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 and rejected the system of dead rituals bound up in Judaism. Paul left Judaism, therefore, and turned to Christianity.
This account of Paul thrives among evangelicals because it resonates with many who come from legalistic environments. We narrate our testimonies as a movement from guilt to grace, from enslaving oppression to freedom in Christ. We assume, therefore, that Paul's journey mirrored ours. This view also shapes much of our preaching. Eager to let the glorious light of the gospel shine brightly, evangelicals set it against the dark backdrop of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness.
This scenario, while familiar, is deeply mistaken in at least three ways. First, it represents a faulty vision of Judaism in Paul's day. E. P. Sanders's seminal book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, was the catalyst for much of the intense debate over the past three decades in Pauline studies. Until its publication in 1977, the sharp contrast between Paul and his Jewish heritage dominated scholarship. Sanders's work gave scholars an entirely new appreciation of first-century Judaism, opening up afresh the world of Jesus and his first followers. We now have to realize that Paul's past wasn't ruled by simple legalism.
Because of this "new perspective," scholars now recognize that Paul would not have regarded Judaism as legalistic. They point to Jewish texts that stress the absolute need of divine grace for salvation. The Community Rule, a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains the following:
As for me, I belong to wicked mankind, to the company of ungodly flesh. My iniquities, rebellions, and sins, together with the perversity of my heart, belong to the company of worms and to those who walk in darkness. For mankind has no way, and man is unable to establish his steps since justification is with God and perfection of way is out of his hand.
The problem in the early church, therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn't have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism. This is the issue in Acts 15, when Christian Jews from Judea urged the Gentiles in Antioch, "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).
While the early church leaders decided in theory that non-Jewish believers in Jesus were not required to become Jews (Acts 15:13-21), many churches struggled with the practical challenges of becoming healthy multiethnic communities. Paul, as pastor and theologian, addresses these challenges by claiming that "no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law" (Rom. 3:20). This is not a condemnation of Judaism as inherently legalistic, but an affirmation that God does not justify a person merely because he is ethnically Jewish. Jews and non-Jews approach God on equal terms when it comes to salvation. All have sinned and all stand in need of God's redeeming grace in Christ (Rom. 3:23-24). Therefore all who are in Christ are equal siblings in God's new family (Gal. 3:26-28).
A second reason why we cannot envision Paul as anti-Jewish is that even after his conversion, Paul remained a Jew. He did not imagine that he was inventing a new religion, nor did he leave Judaism to join the Christian church. At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem and, at the suggestion of James, went through purification rituals at the temple (Acts 21:23-26). Paul saw no contradiction at all between his commitment to Christ and his faithful participation in Jewish practices. Explaining his ministry before a variety of audiences, Paul emphasized his Jewish identity and claimed to be acting in faithfulness to the God of Israel. Before the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, he declared, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!" (Acts 23:6, emphasis added). And to King Agrippa, he again claims to be a Pharisee whose hope is in the promises of God to Israel (Acts 26:4-6).
Third, Paul never calls upon Jews to reject Judaism. Instead, he exhorts them to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and welcome his non-Jewish followers as siblings in God's new family. We get a glimpse of his preaching to Jews in Acts 17:1-3: "When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,' he said."
The Paul of the New Testament, therefore, is not anti-Jewish. He was faithful both to the Scriptures and to his Jewish heritage. He preached Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, but was insistent that salvation in Christ was not limited to ethnic Jews. According to his gospel, all Jews needed to receive Jesus as Messiah, and all followers of Jesus—Jewish and non-Jewish—needed to embrace one another as siblings in God's global family in Christ.
Preaching the Kingdom
Evangelicals typically regard Paul as focusing on believers' private spirituality to the relative neglect of the church's communal character and social dynamics. This is quite different from the preaching of Jesus, who proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. He announced the arrival of the reign of God, calling for repentance and the renewal of corporate behaviors.
Paul, on the other hand, preached that God is saving individuals, taking up residence in their hearts, and giving them a heavenly destiny. His vision of the Christian life is one in which believers cultivate inner piety and practice private devotion.
This view of Paul is reinforced by our pietistic heritage and our individualistic culture. More recently, however, evangelicals have been awakening to the primacy of the church and its related corporate practices. New Testament scholars have also begun to note a greater continuity between the preaching of Jesus and that of Paul. Far from focusing on privatized piety, the apostle's conception of salvation concerns the arrival of the kingdom of God—a fundamentally communal reality.
According to Luke, God's reign was the dominant subject of Paul's preaching. He ends Acts with these words: "For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!" (Acts 28:30-31). Referring to everyone in Christ, Paul says that God has "rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Col. 1:13).
In his highly influential work on Ephesians, God's New Society, John Stott sums up Paul's community-oriented gospel:
One of our chief evangelical blind spots has been to overlook the central importance of the church. We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community. We emphasize that Christ died for us "to redeem us from all iniquity" rather than "to purify for himself a people of his own." We think of ourselves more as "Christians" than as "churchmen," and our message is more good news of a new life than of a new society. Nobody can emerge from a careful reading of Paul's letter to the Ephesians with a privatized gospel.
Paul does not, then, view salvation in individualistic terms apart from the arrival of God's kingdom in the church. As individuals, we have been saved for life-giving relationships within kingdom of God communities, not merely for privatized walks with Jesus. We become our true selves only in community, exercising our gifts and learning to receive the gifts of others. Paul's vision for the church includes the renewed social practices of forgiving and being forgiven, reconciling formerly alienated individuals and communities, learning to speak words of grace and kindness, practicing justice, and absorbing loss rather than taking vengeance for wrongs suffered. Social practices such as these suffer from neglect in our culture, especially when we orient ourselves by individualized and internalized conceptions of being Christian.
Evangelicals have done well to emphasize personal commitment to Christ, but we must take care to regard discipleship as the practice of transformative habits set within communities of renewal empowered by God's Spirit. Central to Paul's conception of salvation is "the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).
Evangelicals place a high priority on leadership, perhaps because historically our movement has been carried along by strong leaders. The great figures in our heritage have been powerful speakers and compelling visionaries, many of whom have built colleges, seminaries, and, in some cases, entire denominations. These are also the traits we want to see in our pastors.
Thus we intuitively assume that Paul was someone just like this. We think he must have been a compelling figure, a charismatic and decisive leader, and a powerful speaker. From the moment of conversion, he immediately put his great abilities to work for Christ, taking over the leadership of the church and becoming its powerful spokesperson.
When we look at the evidence from the New Testament, however, we find a very different picture. Surprisingly, Paul was not a captivating speaker. He was aware of the Corinthians' criticisms of his preaching: "For some say, 'His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing'" (2 Cor. 10:10). Just like these early believers, we find his letters rhetorically compelling. But we would be wrong to assume his preaching had the same effect.
Even more surprisingly, Paul doesn't apologize for his unimpressive personal presence. On the contrary, he seems to think it makes him even more fit to be a vessel for God's honor. He reveals his theological reasoning in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.
Paul knew the Corinthians' commitment would soon flounder if it rested on nothing sturdier than attraction to a winsome personality. Addressing them in frailty and humility, he ensured that the messenger would not overshadow the message of Christ crucified.
Add to Paul's pedestrian oratory a physical appearance that must have been quite unpleasant. In Acts 14:19-20, we read that Paul's ministry in Lystra came to a terrible end when volatile crowds were incited to stone him and drag him from the city, "thinking he was dead." Let this description work on your imagination for a moment: A bloodthirsty, riotous horde brutalizes Paul so badly that any chance of survival is dismissed. He must have been in horrible shape.
The Book of Galatians offers clues about what Paul looked like. Just after the episode in Lystra, Paul likely visited the Galatian churches, reporting that his physical condition "was a trial" to them (Gal. 4:13-14). He knew he looked repulsive and suspected that the sight of his injuries would turn stomachs. Of his scars and bruises, he says, "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Gal. 6:17), and he writes elsewhere of his tremendous sufferings, including torture and beatings. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, an apocryphal text from the second century, states that Paul was "a man small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, stocky with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed."
If we encountered Paul today, we might be disappointed to find someone quite unlike the strong and decisive leader we often imagine. In fact, many of our contemporary churches would hardly consider him a viable pastoral candidate. In this regard, as in so many others, the New Testament evidence resists efforts to re-create Paul in our own image.
Timothy Gombis is associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and the author of Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (TandT Clark).
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark) is available at Barnes & Noble and other book retailers.
Additional Christianity Today coverage of the life of Paul includes:
Jesus vs. Paul | Many biblical scholars have noted that Jesus preached almost exclusively about the kingdom of heaven, while Paul highlighted justification by faith—and not vice versa. What gives? (December 3, 2010)
The Apostle of the Golden Age | Classics scholar Sarah Ruden says extraordinary things happen when you read Paul alongside other ancient literature. (September 22, 2010)
What Did Paul Really Mean? | 'New Perspective' scholars argue that we need, well, a new perspective on justification by faith. (August 10, 2007)
Paul's Tomb Reportedly Discovered | Vatican archaeologist: Paul really is buried where the church said he is (Apr. 13, 2005)
Apostle Paul's Shipwreck Makes Headlines | Former U.S. ambassador tries to block book on search (May 2003)
The Women in Paul's Life | Two competing Bibles for women highlight the human component of Bible translation and interpretation. (October 27, 1997)
The Apostle Paul and His Times: Did You Know? | Little-known and remarkable facts about Paul and his times. (July 1, 1995)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more