Paul’s Opponents

Jerry L. Sumney

in Biblical Studies

ISBN: 9780195393361
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Paul’s Opponents


Beginning with some of the earliest, interpreters have sought to identify the teaching of those Paul opposed in his letters. At first, this investigation was done so that the interpreters could identify their own adversaries with those Paul opposes. In the era of critical interpretation, identifying these opponents of Paul has been seen as an important part of specifying the historical setting of the letters and thus as a part of the interpretive context. There is, however, considerable disagreement about the identity of these opponents. Some argue that all of Paul’s letters address the same front of opposition, and others argue that multiple kinds of teachers opposed the work of Paul or that he told his congregations to reject. Modern critical study of Paul’s opponents begins with F. C. Baur. His foundational work has shaped the work on this issue since the late 19th century. He maintained that all of Paul’s letters are intended to oppose teachers who maintain that Gentile and Jewish church members must be Torah-observant, thus requiring Gentiles to receive circumcision and begin to keep the Sabbath and dietary regulations of Judaism. This single front of opposition was demanded by Baur’s Hegelian understanding of history. Even without that presupposition, some see a single type of opponent in Paul’s letters. While some continue to see those who demand Torah observance for Gentiles (often, and anachronistically, called Judaizers) as the single type of opposition, others see Gnostics as the single source of opposition. Most interpreters, however, find multiple types of ideas or practices that Paul opposes in his different letters. Part of the reason for the continuing disagreement about the identity of Paul’s opponents is that interpreters gave little attention to proper method for identifying them until the latter quarter of the 20th century. Interpretive differences will continue to produce different hypotheses, but the attention given to method can help explain differences in hypotheses and give ways to move forward toward more agreement. Even the turn in Pauline studies toward more literary investigations has not slowed studies of opponents because they can contribute to our understanding of the Pauline mission and the shape of the earliest church.

Article.  14785 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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