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Chapter 12

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Chapter summary

Chapter 12

Paul the Apostle: The Man and His Mission

Chapter Summary:

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.

Paul began, however, not as a devoted Christian but as a committed opponent of Christianity. Eventually he converted and began a missionary journey throughout a large part of the Empire.

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 (1-2 Timothy and Titus), the Deutero-Pauline epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians), and the undisputed Pauline letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon).

One problem students of Paul must confront is Luke's account of Paul's ministry in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke's account of Paul's missionary journeys and teachings differ 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.

One of the most important issues to keep in mind as we read and study Paul's letters is their occasional 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 theology. Rather than forcing Paul's statements into categories, we should apply the contextual method to determine the circumstances under which Paul corresponded with his churches.

The Life of Paul
It is clear that Paul was educated since he had the ability to read and write in a sophisticated fashion. Since Paul spoke and wrote in Greek (he gives no indication that he knew Aramaic), he knew and used the Septuagint.

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 carefully followed the law as outlined by the Pharisees. 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 began when Jesus converted him. In one way, Paul's apocalyptic views were confirmed by his belief in Jesus' resurrection. He came to view Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection, the sign that the end was, indeed, imminent. Paul's belief that Jesus was alive proved to him 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 Law. 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 be justified by following the Law. Only faith in Christ justified a person. The Law was given by God, and was good, but it was given as a guide for right behavior, not a means of justification. Once Paul came to believe that it was not the Law that justified a person, he apparently came to the conclusion that Gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism to obtain salvation.

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 since 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.

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