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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 59–71 

The ‘Inauthentic’ Letters of Paul

Jon Isaak

During almost twenty years of teaching Pauline Epistles, it has been my privilege to coach students through the challenges of navigating recent Pauline scholarship. I start by helping students assess their own preconceptions about Paul. Some of them see Paul as a male chauvinist and the primary corrupter of the simple religion of Jesus; others, as a brilliant theologian who took the message of Jesus and gave it definition for a non-Jewish setting, such that preaching from anything other than Paul’s Epistles is hardly necessary. Others find themselves at different points between these poles.

Virtually every issue Paul addresses in his letters is predicated on the new reality that Easter represents.

Next, I have students wrestle with the so-called “new perspective” on Paul that emerged after the 1970s. This involves extracting Paul from the influence of the Reformation’s anti-Catholic polemic and Western introspection, so they can hear Paul’s own voice. 1

But I find that the biggest challenge is helping students make sense of scholarship’s long arguments about whether a purportedly Pauline Epistle is from Paul or not—that is, is authentic or inauthentic. This conversation is particularly frustrating for ministry students preparing for a vocation of preaching from the Bible. What will they do with the letters claiming to be from Paul but which scholars don’t believe were actually written by him? Refuse to preach from them? Or will they ignore or discredit contemporary scholarship so they will feel confident in preaching from all thirteen letters traditionally ascribed to the apostle? Note that their question is not, Is {60} there edifying material in the inauthentic letters? (which of course there is), but, Can the disputed letters be fully trusted when they falsely claim to be Paul’s words? If they cannot be fully trusted, then perhaps the safest way to use them in preparing a sermon is not to use them at all.

My own position, which I explain in this paper, is that inauthenticity in the literal sense does not rule out authenticity in a deeper sense. That is to say, I hold that while the disputed letters are likely not from Paul’s own hand, they are nevertheless authentically Pauline, both in the weak sense that they could not have been written without Paul’s influence, but also in the stronger sense that they share an underlying eschatological vision with the letters he wrote himself. This paper is a kind of summary of my grappling with the critical biblical scholarship on this question. My hope is that the conclusions I’ve arrived at will assure seminary students and others that they may preach even from the inauthentic Pauline Epistles with boldness. 2 I also hope to model a way to engage the critical issues while affirming the authority of the biblical texts and recognizing their testimony as useful and constructive for Christian formation.


Though a good case for questioning the authenticity of the disputed letters can be made, it is also true that many arguments are less than convincing. The six disputed letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy and Titus) clearly differ in vocabulary and style from the undisputed letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). But how much weight can justifiably be placed on these differences?

2 Thessalonians

Consider the disputed 2 Thessalonians. Scholars point out that whereas 1 Thessalonians stresses the immanence of Jesus’s return, 2 Thessalonians brings an emphasis on events that must transpire before the parousia or coming of Messiah Jesus to establish God’s victory everywhere (compare 1 Thess 4:13–18 and 2 Thess 2:1–12). However, this change in emphasis need not rule out Paul’s authorship of the second letter. Both emphases represent the modified apocalyptic eschatology characteristic of early Christians. In fact, this eschatology is foundational for early Christianity in general. That the end happens suddenly, without warning, and that there are historical antecedents typify the tension in Jewish apocalyptic thought (cf. Dan 12:1–12; Mark 13:3–37; 1 Cor 7:25–35). Both assertions are held as true, even though some might see them as contradictory. Bible scholar Werner Kümmel is therefore justified in holding that 2 Thessalonians is a second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, likely written several weeks {61} after 1 Thessalonians. 3 Paul, he says, uses left-out material, reminders, and complementary emphases not used in his first letter. The fact that not every aspect of his eschatology is transparent or spelled out actually raises the probability that this letter is from Paul and not from someone pretending to be him.


Likewise, scholars doubt that Colossians is an authentic letter of Paul because its vocabulary, poetic style, and eschatology are distinct from what we find in the undisputed letters. Again, these inconsistencies need not disqualify Paul as its author. The ancient practice of co-sponsoring letters in conjunction with new concerns could explain the new language and style. And the striking co-resurrection language—“raised with Christ” (3:1)—is not so unlike Paul, since he uses similar participationist language in the undisputed letters as well (e.g., “joint heirs with Christ” [Rom 8:17]).

The polemical tone of Colossians (its warning against false teaching and false wisdom in 2:8; 2:20–23) is often presumed to be aimed at opponents who are full-blown Gnostics. If Colossians really does target Gnostics, Paul’s direct authorship is admittedly improbable, since Gnostics only emerged in the second century, well after Paul’s death. 4 However, it is just as likely that the polemical tone of the letter is generated by its use of stock rhetorical devices (conventional counterexamples, generic warnings), chosen to discourage the Colossians from some behaviors and encouraging them toward others more congruent with their new identity in Christ (1:18).


The letter to the Ephesians lacks any reference to concrete details of the Ephesian church’s situation and also includes no personal greetings from Paul, which is strange if he was indeed active in Ephesus for three years as Luke reports (Acts 20:31). The letter title, “to the Ephesians,” can only be dated with some certainty to the end of the second century, and the prescript “in Ephesus” (1:1) is lacking in the earliest manuscripts. 5 Probably there was no addressee originally, because the letter was not addressed to a particular community. Unlike Paul’s usual occasional letters, this letter should be thought of as a literary work aimed at a general Christian audience, not at a specific church community.

But these facts alone do not rule out Paul’s authorship of the letter. Some scholars are convinced that Ephesians is not directly from Paul because its complex sentences and piling up of phrases are unlike Paul’s writing style in the undisputed letters. 6 The letter’s similarity to the disputed Colossians letter suggests dependence in one direction or the other, and yet significant differences can be detected. “Mystery,” for example, is reserved for the {62} eschatological act of God in Christ in the Colossians letter (1:27), whereas in Ephesians the term might mean the joining of the universe in Christ (1:10), the participation of Gentiles in salvation (3:6), or the relationship of Christ to the church, depicted using the image of marriage (5:32). And the two letters have different theological emphases: Colossians has believers rooted in Christ (2:7), but Ephesians has them built on the foundation of the apostles (2:20). For these reasons, it is doubtful that Ephesians came directly from Paul. And yet it retains enough of the flavor of the undisputed letters that its authenticity cannot be conclusively dismissed.

The Pastorals

1–2 Timothy and Titus (first called Pastorals in the eighteenth century) address individuals, not churches, as Paul’s occasional letters do. They offer instruction for the pastoral leadership to Paul’s delegates, Timothy and Titus. All three letters are similar in style, language, and content. But unlike the undisputed letters, they are not in the second-century collection of Paul’s letters used by Marcion (ca. 85 – ca. 160 CE), and it is doubtful that they were in the earliest extant collection of Paul’s letters. 7 Still, from the end of the second century, the place of 1–2 Timothy and Titus in the Pauline corpus was established.

Nevertheless, over the last two centuries scholars have noted several problems. 8 The Pastorals presuppose that Paul was imprisoned in Rome a second time (2 Tim 1:8), after being released from his first imprisonment. But we do not know what happened to Paul after his two years in Rome (Acts 28:30). It is doubtful that he returned to the east only to get in trouble again, since he wanted to go west to Spain (Rom 15:28). Furthermore, instructions to women in the Pastorals are difficult to reconcile with those in the undisputed letters. During his ministry in Corinth, Paul recommends that widows remain single (1 Cor 7:8). They and other leading women are to learn to participate actively along with men in the leadership of the church and the Pauline missionary team (1 Cor 11:2–16; 14:33–36; Rom 16:1–16). In the Pastorals, however, widows are expected to remarry (1 Tim 5:14). Indeed, reference to the participation of leading women is muted. And rather than receiving encouragement to participate in church life, women are instead encouraged to marry (1 Tim 4:3), to have children (1 Tim 2:15), and to be silent (1 Tim 2:11).

The differences in instructions about church structures between Paul’s undisputed letters and the Pastorals are striking as well. Paul does not impose strict conformity in his mission churches but argues for tolerance and freedom (Rom 14), except in cases of sexual immorality (1 Cor 5) and idolatry (1 Cor 8:6–7) (the two traditional Gentile sins according to Jews). 9 The ecclesiastical structure that Paul encourages in the Corinthian church {63} is remarkably spare. There is no need for a bishop to lead the meetings, because the Holy Spirit presides! “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up . . . one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged . . . all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:26–40). By way of contrast, the Pastorals set out an ecclesiastical structure with bishops and deacons (1 Tim 3:1–13; 5:17–22), who are charged with managing the ongoing life of the church and carrying forward the Pauline witness (2 Tim 1:13–14). These and other points of difference are often used to characterize the Pastorals as a “drift” away from Paul’s ideal 10 or, worse, as part of a conspiracy to redirect Pauline church practice. 11

The arguments reviewed above (some weak, some strong) have enough weight to persuade many scholars that Paul could not have written the disputed letters. I am convinced, however, that a reconsideration of Paul’s ministry practices, together with a clear identification of Paul’s guiding vision and the challenges faced by churches before and after Paul’s departure, can give us a way to imagine how we might have authentically Pauline letters written by people other than Paul. Luke Johnson succinctly expresses my own view: “The whole Pauline corpus is one that Paul ‘authored’ but did not necessarily write.” 12


First, Paul’s ministry practices. The scriptural evidence points to a Paul who worked collaboratively in all aspects of his missionary enterprise. In Romans 16:1–23 alone, Paul names more than twenty-five men and women as co-workers—benefactors, artisans, house church leaders, organizers, fundraisers, hosts, and troubleshooters. The care he takes to name such people suggests that Paul relied on them extensively.

Church correspondence was another important area where Paul enlisted the help of others: he dictated some letters to a secretary (Rom 16:22; cf. Gal 6:11f, where he only writes a few lines himself for emphasis); and he coauthored other letters with Timothy (2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; Phlm 1), with Silas and Timothy (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1), with Sosthenes (1 Cor 1:1), and with “all the members of God’s family who are with me” (Gal 1:1). Some stylistic and formal differences among the thirteen letters attributed to Paul could certainly be explained by his co-sponsorship and collaboration with others in his team, collaborators with whom Paul would have had essential agreement. Some letters were probably written “at arm’s length” from Paul, but still congruent with the “spirit and tradition” of the Pauline missionary team. Barring evidence to the contrary, this simpler, pragmatic explanation for the differences in content, style, and vocabulary should be preferred (the principle of Occam’s razor). Only if this {64} explanation fails to satisfy should we look for alternative accounts, like conspiracy theories or the like.


But is there actually evidence that there was a common “spirit and tradition” going back to Paul and uniting the thirteen Pauline letters? That tradition would have to be rooted in some kind of theological center anchoring Paul’s theological-pastoral writing, and the disputed letters (if they are indeed Pauline) would have to bear the marks of that nucleus. At least six candidates for such a center have been proposed:

  1. Justification by faith (as held by Martin Luther and the vast majority of Protestant theologians after him) 13
  2. Pneumatology (a doctrine of the Spirit) 14
  3. Gnostic mythology (especially evident in his Cosmic Christ of faith) 15
  4. Reconciliation within the People of God 16
  5. Participation in, or union with Christ 17
  6. Apocalyptic eschatology (where God’s promised triumph over evil in these last days is what Jesus’s life and ministry were all about). 18

A good general rule is that a theological center cannot be derivative, which is to say, it cannot depend on another, more comprehensive conviction. Therefore, contenders like reconciliation, mystical union, or justification by faith are disqualified: each is derived from arguments Paul advances to meet a variety of pastoral challenges, contingent applications of a more basic conviction. The center, however, must be comprehensive enough to embrace the diversity of Pauline ideas and applications.

Two clues point to apocalyptic eschatology as the center of Paul’s revolutionary theology. First, the starting point for Paul’s pastoral and missionary discourse is not the memory of Jesus’s life and ministry, about which he has very little to say. Instead, it begins with the resurrection of Jesus and Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord. These two events, the latter confirming the former, establish the launching pad for all his reflection, interpretation, mission, collaboration, and writing. Paul’s transforming encounter with the risen Lord is the decisive moment that shapes all that he does or thinks.

While Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus can be described as revelation (the core meaning of the word apocalyptic), it would be wrong to call Paul an apocalypticist in the tradition of the author of Revelation, who reports visions and foretells future events. Paul develops his theology around apocalyptic themes—he assumes that the end of the old age is rapidly approaching (1 Cor 10:11); anticipates the coming of the Messiah, {65} which grants believers access to the heavenly world and resurrection (1 Cor 15:23); and is convinced of the nearness of the coming age (Phil 4:5), when the coming Lord will bring both judgment and salvation (Phil 2:11).

A second clue is that virtually every issue Paul addresses in his letters is predicated on the new reality that Easter represents. The overwhelming predominance of eschatological and apocalyptic terms in his letters confirms this claim. 19 Even the images he uses to explain the saving significance of the cross are rooted in apocalyptic eschatology: “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]” (Col 2:15). Christ inaugurates the end-time age (i.e., eschaton) in which God is triumphing over hostile cosmic powers locked in battle for ultimate lordship over God’s creation. His death and resurrection “reveal” (in Greek, apokalyptō) that God is saving and creating a holy people to express God’s lordship over history and to complete the creation enterprise.

Only apocalyptic eschatology, which looks expectantly to the future, adequately explains why the starting point for Paul’s thought does not begin with Jesus’s life before the cross, and why his arguments are all somehow connected to the new Easter reality. Paul is convinced that he is witnessing the final act in God’s redemption drama. If he were to summarize his vision, Paul would say something like this: God is triumphing over evil through Jesus in order to redeem and reconfigure Israel into a people that is both Jewish and Gentile. The initial victory over personal, structural, and cosmic evil occurred at Easter, and now the Spirit of the risen Lord empowers God’s people to live as outposts of God’s coming reign and invites all creation to abandon its rebellion and to rediscover its true identity in God. All this is happening now because God is doing this in Jesus, the messianic Son of God.


We easily forget how unstable the early Christian movement was. As a new religious group, Christians were a distinct minority and drew their members from Jewish and pagan adherents. This often made them the object of suspicion, even hostility, by those who saw friends or family members join them. Persecution confirmed some in the truth of their faith, but would have led some to reconsider their decision. Internal issues also emerged which caused turmoil in some churches. The tension between Paul and the Jerusalem-based Christian leadership (Peter and James, the brother of Jesus) did not dissipate quickly. Paul constantly needed to defend his ministry against Christian critics of his theology and mission. His harshest words are reserved for “judaizers” who insisted, contrary to his explicit teaching, that Jesus-followers actually did need to become Torah {66} observant and adhere to such ancient Hebrew traditions as circumcision if they wanted to be part of God’s people. Moreover, there were no uniquely Christian Scriptures to which Paul could appeal to defend his views and refute those of his critics. There were no Gospels, no Epistles (except his own), no Revelations—in short, no New Testament—during Paul’s life. The fledging Christian movement was therefore also ripe for theological confusion and vulnerable to charismatic visionaries with intriguing new teachings. Small wonder that Paul constantly finds himself calling his churches back to the gospel he first preached to them, urging them to “hold fast” and “abide” in the truth despite persecution and the temptations of false teachings.

From the undisputed letters of Paul it is clear that Paul regarded the judaizers as the greatest threat to the churches he had established. Of course, there would be no threat if church members could or would allow their lives and their minds to be reshaped by the vision of a new creation that Paul offered them. And after his death in the early 60s, when no Christian leader of his stature and influence emerged to take his place, his churches likely became even more prone to the attractions of novel teachings delivered by rhetorically gifted, often mystically inclined, itinerants. Ironically, Paul’s teaching on how to conduct church services may have promoted a kind of anarchism that allowed heterodox teaching to get a hearing. As mentioned earlier, the need to have a bishop lead meetings is rendered unnecessary by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Hymns, revelations, and interpretations are freely shared at the Spirit’s prompting. Paul does expect that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40), but does not assign any person or create an office to see that things are done this way or to vet the “revelations” church members were sharing. By underestimating the need for formal leadership structures and stressing spiritual gifts, Paul himself probably contributed to the rise heterodox teachings in the churches.


It would not be overstating things much to claim that Paul’s death caused a crisis of authority in his mission churches. One direct consequence of this crisis was a surge in the perceived importance of his letters. In his letters were to be found clear statements of the Christian gospel and its basis in the grace of God, warnings against embracing human philosophies and pious legalisms, admonishments to love and support one another, encouragements to imitate Paul’s example in life and teachings, examples of how to interpret the Hebrew scriptures spiritually, reprimands for those who live in a manner unbefitting their calling as followers of Jesus. In short, Paul’s letters provided a de facto canon, a standard of Christian thought and practice. 20 {67}

Such a canon was tremendously helpful, but as churches developed after Paul’s death and encountered situations and challenges for which his letters did not provide clear answers, more guidance was needed. It is not impossible to imagine that during this time the Pauline missionary team—which had already collaborated with Paul and co-sponsored letters of encouragement and challenge to his young mission churches—would have believed that the crises facing the churches were so dire that a letter to them from the team leader “on company letterhead” was desperately needed. So, using some of the drafts in the collection of previous letters, Paul’s missionary colleagues extended Paul’s vision to situations unknown to Paul. Such pragmatic necessities are not best described as a sales gimmick or a conspiracy, but as a practical way of extending the Pauline tradition into new settings using the means available. No alternative instruments of persuasion were options at this early date. Without an authoritative canon, head office, or established church structure, such a response is quite understandable. In fact, the need to defend Christian tradition as delivered by Paul probably hastened the gathering of Pauline letters into a collection, with letters to churches (e.g., Romans) at the head and with letters to delegates (e.g., the Pastorals) at the end. The canonical arrangement of Pauline letters was thus likely designed to promote the ongoing appropriation of the Pauline tradition and the gospel of Messiah Jesus to which it gave witness (2 Pet 3:15–16).

This narrative, of course, is only credible to the extent that the disputed letters display or in some way presuppose the apocalyptic eschatology that informs all of Paul’s undisputed letters. This is what a close examination of the disputed Pauline letters confirms. The diverse themes of the “inauthentic” letters presuppose, even if they don’t explicitly mention, an apocalyptic eschatology. Indeed, a persistent apocalyptic eschatology can be traced from Paul’s early letters through to the later ones. In the early writings (1–2 Thess), the Pauline missionary team promotes it as vindication in the face of suffering and oppression. Jesus’s ongoing resurrected life assures the faithful that the new age is dawning and that it will one day be complete, in spite of evil’s unceasing efforts to cause hardship, pain, and death. In the middle writings (Gal, Rom, 1–2 Cor, Phil, Phlm, Col, and Eph), Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology is the backdrop for his understanding of God’s salvation plan, the work of Christ in defeating the rebellious powers, the gift of God’s Spirit to empower the church in its witness, the church’s invitation to the watching world, and the church’s mandate to join in God’s mission to reconcile all things and complete creation. In the later writings (1–2 Tim and Tit), the Pauline missionary team works to give structure to the apocalyptic eschatological vision during a time of engaged waiting and significant turbulence as the new age overlaps with the old. They {68} encourage believers to live above reproach, to promote unity of faith and life through strong church leadership, and, in the midst of various distractions, to keep the faith to which the Pauline tradition is a witness.


For these reasons I believe ministry students and others wrestling with implications of critical Pauline scholarship can rest assured that despite significant differences, all thirteen of the Epistles attributed to Paul—the “inauthentic” as well as the authentic—bear faithful testimony to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Christ. Paul’s proclamation in both sets of letters testifies to God’s faithfulness, graciousness, and loving kindness, and continues in every age to encourage and challenge the church of Christ to embody the same virtues. Those biblical writers who wrote on Paul’s behalf participated in and extended that proclamation, as do all devout ministers of the Word who let their meditations be guided by Paul’s example.


  1. The “New Perspective” on Paul is usually dated to the work of Krister Stendahl (“The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays, 78–96 [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976]) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977]). For a good summary of the arguments for and against, see Simon Gathercole, “What Did Paul Really Mean? ‘New perspective’ scholars argue that we need, well, a new perspective on justification by faith,” Christianity Today 51/8 (August 10, 2007).
  2. This essay is an adaptation of my section on Paul in Jon Isaak, New Testament Theology: Extending the Table (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 55–102.
  3. Werner G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 268.
  4. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 6–7.
  5. P46, Vaticanus, and Sinaiticus.
  6. Kümmel, Introduction to the NT, 361.
  7. P46, usually dated at 200 CE. The number of leaves missing from the codex are too few to have contained those three letters (Kümmel, Introduction to the NT, 370; and Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], 272 n. 74).
  8. Kümmel, Introduction to the NT, 370–385.
  9. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 455.
  10. Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in their Cultural Setting (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 193–200.
  11. Ehrman, A Historical Introduction, 396–401. {69}
  12. Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 273.
  13. For Martin Luther (“Prefaces to the New Testament,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960], 357–62), justification by faith constitutes the center of Paul’s thought—indeed the center of the entire NT. The NT books that did not sufficiently support this center were relegated to an appendix in Luther’s translation of the Bible. This explains why Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation were set off at the back of Luther’s 1522 German Bible. Part of the problem with this assessment is that Luther understood the Greek term dikiosynē as a judicial term (justification), as God’s declared gift of right standing to the individual. Most likely this was a projection from his constant debate with the Roman Catholic Church and his own introspective personality (Stendahl’s argument in “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”). The problem is that Luther’s forensic translation (where justice is about scales, weights, and measures; and correction is retributive) took in a different direction Paul’s Hebrew relational understanding (where justice is relational, and correction is restorative). Certainly justification by faith does play a role in Paul’s missionary practice, but in a more limited way: the manner by which to include Gentiles into God’s end-time people without requiring them to adopt ethnic Jewish badges of identity—circumcision, food rituals, and holy days. Justification by faith continues to be promoted as Paul’s center, but with different nuances. George Eldon Ladd, for example, insists that justification by faith must have more than an individual orientation; he says, “The unifying center is rather the redemptive work of Christ as the redemptive center of history” (A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 412). Rudolf Bultmann, by contrast, gives Paul’s preaching of justification by faith central importance, but with an existentialist twist: it is not so much about God, but about how individuals can now finally take full responsibility for their own salvation (Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1 [New York: Scribner, 1951], 191).
  14. According to Ferdinand Baur (Paul: The Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Work, His Epistles and His Doctrine: A Contribution to the Critical History of Primitive Christianity [London: Williams and Northgate, 1875]), there was an antithetical relationship between Paul (law-free gospel of spirit = thesis) and Peter (law-bound Jewish-Christianity = antithesis). Out of this interaction (spirit vs. law) emerged the synthesis known as early catholicism. Luke’s Acts, in this view, represents the accord between Peter and Paul; any prior tensions are smoothed over. The problem with this view is twofold: (1) Baur misrepresents first-century Judaism. For the most part, Judaism never thought of salvation as an achievement earned by completing works of law. That would make God a debtor, something unthinkable in Judaism. What distinguished the Israelite conception of God from concepts of its pagan neighbors was that salvation was always a gift of grace or election. (2) Baur’s Hegelianism, with its machine-like algorithm, has fallen into disfavor today because it does not adequately account for the actual growth of the early Christian movement (or of any other movements for that {70} matter). More satisfying is the explanation that history develops by paradigm shifts characterized by revolutionary spurts of one kind or another (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970]).
  15. Following the history-of-religion approach, William Wrede (Paul [London: Philip Greene, 1907]) saw Paul as the second founder of Christianity, who transformed the “historical” Jesus into the “redeemer” Christ via the pagan mythology available to him at the time. Wrede believed he could find in the mystery religions of Hellenistic mysticism and Gnosticism a mythology that Paul used to transform Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher of true morality into the universal, cosmic Christ of faith. According to Wrede’s reconstruction, at Jesus’s baptism the Christ descended upon him, and then just before he died on the cross, the Christ returned to heaven. Later, after the crucifixion, the Christ reanimated Jesus, causing him to appear to the disciples. Thus, the cosmic Christ of faith conveyed special knowledge to the disciples so that they also could survive death and return to the heavenly realm. The problem with this view is that the 1945 discovery of gnostic spiritual writings at the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi does not confirm these systematizations of gnostic thought (Wisse’s argument in “The Use of Early Christian Literature as Evidence for Inner Diversity and Conflict”). The collection itself shows an amazing variety of beliefs and practices, including the mixing of some Christian themes with other spiritualties. It would be too much to say that the gnostic redeemer mythology was readily available and used by Paul. If anything, the evidence points in the other direction: namely, that Gnosticism in the second century, and those with gnostic tendencies, found Christian writings attractive and useful for their purposes. For example, the first commentary on the Gospel of John was written by a gnostic named Heracleon, living around 170 CE. This should not be surprising, since gnostics could use almost any spiritual text to promote their particular aims during the heterodox period of early Christianity before 200 CE.
  16. Ralph P. Martin, Reconciliation: A Study of Paul’s Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981).
  17. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
  18. J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).
  19. Some eschatological terms include “last days” (2 Tim 3:1–8), “end time” (1 Cor 15:24–26), “now” (Rom 13:11), “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:23), firstborn (Col 1:15–20), “ages overlap” (1 Cor 10:11), “hope” (Tit 1:1–3), and “peace” (Eph 2:14). Some apocalyptic categories include “revelation” (Gal 1:12), “mystery” (Rom 16:25), “gospel” (Rom 1:1–6), “righteousness” (Rom 3:21–26), “promise” (Eph 2:12–21), “kingdom” (Col 1:13), “victory” (1 Cor 15:57), “triumph” (2 Cor 2:14), “resurrection” (Phil 3:10–11), “life” (1 Tim 6:11–19), “power” (Rom 1:16), “coming” (1 Cor 15:23),” appearing” (2 Tim 1:8–10), “salvation” (Phil 1:28), “judgment” (2 Cor 5:10), “light” and “darkness” (1 Thess 5:5), “principalities” and “powers” (Eph 6:12), “sin” (Rom 5:12–21), and “wrath” (1 Thess 5:9). {71}
  20. Gamble argues that it was likely an early edition of a codex collection of Paul’s letters that helped early Christians break from the standard scroll-form religious book and choose the more expandable codex form for its developing authoritative book (Books and Readers, 58).
Jon Isaak (PhD, McGill) is the Director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg. He has served with the Mennonite Brethren Church as missionary (1987–1998), Bible teacher (1998–2011), and historian (2011– ).

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