Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation

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by Neil Godfrey

The Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus as painted by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I posted Paul the persecutor? in which I suggested that Paul’s confession in his epistle to the Galatians to having persecuted the Church did not necessarily imply that he literally jailed, beat and killed Christians before his journey to Damascus.

J. C. O’Neill would have thought I was far too soft. Those passages in which Paul is confessing to have persecuted the church are late interpolations, he argued back in 1972 in The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Here is his confession in the first chapter of Galatians:

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; 14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. . . . 

22 And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; 23 they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.

O’Neill believes a strong case that those verses were interpolated by a second century editor wanting to glorify Paul (my bolding, formatting and added translations, pp 24-27):

These verses have been interpolated into Paul’s argument by a later writer who wished to glorify the apostle.

The argument is irrelevant and anachronistic, the concepts differ from Paul’s concepts, and the vocabulary and style are not his.

Paul is arguing that he was directly commissioned by God, through a revelation of his Son, to spread the good news among the Gentiles. Although he visited Jerusalem to get information from Cephas,1 and there saw James, the Lord’s brother, he was not indebted to them for his special commission. That visit was three years after his call, and his first reaction to the call had not been to go to Jerusalem but to go to Arabia.

What is at stake is his right to serve Christ as he has been called to serve him. The astounding reversal of roles he underwent, from a fierce persecutor of the Church to an evangelist of the faith, and from a precociously zealous Jew to an opponent of Jewish customs, is no argument in favour of Paul’s position. His position stands or falls on the revelation he has received and the recognition accorded him by the “pillars” in Jerusalem.

E. Bammel2 has suggested that the trouble-makers in Galatia had attacked Paul because he had once been a persecutor of the Church, and that Paul was defending himself by admitting all, and then citing the praise of him that was used in the Judean churches:

Ὁ διώκων ἡμᾶς ποτὲ
νῦν εὐαγγελίζεται
τὴν πίστιν ἥν ποτε ἐπόρθει.
The one persecuting us then
now is preaching
the faith which once he destroyed.


It is hard to imagine the men who visited Galatia finding ammunition to use against Paul in his activities before he was called. Even if this were brought up against Paul, it is even harder to imagine that Paul would cite the approval of the Judean churches as support for his case. His case rested solely on the commission from God and, the subsequent approval he received from the authorities who might otherwise have been thought of as his commissioners. What the Judean churches thought was neither here nor there. Paul had asked the Galatians ironically in verse 10 whether he should now try to please men, and he is not likely, a few sentences later, to quote the men he had pleased.

The interpolation is anachronistic because it regards Judaism as an entity distinct from Christianity.3 Jews at the time used the term Ἰουδαϊσμος [=Judaism] to describe their faith in opposition to heathenism (2 Macc. 2.21; 8.1; 14.38; 4 Macc. 4.26; synagogue inscription in Frey, C.I.J. 1.694), but the use of the term in a Christian context seems to imply that Christianity is a system completely distinct from Judaism. Paul was well aware of the tragic gulf that had opened up between those Jews who believed in Jesus Christ and those who refused to believe, but he still held fast to the fact that “theirs were the fathers” (Rom. 9.5), that the fathers of those who believed in Christ were also the fathers of the unbelieving Jews. 

But this interpolation speaks in the terms to be found in the Apostolic Fathers of the second century, when Judaism had become a foreign entity (Ignatius 1Magfz. 8.1; 10.3; Philad. 6.1).The concepts employed are rarely found in Paul, or are entirely absent. In verse 23 πίστις [=faith] is used of the Christian religion, as in Acts 6.7, and the only possible parallels in Paul are at 3.23-5, 6.10, and Rom. 1.5, all passages that are of doubtful authenticity.4

When verse 13 is read in conjunction (with verse 23, it seems likely that ἐκκλησία [=church] is used in the first instance as the word for the Church as a whole; either the universal Church, or the Church of the Judean provinces. Although Paul was active as a persecutor only in Jerusalem, he planned to persecute Christians in Damascus; the destruction of Christian congregations everywhere is what is contemplated in the phrase καὶ ἐπόρθουν αὐτήν [=and was destroying it]. The Judean churches which did not know him by sight regarded him as persecuting them.

But Paul almost always uses the word to refer to a local congregation.5 He had an ideal opportunity to use the singular in 1.2, if that was his custom, but there he wrote ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς  Γαλατίας [=in the churches of Galatia]. In 1 Thess. 2.14 he spoke of “the churches of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus”.6

The vocabulary of this section is unusual. The word ἀναστροφή [=way of life] occurs only in Ephesians and 1 Timothy among the books of the Pauline corpus, and Ἰουδαϊσμος, πόρθέω, συνηλικιώτης, [=Judaism, destroy, my people] and πατρικός [=fathers] are not found elsewhere in that corpus. The enclitic ποτέ [=former] occurs three times here, once more in Galatians (at 2.6), and only nine times elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, excluding Ephesians and the Pastorals (where it occurs seven times).

The style of the section is even and steady, unlike the style of Paul. The sentences consist of 20, 19, 12, and 20 words respectively. καὶ joins distinct clauses with verbs in the indicative three times (1.13, 14, 24), which is rather frequent in comparison with the five times in the rest of the epistle (1.17, 18; 3.6 O.T.; 5.1; 6.2). The imperfect ‘occurs seven times in this section, and only eight times elsewhere in the epistle (1.10 twice; 2.67; 2.12 twice; 3.23; 4.3, 29). Two of the imperfects are periphrastic, and we are told that the periphrastic construction was on the increase.7

The case for regarding 1.13, 14, 22, 23, 24 as an interpolation is a strong one as it stands, but to complete the case I must try to explain why anyone should wish to add this sort of note to Paul’s text. 

E. Bammel has already shown that verse 23 probably contains a citation from a Judean church tradition, and I think it likely that this thesis can be extended to cover the whole of the section I have isolated. The author possessed Judean traditions about Paul, the persecutor who became the champion of the faith, and he inserted them into Galatians at the appropriate points in the story. His source was Judean as opposed to Jerusalemite,8 so that he has to explain that, although they used to say “He who once persecuted us”, they did not know him by sight.Because he was employing old traditions, the interpolator did not regard his additions as illegitimate. He saw himself as enriching a treasured epistle by an edifying reminiscence of the conversion of St Paul, which could appropriately be put onto his

1. G. D. Kilpatrick, “Galatians 1:18 . . . ”, New Testament Essays: Studies in Memory of Thomas Walter Manson, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (1959), pp. 144-9.

2. E. Bammel, “Galater 1.23”,ZNW 59 (1968), pp. 108-12 at p. m. The germ of the idea was first put forward by E. Barnikol, . . . (Kiel 1929), p. 50.

3. Cf. Bruno Bauer, Kritik der paulinischen Briefe. Erste Abteiling: Der Ursprung des Galateerbriefs. Berlin 1850 p. 13.

4. Cf. E. Bammel, op. cit., p. 108, n. I.

5. J. Y. Campbell, “The Origin and Meaning of the Christian Use of the word EKKAHEIA”, JTS xlix (1948), pp. I30-42; reprinted in Three New Testament Studies (Leiden 1965), pp. 41-54. Excluding Ephesians, he argues that only in Col.
1.18, 24. it is beyond question that the word has a wider significance; in eight other instances that is more or less likely.

6. The phrase ἐδίωξα τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ Θεοῦ [=I persecuted the church of God] in 1 Cor. 15.9 is parallel to our phrase in Gal. 1.13. It is possible that “God’s church” in I Corinthians could refer to the congregation in Jerusalem, but the true solution seems to be that I Cor. 15.1-1 I is a later credal summary not written by Paul.

7. Blass-Debrunncer-Funk, §65(4).

8. Judea in v. 22 must exclude Jerusalem (Lightfoot against Lipsius; T. Mommsen, ZNW2 (1901), p. 85; W. Heitmiiller, ZNW 13 (1912), pp. 3203). 

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20 thoughts on “Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation”

        1. Paul, the Gentile Solon proto-nazi of Hyam Maccoby v the Jewish Shaul proto-bolshevist of Alfred Rosenberg. The father’s church has many chapels. Trouble is, not many people apart from the Calvinists like the bossy old theologian very much, especially since the queer victims have become the gay totems. I found Joseph Klausner’s “From Jesus to Paul”, albeit dated and too accepting of Acts and Epistles, an interesting and balanced scholarly introduction to the ideas and world of Paul. “Tom” Wright’s “Pauline Perspectives” gives unintended indirect support to the “subdivision of a multiform Judaism” (sorry, Neil, a kiss of death!).

          1. I find very reductive your view on Maccoby’s Paul. I think that Maccoby had made a good work in describing the relations between the Jewish cult of Jesus (beyond if historicist or mythicist in origin) and the first proto-gnostics (like, in his view, ”Paul”). Relations of pure, reciprocal hate. Very similar to relations, in Parvus view, between Simon Magus and Pillars. Not the irenical, apologetical image of a Paul in total accord with the Pillars on all the line, save the Torah quaestio.

            Said this, I think that Maccoby’s view about that first relation between the Jewish Christians and the first Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic, or semi-Gnostic), is always valid even if I assume, like I believe and think, no Paul at all at I CE.


            1. Maccoby on Jesus, Judas and Paul is worth reading, but he mixes good evidence with weak speculation, and an anti-anti-semitic agenda has driven his work on Christianity.

              1. Ok with that, but I suspect that the origins of anti-Judaism, if not even of anti-semitism, is strictly connected with the Christian origins (maybe even part of original myth), especially since that it’s a concrete possibility that the Earliest written Gospel was Marcion’s or one very similar to it. For example, so I read:
                Where Catholic Christianity
                took the symbols and attacked the people, Marcion “attacked
                the symbols but left the people alone.”

                However it might be argued that the one which more obviously belittles Jewish symbols was, ironically, in practice the lesser of two evils . . . Judaism is the loser in either case.

                (p. 118, A companion to second-century Christian “heretics”, edited by Antti Marjanen & Petri Luomanen)

              2. If I were a Jew of the Shoah generation; I’d be a bit narked by Antisemitism too. The Shoah was the work of ordinary Christians. Having looked at his Wiki article I see nothing other scholars haven’t said before: I didn’t and don’t see folk jumping up and down on them; why would that be, hmm?

  1. I would save only the verse 22 as authentic, because that verse can serve to the entire Paul’s argument with the Galatians: no one could reveal the Gospel to Paul because no Christian knew him in Judaea, except Peter and the single human witness of his encounter with Peter, a mere ”brother of the Lord” (whatever that mere ”brother of Lord” would become after 14 years, i.e. the main opponent of Paul in Jerusalem).

    Then the interpolator emphasized the reasons of Christians of Judaea for not knowing Paul inserting verse 23.

    1. Accordingly, I disagree partially with this view of :

      His case rested solely on the commission from God and, the subsequent approval he received from the authorities who might otherwise have been thought of as his commissioners. What the Judean churches thought was neither here nor there.

      22 And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea;

      What the Judean churches thought was still essential for Paul’s argument: the Galatians had to be assured that no Christian Jew met Paul before and after his meeting with the representative of all apostles, Peter, and his ocular witness, brother James (of which the being a mere ”brother of Lord” makes still the point of Paul, even maybe pointing out what was the James of Gal 2 at time of first meeting of Paul (Gal 1): only a mere baptized Christian, not even an apostle – then substantially never a person really with right to claim power over Paul).

  2. I’m very impressed via via reading the Adamczewski’s commentary on Mark (I recommend strongly this book, surely on top list of my modest library on Jesus, along with OHJ).

    I come to know specifically why ‘Nazareth in Galilee’ would reflect the gentile Diaspora as reference to proclaimed Jewish roots of Paul (as persecutor, too) in Gal. 1:13-14.

    Seeing the absence of any occurrence to term ‘Nazareth’, the author so writes:

    Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the name ‘Nazareth’ (Mk 1:9b) is in fact an artificial name, which was created by Mark in order to illustrate Paul’s subsequent idea of his distinctively Jewish roots (Gal.1:13).
    … as well as that of Jesus ‘belonging to the offspring of David (Rom 1:3).

    (p. 38)

    I think that I can add more supportive evidence pro Adamczewski’s thesis (of a strictly sequential – and therefore further corroborative – matching between Mark 1-7 and Gal) if I see behind the name ‘Nazareth’ a cryptic reference to this meaning raised from mythicist Thomas Colignatus:

    A significant portion of rabbinic Judaism has allocated Jesus to Qumran, claiming that he would not have broken with Judaism and the Torah. Nazoraios would be a confused translation. Jesus would be a neitzer (offshoot). Paul would be the apostate, the notzrim, who would be the military guards that keep Judaism contained and captive.

    My idea:

    ”Jesus”/Paul must go to John to be forgiven of his previous sins as Jew persecutor of other Jews. The sin of Paul/Jesus is to be a persecutor of Church in Diaspora (Galilee). With the ”Son in me”, Paul/Jesus is purified at baptism of John (no people see the heavenly dove, because it’s a private revelation).

    Paul would be a notzrim (if I am not mistaken, an ‘observer’), not because he uniquely saw the truth (Renè Salm’ view?), but because he was considered, before that he became Christian, ‘the military guards that keep Judaism contained and captive,’ a clear reference to a previous hostility of Paul versus the Pillars.

    But making him a neitser (offshot) too, Paul/Jesus became the son of David according the flesh (thus still not known by his real identity of Son of God, but however in a more positive light, as kata sarka Messiah, than a persecutor of messianic Jews).

    Suggestions, suggestions… (I apologize for the length of my comment, but I am very impressed by this coincidence!)


    1. Correlation is not causation; and coincidences are usually just that. I’d be careful with Colignatus, that page looks like a whole load of indiscriminate bonkers; conflated, plagiarised, bonkers at that. “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” immediately springs to mind.

  3. In whiletime read Gen 49:27 about a guy from Tarsus:

    Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder

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