Pauline Christianity

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Artist depiction of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas). Most scholars think Paul actually dictated his letters to a secretary.[1]

Pauline Christianity is the Christianity associated with the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. Most of Christianity relies heavily on these teachings and considers them to be amplifications and explanations of the teachings of Jesus. Others perceive in Paul's writings teachings that are different from the original teachings of Jesus documented in the canonical gospels, early Acts and the rest of the New Testament, such as the Epistle of James.

"Pauline Christianity", as an expression, first came into use in the 20th century among scholars who proposed different strands of thought within Early Christianity, wherein Paul was a powerful influence.[2] It has come into widespread use among non-Christian scholars, and depends on the claim that the form of the faith found in the writings of Paul is different from that found elsewhere in the New Testament, but also that his influence came to predominate.

Proponents of the perceived, distinctive Pauline form of Christianity, include Marcion of Sinope, the 2nd century theologian and excommunicated heresiarch, who asserted that Paul was the only apostle who had rightly understood the new message of salvation as delivered by Jesus Christ. Opponents of the same era include the Ebionites and Nazarenes, Jewish Christians who rejected Paul for straying from Second Temple Judaism.[citation needed]

Reference is made to the large number of non-canonical texts,[3] some of which have been discovered during the last 100 years, which show the many movements and strands of thought emanating from Jesus' life and teaching or which may be contemporary with them, some of which can be contrasted with Paul's thought. Of the more significant are Ebionism and Gnosticism. However, there is no universal agreement as to Gnosticism's relationship to Christianity or to the writings of Paul. The expression is used by modern Christian scholars, such as Ziesler[4] and Mount, whose interest is in the recovery of Christian origins and the contribution made by Paul to Christian doctrine, Christian Reconstructionism and Restorationism.


The characteristics of the critical use of the term take a number of forms. They are partly political and partly theological.


From a political perspective, Robert Eisenman sees Pauline Christianity as a method of taming a dangerous sect among radical Jews and making it palatable to Roman authorities.[5] Pauline Christianity was essentially based on Rome and made use of the administrative skills which Rome had honed. Its system of organization with a single bishop for each town was, in Bart Ehrman's view, the means by which it obtained its hegemony.[6]


The theological aspect is the claim that Paul transmuted Jesus the Jewish messiah into the universal (in a wider meaning "catholic") Savior. Pauline theology is also a term referring to the teaching and doctrines especially espoused by the apostle Paul through his writings. Mainstream Christianity relies on Paul’s writings as integral to the biblical theology of the New Testament and regards them as amplifications and explanations consistent with the teachings of Jesus and other New Testament writings. Christian scholars generally use the term expressing interest in the recovery of Christian origins and the contribution made by Paul to Christian doctrine. Others, especially non-Christian scholars, claim to see a Pauline distinction different from that found elsewhere in the New Testament, a distinction that unduly influenced later Christianity.

Other views

The use of the term by Christian scholars, such as John Ziesler,[7] is altogether different. Pauline Christianity is the development of thinking about Jesus in a gentile missionary context; Christopher Rowlands concludes that Paul did not materially alter the teachings of Jesus. Much of this view turns on the significance of the Council of Jerusalem. According to this view, James decreed that Christianity was for the Gentiles and not just for the Jews, and quoted the prophet Amos in support of this position (the Apostolic Decree is found in Acts 15:19–21). He entrusted Paul among others with bringing their decision to Antioch (15:22–31).

Christians themselves disagree as to how far there was tension between Paul and the Jerusalem Church. One difficulty is the tension between Acts and Paul's letters; another is the disparity between his views in different letters. Galatians is reserved about the teaching of the Jerusalem church and is hostile toward Jews who would impose Jewish distinctives, codified in the Mosaic Law, on Gentile converts; in Romans Paul is deeply concerned about the spiritual condition and ultimate destiny of the Jewish people.

Paul's view

That people saw different disciples of Christ as representing different teachings was addressed by Paul himself, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians: (1 Cor 1:10-18)

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas (Peter)"; still another, "I follow Christ."

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel — not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

As a pejorative term

The pejorative use of the expressions "Pauline Christianity", "Paulism" or "Paulanity"[8] relies in part upon a thesis that Paul's supporters, as a distinct group, had an undue influence on the formation of the canon of scripture, and also that certain bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome, influenced the debates by which the dogmatic formulations known as the creeds came to be produced, thus ensuring a Pauline interpretation of the gospel. The thesis is founded on differences between the views of Paul and the Apostles in Jerusalem, and also between the picture of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and his own writings, such that it is claimed that the essential Jewish or Old Testament character of the faith was lost.

Christian anarchists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Ammon Hennacy, believe Paul distorted Jesus' teachings. Tolstoy claims Paul was instrumental in the church's "deviation" from Jesus' teaching and practices, whilst Hennacy believed "Paul spoiled the message of Christ."[9][10] Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, wrote in the latter half of the 2nd century that the Ebionites rejected Paul as an apostate from the law, using only a version of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, known as the Gospel of the Ebionites.

The argument made that Christian doctrine (that is, the teachings of Jesus) was subsequently distorted by Paul and the Church of Rome depends on a view as to how the canon of Scripture came to be compiled, about which little is known. The earliest references to Paul's writing are fragmentary: Clement of Rome, writing about AD 95, quotes from Romans; Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 115) quotes from 1 Corinthians, Romans, and from 1 Timothy and Titus as if authoritative, not merely as the opinion of one writer.[citation needed]

As to his influence, there are considerable differences of scholarly opinion concerning how far Paul did in fact influence Christian doctrine. Among the most radical is G. A. Wells, a professor of German rather than of theology or history, whose view is that Jesus was a mythical figure and that Christianity was in good part invented by Paul. More widely influential is the view of the 19th-century German theologian F. C. Baur,[11] founder of the Tübingen school, that Paul was utterly opposed to the disciples, based upon his view that Acts was late and unreliable and who contended that Catholic Christianity was a synthesis of the views of Paul and the Judaizing church in Jerusalem. Since Adolf von Harnack, the Tübingen position has been generally abandoned,[12] though the view that Paul took over the faith and transformed the Jewish teacher to the Son of God is still widely canvassed.[13] It depends on a comparison between the books of the New Testament which cannot be made here, but see Paul the Apostle, and the claims of Ultradispensationalists such as E. W. Bullinger who view the distinction abhorred by the Ebionites as positive and essential doctrine.[14]

On the other side, the idea that Paul invented Christianity is disputed by numerous Christian writers.[15][16][17][18][19] Christopher Rowland contends that, "the extent of his influence on Christian thought has been overestimated".[20] Thus, though thirteen letters under his name appear in the New Testament, the great controversies of the 3rd and 4th centuries were about the Person of Christ and the nature of God — the so-called Christological and Trinitarian debates — in which St. Paul does not greatly feature; likewise, the Nicene Creed contains no doctrine of atonement. Moreover, while the influence of the Church of Rome was very important in the credal debates, Greek theologians such as Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa were formidable figures. The resolution of these controversies at the Council of Chalcedon was not dictated by the Bishop of Rome or Latin Christendom, but was made more difficult by the necessary task of translating technical terms between the two languages of Greek and Latin, and not by arguments over Pauline theology.

As for the New Testament itself, there are evident tensions between the Judaizing party and Paul's views, which are made plain by a comparison between Acts and Paul's letters. How far Paul is to be taken as anti-Jewish (pro-Hellenization or Romanization) is a matter of disagreement, but there has been widespread acknowledgement of the view of W. D. Davies that the essential Jewishness of Paul's Christian perspective has been underplayed. In Davies' view, Paul replaced the Torah, the Jewish Law or Mosaic Law, with Christ. In any case, "the problems with which he wrestles in his letters were probably typical of many which were facing the Christian sect during this period".[21][full citation needed]

Further, by contrast one of the common features of Protestant churches, certainly in English-speaking countries and those influenced by the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, is their use of formulations other than the ancient Creeds, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, in which Pauline formulations play a much greater part. Ideas such as justification by faith, which, though not absent from Catholic formulations, play a much more central role in Protestant thinking, where they are considered fundamental Christian truths and essential for defining the Gospel.[citation needed]

As to the hypothesis that Paul distorted rather than developed the faith, this depends upon a judgment as to wherein lies the right path. Henry Chadwick, former Oxford don, commented about a later controversy: "It was not that the heretics departed from the road; it was that they took a path along which the road was not subsequently built." Roman Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, conservative Protestants, and most Messianic Jews contend that Paul's writings were a legitimate interpretation of the Gospel. Those who disagree with them either argue that Paul distorted the original and true faith or claim that Christianity is, largely, his invention. The former include such secular commentators [22] as the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, whose criticisms are based upon their moral objections to Paul's thought; other thinkers, such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, also agree with this interpretation, but hold much more positive opinions about Paul's theological influence.

See also


  1. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985. pp. 316–320. Harris cites Galatians 6:11, Romans 16:22, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, Philemon 19. Joseph Barber Lightfoot in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians writes: "At this point [Galatians 6:11] the apostle takes the pen from his amanuensis, and the concluding paragraph is written with his own hand. From the time when letters began to be forged in his name (2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:17) it seems to have been his practice to close with a few words in his own handwriting, as a precaution against such forgeries... In the present case he writes a whole paragraph, summing up the main lessons of the epistle in terse, eager, disjointed sentences. He writes it, too, in large, bold characters (Gr. pelikois grammasin), that his handwriting may reflect the energy and determination of his soul."
  2. Lietzmann, Hans History of the Early Church Vol 1 p.206
  3. M.R. James The Apocryphal New Testament (1924)
  4. Ziesler John, Pauline Christianity (OUP 2001) Zielsler comments "Pauline Christianity is the earliest for which we have direct documentary evidence..."
  5. Eisenman 1997
  6. Ehrmann,Bart: Lost Christianities (OUP) p 175
  7. Ziesler, John Pauline Christianity
  8. Ide, Arthur Frederick (1993). Battered & Bruised: All the Women of the Old Testament. Monument Press. p. 25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Tolstoy, Leo (1882). Church and State. This deviation begins from the times of the Apostles and especially from that hankerer after mastership Paul<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Hennacy, Ammon (1970). The Book of Ammon. Hennacy. p. 475. Paul and the Churches<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Paulus, der Apostel Jesu Christi (Eng trans. 1873–5)
  12. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F. L. Cross
  13. cf James Tabor The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster 2006): Tabor contends that Paul led the church in its decisive break with the Ebionites, whose teaching contained the authentic teachings of Jesus.
  14. The Pauline Epistles. – Appendix to the Companion Bible
  15. David Wenham, "Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?"
  16. L. Michael White, "From Jesus to Christianity"
  17. F. F. Bruce, "Paul & Jesus"
  18. Did Paul Invent Christianity?
  19. Machen, J. Gresham. "The Origin of Paul's Religion"
  20. Rowland Christopher, Christian Origins (SPCK 1985) p. 194
  21. [Rowlands, Christopher, ibid. p.196
  22. Articles – People who have understood Paul is Anti-Christ – Oneness – True Faith

Further reading

  • Adams, Edward and Horrell, David G. Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church 2004
  • Bockmuehl, Markus N.A. Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity
  • Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament 1997 ISBN 0-385-24767-2
  • Brown, Raymond E. Does the NT call Jesus God? Theological Studies #26, 1965
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle Eerdmans 1997 ISBN 0-8028-3844-8
  • Ehrman, Bart D.. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew 2003
  • Eisenman, Robert (1997). James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. ISBN 0-670-86932-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Elsner, Jas. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: Oxford History of Early Non-Pauline Christianity 1998 ISBN 0-19-284201-3
  • Griffith-Jones, Robin. The Gospel According to Paul 2004.
  • Holland, Tom. Contours of Pauline Theology: A Radical New Survey on the Influences of Paul's Biblical Writings 2004 ISBN 1-85792-469-X
  • Maccoby, Hyam. The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity 1986 ISBN 0-06-015582-5
  • Kim, Yung Suk. Christ's Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor 2008 ISBN 0-8006-6285-7
  • Kim, Yung Suk. A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters. 2011 ISBN 978-1-60899-793-0
  • MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. The Legend and the Apostle : The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1983
  • Mount, Christopher N. Pauline Christianity: Luke-Acts and the Legacy of Paul 2001
  • Pietersen, Lloyd K. Polemic of the Pastorals: A Sociological Examination of the Development of Pauline Christianity 2004
  • Rowlands, Christopher, Christian Origins SPCK 1985
  • Sanders, E. P.. Jesus and Judaism 1987 ISBN 0-8006-2061-5
  • Sanders, E. P.. Paul the Law and the Jewish People 1983
  • Sanders, E. P.. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion 1977 ISBN 0-8006-1899-8
  • Theissen, Gerd. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth 2004
  • Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics 2003 ISBN 0-8028-4809-5
  • Wright, N. T.. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? 1997 ISBN 0-8028-4445-6
  • Wilson, A. N. Paul: The Mind of the Apostle 1997
  • Ziesler, John A. Pauline Christianity, Revised 1990 ISBN 0-19-826459-3

External links

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