The Quest for the Historical Paul

Biblical Archaeology Society | 1/28/2020 | Staff
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This article was originally published in November 2012 on Dr. James Tabor’s popular Taborblog, a site that discusses and reports on “‘All things biblical’ from the Hebrew Bible to Early Christianity in the Roman World and Beyond.” Bible History Daily republished the article with consent of the author. Visit Taborblog or scroll down to read a brief bio of James Tabor.

Thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven documents are letters with Paul’s name as the author, and a fourteenth, the book of Acts, is mainly devoted to the story of Paul’s life and career—making up over half the total text.[iv] The problem is, these fourteen texts fall into four distinct chronological tiers, giving us our four “Pauls”:

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Though scholars differ as to what historical use one might properly make of tiers 2, 3, or 4, there is almost universal agreement that a proper historical study of Paul should begin with the seven genuine letters, restricting one’s analysis to what is most certainly coming from Paul’s own hand. This approach might sound restrictive but it is really the only proper way to begin. The Deutero-Pauline letters, and the Pastorals reflect a vocabulary, a development of ideas, and a social setting that belong to a later time.[v] We are not getting Paul as he was, but Paul’s name used to lend authority to the ideas of later authors who intend for readers to believe they come from Paul. In modern parlance we call such writings forgeries, but a more polite academic term is pseudonymous, meaning “falsely named.”

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