The (Really) Old Perspective on Paul

Did Paul exist?

Yes, obviously in one sense, although there are some curious characters on the edge of biblical studies who might wonder. I mean something more specific: did the classic Paul taken for granted in much contemporary Christianity, the Jewish convert to Christianity, the architect of Gentile freedom, the "apostle of the free spirit" as one evangelical tome put - did he exist?

Some aspects of this Paul have certainly been put under the microscope in recent biblical scholarship, and the results of this so-called "new perspective" on Paul are still being debated. What I have in mind though is a much older perspective, the picture of Paul current in the earliest Christianity to which we have access after his own time.

Many have observed the relative absence of influence from or interest in that classic Paul in the ancient Church where the canon of scripture was itself assembled. Adolf von Harnack famously observed (citing Franz Overbeck) that the arch-heretic Marcion “was the only Gentile Christian who understood Paul, and he misunderstood him”. 

By contrast Tertullian, the great critic of Marcion, is given an exceptionally negative scorecard for understanding Paul by at least one distinguished scholar.

The late Gilles Quispel suggested that because “Paul never came to Africa and… his letters were never really understood there”, “Tertullian…did not really understand what ‘the rightwising of the ungodly’ or ‘suffering with Christ’ or ‘Christ is the end of the Law’ really meant”.

Both Quispel’s and Harnack’s observations point to the undeniable differences between the theology of Paul’s undisputed writings on the one hand, and other early Christian constructions of truth and salvation - and of Paul himself - including Tertullian’s.

But the notion that Paul was somehow incomprehensible to ancient readers, but is now perfectly accessible to modern ones, should attract some critical scrutiny. Arguably such a Paul as Quispel's, characterized by certain key themes of the Letters to the Romans and Galatians in particular, is uniquely accessible to modernity, and in part its creation.

The modern Paul does have a history. If he flickers into view only briefly and unclearly in Marcion's project, he perhaps has more substance in Augustine, who shapes him and passes him to posterity as the convert par excellence, somewhat entwined with Augustine's own experience and introspection.

Few others in late ancient or medieval Christianity however share the same interest in the apostle as a distinct figure at all, let alone in terms of now-familar themes. The Reformation is required before we see more clearly the Paul to whom Harnack and Quispel referred. Since then, one version or another of a Paul centred on elements of Galatians and Romans has held sway in Protestant theology, but also in other forms of historical and literary discourse, as discomforting for catholic Christianity as (supposedly) for Judaism of his own time.

Since the rise of critical scholarship in the 19th century, the possibility of discerning an authentic Paul within a corpus of mixed origin (where perhaps Colossians and Ephesians, and probably the Pastoral epistles, are not attributed to him personally) has modified the classical Protestant view, but actually increased the emphasis on Paul’s distinctive theology. This helps to explain the appeal of Marcion’s intriguing but idiosyncratic view for Harnack and some subsequent critics; as the one known example of an ancient quester for a particular Paul within the broader tradition, Marcion’s project is structurally comparable to modern ones, however different their specific conclusions.

The recent emergence of the “new perspective” on Paul indicates that what scholars of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries assumed or argued concerning Paul may no longer seem so well-established.

Yet despite influential critiques of now-traditional emphasis on (e.g.) Paul’s own real or alleged introspection, the "new" perspective as well as the old focuses on a Paul neither accessible to ancient readers of the apostle, nor indeed of interest to them.

Tertullian and other ancient interpreters used their reading of Paul synthetically, to construct and defend their Christian systems and cultures in ways that drew various elements of scripture and tradition together, seeing the whole in the parts. This "historic" Paul, far removed from the "historical" one, is not discerned by excavating for some specific idea or genius within a literary corpus; rather he is the persona implied by that corpus as a whole, as well as by the wider reputation of the apostolic hero and martyr, including the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles. 

Of course this Paul is a construct, open to criticism which at times may seem fatal. Yet he must be grappled with, if we are to avoid not just a chauvinism of modernity, but a sort of hermeneutical solipsism. Did Paul leave in the canonical texts some sort of meaning imbedded, hidden even, which meant something only to him before Augustine, Luther, or Bultmann variously revealed it?

The fact that the Pauline canon was preserved, as well as expanded, suggests an ancient appreciation of Paul whose fact and character demand reflection. Our own constructs may seem preferable to these ancient ones, for all sorts of reasons; but our own Paul has not been immaculately conceived either.

Tertullian’s view of Paul is, in broad terms at least, far more typical in ancient Christianity, and not merely the result of some lack peculiar to the African context or to his own disposition. And Harnack’s aphorism about Marcion and Paul contains an unintended hint; perhaps, if no one “understood” Paul in the modern sense, it was because such a Paul did not exist.

For Further reading:

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (1963): 199-215.
Paula Fredriksen, “Paul and Augustine: Conversion narratives, orthodox traditions, and the retrospective self,” The Journal of Theological Studies 37, no. 1 (1986): 3.
Gilles Quispel, “African Christianity before Minucius Felix and Tertullian,” in Gnostica, Judaica, Catholica: collected essays of Gilles Quispel, ed. Johannes Oort (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008), 389-460.

[Adapted from part of a chapter I have contributed to a forthcoming book on the reception of Paul in the early Church, specifically in Tertullian. Thanks fo David Wilhite and Todd Still for the stimulus.]


  1. > the "apostle of the free spirit" as one evangelical tome put

    An unfortunate title, to be sure. In the US it was never called that--here the title was "Apostle of the Heart Set Free."


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