New Testament

Finding the Historical Paul

Paul and Thecla

Paul and Thecla

Let’s get this ball rolling by first establishing what I am NOT talking about.  I am not talking about Saul of Tarsus, a tentmaker by trade, who; studied under the renown Pharisaic teacher Gamaliel, broke into people’s houses, kidnapped folks, drug them off to trial and voted for their execution, fell off a donkey, bumped his head and was blinded by the light, who demonized women and Jews, advocated slavery, and was ultimately executed by Emperor Nero in Rome.

That is the Christian icon, created by the early Christian church after his death.  Paul, like Jesus, if Jesus ever existed, was taken apart and put back together in different ways, by different people, at different times and was used and abused in the creation and perpetuation of the religion that is now called christianity.  Paul never used the word “christian”.  Paul saw himself as a Jew.

The Acts of the Apostles is our earliest known example of the re-creation of Paul.  Acts is essentially a novel, a fictional accounting written with the intent of legitimizing this burgeoning religion, possibly to Roman authorities.  Acts is a mess as a historical source.  Sometimes it agrees with Paul when it comes to Paul’s own words, sometimes it disagrees with Paul, about Paul.  Therefore, Acts can not be trusted with the information that can not be corroborated through other sources, nor can it be used to prove the existence of, OR find the true identity of the man known only as Paul.  Paul never said that his name was Saul, or that he was from Tarsus.

Paul was a man, a frustrated, insecure but dedicated and good-hearted man, and by stripping away all the church garb that continues to be piled on to Paul’s shoulders even today, removing layer by layer all the way back to the last quarter of the first century CE, we can meet this man, who called himself, Paul.

Western Protestant Christianity today clearly follows the icon, Paul, not Jesus.  Darby’s “rapture” fantasy in the 19th century comes from a creative interpretation of Paul’s writings, with other passages, snatched out of context, from other parts of the bible.  Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church partly arose from a new “understanding” of Paul’s letters.  As far back as the early second century, an unknown author, writing under the name of Peter tells how some of the Jesus people had twisted the meaning of Paul’s own words “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16), Even in the first century an author writing under the name of Paul himself warned readers against other forged letters claiming to be written in Paul’s name (2 Thes.2:2) This letter is also thought to be a fraud by some.

On the other hand, other members of these Jesus people saw Paul as a traitor, literally as an apostate.  We have echos of those sentiments in some early Christian writings.  Not to worry though, the perspective of that group was eventually all but annihilated.

In the New Testament, there are 13 letters attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Habakkuk.  (Just seeing if you’re still paying attention)  Of those 13 letters, there are three categories in which The Pauline Corpus can be grouped.

Uncontested writings:

1 Thessalonians




1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians


Disputed writings:



2 Thessalonians

Pseudo-Pauline writings:


1 Timothy

2 Timothy

Since almost half of those letters are of suspect origin, they can also not be used to prove the existence of OR to find the true identity of the historical Paul.  BUT, we do have seven letters.  The seven uncontested Epistles of Paul.  The authenticity of those seven letters is agreed upon by an overwhelming consensus from the field of biblical studies, including conservative, mainstream and critical scholarship.  The agreement is that these seven letters are from the mind of one man around the middle of the first century CE, written to specific communities, for specific purposes and addressing specific circumstances.  This letter-writer called him self Paul.  Whoever this author was, this is our historical Paul.

With the failure and ongoing decline of Western Christianity staring in the face of Christendom, a new effort has been made to find what this earliest witness to what was to become Christianity actually said, feared, desired and intended.

Supporting resources:

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible,  second edition” – 2008, Edited by Bruce Chilton, p. 530.

“Paul was the single most important figure in the spreading the movement that began with Jesus and came to be known as Christianity (a term Paul himself did not use) to the wider Roman world.  His deepest influence was largely literary (and postmortem); no fewer than thirteen documents in the New Testament were written by him or are attributed to him.  In the Book of Acts Paul also features as a central figure, although there are crucial differences between what he says or implies in his letters and what is said about him in Acts.”

The First Paul” – 2009, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p. 13-14

“What differentiates mainstream scholars from fundamentalist and many conservative scholars is that the former do not begin with the presumption that the Bible is unlike other books in that it has a divine guarantee to be inerrant and infallible.  Rather mainstream scholars see the Bible as a historical product that can be studied as any other historical documents are, without specifically Christian theological convictions shaping the outcome.

“Mainstream scholarship as it has developed over the last two centuries has concluded that the thirteen letters attributed to Paul fall into three categories: letters written by Paul, those not written by him and ones about which there is uncertainty.  According to a massive scholarly consensus, at least seven letters are “genuine” – that is, written by Paul himself.”

What Paul Meant” – 2006, Gary Wills, Pulitzer Prize winning author, p. 15

“Thirteen letters are attributed to Paul in the New Testament, and for centuries they were all accepted as his.  But modern scholarship has reached a consensus that some were definitely not written by him and others are of dubious authenticity.  Only seven are now accepted as certainly by him.”

Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene” – 2006, Bart D. Ehrman, p. 93

“For our purposes it is enough to know that almost all scholars are convinced that of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, seven are indisputably his: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.”

The Bible, A Biography” – 2007, Karen Armstrong, p. 61

“Paul did not think for a moment that he was writing ‘scripture’; because he was convinced that Jesus would return in his own lifetime, he never imagined that future generations would pore over his epistles….Nevertheless his letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi and Thessalonica were preserved, and after his death in the early 60s, Christian writers who revered Paul wrote in his name and developed his ideas in letters to the churches in Ephesus and Colossae, and wrote supposedly posthumous letters addressed to Paul’s associates, Timothy and Titus.”



6 thoughts on “Finding the Historical Paul

  1. Just a quik comment on Paul’s origins. It is true that he never claimed to be from Tarsus – in fact, he never made any statements about his homebase.

    I’m convinced though (at this time) that Paul was not a Palestinian Jew. He is most obviously a product of the diaspora, who knows how many generations removed from Palestine, and a thoroughly Hellenized Jew to boot.

    I’m going to guess he comes from the region of Cilicia, simply because there’s no apparent ulterior motive for such a detail. But the main reason I feel certain that he was several times removed from the Holy Land rests in the wholly incongruous meeting with the apostles at Jerusalem, as recounted blandly in Acts, and with a bit more fire in Galatians.

    In this meeting there is said to be the original dispute about whether acolytes to the budding religion of the Christ icon were also to convert fully to the tenets of Torah. This whole scene doesn’t make any sense – no Gentile convert had ever been expected to adhere to Torah observance. Sure, “aliens” living amongst the Jews were subject to all the social laws of the land, but not observance of the Covenant. The Jews were (and are) pretty jealous of their special relationship – you and I could “join the club”, but we were always understood to be 2nd tier members.

    I think people today fail to understand that the 613 mitzvot (and associated oral interpretation) fell into different categories – social, personal, and religious. IOW, they’re not all ecclesiastical decrees – in fact most of them deal with social rules.

    Judaism had centuries before established which seven basic “church” rules that Gentiles must adhere to. These are often called the “Noahide Law”. They happened to include the so-called “compromise” rules achieved at the Jerusalem Council.

    Now, if the Noahide Law was long-established practice, why in the world would this dispute, and “compromise”, have even been necessary?

    I think it far more likely that Paul, as a “liberal” Jew of the diaspora, had to be schooled on basic Temple Judaism at this Council, and it rankled him to no end. Literally.

    I think he and his friend Luke re-wrote the narrative to place Paul in a better light, knowing that the Judean Jews had more things to worry about then to deal with this hyper-manic usurper.

    One is certain – they had NO powers of foresight. If they only knew the effect Paul’s subsequent words would have on their people over the coming millennium or two they’d have been better off to shiv the bastard.

    Anyhoo, when we add in the fact that Paul butchers Hebrew scripture at least as egregiously as pseudo-Matthew – this is why I feel certain that Paul was not a Palestinian Jew. No doubt he got some advanced schooling somewhere, but one has to wonder if he was really a student of Gamaliel, himself descended from the revered rabbi Hillel. It would seem to jibe with his penchant for padding his own resume to claim to have been a student at perhaps the most respected rabbinical schools in the land.

    Posted by HipGnosis | April 30, 2011, 9:11 pm
    • Hip-ster, damn gladda see ya.

      I just ran down and checked the target. That one split the cross-hairs.

      While there are many,many speculations about Paul, there are also many things “about” him that can simply not be true. Paul and Peter did not ride off together into the sunset, figuratively speaking.

      Wanna see somethin’ funny? Read my comment from April 29, in another post discussing my basic thoughts on Paul. We must be reading the same Good Book.

      My opinion: In a way, they did shiv the bastard. I think that Schweitzer’s “wheel of the world” crushed him, just like it did Jesus. It’s a big wheel.

      Posted by Xcntrik | May 1, 2011, 2:59 pm
  2. This sentence:

    “Acts is a mess as a historical source”

    is one of the things that made me search on my own. This is beautifully written, and self-explanatory, which is what I guess you were going for.

    Thanks . X, for your continued work to educate the masses.

    Posted by Water_Nymph | September 25, 2010, 1:09 pm
  3. If Jesus didn’t exist then what the hell is your point?

    Posted by hellbilly | August 29, 2010, 1:32 am
    • Hellbilly, the point is that he is trying to show you a side of your religion of which most Christians are not aware.

      Having been a Christian for so long, I know how hard it is to look at the other side of the coin.

      If you’ll just read it without prejudice, you may learn that it many not affect faith, but it will affect knowledge.

      Unless you object to knowledge, it should be a fun adventure into learning.

      Posted by Water_Nymph | September 25, 2010, 1:11 pm

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