Tag Archives: Apostle Paul

Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, by Paula Fredriksen. An Evangelical Review.

When Paul became a Christian, did he cease to be Jewish? What prompted the thinking behind Paul’s Gospel, which sought to include Gentiles among the people of God through having faith in Christ signaled by baptism, and not through circumcision? Such are some of the questions that Paula Fredriksen seeks to answer in her Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle.

(Time for another Bible-nerdy book review…..this book is very rich, but can be very dense, for the average reader)

Paula Fredriksen is one of the most recognized and highly respected scholars of early Christianity today. It took me two years, but I thoroughly enjoyed her monumental study Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, and reviewed it here on Veracity several years ago. She knows her field incredibly well. Until 2009 she researched and taught at Boston University and has since served at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She hit the media spotlight in 1998 when she acted as the primary consultant for the PBS Frontline program, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, which was one of the first mainstream television programs to bring the so-called “third” quest for the historical Jesus, active in academic circles, to the eyes and ears of a popular American audience.

Early Christian historian Paula Fredriksen, though not a professing Christian, argues in her Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle that Paul did not “convert” to Christianity. Rather, Paul saw Christianity as fulfilling the message of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that Paul remained within the fold of Judaism to the very end of his ministry.


A Scholarly, Non-Evangelical Look at the Life & Ministry of the Apostle Paul

For Veracity readers, it is important to know that Dr. Fredriksen is not an evangelical in her theological orientation. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians alarmed conservative Christians in the promotion of “Jesus Seminar” views that were well publicized in the 1990s. But in fairness to Dr. Fredriksen, she does not come across as having an axe to grind, as it is not completely clear to me even what her theological convictions are, though I have been told she is a former Roman Catholic turned Jewish. According to her writings, she seeks to act purely as an historian, putting together what she estimates is a competent reconstruction of the historical record, even where our current sources are not as plentiful as we would all like. Though popular among skeptics, Paula Fredriksen does not appear to be cynically antagonistic, for she acknowledges a set of facts, an “historical bedrock,” that does not explicitly rule out the central Christian claim that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.

To say that Dr. Fredriksen is not an “evangelical” is also to acknowledge that she does not uphold an historically orthodox, Christian view of the New Testament and its inspiration. Instead, she follows the thinking common in secular academia today regarding how the New Testament documents can be viewed as historical sources for reconstructing the life of Jesus and the period of the earliest Christ followers. This would include the topic of Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, the life of the Apostle Paul. Outside of academia, and certain social media circles, few evangelical Christians know how a certain breed of scholars have a view of the Bible so radically different from their own.

For example, whereas the letters of Paul can be trusted upon as historically reliable, the Book of Acts is only reliable up to a certain point in comparison (Fredriksen,see footnote 1, chapter 3. ). She furthermore dates the writing of the Book of Acts to the early second century, which effectively takes the traditional authorship out of the hands of the historical Luke, who probably died long before the first century ended. She concludes this, despite the fact that the well known British 20th century liberal scholar, John A.T. Robinson, saw no firmly established scholarly reason why the entire New Testament could not be dated before the year 70 C.E.

But even with the “letters of Paul,” a caution is in order, in that of the thirteen letters directly ascribed in the New Testament as being written by Paul, only seven of them are considered to be authentic, whereas the letters 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are to be regarded as letters written after Paul’s death, by writers other than Paul, seeking to modify Paul’s theological agenda. None of this would sound strange at all to an atheistic scholar, like a Bart Ehrman, who fully embraces such views.

For those committed to the idea that our received New Testament canon is the final authority for Christian faith and practice (as I do), such views held by academics like Dr. Fredriksen (and Dr. Ehrman) are in direct conflict with an evangelical view of Scripture. As will become evident in this review, a number of conclusions that Dr. Fredriksen makes about early Christianity will stand at odds with more classic understandings of Christian belief. Nevertheless, while I disagree with Dr. Paula Fredriksen regarding her view of the Bible, I still think that historically orthodox Christians can learn a good deal from her, particular from someone as skilled and learned as she is.

As a Christian, Did Paul Remain a Jew? 

With this caveat in mind, there is much to be gained from Paula Fredriksen’s central thesis that Paul remained a Jew, and continued to be thoroughly Jewish, as he became perhaps the single most articulate and influential leader of the early Christian movement, after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The question that continues to puzzle such scholars is in explaining how such a committed Jew like Paul came to the conclusion that a way be opened up to include Gentiles among the people of God, along with Israel, without the circumcision requirement that classically identified what it meant to a member of God’s covenant people.

For many Christians today, knowing that Paul has a Jewish background is a “no-brainer.” I mean, is it not obvious?  Paul was Pharisee, was he not? However, Dr. Fredriksen argues in Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle that the importance of Judaism in the life of Paul, after he became a follower of Jesus, and as apostle to the Gentiles, has been greatly misunderstood and under appreciated.

Part of the key in appreciating Paula Fredriksen’s approach comes in perceiving the difference between “Gentiles” (a religiously neutral, ethnic term) and “pagans” (a religiously specific, ethnic term denoting non-Jews and non-Christians). For a non-Jew to follow Jesus, in Paul’s mind, they would remain a Gentile but they would need to give up their pagan idolatry and beliefs.The question of what is a “Gentile” and what is a “pagan” has interested me for years, and Paula Fredriksen thoroughly explores the topic.

Since the 1977 publication of (the late) E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism, a revolution has taken place in the academic study of Paul. Since the days of Martin Luther, in the 16th century, much of Protestant scholarship has insisted on a radical break between the Christian message of Paul and the story of Judaism. But with the advent of this “New Perspective on Paul,” inaugurated by Sanders’ research, a one-time professor at the College of William and Mary, where I currently work on staff, scholars have been working to reassess Paul’s relationship to the Judaism of the first century. Some look upon the “New Perspective on Paul” as a refreshing way of trying to approach the intractable divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the thorny issue of justification, whereas others view it as a threat to undermining the classic Reformation view of salvation.

Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle attempts to steer a middle course through the debate between the New and Old Perspectives of Paul, which is probably the most sensible path forward. Fredriksen’s research is top notch, as her endnotes are well documented, something that the audiobook version I listened to on Audible sorely lacked, which meant a trip to the library for me! Fredriksen’s description of the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds that Paul lived in is very insightful, and gives the reader a lot of food for thought. Still, there are other assumptions made in Fredriksen’s work that will frustrate evangelicals who try to read her.

Did the Council of Nicea Get Paul Wrong?

A modest acceptance of at least some of the New Perspective on Paul has even made its way into conservative evangelical circles, notably through the writings of N.T. Wright, perhaps the most well known New Testament scholar living in our day, in the first quarter of the 21st century. Nevertheless, Fredriksen’s approach is colored by a sharp disagreement she has with scholars like Wright, mainly in what undergirded the sense of urgency that Paul had in trying to spread his Gospel far and wide throughout the Roman Empire.

In a stunning statement, most likely directed at scholars like Wright, Paula Fredriksen urges “that we try to interpret both Paul and his Christology in innocence of the imperial church’s later creedal formulas.” This would suggest that Dr. Fredriksen believes that the early church’s move to articulate in the Nicene Creed an affirmation of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father is actually a distortion of the Gospel message being promoted by the historical Paul, as she sees him. Really?

Her analysis comes partly from her reading of Philippians 2:5-11:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).

Fredriksen notes that our English translations can fool us here, in that the word “God,” capitalized four times in this passage, commonly suggests the one divine being, God the Father. However, in the first two instances (verse 6) the word “God” has no definite article whereas later (verse 9), beginning with “Therefore God,” does have the definite article in the original Greek. In her view, this suggests that the reference to “therefore (the) God” means that it was God the Father who highly exalted Jesus, but those two prior references, which she translates in lower-case merely as “god,” or “a god,” as in “in the form of a god,” is a reference to divine status, but that this divine status is for some other divine being apart from God the Father. “Paul distinguishes between degrees of divinity here. Jesus is not ‘God’” (Fredriksen, p. 138).

I can only imagine Arius, the arch-heretic who debated the other early church fathers gathered at the Council of Nicea, issuing to Dr. Fredriksen a hearty “thank you!,” as Arius believed that Jesus was divine, but not in the same way the Father was divine. Jehovah’s Witnesses today pick up the same type of idea by asserting that Jesus was an angel, a divine being, but surely not of the same substance as God the Father, which was articulated in the creed at Nicea.  For Fredriksen, Arius was simply reading his Greek New Testament to make his case against anything that hinted of a Triune nature of God, in an effort to uphold what he understood to be monotheism.

Dr. Fredriksen then goes onto handling an objection, namely that for Paul to say that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” according to the ordinary Greek of the day, suggests that the meaning of “Lord” (kurios, in the Greek) is a deference to any social superior, and not necessarily divine (Fredriksen, p. 139). However, a careful examination of the passage that Paul is drawing from in the Septuagint (LXX) indicates otherwise. Throughout Isaiah 45, from where Paul gets his “every knee shall bow” and “every tongue confess” (Isaiah 45:23), each reference to the one true God is that Greek word for “Lord;” that is, kurios.  This would indicate that Paul undoubtedly had Jesus’ associated with the one true God in mind, and not merely some lesser divine being.

In other words, while Arius might have had certain good intentions of protecting against some form of polytheism in his reading of Paul, the orthodox church fathers who eventually won the debate at the Council of Nicea were able to read Paul better in his Old Testament context, thus making the case for Trinitarianism, against Arius. Dr. Fredriksen would strongly disagree with my assertion here. Nevertheless, historically orthodox Christian believers have understood Paul this way ever since. The Nicene Creed remains one of most familiar and well-affirmed statements of Christian belief in the history of the Christian movement, a common statement of faith among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox alike.

A Common Assumption in Academia: Paul Emphatically Expected the Return of Jesus Within His Lifetime

So, given the shortcomings in her argument, why does Dr. Fredriksen urge such a movement away from the conclusions drawn up at the Council of Nicea? Dr. Fredriksen follows the standard consensus view among notably critical New Testament scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, that Paul “lived and worked in history’s final hour” (Fredriksen, p. xi), a well-known thesis popularized by the influential German New Testament scholar of the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer.  In other words, Paul was absolutely convinced that Jesus would return as the victorious Jewish Messiah, to set the world order aright, sometime during his lifetime. This apocalyptic, eschatological expectation of the Apostle Paul is what drove him to preach far and wide across the greater Mediterranean coastlines and even inland.

As this story goes, when Paul eventually died, probably in the 60’s C.E., and there was no returning Messiah in sight, the Christian church was put into an existential crisis. What we possess in our New Testament today is essentially a combination of those early writings by Paul, along with other writings that came later, like the Gospels, that seek to refashion the message of the early Christian movement. With the failure of Jesus’ imminent return, this modified Christian movement, ultimately defined and regulated by the early church councils, most notably the Council of Nicea, now must endure for the “long haul,” something which has continued to survive and thrive now for 2,000 years.

Pushing Back Against the “Ghost of Albert Schweitzer”

In his multipart review of Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, of Asbury Seminary, critiques this presuppositional mindset that scholars like Dr. Fredriksen possesses. Witherington acknowledges that Fredriksen presents her central thesis well, despite the inadequacies of the Ehrman/Schweitzer approach that Fredriksen front loads to her book.

For example, when Paul states in Romans 16:20 that Christ will “soon” crush Satan under the feet of the Roman Christian community, he means that the crushing of Satan will happen “quickly,” a statement about how Satan will be crushed and not exactly when this would happen. For Paul also reminds the Romans in chapter 15 that he must go to Jerusalem, then to Rome, and then hopefully to Spain. So it would be odd for Paul to tell the Romans of his planned future schedule, years out in advance, while simultaneously announcing the coming end of the world, as he knew it, at any moment, as he was writing this letter. After all, Jesus himself acknowledged that he did not know the exact timing of his Second Coming (Mark 13:32). Witherington remarks, “Could we please now let the ghost of Albert Schweitzer rest in peace, and stop allowing his misreading of Paul to continue to haunt the way we evaluate Paul?

Nevertheless, even Witherington largely agrees that Dr. Fredriksen is correct to say that Paul was not a “convert” to Christianity, in the sense that Paul was somehow leaving his Judaism behind to become a Christian. Instead, Paul saw that the Gentiles’ acceptance of the Gospel was part of the new post-Resurrection-of-Christ reality, that had been a part of Israel’s story told for centuries within the Old Testament. In other words, for Witherington, Paul’s “conversion” was an expression of his Jewishness, in light of the coming of the Messiah, albeit a rather radical expression, more radical than what Fredriksen is willing to admit.

Many Christians for centuries have imagined Paul to have “converted away” from Judaism, when he became a follower of Jesus, whereas Fredriksen is an advocate of the “Paul Within Judaism” school of thought. Sadly, this “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity was exacerbated by the severe drop off of Jews entering the Christian movement, and rapid increase of Gentiles joining the movement, particularly after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the early 130’s C.E.

That being said, Witherington faults Fredriksen for being too dismissive of some of the historical details that Acts offers up to support the narrative found in Paul’s letters about his own life, or to miss the more radical implications of Paul’s message, even in his own letters. For Paul saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a New Covenant, a fulfillment of what Jeremiah 31 says would be the law written on people’s hearts. Yes, Paul remained a Jew throughout his life, but following his road to Damascus experience, he radically reframed his Judaism along the lines that would eventually inform historical, orthodox Christianity (The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado shares a similar appreciation of Fredriksen’s approach while offering critiques similar to Witherington’s).

Paul in prison, by Rembrandt (credit: Wikipedia)

True Judaism for the Apostle Paul

With those critiques already in view, it is helpful to consider positively more what Paula Fredriksen is trying to do in her central thesis regarding Paul. The challenge of properly translating a passage like Galatians 1:13-14, when Paul explains his former life before becoming a follower of Jesus, is a case in point:

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers (ESV).

What does Paul mean by “Judaism” here? Is he implying that by becoming a follower of Jesus that he is leaving one religion to join another? No, says Fredriksen. But if not, what then does Paul mean?

Furthermore, what is one to make of Romans 2:1-29, where Paul suggests that “true circumcision” is a matter of the heart (particularly Romans 2:29)? Being a “true Jew” is a matter of the spirit, of having the law inside of you, and not in one’s flesh. Is Paul redefining Judaism by taking circumcision out of the mix? Or is Paul addressing Gentile Christians here, showing them that circumcision should not be a barrier to their following Jesus?

There were certainly barriers for Gentiles to become Jews in the first century. The “God fearers” of the New Testament were attracted to the message of Judaism, but would not follow with circumcision. You also have the question as to how much proselytizing of Gentiles by traditional (non-Christian) Jews was actively being done in the first century, a practice that Dr. Fredriksen is skeptical about.

Who exactly were the Judaizers that Paul opposed in Galatia, those supposed followers of Christ who opposed Paul’s anti-circumcision efforts among the Gentiles? Did they really come from James’ church in Jerusalem? Were they instead other supposed Christ-followers, unaffiliated with James, who opposed Paul’s missionary tactics as being compromising? Was the conflict in Galatia over the same issue Paul faced in Antioch, or something different? Was the specific Judaizing complaint table fellowship between Gentile and Jewish believers in Jesus, or something else?

Paul vs. Judaism, or Paul vs. Christian Judaizers?

These are the questions that preoccupy Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle. One point that Fredriksen raises deserves highlighting. In Galatians, particularly in Galatians 4, where Paul brings out an allegory comparing the children of Sarah versus the children of Hagar, Fredriksen notes that most interpreters historically have said that Paul is comparing Christianity (children of Sarah) with Judaism (children of Hagar). But Fredriksen claims that this interpretation is incorrect, in that Paul is arguing for the difference between Christ-followers who take his approach to Gentile evangelism (children of Sarah), and those other Christ-following Jews who oppose him, and distort the Gospel (children of Hagar). On this observation, I find Paula Fredriksen’s argument quite persuasive (Fredriksen, p. 99-100).

Scholars, both conservative and liberal, have acknowledged that the preaching ministry of Jesus, prior to the crucifixion, was oriented towards the Jews of Palestine. Jesus rarely ventured outside of Jewish-dominated areas in what we now call the land of Israel. With a handful of exceptions, Jesus’ primary audience was Jewish.

It was not until Paul came along, with his road to Damascus experience with the Risen Jesus, that the early Christian movement began to actively engage outreach among the Gentiles. By emphasizing having faith in Christ, and removing circumcision as the traditional barrier for entry among the people of God, as described in the story of the Bible, Paul revolutionized the Christian movement. At the same time, Dr. Fredriksen argues, the Apostle Paul himself, along with the original members of Jesus’ apostolic circle, remained committed to their own ancient Jewish customs, despite the trend in later Christianity to make Paul appear to be anti-Jewish (Fredriksen, p. 106).

For while Paul vehemently opposed the “Judaizers” who distorted his Gospel in Galatia, Paul still insisted on at least some form of “Judaizing” for Gentile followers of Jesus. He insisted that Gentile believers forsake idolatry, adhere to the Ten Commandments, give up sexual immorality, and uphold “any other commandment” of the Law (Romans 13:9, Fredriksen, p. 119). This raises the question as to why Paul drew the line at circumcision as he did.

Rethinking Old Approaches to Paul

Dr. Fredriksen wades into the debate over the meaning of “faith” (pistis, in Greek), which she sees as having a long history of referring to “psychological inner states concerning authenticity or sincerity or intensity of ‘belief‘.” She corrects this misunderstanding by appealing to a meaning more sensible to Paul’s first century context, that of ‘“steadfastness” or “conviction” or “loyalty”‘(Fredriksen, p. 121). I resonate with her translation of Romans 13:11b: “Salvation is nearer to us now than it was when we first became convinced.”  Compare this with the Common English Bible translation of the same: “Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith,” which is much more ambiguous.

From a fresh perspective, Dr. Fredriksen contends that the mysterious “I” of Romans 7:7-22 is a rhetorical device used by Paul, and not a reference to his own spiritual struggles, neither as a non-believer before his encounter with Christ, nor himself as a believer (example v. 15: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate“). Accordingly, Paul is self-identifying as “the non-Jew who struggles to live according to Jewish ancestral customs,” as they follow Christ (Fredriksen, p.123-124). This reading is quite plausible, though it is quite different from the late-Augustine interpretation of Paul’s struggle with indwelling sin as a believing Christian. Nevertheless, both Fredriksen’s reading and the late-Augustinian reading are not necessarily in conflict with one another.

Fredriksen is convinced that Paul knew his Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) well enough to know that there would come a day when the nations of the world would turn from their idolatry and embrace of the God of Israel. With the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, Paul knew that this day had come. But this bringing in of the Gentiles into God’s covenant people would not be limited by circumcision, but rather would be conditioned by their response of having faith in Jesus. Paul sees this as being completely consistent with the message of the Hebrew Scriptures, and is therefore adamantly opposed to other Jewish “Christ-followers” who do not read the Old Testament just as he has.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as two different ways of salvation, one for the Jews and another way for the Gentiles. All of the people of God, whether they be Jew or Gentile, are reconciled to God through faith in Christ.

The way Dr. Fredriksen frames her argument has implications on how Christians should read their Bible. For example, many Christians continue to read the Book of Romans without this Pauline mindset in view. As a result, many Christians look at his whole argument for justification/salvation as starting in Romans 1 and culminating in Romans 8, with Romans 12-16 as being about the application of Paul’s theological treatise. Romans 9-11 then sticks out like a sore thumb, as like some sort of appendix bolted onto Paul’s teaching in Romans 1-8. Yes, Romans 8 does end with a glorious promise that no one will separate us from the love of Christ. But there is more to the story. The lesson I take from Dr. Fredriksen is that the Romans 1-8 story only gets us part of the way there to where Paul is going. Rather, Paul wants to show us how “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). Paul’s theological argument runs from Romans 1-11, where Romans 8 offers a theological crescendo, but Romans 11 is the real climatic conclusion.

As an aside, on a somewhat minor point, Paula Fredriksen is completely right to say that Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 45:23, that “every knee shall bow” to God, in both Philippians 2:10 and Romans 14:11 is about all of the nations coming to the conscious realization that Jesus is the True Messiah, not simply that of Israel, but that of all of the nations of the world, at his final return (footnote 15, chapter on “Christ and the Kingdom”). These New Testament verses have been used either to justify some type of begrudging acceptance of Jesus’ Lordship by the wicked in hell, after the final judgment, or to justify a type of Christian Universalism, implying that every human individual will be saved in the end. However, the reference to “every knee shall bow” by Paul is not about individuals but rather about the nations, with every bowing of the knee referring to each distinct national allegiance, as the context of Isaiah 45 shows.

Rethinking Pauline “Anti-Jewishness” …. (Without Compromising Historically Orthodox Christianity)

Nevertheless, a number of other conclusions made by Dr. Fredriksen are driven by her acceptance of the common academic narrative that the authentic Paul only wrote seven of the thirteen letters we possess, which is further skewed by her adoption of the Ehrman/Schweitzer “imminent end of the world” thesis. In fact, these are fundamental assumptions that she makes without apology (Fredriksen, p. 252).

This is quite evident when you compare Fredriksen’s reading of 1 Thessalonians, an undisputed letter of Paul, which includes the famous passage on the “Rapture” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), which she believes teaches the imminent return of Christ within Paul’s lifetime, with her reading of the disputed 2 Thessalonians, which she believes was written by another author claiming to be Paul, which “explained the reasons for the Kingdom’s evident delay, adding a punch-list of necessary further events before the final apocalyptic scenario could unwind (2 Thes. 2:1-11)” (p.169). In other words, in her view, 2 Thessalonians attempts to fix Paul’s erroneous expectation, sometime after Paul’s death of the coming Kingdom with a different message, that emphasizes a more “we-are-in-this-for-the-long-haul” approach to the consummation of world history.

As another example, she appears to favor the position that the “deutero-Pauline author [of Ephesians] collapses the ethnic distinctions that Paul himself upheld” (footnote 35, chapter on “Paul and the Law”) between Jew and Gentile, in contrast with the authentic Paul. Furthermore, she believes that the authentic Paul discouraged the act of having children, as being a distraction from the imminent return of the Messiah (p. 113). She believes that the “Pauline” teaching about parents having authority over their children, as described in Ephesians and Colossians, was a non-Pauline teaching introduced into our New Testament to accommodate the reality of the failure of Jesus to return within Paul’s own lifetime.

Paula Fredriksen asks vital questions about Paul’s precise thinking about the message of the Gospel with his self-understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. Fredriksen rightly reveals the theological wedge driven between Paul the missionary to the Gentiles and Paul the faithful Jew, a trend that eventually dominated a great deal of Christian theology. While the phrase “replacement theology” is often too elusive here, it is correct to say that if there was one particular failure of the early church, particularly from Constantine onwards, it was the tendency to marginalize the Jewishness of the earliest Christian movement to the point of enabling a kind of anti-Judaism that has done tremendous harm throughout Christian history.

While voices like Origen and Augustine resisted such anti-Jewish thinking, by reminding their readers that Paul and other early Jewish Christian leaders maintained many of their ancient Jewish customs, not everyone heeded these voices. This anti-Judaism wedge was even codified into certain aspects of Roman law, in the post-Constantine era (Fredriksen,see footnotes 25, 26, under chapter “Paul and the Law”). Aside from Origen and Jerome, very few of the early church fathers even understood Hebrew, which is the primary language in which the Old Testament was written in!!

But Paula Fredriksen’s attempt to obliterate that wedge is eventually an overcompensation, a product of her historical methodology. For it is evident that her view of the New Testament contrasts sharply with the received view of the church, down through the centuries, which views all of the thirteen letters of Paul as being authentically Pauline. I, on the other hand, believe that the early church got the canon of Scripture right!

Anti-Judaism is not a core feature of historical, orthodox Christianity. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find conservative evangelicals who do not possess profound sympathies with Jewish people today. In other words, you do not have to buy into the full revisionist program of much of critical scholarship today in order to root out “anti-Jewishness” understandings of Paul that have, nevertheless, crept into at least certain interpretations of the New Testament.

There are plenty of resources within historical, orthodox Christianity to tackle the task Paula Fredriksen takes up. She convincingly demonstrates that a traditional view of a Paul who “converted” from Judaism to Christianity is anachronistic and wholly unnecessary. For the language of “conversion” presupposes a modern concept of “religion” which was in many ways foreign to Paul and his world. Paul’s Christianity was not a rejection of Judaism, per se, but rather it was the outworking of his Jewish faith, set within the context of the coming of the Messiah.

In other words, while is it surely correct to say that Paul indeed “converted” to Christ, by embracing Jesus’ mission and following the Risen Lord, it would be wrong to say that Paul “converted” away from Judaism to get to something else, like “Christianity.” As an evangelical, I am thankful to Dr. Fredriksen for pointing this out. However, it is not a prerequisite to accept the whole of Fredriksen’s critical, non-evangelical assumptions about the Bible to get her central thesis.

Rethinking Paul’s Greatest Letter: To the Romans

However, I am not entirely convinced yet by Dr. Fredriksen’s attempt to re-read Romans is correct, though it is a coherent and plausible reading.  She believes that Paul’s audience are Gentile Christians, at least some of whom consider themselves as “Jews” (Romans 2:17). Yet she does not think that Paul is addressing any actual Jewish, bodily-circumcised Christians in Romans. Instead, Pauls uses a rhetorical style, by implicitly addressing a “so-called Jew” as the interlocutor of his argument; that is, a Gentile Christian who is trying to Judaize too much (Fredriksen, pp. 156ff). This goes against the standard reading that the recipients of Paul’s letter to the Romans were a mix of both Gentile AND Jewish Christians, who were not necessarily getting along very well with one another, from the reports Paul had received. So in Romans 2, according to Fredriksen, Paul is addressing a Gentile “who calls himself a Jew,” and not someone who was bodily circumcised, a view consistent with how she interprets Romans 7 (see above).

The problems here are several. First, it is hard to imagine that Paul would go to such great lengths to write such a treatise to a Christian community he had not yet met, and completely ignore the Jewish part of that community in his correspondence. When Phoebe presented Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2), did she ask the Jewish Christians to leave the room while inviting the Gentile Christians to stay and listen? Probably not. But perhaps the believers in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, would have caught onto Paul’s rhetorical style. But then, maybe not.

Secondly, according to Dr. Fredriksen, Paul’s great statements in Romans about justification, particularly in Romans 3, are primarily aimed at Gentile believers, and not all believers as a whole. This does not necessarily mean that Paul’s teaching about justification could not be extended to Jewish Christians as well, as a further application of Paul’s teaching in Romans. But I am not yet persuaded that her reading of Romans will bring about a clear breakthrough in the persistent debates regarding the nature of justification among theologians. Excluding Rome’s Jewish Christians from the intended audience of Paul’s letter to the Romans is a problematic weakness to Dr. Fredriksen’s argument.

I might add that there are a few other places in Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, where it is hard to connect Dr. Fredriksen’s conclusions with the actual data she cites. For example, in her discussion about the controversial term “righteousness“, (in Greek, dikaiosynē) she ties Paul’s thinking of righteousness quite exclusively to the adherence to the second table of the Ten Commandments, which does not exactly line up with the Scriptural texts she references (Fredriksen, p. 120-121).

In the prior paragraph, she rebukes the RSV translators for rendering Romans 1:4b-5 as “Jesus Christthrough whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about obedience to the faith,” as there is no definite article associated with “faith” in the Greek original. Fredriksen is correct in that the use of “the faith” connotes the idea of faith as a set of propositional statements that one must believe, which is not in view here in Paul’s writings. But the version Fredriksen is quoting dates back to the 1953 printing of the RSV, a reading that was apparently grandfathered in from the KJV. Yet as of 1973, the inclusion of “the” in “the faith” had been removed from the RSV, and I could find no modern, recent translation of the RSV, the ESV that succeeded it, nor the new NRSV with the definite article included. Perhaps Dr. Fredriksen mistakenly had the KJV in mind, but it would seem odd to point out an error in the RSV that was corrected perhaps some 50 years ago. Little head scratchers like these pop up every now and then in Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle.

With all of this in mind, I would not necessarily recommend Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle to Christians who are unfamiliar with Fredriksen’s type of critical biblical scholarship. The landmines you would have to walk over to get to the valuable insights Dr. Fredriksen has regarding a neglected aspect about Paul and his mission might be too distracting and discouraging. But for someone who can read something like a Bart Ehrman book, without throwing it at the wall in utter frustration, Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle makes for a provocative and refreshing look at the Apostle Paul.

Rethinking Paul? So What??

Some might respond with a yawn about such questions that come up about Paul and his relationship to Judaism, with a “So what?” But such indifference is woefully mistaken.

The circumcision issue in Paul’s day is not something which has no bearing for Christians today. A lot of people wonder if certain other “quirks” of Judaism still apply for Christians in the 21st century. Some argue that Paul’s dismissal of the circumcision requirement for Gentiles, in order to be Christian, is a model for jettisoning other peculiarities associated with the Old Testament-inspired Jewish tradition for us living 2,000 years later. Others (like myself) disagree, saying that Paul’s “disputable matters” position on eating food sacrificed to idols and his opposition to Gentile circumcision for Christ-followers was more probably unique for those particular issues Paul was thinking about and should not be confused with contemporary concerns, such as with Westernized rethinking concerning gender, sexuality, and marriage, explosive topics for not only non-believers but believers in Jesus today as well.

There were “God-fearers” in the first century Roman Empire, such as the centurion in Luke 7:1-10, who admired the Jews and who were drawn to the God of Israel, and yet they were not prepared to go the full conversion route into Judaism by becoming circumcised.  Perhaps there are “God-fearers” today (or some nearly equivalent category) who admire the Christian faith, but who find certain obstacles to historic orthodox Christian belief and practice that they are unwilling to embrace. This is an area that requires concentrated thought and discussion, in our current post-Christian era where once widely accepted Christian beliefs and practices have now become deeply controversial in recent decades.

Then there is the whole debate about justification, that placed an intractable wedge between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the 16th century, that still haunts the church to this day. The type of reassessment of the Apostle Paul offered by scholars like Paula Fredriksen might go a long way towards opening new paths for dialogue in healing this rift within the Christian movement. I read her Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle, as a prelude to her more popular and accessible work, When Christians Were Jews, which I hope to get to in due time.


Did Paul Really Write Ephesians and Colossians?…. (and Why Women Should Care)

Should women care about who wrote Ephesians and Colossians?

The question in the title of this blog might strike some as a bit puzzling. After all, Ephesians starts off with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus,” and the beginning of Colossians is not that much different (Colossians 1:1-2).

Sounds like a silly “no brainer,” right? Paul wrote these two letters. It’s obvious!

Well, anyone who has studied the development of “historical criticism” over the past several hundred years might tell you differently. While some think this topic is too heady or nerdy for them, it turns out that if you are married, as a husband or a wife, or a woman of any kind, or the concept of misogyny bothers you, this just might be important to you….

…. in a series of blog articles on “historical criticism”.…This is probably the longest post in this series, and while I thought about breaking it up into separate parts, maintaining the flow of the argument convinced me not to do so….

Of the “disputed” letters of Paul, 2 Thessalonians and 2 Timothy makes no significant contribution to a theology of male/female relations, but 1 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, and Colossians do. This blog post focuses on this issue as it pertains to Ephesians and Colossians.


Why Do So Many Scholars Not Believe that Paul Wrote Ephesians Nor Colossians? Is this REALLY True?

In this blog series on “historical criticism,” we have been looking at how historical critical method has had an impact for the past several hundred years, in how people read the Bible. In some cases, the historical critical method has been helpful, in giving us more solid confidence in the Bible as the very Word of God. But in other ways, the historical critical method has led to more doubts about the Bible. This current blog post is a deep dive into one of these issues.

A general consensus among many (though not all !) biblical scholars trained in historical criticism today suggests that of the thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul in the New Testament, only seven of them were actually written by the Apostle Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. That leaves perhaps as many as six of them were not written by the great apostle: 2 Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, and the two to be examined in this blog post, Ephesians and Colossians. Furthermore, some of the issues surrounding the Pauline authorship question have a direct impact upon concerns many women have today in a postmodern age, as I will explain further below.

The question of Pauline authorship for the letters associated with his name is an acute difficulty in biblical scholarship. For example, the Gospels do not explicitly tell us who wrote them; that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We get those attributions of authorship from the unified, consensus tradition of the early church. According to most scholars, titles like “the Gospel according to Matthew,” etc. were attached to these Gospels after they were originally written. The letters of Paul are different. In the letters of Paul, each letter explicitly tells you that Paul, along with perhaps a co-author, like Timothy, for Colossians, wrote the letter.

The reasons why Ephesians and Colossians are considered to be “disputed” among the letters of Paul are not too much different from the most controversial letter of the New Testament, that attributed to Peter, regarding its authorship, namely 2 Peter. The typical reasons such scholars question Pauline authorship include variances in literary style and vocabulary, as compared to the “undisputed” letters of Paul, like Romans and the Corinthian letters.1

A prime example of this type of difference can be found in terms of grammar used in Ephesians and Colossians: like the use of run-on sentences.  In much of Paul’s “undisputed” correspondence, the sentences are fairly compact (for the most part). But not in Ephesians 1:3-14. Many scholars contend that this particular passage is one monster, run-on sentence, one of the longest sentences in the entire Bible (though some translations do break up this passage into shorter sentences, to make it easier to read). That’s twelve verses folks, all in a single sentence!

My high school English teacher would probably not have approved of this. She likely would have made Paul stay after class and work on his writing skills.

However, the problems with this type of argument are two-fold. First, Paul does use rather long, run-on sentences in some of his “undisputed” letters, as well. Check out the eight total verses, all in one sentence, in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 sometime. Sure, there are style and vocabulary differences between the so-called “disputed” and “undisputed” Paul, but these differences are often exaggerated.

Second, such style and vocabulary differences can readily be explained by the use of a secretary, whether named or unnamed, which was actually a familiar practice in the ancient world. Back then, letter writing was more of a professional activity, due to the expense of working with papyrus, and not as commonplace as in modern times, where literacy rates are higher and writing material is much cheaper.

Ever tried buying a pack of papyrus today down at OfficeMax? That is a special order, I am afraid. Paul even tells us that Timothy helped out in the writing of Colossians, so the Bible is far from silent regarding the evidence for Paul getting help from others in producing his letters.

It is also very possible that such secretaries operated like ghostwriters, as we have with many popular authors today, or with political speech writers. Do you really think that the President of the United States writes out every speech he gives? No. Chances are more likely that certain writers are paid to write on behalf of such authors, political figures, etc., as long as they are trying to communicate the same content and message being intended. So, we should not be surprised if style and vocabulary vary between Paul and his use of secretaries.2

UK New Testament scholar Paul Foster took an informal survey at the “British New Testament Conference on Pauline Authorship” in 2011, of roughly 100 scholars, regarding which letters of the New Testament were written by the Apostle Paul. Hebrews is the “loner” here, as there is no claim in it that Paul wrote it. 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus have the least amount of confidence, but Ephesians and Colossians are next in terms of low confidence that Paul wrote them. This survey excludes American and other non-U.K. scholars, where some say the bias against Ephesians and Colossians as being truly Pauline is higher. Reference.


Does the Teaching in Ephesians and Colossians, These “Disputed” Letters of Paul, Contradict the Teaching of  the “Undisputed” Paul?

The more challenging case to authentic Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians comes down to differences in theological and ethical content. In other words, the claim is that what the author of Ephesians and/or Colossians is teaching is sufficiently different enough from, or even contradictory with, what is found in the undisputed letters of Paul, such that it would rule out the possibility of the Apostle Paul being the legitimate author. This claim suggests that someone, other than Paul, was writing in the name of Paul in order to push their own theological and/or ethical agenda on their readers.3

What type of evidence do scholars cite, when making such claims? Two particular theological differences stand out as examples:

  1. In Paul’s “undisputed” letters, Paul talks about sin in terms of a hostile power, in the singular sense, and that the Gospel gives us a means of deliverance from that power (see Romans 5:6-11; 7:8, 11). However, in the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians, “sins” is referenced in the plural, where deliverance is spoken of as “the forgiveness of sins” (see Ephesians 1:7; 2:1, 4:32 and Colossians 1:14; 2:13; 3:13).
  2. In Paul’s “undisputed” letters, Paul talks about the resurrection as primarily a future event for believers (Romans 6:5). However, in the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians we read that believers already experience Christ’s resurrection (Ephesians 2:4-8 and Colossians 2:12-13; 3:1).4

But even many scholars, who are otherwise not so sure of Pauline authorship, will admit that such differences are not necessarily contradictions. It could easily be understood that such differences result from differences in emphasis, and not some theological conflict.

For example, to speak of “sin” as a power, in one letter, and the forgiveness of “sins” in another letter does not imply a contradiction, but rather can be understood as complementary teachings. Likewise, the idea that the resurrection is a future event, regarding the future bodily resurrection of the saints, as well as it being a current event, in that we as believers share in the resurrection life of Jesus, who is already risen from the dead, are complementary theological themes. They do stand in tension with one another, but they do not conflict with each other.

Furthermore, it could be easily argued that the supposed tension between the “undisputed” and “disputed” Paul is overdrawn by critics who see a contradiction here. For example, Romans 4:24-25 argues that Jesus was “raised [from the dead] for our justification.” Then in Galatians 2:20, Paul teaches that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Both Romans and Galatians are regarded as “undisputed” letters of Paul. This suggests that the Christian life is lived, in the here and now, as a result of Jesus’ resurrection, a past event. Therefore, the “undisputed” Paul is not simply relegating the resurrected life for the Christian believer as some purely far off event, way off into the future. The theology of Romans and Galatians need not be pitted against the theology of Ephesians and Colossians, as certain scholars have argued.

Paul could have easily tailored his message in different ways to different audiences, to meet different needs. Even in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, Paul admits that to the Jews he became as a Jew, in order to win Jews, and to the Gentiles he became a Gentile, in order to win them to the Gospel.

In the 19th. century, a number of German scholars, who originally developed the historical critical method, believed that the undisputed letters have a more democratic, Protestant feel to them, as opposed to a more hierarchal, “early Catholic” feel to what is supposedly found in Ephesians and Colossians. For example, the undisputed letters of Paul have a sense of the church (Greek, ekklesia) as an egalitarian gathering of believers. The term ekklesia was originally a political term, that talked about a group of people assembled in a local community to make decisions together, on an essentially democratic basis. However, in Ephesians and Colossians, the writer talks about the church in a more highly structured, universal, even cosmic sense. Furthermore, Ephesians and Colossians appears to be more concerned about structured social arrangements within a Christian household, all within the larger Christian community, as in the relationship between parents and children, and slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:1-9; Colossians 3:20-4:1).

More can be said about that, but suffice to say, the particular issue about the Protestant “undisputed” Paul versus the more Roman Catholic “disputed” Paul is less of an issue these days. Both the “undisputed” and “disputed” Paul use the language of church as “ekklesia,” just with different emphases. However, the big differentiator, in the minds of many scholars today, concerns how the “undisputed” Paul versus the “disputed” Paul thinks about women. The pronounced concerns about Paul’s treatment of women, in his New Testament letters, more than anything else, overshadows the arguments made to deny that Paul wrote Ephesians and/or Colossians. 5


Does the “Paul” of Ephesians and Colossians wish to silence and subjugate women? Veracity examines the case made by critics.


How Does the Paul (or “Paul”) of Ephesians and Colossians Treat Women?

In our postmodern age, many are concerned about misogyny, the wrongful treatment of women. Sadly, Christians have at times been guilty, and such wrongful treatment has been rightfully exposed. Furthermore, in a day and age where “diversity”, “equity”, and “inclusion” are the watchwords, anything that even hints of misogyny is held suspect. Therefore, many skeptical scholars today suggest that the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians has a rather ethically challenged view of women, when compared to what we find in the “undisputed” letters of Paul. 

Is this really true? Let us take a look at the case being made.

For example, some argue that the “undisputed” Paul of Galatians 3:28 envisions an egalitarian relationship between men and women, by saying that “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So far, so good. However, this is in contrast with the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians 5:21-24:

…..submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

The “Wives, submit to your own husbands ” part sticks out like a sore thumb, for many 21st century readers.

A generation ago, you might have heard this Ephesians 5 passage read at a Christian wedding, and very few would have raised an eyebrow over it. But in the third decade of the 21st century, this Bible passage would undoubtedly trigger someone, and perhaps spoil the whole wedding day. You are more likely to instead hear the famous “love chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13, taken from one of the “undisputed” letters of Paul, thus avoiding any controversy.

Here in this Ephesians 5 passage, along with a parallel passage in Colossians 3:18-19, the “disputed” Paul is describing the relationship between husbands and wives, along the lines of the Roman “household codes.” In the era of the Apostle Paul, Roman society adopted the idea of “pater familias” (related to the Roman legal code of patria potestas,”power of a father”), where the oldest living male in a household had complete, absolute and unquestioned rule over everyone in the household, including wives, children, slaves, and other servants. The male head of the house had life and death power over everyone in the home. He even had unrestricted sexual access to slaves, without fear of censure by the surrounding society.

Advocates for rejecting Paul as the rightful author of Ephesians and Colossians will contend that the patriarchal, “chain-of-command” approach towards the treatment of women in these “disputed” letters is in contradiction with the egalitarian, “real” Paul of the “undisputed” letters. 

Admittedly, at first glance, it does not look good for the Paul, or “Paul,” of Ephesians (and Colossians), as being a paragon supporter of women. But there is more to the argument. See if you can follow where this is all going.

The rejection of pater familias for sexual relations between husbands and wives is clear in the “undisputed” Paul of 1 Corinthians 7:2-4, where the conjugal rights are equally and reciprocally shared between the husband and wife, as opposed to the unilateral arrangement of husbands having complete sexual control over their wives, associated with the pater familias. It is claimed that the “undisputed” Paul of 1 Corinthians, emphasizing this pure egalitarianism, has no room for the contrary message found in Ephesians and Colossians. Many today see that the notion of “male headship” in marriage is actually not a Christian concept, but rather, something smuggled into the New Testament, via Ephesians and Colossians, by someone with an agenda alien to the “real” Paul of 1 Corinthians. 6

If Paul did not write Ephesians/Colossians, why would someone use the name of Paul to promote a teaching that some see as endorsing misogyny? The standard answer has been that Ephesians/Colossians were probably written decades after Paul’s death in the 60’s, between the years of 70 and 100 C.E. Some even date these letters perhaps up to 70 years later, well into the 2nd century C.E., in a time when church officials sought to domesticate the radically egalitarian teachings of the “undisputed” Apostle Paul. According to this view, late 1st century or 2nd century church officials had come to believe that the Apostle Paul’s teachings were too radical for Roman society, and needed to be amended to make Christianity more compatible with the pagan society. 7

This is a serious argument raised by a growing number of scholars (including a few Christian ones). For those who have grown up looking at the “Leave it to Beaver” days of the 1950s, as a hopelessly dark relic of a misogynistic past, this argument gives plenty of fodder for those who would rather leave Paul alone, and reject a good portion of the New Testament (if not all of it).

Women in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament era were thought of as socially inferior to men. Did the Apostle Paul share that view? Do Ephesians and Colossians specifically endorse misogyny?


How to Respond to the Supposedly Misogynistic Views of the “Disputed” Paul?

The reactions drawn from this contrast of the “undisputed” Paul with the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians, particularly with respect to the Bible’s treatment of women, vary greatly.

In our contemporary age, where feminism has an enormous impact on both society and the church, some would say that out of respect for women, we should reject Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Christian canon, in order to show Christian solidarity in opposing misogyny. When “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are the watchwords of the day, at least in certain quarters, a push for Christians to marginalize Ephesians and Colossians is ideologically strong. This position is radical, but at least it is honest and not half-hearted.

Other ways of thinking about this in progressive Christian circles are a bit more complicated. Some might say that it really does not matter what Paul says, whether it be the “undisputed” or “disputed” Paul, and that we should only focus on what Jesus’ says in the Gospels.

Others are more nuanced, and say that we can still embrace Ephesians and Colossians as part of the New Testament, even if Paul never wrote those letters. British Anglican priest and Oxford scholar John Barton is pretty typical of this perspective, as he writes in his A History of the Bible:

‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’ (p.187)

Such progressive Christians conclude that Ephesians and Colossians were probably written by some avid disciple (or disciples) of Paul’s, decades after his death, with the understanding that these writers could tweak the Apostle’s Paul message in a new way that tried to meet the needs of a new generation. The progressive Christians holding such a view would suggest that we can still accept Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Christian New Testament canon, embracing those elements that are in sync with the “undisputed” Paul, while rejecting those elements that are seen to be in contradiction with the “real” Paul, found elsewhere in the New Testament. This is sort of like the analogy of eating a piece of fish: eat the meaty part, but spit out the bones, as an approach to suspect parts of the Bible.

The problem with this “spit out the bones” approach to Ephesians and Colossians is that it assumes that the practice of writing something in someone else’s name, and changing what is taught, was somehow benign in the ancient world. However, a number of scholars today are challenging that view, that it was “okay” to use the name of a famous person to promote even a slightly different agenda.  For if someone in the ancient world was writing in the name of the Apostle Paul, for the purpose of changing the teachings of Paul, then such a literary work should be rejected as a forgery. In other words, writing something with the intent to deceive was considered lying (just as it is now). A forgery is a forgery.

So, is the judgment of “forgery” laid against Ephesians and Colossians a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. In fact, we have good evidence to indicate even Ephesians and Colossians were authentically Pauline. The process by which certain writings were accepted into the New Testament canon was actually quite rigorous in the early church. Numerous other writings, ranging from the Epistle to the Laodiceans, Third Corinthians, to the Apocalypse of Paul were all rejected from the New Testament canon as being not authentically Pauline, though they all claimed to be. Therefore, to think that Ephesians and Colossians, if judged to be forgeries, simply slipped into the canon unnoticed is quite a remarkable claim indeed. Furthermore, there are good reasons to suggest that Ephesians and Colossians are not as misogynistic as some think.8



A More Faithful Response?: Evangelical Cases for Paul as the Legitimate Author of Ephesians and Colossians

Most evangelical scholars today do uphold the traditional position, that Paul was the real author of Ephesians and Colossians, but when intertwined with the issue of women, and their relationships to men, there are two primary camps within the evangelical fold: the egalitarian and the complementarian. Both the egalitarian and the complementarian camps affirm the equality as well as the non-interchangeability between male and female, yet broadly speaking, the egalitarian camp emphasizes the equality aspect, while the complementarian camp emphasizes the non-interchangeability aspect. Egalitarians tend to emphasize mutuality between male and female. Complementarians tend to emphasize the complementary roles that male and female perform, with respect to the other. Before outlining the distinctives of each position, it is important to highlight where both positions agree. 9

Egalitarian and complementarian evangelical Christians both agree that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians, citing the points above that the style and vocabulary differences between the “disputed” and “undisputed” Pauline letters are often over-exaggerated, and can be reconciled when considering Paul’s use of secretaries in writing his letters.  When it comes to the theological content argument, where critics say that the “disputed” Paul contradicts the “undisputed” Paul, with what is being taught, evangelical scholars will also argue that such supposed “contradictions” are highly exaggerated, or else not properly understood. Part of the supposed “contradictions” could simply be a result of Paul’s growing understanding of the Gospel truth, as he advanced in his own spiritual maturity, filling out areas of theological and ethical concern that were not wholly addressed in other letters.

Evangelical scholars will also say that when wives are called to “submit to their husbands,” they are to do so “as to the Lord,” or “unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21-14). Submission is grounded in the concept that submission is to be understood, first and foremost, to God Himself, and secondarily, that submission more broadly speaking is mutual in human interpersonal relationships (see verse 21, especially, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.“). Wives are not to submit to their husbands, as though the rule of the husband is absolute. Rather, they are to submit to God, as their husbands should as well. In other words, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, in mutual, yet different kinds of ways, within the context of giving honor and glory to God.10

Many scholars will say that while Paul in Ephesians and Colossians is using the “household codes” framework for stating his teachings, he is actually calling into question some key components of the Roman pater familias social arrangements. First, it is noted that the Ephesians 5 passage begins with a directive to wives first, and then to husbands, which flips the order of how the pater familias was typically expressed in the Roman era, where husbands/fathers always came first. Changing the order of presentation is important, as it would indicate that Paul is reversing the position of both the stronger and weaker parties in typical Roman thinking. In other words, far from rubber-stamping the pater familias Roman tradition, Paul is subverting it. Here is what follows the directive to wives (the corresponding Colossians 3:18-19 passage is more succinct):

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:25-30 ESV)

Secondly, this section regarding how husbands are to treat their wives does not in anyway indicate a type of dominating, overbearing relationship that a husband is supposed to have with his wife. Instead, the ethic of love, particularly as following the ethic of how Christ loves His church, is expressed. The husband is required to give self-sacrificially for the wife, just as Christ has done for the whole church. This overarching element of love is missing from the Roman pater familias, which makes explicit reference to the husband’s absolute control over his household, and is therefore in contrast with Paul’s teachings. 11

An Evangelical Egalitarian Approach to Ephesians & Colossians…

Nevertheless, egalitarian and complementarian evangelicals do differ beyond what is argued above. An evangelical egalitarian view will contend that the “disputed” Paul and “undisputed” Paul are one in the same, in that they are both egalitarian. The argument usually centers around the claim that the word “head” in Ephesians 5:21-24 has been mistranslated and misinterpreted. They would argue that “head”, in this context, actually means “source,” as opposed to something more traditional, like “authority,” or “leader.” In other words, to say that the “the husband is the head of the wife” is to say that the husband is the “source” of the wife, and not the “authority” or “leader.” For example, in an analogy of English usage, we could speak about the “head” of a river” as also being the “source” of a river, where the concept of authority is absent. 12

This egalitarian evangelical approach suggests that the claim made by critics, in denying Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians, are doing so on the basis of reading a tradition into the text of Scripture, that simply is not there. At the same time, egalitarian evangelicals argue that the traditional-leaning complementarians are actually encouraging the critics in their resolve to undermine Ephesians and Colossians, by tacitly supporting a more misogynistic reading of these letters. In other words, when complementarians look the other way when some complementarians use their theology to hide the abuse the women, it brings the gospel into disrepute.

An Evangelical Complementarian Approach to Ephesians & Colossians…

A complementarian view will push back on an egalitarian view at this point. First,  a complementarian view would call into the question the more “pro-women” perspective articulated by egalitarians, as misrepresenting complementarianism, as complementarianism is actually more “pro-women” than what egalitarians typically think. After all, even in some egalitarian churches, women still find themselves on the receiving end of abuse.

Secondly, a complementarian view may readily concede that there is a real difference between the ethical emphases in the “undisputed” letters versus what we find in Ephesians and Colossians, as more skeptical critics do argue. However, this is not a cause for embarrassment. Rather, this is what we would expect as Paul is tailoring his unified message in different contexts, with different needs, through his different letters. What might have been a concern at Ephesus or Colossae might not have been a concern in Corinth or Rome.

However, a complementarian view also pushes back against those critics who deny Pauline authorship of those latter two letters, in saying that such critics make too much of such a contrast between the “disputed” and “undisputed” Paul. In particular, the “undisputed” letters make no substantial reference to how husbands and wives are to have structure and order, with respect to decision-making, particularly when consensus between marriage partners is not easily reached, etc., whereas Ephesians and Colossians do specifically address such questions of structure and order. For example, Paul’s desire that husbands and wives have mutual conjugal rights in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 need not conflict with the idea that the husband and wife relationship should parallel the Christ and church relationship.13

While many “broad” complementarians might emphasize the more traditional notion of “authority” and/or “leader“, with respect to interpreting the meaning of “head” in Ephesians 5:21-24 , there is also a “narrow” (or “moderate”) complementarian view that sees a mediating position between the “‘head’ means ‘source’” and the “‘head’ means ‘authority’” camps. This mediating position follows the most current research that argues that “head” in the Ephesians and Colossians context simply means “to occupy the position at the top or front.14

Towards a Meeting Place Between Complementarian and Egalitarian Christians?

Many in our postmodern culture today, and even in the church, view any form of complementarianism as an affront to contemporary sensibilities. But complementarians do not necessarily see it that way, as the tendency towards authoritarianism was never in Paul’s view. At least, those who hold a more moderate complementarian view reject a more rigid, authoritarian perspective, though admittedly, more extreme complementarians do go down the more authoritarian route.

Rather, the notion of the man occupying “the position at the top or front” with respect to the woman is simply meant to be understood in a more sacramental, mysterious way. It is part of what makes Christianity weird and unique, not yet just another voice echoing what we hear all of the time in the surrounding culture. In other words, the notion of “male headship” is not any more weird, than say, the Incarnation, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the idea that we can “feast on Christ” through our participation in the Lord’s Supper, the doctrine of the Trinity, or even a belief in Christ’s resurrection.

Sadly, the sacramental character of a robust complementarian theology gets overshadowed by concerns over the mistreatment, exclusion, and denigration of women.The complementarian side of this debate finds themselves in the awkward position of dealing with extreme traditionalists who misuse passages like Ephesians 5:21-24 and Colossians 3:18-19 to gloss over all kinds of abuse of women, which only reinforces skepticism, not only of the complementarian position, but of the Bible in general. The silencing of women, by extreme traditionalists, has only added fuel to the skeptic’s fire, particularly as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 often gets weaponized against women, in ways completely unwarranted by what is actually in the text.. 15

But the egalitarian view is not in any better position. In fact, it might be more precarious. For while evangelical egalitarians and skeptical critics of Ephesians and Colossians might find mutual agreement about relations between husbands and wives in marriage, along with the notion of having women serve as elders/presbyters in a local church, the skeptical critics of Ephesians and Colossians will most probably give evangelical egalitarians a silent pass, while dismissing their exegesis of at least some disputed texts as being a case of perhaps well-intentioned, but nevertheless, hopelessly wishful thinking. Perhaps it might be better for complementarians and egalitarians to learn to listen to one another better, and find common ground.16

Holding Onto Ephesians and Colossians as Pauline, Versus Losing Them

Many evangelical Christians look upon the complementarian/egalitarian debate as primarily a matter of how one should interpret particular controversial verses found in the New Testament. While this is still a valid concern for believers, far more is at stake. It should be evident that the current cultural and church debate, concerning how men and women are to relate to one another, has an apologetic component to it. In other words, how do we defend an historically orthodox approach to the Bible, without allowing current cultural concerns to completely alter how we view the nature of the New Testament?

This may sound like a “devil’s advocate” type of response, but this is worth exploring, for those who tend to doubt. After all, Christians are called to be truth seekers, above all else: So, what if the critics are correct, and a final conclusion is reached, that someone used Paul’s name to write Ephesians and Colossians? At one level, losing Ephesians and Colossians is not the end of the Christian faith. For if Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, then Christianity is true….period!  If Paul never actually wrote Ephesians or Colossians, this would not destroy the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the foundation of our faith. Christianity would still be true, but our Bibles would be a bit smaller.

However, at another level, ditching Ephesians and Colossians as not being truly Pauline may still cause problems for some doubters. For if the early church did not get the New Testament right, in terms of accurately identifying the letters that bear Paul’s name, then some might wonder, “What else did the early church get wrong?

Furthermore, losing Ephesians and Colossians throws the debate between egalitarians and complementarians, by default, in the favor of the egalitarians. Some may celebrate this, but it does so at a high cost. Rejecting Ephesians and Colossians as being non-Pauline (and while you at it, toss in 1 Timothy and Titus as well), might provide great comfort to those who find any hint of misogyny in our New Testament objectionable. But what else would you lose?

If Ephesians and/or Colossians are shown to be non-Pauline in origin, we lose certain unique dimensions of Christian teaching that have given strength and comfort to Christians for generations. While other texts in the remainder of the New Testament do speak of the “forgiveness of sins,” without Ephesians and Colossians we lose Paul’s unique contribution to that doctrine. We lose a more robust and enriching Pauline teaching that not only do we await the coming resurrection, we also experience the reality of resurrection presently in our lives, as an established fact. Without Ephesians and Colossians, we lose Paul’s grand vision of the cosmic and universal nature of the church. We could go on citing other unique Pauline contributions to Christian faith, found in Ephesians and Colossians. In other words, we lose a lot without an authentically Pauline Ephesians and Colossians.

Attempts to “eat the meat” and “spit out the bones” of Ephesians and Colossians will not do. For this places the authority of the message, not in the text of Scripture itself, but rather in the hands of the interpreter. The interpreter becomes the one to try to separate the “meat” from the “bones,” as opposed to allowing the Scripture itself to speak authoritatively. Attempts to say that someone else could have written Ephesians and Colossians in the name of Paul, while drastically changing certain elements of his teaching, and still claim that Ephesians and Colossians should be accepted as authoritative Scripture, simply are not convincing. If Ephesians and Colossians are judged to be forgeries, then they are forgeries. Therefore, it is exceedingly more difficult to trust the Bible, if we somehow concede that certain writings in the canon were written with an intent to deceive us as readers.

On the other hand, a closer examination of the evidence indicates that there still is a solid case to be made that Paul is the real author of Ephesians and Colossians. If I have been successful in my argument from this blog post, there are good reasons to continue to affirm Ephesians and Colossians as truly Pauline, though different evangelicals might still differ on some of the details. Rumors of a misogynistic “Paul” obliquely lurking in the pages of the New Testament have been greatly exaggerated. Ephesians and Colossians can be confidently regarded as truly coming from the mind and teaching of Paul. Therefore, we can still enjoy the theological riches that Ephesians and Colossians give us as the very Word of God.


Why This All Matters for Believing Christians… Both Women AND Men (or It Should)

It has become quite common in recent years for some Christians to claim that the denigration of women was a prominent feature in the earliest, historically orthodox Christian communities. Strenuous efforts have been made to separate that ugly history from the Bible itself, in an effort to salvage confidence in the Christian faith as being “on the side” of women. Have these efforts worked?

This blog post documents a view, commonly held by many scholars today, that the Christian Bible we have now is hopelessly filled with misogynistic themes, that place women in a subjugated status. Some progressive Christians therefore conclude that the only way to rescue the Bible from those who wish to completely undermine its relevance to postmodern life is to clip out significantly large chunks of the New Testament, namely certain letters, or certain portions of letters, attributed to Paul, and dismiss such material as having no authority for believers today.

But is that claim true? Was the denigration of women really part of the story of the earliest Christian communities? Furthermore, was it really rooted in the very pages of the New Testament itself?

Or when we read certain difficult passages that we find in either Ephesians and Colossians, do we instead discover that Paul has something utterly different than propagating misogynistic tropes? Rather, is Paul speaking something about the beauty and difference between male and female that is to celebrated, instead of something to be embarrassed about and ignored?

Christian readers should consider these things, particularly when we discuss our faith with our neighbors. It is something to think about.

A few days before I eventually published this post, Erik Manning, an apologist aligned with William Lane Craig, put out the following videos that address some of the arguments made against Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians:




1. This is a pretty technical blog post, but the issue is very important. The notion of “disputed” letters of Paul in the New Testament, in contrast to the “undisputed” letters of Paul,  means that scholars across the theological and ideological spectrum dispute about the authorship status of the former letters. Comparatively few Christians are aware of the debate, despite the fact that many scholars in the field doubt the authenticity of the “disputed” letters of Paul. The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton, has an article on Ephesians by J.D.G. Dunn that best summarizes the matter: “Was the Letter Written by Paul? The traditional view, from the second century onwards, is certainly in the affirmative… But for the past 200 years the issue has been disputed, and though several prominent contemporary scholars still hold to Pauline authorship…, the majority have concluded that it was most probably written by someone else” (p.1166). A number of “progressive Christians” have been swayed by the debate, in favor of rejecting the six “disputed” letters of Paul as not being genuine; i.e. “fake”, while still coming up with a variety of fairly creative, yet ultimately convoluted ways of still keeping these books within the New Testament canon of Scripture, while selectively dismissing certain elements of teaching found in those “fake” letters (see this typical blog post by Keith Giles, a “progressive Christian.”)  As I hope to show in this blog post, the ramifications of this debate are quite substantial, and impact how we view Christian discipleship. Plus, there is good scholarship done by a variety of scholars that suggests that the traditional view, that Paul really authored all 13 letters attributed to him, still has a good case to make….. A note should be added about the missing titles from the original copies of the Gospels: some scholars, like Brant Pitre, argue that the titles of the Gospels were likely included in the texts originally. While this is a possibility, the problem with this view is that it is not necessary to make a defense of the Gospels with that argument. It is sufficient to say that church tradition was unified in saying the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their respective Gospels. We have no record of any early church leader suggesting that the authorial designations that we possess now are incorrect. In fact, we have other evidence that indicates that Justin Martyr, an early 2nd. century Christian apologist, simply referred to the Gospels as “the memoirs of the apostles,” without naming the authors. But these need not force the conclusion that the Gospels were purely anonymous, for other church fathers, particularly Irenaeus, explicitly named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the respective authors.    

2. The classic case illustrating Paul’s use of secretaries can be found in Paul’s most important letter, Romans. In Romans 6:22 we read that Tertius wrote the letter to the Romans. This would suggest that Paul dictated the letter to Tertius, who served as Paul’s amanuensis. It is quite possible that Paul gave his secretaries different degrees of latitude with respect to style and vocabulary. How much latitude would have been granted is greatly debated among scholars. Some find the ghostwriter or speech writer analogy to be too broad, but we simply have no evidence to discount the possibility, in the case of the 13 letters attributed to Paul.

3. There is a special condition, cited by certain scholars, that suggests instances where someone was writing in someone else’s name, but doing so in a non-deceitful manner. Such scholars make a distinction between pseudepigraphical (writing under someone else’s name falsely) and allonymity (writing under another name, but doing so out of indebtedness to that famous person, by summarizing or faithfully restating the famous person’s teachings, intentionally for the benefit of future generations). Evidence in support of allonymity is based on the fact that the ancient world did not have copyright law, and so there was no legal conception of authorial ownership for written materials. The allonymity proposal was suggested by I. H. Marshall, as a middle-alternative between the designation of an ancient letter/document as being written authentically by the named author, and the pseudepigraphical designation, associated with deceit; i.e. forgery. Philip Towner, in his New International Commentary to the Letters of Timothy and Titus, summarizes Marshall’s approach, with explicit reference to Colossians and Ephesians (Kindle location 1525):

To navigate this treacherous middle-ground, Marshall suggests the term “allonymity” to define an authorial process that might close the gap between the apostle and the author who co-opts his name, in a way that allows escape from the allegations of deception and falsehood in the process. He explains that either the student or follower of Paul edits the notes of the deceased apostle, or he steps into the shoes of the dead apostle and carries the master’s teaching forward for future generations in a manner that is faithful to earlier apostolic intentions, even if the key of theological score has been transposed. Examples of this might be found in the philosophical schools, and some aver that Colossians and Ephesians represent letters of the same type. The view allows that the letters to Timothy and Titus, and 2 Timothy especially, may well contain authentic Pauline fragments that a follower worked into the three letters after Paul’s death. At some point between the time of their writing and early circulation and the time of the fathers who first mention them, the “allonymous” authorship of the letters was forgotten and the earliest witnesses attribute them to the apostle.

My New Testament instructor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Donald Hagner, followed this solution, championed by Marshall as well.  Some scholars in support of this add that this would explain how the Book of Hebrews was admitted into the New Testament canon, on the basis of its apostolic teaching, despite the fact that there is no name attached to Hebrews anywhere in the text. However, the case of Hebrews differs in that the other letters traditionally associated with Paul all have Paul’s name attached to them, whereas Hebrews as no name attached to it, thereby making it an anonymous writing, in a different class of its own. Perhaps a better candidate might be 2 Peter, which some say was put together by a devoted disciple of Peter, based on sermon notes, etc. made from Peter’s teachings. Nevertheless, other scholars are not convinced that such a fine middle-ground solution can be found. But considering the current state of the evidence, it remains a plausible solution.   

4. The Harper Collins Study Bible introductory notes for Ephesians and Colossians do a good job of summarizing the case, arguing that the teachings found in Ephesians and Colossians diverge from the teachings found in the “undisputed” letters of Paul. It should be noted that the degree of suspicion regarding Ephesians is higher than for Colossians. For example, Werner Georg Kümmel, in his classic 20th century Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 340-346, 357-366), makes the case that Colossians is authentically Pauline, while Ephesians is not. Some readers might object that I should not even be entertaining any “historical critical” perspective that would jeopardize the traditional understanding of the New Testament canon. But as I have argued elsewhere, we need not fear the insights that “historical criticism” can give us. Once we understand the assumptions being made by an historical critic, we can then properly appreciate the evidence being presented without necessarily being driven to the same conclusions made by that historical critic, that are often subject to cognitive bias.   

5. Readers unfamiliar with the debate regarding “women in ministry” might consider where I try to make a case for a “gentle complementarianism,” a middle way between a more hard-core traditionalism/complementarianism on the one side, and egalitarianism on the other side. A good summary of my position is articulated by Gavin Ortlund, in this YouTube clip, where he coins the term “gentle complementarian”. For more detail, please see this multi-part blog series from a few years ago on Veracity. I find that the distinction between male and female is mainly of a sacramental character, as set forth in the Bible, as opposed to some oppressive hierarchy, on one hand, or some “gender is a social construct” idea, on the other.  

6. (See footnote #14 below regarding the special case of 1 Corinthians 11:3, and footnote #15 below regarding the special case of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35)…. Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr, in her The Making of Biblical Womanhood, makes the argument that the concept of “male headship” was invented by the church, and not Scripture. Barr is correct to observe that at least certain expressions “male headship” have distorted the application of Scriptural principles, all throughout church history. There is no argument against Barr here. However, it is difficult to see how she can call out “male headship” as an invented doctrine, without implicating the Bible itself in the process. The language of “head” with respect to male/female relations, particularly in marriage, is difficult to divorce from Scripture. See my review of Barr’s book here.  

7. The case is more pronounced with the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), where many scholars are more skeptical about Pauline authorship, as compared to Ephesians and Colossians. But a similar logic applies: someone other than Paul wrote these letters, using Paul’s name, in order to domesticate the more radical message of the Apostle Paul, and make it sound more palatable to the social standards of the wider pagan culture, and less offensive. According to Lilian Portefaix:

“…. with the suspicions that Christianity was a revolutionary sect in mind, it was important for the author to convince the authorities that Christian leaders were no revolutionaries. It has been noticed that the catalogue of virtues demand of the office-bearers (bishops, deacons, and elders) in the church (1 Tim 3:1-7; 8-12; Tit. 1:5-9) corresponds to the fixed pattern of traditional qualities appropriate to a military command… which are listed in the Strategikos by the tactic Onosander…. The catalogue of virtues attributable to an army leader embodies the Roman ideal of a paterfamilias who keeps a tight hand over his family; this idea is prescribed for bishops and deacons… who besides their own families, are set to govern the household of God… Presumably the ‘one in Christ’ formula (Gal. 3:28), concealing social and political implications, had tended to place master and slave on a equal footing outside the community and had attracted the attention of non-Christians.” (Feminist Companion to Paul: Deutero-Pauline Writings, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. “‘Good Citizenship’ in the Household of God: Women’s Position in the Pastorals Reconsidered in the Light of Roman Rule,” p. 151).

The problem with this thesis is that it still assumes that the pseudepigraphical author of “Paul’s” letters deemed Paul’s writings to be insufficient, and thus felt the need to change Paul’s teachings; effectively, contradicting the authentic Paul. Jouette M. Bassler is even more condescending in her assessment of the Pastoral Letters, a judgment that can be easily extended to Ephesians and Colossians, for the same reasons. In her discussion about the pseudepigraphical Paul’s treatment of widows in 1 Timothy,  Bassler is not simply saying that misogyny crept into the early church. Rather, she is saying misogyny is rooted in the very New Testament itself. Bassler states:

“… the very persistence of the concern to control widows suggests that the church hierarchy continued to feel threatened by their (latent or active?) spiritual power… The Pastoral Letters were accepted into the canon and their pronouncements on widows in particular, and women in general, attained the normative status of inspired authority. Fortunately, the author left enough cracks in the letters’ rhetorical facade that we can get glimpses of the early struggle and expose his words for what they are — a calculus of suppression.” (Feminist Companion to Paul: Deutero-Pauline Writings, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. “Limits and Differentiation: The Calculus of Widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16”, p. 146).

If Jouette M. Bassler is correct, then you have to wonder why anyone would want to keep these “disputed” letters in the New Testament canon today. But if Bassler is wrong, and the teachings about women in the “disputed” letters can be coherently read together with the content in the “undisputed” letters, thereby viewing the tension as indicative of complementary differences, as opposed to contradictions, then a more vibrant, positive and edifying view of Paul’s teaching can be gained.  

8. University of North Carolina bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, who is no ally to historically orthodox Christianity, and who considers Ephesians and Colossians to be forgeries, rejects the notion popular in some “Progressive Christian” circles that is was somehow “okay” in the ancient world to use the name of a famous person to write material that altered the message of that famous person. In Ehrman’s book Forged, he makes a persuasive case that forgery was considered forgery then, just as much as forgery is considered to be forgery now. The difficulty with Ehrman’s thesis is that he does not sufficiently value the evidence in favor of authenticity for the writings associated with the Apostle Paul, as well was seeing contradictions in the New Testament that need not be interpreted as contradictions.   In a previous blog post, contrary to Ehrman, I elaborate on the rigorous process at work in the early church to adequately vet the legitimacy of New Testament documents to be admitted into the canon of the New Testament.

9. The Veracity blog series on “women in ministry” goes into the complementarian/egalitarian debate in more detail.

10. Some argue that mutual submission here is more of an egalitarian perspective, specifically. However, mutual submission can also carry the sense of a reciprocative relationship, whereby the movement of one towards another calls for a corresponding movement from the other back towards the initiator, but in a different manner. The analogy of ballroom dancing might be applicable here, as one partner is the leader, and the other follows, but both parties must mutually submit to one another in order for the dance to be a success. Mutual submission, understood this way, has more of a complementarian perspective. One can easily identify extremes on both the complementarian and egalitarian sides of the debate, where on the one side, men are too often given a pass in abusing women, and on the other side, where gender becomes merely a social construct, where “man” and “woman” become purely subjective identifiers.  

11. Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People offers a refreshingly different view of Paul, that sees him more at odds with the Roman pater familias traditions of his day. Ruden’s perspective is all the more remarkable considering that she is a classicist, with a more progressive theological leaning. Her view on Paul’s understanding of slavery forced me to conclude two things about Paul: First, Paul was not a social revolutionary who sought to overthrow the established slavery system. Secondly, Paul did undercut the whole rationale for how people become slaves in the first place, mainly through what Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus. In other words, Paul does not upset the apple cart of slavery as an institution, but by subtly attacking the basis for how people can be regarded as slaves in the first place, Paul renders the slavery system as being mute. For without slaves, you can have no slavery system to uphold. Similar insights in Ruden’s book are applicable to the complementarian/egalitarian discussion.  See my review of her book on Veracity.  

12. Andrew Perriman, author of Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, and a committed egalitarian, does not find such arguments by his fellow egalitarians convincing. He makes a different point that will be brought out below in another footnote.   

13. If there is one pet peeve I have about an egalitarian view of marriage is that it is hopelessly unrealistic, for the vast majority of people. I know of several egalitarian Christians with marriages, where they contend that the spouses have been married for decades without any substantial disagreements that could not be resolved by seeking after consensus. Even the prominent New Testament scholar Gordon Fee makes the same claim. Well, great for them. But unfortunately, for the rest of us, the effort to try to arrive at consensus in marital decisions at all costs is really a setup for failure. Yes, we should try to reach consensus when making decisions. But what happens when a consensus can not be reached? Does that mean that the marriage is a failure, or the marriage partners are a failure? Sometimes, someone has to step up to the plate and make a decision. Unfortunately, egalitarian marriage principles do not help you in those circumstances. They just leave you with a sense of failure, with unrealistic expectations prodding you along the whole way. 

14. The “to occupy the position at the top or front” understanding of “head” seems to be gaining the consensus in the research today regarding the meaning of “kephale” in Ephesians 5:22-24. I would liken it to standing at the “head” of a line to board a plane or a bus….  A “broad” complementarian view tends to see the authority/lead understanding of male “headship” as having a wide range of applications, not just in marriage or in the church, but in society as well.  A more “narrow” (or moderate) complementarian view tends to see male “headship” more in terms of the husband as the gentle leader of the family, and that the office of elder in the church is restricted to qualified men, but allowing women to serve in other church leadership capacities without restriction (like deacon, bible study teacher, worship leader, seminary teacher, etc.). Some see an even more “narrow” view where only the senior pastor needs to be qualified male. Nevertheless, all flavors of “narrow” complementarians do not see any particular application outside of the home or the church (See footnote #5 above about “gentle complementarians”)… Regarding the meaning of “head” in Paul’s writings, see 1 Corinthians 11:3 also. The whole topic of 1 Corinthians probably deserves another blog post focused on that text. But a short response by some critical leaning scholars is to say that the whole of 1 Corinthians 11, regarding male headship, is actually a position that Paul himself does not hold, and that we know this from 1 Corinthians 11:16, which in the Christian Standard Bible reads, “If anyone want to argue about this, we have no other custom, neither the churches of God.” Most Christians traditionally understand Paul to say that the principle of male headship, however it is interpreted, is an inherent belief to be affirmed in the church, and that having such arguments to dispute against it is not a custom that he tolerates. However, these critical scholars will contend that it is the custom of male headship itself which not a custom he tolerates, and that therefore Christians should not bother with the concept of male headship. In this perspective, it is argued that the concept of headship in Ephesians has been horribly misconfigured to mean something opposite to what Paul originally intended.

Anyway, back to “kephale” or “head”:   Andrew Wilson has a great summary of where the current scholarship stands regarding the understanding of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5, suggesting a middle pathway between complementarian and egalitarian positions.  Ian Paul offers an egalitarian view of “head” that is typical in such circles. As foreshadowed in a previous footnote, Andrew Perriman contends for a middle-ground reading for “head.” Interestingly, Andrew Perriman argues as an egalitarian, but dismisses the “‘head’ means ‘source‘” school of thought as wishful thinking speculation, that can not be defended exegetically. Instead, he simply believes that Paul’s teaching regarding wifely submission in Ephesians and Colossians were temporary, an accommodation to the Roman culture of the day. Times have changed now. However, he provides no convincing exegetical basis to support this argument. All Perriman can muster is that we do not live under the Roman system anymore, which does not tell us whether or not Paul’s teaching is prescriptive across all time and places, versus only limited to that particular 1st/2nd century situation. Well, at least Perriman is being honest about it. Here is a review of Perriman’s book Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul.   

15. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible, as this passage has encouraged some to conclude that women should remain completely silent in church. This is difficult, not only for egalitarians, but complementarians as well. The most obvious difficulty in this interpretation is that just three chapters prior, in the same letter, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul is encouraging women to pray and prophesy in church, which entails speech. For a full exposition of this passage, see the previous Veracity posting, on “Women Should Keep Silent in Church? : A Corinthian Conundrum Considered.”  In summary, the three main views are (a) women are to remain silent in the church, but only when it comes to judging prophecy, which the preceding passage in 1 Corinthians 14 addresses, (b) this passage is an interpolation; that is, something added later to the text by a copyist scribe, and not part of the original New Testament,  and (c) that Paul is actually quoting a view held by the Corinthian community, of which he is strenuously refuting, as being contrary to the Gospel message. Since the earliest New Testament documents lacked quotation marks in the original Greek, it is quite easy to understand how many Christians could have misinterpreted this passage. In that previous blog post, I make the case that the third view (c) makes the most sense of the text. This third view completely removes any hint of misogyny in Paul’s thinking here in this undisputed letter written by the Apostle. 

16. Andrew Wilson’s post on “Twenty Myths of the Gender Debate” is exceedingly helpful for both sides in the complementarian and egalitarian debate.

Paul, A Biography, by N.T. Wright, A Review

Reading N.T. Wright is delightfully invigorating. He is surely the most influential, and perhaps the most prolific, living New Testament scholar of our day, and an evangelical Christian to boot.

This has made Wright into the darling of millennial Christian thinkers, who look to someone like an N. T. Wright, as having the academic smarts, challenging the critical voices against Christianity in the 21st century, as well as possessing a cheerful, pastoral giftedness. N.T. Wright puts the often complex world of contemporary scholarship closer near the “bottom shelf,” where mere mortal, everyday Christians can appreciate and apply a more learned approach to the New Testament, as opposed to simply reading the Bible on their own, with little to no oversight to guide them.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants. Now, with an outstanding biography of the Apostle Paul.

N.T. Wright: Scholar, Pastor and Popularizer

Otherwise known as “Tom” Wright, in his more popular writings, it has been often said that N.T, or Tom, Wright writes faster than most people can read. How he has found time to write as much as he has, while at one time serving as an active Anglican bishop, who only in recent years is now focused again on scholarship, is a wonder on its own.

Beleaguered by top notch critical scholars for several generations now, that appear to want to rip the Bible to shreds, thoughtful evangelicals take comfort in the fact that N.T. Wright has gone up against the brightest and best in the world of academia, and he has come out relatively unscathed. Even more so, he stands out with his good-natured, jolly British demeanor, as he declares his scholarly view of a wholly trustworthy and reliable Holy Bible. For a younger generation of evangelicals, N.T. Wright makes you feel like, intellectually, he has your back.

Wright earns the respect of non-believing and believing intellectuals alike, being read by everyone from British historian Tom Holland, to former editor-in-chief at Newsweek, Jon Meacham, just to name a few. Aside from Michael Licona’s brilliant work, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, N.T. Wright remains today’s most capable defender of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, through his highly cited academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Culminating in Wright’s multivolume, comprehensive series Christian Origins and the Question of God, we find the “go-to” academic, contemporary treatment of critical issues in New Testament scholarship, correcting misguided efforts among intellectuals to take down historic Christian faith, starting with the infamous “Jesus Seminar” of the early 1990s.

I remember twenty years ago reading N.T. Wright’s written dialogue with liberal scholar Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus. Borg was known for dismissing every miracle of Jesus in the New Testament as fictitious, and yet, Wright had an answer for him at every turn. Still, the two men remained friends. I was left thinking, “Evangelical Christians need more scholars like N.T. Wright!

N.T. Wright is also a popularizer, engaging well with the wider culture, relating particularly to a more skeptical crowd, like a modern day C.S. Lewis. Along with New York City PCA pastor, Timothy Keller, N.T. Wright has been a featured speaker at Google’s headquarters, capable of speaking Christian truth to a largely sophisticated, unbelieving audience. Never parochial, always irenic, Wright receives invitations to speak at places, where more explosive and abrasive evangelical figures, such as an Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham, would never find a welcoming reception.

Rudolph Bultmann, the German liberal scholar, who would have us “demythologize” the New Testament, was the most important New Testament scholar of the 20th century. Yet it would be fair to say that N.T. Wright enjoys the same stature, as Bultmann’s, for the early 21st century.

There is evidence to support this claim. N.T. Wright delivered the esteemed Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, in 2018, an academic honor in Scotland. Wright is the only New Testament scholar to have delivered those lectures, since Rudolph Bultmann did so in 1954 to 1955.

Like Bultmann, who was regarded as having the preaching ability of a Billy Graham, despite Bultmann’s complete rejection of the supernatural claims of the New Testament, N.T. Wright has an appeal in his delightful written prose and public preaching persona. In a world where orthodox Christian faith appears to be being pushed to the side, in a secularizing society, on an almost daily basis, Wright’s presence as a public intellectual, engaging the toughest critics of Christian faith, is a welcoming sign that the Gospel is not completely lost in the era of post-modernity.

N.T. Wright’s greatest expertise is in the life and theology of the apostle Paul, which makes it a wonderful treat to finally have from Wright a popular level biography of the great apostle, Paul: A Biography. In Paul: A Biography, Wright constructs for the reader a very illuminating, and even quite entertaining, portrait of Paul. Wright follows the path of Paul’s career, along the contours of the Book of Acts, while interacting with the best of today’s scholarship of the first century. Wright places the writing of each of Paul’s New Testament letters, within this narrative, serving as an introduction to the entire range Paul’s writings in the Christian Bible. Nevertheless, despite the accolades, Wright’s superstar status has raised questions, particularly among his own evangelical brethren, as will be discussed in this review.

N.T. Wright’s Delightful and Engaging Portrait of Paul

I can not improve upon the excellent review given by British pastor-teacher, Andrew Wilson, at The Gospel Coalition website. But I can add some commentary on what I learned the most from Wright, in this sweeping biography, while registering a few cautions here and there.

For example, I have always been a bit bothered about the reigning academic consensus, that contends that several of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament, were not actually written by him, such as Colossians and Ephesians. Yet I have never fully understood the evidence used to support this consensus view.

Wright cheerfully dismantles such claims against Pauline authorship, but does so by advancing Wright’s own provocative argument, that these letters, along with Philemon, were written while Paul was in prison in Ephesus. Most scholars have traditionally believed that Paul wrote these letters while in prison in Rome, or perhaps Caesarea in Palestine, if he wrote them at all. But Wright’s proposal of an Ephesian imprisonment, a minority view for decades among scholars, actually makes better sense of the available historical data.

An Ephesian imprisonment implies that the letter “to the Ephesians” (Ephesians 1:1) could have been more of a circular letter, distributed among the small church communities, that were growing and adding new members in and near Ephesus (Ephesians 1:15), the second largest city in the ancient Roman empire. Likewise, with Colossians, the letter to the church in Colossae, a city no more than a 100 miles from Ephesus, it stands to reason that Colossians, too, could have been easily written from an Ephesian prison, as both Ephesians and Colossians share similar characteristics, along with Philemon.

Wright’s adoption of an Ephesian imprisonment for Paul is based on his reading of 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, which speaks of Paul’s despairing affliction that he experienced in Asia. But there is more here to suggest that an imprisonment in Ephesus makes for a substantially better case for the location of where these letters were written, as opposed to a Roman imprisonment. With respect to the written style of these letters, something that most lay persons who do not understand New Testament Greek would never know, the evidence indicates a certain Asiatic style of writing, common around Ephesus, as opposed to a more Roman style of writing.

A more clear cut piece of evidence surrounds Paul’s relationship with Aristarchus and Epaphras. In Colossians 4:10, Paul records that Aristarchus was a “fellow prisoner” with Paul. The evidence here leans away from a Roman imprisonment, as Acts 19:29 tells us that the mob that seized Paul also seized Aristarchus, in Ephesus. Furthermore, the likelihood of Aristarchus even going to Rome is reduced when we consider Acts 27:2, where we learn that Aristarchus is from Macedonia, and that he accompanies Paul on a ship which stops at ports in Asia. This particular detail suggests that Aristarchus is on the ship on his way home to Macedonia. While it is still possible for Aristarchus to continue onto Rome with Paul, Aristarchus simply disappears from the story after this point.

We also know that Epaphras, who is from Asia (Colossians 4:12), was also a fellow prisoner of Paul’s (Philemon 1:23). It would have been more likely for Epaphras to have been imprisoned with Paul there in Ephesus, as opposed to Rome, considering that we have no evidence of Epaphras making any journey to Rome. Furthermore, even if both Aristarchus and Epaphras accompanied Paul to Rome, there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that either one of them were actually imprisoned with Paul there in that city (A cumulative case is laid out for an Ephesian imprisonment more fully in Benjamin W. Robinson’s essay, _An Ephesian Imprisonment of Paul_.)

However, the strongest argument for me is the unlikelihood that Onesimus, the runaway slave of Philemon, would have been able to travel such a long distance from Colossae (most probably Philemon’s home) all the way to Rome to meet up with Paul, and not get caught. It is much more likely for Onesimus to travel that one hundred miles to hide in a big city like Ephesus, instead of risking capture crossing the Ionian sea. In Philemon, we also read that Paul was making plans to send Onesimus back to Asia to be with Philemon. The effort in sending a runaway slave back to their master would be far more difficult if Onesimus had actually made it to Rome, as opposed to traveling the much shorter distance, with less obstacles, to Ephesus.

On the other hand, the biggest drawback to Wright’s proposal is that Luke in Acts does not mention Paul being in prison in Ephesus. Nevertheless, Wright is able to put the pieces together, in a manner that explains why liberal, critical scholars of previous generations have erred in thinking that Paul could not have written Colossians nor Ephesians. Simply brilliant.

Here is another example: The intriguing “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians has often been interpreted in evangelical circles as a future coming “antichrist” figure. But Wright places 2 Thessalonians within the context of Roman history, within about a decade of the letter being written, when the Roman emperor Caligula, an utterly insane, autocratic ruler, sought to have statues of himself placed within the Temple compound in Jerusalem, reminding the Jews that the Roman emperor is to be worshipped as supreme.

Caligula’s reign was cut short by his death in 41 C.E., aborting Caligula’s attempt to profane the Temple, but it made many of Thessalonika’s Jews worried that another “man of lawlessness,” like Caligula, might rise up again against the Jews and those early Christians. Was this a prophetic reference to the coming emperor Nero, in Paul’s own day, …. or some future antichrist figure, yet to emerge in our present 21st century day?

While such questions often preoccupy curious American believers, Wright tells his readers that Paul’s intent in 2 Thessalonians, was not to set up speculation as to who a future “man of lawlessness” might be, but rather to say that Jesus is still Lord, over even the most blasphemous of Roman emperors, a warning that might benefit Christians today, who tend to obsess over “all things End Times.”

It is page after page of insights such as these that make Paul: A Biography a rewarding investment of one’s time to better understand the world of the apostle Paul. I truly enjoyed this book, and I commend it to others, even if “theology” or “history” books are not your thing.

That being said, N.T. Wright does have his critics, even among evangelicals, and not all are convinced by Wright’s attempts to chronicle the life of Christianity’s greatest apostle. Wright may be able to make the world of contemporary scholarship more understandable to the average Christian reader, but perhaps not understandable enough. And what is understandable draws some rather awkward, unfamiliar conclusions, that cast some doubts on certain features of Wright’s theological project.

N.T. Wright: The Cheerful Polemicist

For example, James Goodman, a British evangelical follower of the great 20th century Welsh preacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, gives Paul: A Biography a mere “one-star” review, believing that Wright is a type of trojan horse scholar, smuggling in the unbelieving errors of what Goodman contends is the radical New Perspective in Paul, that seeks to undermine the classic Reformation view of Paul’s teachings, of justification by faith alone. In a more generous and balanced review for Ligonier Ministries, New Testament professor David Briones, while finding many excellent and good things in Paul: A Biography, ultimately finds Wright to be unpersuasive, offering a caricature of the classic, evangelical understandings of Paul, traceable back to the leading lights of the Reformation, like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

So, why the bad marks from defenders of the evangelical Reformed tradition, for Paul: A Biography? For those who believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, N. T. Wright sends up red flags. This “righteousness of God,” which is alien to fallen humans, is applied, or “imputed,” to the Christian believer, as an expression of the love of God, through Jesus’ sacrificial death at Calvary. We as fallen, sinful human creatures, stand condemned before a Holy God, unless this Holy God, does something new on our behalf. The teachers of the Reformation contended that Christ indeed did such a thing, through this concept of the righteousness of God, being imputed to us. This righteousness thus declares the undeserving sinner to be justified by faith and faith alone, through grace and grace alone. Imputation is therefore considered to be the hallmark of true Gospel doctrine.

To Wright’s most conservative critics, Wright’s casually dismissive attitude towards this doctrine of imputation makes him just as complicit in attacking the Bible, as Wright’s liberal critics! To be fair, Wright does not hammer on this “anti-imputation” theme, as much as he has often expounded it in his more academic writings.

But neither does Wright, even in Paul: A Biography, seek to offer much irenic comfort to his Reformed critics, a recurring weakness in Wright’s work, in my view, though Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will find some reassurance in N.T. Wright, in their respective understandings of Paul. Wright’s approach is not completely of disagreement with, but rather one of relative indifference to, classic Reformation theology, which is enough to isolate N.T. Wright from the most conservative corners of the evangelical movement. Though greatly softened in Paul: A Biography, there is still a polemical edge in this popular work of Wright’s, that seeps through from time to time. As Briones argues in his review, hyperlinked above, Wright often redefines the meaning of classic Reformed Scriptural terminology, in a way that can easily confuse the reader. Furthermore, Charles Lee Irons, under supervision by my New Testament instructor at Fuller Seminary, Donald Hagner, has issued a significant challenge to Wright’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as being nearly exclusively synonymous with God’s “covenant faithfulness.

If imputation is not critical for Paul’s message of the Gospel, then what does N.T. Wright say is critical for Paul’s message? For N.T. Wright, Paul’s central theme is that God, through His faithfulness to His covenant with Israel, has now extended that same covenant, with those same covenant promises, to the Gentiles, in Jesus Christ. For Wright, the Reformation emphasis on the human sinner, receiving a declaration of being made righteous, so that we might be reconciled to God, is a fine message, and does play some type of role in Paul’s thought, but it is not the central idea that catapults Paul’s ministry. Instead, the Good News of the Gospel that Paul preaches is grounded upon the reality that God faithfully keeps his promises to the covenant people of Israel, and then brings the Gentiles in, to enjoy those same promises as well.

Some readers will take N.T. Wright as therefore actually down playing the central doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, namely of justification by faith and faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness to the lost sinner. Concerned evangelicals, like pastor John Piper, at Desiring God ministries, and even more moderate voices, like that of the late John R.W. Stott, take Wright’s tendency to introduce false dichotomies into his work to task, while still greatly appreciating the positive work that Wright is truly offering the church.

Another example may help to explain unease about Wright, in certain evangelical quarters. Wright does exceptionally well in Paul: A Biography, in defending Paul against the common claim that Paul was a misogynist, that he “hated” women. Wright wonderfully shows that women were some of Paul’s most trusted colleagues in ministry, and that Paul valued having women in church leadership. But does this more egalitarian, sympathetic view towards women really undercut Paul’s (often disputed) teaching in the pastoral letters, that the office of overseer, in the local church, is to be reserved for men only? Is there not a possible both/and solution here, as opposed to an either/or, pick-your-side approach to be considered, as offering critical insight into the temperament and teaching of the great apostle? Wright skirts around this most important issue, just as he does in the justification debate, that might offer a third-way rapprochement in the controversial “women in ministry” debate, that divides evangelical churches today.

Wright does a much better job in Paul: A Biography, of establishing a view of Paul as being thoroughly Jewish, as opposed to critics who believe Paul to be the “inventor of Christianity,” one in direct opposition to historic Judaism. Wright’s study of Second Temple Judaism offers a vivid appreciation for Paul’s Jewishness, that previous generations of scholars, both liberal and conservative, have often never fully considered.

Nevertheless, Wright does not fully satisfy his critics in Paul: A Biography, by not adequately addressing the question of what promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically to the Jewish people, if any, remain as valid possibilities for future fulfillment, in the mind of Paul. For example, many conservative evangelical Bible teachers would insist that Romans 11 envisions, at the very least, a great mass turning of Jews towards the Gospel, prior to Christ’s second coming. In Paul: A Biography, Wright does not even provide a hint of anything like that to be the case, proving to be a frustration to at least a few evangelical scholars and Bible teachers.

Towards the end of Paul: A Biography, Wright drops what some might consider to be a bombshell, regarding how one should think of the “End Times,” and beyond. Gone from Wright’s prose is the misty vision of believers, in white robes, with halos over their heads, in a blissful yet ultimately boring heaven, that characterizes many popular views of the Christian afterlife.

Wright brushes this kind of otherworldliness aside. Wright believes this view of a heaven above, as well as its damnation alternative below; that is, hell, to be a product of the Middle Ages, and not something that goes back to the mind of Paul. Rather, Wright sees Paul envisioning a type of new heavens and a new earth, a restoration of what God originally created, to be the future of a redeemed humanity. Wright is surely writing of a necessary corrective here, as millennial author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler agrees, along with an older evangelical, Randy Alcorn, (see Veracity blogger, John Paine’s review of Randy Alcorn), but is Wright overcorrecting too much?

The vast majority of evangelical Christians today, along with the skeptics who mock them, attribute the “end of the world” language, used in much of the New Testament, to be speaking of a literal conflagration of the space-time existence of this present world. In contrast, N.T. Wright sees this “end of the world” language as mostly about anticipating the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, something that actually did take place in 70 C.E.

Wright understands Paul as surely believing in a future bodily resurrection of the dead, as well as a physical future return of the Lord Jesus, but pretty much everything else with respect to the “End Times” was fulfilled shortly after Paul’s death, presumably sometime in the decade of the 60’s C.E., or shortly thereafter.

This “partial preterist” position, regarding the “End Times,” is held by a few other evangelicals, such as the late R.C. Sproul, but Wright does relatively little in Paul: A Biography to fully dissuade the vast majority of evangelicals today, who foresee a future apocalyptic ending of the world, following the script of the popular “Left Behind” films and books. You would have to look to some of Wright’s other books, to learn what he is really talking about, particularly when it comes to the afterlife, which is more along the lines of what you find in something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

A Recommended Biography of Paul, and an Introduction to N.T. Wright’s Grand Theological Project

Though I enjoyed Wright’s book tremendously, there are two, broadly cautionary notes I have with Paul: A Biography, as I reflect on some of the more controversial ideas put forward by this brilliant Anglican scholar. One is the tendency of Wright to possibly overreach in giving the reader a psychoanalytic evaluation of Paul’s mindset. There is simply too much that we do not know about Paul’s inner workings for us to fully evaluate what was really going on inside Paul’s head.

This does not mean that we can not probe. Informed by his competent grasp of Greco-Roman history and Second Temple Judaism, Wright does a masterful job of teasing things out of Paul’s letters, that a casual reading might probably miss. Nevertheless, sparks of insight should not allow us to become too carried away. We still need to be measured and cautious in our judgments, of what Paul really said, and not read certain speculative perspectives in unnecessarily.

Secondly, Wright is driven firmly by his narrative, formed by his moderate New Perspective in Paul paradigm, that focuses so much on the theme of Jewish exile, in a political world at odds with pagan Rome. As a result, Wright fails to adequately point out the gravity of the spiritual dimension of human lostness, as taught by Paul. To be fair, as an evangelical, Wright does not deny the spiritual import of Paul’s message, to the individual; that is, our need for a personal Savior, which Wright surely affirms. But neither does Wright emphasize this as much as he could.

As Susan Grove Eastman comments in her review for The Christian Century, “Wright mutes Paul’s radical diagnosis of the human condition.That diagnosis is far more global than simply viewing Rome as the enemy. In fact, Paul talks very little, if any, about Rome or Caesar. They are not worth his notice, and they are not in view when he uses the language of bondage and freedom. Whereas Wright emphasizes Jewish antipathy to Rome and posits that Paul wanted to plant his gospel of Christ’s lordship in opposition to the imperial claims of Caesar, Paul sets his sights on enemies far greater than any human power or institution. The enemies, as he repeatedly says, are sin and death, and it is the brutal reign of these suprahuman powers that Christ overthrew on the cross, thereby setting humanity free. That is the regime change that truly liberates.” If such a pointed critique came from a stalwart evangelical magazine, like a Christianity Today, that would be one thing. But to hear this from a Protestant mainline publication is unexpected, to say the least.

Still, despite some of the above concerns, many others find Paul: A Biography as being a delightful introduction into the life and ministry of Paul. Robert C. Trube’s review of Paul: A Biography, is a fine example of a Christian reviewer, who enjoys Wright’s captivating portrait of Paul, in terms of illuminating the human side of the man, often obscured by centuries of intractable theological debate.

This is what I appreciated most about N.T. Wright’s vivid portrait of Paul, a description of a man with shortcomings and human limitations, with whom I can relate. This, more humanized side of Paul, typically gets brushed under the rug, when many Christians consider that Paul was also the writer of a large portion of Sacred Scripture. Paul was surely one of the greatest servants of God, but he was still a flawed human being, in need of a Savior, just like you and me.

Wright’s Paul: A Biography may not completely supersede F. F. Bruce’s 20th century classic evangelical biography, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, but it succeeds in a way that F.F. Bruce’s work does not. Bruce’s Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free is more technical in his documentation, whereas I listened to Wright’s Paul: A Biography as an audiobook, and I never felt burdened once while listening.

F.F. Bruce is very solid, and far less controversial in his critical judgments, whereas Wright’s book flows better as great historical literature, with loads of valuable and fresh insights. Time after time, I simply had to stop listening to the audiobook version of Wright’s book and go, “Wow. I have never, ever thought of that before! This is great!So, despite the above noted cautions, Wright’s Paul: A Biography serves a dual purpose, of being one of the finest biographical surveys of Paul’s life and writings, along with being perhaps the best introduction to the theology of N.T. Wright, an invitation to explore the rest of Wright’s more scholarly work.

Eric Metaxas interviews N.T. Wright on this video podcast:

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.”










Paul, Apostle of Christ, The Movie

Nero’s Torches , 1876, by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902). Nero used Christians as torches in Rome, in the last days of Paul.

Who was the Apostle Paul, and what was it like to be a Christian in Nero’s Rome, in the A.D. 60’s? Paul, Apostle of Christ, a film directed by Andrew Hyatt, and made by Affirm Films (who also made Fireproof and Courageous), tells the gripping story in a creative way.

Normally, I am a bit skeptical about Christian films, but this one was fantastic. The premise behind the film is that Luke, a physician and companion of Paul, comes to visit Paul, when he is imprisoned in Rome’s Mamertine prison, awaiting execution. Unfortunately, while the film’s premise is very interesting, there is a lot we do no know about the last days of Paul, or how Luke wrote Acts, with any particular degree of certainty. We know from Eusebius, an early church historian, that Paul was held in the Mamertine, and we also know that the madman, Emperor Nero had blamed the great fire in Rome on the Christians, using Christians as torches to light the city.

Did Luke write the Book of Acts, in Rome, during the last years of Paul’s life? Were Priscilla and Aquila in Rome, when Luke came to visit? We have no evidence for these speculations made in the movie. But to focus on these historical questions misses the point of the film. In Paul, Apostle of Christ, we get a glimpse into what motivated Paul, as well asking some very real questions as to how the Christians might have thought about Nero’s persecutions.

Should the Christians fight back and resist Nero? Should they flee Rome itself, and avoid the Romans? Should they stay in Rome and pursue a non-violent course? These are tough questions, and the film rightly explores them, as the persecuted Christian community looks to their imprisoned leader Paul, for help.

Many Christians today think of the so-called “Great Tribulation” solely in terms of a future event, that will happen prior to the Second Coming of Christ. Yet Paul, Apostle of Christ makes a very convincing case that the “Great Tribulation” was just as real, and bad enough, in those terrifying days, in Nero’s Rome. Along the same lines, another recent film, Tortured for Christ, tells us that such “Great Tribulation” even happens in our own day, but that much of American Christianity seems rather oblivious to that reality.

If anything, viewing Paul, Apostle of Christ, should encourage any person, believer or non-believer to take the time and seriously read the Book of Acts. Be thankful for the freedoms that many of us take for granted. Find your faith in the Risen Jesus, just as Paul did. Pray for the persecuted church.

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