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Rediscovering the Authentic Paul

Paul and Jesus.  The life, mission, and writings of the Apostle Paul loom large over the Christian Church.  Whatever our personal opinion of Paul, after Jesus, he remains the major personality in the growth and shaping of the early church.  His contribution to Christianity is immeasurable by virtually any standard.

Interestingly enough–over the centuries–while Jesus is thought of in glowing terms, Paul has had many detractors.  Critics have accused Paul of distorting the Christianity of Jesus.  They have claimed that Paul moved Christianity away from a pre-Easter emphasis on Jesus’ teachings (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) and social-justice commitments to an abstract, post-Easter emphasis on who Jesus was in the life of the resurrection (i.e., the living Christ or Christ crucified).

In the ongoing evolution of Christian faith, the pre-Easter Jesus (the historical Jesus) and the post-Easter Jesus (the Jesus of faith) are not incompatible.  Together they comprise who Jesus was, who he is, and who be becomes in evolving communities of faith.  Beyond this, while there are clearly differences between Paul and Jesus, at the same time, they bear much in common.

Beyond all of this, historically, Paul has been widely criticized for what people (mostly women) assume to be his views on women, slavery, hierarchy in the Church, and gays and lesbians.  With regard to all of these criticisms, Paul has been largely misunderstood.  In attempting to explain the misunderstanding, it is imperative we come to agreement on what books (more accurately, they are letters, or epistles), attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul, and what books were not.

Authentic Paul.  We begin be making a distinction between the different Pauls.  There were four Pauls.  Imagine that!  Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, thirteen are attributed to Paul.  (In some Bibles, a fourteenth book, Hebrews, has also been attributed to Paul.  However, virtually no reputable scholar would affirm that today.)  These thirteen books fall into three categories: those written by Paul (the authentic Paul), those for which there is some lingering uncertainty (the disputed Paul), and those not written by Paul.

Generally, there is scholarly consensus that of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, Paul actually wrote seven of them: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.  These letters are known as authentic Paul.  Additionally, three of the letters attributed to Paul are known as the disputed letters–meaning that, while most scholars dispute Paul wrote them, some continue to argue for Pauline authorship.  These letters are Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.  The remaining three letters bearing Paul’s name, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, are not believed to have been written by Paul.

The problem with these three different groupings of letters is that they advocate notably different views on slavery, patriarchy, and hierarchy in the early faith communities.  These differences have consequences.  Easily, Paul can be accused of promoting views on slaves, women, and hierarchy within the church that Paul, in his authentic letters, did not support.  Thus, the importance of rediscovering the authentic Paul.

For example, Paul’s views on patriarchy reveal he is radically egalitarian, as is Jesus.  Both Paul and Jesus were what we today would call radically inclusive.  Regarding equality between men and women, check out what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4:

But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not have authority over her own body, the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

In this pericope (section of scripture), we should note the equality/reciprocity in the husband/wife relationship.  Again, Paul, like Jesus, was radically egalitarian.  Moreover, in the churches Paul helped found, women often held leadership positions, such as with Phoebe at the church in Cenchreae and Pricilla–along with her husband Aquila–in one of the house churches in Rome.  And finally, there is Junia and her husband Adronicus–both of whom were apostles–at the church in Jerusalem or, perhaps, in Damascus.     

The three Pauls in letters attributed to Paul.  To begin with there is the radical (liberal) Paul, also referred to as the authentic Paul.  This is the Paul of the seven authentic letters.  The Paul in these authentic letters, is radically egalitarian.  In all relationships, he believes in equality and reciprocity in relations between men and women (husbands and wives, for example).  There is also the conservative Paul, referring to the disputed letters of Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians.  In these disputed letters, there is less reciprocity.  And finally, there is the reactionary Paul found in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, in which there is virtually no reciprocity.

The fourth Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.  Beyond these three Pauls, there is a fourth Paul revealed by Luke in his second volume, The Acts of the Apostles.  In Acts, there are twenty-eight chapters and Paul is the main character in sixteen of them.  The problem is that in Acts, written a generation or two later–and after the devastating war with Rome (66-70 CE)–Luke tried to soften Paul, not wanting Christianity to be viewed as threatening to Rome in any way.  Acts also seeks to present Paul as being far more compatible with the pillars of the Jerusalem Church than was in fact the case.


The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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