Only Jesus occupies more of the New Testament than Paul, who crucially redirects and recasts the Christian movement for gentile followers.
Moreover, his letters are unlike anything that’s previously appeared in the Bible. Each one is a stewpot of prophetic utterance, administrative decrees, definitions of what’s permitted and then also forbidden among the believers, personal encouragement, admonition, organizational minutia, qualifications of leadership, and insistence on the role of communities of faith — the church as a body of believers rather than a hierarchy.
The big mystery begins with the man himself. Who is Paul?
Some scholars have perceived two hands at work here — one boldly challenging societal norms, the other backpedaling to avoid arousing its wrath.
Other researchers question the authorship of some of the letters, even placing their composition to decades later than Paul.
Robert Eisenman, in James the Brother of Jesus, examines the history recorded by Josephus and notes in the events building up to the Great Revolt in 66 CE “the intermediary between this more accommodating ‘Peace’ coalition within the city and the Roman troops outside it was a mysterious Herodian (‘a relative of Agrippa’), whom Josephus identifies as ‘Saul’ or ‘Saulus.’ We have met this ‘Saulus’ before in his works, because in the Antiquities, after the stoning of James, Josephus pictures Saulus, his brother Costobarus, and another relative, Antipas, as leading a riot in Jerusalem.”
Eisenman examines how in the generations after the Maccabee victories many of its members married into the Herodian family, and for Paul to be among their descendants would explain his Roman citizenship, which would be hard for a Jew to obtain.
An interesting theory, though it’s hard to dovetail into the conventional timeline that places Paul’s birth in Tarsus, in Turkey, around 6 CE and his conversion experience on the way to Damascus around 33 to 36 CE. His visit to Jerusalem, with the famine relief offering, would come around 46 CE, and his confrontation with the council in Jerusalem at 49 CE.
He is identified as a Pharisee, but other than his view of Jesus as messiah, did that really change when he became a self-styled apostle?
Even though his letters occupy the second largest part of the New Testament — more than a fourth, with the gospels taking up more than two-fifths, and Acts, letters by other apostles, and Revelation filling less than a third of the remainder — Paul himself remains an enigma.
We can even point to his ambiguous sexuality, especially considering his preoccupation in opposing circumcision, which contrasts sharply to his out-and-out opposition to long hair on men, even before getting to the appearance of women. How do his views align with the ingrained Jewish male fertility cult, for that matter?
We also have the widespread agreement that these letters were written in common Greek, rather than the elegant form used by the elite, which adds another argument against David Bauscher’s argument of the original New Testament being in Aramaic.
I remain struck by a sense that despite Paul’s claims of being Jewish, his letters in no way feel like anything I encountered in the Hebrew Bible or Apocrypha or, for that matter, in the contemporary Jewish authors’ reflections.
Still, I suggest approaching Paul from a Godwrestling perspective, asking whether a particular text has “it” right, whether other perspectives or possible conclusions exist. Look especially for places where Paul claims divine inspiration and others where he admits to making a decision entirely on his own, often as an administrative resolution.
There is no way a straight-through reading can resolve the many snarls within Paul’s message, as deeply moving and revolutionary as many of his passages remain.
For now, let me simply name the books and their likely dates of composition, many of them clearly before the gospels.
- ROMANS, 57-58 CE.
- 1 CORINTHIANS, 56-57 CE.
- 2 CORINTHIANS, 57 CE.
- GALATIANS, 55 CE.
- EPHESIANS, 62-63 CE, or 80-90 CE, after Paul’s death.
- PHILIPPIANS, 62-63 CE. Alternatively, 54-55 CE.
- COLOSSIANS, 62-63 CE. Alternatively, 62-70 CE.
- 1 THESALONIANS, 52-53 CE. Alternatively earlier, at 51 CE.
- 2 THESALONIANS, 52-53 CE. Others place it earlier, at 51 CE or after 70 CE, after the death of Paul, and thus raising questions of its authorship.
- 1 TIMOTHY, 65 CE. Others place it as 100 CE, attributed to but not by Paul.
- 2 TIMOTHY, 66 CE. Others place it as 100 CE, attributed to but not by Paul.
- TITUS, 65 CE. Others place it as 100 CE, attributed to but not by Paul.
- PHILEMON, 52-53 CE. Others place it as 54-55 CE.
- HEBREWS, 67 CE. Others place it as 80-90 CE, noting that it does not fit Paul’s style or voice.