The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge by Bernard Brandon Scott

“… An engaging all-out attack on the Augustinian-Lutheran reading of Paul and his letters …”
—Stanley K. Stowers, Brown University

"Finding Paul" is an excerpt from The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge (Polebridge, 2015)

How to get at the apostle Paul? How to tell his story?

This is the point of this book. It is not a comprehensive look at Paul’s theology because he did not develop an explicit systematic theology. I also will not attempt to solve all the sticky points in the scholarship on Paul. This book is trying to tell Paul’s story in Paul’s own words so as to try and figure out what he was about.

Most of what is needed for a biography of Paul is missing. For example, nothing is known of his parents, birth or early childhood traumas. Those certainly happened and were important influences, but we know nothing about them, even though Acts tries to supply some details. But more on that in a minute. The list of unknowns goes on and on. This is not as extraordinary as it sounds. For most important people in the ancient world we are missing much of the data we would consider essential for a modern biography.

Best Evidence

Preferably we should build Paul’s story on primary evidence—in this case, his letters, which are ambiguous evidence. The problems are manifold. Which letters are Paul’s? And in collecting them were they edited and if so, how much? About the first question we can be reasonably certain; about the second we are only beginning to get a handle on how to ask the question. William Walker has labored almost alone ferretting out later scribal additions or interpolations in the Pauline letters. The Authentic Letters of Paul has taken note of Walker’s important work. Many scholars simply assume that the letters as found in the canon are from Paul’s hand directly, even though they know that is not the case.

As in any biography we are always left sorting, evaluating, interpreting, and reconstructing the evidence. The situation with Paul is no different than writing a biography of any famous modern person—only the evidence is sparser.

Much of the evidence from the ancient world appears tainted. There are letters written in Paul’s name that are not his and there are later stories whose provenance is hard to verify. What do we make of the stories in the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of Paul and Thecla? We should not allow the fact that one is in the canon and the other is not to prejudice our judgment. These stories clearly tell us how Paul was viewed at the end of the first century or, more likely, in the early second. But do they really tell us much about Paul? Because these stories come from a later period and are difficult to verify, it is safer to begin with Paul. This is a minimalist rather than maximalist beginning.

I will work with the best evidence and build up the story from the most certain material. We will never get one hundred percent certainty. Much will remain unclear.

The writings ascribed to Paul in the New Testament can be divided into three groups:

  • Surely from Paul
  • Probably not from Paul
  • Certainly not from Paul

Surely from Paul

In modern scholarship the following letters are usually accepted as surely from Paul.

1 Thessalonians
1 and 2 Corinthians

At some point late in the first century the letters of Paul were collected and almost certainly edited. In some cases fragments of correspondence were edited together to make a single letter. Sometimes this editing is easy to spot, sometimes it is more controversial. Canonical Phil 3:1 is a good example.

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. (KJ)

This sounds like a conclusion with “Finally, my brethren.” However canonical Philippians goes on for two more chapters with yet another conclusion at 6:10. Could Paul have written two conclusions to the same letter? Of course, but a careful consideration of the letter shows that what follows in Phil 3:2 is of a very different nature that what precedes. “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision” (Phil 3:2 KJ). This tone is so different that it raises the suspicion that it comes from a different letter. Is this absolute proof? No, but we must weigh the probabilities. It seems more probable that this is part of two letters than one.

The Corinthian correspondence is especially difficult. The first letter Paul wrote to this community is missing (1 Cor 5:9), so canonical 1 Corinthians is really their second letter from Paul. There are a number of interpolations—later additions by scribes—in both 1 and 2 Corinthians. The status of the famous hymn on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is another example of a dubious piece of evidence. Is it from Paul? Is it a later interpolation? Is it even Christian? Finally, 2 Corinthians appears to be a composite of several different letters.

We are at a difficult place in modern scholarship on this issue of the editing of Paul’s letters. Surely Paul’s letters were edited, and there is probably consensus on the broad outline, however there is no real consensus on the details of the extent of the editing. Furthermore the weight of the canon means that the printed New Testament exhibits Paul’s letters in canonical order with no indication of editing. This presents a reader with a solidity that is unreal and ahistorical. The new translation The Authentic Letters of Paul presents

  • only the letters that are surely from Paul
  • in chronological order, not canonical order
  • with a plausible reconstruction of the various parts of the letters
  • with the interpolations—later additions—removed and moved to
    an appendix at the letter’s end

This is an important first step in beginning to restore the letters to a state more or less as Paul wrote them.

Fortunately, for our purposes, although we need to keep the issue of the composition of Paul’s letters before us, it does not need to be conclusively solved. The issue of interpolations plays an important role in determining Paul’s position on some controversial issues, such as Paul’s view on women.

This editing process was not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing affair. We should not allow our printing press mentality to determine our understanding of the process. Printing fixes a composition, making it permanent and repeatable, so that each printed text is identical to all other versions printed from the same exemplar. But the same is not the case with a hand written and copied manuscript. Each manuscript is different. Each manuscript is individual and unique. This allows numerous variations to be introduced in each reiteration of the manual copying process. An historical understanding of Paul’s letters needs to anticipate both the editing of the letters and the introduction of interpolations.

Probably Not from Paul

The status of Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians has been debated, although a consensus is clearly trending towards their inauthenticity. I am of the opinion that all three of these letters are not Paul’s letters. Ephesians has a literary relation to Colossians, that is, it copies and edits parts of Colossians. Both Colossians as well as Ephesians present a worldview that is very different from that of Paul, a worldview I find both incompatible with Paul’s and at a chronological distance from Paul.

A major difference between Colossians and Ephesians and those letters that are surely from Paul is that the authentic letters are addressed to real communities facing real problems. Their concreteness is palpable, which often makes them difficult to interpret or understand because precisely identifying the concrete situation is difficult. Ephesians on the contrary is not a real letter at all but a literary fabrication based on Colossians, while Colossians itself does not have the specificity of the surely authentic letters, but a more generalized, almost theoretical, outlook. For these reasons we should set these letters aside as not part of the best evidence.

Certainly Not from Paul

Finally there are those letters that surely are not from Paul, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastorals, a modern designation. There are numerous reasons why scholars have long maintained that these letters are not from the hand of Paul. The Pastorals do not appear in the manuscript tradition until after 200 ce, and then sporadically, suggesting a very late composition for them. Irenaeus (about 180 ce) is the first one to quote from them. They are not letters addressed to a real community facing real issues, but are addressed to individuals. These letters look back to the followers and disciples of Paul. Thus they appear to come from the third or fourth generation, sometime around 120–50 ce.

Acts of the Apostles

The standard dating of the Acts of the Apostles has been around 85–95 ce. Recently Richard Pervo in Dating Acts, in his Hermeneia commentary on Acts, and in the Acts Seminar Report Acts and Christian Beginnings (edited by Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson) have dated Acts to 115–20 ce. Pervo in his Dating Acts has amassed a convincing amount of data for this conclusion. He argues that the author of Acts, who is anonymous and surely not a companion of Paul, knew both the Pauline letter collection and Josephus. Both of these conclusions overturn long held scholarly beliefs, but Pervo has assembled compelling evidence for both conclusions.

If we are seeking the best evidence, there are many reasons for setting the Acts of the Apostles aside. As Leander Keck and Victor Furnish wisely noted some time ago, “The scholar’s Paul, therefore, is not derived primarily from the book of Acts” (18).

Mention should be made of the noncanonical Acts of Paul, of which one important part is the Acts of Paul and Thecla. The dating of these Acts is debated. Late in the second century Tertullian quotes disparagingly from the Acts of Paul, particularly attacking the story of Thecla. Dennis MacDonald argues that the story of Thecla circulated as an oral story, popular among women, and perhaps goes back to the late first century. For MacDonald these oral stories portray Paul as a social radical, and the Pastorals were written to reject that image of Paul (59–66).

In order to build our study of Paul on a firm foundation, we will employ only that evidence that is surely from Paul, his authentic letters. We will not supplement it with material from the inauthentic letters or the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of Paul and Thecla. We are using only the very best evidence and setting aside everything else.

Central Event

The central event in Paul’s life was his experience of the risen Jesus that changed his life forever. He himself demarks this event as central, so that will be our starting point. Starting with his description of that event, we will explore it as carefully as we can. Remember, we are trying to tell Paul’s story as he told it by using the best evidence.

The second element around which I will build Paul’s story is his confrontation with Cephas in Antioch (Gal 2:11–21). Although he does not describe it as the second most important event in his life, I suspect it was. Notice that I am already making an assumption. This confrontation also included James (Gal 2:12), the clear leader in Jerusalem. This standoff also apparently produced a breech within the early Jesus movement that was not healed, and plagued Paul wherever he went.

Part of the problem in telling Paul’s story is the anomaly that for a person who did not know Jesus and was not one of his original followers, he has come to dominate the New Testament and as a consequence our view of early Christianity. This retrospection from the point of view of the canon of the New Testament, a late third- or fourth-century construction, is surely not the way it was. The Acts of the Apostles starts off with the eleven who become the twelve and soon the whole story is about Paul. Is that really the way the early Jesus movement plausibly developed? Most likely the author of Acts has constructed the viewpoint.

Although the statement “the victors write history” is a truism, equally true is that what survives from the past is often accidental. From the accidents of surviving evidence, historians by trying to fill in the gaps reconstruct our understanding of the past.

In telling Paul’s story we are not telling the story of all the early communities of believers in the Anointed, but only one portion that, while it looms large in the canon of the New Testament and the mythology of subsequent Christianity, yet may have been minor and controversial.

Bernard Brandon ScottBernard Brandon Scott (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University) is the Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar and Chair of Westar’s Christianity Seminar, he is the author of several books, including The Trouble with Resurrection (2010) and Re-imagine the World (2001).


Keck, Leander, and Victor Paul Furnish. The Pauline Letters. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984.
MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story in Canon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983.
Pervo, Richard I. Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2006.
———. The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2008.
———. Acts. Hermeneia. Ed. Harold W. Attridge. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Smith, Dennis Edwin, Joseph B Tyson, and the Acts Seminar, eds. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report. Salem, OR:
Polebridge Press, 2013.
Theissen, Gerd. Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.
Walker, William O. Interpolations in the Pauline Letters. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.