Questioning Paul’s Letters. Were they really “occasional”? Or rhetorical fictions?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Edited with a few minor additions and corrections of lots of typos at 16:16 pm CST (Australia) time, 21st Dec 2012.

I don’t know the answer to those questions in the title. But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence. That is, their appearance as spur-of-the-moment letters is a rhetorical fiction.

I have never known what to make of Paul’s letters. There are many reasons for that. But there have always been two reasons I have been at least open to questioning what they seem to be:

  1. rosenmeyerPatricia Rosenmeyer in 2001 published a book, Ancient Epistolary Fictions, demonstrating that the writing of fictional letters was an art form well known and practiced in the literary culture of the era we are talking about. I dot-pointed some of the highlights from her book in an old post of mine, Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions;
  2. I stumbled across a very modern voice from a 1904 publication warning New Testament scholars of the danger of accepting ancient sources at face value or according to their own self-witness, and the need always to demonstrate, never assume, that ancient sources are in fact what we (or even the ancients) think they are:
    • The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself [that is, we need to ask if our earliest references to Paul’s letters base their information or knowledge of those letters on what the letters themselves say, and not from any independent tradition]; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . .

      This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

jerpaulEarlier this month I wrote my first post explaining why Paul’s letter to the Galatians may not have been spontaneously written by a fearful apostle agonizing over the possibility of losing his flock as most readers have always assumed: Sowing Doubt That An Emotional Paul Authored Galatians. Paul’s “spontaneous emotional outburst” may well be seen as an artful reconstruction of passages in Jeremiah. I will have more to say about the literary/theological nature of the “opponents” Paul speaks about in that letter later in this post.

There are many other passages in Paul’s writings that can be explained as being carefully crafted on Old Testament narrative passages and structures. I am currently catching up with one of Richard Hays’ works (The Faith of Jesus Christ) along similar lines, but till I complete that I will point to aspects of Thomas Brodie’s works. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, for example, that we have always taken to be Paul’s response to nasty squabbles within the Corinthian church involving members taking one another to court, may instead be a theological teaching based on, and “spiritualizing”, the teaching of Deuteronomy 1. To give just the bird’s eye overview (avoiding the details for now), we have in both passages


  • appointments of the wise to judge
  • the judging among brothers
  • the command to avoid unjust judgement/unjust judges
  • defining those who will not inherit the land/the kingdom
  • defining those who will inherit the land/the kingdom
  • reference to moral failure leading to complete defeat

The ensuing passages in 1 Corinthians with their seemingly random sequence — instructions on foods, sexual relations, food again and eating with knowledge, and the perishing of the weak brother — may be less randomly sequenced than we think if we compare the Genesis account of God instructing Adam and Eve on foods, then sex and the distinct roles of Adam and Eve, then eating with knowledge, and the death that follows, in particular of Cain’s brother.

echoes_haysOkay, that’s going to seem bizarre to most — and it did at first to me, too. So I should back up a bit at this point and bring in at least one passage from Richard Hays. In Romans 10:6-8 a character Paul names “The Righteousness from Faith” says:

Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ . . . or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ . . . The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.

A reader of this passage who is familiar with Deuteronomy hears Paul echoing Deut. 30:11-14 where Moses is exhorting Israel to keep (not the faith but) the law:

Moses’ point is that the Law is near: the commandments of God are neither esoteric nor impossible to obey, for they have been graciously given to Israel in “this book of the Law.” In Romans 10, however, a puzzling shift occurs: as Paul interprets these words, they refer not to the Law but to “the word of faith which we preach” (Rom. 10:8b). Indeed, while claiming Moses’ words from Deuteronomy, The Righteousness from Faith now appears to speak as Moses’ adversary. Through a series of parenthetical interpretive comments, Paul takes possession of Moses’ exhortation and transforms its sense so that Moses is made to bear witness to the gospel.

This tour de force is not an isolated instance. Paul repeatedly interprets Scripture in ways that must have startled his first audience. . . . Paul appropriates the story of Abraham, the forefather of Israel who first received circumcision as a sign of covenant relation with God, in order to argue against circumcision. . . .

In Paul we encounter a first-century Jewish thinker who, while undergoing a profound disjuncture with his own religious tradition, grappled his way through to a vigorous and theologically generative reappropriation of Israel’s Scriptures. . . . [H]e insistently sought to show that his proclamation of the gospel was grounded in the witness of Israel’s sacred texts. The trick lay in learning how to read these texts aright. . . (Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul 1989, pp. 1-2, my emphasis)

We have every reason to expect the unexpected, the counter-intuitive, when investigating how Paul used Scriptures.

We are well aware of the way the authors of the Gospels re-used Scriptures by changing its original meaning and context completely. Elijah soaring into the heavens on a fiery chariot becomes Jesus quietly ascending through the clouds; the healing of a leper of high social standing and matching pride is turned into the healing of a leper who is a social outcast; and so on and on.

Is it possible that the author(s) of the epistles was/were doing something similar with the Scriptures in order to compose his/their treatises?

41SCNrbK7JL._SL500_AA300_Thomas Brodie came to the possibility that Paul’s letters were not what they seem to be at face-value through reflections on Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative. Brodie studied this work to try “to get a better sense of what kind of writing we are dealing with in the Old Testament,” and came to see that the NT epistles fall into the same attributes as Hebrew narrative: they are reticent, composite, repetitive, and — “historicized fiction.” In Brodie’s view,

What hit me was that the entire narrative regarding Paul, everything, the thirteen epistles say about him or imply — about his life, his work and travels, his character, his sending and receiving of letters, his readers and his relationship to them — all of that was historicized fiction. [Anyone who has read Patricia Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions (see above) will know that all these sorts of “throwaway details” in the epistles are the very points of verisimilitude that were taught and applied to create fictional letters as an art-form.] It was fiction, meaning that the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981: 27). (Thomas Brodie, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus 2012, p. 145).

Such a conclusion obviously requires an explanation. Brodie continues:

The idea of composing letters and attributing them to someone else, real or fictitious, is not unique. Examples vary from the fictitious correspondence between Paul and Seneca — a series of letters not composed until around 300 CE — to modern letters that are lighter in tone, such as C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942), or humorous , such as John B. Keane’s Letters of a Love-hungry Farmer (1974). The picture of John B. Keane’s farmer may be fictitious and humorous, but he is not vague. The love-hungry John Bosco McLane is fully historicized, complete with life-like details. The letters bearing Paul’s name are in a different league, but some of the same principles apply. For the sake of communicating a message, it is possible to compose letters that evoke a vibrant character and an epoch-making vision.

So — and this reality took time to sink in — the figure of Paul joined the ranks of so many other figures from the older parts of the Bible, figures who, despite the historical details surrounding them, were literary, figures of the imagination.

This did not make these figures without value, any more than the figure of the Good Samaritan on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho is without value. . . . (p. 146)

And further,

The scriptural account of Paul’s life, with its details, from womb to old age, links him both to God and to human existence. Under Jesus, he is presented as someone to be imitated, a central model. ‘Everything was given to him [Paul] so that he could be for all peoples a sign of the merciful God’ (Martini 2008: 24) . . .

The idea that Paul was a literary figure did not remove the possibility that behind the epistles lay one outstanding historical figure who was central to the inspiring of the epistles, but that is not the figure whom the epistles portray. Under that person’s inspiration — or the inspiration of that person plus co-workers — the epistles portray a single individual, Paul, who incorporates in himself and in his teaching a distillation of the age-long drama of God’s work on earth. (pp. 146-147)

Paul as a Literary Figure: Direct Evidence — from the Epistles Themselves

1. Authorship

Scholars now generally agree that Paul is not the real author of all NT letters that bear his name and contain “biographical” details about him.

So the principle that ostensible authorship and biographical detail in a letter does not necessarily establish they are really by Paul is already established.

Further, the criteria (style and content) used for establishing the genuine epistles are not reliable. I have repeated the observation of another scholar(s) that they are, indeed, circular: “we know these letters are written by Paul because they contain a vibrant style; we know Paul wrote in a vibrant style because those letters are by him.” Brodie, however, uses his own literary analysis of the letters, such as 1 Corinthians and Galatians (as referenced above) to argue that the letters are not at all what they seem to be on the surface.

The claim at 1 Cor. 16:21 of “Paul” adding his signature is another piece of narrative fiction that fitted well with the larger fiction of Paul’s life as well as with the contemporary convention of having a scribe or secretary write for the “real” author.

Brodie concludes:

And once Paul’s authorship of 1 Corinthians goes, Paul’s authorship of all the epistles becomes open to question. (p. 148)

2. Genre/form/kind/nature

Though the task of identifying a document’s nature (what is it, exactly?) is pivotal, it has not been easy in the case of Paul’s letters. They have often been classified with simple, plain letters like other ancient letters, “like spontaneous letters to specific individuals.”

But that mantle of spontaneous simplicity seems interwoven with other features. Under closer scrutiny the documents have emerged as more sophisticated. For instance, in varying ways they use careful rhetoric. Furthermore, the very size of the epistles makes them stand out, and asks if they contain more than normal epistles. On average they are over ten times longer than papyrus letters, and more than two to eight times longer than the sophisticated epistles of Seneca and Cicero. They are in a league of their own. If the epistles are in a league of their own, what makes them different? Does some line separate them clearly from others? (pp. 148-149)

This reminds me of the Gospels themselves. They, too, are innovative, standing out, unlike other works, though similar to many others at the same time.

Brodie explains that while the letters do often look spontaneous with a sense of addressing immediate contingencies, and thus are called “letters” by some scholars, they also appear to contain meticulously shaped essays beneath the surface, and hence other scholars prefer to call them “epistles”.

Brodie concludes, therefore, that these works are a combination of genres, not unlike the way Genesis is s synthesis of genres.

Seneca’s letters too involve blending; they are ‘essays in disguise’. Likewise the Pauline epistles, but more so. They look like letters, but they are essays in disguise, they are multi-faceted epistles. (p. 149)

3. Autobiographical passages

The epistles’ autobiographical passages appear quite spontaneous and realistic, perfect material for a historian.

Oh yes. How that line jells with what I have come to discuss so often with respect to the gospels. Recall Liverani’s observation about “lazy historians” picking up and running with any narrative account that seems to explain it all for them.

However, comparison with other ancient authors shows that Pauline autobiography is part of a larger literary practice and that the epistles deliberately use material that appears autobiographical for pedagogical purposes.

Now that brings to mind Troel’s Engberg-Pedersen’s Paul and the Stoics: Paul appears to use his own life and relationship with the implied readers of his writings as a paradigm of the gospel itself. See my two posts from 2009 discussing this on this blog.

George Lyons concludes (1985: 171, 224-26):

Various strands of evidence come together to support the conclusion that Paul presents his ‘autobiography’ as a paradigm of the gospel of Christian freedom. . .

Since we have only Paul’s autobiographical remarks and not his opponents’ accusations, which the consensus assumes proved them, it is necessary to exercise restraint in asserting too confidently that specific charges actually existed, much less what they may have been. Even the existence of ‘opponents’ in the usual sense of the word is far from certain. . . What he says is determined by his rhetorical approach and not by his opponents’ reproaches. . .

Proper recognition of the rhetorical elements in Paul’s autobiographical remarks provides a further challenge to existing approaches, which characteristically reach historical conclusions before the question of literary function has been adequately addressed. (pp. 149-150, my emphasis)

4. References about readers/communities

What is true of Paul’s picture of himself is true also of his pictures of his reader or communities, including his opponents; they are pedagogical rather than historical. (p. 150)

This, of course, follows from an understanding of the literary function and quality of Paul’s own life.

5. References to receiving traditions

Brodie sees these as leading readers to think of Paul as inheriting an ecclesiastical tradition. If so, this should be evaluated in the same context as the other fabrications of the letters as indicated above. Once again, says Brodie, we have an imitation of history rather than real history.

I wonder how Brodie’s argument might look if he understood those “receiving” passages as referring to revelations from Scriptures.

On the famous passage of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 in which the risen Lord makes his appearances to a series of individuals, Brodie sees the construction of this passage as dependent upon the regular appearances of God to individuals in Sinai and the wilderness (Exod. 19:3-11; Num. 11:25; 12:5; 14:10; 16:19; 17:7).

6. References to writings from himself and his readers

Brodie’s next point would come as no surprise to readers of Rosenmeyer either. The many references in the letters to other writings, and other writers, is all part of the fictional drama and do not necessarily refer to real documents.

The procedure of referring to such background documents fits into the larger practice whereby ancient writings, including the Hebrew Bible, sometimes referred to other documents for rhetorical purposes, to achieve a certain effect, even if these documents did not exist (Stott 2008: 122, 136) (p. 151 — I have been long wanting to do a post on Katherine Stott’s book, but it led me to a series of other books, some of which I am still following up in the meantime)

7. Travels

Brodie points out that Paul’s travels “are described in ways that reflect older travel accounts” and cites certain instances. One point that he singles out, and one that I have frequently remarked upon, is the way Acts concludes in the same way as does 2 Kings — with a captivity scene, though also with some future promise and hope implicit in it.

It also occurs to me just now that Paul’s travels may possibly have been a natural metaphor to indicate the transience of this life on earth — in the same way the wilderness wanderings and emphasis on tabernacles (“tents”) served the same thematic function, both in the OT and the Gospel of John. And that “tent” reference segues into Brodie’s final point . . .

8. Occupation as a tent-maker

Brodie believes this reference (Acts 18:3) should be understood in conjunction with the Septuagint image of the tent and the image of Paul as the architect (1 Cor. 3:10-11). I have also stolen some of Brodie’s thunder with my comment on travels above.

Outline of a working hypothesis

Brodie then surveys some of the “Circumstantial Evidence, from Biblical Studies as a Whole” that might lead us to the conclusion that Paul is a literary figure. I won’t detail these points. Essentially he is addressing the recent shifts in biblical scholarly understandings, both of the Old and New Testaments, and the emerging awareness of the literary nature of both.

Finally, Brodie presents an outline of a working hypothesis. I will select just a few snippets for here:

A key purpose in composing the epistles with Paul’s name was to build a new Moses, a figure who, like Moses of old, would bring God’s word to the people, in Paul’s case to all the people, and would do so in a form that showed God’s work as continuing creation into a new phase, into a new creation. In doing this they followed ancient methods of composition. They reshaped existing writings, especially the scriptures — with which they saw themselves in continuity — and particularly the scriptures pertaining to Moses. But instead of using prose narrative, they used letter writing (epistolography), and in doing so brought the composition of epistles to a new level. Yet they did not lose the force of ancient narrative; the epistles were written in such a way that they told powerful narrative concerning God and concerning the new Moses — Paul.

Moses is not the only Old Testament character reflected in Paul. So, for instance, are much later characters such as Tobit and Daniel. . . .

The writers of the epistles were aware of one another, and in diverse ways, while each built something new, they also built on one another.

The figure of Paul was built up not only by the epistle writers, but also by Luke . . . . (pp. 153-154, my own emphasis, as in all quotes)

And at this point I am reminded of the many Pauls who vied with one another for theological “truth”: see my posts on Dennis MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle for details about these.

Light on other questions?

One of the biggest curiosities that has perplexed me is how we can account for Paul’s letters being our earliest Christian documents while at the same time finding no external witness to them until well into the second century. Adding to this perplexity is Justin Martyr (mid-second century) writing so much about Christian teaching, and so many times sounding very much like he is drawing upon a passage in Paul’s letters, yet indicating in other ways that Paul is a complete unknown to him. (See also Justin Martyr and the Jews by David Rokeah). There seems to have been something awry, something odd, about the origins of these letters and the way they came to find their place in the canon of the orthodox church.

Roger Parvus has suggested they were originally Simonian compositions. Brodie is suggesting that they were the product of a school, much in the same way Philip R. Davies thinks the prophetic books of the Old Testament were composed in dialogue with one another by different schools. Or are these hypotheses necessarily exclusive of one another?

When I retire I’m gonna have the time to find the answer! 😉

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

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

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

17 thoughts on “Questioning Paul’s Letters. Were they really “occasional”? Or rhetorical fictions?”

  1. Wow, just wow. I mean bravo. Is there any HJ biblioblogger that writes posts like these? If so, please let me know. There is so much here that is eminently plausible, I want to accept it, but know that I should hear from the other side. As opposed to Paul’s readers!

    How does this fit with Price’s Marcion vs. Polycarp framework?

  2. Excellent post, Neil. This one is for ‘saving’……

    Here are a few other ideas to consider re ‘Paul’.

    Unfortunately, I have to give a link here, don’t know how to post a chart ….. to a chart I put up on FRDB. The chart is from the book ‘The Mystery of Acts’ by Richard Pervo. In that chart Pervo lays out the parallels between the ‘passion’ of JC and the ‘passion of Paul. I named the thread – Paul as Jesus Reboot……;-)


    Page 108 from Pervo’s book: (the chart is on page 107)

    “The point has been made. The parallels between the passion of Jesus in Luke and Paul’s experiences in Jerusalem are too numerous and too transparent to deny. But after chapter 26 this symmetry seems to collapse. Whereas the Gospel goes on to relate the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus, Acts narrates Paul’s voyage, shipwreck, survival, and eventual arrival in Rome. This much remains undeniable: the voyage and its aftermath occupy the same structural position in Acts as the crucifixion and its sequel have in Luke. The alternatives are clear: either Luke carefully erected his parallelism between the respective fates of Jesus and Paul until he came to the end of their legal hearings and then dropped it overboard, or the existence of the parallel scheme invites critics towards further inquiry. The later looks like the more likely option. At the very least it is worth a try.”


    Another avenue to explore are the parallels between Paul and Josephus:

    Both Paul and Josephus were Roman citizens, both were shipwrecked on their way to Rome, both had a trade they continued to work at, both were educated men, both spent a major part of their lives in Rome, both were a ‘thorn in the flesh’ of their own people. (Paul was accused by the early Christians of teaching apostasy from Moses re circumcision). Paul was not an original apostle, Josephus was born after gospel crucifixion of JC. Both Paul and Josephus were Pharisees, both spent time as Roman prisoners. Paul was originally named Saul, as Flavius Josephus was formally Joseph ben Mattias. Josephus was from the Aaronic priesthood and had royal Hasmonaean blood from his mother. Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin – the tribe designated to stay with the Aaronic priesthood and the house of David following the nations split into two. Paul was a former persecutor of Christians. Josephus had been an enemy of Rome. Paul said that circumcision was not required for Gentile Christians. Josephus likewise maintained that non-Jews did not require circumcision in order to stay among Jews. Paul was ‘caught away to the third heaven’, Josephus had prophetic dreams. Paul made a defense of Christianity before Agrippa 11. Josephus appealed to Agrippa 11 to attest the truth of what he had written in his history of the Roman/Jewish wars. Both had a friend named Epaphroditus. Both told a story about a crucifixion. Josephus placed his story at the fall of Jerusalem – with his friend surviving the cross. Paul does not date his crucifixion story – and has his JC raised from the dead.

    What the above does indicate, along with all the points made in your post, is that the NT figure of Paul is not above questioning and investigating. Seems, to me, that the NT figure of Paul is just as much a literary creation as is the gospel JC. That does not mean, of course, that no historical figures are reflected in ‘Paul’ – obviously, teachers, philosophers and Jewish ‘heretics’ were part of the new theological/philosophical movement – after all somebody had to come up with the bright idea of writing those epistles…But the NT figure of Paul seems to be no more historical than the figure of the gospel JC. It’s a literary creation; a literary spokesperson for the ideas that propelled the early Christian movement. A new Moses that leads the way to the promised new land – the Jerusalem ‘above’.

  3. “Scholars now generally agree that Paul is not the real author of all NT letters that bear his name and contain “biographical” details about him. So the principle that ostensible authorship and biographical detail in a letter does not necessarily establish they are really by Paul is already established.”

    Very important point, and one completely lost on Bible scholars, who, per usual, never actually examine what having provably forged letters in the NT means to the integrity of the NT as a whole.

    1. Blood – and Corky

      I think it would be a mistake to go down the road of thinking the NT literature is “fraudulent writings intended to deceive people” – or that once ‘forged’ letters are discerned that the “integrity” of the whole is questionable. One would only think along these lines if one approaches the material from the perspective that the NT is relating history. But if that perspective is wrong – then one can’t be so quick to pounce on this literature with negative opinions.

      If, as is my position, we are dealing, in the NT, with a story about christian origins – then that story stands firm, it stands on it’s own merits. It is above the type of negativity that the other approach might warrant.

      Blood – I noticed your comment over on Richard Carrier’s site, re an ahistorical Paul.

      “Like Doherty, you are placing way too much faith in the historicity of both “Paul” and the authenticity of the epistles. I believe they are part of the same myth cycle that informed the gospels — neither were historic.”

      It’s sad to see that Richard seems not to want to tackle the question of Paul’s historicity. This whole question re Paul is beginning to look like the JC debate – only this time it’s not between JC historicsts and the ahistoricists – it’s going to be between mythicists themselves. This debate is going to be between those mythicists that run with the idea that JC is a historizing of a Pauline cosmic JC figure – and those mythicists that run with the idea that JC is a mythologizing of Jewish history. (or some other ideas that don’t place everything on the Pauline writings.) Those in the first camp are going to fight tooth and nail for Paul was we know him……the consensus Paul. The other option, to run with JC as a mythologizing of Jewish history – does not need the Pauline writings, Pauline ideas, to support that position. Once everything about ‘Paul’ is questioned – and found to be wanting – there is no longer a requirement to place that figure within a few short years of the gospel (and Acts) time frame for JC. The time is coming, methinks, for an open season on ‘Paul’…..

      Sad – that mythicism might come down to this – fundamentalists in our own camp……OK – better go now……;-)

      1. Acts, it appears, is the history of the early church – but it isn’t. Supposedly, this (Acts) was how the early church originated and grew but it is obviously a false history that contradicts elements of Paul’s letters, especially Galatians. The early church could have written a true history instead of the false history of Acts but they didn’t, so, why a false history except that it was intentionally false? And, if intentionally false, isn’t that to deceive?

        1. Acts is a creative origin story; a romanticized version of early Christian history. As such it has not set out to deceive. That mindset is the result of believing Luke to be a historian. Luke, re the Pervo quotes below, is a creative writer.

          The Mystery of Acts: Richard I. Pervo

          “….the text of Acts provides no convincing evidence that Luke was attempting to compose a history of the early church or that he wished himself to be placed in the company of professional historians. Both those who seek to exonerate him of the foul charge of falsification and those who wish to prosecute him for his dastardly actions are dealing with a crime that never took place.”

          “By our lights Luke is better regarded as a creative author than as an historian,…..Luke has no interest in objectivity. “

          “Luke fashioned “the foundation myth of Christian origins”..

          “I firmly maintain that Luke the Historian has very little to wear and have striven to demonstrate the point, but I shall not close without acknowledging my admiration (and even envy) for the splendid outfit worn by Luke the author. In that costume lurk mysteries galore, and because of it the story of Christian origins is more mysterious than ever.”

          1. Pervo is the pre-eminent scholar on Luke-Acts, but make no mistake, he has to reach illogical conclusions such as the one you just cited if he intends to stay employed in religious studies. Luke is a deliberately deceptive mythologist, writing a pseudo-history out of necessity, since early Christianity had in reality been neither noteworthy or interesting.

            1. Oh, dear

              Is it any wonder that the ahistoricists/mythicist theories are not taken seriously by NT scholars? Yes, of course, all theories are subject to being ripped apart – but to infer that scholars are primarily interested in their employment and not their research is a bit much. All of us in the ahistoricist/mythicist camp are indebted to the scholars who went before us. We stand on their shoulders. Sure, we might seek to take their research into areas that they did not go – but that’s the same with all intellectual endeavors. For anyone to spend as much time on a subject, as Richard Pervo has done, is not because of a big paycheck – it’s because, as he says, “I love it”.

              “For 30 years Acts has been the chief focus of my research and writing in the New Testament field……..It is my favorite book in the Christian Bible; I love it. If some may wonder how this love can be expressed by apparently smashing Acts into pieces, I should reply, that laughter follows tears, and that there can be no Easter without Good Friday”.

              That methinks is the statement of a true scholar.

              1. “…but to infer that scholars are primarily interested in their employment and not their research is a bit much.”

                I didn’t say that. I said that Pervo’s *conclusion* was illogical, not his research — that should have been self-evident by my naming him the pre-eminent scholar on Acts. In no other field would someone say that an ancient author, widely presented as being an actual historian of his day, is really just a clever mythologist, writing a Hellenistic adventure novel — and we’re are so much the better for it! The conclusion does not follow the premise, but it rarely does in biblical studies. The scholar wants to stay employed. Perhaps when Pervo retires, he will tell us how he really feels.

  4. Paul’s letters were controversial in the early church. People twisted the words of Paul. Paul is notoriously unclear in places.

    But what about Jesus?

    Modern Bible scholars often disagree with what Jesus meant in passages like Mark 13.

    But early Christians were remarkably united in their ability to interpret the teachings of Jesus.

    They were regarded as non-controversial. Everybody knew what they meant. Nobody twisted the meaning of anything Jesus had said. It could be taken for granted that even Christians you hated would never change anything Jesus had said to suit their own agenda.

    But early Christians did argue about what various *other* teachings meant.

    2 Peter 3

    So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

    SO Christians had conflicting opinions about what Paul had said, and ‘Peter’ condemns them.

    And Christians had conflicting opinions about what the scriptures had said, and ‘Peter’ condemns them.

    But it seems early Christians never realised that Jesus had been a teacher, and they could invent new teachings of his.

    Either that, or ‘Peter’ didn’t want to condemn them for twisting the words of Jesus (but if they changed what Paul said, there was Hell to pay)

    2 Peter 1

    First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation….

    It seems ‘Peter’ is adamant that there are right and wrong ways to interpret scripture.

    Did he think that anybody was interpreting the words of Jesus incorrectly?

    If he did, it seems it wasn’t any concern of his how people interpreted the teachings of Jesus.

    Or perhaps nobody was inventing teachings of Jesus.

    1 Corinthians 12

    To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

    I guess nobody was tasked with remembering what Jesus had taught….

    Or even preparing a sermon based on what Jesus had taught.

    1 Corinthians 14

    When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

    But not a telling of a Jesus story….

    Where did the teachings of Jesus go?

    How could Jesus have been such a great teacher that his words were so clear that nobody could possibly misinterpret them, even by deliberate deceit?

    And why are Peter and Paul so adamant about the correct way of interpreting scripture, while blissfully unaware that the teachings of Jesus could sometimes be misinterpreted?

    1. Good point (as usual). It’s interesting, too, that Paul speaks of the gift of healing whereas the gospels stress the gift of faith in order to be healed by Jesus. “James”, moreover, speaks of the prayer of faith raising the sick. Paul’s words appear to be referring to something else.


      I have removed comments in reply to Steven not because they disagreed with Steven but because of their abusive and insulting language.

  5. ‘ But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence. ‘

    Why did Paul need to write letters? We already know that oral tradition was enough to answer questions by Christians about whether Jesus had turned the water into wine in Galilee or in Jerusalem, and to answer Christian questions about who exactly the 12 disciples were and to answer Christian questions about what Jesus had preached about divorce.

    But strangely, as soon as it comes to answering Christian questions about practice in churches or all the other problems that Paul had to deal with, these oral channels suddenly become unavailable, and Paul has to write letters answering these questions. Those problems could not be dealt with by oral transmission.

    And as soon as Christians stop asking questions about practice in churches or other stuff Paul deals with, and start to ask questions about what Jesus had told people to pray and whether or not Jesus had preached about giving tithes, these oral channels open up again, and Paul has no longer a need to write letters. Those problems could be dealt with by oral transmission.

    Remarkable, isn’t it?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading