Paul And His Recent Interpreters: A Summary And Review

Paul And His Recent Interpreters: A Summary And Review January 21, 2023

The letters of Paul, or the Pauline Corpus as it is known, are crucial to the scriptures and to Christianity as a whole.  There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament, and thirteen are attributed to the Apostle Paul.  Some would say that fourteen are written by Paul as it is believed by some that he wrote Hebrews.  With the rise of the historical-critical method, there were some who set out to examine the Pauline Corpus from a strictly historical perspective to ask whether he wrote all that is contained in the corpus or just some (3).

The goal of looking closely at these letters is to better understand what is contained within.  This assists us with better exegesis and will help us avoid the eisegesis, or reading something into the text that is not there (3).  We undertake the task of interpretation to better understand the word in which the sacred page was written.  This cannot be done by reading our world into the text, or even our own theological tradition.  This is the great thing about history.  It is human nature to see things through our own eyes, but through history we allow the evidence to guide, and as N.T. Wright states “let the evidence guide us into seeing with other people’s eyes, and into imagining the world in other people’s visions[1]”.

Many before us have read Paul’s letters and come to different conclusions about their contents.  These theologians have come to varying conclusions as to the authenticity of what we find in the Pauline Corpus.  The purpose of this paper is to take a journey through the centuries to look at the various modes of interpretative work that has been done on Paul.  It is a journey that in both interesting and enlightening as it brings to the forefront real issues that have had to be dealt with.


Section One: Scholarship On Paul during the Late Modern Period

N.T. Wright begins chapter one with an interesting problem that comes up when assessing Paul.  HE points to the flaw of religion when it comes to Paul, specifically that when one studies Paul it is always within the context of religion (8).  It is important to go beyond that distinction because we tend to let our own views come to the forefront when religion is discussed.  We need to discover who Paul was and look to the man beyond what religion may say about him (8).  From there we could look at the religion of Paul.

The last two centuries have brought with them much debate of Paul and religion.  Was he a Hellenistic thinker or would he be considered more of a Jewish one?  One of the issues in Pauline scholarship is that this motif has dominated the genre, especially in European scholarship (11).    Some set out to answer these questions through the eyes of history.

One such person was F. C. Baur who was a historian and was known for his constant study of the early church (12).    He also taught from 1826 to 1860, the year he died, at Tübingen and was a regular preacher in the church at the university (12).    He taught that history and theology have a way of intersecting, or collapsing, onto each other (12).  The result is a God that takes an active role in history and “history is the life of God” (13).

Baur taught the necessity to separate Christianity from its Jewish roots.  This was no doubt a dubious position, but it is one that became popular in German scholarship.  Regarding the Pauline Corpus, Baur only saw Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians as genuine (13).  These four Pauline letters have some conflict between Christianity and their Jewish counterparts and this fit into Baur’s view.  Baur describes what he calls “Jewish Christianity” which was led by Peter and “Gentile Christianity” which was led by Paul (13).  Baur also held that these two strands would eventually synthesize with each other, and this can be seen in the pastorals.

Admittedly Baur laid the foundation for Pauline scholarship, and though his views have been largely discredited they are important to understand.  After Baur, Albert Schweitzer came onto the scene and put a new twist on the ongoing debate (34).  Schweitzer asked a series of historical questions and sought to answer them in a theological manner.  He asked some of the following questions:  Where does Paul belong in the development of earliest Christianity? How does he relate to Jesus himself and the leaders of the second century church (34)?

Whereas Baur said that Paul split from his Jewish roots, Schweitzer says that he remained Jewish.  Instead of being a Jewish or Hellenistic thinker, Schweitzer says he remained Jewish while being apocalyptic (34).  The sacraments, which he says were influenced by mystery religions, were about resurrection and not rebirth (34). His book titled The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle was all about “being in Christ” and had an imminent eschatology of the return.  Therefore, not everything we read about in aul is about the law and justification (35).

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Schweitzer gives is a couple reasons why this is the case, and it goes a long way in understanding his interpretation of Paul.  He describes two concepts on the forgiveness of sins.  One is the atonement which comes through the death of Christ on the cross (35).  The other is that through the resurrection of Christ all flesh and sin has been abolished.  Therefore, all who die and rise in Christ are sinless beings (36).

The consequence is the temptation to pick between one or the other.  Schweitzer did have an answer for that as the rising was a crater of sorts and justification by faith fit firmly inside of it though it was not primary (36).  His view and language was highly influential in Pauline studies.  This can be seen in the work of J.L. Martyn who highlighted the “divine rescue mission of Christ” over his atonement (37).

Section Two: The New Perspective on Paul

If one has engaged in Pauline studied since the 1970’s then they were sure to hear about the New Perspective.  This has become highly popular over the years and many have written books about it.   However, the movement began with E.P. Sanders and his book titled Paul and Palestinian Judaism which was published in 1977 (64). What is interesting about the movement is that it was, and is, a loose conglomeration of differing methods and not one unifying movement (64).  N.T. Wright stated that this is why he calls it the “so called new perspective” (64).

An interesting note that Dr, Wright says about the movement is that the view of Sanders are not really new.  They just failed to get attention in the past (65).  Sanders called to question the tradition view of how Judaism has been depicted by established Christian scholarship (66).  Scholar G.F. Moore had done something similar prior to Sanders, but it fell on deaf ears.  It disturbed the established view of things and was, in a way, swept under the proverbial rug.  Another things that Sanders did was point to the long line of evidence ghat said that Paul was Jewish and not Hellenistic (66).  In opposition with Schweitzer, Sanders cited the death and resurrection of Christ as the basis of Paul’s belief.   Paul was Jewish and it was his outlook that formed what he believed.

A third thing that swayed the New Perspective toward popularity is grace.  What I mean is that Judaism was grace centered and obeying the law was done out of love.  It was therefore not a group of people that were striving to work their way to salvation.  They had grace and obeyed out of love (67).  This sat well with those of the reformed tradition who see much of the same in Paul’s writings.  This participation is what is meant by being in Christ (67).

Sanders sought an accurate portrayal of Palestinian Judaism.  This portrayal, as in previous views, would impact how Paul is interpreted.  The groundbreaking work of E.P. Sanders changed the face of Pauline scholarship.  Some say for the good, and others for the worse.

In 1983 those involved with the New Perspective published five pivotal works.  In His book, N.T. Wright skips over some, but focuses on the work of James Dunn.  Sanders was n0t an exegete, but Dunn is and has written commentaries on Paul based on the New Perspective (90).  Dr. Dunn expresses his agreement with Sanders about Judaism but does say that Sanders did not read Paul properly.  He took Sanders to task in a 1983 article and said that Sanders view of Paul was no better than Luther (90).  Dunn has, in a way, reformulated Sanders’s view and eliminated weaknesses that perceived.

One of the best contributions from Dunn involves the works of the law that Paul discusses.  What is Paul talking about? The works of the law, or of the Torah, are not pelagian in nature but what one does to show that one is of God.  It is not done to earn favor, but to show that one is already a part of the family.  According to Wright, this was a major step forward in Pauline studies (92).  When works of the law is mentioned by Paul it is in response to the Torah, not another code.  Dunn describes justification as being important, but it is not a stand-alone event.  It goes hand in hand with the renewal of God’s people (96).

There have been various reactions to the New Perspective over the years with some being good and other being bad.  In the book Dr. Wright describes how some denominations will not ordain people who hold to the New Perspective (106).  Reaction slow to come about after Sanders and di not happen until the middle of the 1980’s.  Robert Gundry penned an article on synergism in which described salvation as partly the work of God and partly the work of man, and how Paul would agree as Judaism taught it (106).  Frank Theilman disagreed with Sanders and write about the real meaning of Paul and the law.  Others, such as D.A. Carson and Andrew Das have published exegetical tomes refuting the New Perspective (107).

Much has been written about Paul over the past few years and much if it is from varying perspectives.  The writing of Paul in no longer confined to seminary academia, but is being studies in various religion programs (129).  This was not the goal of the New Perspective, but it is one that we will have to live with going forward.  Paul is being read from numerous perspectives, and those perspectives bring with them different interpretations.  Some go so far as to say that one must read Paul a certain way other than theological and that is a dangerous movement in this student’s opinion.  For these perspectives to be accepted they have to open themselves up to historical scrutiny, and the New Perspective has allowed that.

Section Three: Apocalyptic Readings of Paul

The apocalyptic genre can bring to mind many things.  For many it will bring about visions and memories of the book of Revelation.  So what does Paul have to do with this genre?  Shortly after E.P. Sanders released his book, the Dutch born American scholar J. Christiaan Beker released his book titled Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (135).  He was a survivor of the horrors of the Nazis and saw in Paul the triumph of God (135).  The victory over evil and the victory which was won on the cross sparked a new creation.  Beker says that this can be seen by the “contingent” situations which the letters of Paul addressed (135).

The apocalyptic term is one that had been avoided by exegetes but Beker was just fine pushing it to the forefront.  To do so he cited a 19th century theologian by the name of Julius Wellhausen and cited him negatively to bring to term into a positive light (136).  To define the term we have to look to the Old Testament.  Books such as Daniel, Ezekiel, and parts of Zechariah fit in this genre and there are many others not in the canon.  However, for one to define a book or writing as apocalyptic it has to be in regard to these books or meaning is lost (138).

An apocalyptic reading of Paul seeks to highlight global and cosmic dimensions over the individual (142).  This oversimplification is problematic as can be seen by it adoption by the Jesus Seminar since a term within the genre can mean two things at the same time (143).  To label something as apocalyptic is to say that it belongs to a larger body of work.

To be fait there was much apocalyptic Jewish literature that is not in scripture.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and 1 Enoch are just a few examples and therefore it is a Jewish idea.  One reason it was rejected within Christian circles is just because of that.  Since Christianity broke away from Judaism the genre was not applicable (144).

After Beker came Ernst Käsemann who put forth a sort of New Perspective on an apocalyptic Paul.  He was very concerned about social and political issues and saw in Paul a way to reconcile those.  He was German, and therefore worked within the German tradition of history-of-religions analysis (146).  He would go on to say that apocalyptic was the mother of Christian theology (146).  There are a few things to note regarding his interpretive methods.  It appears that apocalyptic swooped in to replace the Gnosticism of his mentor Bultmann (146). This is because there is still a dualistic nature to what he puts forth.  It essentially rejects everything in this world for the world to come.  That is not necessarily a bad thing when understood properly.  Along with the change from apocalyptic from Gnosticism, there was also a change from a Hellenistic view to a Jewish one (147).  Since he formulated his views in the aftermath of World War II it appears that this apocalyptic imagery of national vision and hope for the future would make sense, and to be clear there are several theologians today who hold to it.

The view of apocalyptic is all about the triumph of God.  In this view the cross is the judgment of the world by a Holy God, and the resurrection is renewal and the beginning of a new age (152).  Everything within Judaism, especially from the second Temple period, is fulfilled by Christ.

The genre has evolved in recent years with the work of Boer and J. Louis Martyn.  Boer, for example, brings forth a forensic apocalyptic eschatology which compare Paul with Jewish works such as 2 Baruch.  He goes on to say that Jewish tradition is “incomprehensible and indissoluble” (161).  Adam and the origin of sin are at the forefront of his apocalyptic interpretation, and both play a role in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch (161).  They also play a role in Paul’s works.

J. Lewis Martyn is a theological heavyweight in American Biblical scholarship. He wrote a commentary about Galatians in which called the Gospel a “apocalyptic event” (168). Grace is a free gift that overcame the forces of death (168).  When it comes to Galatians Martyn points out that there are two types of apocalyptic.  The Galatians belong to one side and Paul is on the other.  Essentially one was being minimalized, but why?  That is never really answered and that makes sense since Paul doesn’t use the word very often in Galatians. For Martyn apocalyptic means to “break through” or “invasion” and is something happened at the death if Christ (170).  Overall, for Martyn this genre is made up of three important components.  It is made up of God, man, and evil (171).  Through Christ evil has been defeated and as a result man was liberated.

Section Four: Social-Cultural Studies of Paul and His World

To understand the meaning of the Pauline Corpus it is important to understand the context in which they were written. To do this one needs to look to the cultural background of Paul’s work.  To better understand the history interpreters developed what became known as the historical-critical method (221).  The attempt was admirable as it was thought that history would be done with rigor and would look at Christianity to see what was historical and what was not (221).  Dr. Wright points out an important distinction when it comes to history in that it can mean three things.  It can mean that history is what happened, what people said happened, and what a historian does (222).  However, history may not tell you what you want to hear, but it is something that can still be helpful.  Key figures in this area are Hermann Samuel Reimarus, F.C. Baur, and Rudolf Bultmann (221).

St Paul, Statue, Marble, Religion

It is s historical fact that Paul wrote about justification, but we should not take it at face value and should dig into what is really meant.  Along with that facts matter and should not be ignored (222).  If the facts fit your theory then great, but if they do not would one be willing to budge?  One of the difficult aspects of doing history is the social aspect.  Sometimes we, especially in the west, we have this erroneous idea that people in the past lives and acted just like us (224).

Though I mentioned some withing this area earlier in the section, one of the established leaders is Gerd Theissen (225).  He became frustrated with the state of biblical studies after the second World War.  Social studies of the Bible was of little interest and it was on life support.  Rudolf Bultmann, though he had his faults, looked to history to Jesus and his disciples, and sought to look at traditions that originated from this time or in early communities (227).  His work was very general in this area, but there were a couple of advancements which cover advancements in worldview and the history and context of early Christianity respectively.

Edwin Judge has examined tons of data and put forth theories of early Christianity.  One such is not in regard to 2 Corinthians 11:21-33.  In this passage Paul is “boasting” which was an inversion of Roman practice (236).  Another example in this passage is Paul being let over a wall. To this Judge notes that this a play on an award a person would get for being the first person to lay siege to a city (236).

Howard Clark Kee wrote a book in 1980 which concentrated on the “who wrote what and when” of the New Testament.  He was less concerned with who wrote, but the worldview which helped develop who they were (243).  Worldview is important to understand what the Biblical characters believed and lived.

Wayne A. Meeks is another in this area who said that he and his classmates were told that to be great theologians they had to look at history (258).  What he found is a loss of confidence at times and different roads that history had him travel.  Some of those were different than what he expected.  Following the path patiently is a good analogy for interpreting Paul (258).  Meeks wrote a book titled The First Urban Christians in which he explored the lives of early Christians as compared to what is portrayed in early Christian documents (259).  This would extend to Paul and the communities that he was addressing as well.  One of the issues that Meeks addresses in the churches that Paul founded was the idea od social level (263).  The churches were not made entirely of the poor, but was a reflection of all classes across society.  Contrary to Meek, Bruce Longenecker states that those whom Paul is addressing are poor and perhaps barely avoiding starvation (264).  The fact remains that in Paul’s world nobody was building communities where class meant nothing. This was the domain of Paul and Paul alone.

One other topic of importance to Paul and the historical and social context is that of community.  New converts were in effect resocialized and Christianity was exclusive.  Not just anyone off the street could visit because of persecution.  Though they were exclusive they were also inclusive in many ways as anyone could join as long as they went through the process which was similar to Judaism (265).

My Assessment

There have been many great scholars and theologians that have contributed to Pauline scholarship over the years.  Pauline scholarship in the late modern period has been an interesting phenomenon.  The work to advance Pauline scholarship, and in extension Biblical studies, was important, but perhaps it also opened the window for some heterodoxy to creep into scholarship.  The separation of Christianity from Judaism and dismissing the connection of Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism is a weakness of Pauline scholarship during this period.  Though that is a weakness I find value in determining whether Paul was a Jewish or Hellenistic thinker.  Though theologians have disagreed on this, distinguishing which he was is crucial to interpretation.  One of the biggest weaknesses I see is the influence of dualism.  This results in an internal struggle with the interpreter and the document being interpreted.  One of the strengths is the emphasis on the atonement and the law and grace dynamic, but with it comes a weakness.  Did the atonement really abolish flesh?  That sounds more gnostic or docetist that Pauline.

The next section that N.T. Wright covers in his book is the New Perspective movement.  This movement was started by E.P. Sanders and evaluates the law and grace dynamic.  It shows that following the Torah was an act of love and obedience and not the result of one working their way to salvation.  There is little doubt that some tried to do that as some Christians do now.  One of the biggest weaknesses of the movement, and I admit that I most fit this category, is that there is a variety of views.  There is no uniformity and as result those who came after Sanders said that he read Paul wrong.

The apocalyptic interpretation of Paul is one that I am less familiar with.  A strength of this interpretation is that it is all about the triumph of God, and that is something I think we can all agree on.  Though interesting, a weakness is reliance on apocalyptic works that are not part of the canon.  This does not mean that these works cannot be edifying or helpful in some way, but for something to be in that category means that it is part of a whole.  How does the writing of Paul fit into Ezekiel or Daniel?  It certainly does at times, especially when we look at the apocalyptic nature of 1 Corinthians 15.  There are parts of Paul that would fit, but overall there are better options.  One other option is that everything during the second Temple period is fulfilled by Christ.  Christ fulfilled the law so does that mean everything prior to the second Temple period is irrelevant?

The social-cultural studies of Paul and his world is important as well. Understanding the background and culture of any scriptural or historical work is important so we can try not to read our own times into the text.  This is a strength is my opinion where can let history lead where it may, but this can also be a weakness as we have to accept those conclusions.  The people we are reading about did mot live like us and that is a constant battle to keep at the forefront.  A weakness in this view can be seen in cases, such as the Jesus Seminar, that only want to look at history and see things that are supernatural in nature as fictitious.  History will help inform and give greater perspective on scripture, but should not take place of it for its own sake.  God works in history, and we need to be cognizant of that.

In conclusion, I do not think that either view has the monopoly on being the correct way of interpreting Paul.  I confess that I lean more towards the New Perspective, but I also find the history and societal aspect helpful as it gives vital background information.  I also find some aspects of the apocalyptic helpful, and some of the questions of the late modern era helpful.  This may sound like I am trying to embrace all methodologies, but that is not the case.  Though the New Perspective is what I am closest to, in the end I want to understand the scriptures and Paul in a deeper way.  I think we can take information from others, even learn from their mistakes, and that can assist us in interpretation.  We need to understand that scripture ins not written in all one genre, and in the case of Paul sometimes different methods are thrown in to make a point.  The key is eliminating the bad and embracing the good.



Wright, N. T. Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Print.

[1] Wright, N. T. Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Print.

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