Comparing Paul’s Epistles to Augustine’s Letters

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by Tim Widowfield

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...
Saint Augustine of Hippo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cakemix explodes

Reacting to Dr. Richard Carrier’s recent article over at The Bible and Interpretation website, the beloved Doctor of Whoville, James McGrath has offered up yet another dog’s breakfast of red herrings and dead horses. (How’s that for a mixed-metaphor gumbo?)

Carrier will likely respond fully to McGrath’s post, especially the headache-inducing section in which James refers to Carrier’s opening paragraph. McGrath writes:

[H]e seems to think that he has made a profound point in a discussion about 1 Corinthians 15 when he observes that it does not contain the phrase “in Christ before me.” That phrase is one that Paul uses in Romans 16:7. But is Carrier really going to suggest that Paul was “in Christ” while he was persecuting the church, and that the gist of 1 Corinthians 15′s list is not that there were others who were what we would call “Christians” before he was? Indeed, that is the overall impression one gets from things that Paul writes in many places. And Carrier doesn’t seem to really want to dispute that. So what is the point of beginning the piece in that way? (emphasis mine)

I will remind you that McGrath is a real PhD who teaches real students at a real university. He not only completely misunderstands what Carrier has written, but betrays his own proclivity toward “reading with hostile intent.” He does not read in order to learn, but rather to find — and if necessary, manufacture — elements to contradict.

Carrier’s point is simple. In his own words:

[The] consensus [of Jesus’ historicity] is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.

Getting it wrong again

McGrath misrepresented Carrier’s story of an NT scholar (whom we recognize as Mark Goodacre) who actually thought the text of 1 Cor. 15:1-8 says that Paul received his gospel “from those who were in Christ before him.

In a blog post from 20 December 2012, Carrier wrote:

This was even a key part of Goodacre’s argument that Paul knew the people who knew Jesus, and that he got his gospel from them. In fact, Paul insists up and down exactly the opposite . . .

The question is not “Was Paul ‘in Christ’ while persecuting the church?” nor “Were there people ‘in Christ’ before Paul?” but “Did Paul receive his gospel from those who were ‘in Christ’ before him?”

Predictably, McGrath cavils about Carrier’s “splitting hairs,” as if the entire point of the argument centered on whether Goodacre and other scholars are “imprecise or even wrong about their wording or some other minor detail.” I’m so tired of James’ shtick at this point that I no longer care whether he has reading comprehension problems or self-deception issues. His utter incompetence is wearing me down.

Augustine’s Letters

As I said, I expect Carrier will respond more fully to McGrath’s post, including the obligatory hints of anti-Semitism whenever someone dares mention non-Jewish dying and rising gods. And I’m hoping Richard will tackle that old canard about not being allowed to quote a scholar who’s wrong on some points, but right on others.

For this post, however, I wish instead to focus on the notion that we can gain some insights about Paul’s notorious silence by comparing his epistles to Augustine’s letters. McGrath writes:

There is no serious doubt that Augustine thought that Jesus had lived as a real human being. And yet if you read his letters, you will find far more places where Augustine doesn’t refer to Jesus/Christ at all, much less in a way that makes unambiguous that he viewed him as a historical figure, than places where he does. One can make the same point with most ancient correspondence. (emphasis mine)

Helpfully, James provides a link (see above) to the New Advent web site, which offers English translations of all of Augustine’s letters. As we read over this collection, we may make the following observations.

Length and content

Many of Augustine’s letters are quite brief, often responding to only a single point. Paul’s letters, by contrast, often go on for several chapters and touch on many subjects.


Other than the pastoral letters (clearly not authentic) and Philemon, Paul’s epistles were addressed to entire churches, usually ones that he had founded. Augustine, on the other hand, was usually writing to a smaller audience, frequently a single (historical) individual whose correspondence to Augustine is sometimes also extant. We have, of course, no existing correspondence addressed to Paul.


We have many more letters from Augustine than from Paul. We also have classic treatises on various subjects, philosophical tracts, autobiographical material, and so on. With Paul, all we have are his purported letters, unless you want to believe the church fiction found in the Acts of the Apostles.

References to the life and sayings of Jesus

While Augustine often fails to mention Jesus in his short letters, he sometimes does quote passages from the New Testament, not only from the letters of Paul, but from the canonical gospels as well. In letter 44, for example we find these references:

  • Matthew 7:15-16 (words of Jesus)
  • Matthew 5:10 (words of Jesus)
  • Matthew 26:20-28 (story of Judas)
  • John 4:1-2 (baptism of Jesus through his disciples)
  • John 3:29 (story of John the Baptist)
  • John 13:10 (story of Peter and the washing of feet with quotation from Jesus)

To be sure, Augustine, just like Paul, cites passages from the Old Testament as well. But even when Paul’s arguments would profit by reflection upon a story from the life of Christ or a quotation of Jesus from the “rich oral tradition,” he refrains. Notice that I chose as an example one of Augustine’s longer letters that covers multiple subjects. It also happens to be addressed to four people, not just one. In other words, it resembles a Pauline letter more than most of Augustine’s letters. But unlike Paul, Augustine happily passes on stories about and quotations from Jesus.

Are Paul’s epistles different?

But it is hardly clear that Paul’s epistles are real occasional writings. They could just as easily be what they look like: sermons and theological essays dressed up as letters.

McGrath is obliquely invoking a well-known argument that goes something like this:

  1. Many occasional letters written by ancient Christians make no mention of Jesus, let alone of Jesus in some recognizable historical context.
  2. Paul’s letters are no different from any other occasional letter written by an ancient Christian.
  3. Therefore it should not surprise us in the least that Paul does not (except very rarely) talk about the earthly Jesus.

Whether we can accept this argument depends entirely on the second premise. Are Paul’s epistles really the same as any other typical, occasional letter? I don’t mean that question as idle speculation. We really need to get a handle on the genre of Paul’s writings before we pass judgment.

Note well that I think you can successfully attack McGrath’s comparison of Augustine’s and Paul’s letters simply by comparing what we presume to be similar kinds of letters. For example, Augustine addressed his 78th letter to “My Most Beloved Brethren, the Clergy, Elders, and People of the Church of Hippo.” It’s a longish letter to an entire congregation. And here are Augustine’s references from the written gospels.

  • Matthew 13:43 (words of Jesus)
  • Matthew 18:7 (words of Jesus)
  • Matthew 24:12-13 (words of Jesus)
  • John 4:24 (words of Jesus)
  • Luke 16:21-23 (ref. to the parable of Lazarus)
  • Matthew 23:3 (words of Jesus)

But it is hardly clear that Paul’s epistles are real occasional writings. They could just as easily be what they look like: sermons and theological essays dressed up as letters. In fact, I would argue that Paul’s letters are quite different from anything written by the patristric writers. Many scholars have suggested that the letter to the Romans and the second letter to the Corinthians, for example, are composite documents. The letters of Paul have been redacted and repackaged, altered by the Marcionites, then cleaned up (perhaps rehabilitated) by the mainline pre-orthodox church.


Of course, nothing we say here will make any difference. Seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, McGrath will continue to disunderstand whatever Carrier says, and will joyfully pump out the sort of drivel we’ve come to expect. At the same time, his sycophants will post comments congratulating him on his fine work and thanking him for sharing his “expertise.”

But I like to look on the bright side. It can’t get any worse.



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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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17 thoughts on “Comparing Paul’s Epistles to Augustine’s Letters”

    1. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ignored, but if not, yeah — that’s what’ll happen. Of course, it doesn’t matter that I’m on record as a Jesus agnostic, and that my sole purpose in this post is to discredit the argument that Paul’s silence is not extraordinary and no big deal.

      After we stop lying to ourselves and admit that Paul’s silence is odd, we then need to ask why he was silent. Here on Vridar, we’ve already knocked down the argument from high context culture.

      So what’s the reason? Either Paul didn’t know much about Jesus and didn’t care (despite being awash in the “rich, vibrant oral tradition”) or he knew practically nothing about Jesus because there was nothing to know.

  1. Did not the Butler Professor of Religion not so very long ago acknowledge that Paul’s relative silence on Jesus really was something that students should ask about? Perhaps it was in the context of Ehrman’s book contra mythicism? Does anyone recall?

  2. So Mark Goodacre misquoted the Bible when he thought he was making a telling point against mythicism…

    And guess what? This just shows what scoundrels mythicists are….

    Can you even begin to imagine the bile McGrath would spew forth if it had been Carrier who misquoted the New Testament? I can’t.

  3. “I’m hoping Richard will tackle that old canard about not being allowed to quote a scholar who’s wrong on some points, but right on others.”

    I know in my own readings of literature on Egyptology, I’ve seen Erik Hornung and Jan Assmann, the two most renowned Egyptologists of the past three decades, often do this with each other. They disagree on some major points and have even written entire books in response to each other’s views (especially on Akhenaten & the influence of the Amarna heresy), yet they still continue to cite each other in footnotes time & time again when in agreement with each other.

    1. Carrier is on record for saying that Ehrman is a brilliant scholar, praising his scholarly works — e.g., the recent Forgery and Counterforgery. On the other hand, he excoriated Bart on his terrible book about mythicism and the questionable methods he used to defend himself during the post-publication firestorm.

      So Ehrman is fully competent, but not inerrant. And then there’s McGrath.

  4. Proof Neil is a glutton for punishment. Top commenters on Exploding our Cakemix.

    James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis: 9,232 comments
    arcseconds: 1,357
    beau quilter: 1,194
    Neil Godfrey: 1,040
    VinnyJH: 1,035
    Mike Gantt: 887

    Come on Vinny! You can catch Neil today if you try! You can get the latest stats by clicking “Exploring our Matrix” at the top of any comment section. But I uploaded photographic proof here. Interesting side note: Neil’s Disqus comments are 95% on The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath. Talk about obsessed!

    1. Most of those were from years back. I am surprised McG’s numbers are so relatively low. I am sure a good portion of his comments were in exchange with me or in some other reaction to me. McG actually began as quite a reasonable sounding chap and even remarked once or twice on the stimulating exchanges he had with me. I posted something favourable about something he said in connection with Joseph of Arimathea and it looked for a while we would be internet buddies.

  5. “[The] consensus [of Jesus’ historicity] is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.”

    That’s one of the main problems in the scholarly and popular reaction to mythicism. They don’t even know how “the consensus” was achieved. They simply repeat the consensus as if it was arrived at through sober, objective analysis, when nothing could be further from the truth.

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