With the exception of only Jesus, no biblical personality has inspired a greater volume and diversity of research than Paul of Tarsus. The apostle’s life and works have been explored under almost every conceivable category of analysis. As Stephen Westerholm rightly observes,
Within the academy, anthropological readings of the apostle are heaped upon feminist, which are heaped upon historical, which are heaped upon liberationist or Marxist, which are heaped upon psychological, which are heaped upon rhetorical, which are heaped upon sociological, which are heaped upon theological.(1)
What motivates this cumulative “heap” of readings? Some would propose that Paul continues to earn scholarly interest because of the fierce controversies that have always surrounded him. Indeed, Paul’s ability to provoke contention—be it in his day or our own—can hardly be denied. His own writings would certainly indicate as much (2):
From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren (2 Cor 11:24–27).
When Paul was not in conflict with the non-Christian world, he was often found embroiled in matters of ecclesial discord:
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. (1 Cor. 1:10–17)
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed. (Gal. 2:11)
The interreligious strife and theological disagreements that attended Paul during his lifetime did not cease with his martyrdom. It has been noted that Paul has found “no congenial interpreter and probably never will. From Marcion to Karl Barth, from Augustine to Luther, Schweitzer or Bultmann, he has ever been misunderstood or partially understood, one aspect of his work being thrown into relief while others have been misunderstood and neglected.”(3) The terms Pauline Christianity, Paulism, and Paulanity have become associated with an ongoing debate that centers on Paul’s influence in the formation of the canon and formulation of doctrinal orthodoxy. Higher critical study of the Pauline corpus was foundational to the intellectual movement that brought about theological modernism,(4) and his writings remain at the center of conversations between scholars of the liberal and conservative persuasions. Esteemed by Protestantism as the great champion of Reformation soteriology, he has been reinterpreted under the “New Perspective on Paul” as a critic of Covenantal Nomism.(5) Extolled by some as a forerunner of modern social egalitarianism who declared, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), he has been reviled by others as a misogynistic anti-Semite whose intolerant attitudes are antithetical to the ethos of modern society.
Arguably the most derisive of Paul’s opponents have emerged apart from the broader Christian community and theological academy. Among the most well-noted of his detractors was Thomas Jefferson, who alleged that Paul was “the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.”(6) Friedrich Nietzsche offered a more severe critique in proposing that it is Paul, rather than Jesus, who should be regarded as the true inventor of Christianity:
The “glad tidings” [of Jesus] were followed closely by the absolutely worst tidings—those of St. Paul. Paul is the incarnation of a type which is the reverse of that of the Saviour; he is the genius in hatred, in the standpoint of hatred, and in the relentless logic of hatred. And alas what did the dysevangelist not sacrifice to his hatred. . . . He did more: he once more falsified the history of Israel, so as to make it appear as a prologue to his mission.(7)
It is simply the monumental outcome of Paul’s ministry and mission that continues to energize scholarly exposition and criticism.
Although Bertrand Russell did not accuse Paul of doctrinal corruption, he did lament his influence upon the “regrettable” Christian view of human sexuality:
The Christian view that all intercourse outside marriage is immoral was, as we see in the above passages from St. Paul, based upon the view that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, is regrettable. A view of this sort, which goes against biological facts, can only be regarded by sane people as a morbid aberration. The fact that it is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life.(8)
It cannot be denied that Paul was and remains a source of sharply divided opinion. Yet the intellectually honest academic must admit that his appeal as an object of study goes beyond a timeless capacity to provoke theological infighting or offend the religious and social sensibilities of his readers. Rather, it is simply the monumental outcome of Paul’s ministry and mission that continues to energize scholarly exposition and criticism.
Paul’s place in the founding of the church and propagation of its message can hardly be overestimated. Epistles attributed to his authorship comprise nearly half of the New Testament and are almost universally regarded as the earliest textual sources of the canon. His letter to the church at Rome is conceivably the most influential discourse to have ever been composed on the Christian faith. More than any other emissary of the gospel, it was Paul who brought Christ to the Hellenistic world. During the first century, Paul’s apostolic status did not surpass that of his cohorts—and yet he is peerless in his evangelistic accomplishments, literary bequeathal, and contributions to Christian thought. In addition, as David Horrell writes, “There were other leaders within earliest Christianity, Peter, James and John . . . who probably at the time enjoyed more authority and influence than Paul. Yet the level of Paul’s enduring influence far outweighs his influence during his lifetime.”(9) While Nietzsche may have misidentified Paul as the true institutor of Christianity, his error does underscore the immeasurable impact exerted by the “apostle to the Gentiles” on the course of church history and religious consciousness of Western civilization.
It is in appreciation of Paul’s remarkable life and legacy that we shift attention to the central concern of the present work—Paul and the Resurrection.
This is an excerpt from the book, “Paul and the Resurrection” written by Joshua Pagán (1517 Publishing, 2020), pgs ix-xiv. Used by Permission.