Chapter

The Letters of Paul

Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics

The Letters of Paul

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More than half the book of Acts is devoted to tales of Paul's preaching and journeyings around the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. More than one-quarter of the New Testament is made up of writings traditionally attributed to Paul. This concentration on Paul's activities and writings makes him a rival to Jesus in the New Testament—and very possibly in the history of Christianity. Certainly Paul was, in many of the earliest documents, the leading figure in the early expansion of Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world. In striking contrast to the portrait of him in the Acts of the Apostles, however, his writing reveals an outstanding controversialist, a man of fierce temper, strong egotism—and an inveterate writer of letters. Paul is a difficult figure to appreciate: as a self-styled apostate Jew, he makes the choice between Christianity and Judaism seem more of an either/or decision than other evidence of the time suggests. As a self-styled apostle, as he claimed, ‘sent by Jesus’ in the vision of Damascus road, he overshadows the status of those who were actually chosen by Jesus before his death. This is Paul at his most subversive: the most dominant figure in the New Testament—especially if the detection of his influence on some of the gospels is correct—and the Lenin of the early churches, transforming his own understanding of Jesus into a viable organization which, in time, helped to shift the Jesus movement from its Jewish matrix to a non-Jewish one among heathen converts. Paul's writings give little sense of any interest in the historical Jesus, whom he never knew, but what he lacked in knowledge of the historical Jesus he seems to have made up for in his concept of a divine ‘Lord Jesus Christ’. Though for most Christians Jesus remains as the founder of Christianity, and Paul as his most capable, devoted, and loyal lieutenant, for many Jews, and some modern scholars, Paul is the real founder of Christianity—which rapidly left behind it the Jewish Jesus and his prophetic critique of religion. For them, Paul's understanding of Jesus, in terms of metaphors about his death and resurrection, produced a dogmatic religion remote from the teachings of Jesus the rabbi and prophet from Nazareth. Paul's writings are very different from the gospels. His letters are personal and occasional responses to problems and crises arising in the churches founded by him. They are not systematic formulations of Christian doctrine, even though they have subsequently been used as such. He pays little attention to the teachings of Jesus (for allusions see 1 Cor. 7: 10–11; 11: 23–5; Gal. 4: 4) and he is silent about his deeds. For Paul, what is fundamental is the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 151: 1–6) and he constructs from that a symbolic world of belief.

Chapter.  660 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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