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Apostle Paul's Missionary Journey

The Problem of Paul 1

Excerpt from: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby

(From Chapter 1) At the beginning of Christianity stand two figures: Jesus and Paul. Jesus is regarded by Christians as the founder of their religion, in that the events of his life comprise the foundation story of Christianity; but Paul is regarded as the great interpreter of Jesus' mission, who explained, in a way that Jesus himself never did, how Jesus' life and death fitted into a cosmic scheme of salvation, stretching from the creation of Adam to the end of time.

How should we understand the relationship between Jesus and Paul? We shall be approaching this question not from the standpoint of faith, but from that of historians, who regard the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament as an important source of evidence requiring careful sifting and criticism, since their authors were propagating religious beliefs rather than conveying dispassionate historical information. We shall also be taking into account all relevant evidence from other sources, such as Josephus, the Talmud, the Church historians and the Gnostic writings.

What would Jesus himself have thought of Paul? We must remember that Jesus never knew Paul; the two men never once met. The disciples who knew Jesus best, such as Peter, James and John, have left no writings behind them explaining how Jesus seemed to them or what they considered his mission to have been.

Did they agree with the interpretations disseminated by Paul in his fluent, articulate writings? Or did they perhaps think that this newcomer to the scene, spinning complicated theories about the place of Jesus in the scheme of things, was getting everything wrong? Paul claimed that his interpretations were not just his own invention, but had come to him by personal inspiration; he claimed that he had personal acquaintance with the resurrected Jesus, even though he had never met him during his lifetime.

Such acquaintance, he claimed, gained through visions and transports, was actually superior to acquaintance with Jesus during his lifetime, when Jesus was much more reticent about his purposes.

We know about Paul not only from his own letters but also from the book of Acts, which gives a full account of his life. Paul, in fact, is the hero of Acts, which was written by an admirer and follower of his, namely, Luke, who was also the author of the Gospel of that name. From Acts, it would appear that there was some friction between Paul and the leaders of the 'Jerusalem Church'.

The surviving companions of Jesus; but this friction was resolved, and they all became the best of friends, with common aims and purposes. From certain of Paul's letters, particularly Galatians, it seems that the friction was more serious than in the picture given in Acts, which thus appears to be partly a propaganda exercise, intended to portray unity in the early Church. The question recurs: what would Jesus have thought of Paul, and what did the Apostles think of him?

We should remember that the New Testament, as we have it, is much more dominated by Paul than appears at first sight. As we read it, we come across the Four Gospels, of which Jesus is the hero, and do not encounter Paul as a character until we embark on the post-Jesus narrative of Acts. Then we finally come into contact with Paul himself, in his letters.

But this impression is misleading, for the earliest writings in the New Testament are actually Paul's letters, which were written about AD 50-60, while the Gospels were not written until the period AD 70-110. This means that the theories of Paul were already before the writers of the Gospels and colored their interpretations of Jesus' activities. Paul is, in a sense, present from the very first word of the New Testament.

This is, of course, not the whole story, for the Gospels are based on traditions and even written sources which go back to a time before the impact of Paul, and these early traditions and sources are not entirely obliterated in the final version and give valuable indications of what the story was like before Paulinist editors pulled it into final shape.

However, the dominant outlook and shaping perspective of the Gospels is that of Paul, for the simple reason that it was the Paulinist view of what Jesus' sojourn on Earth had been about that was triumphant in the Church as it developed in history. Rival interpretations, which at one time had been orthodox, opposed to Paul's very individual views, now became heretical and were crowded out of the final version of the writings adopted by the Pauline Church as the inspired canon of the New Testament.

This explains the puzzling and ambiguous role given in the Gospels to the companions of Jesus, the twelve disciples. They are shadowy figures, who are allowed little personality, except of a schematic kind. They are also portrayed as stupid; they never quite understand what Jesus is up to. Their importance in the origins of Christianity is played down in a remarkable way. For example, we find immediately after Jesus' death that the leader of the Jerusalem Church is Jesus' brother James.

Yet in the Gospels, this James does not appear at all as having anything to do with Jesus' mission and story. Instead, he is given a brief mention as one of the brothers of Jesus who allegedly opposed Jesus during his lifetime and regarded him as mad. How it came about that a brother who had been hostile to Jesus in his lifetime suddenly became the revered leader of the Church immediately after Jesus' death is not explained, though one would have thought that some explanation was called for.

Later Church legends, of course, filled the gap with stories of the miraculous conversion of James after the death of Jesus and his development into a saint. But the most likely explanation is, as will be argued later, that the erasure of Jesus' brother dames (and his other brothers) from any significant role in the Gospel story is part of the denigration of the early leaders who had been in close contact with Jesus and regarded with great suspicion and dismay the Christological theories of the upstart Paul, flaunting his brand new visions in interpretation of the Jesus whom he had never met in the flesh.

Who, then, was Paul? Here we would seem to have a good deal of information; but on closer examination, it will turn out to be full of problems. We have the information given by Paul about himself in his letters, which are far from impersonal and often take an autobiographical turn. Also we have the information given in Acts, in which Paul plays the chief role. But the information given by any person about himself always has to be treated with a certain reserve, since everyone has strong motives for putting himself in the best possible light.

And the information given about Paul in Acts also requires close scrutiny, since this work was written by someone committed to the Pauline cause. Have we any other sources for Paul's biography? As a matter of fact, we have, though they are scattered in various unexpected places, which it will be our task to explore: in a fortuitously preserved extract from the otherwise lost writings of the Ebionites, a sect of great importance for our quest; in a disguised attack on Paul included in a text of orthodox Christian authority; and in an Arabic manuscript, in which a text of the early Jewish Christians, the opponents of Paul, has been preserved by an unlikely chain of circumstances.

Let us first survey the evidence found in the more obvious and well-known sources. It appears from Acts that Paul was at first called 'Saul', and that his birthplace was Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor (Acts 9:11, and 21:39, and 22:3). Strangely enough, however, Paul himself, in his letters, never mentions that he came from Tarsus, even when he is at his most autobiographical. Instead, he gives the following information about his origins:

'I am an Israelite myself, of the stock of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin' (Romans 11:2); and '... circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred; in my attitude to the law, a Pharisee....' (Philippians 3:5). It seems that Paul was not anxious to impart to the recipients of his letters that he came from somewhere so remote as Tarsus from Jerusalem, the powerhouse of Pharisaism.

The impression he wished to give, of coming from an unimpeachable Pharisaic background, would have been much impaired by the admission that he in fact came from Tarsus, where there were few, if any, Pharisee teachers and a Pharisee training would have been hard to come by.

We encounter, then, right at the start of our enquiry into Paul's background, the question: was Paul really from a genuine Pharisaic family, as he says to his correspondents, or was this just something that he said to increase his status in their eyes? The fact that this question is hardly ever asked shows how strong the influence of traditional religious attitudes still is in Pauline studies.

Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence towards Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances.

It should be noted (in advance of a full discussion of the subject) that modern scholarship has shown that, at this time, the Pharisees were held in high repute throughout the Roman and Parthian empires as a dedicated group who upheld religious ideals in the face of tyranny, supported leniency and mercy in the application of laws, and championed the rights of the poor against the oppression of the rich.

The undeserved reputation for hypocrisy which is attached to the name 'Pharisee' in medieval and modern times is due to the campaign against the Pharisees in the Gospels -- a campaign dictated by politico-religious considerations at the time when the Gospels were given their final editing, about forty to eighty years after the death of Jesus. Paul's desire to be thought of as a person of Pharisee upbringing should thus be understood in the light of the actual reputation of the Pharisees in Paul's lifetime; Paul was claiming a high honor, which would much enhance his status in the eyes of his correspondents.

Before looking further into Paul's claim to have come from a Pharisee background, let us continue our survey of what we are told about Paul's career in the more accessible sources. The young Saul, we are told, left Tarsus and came to the Land of Israel, where he studied in the Pharisee academy of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

We know from other sources about Gamaliel, who is a highly respected figure in the rabbinical writings such as the Mishnah, and was given the title 'Rabban', as the leading sage of his day. That he was the leader of the whole Pharisee party is attested also by the New Testament itself, for he plays a prominent role in one scene in the book of Acts (chapter 5) -- a role that, as we shall see later, is hard to reconcile with the general picture of the Pharisees given in the Gospels.

Yet Paul himself, in his letters, never mentions that he was a pupil of Gamaliel, even when he is most concerned to stress his qualifications as a Pharisee. Here again, then, the question has to be put: was Paul ever really a pupil of Gamaliel or was this claim made by Luke as an embellishment to his narrative? As we shall see later, there are certain considerations which make it most unlikely, quite apart from Paul's significant omission to say anything about the matter, that Paul was ever a pupil of Gamaliel's.

We are also told of the young Saul that he was implicated, to some extent, in the death of the martyr Stephen. The people who gave false evidence against Stephen, we are told, and who also took the leading part in the stoning of their innocent victim, 'laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul'. The death of Stephen is described, and it is added, 'And Saul was among those who approved of his murder' (Acts 8:1). How much truth is there in this detail?

Is it to be regarded as historical fact or as dramatic embellishment, emphasizing the contrast between Paul before and after conversion? The death of Stephen is itself an episode that requires searching analysis, since it is full of problems and contradictions. Until we have a better idea of why and by whom Stephen was killed and what were the views for which he died, we can only note the alleged implication of Saul in the matter as a subject for further investigation.

For the moment, we also note that the alleged implication of Saul heightens the impression that adherence to Pharisaism would mean violent hostility to the followers of Jesus.

The next thing we are told about Saul in Acts is that he was 'harrying the Church; he entered house after house, seizing men and women, and sending them to prison' (Acts 8:3). We are not told at this point by what authority or on whose orders he was carrying out this persecution. It was clearly not a matter of merely individual action on his part, for sending people to prison can only be done by some kind of official.

Saul must have been acting on behalf of some authority, and who this authority was can be gleaned from later incidents in which Saul was acting on behalf of the High Priest. Anyone with knowledge of the religious and political scene at this time in Judaea feels the presence of an important problem here: the High Priest was not a Pharisee, but a Sadducee, and the Sadducees were bitterly opposed to the Pharisees.

How is it that Saul, allegedly an enthusiastic Pharisee ('a Pharisee of the Pharisees'), is acting hand in glove with the High Priest? The picture we are given in our New Testament sources of Saul, in the days before his conversion to Jesus, is contradictory and suspect.

The next we hear of Saul (Acts, chapter 9) is that he 'was still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the High Priest and applied for letters to the synagogues at Damascus authorizing him to arrest anyone he found, men or women, who followed the new way, and bring them to Jerusalem.' This incident is full of mystery.

If Saul had his hands so full in 'harrying the church' in Judaea, why did he suddenly have the idea of going off to Damascus to harry the Church there? What was the special urgency of a visit to Damascus? Further, what kind of jurisdiction did the Jewish High Priest have over the non-Jewish city of Damascus that would enable him to authorize arrests and extraditions in that city?

There is, moreover, something very puzzling about the way in which Saul's relation to the High Priest is described: as if he is a private citizen who wishes to make citizen's arrests according to some plan of his own, and approaches the High Priest for the requisite authority.

Surely there must have been some much more definite official connection between the High Priest and Saul, not merely that the High Priest was called upon to underwrite Saul's project. It seems more likely that the plan was the High Priest's and not Saul's, and that Saul was acting as agent or emissary of the High Priest. The whole incident needs to be considered in the light of probabilities and current conditions.

The book of Acts then continues with the account of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus through a vision of Jesus and the succeeding events of his life as a follower of Jesus. The pre-Christian period of Saul's life, however, does receive further mention later in the book of Acts, both in chapter 22 and chapter 26, where some interesting details are added, and also some further puzzles.

In chapter 22, Saul (now called Paul), is shown giving his own account of his early life in a speech to the people after the Roman commandant had questioned him. Paul speaks as follows:

I am a true-born Jew, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia. I was brought up in this city, and as a pupil of Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in every point of our ancestral law. I have always been ardent in God's service, as you all are today. And so I began to persecute this movement to the death, arresting its followers, men and women alike, and putting them in chains.

For this I have as witnesses the High Priest and the whole Council of Elders. I was given letters from them to our fellow-Jews at Damascus, and had started out to bring the Christians there to Jerusalem as prisoners for punishment; and this is what happened...

Paul then goes on to describe his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Previously he had described himself to the commandant as 'a Jew, a Tarsian from Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city'.

It is from this passage that we learn of Paul's native city, Tarsus, and of his alleged studies under Gamaliel. Note that he says that, though born in Tarsus, he was 'brought up in this city' (i.e. Jerusalem) which suggests that he spent his childhood in Jerusalem. Does this mean that his parents moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem?

Or that the child was sent to Jerusalem on his own, which seems unlikely? If Paul spent only a few childhood years in Tarsus, he would hardly describe himself proudly as 'a citizen of no mean city' (Tarsus). Jews who had spent most of their lives in Jerusalem would be much more prone to describe themselves as citizens of Jerusalem.

The likelihood is that Paul moved to Jerusalem when he was already a grown man, and he left his parents behind in Tarsus, which seems all the more probable in that they receive no mention in any account of Paul's experiences in Jerusalem. As for Paul's alleged period of studies under Gamaliel, this would have had to be in adulthood, for Gamaliel was a teacher of advanced studies, not a teacher of children. He would accept as a pupil only someone well grounded and regarded as suitable for the rabbinate. The question, then, is where and how Paul received this thorough grounding, if at all. As pointed out above and argued fully below, there are strong reasons to think that Paul never was a pupil of Gamaliel.

An important question that also arises in this chapter of Acts is that of Paul's Roman citizenship. This is mentioned first in chapter 16. Paul claims to have been born a Roman citizen, which would mean that his father was a Roman citizen. There are many problems to be discussed in this connection, and some of these questions impinge on Paul's claim to have had a Pharisaic background.

A further account of Paul's pre-Christian life is found in chapter 26 of Acts, in a speech addressed by Paul to King Agrippa. Paul says:

My life from my youth up, the life I led from the beginning among my people and in Jerusalem, is familiar to all Jews. Indeed they have known me long enough and could testify, if they only would, that I belonged to the strictest group in our religion: I lived as a Pharisee. And it is for a hope kindled by God's promise to our forefathers that I stand in the dock today. Our twelve tribes hope to see the fulfillment of that promise....

I myself once thought it my duty to work actively against the name of Jesus of Nazareth; and I did so in Jerusalem. It was I who imprisoned many of God's people by authority obtained from the chief priests; and when they were condemned to death, my vote was cast against them. In all the synagogues I tried by repeated punishment to make them renounce their faith; indeed my fury rose to such a pitch that I extended my persecution to foreign cities. On one such occasion I was traveling to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests...

Again the account continues with the vision on the road to Damascus.

This speech, of course, cannot be regarded as the authentic words addressed by Paul to King Agrippa, but rather as a rhetorical speech composed by Luke, the author of Acts, in the style of ancient historians. Thus the claim made in the speech that Paul's career as a Pharisee of high standing was known to 'all Jews' cannot be taken at face value. It is interesting that Paul is represented as saying that he 'cast his vote' against the followers of Jesus, thus helping to condemn them to death. This can only refer to the voting of the Sanhedrin or Council of Elders, which was convened to try capital cases; so what Luke is claiming here for his hero Paul is that he was at one time a member of the Sanhedrin.

This is highly unlikely, for Paul would surely have made this claim in his letters, when writing about his credentials as a Pharisee, if it had been true. There is, however, some confusion both in this account and in the accounts quoted above about whether the Sanhedrin, as well as the High Priest or 'chief priests', was involved in the persecution of the followers of Jesus. Sometimes the High Priest alone is mentioned, sometimes the Sanhedrin is coupled with him, as if the two are inseparable. But we see on two occasions cited in Acts that the High Priest was outvoted by the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin; on both occasions, the Pharisees were opposing an attempt to persecute the followers of Jesus; so the representation of High Priest and Sanhedrin as having identical aims is one of the suspect features of these accounts.

It will be seen from the above collation of passages in the book of Acts concerning Paul's background and early life, together with Paul's own references to his background in his letters, that the same strong picture emerges: that Paul was at first a highly trained Pharisee rabbi, learned in all the intricacies of the rabbinical commentaries on scripture and legal traditions (afterwards collected in the rabbinical compilations, the Talmud and Midrash). As a Pharisee, Paul was strongly opposed to the new sect which followed Jesus and which believed that he had been resurrected after his crucifixion.

So opposed was Paul to this sect that he took violent action against it, dragging its adherents to prison. Though this strong picture has emerged, some doubts have also arisen, which, so far, have only been lightly sketched in: how is it, for example, that Paul claims to have voted against Christians on trial for their lives before the Sanhedrin, when in fact, in the graphically described trial of Peter before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5), the Pharisees, led by Gamaliel, voted for the release of Peter?

What kind of Pharisee was Paul, if he took an attitude towards the early Christians which, on the evidence of the same book of Acts, was untypical of the Pharisees? And how is it that this book of Acts is so inconsistent within itself that it describes Paul as violently opposed to Christianity because of his deep attachment to Pharisaism, and yet also describes the Pharisees as being friendly towards the early Christians, standing up for them and saving their lives?

It has been pointed out by many scholars that the book of Acts, on the whole, contains a surprising amount of evidence favorable to the Pharisees, showing them to have been tolerant and merciful. Some scholars have even argued that the book of Acts is a pro-Pharisee work; but this can hardly be maintained. For, outweighing all the evidence favorable to the Pharisees is the material relating to Paul, which is, in all its aspects, unfavorable to the Pharisees; not only is Paul himself portrayed as being a virulent persecutor when he was a Pharisee, but Paul declares that he himself was punished by flogging five times (II Corinthians 11:24) by the 'Jews' (usually taken to mean the Pharisees). So no one really comes away from reading Acts with any good impression of the Pharisees, but rather with the negative impressions derived from the Gospels reinforced.

Why, therefore, is Paul always so concerned to stress that he came from a Pharisee background? A great many motives can be discerned, but there is one that needs to be singled out here: the desire to stress the alleged continuity between Judaism and Pauline Christianity. Paul wishes to say that whereas, when he was a Pharisee, he mistakenly regarded the early Christians as heretics who had departed from true Judaism, after his conversion he took the opposite view, that Christianity was the true Judaism. All his training as a Pharisee, he wishes to say -- all his study of scripture and tradition -- really leads to the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

So when Paul declares his Pharisee past, he is not merely proclaiming his own sins -- 'See how I have changed, from being a Pharisee persecutor to being a devoted follower of Jesus!' -- he is also proclaiming his credentials -- 'If someone as learned as I can believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Torah, who is there fearless enough to disagree?'

On the face of it, Paul's doctrine of Jesus is a daring departure from Judaism. Paul was advocating a doctrine that seemed to have far more in common with pagan myths than with Judaism: that Jesus was a divine-human person who had descended to Earth from the heavens and experienced death for the express purpose of saving mankind. The very fact that the Jews found this doctrine new and shocking shows that it plays no role in the Jewish scripture, at least not in any way easily discernible.

Yet Paul was not content to say that his doctrine was new; on the contrary, he wished to say that every line of the Jewish scripture was a foreshadowing of the Jesus-event as he understood it, and that those who understood the scripture in any other way were failing in comprehension of what Judaism had always been about. So his insistence on his Pharisaic upbringing was part of his insistence on continuity.

There were those who accepted Paul's doctrine, but did regard it as a radical new departure, with nothing in the Jewish scriptures foreshadowing it. The best known figure of this kind was Marcion, who lived about a hundred years after Paul, and regarded Paul as his chief inspiration. Yet Marcion refused to see anything Jewish in Paul's doctrine, but regarded it as a new revelation. He regarded the Jewish scriptures as the work of the Devil and he excluded the Old Testament from his version of the Bible.

Paul himself rejected this view. Though he regarded much of the Old Testament as obsolete, superseded by the advent of Jesus, he still regarded it as the Word of God, prophesying the new Christian Church and giving it authority. So his picture of himself as a Pharisee symbolizes the continuity between the old dispensation and the new: a figure who comprised in his own person the turning-point at which Judaism was transformed into Christianity.

Throughout the Christian centuries, there have been Christian scholars who have seen Paul's claim to a Pharisee background in this light. In the medieval Disputations convened by Christians to convert Jews, arguments were put forward purporting to show that not only the Jewish scriptures but even the rabbinical writings, the Talmud and the Midrash, supported the claims of Christianity that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was divine and that he had to suffer death for mankind.

Though Paul was not often mentioned in these Disputations, the project was one of which he would have approved. In modern times, scholars have labored to argue that Paul's doctrines about the Messiah and divine suffering are continuous with Judaism as it appears in the Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and in the rabbinical writings (the best-known effort of this nature is Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, by W.D. Davies).

So Paul's claim to expert Pharisee learning is relevant to a very important and central issue -- whether Christianity, in the form given to it by Paul, is really continuous with Judaism or whether it is a new doctrine, having no roots in Judaism, but deriving, in so far as it has an historical background, from pagan myths of dying and resurrected gods and Gnostic myths of heaven-descended redeemers. Did Paul truly stand in the Jewish tradition, or was he a person of basically Hellenistic religious type, but seeking to give a coloring of Judaism to a salvation cult that was really opposed to everything that Judaism stood for?