Paul the persecutor?

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by Neil Godfrey

the-stoning-of-stephen-by-rembrandt-1625I’m taking a light diversion by challenging somebody on earlywritings.com over his assertion that Christians were persecuted like crazy (as per the popular notion derived from the Acts and Eusebian tales). The posts have since met a bit stiffer challenge from more reasonable and knowledgeable participants — so the discussion has become even more rewarding.

Reasons I am questioning the assumption that Paul before his conversion persecuted the church in the sense of haling people off to prison, engaging them with enhanced interrogation techniques, beating them, sometimes too severely so they died:

  • The word for “persecution” is διωγμός — one could “pursue” [δίωκε] righteousness; Paul wrote that Ishmael “persecuted” [ἐδίωκεν] Isaac. The word can have very unpleasant associations when used negatively but does not necessarily mean to beat up and kill.
  • The notion that Paul did beat and kill Christians before his conversion is derived from Acts. I argue elsewhere (following several scholars) that this is theologically motivated fabrication. I am arguing from the evidence of Paul’s letters alone.
  • There were divergent views about Paul’s pre-Christian career. Marcionites denied he had been a “persecutor” of the church. How do we explain such diversity of opinion?
  • What motive could Paul have had for “persecuting” the church in the whipping and killing sense? He himself said he was persecuted because of his views on the Law. But he was the one who introduced those views. So that cause could not have been the reason he himself persecuted Christians prior to his conversion.
  • Second Temple Judaism, according to its literature, appears to have embraced views about the Messiah as diverse as the belief that he (or one of the messiahs) would be killed, so preaching a crucified Christ/messiah is not likely to have attracted murderous rage.
  • Litwa shows us that it was not at all blasphemous for Jews to imagine a human being deified — so preaching that a man Jesus had become a divinity would not have overturned the world.
  • The followers of Jesus were obviously not seen as a threat since they were left alone when the authorities arrested Jesus, so one finds it difficult to think that they would suddenly change their minds and persecute them for posing a threat to the “state”.
  • There were other Jewish cults who protested against the Temple cult and it is difficult to imagine the authorities persecuting them or fearing a threat to their religious system. What would such a threat look like? A lone man overturning a table or two in one corner of the crowded precinct? A few more persons wandering off to join the Qumran community?





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37 thoughts on “Paul the persecutor?”

  1. this affair of ”Paul persecutor” is modestly to my eyes the strongest element of all the Pauline letters that lead me to suspect that Roger Parvus may be tremendously right about ”Paul” on the whole line.

    1. Interesting point. One could well imagine one of Roger’s “zags” being inserted to mock Simon the heretic whose followers so harried and frustrated the sort of church its editor wanted to see.

      1. From my perch Paul’s “persecution” of Christians looks like it was no more than his ultimate rejection of the teaching of the Jerusalem church and his denigration of its leaders. These occurred after he became a believer (“Have I become your enemy?” – Gal. 4:16). I think a proto-orthodox interpolator of the Pauline letters, as part of his rehabilitation of Paul, shifted that persecution from Paul’s Christian days to his pre-Christian ones. The interpolator could accept Paul being labelled a persecutor as long as the persecutory activity was safely relegated to the time before Paul’s conversion. Later the author of Acts, perhaps inspired by Josephus’ description in Antiquities 20.214 of a thug named Saul, further embellished Paul’s fictitious pre-Christian persecution by adding some physical violence to it.

        1. You are referring to this passage?

          And now Jesus, the son of Gamaliel, became the successor of Jesus, the son of Damneus, in the high priesthood, which the king had taken from the other; on which account a sedition arose between the high priests, with regard to one another; for they got together bodies of the boldest sort of the people, and frequently came, from reproaches, to throwing of stones at each other. But Ananias was too hard for the rest, by his riches, which enabled him to gain those that were most ready to receive.

          Costobarus also, and Saulus, did themselves get together a multitude of wicked wretches, and this because they were of the royal family; and so they obtained favor among them, because of their kindred to Agrippa; but still they used violence with the people, and were very ready to plunder those that were weaker than themselves. And from that time it principally came to pass that our city was greatly disordered, and that all things grew worse and worse among us.

          Interesting to see further reference to our famous Jesus son of Damneus of the Josephan James passage.

  2. You may find Candida Moss’ book The Myth of Persecution of interest. I’ve read only the first chapter, but the title of the book tells you her conclusion.

    On a completely unrelated note: I’ve been told that Russell Gmirkin is almost finished with a new work demonstrating the link between the Primary History (or at least Deuteronomy) and Plato’s Nomoi. No idea when to expect it or whether it is an article or a book . . .

    1. Oh no — I have my own work on Plato and the Pentateuch yet to post. It’s sat there for over a year now — I post it before it is made obsolete by the Gmirkins and Wajdenbaums.

  3. Another point I could add —

    When we come to our first narrative description of the kind of persecution Paul was understood to be undertaking we see that no historical data has been sourced. Acts creates fiction to portray Paul as a persecutor. The martyrdom of Stephen (Paul’s apparent introduction to his new career) is a re-write of the legendary deaths of Jesus and (very probably) James. His conversion on his way to Damascus is another fiction taken from other literary sources such as the first two books of Maccabees and the Bacchae by Euripides. If Paul had a real history as a persecutor in this sense we would expect the author of Acts to structure his narrative in line with it.

  4. I wonder if those words of Paul on his past as a persecutor can be saved in their authenticity maybe seeing them as part of the rethorical argument that Paul was setting up in Galatians 1 and so well described by Richard Carrier in the penultimate chapter of OHJ: namely magnify, by contrast, the radical independence of the celestial revelation of Paul making it even more highly imaginative against the background of a dark past as a ”persecutor” – a ”persecutor” that the real Paul never was.

    but, alas, I should assume that Paul was free of deliberately lying on his past in order to convince the Galatians that no other apostle, much less another mere ”brother of the Lord”, had revealed to Paul the Gospel before that time.

  5. It is easy for me to imagine that the Jewish Priests who held positions of prominence under Roman rule would find it useful to persecute fringe sects from time to time as scapegoats for the problems that the common people faced under Roman rule as well as to convince the Romans of their support. I think these are historically common reasons for religious persecutions. In such cases, the actual beliefs of the victims are irrelevant and may be completely misunderstood.

      1. Good question. It certainly seems like it might be part and parcel of the kind of nasty politics that was going on at the time, but I’ll have to look to see whether there is anything specific.

  6. Hi Neil,

    You note above that “Marcionites denied he had been a “persecutor” of the church.”

    Just before that you say “The notion that Paul did beat and kill Christians before his conversion is derived from Acts. I argue elsewhere (following several scholars) that this is theologically motivated fabrication. I am arguing from the evidence of Paul’s letters alone.”

    In other words the author of Acts invented Paul’s persecution of the Church.

    Elsewhere you have argued for Knox and Tyler’s position that Acts was written as a response to Marcionism.

    But when we put that all together, we are left with Marcionites denying Paul was a persecutor of the Church before the author of Luke invented the whole story!

    I admittedly have not read the blog post where you argue that it was a theologically-motivated fabrication (could you provide a link?); however, you say you are arguing from the evidence of Paul’s letters alone, by which I assume you mean that the only reference to Paul’s persecution of the church in Galatians is an interpolation. Once we lose that, there is nothing in the Pauline epistles that indicate Paul was busy persecuting Christians prior to his conversion.

    If that is your argument, it appears to be a logical non-sequitur: the fact that the only reference to Paul’s persecution of the Church in the only extant document mentioning it that we believe to be prior to Acts is an interpolation does not entail that the author of Acts fabricated the story. He could have got it from another source no longer extant; we know, after all, that he did use other sources, i.e. the Homeric epics and Josephus.

    And does that not seem the more likely option, given that 1) Ebionites – according to Epiphanius in the Panarion – claimed that Paul became a Jew to curry favour with Caiaphas the High Priest and marry his daughter, so he was close to someone who is a persecution-figure in the Christian narrative and 2) the Pseudo-Clementines narrate the same story of Saul the Persecutor receiving authorization from Caiaphas to go after Christians in Damascus – specifically Peter? I am assuming here that the Pseudo-Clementines are not a purely derivative work from Acts based on the arguments of Robert Eisenman in James the Brother of Jesus.

    The possibility that the author of Acts took the story of Paul’s persecution of the church from an anti-Paulinist source seems even more likely if we consider that Acts, rather than simply being a rebuttal of Marcionism, is actually a reconciliation of two opposed views of Paul – that of the Marcionites with that of the anti-Paulinist view. And so it weaves together an anti-Paulinist persecutor Paul who is transformed into Paul the not-quite Apostle positive figure in a seamless narrative.

    So the anti-Paulinists lose their Paul the ultimate bad guy and the Paulinists lose their Paul better-than-the-Twelve super-Apostle, and out pops orthodox Paul.

    Once again, does this not seem more likely than the author of Acts inventing the story? It also explains why Marcionites had to deny Paul’s persecution of the church; because another group was making that claim.

    1. I agree. In order to believe Paul an ”enemy of God” persecutor etc., you don’t need precisely of Acts of Apostles or being a proto-catholic: it’s sufficient the use that Marcionites were doing of propaganda of an Apostle better-than-the Twelwe.

      A possible hypothesis (that I haven’t no still tested until his extreme implications):
      the author of Acts creates the link (meant in defamatory sense): Paul/nazarenes. Even Paul/Egyptian.

      In this way, Paul is associated – in a manner of defamatory hearsay – by catholic Acts just to those who had reason more than any other of hating him: generic Jewish messianists more or less anti-roman and zealots (I would call them generically ”essenes” but they may be even the zealots). This would fit with the negative nuance implicit in an alternative ethimology of Nazaret: ”observer” in sense of evil guard, guardian, overseer, ”Big Brother” (remember that in pauline catholic Mark a Jesus evidently ”sinner” goes to baptism of John coming ”from Nazaret”), who observes if you are keeping rigorously the Torah, if you remain a true Jew (in a word, a zealot Jew).

      In this way the image of a evil persecutor Paul is crystallized by Acts once and for all into the common enemy maligned by both Marcionites & Catholics: traditional Jew Messianists that have nothing of ”christian” because normal followers, in my opinion, of the venture future Jewish Messiah (the same that the Jews are still waiting today).

      The anti-nomist marcionite Paul is converted in nomist-xenofobe zealot Jew in order to condemn both Marcionites & Jew messianists.

      Therefore I would see this strictly sequential order:
      1) before traditional Jew messianists.
      2) after marcionites.
      3) at end the proto-catholics.


      1. At this point I remember Lena Einhorh’s view about Egyptian and temporal translation, etc.

        Were the nazarenes the ancient followers of Egyptian et similibus ?

        Jesus’s name (Joshua) would indicate a military saviour (liberator), not a spiritual one, for these Jew messianists.

        If Einhorn is right, then a spiritual saviour Jesus Christ was invented the first time by Marcionites basing partially on Egyptian’s actions, in order to merge the gnostic myth of deity that dies and rises with the messianic myth of military liberator and to spiritualize the latter by the former.

        The ”Egyptian” would be what is more close and similar to a HJ.

      2. We need convincing answers to these questions: (1) Who was “Paul”, (2) what did he do, & (3) why did he do it (with so much effort)? The notion of adequate cause should not be abandoned, and the stories that some adherents of an executed Jesus were galvanized by “visions” and that Saul’s hostility towards them was overcome by guilt, should not be discarded too hastily. The deconstruction of legendary architecture built upon such core “events” should not entail the erection of an alternatives that enter into a fantasy world of their own.

        1. ”that some adherents of an executed Jesus were galvanized by “visions” ” is already an extraordinary hypothesis, but why do you want add to it another likewise extraordinary hypothesis, i.e. ”that Saul’s hostility towards them was overcome by guilt” ? Maybe because we are already entered into a fantasy world of their own.

          1. I have no special attachment to extraordinary hypotheses, but await the provision of coherent data-based alternatives. There is nothing specially outlandish about hallucinations or guilt in the history of religions.

    2. Hi Tariq,

      When I said “Marcionites denied” Paul had ever persecuted the church I was admittedly vague as to the time span. I should have been clearer and explained that the Marcionites who knew of the tradition we read in Acts denied Paul was a persecutor. Marcion himself (as far as we know) never explicitly denied it and presumably it never crossed his mind that the question would ever arise. I would think Marcion’s earliest followers would likewise have had no awareness of anyone suggesting Paul had been a persecutor.

      But after Acts appeared then surely the Marcionites from that time denied the claim. One reason to think that the idea was fabricated by the author of Acts is the observation that his narrative owes much to other literary models such as in 2 Maccabees and The Bacchae by Euripides. These appear to be the author’s sources for the story.

        1. I have been looking at “Paul did not exist” websites, noting especially Emilio Salsi’s arguments – “just invent a ‘Saul Paul’ and have him write a few letters”, &c. More like piling the Pelion of forgeries upon the Ossa of theology, than: “It was very simple…”! However, I keep my mind open, ready to choose between the alternative explanations of “Paul” provided by scholars well acquainted with ancient languages literature.

          1. I keep my mind open, ready to choose between the alternative explanations, too. But what I’m feeling via via by comparing these alternative explanations, at least in my modest opinion, is the enlargement out of proportion of the field of fiction as the more simple solution: Christians of II CE retrospectively seeing themselves in pre-70 I CE, and to such purpose inventing many fictional characters, Jesus, Paul, Peter, 12, James, etc, even if some of them were existed really.
            Even if within what we have – namely pure fiction – are ended historical or even autobiographical fossils – it is impossible to recover them and discern them in a world of fiction.

            1. Well, we would need a bit more explanation of the beliefs and motives of these second-century religious folk, and why their biographical fictions, including parables and missionary-journey details, took on their particular Galilean-Judean characteristics in the circumstances. Did they have any textual material (apart from OT passages, Roman novels, Greek plays and Near Eastern ritual-myths) already to work with?

              Whoever organized a band of 12-tribal followers it couldn’t have been some real-world messianic pretender, could it? Whoever wrote Paul’s letters, it couldn’t have been some clever real-person called Paul, could it?

      1. Thanks for the clarification Neil.

        I thought you might say that!

        However, given that we don’t know the actual dates of publication for Acts and the Marcionite denial of Paul’s persecution activities – whether Marcion himself in writings no longer extant or later followers – either reconstruction is possible, i.e. Acts first fabricates Paul the Persecutor; latter-day Marcionites deny it, or anti-Paul group claims Paul persecuted them (whether true or not is beside the point), Marcionites deny it and the author of Acts incorporates it into his narrative.

        Your comment encouraged me to re-read Robert Price’s article on the subject at this link:


        He makes the same point that I am making: the fabrication is the Damascus Road Conversion scene, not the Paul the Persecutor that segues into it. He thinks that Paul the Persecutor is a re-write of the tradition preserved in the Pseudo-Clementines, something I alluded to in my original comment. The author of Acts then used creative license to borrow from 2 Maccabees and the Bacchae scenes involving persecutors who ‘see the light’ and convert.

        Or to give credit where it is due, I am just repeating his argument.

        It makes more sense to me than the author of Acts inventing Paul the Persecutor, because it is quite clear that the Stephen scene is not a complete invention but rather a re-write of Paul’s supposed attack on James the Just.

        1. There are more ways of being a persecutor. Paul could seem a persecutor in Jews’ view simply saying that the god of Jews is evil, or that the giver of Law is evil. Martin Luther seemed a persecutor for catholics only because he disagreed in theology (”The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it…”, from Exurge Domine).

          But I have a problem with Gal 1:19.

          While Carrier rightly wonders why there would be only 2 apostles that day in Jerusalem and not others, I wonder why were not there all the other apostles besides Peter, too: the only explanation I can give me is that these other apostles were not there because they feared Paul. And they feared Paul because Paul was persecutor of them. Therefore was a mission impossible for Paul to approach apostles that feared him a priori. All that is based on Acts.

            1. if they were ”apostoling” somewhere else, the definition of apostle we are using is that of ”emissaries”, the same meaning found in Gospels. But didn’t ”apostle” mean only ”any person that sees Christ Jesus”, basing only on all we know from epistles?

              There’s some contradiction, here.

              1. There is a restricted sense which refers to those (not just 3 or the 11) who supposedly saw the risen Jesus, but who need not have been present on the relevant occasion, or listed if they had been present; and the usage that means “envoy”. In any case, you would need to make a stronger case that Paul scared them away, especially with readers here who don’t think they existed in the first place.

  7. The zealous Paul suddenly realized “en route”, and the Apostles grudgingly recognized, that “Faith-alone” would bring a larger demographic in the door.
    Paul’s secret knowledge was that you need to keep milk and meat in separate refrigerators. James would have agreed.
    Marcion brought them in the door, as well, but was a vegetarian!

    And if Caiaphas (who sent Saul) is high priest and James (TBotL) is high priest…
    and Caiaphas is Cephas…

    Is Cephas Greek or Aramaic? …Not including ‘kefale’.

    1. Our” Paul could still be a 2nd C. CE recapitulation by (Parvus’) Simon of Samaria…
      of a cynical 50’s marketing strategy revived by Marcion.

  8. Keifa is Aramaic (rock, stone) which can be transliterated into Greek as Cephas or Caiaphas, and translated as Petros/Petra. I don’t suppose “Paul” was telling the “Corinthians” that “Jesus” was “seen” (first) by the “high priest” who had reportedly condemned him. But see also the academia.edu essay by A. van der Hoeven, “Paul’s Cephas is Caiphas…”! Where are we in these endless word mazes?

    1. Mark does not mention Caiaphas. The name Peter appears only once in the Pauline corpus and some think it was a margin note. Perhaps Paul’s Cephas was Caiaphas and Mark was mocking Caiaphas (Cephas), James, and John, the three mentioned with disdain in Galatians, by making them illiterate fishermen who didn’t understand what was going on most of the time. The later Gospel authors knew about the high priest named Caiaphas but didn’t make the connection with Mark’s Peter. That was a scenario that popped into my head when I read Paul’s Cephas is Caiphas – Author of 1Peter and Hebrews by A.A.M. van der Hoeven.

      1. Perhaps….Mark did not name Caiaphas for another reason, see e.g. Helen Bond, “Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus?” (2004). How many scenarios can we get on a pin?

        1. If John 18:13 is true that Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, and I think it is likely seeing that Annas length of tenure at high priest was second only to Caiaphas and five of his sons also held the position, then the mother-in-law joke in Mark 1:29-31 about the wife of one of the most powerful Jews in first century Jerusalem fixing Jesus a sandwich is much funnier.

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