Paul and the Heritage of Israel– Part Three

We hear a lot these days about the ‘reception’ of Paul in the post-Pauline era. Many scholars, who think the later Paulines are post-Pauline would include in this discussion 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastorals. Many would not as well. But it is of course true that there was a reception and transformation of both the image and the teachings of Paul in the post-Pauline era. It was recognized that Paul was important, was a fellow Christian teacher, and at the same time that his writings were heavy going for many, and prone to misunderstanding. This is precisely what 2 Pet. 3 tells us, and we must assume the observation is accurate for the period at the end of the first century when 2 Peter was assembled.

In his helpful essay, “Paul after Paul: A History of Reception” Daniel Marguerat seeks to push the discussion past the usual impasse of whether the Paul of Acts can be reconciled with the Paul of the undisputed letters. He does not rehash the arguments of Vielhauer, indeed he rejects most of them. Vielhauer made a category mistake— Acts and Paul’s letters are two different kinds of literature, with different foci, emphases, and purposes. In addition, Marguerat cannot reconcile himself to the notion that Luke was ever a companion of Paul in view of the lack of even a mention of Paul’s letters or even really his apostolic status which Paul stresses. I would reply that: 1) a companion is not a disciple or a sycophant. Luke is a bright fellow in his own right and takes his own approach to theology and ethics in the new Christian movement; 2) he was only a sometime companion of Paul on the last two missionary journeys; 3) he is writing after Paul is probably dead, and to audiences that have different needs and agendas. The apostolic status of Paul was apparently no longer up for debate with those he wrote to; 4) in any case his focus is on Paul the missionary and church planter. What he later wrote to those who were already Christians is not to the point. Acts is not a chronicle of discipleship and the pre-existing Christian communities who practiced it; 5) we have exactly one speech in Acts, thw Miletus speech where Paul addresses Christians, and there it does sound like the Paul of at least the later Paulines including Ephesians and the Pastorals.

In other words, while it is quite appropriate to talk about Acts in terms of the later reception of Paul as well as to use things like the Acts of Paul and Thecla in this regard, it is doubtful we should talk about the later Paulines in the same breath or under the same heading. Whatever else you may say, they are intended to be taken as Pauline writings, not as examples of the later reception of Paul and his letters. Thus, while I am fine with what Marguerat calls the biographical and the documentary poles of the discussion of the legacy (Acts, and the collection and sifting of the Pauline corpus as sacred texts).

Marguerat quite rightly, in my judgment, thinks it is a mistake to judge the Lukan portrait of Paul purely on the basis of the assumed undisputed letters of Paul. He puts it this way: “the memory of the communities founded by the apostle to the gentiles furnishes Luke with abundant narrative material absent from the letters. It is therefore inadequate to measure the Lukan historial reliability by a norm constituted by the corpus of Pauline writings, precisely because there writings in themselves did not constitute the norm of Pauline tradition.” (p. 75). What Marguerat does not say, but could have said, is that the biographical information Paul dispenses about himself is piecemeal and anecdotal in character. It does not provide some kind of comprehensive litmus test by which one can judge the portrait of Paul in Acts. Further, I would add, Luke not only had access to oral tradition that we do not now have access to, he had sometime access to Paul himself.

Marguerat takes on the usual stereotype that Paul is presented as a healer in Acts (13.9-11;14.8-10;16.16-18;19.11-12; 20.7-12; 28.7-8) but supposedly not in Paul’s ‘genuine’ letters. It is easy enough to show that while it is only mentioned in passing (1 Thess. 1.5; Rom. 15. 18b-19; 2 Cor. 12.12) Paul himself admits to having done signs and wonders.

Marguerat repeats the usual mistake about the Decree in Acts 15, namely that it involves the imposing of a modicum of Jewish food rules on gentiles. It does not. It is a warning to stay out of pagan temples where you run into the following things– the pollutions of idols, idol meat, blood, things strangled and even porneia. The issue in the decree is not so much one of menu, but rather venue— the religious associations with eating in a pagan temple, seen from a Jewish point of view. In 1 Cor. 8-10 what we see is Paul’s clear attempt to implement the decree without over-burdening his gentile converts. In others, James and Paul and Peter are not at odds on this issue, and Luke is not covering up or papering over anything in his presentation in Acts 15 and 21 (on this matter see the reprint of my article “Not so Idle Thoughts about Eidolothuton” in What’s in a Word?). Marguerat suggest that the decree is a later echo by Luke of Pauline practice. I would suggest it is the origin of Pauline practice. Galatians is of no help on this matter since it was likely written before the Acts council in Acts 15.

In order to further differentiate the portrait of Paul in Acts and in the letters, Marguerat is prepared to say that he sees the references to Paul in Acts 14.4,14 as an apostle as a “lapse” signalling that Luke is conscious of this fact but decides not to attribute to Paul himself a claiming of this title. (p.79 n.20). This is odd, not least because the evidence of the care in which Luke has constructed his narrative is everywhere apparent, including in Acts 14. Nothing shows up by accident in Acts, including the reference to Paul as an apostle. What one can say is that Luke is certainly not emphasizing the apostolic office of Paul, and then one must ask why. Different scholars will come up with different answers to this question. I also find it more than a little odd that Marguerat doesn’t deal more directly with the considerable linguistic overlap between the Pastorals and the book of Acts. My explanation for this is that Luke wrote the Pastorals on behalf of Paul. This also explains the considerable parallels between the Miletus speech and the diction of Paul in the Pastorals. Marguerat is right however that in the Acts of Paul we see not merely the reception of the Pauline tradition but the polishing of Paul’s halo– it is hagiography, probably without a lot of additional historical evidence to add to the earlier traditions in Acts and Paul’s letters (p.81). Indeed, Paul is so closely identified with Christ in the Acts of Paul (and Thecla), that Christ even takes the guise of Paul so that when Thecla sees Paul’s martyrdom and ascension she sees Christ.

The image of Luke which Marguerat leaves us with is that Luke is an investigator after the time of Paul, not a companion of Paul, and in the course of his many travels, he has collected oral traditions about the life of Paul from the various Christian communities, presumably mainly Pauline ones (p. 86). He hypothesizes that Luke may have been an itinerant evangelist. Luke is not a reader of Paul’s letters, on this view, but a collector of oral traditions, including about Paul’s teachings.

Even however, if one argues that Luke was a sometime companion of Paul, we do not know to what degree he knew the contents of letters Paul wrote to persons other than Luke when Luke was not likely with him, nor do we know if Luke read any of these letters after the death of Paul. What I would suggest is that Luke does know the Pastorals with their talk of elders (see Acts 15), precisely because Luke helped Paul by composing them for him, hence the different vocabulary syntax, grammar in the Pastorals which often matches up with what we find in Acts.

  • CJ Tan

    Dear Dr Ben,

    This is really a very helpful series.
    The phrase about council directives on food (Acts 15) as ‘Venue, rather than menu’ is a wonderful summary!

    Thanks & blessings,
    CJ Tan

  • Luke

    Ben, sorry to drop this request in an unrelated blog entry but I couldn’t see another way. Given your high view of Scripture, I’m wondering how you would answer the sceptic who has read your work and says something along the lines of, “OK, I’ll take your dusty 2000 year old eyewitness testimony about Paul, the resurrection and other miracles and raise you Satya Sai Baba. This man has living eyewitnesses that will testify to his miracles” .

    I suppose the aim of such a reply is two-fold. First, undermine the very possibility of miracles by linking the miracles of Jesus to a fraud like Satya Sai Baba. (I had to Google him and he seemed like an unsavoury character albeit with fantastic hair). Second, attack personal belief in the Divinity of Jesus by implying that all miraculous claims are equally (un)reliable. The punchline being, “Ah, so you are willing to dismiss this fraud but you don’t do the same to Jesus? Double standard alert!”

    I’ve recently been challenged with this argument, and while I know there is a lot of naturalist presupposition going on, I don’t think that I have a adequate response to offer. In fact, part of me is in agreement [i]if we take all accounts of miracles to be initially inherently equal[/i] in terms of reliability. And if this is the case then why would we favour 2000 year old written testimony over a living witness?

    I would really enjoy to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Luke: I will point you to the detailed treatment of how to approach miracles in a book of the same name by my colleague, Craig Keener. In short, all claims of miracles whether current or in the past need to be critically evaluated. And when you that, you will find that while the claims of Jesus have stood up to critical scrutiny for centuries, the claims at Satya— not so much. They don’t pass the critical scrutiny test. Key point— miracles in themselves are no proof of divinity. Peter and Paul were not divine and yet are credited with miracles. BW3

  • Tim

    Dr. Witherington,

    Do you think that the difference or scope in audience with the Pastorals versus the undisputed letters may also be a factor in the style differences? In other words, does the fact that the Pastorals were written to individuals who were Paul’s coworkers rather than to congregations also account for the differences in style, grammar, syntax, etc?

    Also, your assertion that Luke helped Paul write the Pastorals is quite intriguing. I’ve never considered that possibility. What further evidence is there for this?

    Thanks, Tim

  • Luke

    Thanks Ben.

    I particularly enjoyed your “key point”. It hadn’t occurred to me.

    Craig Keener is a name I’m familiar with. I’ve come across some interviews he did following his “Miracles” book release. Very interesting stuff and certainly a challenge to those who think miracles no longer happen or can never happen.