St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions

Most Christians believe that there was essentially only one early church which was later imperiled by false teachings. The New Testament was the developing statement of this early church, and from it grew the whole structure of Christian belief. In this remarkable book, Michael Goulder sets out to disprove this commonly held theory.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions

  1. Review

    Michael Goulder, St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 196. Paperback, $15.99. ISBN: 0-664-25561-2.)

    In this clearly-written, insightful, and provocative study, Dr. Michael Goulder (1927-2010), noted Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, examines the heated conflict between Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, and the Jerusalem Mission (the Petrines), headed by Peter, the sons of Zebedee, and James, Jesus’ brother. While Paul and the Petrines agreed about the supreme importance of Jesus, they clashed over a host of other major issues. “From as far back as we can trace it (to the 40s),” Professor Goulder observes, “there never was a single, unified church.” Moreover, the four evangelists, writing approximately between 69 and 100, produced accounts reflecting this division. Mark, Luke, and John belonged to the Pauline camp; Matthew supported the Petrines. “The Gospels almost always give us the theology of their authors, and sometimes true tradition about Jesus,” Goulder contends.

    The “basic tension” between Paul and the Petrines, of course, concerned faithfulness to Jewish Law, including regulations about diet, the Sabbath, and circumcision. The Apostle realized “that the Gentile church-members would be repelled by a demand that they should observe such rulings, and he thought it was obvious that they did not apply now Christ had come.” This led to a sharp row between Paul and the Petrines, who insisted on strict adherence to Jewish commandments. “The issue about the Law,” Dr. Goulder maintains, “is the subject of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans, and crops up in virtually every other book in one form or another.”

    The debate between the Gentile and Jerusalem Missions over food laws, for example, is evident in the Gospels. In the Pauline Gospel of Mark, Jesus states that “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him” ( 7:15). Goulder points out that this “virtually abolishes the whole kosher system (kashrut); and that is how Mark understands it, for he adds,” Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7:19). However, in the Petrine Gospel of Matthew, Jesus emphasizes fidelity to Jewish Law: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:17-20).

    The Pauline and Petrine Missions quarreled over other matters, as well, including “whether the kingdom of God had arrived or not, sex, money, work,” healings, visions, speaking in tongues, and Christ’s very nature. Was Jesus an eternal being, as Paul argued, or adopted/possessed by a heavenly spirit from baptism to crucifixion, as Petrines believed? The vital issue of the resurrection also split the rival missions. Paul preached the physical resurrection of Jesus while the Jerusalem Christians stressed his spiritual rising.

    Interestingly, Dr. Goulder discounts the resurrection, bodily or otherwise. “Jesus did not really rise from the dead,” he asserts, “either physically or spiritually.” Goulder does believe, however, that Peter and other early followers had visions of the executed Galilean. Deep, tortuous guilt explains this. Peter, who had cravenly abandoned then profanely denounced Jesus, desperately needed absolution. A risen, forgiving Christ provided balm for the anguished disciple. Peter “had forsaken Jesus and fled. He had three times denied his master to save his skin. Finally Jesus, on whom he had pinned such high hopes, died a pathetic death in public. Small wonder if he were in crisis, in need of resolving the…despair and self-horror,” Goulder explains. “It is easy to think that in modern terms what Peter experienced was a conversion-vision. On Good Friday Peter could only see himself as a total spiritual failure; and Jesus too—all the hopes of the last years and the talk of the kingdom of God, it had all been an empty dream. The Easter vision cleared all that away. Jesus was alive; the things he had said were true; Peter was a forgiven sinner; the movement had a great future.”

    The Two-Missions Theory (Paulines contra Petrines) dates back to German scholar Ferdinand Baur (1792-1860), who initially advanced the idea in 1831. Dr. Goulder does a masterful job of revising and modernizing Professor Baur and making his Two-Missions Hypothesis accessible to today’s reader. In short, Goulder’s St. Paul versus St. Peter, while containing material that will undoubtedly challenge many believers, is a work of much merit. Students of the New Testament and early Christian history will profit from this commendable volume.

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