BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Great Paul Debate

Three scholarly takes on the apostle and his message

Paul the Apostle. Detail of the mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale. Ravena, Italy.

Paul the Apostle. Detail of the mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale. Ravena, Italy. Photo by Luca Sartoni via CC-BY 3.0

Was the apostle Paul an early convert to Christian belief, or did he remain steadfastly committed to the Judaism of his day? Biblical scholar David Christian Clausen explored these and other questions in his recent Biblical Archaeology Review article, “Five Myths About the Apostle Paul.” In this Web Exclusive, two Pauline scholars, Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary and Nijay Gupta of Northern Seminary, weigh in on the debate and provide their own perspectives on Paul and his teachings, while Clausen responds to their arguments with his own essay.

Related Posts

Mordechai Beck's Moses
Apr 2
Who Was Moses? Was He More than an Exodus Hero?

By: Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

The sunken courtyard outside the entrance to the cave of Salome. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Mar 27
Saint Salome’s Resting Place?

By: BAS Staff

Zev Radovan
Mar 26
Nehemiah—The Man Behind the Wall

By: Dorothy Willette


5 Responses

  1. Sandra Plate says:

    I’ve a masters in religion with an emphasis in theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and I can tell you with certainty that this theory is absolute nonsense. Although Paul’s ministry was to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, it wasn’t a DIFFERENT gospel. Same gospel, different people.

    Just Galatians 3:28, 4:20-31 dispels this biblical twisting. Galatians 4 alone makes evident that the way of the Jews was abrogated by Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice: “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” — it’s quite clear that Paul, a Jew of Jews, includes himself within the group to whom he is speaking.

    It amuses me how modern scholars continually try to come up with new and different biblical exegesis when they should continue the teachings given down to us from the apostles. I say “amuses,” but I really ought to say causes righteous indignation inside of me because this kind of poppycock eisegesis can confuse people and shake their faith in the Bible and it’s perspicuity.

    1. My approach to Paul is as a historian not an apologist. I do not attempt to interpret Paul to defend Christian orthodoxy. I try to approach Paul objectively and let him speak for himself with as few preconceptions as possible within the context of first-century Judaism in the Roman Empire. I am not sure why this should cause anyone “righteous indignation.” The passage you quoted, from Paul’s midrash on the Abraham/Sarah/Hagar story, is found in his Letter to the Galatians as you state. That letter was clearly written to Gentiles (Gal. 4:8) about Gentile issues, primarily Gentile male circumcision. The midrash reads as if Paul was trying to reinforce belief in the redeemed nature of his baptized Gentiles insisting that there was no need for them to become circumcised (though never saying that Jews should not continue obedience within their covenant).

      Paul identified each woman in the story as representing a covenant. Hagar, the enslaved pagan, stands for the Mosaic covenant which would have condemned her – the ultimate fate of pagans (“slaves to sin”; see Gal. 4:3, 7, 8-9) was destruction (Gal. 3:10). Gentiles without Christ were like Hagar’s son Ishamel, treated neither as sons nor heirs, adopted or otherwise. The “present Jerusalem” was the seat of the Torah-based cultus that condemned them – Gentiles were not even allowed to worship in the temple sanctuary.

      The second of the two covenants Paul mentions in the midrash is the new covenant symbolized by Sarah, the freeborn woman. Members of this covenant were citizens of a new, or spiritual, Jerusalem (Isa. 56:6-7 LXX; Mark 11:17). Paul insisted that his baptized Galatians were no longer enslaved like the others; they had become “children of the promise” that was made to Abraham about Sarah conceiving nations and the blessings that would one day be theirs. It goes without saying that Jews were already children of Abraham and Sarah and did not need to “become” such. If you know your scriptures, you know Paul already understood Israel as God’s child (Ex. 4:22; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1)

      Paul called those in Galatia who were trying to persuade his baptized Galatians to be circumcised “children of the flesh.” His Galatians, through baptism, had been “born according to the Spirit.” And just as the enslaved Hagar was thrown out by Abraham (Gen. 21:10), Paul implied that his baptized Galatians “cast out” the interferers with their alternate gospel.

      This midrash has nothing to do with the abrogation of Torah, the replacement of Jews with baptized Gentiles, with Jews being in the wrong covenant, or with Paul rejecting his Jewish identity. Jews were not the enslaved ones in Paul’s midrash and Paul never described them as such.

    2. T Gwartney says:

      Well said Sandra Plate.

    3. Paul Kramer says:

      Excellant responce

      1. Sheila Barnhart says:

        Sandra, it amuse me that you believe your Masters is superior to other modern biblical scholars PhDs. A background in archeology, cultural anthropology, history, a classical education, all need to be taken into consideration. You seem to be taking a position of defending your faith and not taking the position of a scholar.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


5 Responses

  1. Sandra Plate says:

    I’ve a masters in religion with an emphasis in theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and I can tell you with certainty that this theory is absolute nonsense. Although Paul’s ministry was to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, it wasn’t a DIFFERENT gospel. Same gospel, different people.

    Just Galatians 3:28, 4:20-31 dispels this biblical twisting. Galatians 4 alone makes evident that the way of the Jews was abrogated by Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice: “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” — it’s quite clear that Paul, a Jew of Jews, includes himself within the group to whom he is speaking.

    It amuses me how modern scholars continually try to come up with new and different biblical exegesis when they should continue the teachings given down to us from the apostles. I say “amuses,” but I really ought to say causes righteous indignation inside of me because this kind of poppycock eisegesis can confuse people and shake their faith in the Bible and it’s perspicuity.

    1. My approach to Paul is as a historian not an apologist. I do not attempt to interpret Paul to defend Christian orthodoxy. I try to approach Paul objectively and let him speak for himself with as few preconceptions as possible within the context of first-century Judaism in the Roman Empire. I am not sure why this should cause anyone “righteous indignation.” The passage you quoted, from Paul’s midrash on the Abraham/Sarah/Hagar story, is found in his Letter to the Galatians as you state. That letter was clearly written to Gentiles (Gal. 4:8) about Gentile issues, primarily Gentile male circumcision. The midrash reads as if Paul was trying to reinforce belief in the redeemed nature of his baptized Gentiles insisting that there was no need for them to become circumcised (though never saying that Jews should not continue obedience within their covenant).

      Paul identified each woman in the story as representing a covenant. Hagar, the enslaved pagan, stands for the Mosaic covenant which would have condemned her – the ultimate fate of pagans (“slaves to sin”; see Gal. 4:3, 7, 8-9) was destruction (Gal. 3:10). Gentiles without Christ were like Hagar’s son Ishamel, treated neither as sons nor heirs, adopted or otherwise. The “present Jerusalem” was the seat of the Torah-based cultus that condemned them – Gentiles were not even allowed to worship in the temple sanctuary.

      The second of the two covenants Paul mentions in the midrash is the new covenant symbolized by Sarah, the freeborn woman. Members of this covenant were citizens of a new, or spiritual, Jerusalem (Isa. 56:6-7 LXX; Mark 11:17). Paul insisted that his baptized Galatians were no longer enslaved like the others; they had become “children of the promise” that was made to Abraham about Sarah conceiving nations and the blessings that would one day be theirs. It goes without saying that Jews were already children of Abraham and Sarah and did not need to “become” such. If you know your scriptures, you know Paul already understood Israel as God’s child (Ex. 4:22; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1)

      Paul called those in Galatia who were trying to persuade his baptized Galatians to be circumcised “children of the flesh.” His Galatians, through baptism, had been “born according to the Spirit.” And just as the enslaved Hagar was thrown out by Abraham (Gen. 21:10), Paul implied that his baptized Galatians “cast out” the interferers with their alternate gospel.

      This midrash has nothing to do with the abrogation of Torah, the replacement of Jews with baptized Gentiles, with Jews being in the wrong covenant, or with Paul rejecting his Jewish identity. Jews were not the enslaved ones in Paul’s midrash and Paul never described them as such.

    2. T Gwartney says:

      Well said Sandra Plate.

    3. Paul Kramer says:

      Excellant responce

      1. Sheila Barnhart says:

        Sandra, it amuse me that you believe your Masters is superior to other modern biblical scholars PhDs. A background in archeology, cultural anthropology, history, a classical education, all need to be taken into consideration. You seem to be taking a position of defending your faith and not taking the position of a scholar.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend