jesus Christ" [Gal 1:12].)


It should be stressed that to understand simply the "outside" or the externals of Paul's life is not particularly illuminating; what is by far more important is to understand why he did what he did, Paulís intentions, the ďinsideĒ of his life.(1) But Paulís intentions are really a function of his theology. A person usually acts intentionally in accordance with what he or she believes to be true, especially in light of his or her ultimate beliefs. So to understand Paulís theology is integral to understanding truly the externals of Paulís life.

2. Sources and Method


2.1. Sources


To do what is proposed above requires the use of sources; without sources one could know nothing about Paul's life or thought. One must distinguish between primary and secondary sources, and among the primary sources, indirect and direct sources must be differentiated.


A direct primary source is one that is immediately relevant to a reconstruction of the life and/or thought of Paul; in other words, it serves as a source for data that we are to organize as answers to the questions that we shall pose. Such sources are for the most part to be found in the New Testament: the Book of Acts and Paul's letters.


Many scholars question the authenticity of some of the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament. The most extreme case of this occurred in Germany in the nineteenth century. F. C. Baur of Tübingen, who was very influential in his time and even founded what came to be known as the Tübinger Schule (Tübingen School), held that only four letters were authentic: Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, the so-called Hauptbriefe (main letters). Even though they avoid such an extreme as represented by Baur, many scholars nonetheless do not consider of all the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament as actually written by Paul. Many would exclude the Pastoral Letters from the Pauline corpus, and some would even consider 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians as deutero-Pauline. There is insufficient evidence, however, to conclude that some of the letters purporting to be written by Paul are pseudonymous. It should also be noted that many scholars discard the Book of Acts, either wholly or in part, as a reliable source for reconstructing Paul's life and thought; such assume that Luke's portrayal of the life of Paul and his record of what Paul said (including his long speeches) are tendentious and unhistorical.(2) This topic will be discussed in more detail later; for the present, suffice it to say that it can be shown that Luke is as a historically reliable source as any ancient historian, in spite of his Christian bias. The real issue is his presuppositions, not his historical accuracy.


The one who seeks to reconstruct Paul's theology must be aware at the outset that Paul's letters are instances of occasional literature, meaning that Paul wrote them for specific occasions. As far as anyone knows, Paul never set down his beliefs in a single work simply for the sake of setting down his beliefs; the Book of Romans comes close to this, but even this letter is occasional. This means that there are certain limitations that Paul's letters will have as direct primary sources. First, Paul usually did not write for the unspecified reader, but for a well-defined audience; thus often Paul presupposed knowledge on the part of his readership, to which we do not have access. Second, Paul dealt with topics in his letters that he believed needed to be raised; what he did not think that he needed to discuss he did not, although he may have spoken on such topics extensively. Thus, we should not commit the fallacy of assuming that Paul's letter are a full representation of everything that Paul believed and taught. For example, if the Corinthians were not having problems with speaking in tongues in their gatherings, Paul would never have written 1 Cor 14 and we would not know about Paul's views on the matter and his own practices; if we would never have known that Paul himself spoke in tongues (1 Cor 14:18). Third, the letters in the New Testament canon are not all the letters that Paul wrote. We know of three letters that are no longer extant (Col 4:16 refers to a letter to the church in Laodocia; 1 Cor 5:9 refers to a letter Paul wrote before 1 Corinthians; 2 Cor 2:4 refers to a letter written between 1 & 2 Corinthians and after Paul's painful visit). It is conceivable that Paul wrote other letters about which we know nothing, and could have said some important things in these letters. Therefore there are potentially gaps in our knowledge of Paul's thought when we must restrict ourselves to his extant letters. Because of the limitations of Paul's letters as sources, the exegete must be willing to give Paul the letter writer some latitude and be willing to fill in some theological gaps for him. (There are a few references to the life and thought of Paul in the church fathers, but these are few and because of the temporal gap between their composition and Paul's ministry may not be reliable; these may be admitted as tentative primary sources.)


An indirect primary source, on the other hand, is one that provides mediately relevant data on the life and thought of Paul; in other words, it provides information that functions as background material to some aspect of a reconstructive work. It is helpful to be able to understand Paulís life and thought in historical context; without a knowledge of historical context, at best one's understanding will be truncated and at worst distorted. Paulís theology primarily must be understood in the context of Palestinian Jewish religious-history. Although this is disputed by some, it is probable that Paul theologized as a converted Pharisee, not as a Hellenized Jew.


Secondary sources are works written about Paul by other people who are attempting to do what we are attempting to do: to reconstruct the life and thought of Paul. These are helpful in that, by recourse to the data drawn from the primary sources, they attempt to answer the same questions.  Moreover, sometimes secondary sources help in identifying data from the primary sources hitherto overlooked. Secondary sources are even useful for raising questions for research not yet considered.

2.2. Method


The method adopted in this course will be to ask a series of questions and seek to answer them by finding relevant data from our primary sources, both direct and indirect. Collectively the answers to these question represent what can be known about Paul's life and thought, assuming that all possible questions have been asked. In adopting this method one is, in fact, imposing one's own organizational scheme on the primary sources: the data are pressed into becoming part of an answer to a question. In addition, in approaching the reconstruction of Paul's thought in this manner, one rejects the common approach of looking for a center to Paul's thought and then organizing everything else around that center (proposals for a center of Pauline thought have included "justification by faith" [Bultmann Käsemann], participation in Christ or a Christ-mysticism [E.P. Sanders; A. Schweizer].) To search for a center to Paul's thought runs the risk of reducing the importance of what is deemed non-central or even supressing it altogether.


This question-answer method explained above has two weaknesses. First, with respect to a reconstruction of Paul's thought, one runs the risk of asking a question that Paul possibly would not have considered to be important and conversely one may not ask a question that Paul would have considered important. In other words, by imposing an organizational scheme on the primary sources, one runs the risk of distorting historical reality. The solution to this problem would be to have Paul compose a set of questions for scholars to answer, but, unfortunately, this is not possible. The questions that one asks ideally should correspond to the questions that Paul would have considered important, the answering of which would give an outline of his theology. A possible criterion for determining whether a question was important for Paul is the amount of potentially relevant data found in his letters with which one may answer the question. But, owing to the occasional nature of his letters, one cannot be certain that the proposed criterion will always prevent historical distortion, for it is quite conceivable that the questions answered by Paul in the letters do not always correspond to what Paul considered important. Rather, Paul was answering the questions of the intended recipients of the letter (actual or as conceived by Paul); such questions often set the agenda for Paul in his letter writing. It is even possible that questions that Paul considered important were never answered in his letters, because he did not consider it necessary or desirable to answer these in his letters. Second, one may ask a question that never occurred to Paul, in which case one finds oneself in the strange situation of reconstructing what Paul might have said if he had been aware of the question. In order to guard against this, one must be careful to find sufficient evidence in the sources that Paul did ask the question proposed to be answered. There really is no viable alternative to the method that is proposed here; one must simply use it and attempt to avoid the dangers.


3. Methodological Errors to Avoid


Over the years, scholars have proposed and followed several methodological approaches to the study of Pauline theology that have led to historical distortion. The following are some of the more common faulty methodologies.


3.1.  Paul as Hellenist


It is sometimes assumed that Paul, originally a citizen of Tarsus, was thoroughly Hellenized in his theological orientation, and stood in stark contrast to the non-Hellenized (or less-Hellenized) forms of Palestinian Judaism. As the apostle to the gentiles, therefore, Paul continued the process of the translation of  the "kerygma" of the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Christians into categories familiar to the Hellenistic world. This has led scholars to interpret the contents Paul's letters against a Hellenistic background, and look for the alleged sources used by Paul in his "translation" of the original proclamation. For example, Stoic ethical ideas have been detected in Paul's various ethical exhortations or in his interpretation of the suffering of the righteous.(3) The interpretation of Jesus' death as vicarious and expiatory likewise is traced to the Hellenistic idea of the "effective" death of the righteous as is the origin and nature of the baptism and the Lord's Supper.(4) R. Bultmann is the best known advocate of Paul as the one who clarified the theology of Hellenistic Christianity.(5) He assumes that Paul had access to Gnostic ideas and concepts associated with the mystery religions, which he freely appropriated and reformulated. Along the same lines, H. J. Schoeps argues that Paul's polemic against the Law is really directed at the Hellenistic Judaism with which Paul was acquainted, a debased form of Judaism, and really did not touch the more biblical forms of Palestinian Judaism.(6)


Apart from the thorny question of the extent to which Hellenism had influenced Palestinian Judaism by  the first century, it is clear that that there were significant differences between the theology of Palestinian Judaism and that of Hellenistic Judaism (represented by Philo of Alexandria, for example). It is clear that Pauline theology must be interpreted in the context of Palestinian Judaism.(7) (Even Schoeps believes that priority should be given to rabbinic Judaism as a background to interpreting Paul's theology.)(8) Before his conversion, Paul was a Pharisee (Phil 3:5; see Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5), and remained first and foremost theologically Jewish even after his conversion. (Paul's view of Hellenistic philosophical tradition is summed up in 1 Cor 1:22-23: "For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.") The fact that Paul was a Pharisee and studied in Jerusalem under the Pharisaic teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) requires that one assume, until proven otherwise, that the conceptual background of Pauline theology is Palestinian Judaism. Attempts at interpreting Paul exclusively or primarily against a Hellenistic background are fundamentally misguided and will produce distortion. With perhaps a few exceptions, the influence of Hellenism on Paul's theology is minor, usually ad hoc formulations resulting from disputes with opponents who had introduced Hellenistic views into the church or theological formulations assumed by Paul from the early church. Only when one cannot make sense of Paul's letters in light of Palestinian Judaism can one legitimately look for Hellenistic influences. Thus J. Christiaan Beker is on the right track when he argues that Jewish apocalypticism forms the unifying framework of Pauline theology.(9) It also must be added that one should not assume that all of Paul's theology is "borrowed" from one or more religious-historical background. Rather, one must allow for original elements in Paul's theological understanding.


3.2.  Sachkritik (Content-Criticism)


It was common among existentialist interpreters of Paul of a few decades ago to differentiate between what Paul really was trying to say and the forms or intellectual tools which he was ineffectively using to communicate those ideas. This methodology is known as Sachkritik, the critique of the contents (of texts), and assumes that the modern interpreter is more intellectually developed than an ancient author, to the point where he or she may correct and supplement the literary efforts of the latter. Existentialist exegetes tended to see Pauline theology as anthropology: every "objectifying" statement about God, the world, the end of human history, etc. actually intends to say something about the individual and his or her self-understanding. (This is the basis of the Bultmann's program of demythologizing.) Thus, when Paul speaks objectifyingly, what he says must be translated into existentialist terms, as statements about the individual and his or her existence. This approach led to some heavy-handed treatment of Paul's theological assertions, on the assumption that the modern exegete could think Paul's thoughts better than he could. Sachkritik, however, is not necessarily the exclusive domain of existentialist interpreters, because any system of thought may be imposed upon the data on the assumption that the interpreter knows better than Paul himself what he was trying to communicate. It is incumbent on the interpreter to allow ancient texts to speak for themselves. Even if the exegete believes that the ideas contained in these texts are antiquated or simply does not agree with them, it is methodologically inappropriate to claim to know what the author really wanted to say.


3.3.  Paul's Backward Argumentation


In recent years, scholars have suggested that Paul's theology, and especially his polemic against the Law, is mere rationalization of views that he held for other reasons. This is the so-called "new perspective on Paul." E. P. Sanders argues that Paul's discussion of the weakness and failure of the Law is simply his attempt to create a problem for which Christ is to be the solution.(10) Apart from his dogmatic acceptance of Christ as the means of being declared righteous , Paul would have had no reason to criticize Palestinian Judaism and especially its covenantal nomism. In other words, there was nothing wrong with Judaism, since it was not, as commonly thought, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness; its only fault was that it was not Christianity. The result of this backward argumentation is Paul's allegedly convoluted and unconvincing arguments that the Law is not a means of being declared righteous. While it is probable that, after his conversion, Paul re-evaluated his Pharisaic theology, it is improper to say, however, that Paul's arguments are nothing more than rationalizations for pre-existing beliefs. Unless there is incontrovertible evidence to the contrary (which, in the case of Paul, there is not), one should assume that an author is arguing in good faith, that he really believes what he is saying. Paul's criticism of his former Pharisaic beliefs should be taken at face value, which means that one should assume that Paul believed that early Judaism was, in part, characterized by legalistic works-righteousness.


Another species of backward argumentation is what could be termed sociological reductionism, which characterizes the "new perspective": the use of theological language to express what is essentially a sociological matter, so that theological expression is epiphenomenal of sociological reality. In other words, Paul's theological language is used to address what is essentially the problem of social conflict in the early church. The explanation of Paul's view on the works of the Law in terms of desire to incorporate gentiles into the church on an equal basis to that of Jews is a current example of sociological reductionism.(11) On this hypothesis, Paul's real objective in all his writing about being declared righteous and the Law was merely to insist that gentile believers were socially equal to Jewish believers.

3.4.  The Coherent Center and the Contextual Expression


J. Christiaan Beker proposes that the exegete must distinguish between the coherent center of Paul's thought, which he considers to be apocalypticism, and its contingent expression.(12) The coherent center is stable and uncompromisable, representing a foundational interpretation of a primordial experience (Paul's conversion). When it is threatened, Paul defends this coherent center without yielding an inch to his opponents. Nevertheless, according to Beker, one cannot take all of Paul's theological pronouncements as a deposit of faith, a timeless and universal system of truth. This is because Paul interpreted this coherent center in different ways in different circumstances. Thus, his letters have a contingent and occasional character that cannot be overlooked in their interpretation, so that it may be possible to find in Paul's letters different contextual expressions that appear to be contradictory. While it is true that they are not academic treatises, Paul's letters, however, do represent his abiding views on various topics. The contingency of the letters consists in which issues are addressed not in the actual contents. Beker wrongly holds that the theological content of the letters are tied to their contingency. This bifurcation of Paul's theological expression into "coherent center" and "contingent expression" unwisely allows the exegete to dismiss certain aspects of Paul's thought as not truly reflecting Paul's views.


Attempting to improve on Beker's method, T. Donaldson proposes that the Pauline scholar should differentiate between Paul's "convictional core, theological explication and contingent hermeneutic."(13) According to this approach, methodologically one must assume that Paul has certain basic convictions that remain the unchanging foundation of everything that he writes. Basic convictions are self-evident truths to the one who holds them and require no demonstration (38). These convictions are linked together in "a convictional pattern or system," which Donaldson, borrowing from structuralism, calls Paul's "semantic universe" (39). The center of this convictional system relates to traditional Jewish apocalyptic expectation, modified by the belief that the expected triumph of God has been inaugurated in the cross and resurrection of Jesus" (37). Again, making use of structuralistic terminology, Donaldson calls Paul's convictional core the "deep structure" of his letters (38). On the other extreme stands Paul's statements in his letters designed to address a contingent situation in one or more of his churches; such statements serve a rhetorical function and may not reflect Paul's convictional core at all. There is, however, a third structural level to be noted in Paul's letters, situated between the convictional core and the rhetorical surface. Between the two extremes is Paul's "developing and unfinished body of theological explication" (38). Donaldson distinguishes between convictions and ideas; unlike the former, which are taken to be self-evident, the latter are propositions that are dependent upon demonstration for their validity. In other words, basic convictions are distinguished from the pattern of thought built upon those basic convictions as their premises. He explains, "What we were accustomed to call Paul's theology, then, is to be seen as a dynamic process taking place in the space between his structured set of convictions on the one hand, and his contextual ministry on the other" (43). As a theologian, Paul attempts to draw out the implications of his basic convictions; this was an on-going process and should not be mistaken for his unchanging convictional core. According to this approach, it is possible that different convictions could lead to contradictory theological statements. It would seem that Donaldson's proposal allows the interpreter of Paul's letter too much freedom to discard what Paul writes are merely rhetorical or merely tentative and unfinished theological explication of the convictional core. Moreover, such a tripartite distinction among Paul's propositions in his letters allows for the possibility of rejecting the arguments put forward by Paul as not the true reason for holding a particular view. Donaldson claims that sometimes Paul uses tortured and therefore unconvincing logic in defense of a conviction. This could (and does) further lead to discarding the argument altogether and looking only to the conviction as what Paul really believes. For example, as E. P. Sanders holds, Paul's statements about the Law not being the means of salvation could be taken to express the core conviction that Christ is the means of salvation, in which case, one should not take too seriously Paul's arguments for the failure of the Law. But, contrary to Donaldson, it is methodologically preferrable to take all of Paul's propositions as expressive of his theological views.


As already indicated, related to Beker and Donaldson's methodology for the study of Paul's letters is the modern preoccupation with the Rhetorical Criticism as applied to Paul's letters. This methodology seeks to uncover the conventions of persuasion that Paul uses in his letters. The result is that what Paul wrote cannot be taken as a timeless statement of his dogmatic belief; rather Paul's rhetorical purposes must to taken into consideration.(14) This means that the possibility that Paul exaggerates, makes misleading statements and even misrepresents the views of his opponents must be taken into consideration. While there is certainly a place for understanding the rhetorical devices and conventions used in Paul's letter, one should not assume that Paul merely wrote in order to persuade his hearers / readers to adopt certain forms of behavior or attitudes. Rather one should assume that Paul wrote with integrity and, taking the context into consideration, one can isolate the theological views that come to expression in his letters.


3.5. Development in Paul's Thought


As a means of explaining alleged contradictory elements in Paul's writings, exegetes sometimes hypothesize that Paul's theological views evolved, so that his letters reflect different stages of that evolution. For example, some have explained the apparent discrepancies between Paul's teaching on the Law in Galatians and Romans by positing that between the time period represented by the two letters that Paul's views on the Law underwent change.(15) Similarly, L. Cerfaux argues that there was a threefold evolution in Paul's thought; he structures his exposition of Paul's theology on these three phases of Paul's theological development.(16) He writes, "A ces trois livres correspondent trois phases dans la théologie paulinienne. Le centre de gravité de la pensée déplace, passant de l'avenir eschatologique aux biens du salut déjà présents. A sa dernière phase, la pensée s'approfondit dans la contemplation de l'oeuvre du salut" (140). The most primitive message of Paul was purely eschatological, and is represented by the two letters to the Thessalonians. The second stage in Paul's theological development saw Paul's use of Greek philosophical concepts to deal with the wisdom-loving Corinthians and his polemic against his Judaizing opponents, as found in Galatians and Romans, which caused him to interpret the significance of Christ's death and resurrection and Christian salvation in new, unprecedented ways. Finally, in his prison letters, Paul progresses to speak of salvation purely as a present reality as a mystery now revealed. It must be pointed out, however, that Paul did not start writing letters (or at least his extant letters) until after his so-called first missionary journey, which would place it some fourteen years or so after his conversion. (Actually, for Cefaux, Paul's first letter was 1 Thessalonians, to be dated during his second missionary journey.) Thus, if there was any development in Paul's theology, it probably occurred long before he began writing letters. It seems improbable that Paul would be revising his theological views so long after his conversion and after years of preaching more a "primitive" message. In fact, Paul speaks about presenting his "gospel" before "those who seemed to be important' (hoi dokousin) in Jerusalem in order to receive their approval of what he had been preaching in Tarsus and then in Antioch (Gal 2:2-3); likely, his theological development was more or less complete at this point in his apostolic ministry. Therefore, the differences of content and emphasis in his letters should not be interpreted as signifying development in his theology, but are tied to the circumstances of his readers. For example, just because he speaks about Christ's return almost exclusively in 1 and 2 Thessalonians does not mean that Paul did not give the Thessalonians other teachings similar to those found in other of his letters; rather, what he did write in his Thessalonian correspondence is what they needed to hear at that time. (It should also be pointed out that, if his Letter to the Galatians is Paul's first extant letter, which is probable, then Cerfaux's hypothesis of a threefold theological development must be abandoned.)(17)





(1) See R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946).

(2) See the commentaries on the Book of Acts by E. Haenchen and H. Conzelmann.

(3) See J. T. Fitzgerald, Cracks in an Earthen Vessel (SBLDS 99; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

(4) S. K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event. The Background and Origin of a Concept (HDR 2; Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975); D. Seeley, The Noble Death: Graeco-Roman Martyrology and Paul’s Concept of Salvation (JSNTSup28; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990).

(5) R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (2 vols.; New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1951, 1955).

(6) H. J. Schoeps, Paul. The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961).

(7) See W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980); E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

(8) Schoeps, Paul. The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, 40.

(9) J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle. The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980). Before Beker, see A. Schweizer for a stress on the apocalyptic element in Pauline theology (St. Paul and His Interpreters).

(10) Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. For other examples of the use of the backward argumentation method of explanation see H. Räisänen, Paul and the Law (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986); K. Kuula, The Law, the Covenant and God’s Plan, vol. 1, Paul’s Polemical Treatment of the Law in Galatians (PFES 72; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999).

(11) See E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); F. Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (SNTSMS 56; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); J. Dunn, The Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); J. Barclay, Obeying the Truth: A Study of Paul’s Ethics in Galatians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988).

(12) Beker, Paul the Apostle.

(13) Paul and the Gentiles. Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) 29-49.

(14) See L. Thurén, Derhetorizing Paul. A Dynamic Perspective on Pauline Theology and the Law (WUNT 124; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2000).

(15) See J. Drane, Paul Libertine or Legalist? (London: SPCK, 1975); H. Hübner, Law in Paul’s Thought [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1984]; U. Wilckens, "Zur Entwicklung des paulinischen Gesetzverständnis," NTS 28 (1982) 154-90.

(16) L. Cerfaux, Le chrétien dans la théologie paulinienne (LD 33; Paris: Cerf, 1962).

(17) See the discussion in James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 19-23.


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