The Historicity — and modern liberalism — of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

No doubt  many readers have already been alerted to Richard Carrier latest blog post: The Historicity of Paul the Apostle.

Our Kiwi friend at Otagosh has also posted an alert to this post with his own commentary.

I am traveling and it’s too awkward to elaborate with my own response at the moment. In sum, I do accept Paul as a historical figure but exactly who or what he was behind the letters is not entirely clear. Roger Parvus also raises interesting questions, as many of us know.

Skimming Richard’s arguments my first impression is that some are more solid than others (as with most things); some strike me as discussion starters more than conclusions. Some, such as the argument regarding style, I cannot comment on because I lack the skills in the language. That aspect is an open question for me: are Galatians and Romans really similar styles? do not some of the apparent contradictions speak to alternative styles and is it not something of a circular argument to suggest Paul’s style could be erratic (as some claim)? Besides, are questions of interpolations, style, persecution-career, really decisive when the question is the historicity of Paul? But no doubt we all have our own perspectives on these questions and Richard’s post surely adds additional fuel for thought.

Carrier would hardly be Carrier without a provocative element and he does fire a bluntly over-honest shot at McGrath. Speaking of whom — not long ago this Paul was not a Conservative Christian appeared. McGrath who gets very cross if you suggest he takes the position of an apologist here wants us all to believe that Paul was a liberal Christian just like he and his modern scholarly peers. No doubt were he alive today he’d be the outspoken leader calling for the ordination of women and full acceptance of gays into the body of Christ. Of course he would.

And that it follows that this gives us reason to revere the Bible as a book of the utmost contemporary relevance today is an entirely innocent side-effect of this argument.


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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “The Historicity — and modern liberalism — of Paul”

  1. The historicity of Paul and the authenticity of the letters are separate issues — a historical Paul could exist, but none of the letters could be his. Carrier does not take into account the fact that all of the letters in the NT are not by the authors ascribed except for the seven supposedly authentic ones. This demonstrates that, for NT authors, pseudepigraphy was the normal and expected form of composing letters. Therefore, it would be unusual if, in one case, somehow authenticity was important.

    1. Good point. And a little earlier, in the time of the LXX, Greeks likely influenced the intermittent addition of dozens of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works, it seems.

      The Canon was fluid. And never entirely honest.

  2. It strikes me there are two different questions here, and much like the case of Jesus, many of the arguments sail past one another.

    Having read Detering, it seems to me that his position is that the historical Paul of the church is a whitewash figure and a pseudonym for Simon of Samaria. His position does not rule out Simon of Samaria as the author of some of the Pauline canon, but does rule out any truth to the current story that is taught to believers about Paul. He also rules out the “letters of Paul” being actual single letters that were written to established churches.

    Carrier seems to think that establishing the unity of authorship is all that is necessary, but you get the problem of the beard here. When does a group of whiskers become a beard? In the same way with the epistles, if there is more than one letter in each, if fabricated epistles are very common, if there is evidence of orthodox interpolation, at what point do we get to say that there was an original author that we can know anything about?

    1. Agreed. I would suggest that the question we might want to ask would be not “Did Paul exist?” but “What can we say about the author or authors of such-and-such text?” More specific questions might be, are such and such texts as a group all by the same author? Was that author called Paul? If so, was it a pen name or that person’s regular day-to-day name? Are any of the biographical details given in Acts accurate?

      Carrier’s theory is more complicated than he seems to imply: he believes that 6 of the Pauline epistles are genuinely by Paul, but he believes their original form was entirely different from the texts we have today, so it isn’t really quite that Paul is the author of the epistles; rather Paul is the author of chunks that were assembled together by someone else to form the texts. Carrier also believes that there are proto-orthodox interpolations, so Paul is not the author of those particular chunks.

  3. My current guess is that Paul existed, but that he was very much a product or member of a slightly hidden school or group. Of intellectual platonistic, spiritual or mental folks. Who emphasize knowledge. As salvation. Rather like modern professors might.

    This group would have included Gnostics, stoicism, platonists. And all intellectuals. Including say Simon, Marcion, and intellectual priests. And Paul.

    In a way, Paul was just a voice-piece for this larger body.

    1. Roughly, I am looking at the small percentage of the population that was literate, and had read a few good books. Especially, those who had read some Plato.

      Such knowledge or Gnosis, such ideas, would have seemed to be mental or spiritual salvation, to this class of people: the new literate and educated class. Which included clerks, or clerics. Or, priests.

      1. Many of us today support intellectuality and ideas. But in the pre-Socratics say, like Pythagoras and Heraclitus, ideas were mystical, moods; more like spirits. So later, Paul’s and Gnosticism’s ideas were as much mysticism, as rational.

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