The Paul We Think We Know
Image: Saint Paul, 1610–12 by Peter Paul Rubens / The Bridgeman Art Library

Evangelicals feel a special connection with the apostle Paul. We shape our theology according to his thought, imitate his mission to evangelize, and pursue discipleship after his devotional practices. But our vision of him is loaded with misconceptions. Have we become more Pauline than Paul himself?

Last April in Christianity Today, Scot McKnight profiled "The Jesus We'll Never Know," describing the tendency of New Testament scholars to create a historical Jesus in their own image. We do the same with the great apostle. Like gazing into a mirror, we easily see our own reflections when we look at Paul.

Intense debates in Pauline studies over the past three decades have yielded fresh insights into Paul's thought and corrected some mistaken assumptions. If we want to be truly Pauline, we will have to take stock of these findings. Let us examine two longstanding misconceptions that have not held up under recent scrutiny, and then note one further way in which we tend to impose our evangelical values upon this apostle of Jesus Christ.

Salvation to the Jews

The misconception about Paul with the longest historical pedigree is that he was anti-Jewish. Many imagine that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul immediately rejected Judaism and embraced Christianity. They assume that in the first century these were two clearly distinguishable religions. Before his encounter with Christ, the thinking goes, Paul was wrapped up in a legalistic pursuit of salvation and was teaching others a similar philosophy. So great was his passion that he persecuted the Christians who taught salvation by grace through faith. After his conversion, everything changed. He embraced God's gracious salvation by faith in Christ ...

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The Paul We Think We Know
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July 2011

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