Paul: The Man and the Myth
Calvin J. Roetzel

St. Paul

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Paul: The Man and the Myth




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I suppose my recommendation of this book might be thought biased, as the author is local and I met him recently. However, I note the Biblical Archaeology Society named it the “New Testament Book of the Year” in 1999.

I found it slow going, because he covers quite a lot of recent scholarship on many different aspects, and I try to check the notes (in this case quite copious) as I go. But I needed a good reference to current thinking about Paul, and this certainly fills the bill.

Paul: The Man and the Myth

Copyright © 1997 University of South Carolina

Introduction Although we conjure the past, the task is far from easy, and we must not be content with facile solutions. There are more gaps than text, more questions than answers, more imponderables than certainties.



Most important for this investigation, I have come to see Paul as a marginal Jew who faced enormous tensions between different cultural and religious commitments that sometimes pulled in contrary directions. The emphasis here is on the continuities between Paul and his native Judaism and between Paul and his native Hellenism throughout his life. It is sometimes suggested that Paul inhabited the Hellenistic world but was not influenced by it in any substantial way, but I am drawn to the opposite position—the belief that Paul did not just use hellenistic language, anthropology, and worldviews as mute, value-neutral entities but that he was influenced by them at a deep level. Some also refer to the apostle Paul as the “former Jew” or “the former Pharisee,” but increasingly I am convinced that Paul never left his native Judaism though he did significantly redefine it in light of Christ. [...] These realities did not always fit comfortably together, and as a result Paul often found himself on the margins of his faith.

Chapter One: The Early Paul

It is easier to say what the persecution was not than what it was. For example, the cause was neither solely theological nor solely political. In this setting theological and political issues were so intertwined that they could not be untangled. Social and political issues were informed by a theological rationale, and theological convictions had a social and a political dimension. To confess Jesus as Messiah in that setting was inevitably both a theological and a political statement. To be sure, a Roman reprisal might be driven by political considerations alone, but from the Jewish side the motives for the persecution were probably mixed.
Chapter Two: The Apostle to the Gentiles


Apostle as Miracle Worker
If we allow ourselves to set aside our respect for the canonical position Paul occupies and view him in light of the controversy that swirls around him, it is easy to see why Paul’s claim to be an apostle was heatedly contested in the early church. To those who respected the historical continuity between the Jerusalem circle and the historical Jesus, and who trusted the veracity of their gospel and apostleship, Paul’s claim to be an apostle must have seemed fantastic if not fanciful, as the texts themselves indicate. Paul’s definition of apostleship that relied on no human authority but on divine revelation did not win acceptance easily and was ridiculed well into the third century. Although this divine origin gave Paul’s status as an apostle a distinctly charismatic quality, Paul’s argument for weakness and suffering as marks of apostleship was unusual. That argument did two things: it firmly rooted apostleship in the human experience, and it simultaneously linked it with the suffering and dying Christ.
Preaching as the Mark of an Apostle
With his pen and his rhetoric he ultimately won the struggle with his rivals on the right and the left—the Jerusalem apostles on the right, who sought to require law observance for membership in the church, and the later Marcionites on the left, who sought to create a Christian church sundered from its Jewish roots.
Chapter Four: The Theologizer


The modern reader’s desire to find or create closure in a narrative, whether fictional or historical, influences the reading of ancient texts like the Pauline letters. Since Romans was Paul’s last letter and since it does include some of Paul’s most profound or some would say unsurpassed theological insight, that tendency woud appear to be not only natural but correct. Yet the risk of such a reading of Paul is obvious. For once Romans is established as the goal and quintessential expression of Paul’s theology, then every other letter of Paul can be read as a preliminary or provisional statement of a Pauline theology that receives its most adequate expression in Romans. This letter then becomes the canon of Paul’s mature theology. But surely when Paul was in the thick of things he would hardly have viewed his literary activity in the same way. When he wrote Romans he could see difficulty ahead in Jerusalem, but his mind raced westward to Rome and beyond to Spain. He clearly did not know that Romans would be his last letter, and it is even possible that it was not. [...]

The aim here is not to plot a progressively rising trajectory in Paul’s theology so much as it is to get some idea of the way Paul’s thinking emerged through conversation with his readers. Regarded in this way his theologizing is an interactive process, dynamic and flexible. [...] As we shall see, Paul scarcely had in mind a developed theology from the beginning, and in some cases he appears not to have known what he thought about a given issue until he worked it through as he composed a letter.


1 Corinthians

The Elect as the Family of God

In what was to be the final paragraph of the composition, Paul constructs a hierarchy of gifts that was diametrically opposed to that of the Corinthians. [...]

In a sudden lurch of the text in a new direction in 12:31b we may actually be watching Paul as he theologizes. A sudden flash of insight appears to come just as Paul has placed the final piece of his model in place. For just when he had completed the construction of his hierarchical model that was to subvert the model of the Corinthians that placed ecstatic speakers at the top, he drew back. Suddenly, he appears to have seen the contradiction and silliness implicit in his invention of a hierarchy to destroy a hierarchy. Instantaneously he abandoned his model just when he had come to the point of drawing an unfavorable comparison between it and that of the Corinthians. It is as if mentally he dashed his own model to bits and began anew:

I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (12:30b–13:2)

I Corinthians 13


While difficult to construct, an identity that admits difference while eschewing otherness was even more difficult to maintain. To introduce a metaphor that does not simply mirror the world’s construction of winners and losers offered a vision so lofty that it too lost favor within two generations. It is entirely possible that when Paul first began his composition of 9:1 he did not know that his theologizing would carry him to a soaring benediction of wonderment that left the resolution of his dilemma in God’s hands.
Chapter Five: “The Model Ascetic”

Many New Testament scholars think of ascetism as morally perverse, defining it pejoratively as an “individualistic,” self-absorbed form of behavior that is selfish, perverse, or an “end in itself.” While Paul is widely praised as a theologian, apostle, missionary, and author, rarely is his asceticism acknowledged, and even then it is done so apologetically.

The pejorative definition of asceticism may have obscured the potency and multifaceted character of this highly charged religious symbol and its ability to provide a coherent worldview and to effect religious renewal.

Chapter Six: The Mythic Apostle The post Pauline letters differ in some important ways from the undisputed letters of the apostle himself, not just in matters of fact, though they do that, but more basically in their point of view. One important feature of Paul’s point of view in the letters is his recognition of the primacy of the myth he inhabited. That myth was the sacred story of Israel’s election now come to its culmination in the death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus. Although Paul passionately believed that he was playing an important role in that unfolding eschatological drama, he only reluctantly focused on himself to defend the authenticity of his apostleship and his gospel. He inhabited the myth, but he did not see himself as a mythic figure. That all changed dramatically in succeeding generations, when later believers increasingly saw Paul as a figure of mythic proportions whether he was viewed as demonic or divine.
This modern viewpoint differs markedly from the understanding of the first century Mediterranean world. In that setting, miracles were seen less as the suspension of laws governing the natural order than as signs of a divine presence and action in the human arena.




We have become increasingly convinced in this exploration that Pauline anthropology and Pauline theology must be held in tension. Either without the other is a distortion. The theological Paul who is most often presented to us without the human dimension is docetic. And a human Paul without a theological dimension is a caricature.

Note (Hal’s):
Writers on Paul generally have views on which letters attributed to him are authentic, and which are not. While there is much agreement now on the main question, there remain plenty of quibbles about interpolations and the composite portions of the letters to the Corinthians. Here is Roetzel’s version, in rough chronological order:

I Thessalonians
first Corinthian letter (lost)
second Corinthian letter (now I Corinthians)
third Corinthian letter (now II Corinthians 10–13)
fourth Corinthian letter (now II Corinthians 1–9)

(Roetzel offers not only his own reconstructed chronology, but also several others for comparison.)

The other letters (II Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, I and II Timothy, and Titus) are described as the “Deutero-Paulines.”

— end note

text checked (see note) May 2006

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