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Paul – the Promoter of Christianity[1]

Until the end Paul claimed that he never consciously abandoned the faith of his fathers and never forsook Judaism. That now seems difficult to sustain; but rather than charge him with duplicity, might we see it as an almost involuntary but necessary strategy on Paul’s part? At a time when things were not going terribly well in the mission field, did he deem it advantageous to curry a bit of favor with the Jewish converts who constituted a significant minority presence in the Roman community?

See Also: The Earliest Christian Text: First Thessalonians (Salem 2013).

By Gerd Lüdemann
Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity
Georg-August-University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
December 2014

For the study of Christian origins, the seven undisputed letters of Paul occupy a special position both because they are the only firsthand sources from the first generation among 27 texts of the New Testament and because they allow us to read what Paul thought, to hear his own voice, and tentatively to date the foundational events of earliest Christianity. In short, work on these important documents provides the basis for nearly every other question related to Christian origins. Taking 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of Paul’s letters, as a vantage point, I will deal first with Paul’s role as a founder of Christian communities and as a missionary, second with his role as apostle and his vision of a new humanity, and third with his relationship to Israel.

(a) Paul’s role as a founder of Christian communities and as a missionary

1 Thessalonians is a cordial letter from Paul to a recently founded community, but also one in which the apostle uses all his skill and charm to induce the Thessalonians to take his message to heart. Nothing was more important to him than that the Thessalonians should be persuaded of his love and his concern for them. For in a very real sense he and they were inseparably united, and every aspect of their relationship reflects a reciprocal giving and taking.

The letter also illustrates Paul’s pastoral side.[2] Having skillfully deployed his co-worker Timothy to inform him about the situation at Thessalonica, the apostle now offers his counsel, and with both overflowing empathy and firm insistence reminds his young community of the rules of conduct and faith he had transmitted to them during the founding visit.

Despite the harmonious tone, 1 Thessalonians is a “fire letter”.[3] Viewing it as a whole, we can see that in it Paul looks into the future more than in any other of his preserved epistle. He expects the second coming of Jesus to happen during his own lifetime and threatens all non-believers – Gentiles and Jews alike – with the certainty of condign judgment. On the other hand, he assures the Thessalonians of the validity of their faith and its guarantee of salvation, for unlike the two aforementioned groups they had accepted the gospel message that would save them from the imminent wrath of God.

Of course, Paul tried to establish and solidify his contact with other people, for he confesses to a compulsion to preach the gospel.[4] And though he was an effective promoter of a new and very different message, this message no doubt struck most of his audience as not only radical, but indeed exotic. Still, Paul considered the needs of his hearers and was willing to meet them halfway. He openly avows that with Jews he became a Jew and with Gentiles, a Gentile.[5] Yet he himself was neither a real Jew nor a real Gentile; and in this, his earliest letter, he even adopted the role of a secular philosopher.

Paul used every means at his disposal so that he “might save some”.[6] “He was an eminent man of action; of powerful soul … a conqueror, a missionary, a propagator.”[7] Paul’s burning commitment to the Gospel and his apostleship led him throughout his public life to display both a streak of arrogance and a tendency to vacillate. No doubt some were perplexed, but his accomplishments suggest that both his adaptability and intensity were valuable traits.

Gentile Christian communities to whom he introduced the Gospel (Philippi and Thessalonica are two good examples) served as bases for his missionary work of proclaiming both Jesus Christ the future savior who had been raised from the dead, and the one God of the Jews who had raised him. Indeed, he felt called to lead Gentiles to worship the God of Israel.[8]

His preaching in the newly founded congregations included Jewish teachings of sanctified living that not only affirmed the validity of specific parts of the Law in the form of a catechism but also reminded spiritually inclined Christians of their duties in daily life. And while from the very beginning he repudiated the practice of circumcision, Paul introduced baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Christian variations of rites that were part and parcel of mystery religions familiar to all. Still, it is interesting to note that he does not explicitly mention any of these practices in 1 Thessalonians;[9] evidently he regards baptism and the Lord’s Supper as established practices of central and thus self-evident importance.

(b) The apostle and his vision of a new humanity

Paul regarded himself as the agent of Jesus Christ, called by God and committed to God’s cause. Along with his risen Lord he claimed to be part of a cosmic drama under the direction of God almighty. He did not consider the life of Jesus of Nazareth to be an important topic.[10] Paul never met Jesus personally and had little familiarity with his deeds and teachings. In short, he cared but little about the itinerant preacher from Galilee; it was the risen, heavenly Lord that mattered above all else, yet only as the crucified One[11] whose death offered atonement to humankind.

We encounter in Paul a tremendous degree of self-consciousness and self-importance; his emphatic statement that he was superior to many of his contemporaries in observing the law[12] reflects not only his Pharisaic sense of superiority, but also his character; for as a Christian he would later say of himself that he worked more than all the other apostles,[13] or spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthians together.[14]

Nonetheless, he dominated his communities by insisting on his divine commission and requiring the compliance of others. His claims of apostolic authority reinforced his sense of infallibility and often led him to bully any who disagreed. As one would expect, he thus gained devoted followers among the more docile members but also repelled many who were not easily swayed.[15]

He could not pursue a middle way because his demand for an absolute faith was too strong and his experience near Damascus too overwhelming. One could well have foreseen that as an apostle of Jesus he would show the same burning zeal that he showed as a persecutor of Christians. “Paul the apostle shared many of the characteristics of Paul the Pharisee. One of the principal ones was that he was a zealot fully and totally committed to the course to which he felt called by God. Further, in both his careers he was, by his own modest estimate, the best there was.”[16]

As a Christian, his fanaticism merely changed its focus.[17] “Though the call to be an apostle had reversed the direction of his life, Paul in many ways remained the same.”[18] If Paul's conversion and ongoing dedication to Christianity had granted him the authority to do so, he would certainly have undertaken harsh retaliatory measures against the Jewish Christians who sought to undermine and disrupt his missionary efforts.[19]

Why, then, did Paul at first seek to eradicate Christianity? It might seem that his fanaticism sprang from the exclusivist conviction that this new sect sullied God’s honor and annulled the divinely enjoined purity of the Jewish community – a challenge to God’s supremacy that would have to be eradicated. But such a view makes it difficult to understand the sudden change from persecutor to preacher, especially since the about-face was marked by a debilitating emotional and physical breakdown.

His acquaintance with Christian practice and preaching surely took place at both cognitive and precognitive levels – as is probably true of all social and religious experiences. A reasonable explanation is that Paul’s vehement rejection of Christians and his aggressive attitude towards them was based on an inner tension in his person, one of the kind that numerous studies in depth-psychology have identified in other cases as a motivation of aggressive behavior. Is it too much to suggest that the basic elements of Christian practice and preaching subconsciously attracted Paul? Might it not be that fearing his hidden strivings in this direction, he projected these onto Christians in order to attack them all the more vehemently?

In any case his calling as a Pharisee came to an abrupt end. Paul is one of those people whose life is bifurcated by a single inner catastrophe. Paul had loathed Jesus as a sham messiah and battled against his disciples, but near Damascus in the course of a persecution that he himself had initiated, he “saw” Jesus in his heavenly glory and heard himself called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. This vision of “God’s Son” determined his future life.

Paul considered his own preaching to represent God’s word and praised the Thessalonians for accepting it as such (1 Thess 2:13). He even stood up to the Roman Empire by occasionally appropriating its slogan “peace and security,”[20] and then predicting its total destruction in the near future. In 1 Thess 1:1 we see an unmistakable act of political resistance, for he suggestively identifies the Thessalonian community he had founded as the ekklesia of Thessalonians – a term we translate as “church,” but the primary meaning of which was “civic assembly.” It was a good thing for Paul that no Roman authority took notice of this.

But of course Paul’s work was directed mainly at religious goals. His special commission, assigned him by God almighty, was to bring the gospel to the Gentiles in order to inform them that from then on they were included in God’s plan of salvation. They did not have to become Jews first, and even though not circumcised, they could obtain the same status as Jews. Henceforth the two groups would belong equally to the church, for together they comprise the new Israel and are one in Christ; and accordingly they ate with one another, dispensing with Jewish dietary and purity laws: gone was the distinction between clean and unclean.[21] This praxis had a dynamic of its own and prompted the claim of the church universal that all differences of gender, religion, and status were eliminated.

“When Paul discusses membership in the people of God he always insists on the equality of Jew and Gentile and faith in Christ alone .… (T)hese are the two interrelated convictions which lie immediately behind his denial of righteousness by the law.”[22] In this way Paul – though insisting always to have remained a Jew – willy-nilly denies “two pillars common to all forms of Judaism: the election of Israel and the faithfulness to the Jewish law.”[23]

No wonder, then, that they undertook strong and even violent measures to keep him from pursuing his work. But they were as unsuccessful as Paul the Pharisee had been in attempting to eradicate the Christian community of Damascus.[24] Indeed, the utopian notion of the church universal had already gained too many Jewish and pagan adherents to be eradicated. The dynamics of the nascent church can be compared to a huge covered kettle full of water at a rolling boil; and when the energy generated by a growing number of Jewish disciples was suddenly augmented by an influx of Gentile converts, the kettle boiled over, the hissing and bubbling water creating new channels as it cooled – and new communities composed of both Jews and Gentiles sprang up.

(c) Paul and the people of Israel

In 1 Thessalonians Paul assails the “unbelieving” Jews sharply. He uses polemic that stems from both Jewish and pagan sources:

Not only does Paul combine Jewish and pagan batterings to amplify one another, but to my knowledge Paul is the only Jew from antiquity to direct traditional anti-Semitism of pagan origin against his own people – accusing them both of asebeia [impiety or godlessness] and of misanthrôpia [hostile refusal to have dealings with other people].[27]

He was clearly outraged when Torah-observing Jews obstructed his efforts to proselytize Gentiles, and therefore incorporated several tried and true anti-Jewish formulae into his letter to the Gentile Christians of Thessalonica, his earliest extant epistle. In this way he incited Thessalonian Christians against non-Christian Jews.

In ensuing conflicts with Torah-observant Jewish Christians, Paul maligned his Jewish birth-religion by calling it “dung,”[28] slandered his opponents as servants of Satan,[29] and in the bitterly sarcastic Gal 5:12 said of those who wanted to circumcise Gentile Christians, “I wish they would cut off their own members.”[30]

More than a decade after the composition of 1 Thessalonians and shortly before the third journey to Jerusalem that he undertook as a Christian, Paul was in Corinth and dictated his letter to the Romans.[31] In chapters 1–8 of this letter he develops his message of justification by faith and free grace through the atoning death of Jesus – a gift that Jews and Gentile alike are welcome to accept.

But he seems strangely unaware that in the following three chapters, and especially at the end of chapter 11, he effectively cancels a great deal of what he has just written. Indeed, a sort of Jewish patriotism seems to flow back over him. For here in 11:25–26 he tells the Romans about a revelation of God he has received to the effect that “a hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of Gentiles determined by God has come in” and that thereupon, “all Israel will be saved”.

Paul is introducing here a Jewish “creed” about the fate of all Jews in the future world. “We have here simply the clearest and most concise statement of a view which in fact seems to have been universal.”[32] Suddenly belonging to Israel through birth would carry as much weight as justification through faith; and not only that, but all Jews will be included in the promised salvation while only a predetermined number of Gentiles will be so rewarded.

This reason for this strange about-face would seem to be that most of Paul’s own people have not accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Apostle says, his anguish is so strong that he would be willing suffer the unthinkable consequence of being cut off from Christ if he could thus effect the conversion of his non-believing Jewish brothers.[33]

Here we see another side of Paul, and may find relief and reassurance in the willingness of a one-time enemy to give up his own salvation for that of his fellow Jews. For a moment, at least, he has claimed reconciliation with his own people – and thereby perhaps also with himself.

Note that Paul wrote Romans at a time of increasing tension between him and non-Christian and Christian Jews. His opponents knew that Paul had written words critical of the law,[34] for these had come to the notice of Jerusalem Christians who had sent spies into the Pauline churches. There they had observed violations of the law involving people who had been born Jews: Jewish Christians no longer circumcised their sons[35] and regularly ate with Gentiles Christians.[36] On the other hand, the situation in Jerusalem had become radicalized in the run-up to the Jewish War (66–70 CE). And perhaps the collection was not even called for at the Jerusalem conference (48 CE), but was first brought into play by Paul in order to gain an edge in the negotiations on that occasion over the circumcision of Gentile Christians.

It is noteworthy that eighteen Halakhot[37] issued before the Jewish War included prohibitions against accepting gifts from Gentiles.[38] Here one might see a clue to the Jerusalem church’s attitude toward the collection of the Pauline churches: what once had been acceptable had now become intolerable as a result of developments in Pauline mission territory; indeed, it is likely that the collection had turned into a “tainted business.”[39]

Paul evidently expected the worst, since shortly before his fateful journey to Jerusalem he asked the Roman Christians for supporting prayers “that I may be delivered from the unbelievers (= Jews) in Judaea, and that my service (= the collection) for the Saints (= the community in Jerusalem) may be acceptable.”[40] In other words, he knew not only of the indignation of the non-believing Jews in Jerusalem but also of the Christian community’s reservations regarding both his person and the collection.

To quote Jacob Taubes: “Whoever accepts this money accepts it from Gentile Christians. For the Jewish Christian congregations in the diaspora, the Pauline groups, the Pauline congregations, were the devil himself.”[41] Why, then, did Paul himself go to Jerusalem to deliver the money? Why not send trusted co-workers? Most likely Paul wanted to hand over the money himself “in order to obtain legitimation for himself. If someone brings along a decent sum, then it’s also a matter of legitimation, and not just philanthropy. Not of philanthropy at all, but of legitimation.”[42]

By promising salvation without faith in Christ to non-believing Jews, Paul tried to turn the tide. But his fellow-Jews, who did not regard Jesus as the Messiah, had good reason to count Paul’s supposedly friendly sentiments as worthless, indeed as the hypocritical words and acts of a man who throughout the Roman empire lured proselytes and God-fearers alike from their synagogues. For in fact he called on born Jews to associate freely with Gentiles and to give up strict observance of the law.

Paul constantly ignored the reality that his missionary work created. It necessarily led to an alienation of Jews from their native religion and thus to the diminution of Judaism.[43] Not much later many of these converts sided with their non-Christian fellow Jews and like them permanently stamped Paul as an apostate.

Nor could Gentile Christians have been overjoyed with Paul’s new ethnocentrism; they may even have doubted whether they could continue to trust him. In short, Paul had likely suffered a falling-out not only with those closest to him but also with the Jewish Christians and the Jerusalem Jews. These latter two groups clearly saw that Paul’s activity was ultimately destructive of Jewish customs and threatened an end to the law of Moses.

Until the end Paul claimed that he never consciously abandoned the faith of his fathers and never forsook Judaism.[44] That now seems difficult to sustain; but rather than charge him with duplicity, might we see it as an almost involuntary but necessary strategy on Paul’s part? At a time when things were not going terribly well in the mission field, did he deem it advantageous to curry a bit of favor with the Jewish converts[45] who constituted a significant minority presence in the Roman community?

Or if that seems too calculated a motive, can we imagine an elderly and battle-weary apostle creating yet another “truth” to satisfy a sentimental attachment to the people and faith of his youth? At any rate it probably strengthened both the Roman congregation and the movement as a whole, and few can imagine that Gentile Christianity fared any the worse for Paul’s “Jewish patriotism.”


[1] In the following section I have used material from my recent book, The Earliest Christian Text: First Thessalonians. Salem 2013. The present text is based on a lecture at St Mark’s Centre for Radical Christianity at Sheffield, May 11, 2013. I thank Tom Hall for his help in matters of style and content.

[2] In modern scholarship especially Abraham Malherbe (Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophic Tradition of Pastoral Care. Philadelphia 1987) has drawn attention to Paul’s pastoral side.

[3] This designation goes back to Arnold A. T. Ehrhardt. Politische Metaphysik von Solon bis Augustin. Vol. 2. Tübingen 1959, 21.

[4] 1 Cor 9:16.

[5] 1 Cor 9:20–21.

[6] 1 Cor 9:22.

[7] Ernest Renan. Saint Paul. New York, NY, 1869, 329.

[8] Cf. Rom 1:15–16; 1:13–15; 11:13.

[9] On the introduction of baptism in Corinth during the founding visit see 1 Cor 1:13–16; on the introduction of the Lord’s Supper see 1 Cor 11:23–26.

[10] Yet according to Paul the cosmic Lord Jesus was at the same time the crucified One and therefore a human being. Cf. 1 Cor 1:23; Gal 3:1.

[11] Gal 2:2.

[12] Gal 1:14.

[13] 1 Cor 15:10.

[14] 1 Cor 14:8.

[15] Cf. William Wrede. Paul. Boston 1908, 37–38. See also Renan, Saint Paul, 327: “Paul was personally too energetic to form an original school. He always crushed his disciples. With him they only fill the characters of secretaries, servants and couriers.”

[16] E. P. Sanders. Paul. Oxford 1991, 12.

[17] Cf. Renan, Saint Paul, 329.

[18] Sanders, Paul, 12.

[19] Cf. Wrede, Paul, 32.

[20] 1 Thess 5:3.

[21] Cf. Lev 11; Deut 14:3–20.

[22] E. P. Sanders. Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. Philadelphia 1983, 208.

[23] Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 208.

[24] Gal 1:17.

[25] 1 Thess 2:15–16.

[26] Cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.5.1–2.

[27] 1 Thess 2:15.

[28] Phil 3:8.

[29] 2 Cor 11:14–15.

[30] Gal 5:12. Sanders, Paul, 53, calls this “the nastiest statement in [Paul’s] letters.” The Greek verb is apokoptomai (“to cut off” [the genitals of the males]). NRSV uses the verb “to castrate” which is both anatomically ambiguous and not strong enough.

[31] Tertius wrote the letter as he himself says (Rom 16:22). Paul was lodging at the house of Gaius (Rom 16:23), whom he had baptized during the founding of a Christian congregation there (1 Cor 1:14).

[32] E. P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia 1977, 149.

[33] Cf. Rom 9:1–5.

[34] Cf. Rom 8:2.

[35] Acts 21:21.

[36] Cf. Gal 2:12.

[37] Laws by which to go which are not found in Jewish Scriptures but in the oral tradition.

[38] Cf. Martin Hengel. The Zealots. Edinburgh 1989, 200–206.

[39] Jacob Taubes. The Political Theology of Paul. Los Angeles 2004, 17.

[40] Rom 15:31.

[41] Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, 17.

[42] Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, 18–19.

[43] Cf. Adolf von Harnack. New Testament Studies IV. The Date of the Acts and of the Synoptic Gospels. New York 1911, 66.

[44] Cf. Donald Wayne Riddle. Paul – Man of Conflict. Nashville 1940, 147.

[45] Cf. Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3); Andronicus and Junia (Röm 16:7), etc.