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Saint Paul Writing His Epistles

This 17th-century painting features an old man sitting alone at his desk, about to write on paper. Two open books—one presumably a Bible—lie in front of him. A scroll rolls off the side of the desk. A sword stands against the wall. As viewers, we sit across the desk, as if to receive a letter. The man, of course, is the apostle Paul, shown here concentrating on composing his letters to various first-century communities across the Mediterranean world. Such depiction is apt: most of what we know about Paul is that he wrote letters that somehow were saved, copied, and eventually compiled as part of an official collection of Christian scriptures. In fact, letters attributed to Paul constitute half of the New Testament canon, and one canonical text, the Acts of the Apostles, narrates Paul’s travels, travails, and trespasses across the Roman world. It is fair, then, to represent Paul as a man of letters, a man working among diverse peoples, and a man whose ideas have made an indelible mark on western culture.

What issues complicate our understanding of Paul?

It is indisputable that Paul is an enormously important figure in Christianity—indeed, he is often considered second only to Jesus in significance. But how to understand Paul and how to make sense of his writings have long been subject to debate. The sources present a particular problem in that scholars do not agree on whether Paul wrote all of the letters attributed to him—thus, there is a boundary between the “authentic” Pauline letters (for example, Galatians) and those of questionable authorship (such as Colossians, Ephesians). Further, Paul probably did not write his letters simultaneously as a collection, nor in solitude. And they are diverse: some are written to large assemblies (1 Corinthians), some to communities he did not know (Romans), some to his direct envoys (1 Timothy), and at least one to his friend and patron (Philemon). These documents are also highly occasional and rhetorical: that is, Paul wrote to particular people regarding specific concerns in order to persuade them regarding precise courses of action and belief. As a result, it is difficult to know how to interpret these letters today and whether we can do so in a systematic manner.

Additionally, although many have used Acts as a resource for reconstructing Paul’s life, scholars have noted numerous points of discrepancy between that text and his letters. Acts is also thought to have been composed well after Paul’s death, making it less reliable as a historical source. Other stories about Paul survive in apocryphal sources such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which may convey less about Paul himself and more about how later Christians remembered him.

Given the historical and occasional nature of his letters, what can we make of Paul’s legacy?

All told, several discernible themes in Paul’s correspondence have been the subject of subsequent commentary and controversy. Chief among these is that Paul narrates himself as a committed, circumcised Jewish man who “converted” from one stance, of zealously persecuting followers of Jesus, to another, of enthusiastically embracing them, as a result of a life-altering experience with God. Afterward, Paul put down his “sword” and embarked on a mission to the “Gentiles,” emphasizing that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ signified a world passing away, along with a coming judgment and restoration to the God of Israel.

Paul also expressed concerns about what he called “law,” warning his addressees that they not misuse law to selfishly earn divine favor. Notably, he advocated for including “Gentiles” (typically “non-Jews”) in Jewish communities without their having to take on the marks of Jewishness (for example, circumcision). 

While originally directed at particular circumstances, these and other issues have nevertheless become central to Christian discourses, especially at key moments such as the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, concepts such as grace and faith, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and Christians, and numerous early Christian practices—from speaking in tongues to common meals—find attestation in Paul’s writings. Importantly, Paul was concerned with relationships: between church members and between his churches and society. His letters could be understood as practical instruction bolstered by theological argumentation. Paul was at once both pastoral and evangelical.

Beyond his world, words attributed to Paul have been used over the last two millennia to establish, and to challenge, ethical, social, sexual, and racial/ethnic hierarchies, inside and outside religious communities. He has been a persistent presence in arguments for and against slavery, women’s rights, homosexuality, and inter-religious dialogue and acceptance—just to name a few hot-button issues. As with much regarding biblical literature, no one appears to be neutral about Paul. Thus, Paul’s legacies and afterlives are important to engage as a matter of religious and cultural literacy.

  • Davina C. Lopez

    Davina C. Lopez is Professor of Religious Studies and core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida. A scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity with research interests in Pauline studies, Roman imperial art and literature, and theory and method in the study of religion, she is the author of Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Fortress, 2008) and coauthor, with Todd Penner, of De-introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley, 2015).