Another round in the Battle for Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

More notes (earlier notes from same book here and here) from Dennis MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle (though with my own twist in presentation)

We all know the Paul who is presented as the author of the Pastoral epistles:

He condemns those false teachers who make their way into households and lead away captive women who love to listen to their lies;

For of these are those who creep into houses, and take captive gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim.3.6-7)

He condemns those same ones who teach against marriage, who preach sexual abstinence;

But the Spirit says expressly that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding marriage . . . (1 Tim.4.1-3)

And he opposes those who follow vegetarian diets and avoid wine – he even recommends wine;

. . . and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Tim.4.3)

Be no longer a drinker of water only, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities. (1 Tim.5.23)

And he preaches against women preaching;

Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I don’t permit a woman to teach . . . but to be in quietness. (1 Tim.2.11-12)

And commands women to stay at home and have lots of children and live submissively and happily ever after.

But I don’t permit a woman . . . to exercise authority over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived, but the woman, being deceived, has fallen into disobedience; but she will be saved through her child-bearing, if they continue in faith, love, and sanctification with sobriety. (1 Tim.2.11-15)

Another Paul

But this Paul was not everyone’s ideal. The author of the Acts of Paul had a very different, even opposite view of what the apostle stood for. Maybe it was stories of Paul like this that were floating around that the Pastoral Epistles was opposing. Were they the “old wives tales” condemned by the Pastoralist posing as Paul?

But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things . . . (1 Tim.4.7-8)

The bodily training here is possibly a reference to ascetic practices. And those who tell the “old wives tales” are possibly the same as the hypocritical liars mentioned above in v.2 who were forbidding marriage. Were the tales of Paul and Thecla the “old wives fables” that the Pastoralist attacks?

Compare the Paul known to the Acts of Paul and Thecla(AP):

AP 2:7-13

And as Paul was saying these things in the midst of the assembly (church) in the house of Onesiphorus, a certain virgin, Thecla, whose mother was Theocleia, which was betrothed to an husband, Thamyris, sat at the window hard by, and hearkened night and day unto the word concerning chastity which was spoken by Paul: . . . . O Thamyris, this man upsetteth the whole city of the Iconians, and thy Thecla also, for all the women and the young men go in to him and are taught by him. Ye must, saith he, fear one only God and live chastely. And my daughter, too, like a spider at the window, bound by his words, is held by a new desire and a fearful passion: for she hangeth upon the things that he speaketh, and the maiden is captured. But go thou to her and speak to her; for she is betrothed unto thee.

And Thamyris went to her, alike loving her and fearing because of her disturbance (ecstasy), and said: Thecla, my betrothed, why sittest thou thus? and what passion is it that holdeth thee in amaze; turn unto thy Thamyris and be ashamed. And her mother also said the same: Thecla, why sittest thou thus, looking downward, and answering nothing, but as one stricken? And they wept sore, Thamyris because he failed of a wife, and Theocleia of a child, and the maidservants of a mistress; there was, therefore, great confusion of mourning in the house.

And while all this was so, Thecla turned not away, but paid heed to the speech of Paul. . . .

But Thamyris leapt up and went forth into the street and watched them that went in to Paul and came out. And he saw two men striving bitterly with one another, and said to them: Ye men, tell me who ye are, and who is he that is within with you, that maketh the souls of young men and maidens to err, deceiving them that there may be no marriages but they should live as they are. . . . . .

And Demas and Hermogenes said unto him: Who this man is, we know not; but he defraudeth the young men of wives and the maidens of husbands, saying: Ye have no resurrection otherwise, except ye continue chaste, and defile not the flesh but keep it pure. And Thamyris said to them: . . . . I am defrauded of my marriage.


. . . Now they who drew up the travels of Paul have related that he did many other things, and among them this, which befell when he was at Ephesus. . . . But the people of the city, fiercely enraged, put Paul’s feet into irons, and shut him up in the prison, till he should be exposed as a prey to the lions. But Eubula and Artemilla, wives of eminent men among the Ephesians, being his attached disciples, and visiting him by night, desired the grace of the divine washing. . . . . The anger of the Ephesians, it cannot be doubted, was roused by Paul’s preaching of continence, to which Eubula and Artemilla had become converts.AP 2:5

And when Paul entered into the house of Onesiphorus, there was great joy, and bowing of knees and breaking of bread, and the word of God concerning abstinence (or continence) and the resurrection; for Paul said:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are they that keep the flesh chaste, for they shall become the temple of God.

Blessed are they that abstain (or the continent), for unto them shall God speak.

Blessed are they that have renounced this world, for they shall be well-pleasing unto God.

Blessed are they that possess their wives as though they had them not, for they shall inherit God. . . . .

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy and shall not see the bitter day of judgement. Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well- pleasing unto God and shall not lose the reward of their continence (chastity), for the word of the Father shall be unto them a work of salvation in the day of his Son, and they shall have rest world Without end.

AP 2:25

And there was much love within the sepulchre, for Paul rejoiced, and Onesiphorus, and all of them. And they had five loaves, and herbs, and water (and salt), and they rejoiced for the holy works of Christ.

AP 2:41

And Paul took her by the hand and brought her into the house of Hermias, and heard all things from her; so that Paul marvelled much, and they that heard were confirmed, and prayed for Tryphaena. And Thecla arose and said to Paul: I go unto Iconium. And Paul said: Go, and teach the word of God.

So there was another (anti-Pastoralist) ascetic Paul out there who was subverting households and forbidding marriage, encouraging women to leave their husbands, and even commanding them to preach.

Which came first? MacDonald correctly observes that it is the Pastoral letters that are the polemic. They are the ones on the attack. So there must have been something in existence that their author was attacking, ….. duh? And the sort of teachers he was attacking for being liars and false we find in the Acts of Paul.

Do these Acts, or at least earlier oral forms of the legends which the Acts of Paul later brought together, identify the target of the Pastoral Epistles?

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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