Category Archives: Apostle Paul

What About Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans???

In Colossians 4:16, the apostle Paul talks about a letter he wrote concerning the Laodiceans. What is the story behind this mysterious letter?

The ESV puts the verse as follows:

“And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.”

First, note that the word “from” is highlighted. There is a good deal of controversy regarding how this should be translated, as the phrasing is ambiguous. Most translations, like the ESV, say that that letter came from Laodicea, which might imply that it was the Laodiceans who wrote the letter. For if the letter actually came from Laodicea, it might imply that Paul wrote it while in Laodicea. The difficulty here is that there is no evidence to indicate that Paul was ever in Laodicea.

The ancient city of Laodicea, an early church city site, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The Apostle Paul also mentions a mysterious letter, with respect to the church in Laodicea, in his letter to the Colossians.
(Credit: Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425)

It is possible to say that the letter “from Laodicea” was actually another letter written by Paul, that was being circulated around the area, which had most recently been in the hands of the Laodiceans. The strongest candidate for this letter would be Ephesians, as most scholars contend that Ephesians was not written for any particular church community location, but rather was intended to be circulated among a number of churches nearby Ephesus, which could also include Laodicea.

Either way, most scholars today contend that it was actually Paul who wrote the letter, and not the church in Laodicea. The New Living Translation (NLT) is one of the few translations that explicitly puts this out there (the NASB is similar):

“After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them.”

This then raises the question as to what this letter is: If it is not the Book of Ephesians, then what is it?

Interestingly, some copies of the Latin Vulgate, dating back to at least the 6th century (if not earlier), possess a copy of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” What makes this very remarkable is that a separate “Epistle to the Laodiceans” has never been confirmed as being in our possession today, as being written by Paul. Such skepticism can be found with Jerome, the original translator of the first version of the Vulgate, back in the 4th century, who completely rejected the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” as a forgery.

Nevertheless, this “Epistle to the Laodiceans” survived in popularity, well into the late medieval period. John Wycliffe, the early English proto-Reformer, included the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” in his English translation of the Bible. Despite there being no surviving Greek text for this document, we still have some Christians, like the Quakers in the 16th century, still claiming it was a valid letter from Paul.

If you actually read the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” it does not really say much of anything of theological substance. But it does make you wonder why the popularity of this book survived for so long, as being something authentically from Paul, when there is really very little, if any evidence, to support this assertion.

Pastor/teacher John Piper, in this video answers the question, as to what we should do if an authentically Pauline “Epistle to the Laodiceans” were to ever show up:

Piper correctly notes that it would be extraordinarily difficult to determine if a newly discovered document was this so-called lost “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” The evidential support for such a claim would have to be quite extraordinary.

The Proverbial “Who Cares?”

Why even bother with this question? Because in recent centuries, a number of the letters of Paul have been disputed as being actually written by Paul. Of the thirteen letters attributed by Paul, in our New Testament, six of them fall into the category of being “disputed.” The seven undisputed letters written by Paul are:

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Philippians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Philemon

To varying degrees, the disputed letters include:

  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

In general, the first three in the list have a higher degree of confidence, as being written by Paul, as compared to the last three (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy & Titus). These disputed letters are notable as they contain important teaching material that is not repeated as clearly as in other parts of the Bible. For example, Ephesians is known for having some important material regarding predestination. 1 Timothy and Titus are the only letters of Paul that discuss the concept of “elders.”

New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, at Southern Baptist Seminary, takes 6-minutes to lay out the issues:

The problem with having a “disputed” letter in the canon of Scripture is that all of these thirteen letters explicitly say that they were written by Paul. Aside from a particularly unique proposal called “allonymity,” the idea of having letters in our New Testament that were not written by Paul, even though the actual text of these letters all claimed to have been written by Paul, is a particularly devastating claim made against an orthodox perspective of the Bible.

But as we see with the case of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” great care has been taken over the centuries to dismiss certain documents as being forgeries, and rejecting them from the canon of Scripture, even when such documents at times still linger on as being popular, in some circles (In the Tom Schreiner video above, Dr. Schreiner lays out a similar case against the second century work, The Acts of Paul and Thecla). Part of the reason why it took so long for the canon of Scripture to mature is that Christians, particularly in the early church, wanted to make sure that the texts that were claimed to be inspired actually measured up to such claims.

The truth of the matter is that while the text of the original New and Old Testament is inspired, the table of contents section is not. Nevertheless, we have good reasons to believe that our current canon of Scripture, that has survived the test of time, is still sufficient for us to maintain our confidence in what is listed in the table of contents of our Bibles.

 


Was Paul’s “Philosophical” Speech at Mars Hill in Athens a Failure?

In Acts 17:16-34, we read about Paul’s appearance before the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus. In verses 22-31, Paul makes a speech before the crowd, before being mocked and cut off in mid-argument (verse 32). Some Christians believe Paul later came to regret this speech, as too “philosophical,” a rhetorical style ill-suited for Gospel presentation. In other words, what Paul argued before the Athenians was a mistake, an example for us today of what not to do when contending for the faith among non-believers.

I intend to challenge that interpretation of this text as misguided. Instead, I argue that Paul’s “philosophical” speech at the Areopagus, otherwise known as “Mars Hill,” was simply yet another tool in the toolbox of the evangelist, given to us today by God as an example of how we can seek to persuade our non-believing friends of the truth of the Gospel, when the situation calls for it. Paul’s performance at Athens, far from being a failure, was a resounding success, and worthy of emulation by a follower of Christ today.

St. Paul Preaching at Athens, by Raphael (1515-6).

A bit more background is in order. The Apostle Paul was disturbed that the city was “full of idols” (verse 16), but there was more to it. Ancient Athens was the seat of philosophical sophistry in the Greco-Roman world. The early church father, Tertullian, famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” suggesting that the story of the Risen Jesus, the narrative that came from Jerusalem, was quite different from the wisdom of man, that symbolized the philosophical sophistication of Athens.

This is undoubtedly true. Paul himself noted that knowledge puffs up, even for Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1). Often, intellectual pride is a stumbling block for Christians, as well as being a stumbling block for the non-believer, in coming to faith in Christ.

But is it ever permissible to use philosophy as part of one’s defense for the Gospel? Apparently, there are Christians who say no, believing that Paul’s speech before the Athenians was a failure. Such Christians believe that any evangelist should stick with the Bible, and avoid any style of argumentation that sounds “philosophical,” that trusts in mans’ wisdom as opposed to the wisdom of God.

However, trusting in “man’s wisdom” and employing philosophical argumentation for the advancement of the Gospel are not the same thing. When Christians confuse the two together, and reject Paul’s example in Athens, as something to avoid, they rob the intellectually-inclined skeptic of the opportunity to hear the Gospel presented to them, in a language which they can understand.

In Paul’s speech, he sought to persuade his listeners by contending that they were very “religious” (verse 23). He praised the Athenians for their inscription “to the unknown god,” though it surely raised more than a bit of curiosity, by his claim that the Risen Christ was that “unknown god” (verse 23).  Paul appeals to the Creator, as “Lord of heaven and earth” (verse 24), a theme consistent with Scripture (Isaiah 42:5), that also echoed the philosophical thought of Plato. God “does not live in temples made by man” (verse 24) recalls Mark 14:58, but it was also a sentiment found in the thought of both his Stoic and Epicurean listeners. Paul quotes, with admiration, two of the most well known pagan poets, Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, regarding God, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “For we are indeed his offspring,” respectively (verse 28). Paul cites these pagan thinkers to argue that we are not to worship idols, a teaching consistent with the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 5:8).

He does all of this within the context of suggesting that his listeners “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27), as a pretext for his final claim that Jesus is risen from the dead, the revelation of the one true God (v.31). In short, Paul is appealing to pagan wisdom, the best of pagan philosophy, that which was consistent with the message of Scripture, as part of his Gospel presentation.1

Sadly, in much of the church today, Christians have largely given up on the art of persuasion, that appeals to the intellect, of those who are philosophically inclined, like the Athenians, as a preparation to hear the Gospel. But let us examine the Scriptural evidence: On what basis do those who believe that Paul failed in Athens, make their case that Paul later came to regret the rhetorical substance of his speech before the Athenians?

After Paul leaves Athens, he then moves to Corinth (Acts 18:1). In his first letter to the Corinthians, he recalls his posture in originally approaching the Corinthians:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV).

Did Paul write these words, with his experience in Athens on the forefront of his mind?

Some believe so. They contend that Paul was disturbed by what happened at Athens, citing that he came to Corinth “in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” indicating anxiety on his part, regarding his previous preaching experience. Paul had tried the “intellectual approach” in Athens and it had failed. Paul then resolves not to use such philosophically tainted rhetoric among the Corinthians, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” In other words, Paul came to regret his appeal to philosophy at Athens, vowing to only preach the “simple Gospel” moving forward.2

Granted, Paul’s speech at Athens is the most “philosophically” oriented discourse we have recorded in the Book of Acts, but there are a number of problems with the viewpoint of Paul having “regret” over the Athenian episode.

Some have cited the relatively poor response to the Gospel in Athens (Acts 17:32-34). True, there is no evidence in Scripture that a church was established in Athens, as a direct result of Paul’s ministry. But do not “all the angels in heaven rejoice, when even one is saved,” as the common saying goes? There were “some” who did join Paul and believed. Would not have Paul rejoiced in the fact that God did indeed move within the hearts of at least some of his Athenian listeners? The thought of new followers to the faith, though few in number, would hardly have been a good reason for Paul being anxious or discouraged, upon entering Corinth.

Furthermore, Dionysius the Areopagite (v.34), one of Paul’s successes in Athens, is reported later by the church historian Eusebius to have been eventually a leader in the church at Athens, and became a martyr for the faith. So, the rumor that there was no church to come out of Paul’s preaching in Athens, should be safely dismissed.

Was there any further activity by Paul in Athens? Acts simply does not say. All we know is that sometime after his appearance on Mars Hills, he left for Corinth. There is nothing here in Acts that tells us that Paul was in any way discouraged by the events in Athens. We are left with trying to figure out what Paul was trying to communicate to the Corinthians, in his first letter to them.

However, even if Paul was discouraged in Athens, there were plenty of other reasons why he might have entered Corinth in a discouraged, anxious state. Paul had been treated poorly earlier in Thessalonica by many of the Jews (Acts 17:1-9), and his Jewish opponents followed him to Berea, where Paul was harassed there as well (Act 17:10-15), thus leading to his visit in Athens. While the Athenians did not threaten Paul with violence, he was treated with amusement in Athens, and not taken seriously by all. Opposition of any sort to Paul’s ministry might have caused the great Apostle some distress. But to tie this to Paul’s words to the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 2, is purely speculative. Paul had previously made a shorter, philosophical discourse among the pagans at Lystra, and there is no indication that he felt any sense of regret at his performance among Lystra’s pagan listeners (Acts 14:8-18) .3

A strong case can be made that Paul understood Corinth to be quite a different city than Athens. While Athens was a center of scholarly learning and disputation, Corinth was a port city, focused on commerce and industry. The heady, philosophical approach employed at Athens would not make much sense to the dock workers at Corinth. Instead, Paul sought to meet his listeners, whether in Athens or in Corinth, where they were at.

Furthermore, it was characteristic of Paul’s ministry in general, not to appeal to the power of his own rhetoric or academic learning. Rather, as Paul reminded his readers in Philippi, the believer should “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). There is no reason to think that his “fear and much trembling” in Corinth should substantially differ from the message he gives to the Philippians. Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey suggests that:

For Paul, “fear and trembling” meant that he went in humility, trusting in the grace of God, not in earthly power or in his abilities or good works….”Fear and trembling” was not a special psychological condition experienced by Paul uniquely on the road from Athens to Corinth; but it was for him the appropriate spiritual attitude for all Christians as they fulfilled their callings.4

Some scholars contend that Paul’s admission of “weakness” before the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 2:3, might have actually been a physical condition, as some sort of illness.5 Either way, the common, popular view that Paul’s “weakness” among the Corinthians, referring to some sort of psychological condition resulting from a sense of failure at Athens, is without foundation or evidential support.

A closer examination of 1 Corinthians itself reveals that Paul was not adverse to continue quoting pagan poets and philosophers to make his points: “We see in a mirror dimly.” (1 Cor. 13:12, from Plato, “Phaedo”), and later, he quotes “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Cor. 15:33, from Menander’s Comedy, “Thais”). Why would Paul rightly reject “the wisdom of men,” only to contradict himself by favorably quoting pagan philosophers in the very same letter?

Instead, it might be best to conclude that Paul’s apologetic efforts at Athens were not a failure, but rather a resounding success. While Paul was among the intellectual elite in Athens, he used the philosophical tools available to him, for the advancement of the Gospel. By appealing to the thoughts and sentiments of the Athenians, Paul was able to gain a more effective hearing.

While among the laborers in the dockyards of Corinth, Paul used the appropriate style of rhetoric for his listeners there. Wherever Paul preached the Gospel, he did so by appealing to the backgrounds of his listening audience, tailoring the style of his message that would best suit the presentation of the Gospel. The variety of approaches to preaching and evangelizing that Paul used throughout his ministry, gives testimony that the message can be adapted in style to the particular audience, without compromising the substance of that message.

To further prove the argument, in that very same letter to the Corinthians, that rightly speaks against the “wisdom of men,” Paul nevertheless contends that,  “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:19-23).

Others have followed in Paul’s footsteps over the years, in speaking before the great intellectual minds of the day: Saint Augustine wrote his City of God to challenge the mockery of the pagan intellectuals, in the waning days of the Western Roman empire, and his book has become a classic. Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa contra Gentiles to refute the great scholars of 13th century Islam. C.S. Lewis’ radio addresses on the BBC Radio, during the bleak period of World War II, that became substance of Mere Christianity, shook up the spiritual agnosticism of the British intellectual elite. Genetic scientist Frances Collins held back the assault of the New Atheists when he published The Language of God, 2006. Leading Christian thinkers today, ranging from Tim Keller to William Lane Craig, continue to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), just as Paul did before the Athenian philosophers.

…. And to think that the Apostle Paul did this all for the glory of God…. That we might learn from all of the examples of Paul that Scripture lays before us, to encourage us to be faithful witnesses for Christ!!

Notes:

1. See I. Howard Marshall’s exegesis of Paul’s speech in Acts 17, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary: Acts, p. 281-292. Marshall identifies where Paul’s appeal to pagan philosophical sources mirrors the teaching of Scripture, while acknowledging, that at times, Paul is also contrasting pagan thought with the truth of God’s Word. In agreement with my case, Marshall argues that 1 Corinthians 2:3 should NOT be understood as reflecting on Paul’s experience in Athens (see footnote, page 292). 

2. Over the years, I have heard various sermons where preachers make this argument. Most recently, I find it in the teaching of Steve Gregg, of the Narrow Path ministries (accessed January 12, 2019) , whom I greatly respect and admire for his fairness and thoroughness. But I believe that Gregg’s opinion is incorrect on this point. The lynchpin in the “Athens-as-failure” argument comes down to how one should interpret 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.

3. F.F. Bruce in Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 248. Unfortunately, Bruce inadvertently errs on page 246, by observing that Paul did not preach the message of the cross at Athens, as a fault of his own. This has led some to conclude that this was a tactical error on Paul’s part, that he repented of when arriving in Corinth. The text in Acts 17 clearly indicates that Paul was cut off from completing his message, by the amusing jeers of the crowd, and not because of a tactical error by Paul. 

4. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, p. 104-107. Bailey contends that for Paul to have received an audience in Athens was a victory in and of itself. Children of the elite in Greco-Roman culture were sent to Athens for an education. That Paul was given an invitation to speak before the Areopagus was a spectacular achievement, and his positive reception in Athens set in motion several hundred years of Christian apologetics among the Greeks that won over that region of the Roman empire. Furthermore, Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians was not based on fancy rhetoric, but rather on the signs and wonders that God performed (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). There is therefore no evidence that a sense of failure in Athens was on Paul’s mind while in Corinth. Bailey goes even farther by suggesting the I Corinthians itself has an awareness of the debate with the pagan philosopher Pericles, in making a defense of his evangelistic preaching. Paul never completely abandons the use of pagan philosophy for the purposes of his evangelistic presentation. Bailey’s case, supported by Marshall (above), yet contra Gregg and Bruce (see above), is far more compelling.

5. Gordon Fee, in the New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 93. Fee continues to say that precisely what Paul’s weakness was in Corinth is beyond our ability to reasonably ascertain.  


The Historical Adam

Was there a real Adam, the sole progenitor of the human race? Is the text of Genesis 1-11 historical or mytho-historical? Did snakes talk? Did the apostle Paul regard Adam as an historical person? What is at stake with the raging debate over the historical Adam?

Veracity readers may wish to plug in and follow the work of Dr. William Lane Craig, who is beginning a new, expanded study on this topic.

CraigUpdate


Historian Tom Holland on Why He Was Wrong About Christianity (in 5 Minutes)

Humans existing side-by-side with dinosaurs, at Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum, in Kentucky, in stark contrast with the narrative every public school educated child learns from the modern scientific consensus, namely, that the dinosaurs died out millions of years before modern humans entered the scene.

Secular British historian Tom Holland tells the story of growing up in church, only to lose his faith in the process. In this extraordinarily provocative essay in the New Statesman, Holland describes his first encounter with doubt:

When I was a boy, my upbringing as a Christian was forever being weathered by the gale force of my enthusiasms. First, there were dinosaurs. I vividly remember my shock when, at Sunday school one day, I opened a children’s Bible and found an illustration on its first page of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur. Six years old I may have been, but of one thing – to my regret – I was rock-solid certain: no human being had ever seen a sauropod. That the teacher seemed not to care about this error only compounded my sense of outrage and bewilderment. A faint shadow of doubt, for the first time, had been brought to darken my Christian faith.

But years later, after researching the grand history of civilization, he comes to a very different conclusion. While still not embracing the faith, Holland takes on a profound appreciation for the Apostle Paul:

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.

On the Unbelievable podcast/radio program, Tom Holland sits down with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright and show host Justin Brierley, to talk about how his mind changed. Unbelievable, perhaps my top, favorite podcast, has a new series, entitled The Big Conversation, featuring some of the top world thinkers, including Jordan B. Peterson, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Dennett. Tom Holland is the author of various books, such as the In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West. N.T. Wright is one of the world’s most influential, New Testament historians, and author of the recent Paul: A Biography:

  • ………………..

Interested in the whole discussion? Listen to the whole Unbelievable episode below, having the title “How St. Paul Changed the World.”

 

 

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Should the Old Testament Be Unhitched from Christian Faith? … (Acts 15 and Andy Stanley)

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. He is stirring controversy again, but he is also getting Christians (like me) to think about stuff that we are not always prepared to deal with.

A lot of skeptics find the Old Testament to be a problem. A lot of Christians, if they are honest, do too.

But at the first great church council, in Jerusalem, in Acts 15, you get the impression that the earliest Christians were willing to get rid of the legal requirements of the Old Testament, in order to reach more people, with the Gospel. Staunch Jewish members of the early church resisted this, wanting Gentile converts to become circumcised, as a condition for salvation. But those like the Apostle Paul convinced the church leadership to conclude otherwise:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well (Acts 15:28-29 ESV)

In other words, if the Gentiles Christians were willing to adhere to these four basic requirements, they could remain in the church, without (at least the men) falling under the knife. At first, this sounds straight forward, until you read elsewhere later in the New Testament, where the exact requirement for abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, appears to be set aside as a “disputable matter,” as explained by Paul in Romans 14 and 15, where Christians can follow their consciences, as long as they do not cause other believers to stumble.

The main point seems to be that Christians should put an emphasis on unity, and that the requirements laid down in Jerusalem were more about keeping peace, than they were about adhering to moral principle.

One of America’s most influential pastors, Andy Stanley, of one of the largest churches in Atlanta, Georgia, North Point Community Church, has gone a step further, in a 2018 sermon that has caused a firestorm of controversy. Stanley lands his message by saying, “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.

Andy Stanley has received quite a bit of pushback (Dr. Michael Brown at Charisma magazine, Wesley Hill at First Things). In understanding the Old Testament to be a problem, for many people today, is pastor Stanley throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

If you look at Acts 15, I find that many modern Christians have a problem with even the basic requirements adopted at the Jerusalem council. With respect to the requirement to abstain from “sexual immorality,” a lot of evangelicals are quick to lament how same-sex marriage, and other traditional, sexual immorality issues are being compromised, in certain quarters of the church.

But with equal force, we see the early church condemning, at least here in Acts 15, the eating of food sacrificed to idols, consuming blood, and eating the meat of animals that still have blood in them (what has [not] been strangled). And yet, how many Christians do you see today worrying about eating any food, in connection with idolatry?

Even more unsettling, and more relevant to modern Christians, what about eating red meat? Do you like your steak rare or medium rare? Are you violating the requirement laid down by the first great council of the church?

What are we to make of the binding force of the Acts 15 decree, for today’s Christians? How are we to relate to the Old Testament, rejecting what is an obstacle to faith in Jesus, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

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