In Christian tradition, it appears that Paul was second only to Jesus in contributing to the rise and spread of Christianity. Thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament claim to be written by Paul, and tradition has attributed yet another to him (Hebrews). The book of Acts, moreover, devotes over half of its history to Paul’s ministry. Following his conversion to Christianity, Paul embarked on a missionary journey, bringing his message primarily to Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire. His message included the claim that Jesus died for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles.
The Study of Paul: Methodological Difficulties
Pseudepigrapha, writings under a false name, were not uncommon in the ancient world. Most scholars believe that some of the New Testament letters attributed to Paul are, in fact, pseudepigraphic. Based on authorship issues, the Pauline corpus is divided into three groups: the Pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), the Deutero-Pauline epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians; this group is often called the “disputed Pauline” corpus), and the undisputed Pauline letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). For the purposes of understanding Paul himself, it is best to stick to the latter groupletters Paul actually wrote.
In addition, students of Paul must consider the historical value of Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys and teachings differ significantly from Paul’s own accounts. It may be best, then, to keep in mind that Acts can tell us how Luke understood Paul, but not what Paul himself did and said.
As we read and study Paul’s letters, it is also important to keep in mind their occasional and contingent nature. Paul’s letters are records of correspondence with specific communities he founded (with the exception of Rome), and in these letters he addresses specific issues with which these churches struggled. Because of the nature of Paul’s letters, we should not read them as systematic theological treatises. The occasional nature of the letters encourages the use of the contextual method, which can help reconstruct the circumstances in which Paul corresponded with his churches. An understanding of context will assist with interpretation.
The Life of Paul
Although Paul’s letters did not regularly reveal his life experiences, on occasion these experiences served his missionary needs, and so he included them in his letters. Paul’s life can be divided into three periods: The first period of his life was when he was a devout Jew. He was born to Jewish parents and seems to have received a good education. Because Paul spoke and wrote in Greek, he knew and used the Septuagint. As a Pharisee, Paul carefully followed the Jewish Law and would likely have been apocalyptically minded. During this time of his life, Paul opposed Christianity, probably because it claimed that the messiah suffered and died.
The second period of his life involves Paul’s conversion and revision of his theology in light of Jesus. Paul does not detail his conversion experience but does suggest that it involved an encounter with Jesus in his post-resurrection, bodily form. His belief in Jesus’ resurrection confirmed Paul’s apocalyptic views. He came to view Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection, the sign that God had already defeated death and, therefore, the cosmic battle between good and evil had begun.
After reinterpreting his expectations of the messiah to conform to the events of Jesus’ death, Paul had to tackle the difficult problem of the Jewish Law in light of the new age. Although many scholars wonder if Paul ever reached a consistent conclusion about the Law, we can be relatively sure that after his conversion, he did not believe that a person could become righteous by following the Law; one could become righteous only by faith in Christ (or through the “faithfulness of Christ”; the Greek can mean either). The Law was given by God and was good, but it was given as a guide for right behavior, not a means of becoming righteous. Once Paul came to believe that it was not the Law that made a person righteous, he apparently came to the conclusion that Gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism to obtain salvation. Moreover, God’s initial covenant with Abraham in the Jewish Scriptures now included people from all nations.
The third period of Paul’s life centered on his missionary activities. Paul wrote to communities he had founded but had subsequently left to continue his mission elsewhere. This correspondence represents only one side of a conversation because Paul often responded to letters he received from his churches. In many of these letters, Paul urged Christians to return to their original faith (especially when other missionaries had come preaching a different gospel) and clarified aspects of his teaching that church members had misunderstood or forgotten.