Tag Archives: Paul

Paul: A Biography – Review

Paul A BiographyOne of my favourite writers on early Christianity is N.T. Wright. I have read many of his books and when I was asked what I wanted for my birthday, I knew it was Paul: A Biography.

Wright has written many books on Paul but this one is unique. In some ways it is a bridge between his academic and popular level work. It is not a theology of Paul or a commentary on his letters, although it contains elements of both. As the title suggests, it is a biography of Paul.

Some New Testament scholars may not like his blending of information from Paul’s letters and Luke’s Acts. The trend is to take Paul’s seven “authentic” letters seriously, discounting the other letters and Acts.

However, Wright is writing a biography and any biographer would take into account all of the available information and that is what he does with Paul. If we were dealing with any other ancient figure (other than Jesus), no one would question this approach.

Those interested in Paul will love this book. Wright gives an overview of Paul’s life based on Acts and then inserts information from the letters and the context of those letters where appropriate. This is an essential resource for anyone interested in early Christianity.

The best thing about this book is that is not just for New Testament scholars. It is written in a readable style that the layperson will enjoy and understand. Yes, Wright pulls in from his considerable scholarship but it is not overwhelming.

Paul: A Biography is book that I intend to go back to again and again.

Paul in Acts – Review

Paul in ActsOne of the most important figures for understanding the early church is the Apostle Paul. However, when it comes to studying Paul, we have two different sources to examine. There are Paul’s letters and Luke’s account of his ministry in Acts.

While most scholars do not struggle with using the epistles (or at least the seven “genuine” letters), there is some controversy about how to use Acts.

Do the accounts of Paul in Acts tell us anything about Paul or only about Luke and the church he was part of? Some scholars reject Acts as having any historical value.

An excellent resource for sorting through these questions is Paul in Acts by Stanley Porter. Porter addressed all of the big issues, including the “we” passages and the compatibility of Acts with the epistles.

Porter is not an apologist who seeks to defend the reliability of Acts for the sake of a strict doctrine of inerrancy. Porter is a respected New Testament scholar who sorts through the evidences and yet comes up with a positive view of Acts.

While acknowledging differences between Acts and Paul, Porter demonstrates that they are very compatible and that Acts is a valuable historical resource for understanding Paul.

I highly recommend Paul in Acts.

Was Peter the First Pope?

My intention is not to make a theological critique of Peter as pope but rather a historical one. Having said that, I am a protestant Christian and so I do have some theological opinions on the matter. I am just putting my bias on the table.

Roman Catholics and protestants debate the meaning of Matthew 16:18.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

PeterI actually do not see the question of whether the rock is Peter or the confession he gave in the preceding verses as being relevant to the question at hand.

Even if Peter the individual was the rock on which Jesus would build his church, that does not mean that Peter was the first of many popes.

Of course, there was nothing like the modern idea of a pope then or for many years after this. The most we could discuss would be if Peter was the first bishop of Rome, as that is what a pope really is, the bishop of Rome.

I believe there are good traditions placing both Peter and Paul in Rome at some point and that they were both martyred in that city. But was Peter considered to be the bishop of Rome? No doubt, Peter was considered a man of authority, being one of the pillars of the church (along with James and John). See my podcast episode on the Pillars.

But that does not mean that Peter was the bishop of Rome. That type of idea does not appear to some time later. We start to see this thought developing with Irenaeus. Two passages are relevant.

[T]he very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. …

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate.

You can read these passages in context here.

When it comes to Irenaeus’s claim that Paul and Peter founded the church at Rome, he is simply wrong. It is clear at the end of Acts, when Paul arrives in Rome that there is already a Christian community. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet visited Rome. Nor is there any indication that Peter was already there.

Most scholars believe that the Roman church began when Jewish visitors from Rome became followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2). They brought back their faith and the Roman church began as predominantly Jewish, only later adding a Gentile component.

What role Peter had at Rome cannot be said. There may have been someone in the role of a bishop before he got there. There is no contemporary evidence that Peter was a bishop. His role as an apostle, which generally was based on the itinerant model rather than the settled bishop model, may have been enough.

Did Peter and Paul appoint Linus as bishop of Rome? Perhaps. We cannot know. But there is no contemporary or even near-contemporary evidence that special authority was being passed on from Peter to Linus. Surely Peter had appointed many leaders over his ministry. Why would Linus have a special role?

This is not meant to be an attack on the papal system. But we should be aware that the concept of Peter as the first pope is a theological statement and not one based on good historical evidence. People are welcome to accept this on faith if they so choose.

Were Paul and James Enemies?

PaulIt has been common from time to time to suggest a strong conflict between James and Paul in the early church. This was especially true during the time of Adolf von Harnack, who relying Hegelian philosophy, saw Judaism as the thesis (represented by James) and Hellenism as the antithesis (represented by Paul), resulting in a synthesis.

Even without borrowing from Hegel, there are some hints of conflict. It is true that James and Paul were both important figures. James was the half-brother of Jesus and was the head of the Jerusalem church. Paul was a powerful church planter and theologian who left his stamp on the Gentile church, which would ultimately become the majority of the church.

Paul did have conflict with some Jewish Christians. Despite what the Jerusalem council concluded, there were still some Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles convert to Judaism before becoming followers of Jesus.

It is also true that James and Paul had different emphases. Paul’s purpose was to bring as many Gentiles into the church as possible. James’ goal was to hold together both the growing Gentile element and the traditional Jewish core. A modern example would be the goals of a denominational leader and a missionary in another country. They would pursue their roles differently, even though they both wanted people to become followers of Jesus.

Some point to how Paul uses the example of Abraham in Galatians/Romans to demonstrate faith without works while James uses the same passage to demonstrate faith with works. Is this James attempting to contradict Paul? When we look closer, we see that Paul and James are talking about two different things. Paul is speaking about salvation, while James is talking about the nature of the Christian life.

What would it look like if Paul and James met? We don’t have to guess. Paul describes such a meeting.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him, and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you! Afterward I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. But I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They were only hearing, “The one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.” So they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:18-24)

Did Paul and James always see eye-to-eye? Probably not. They were human after all. But to see them as enemies or as proclaiming contradictory and conflicting forms of Christianity is an overstatement.

Did the Apostle Paul Reject Philosophy?

PhilosophyThe early church was born into a fertile garden of philosophy. Platonists, Epicureans, Stoics and Cynics were active far beyond the area that we think of today as Greece.

But what is the relationship between Christianity and philosophy? Specifically, did Paul, who was so influential in the development of Christian theology, reject philosophy? Some Christians think so.

Paul writes in one place: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, NIV)

This is not a criticism of all philosophy but “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” Such a criticism would be agreed upon by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Paul was not arguing that all philosophy is hollow and deceptive, but that which is, is dangerous.

Elsewhere we read:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Could Paul be saying here that the wisdom of the philosophers was meaningless and that he only proclaimed the gospel through signs and wonders?

The problem is that Paul uses philosophical arguments on a regular basis. For example, Paul attempts to demonstrate in 1 Corinthians 15 that there will be a final resurrection of the dead. He uses a basic logical argument:

  1. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus never rose from the dead.
  2. Jesus did rise from the dead.
  3. Therefore, there will be a resurrection of the dead.

We can debate as to whether we think Paul’s argument is convincing, but he was doing philosophy.

So what kind of philosophy was Paul critical of?

I suspect that Paul was critical of the same kind of philosophy that Socrates and Plato were critical of. I speak of Sophistry. What is Sophistry? In a helpful article in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy we find these concerns:

[T]hey were regarded as socially and morally subversive, especially by those of conservative views. Suspicion focused both on their naturalistic outlook, especially in its application to morality and theology, and on their teaching of techniques of argument, which could be seen as encouraging those who acquired them, especially the young, to subvert sound morality and hallowed tradition by clever cavilling. (p. 884)

The Sophists were known to be more interested in persuasion than truth. They argued not from a place of moral conviction but boasted of being able to convince a person of anything, true or not. It is likely something like this that Paul is arguing against in 1 Corinthians.

Paul lived and operated in a philosophical world and he used those tools as he deemed suitable.

5 Books on the New Testament That I Recommend

BookAlthough I love history, my formal training is in the area of the New Testament. I have come across some very helpful books over the years and I thought I would share what I think are the top five. Please note that I’m an Amazon affiliate and if you purchase any of these, you are supporting my work here.

What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (The Biblical Resource Series)

Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message

Paul and the Faithfulness of God

One of my favourite New Testament scholars is N.T. Wright. He is an incredible historian who brings a fresh reading to the text through a close examination of the context. In this video, Wright is interviewed by Michael Bird (another NT scholar I respect). They discuss Wright’s book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If you are interested in learning more about Paul, you might find this video helpful.

Did the Apostle Paul Create Christianity?

Apostle PaulA lot of people, Christian or not, have great respect for Jesus. He may be seen as a great ethical and religious teacher. He may even be considered a prophet of some kind.

Some of those who have respect for Jesus, have much less respect for Christianity. They like Jesus but dislike some of the theological assertions of organized Christianity.

Where did the church go wrong? For some the answer is clear: Paul.

I have read criticisms by Muslims who have suggested that Christianity veered off from the teachings of Jesus because of Paul’s innovations. I have read similar things by some Jewish writers who wish to reclaim Jesus for Judaism.

It is a valid historical questions to ask whether Christianity as it is now finds its origin in Jesus or Paul.

One of the challenges in answering this question is the dating of our sources. It is likely that Paul’s letters predate our written Gospels. How can we tell if Paul changed anything if his writings are the earliest that we have?

I would say that the burden of proof is on those who insist that Paul changed the teachings of Jesus and introduced new ideas. Having said that, I believe that the weight of the evidence is on Paul being consistent, if not with Jesus, than at least with the earliest Christian teachings.

For example, some of the distinctives of Christianity include the resurrection of Jesus and divinity of Jesus. These are found throughout Paul. But did Paul come up with these ideas?

Paul seems to cite in 1 Corinthians 15 an earlier creed about Jesus’ resurrection. There is evidence that the clearest statements about the divinity of Jesus in Colossians and Philippians are earlier creeds that Paul adopts.

Paul also addresses the question of whether he had a different gospel in what is likely his earliest letter:

But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people)—those influential leaders added nothing to my message. On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do. (Galatians 2:6-10)

Of course, this could be Paul trying to cover up his involvement in changing Christianity. But we would need positive evidence for that before dismissing what he says in Galatians.

What about the conflict that Paul seemed to have with some Jewish Christians?

It is true that Paul did have some issues with some Christians from a Jewish background. But that conflict was not about what we would consider the key doctrines of Christianity. The question was about the process by which Gentiles would become followers of Jesus. Were the Gentiles required to convert to Judaism first or were they able to directly follow Jesus? It is interesting that Luke reports that it was not through Paul, but rather Peter that the Gentiles first were able to directly follow Jesus (Acts 10).

Was Paul influential in developing Christian doctrine? Absolutely. Much of what Jesus taught was aimed specifically at a Jewish audience. There were many topics that Jesus gave no clear teaching on how things worked in the kingdom of God. Paul took what Jesus taught and applied to a Gentile context.

However, I would suggest that evidence is lacking that Paul created his own form of Christianity distinct from the teachings of Jesus.

Episode 12 – Paul and Company

History of ChristianityOne of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul was his insistence on working with other Christian leaders. At one point Barnabas believed in Paul, and Paul went on to disciple Silas, Luke, Timothy and Titus. Paul understood that making of disciples of Jesus meant gathering his own disciples. This episode looks at these associates of Paul and what the New Testament says about them.

The “We passages” mentioned in this episode are Acts 16:10–1720:5–1521:1–8 and 27:1–28:16.

For more information, see:

Episode 2 – Sources for Jesus

History of ChristianityIn this second episode of the History of Christianity, we take a look at the sources we have for Jesus. How can we even know that Jesus lived? We look at the three most important historical sources we have: the Gospels, the letters of Paul and Josephus. We look at some of the concerns that some critics have about these sources.

For More Information:

Recommended Book: