Was Paul an Apostate?

Scot McKnight asks the question, and points to Jimmy Dunn’s new book for a possible answer:

“It was as an Israelite that Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, and as an apostle to the Gentiles Paul was fully an Israelite. Paul was no apostate; he was an apostle of Christ and for Israel. Dunn also develops the eschatological perspective on Paul, namely that the curtain of history was coming down and he was playing a role in that drama. He appeals to 1 Corinthians 4:9, Romans 11:13-15…”

This is true enough as stated but only gets at part of the issue, and perhaps not the more significant one. Whenever scholars ask, “Was Paul an apostate?”, or “Was Paul a convert?”, or “Was Paul sectarian?”, seldom enough emphasis falls on the reception of Paul’s gospel, which is what really matters. Apostates naturally think they’re faithful, and often show themselves brilliantly capable of using tradition to justify whatever they need. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, or in the reception, and Paul went against enough opposition and hostility to convince other scholars, contra Dunn, that it’s perfectly reasonable to speak of Paul’s conversion more than calling, sectarianism instead of renewal, and apostasy trumping apostolateship.

In my view, candid texts like Philip 3:4b-11 and II Cor 3:4-11 carry far more weight in answering the question than texts like I Cor 4:9 and Rom 11:13-15 (in which Paul simply calls himself an apostle), or Jer 1:5 and Isa 49:1-6 (where Paul claims continuity with prophetic tradition, naturally begging the question as to what it means to be an appropriate “light to the nations”). Of course, I’ll have to read Dunn’s book; he may allow for more nuances than I’m granting him here. According to McKnight, Dunn reflects on the way the deutero-Pauline letters had to mollify or sanitize Paul’s image, though seems to dodge the implications by throwing the spotlight on modern believers, and claiming that the problem resides with them or anyone else who can’t appreciate Paul’s continuity by “listening to the spirit”.

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11 thoughts on “Was Paul an Apostate?

  1. This might be one of those questions in which where you stand depends on where you sit.

    I think a more productive is to consider whether various actors (James, Barnabas, Peter, Timothy, Pharisees, etc.) would have viewed Paul as an apostate. I think the answers should differ.

  2. Agreed Stephen, and that's what I mean by reception. The more contemporaries who would have viewed Paul as heretical, the more we're justified in “objectively” speaking of him as apostate.

    And it's a murky puzzle. I've made my position clear on James and Peter, but Barnabus and Timothy need more consideration. More generally, though, if someone like Thomas Tobin is right about Romans being the response of a man suffering from such a nasty image and reputation (and I think he is), that in itself points to a widespread perception of Paul.

    On top of this is the question of when we're talking about. As you may recall from past discussions, I see the Paul of I Corinthians as different from the post-Galatians Paul (and follow Goodacre's later dating of Galatians) on the subject of potential apostasy.

  3. I have to agree with Stephen, the question assumes some sort of organized orthodoxy for him to be apostate against. Even if not organized, at least heterogeneous, and I don't think it was even that.

    Would a Pharisee in Jerusalem have considered him apostate? Oh probably. A Jew in the Decapolis? That's a little trickier. I increasingly suspect that Judaism in the first century was still very much in the process of being defined, which makes questions like this blurry.

    I'd probably concede that Paul is an apostate to the Josephus “Judeans-are-the-true-Jews” sort of Judaism, but I'm not sure that that amounts to much, particularly to Paul's communities.

  4. Heh, you posted while I was typing, so to touch on your first paragraph a bit, because I'm not sure I agree with it either:

    The more contemporaries who would have viewed Paul as heretical, the more we're justified in “objectively” speaking of him as apostate.

    This, too, only works if we assume heterogeneity. Without it, it's substantially weakened. We can have a hundred people think Paul is an apostate, but if the Diaspora is functionally different, even diversely so, and the hundred are Jerusalemites all, it doesn't matter. We can only speak of him being an apostate in the eyes of Judeans.

    To some extent we can ask just as well if the Diaspora are apostates, and answer in the affirmative. It's perhaps most telling that the Talmud and Mishnah have very, very little to say of the wider world of Israelites.

    I'm just not sure we have anything to safely put it relative to for a blanket statement of “Paul is/is not an apostate” to be really meaningful.

  5. Rick, the Judean base is what I primarily had in mind, as I think most scholars do when answering the question. That's where the primitive church was based, and where the temple cult of Judea still dominated in Paul's day.

    You're obviously right about the diversified forms of Judaism, though I frankly think that button has been overplayed in reaction to things like Sanders' generalizing scheme of covenantal nomism.

    And the question has to be meaningful, certainly in Paul's eyes, else he wouldn't have cared so much about his nasty reputation, and defending himself, as I think especially a letter like Romans shows.

  6. Sorry, I don't think I'm articulating what I mean very well (and not helping with “heterogeneous” when I mean “homogeneous”!).

    I realize the question is posed against a Judean “home base” for Judaism, I'm just not sure that it's right to use that. Increasingly I'm inclined to see it as an elitist minority, with it's centrality reflecting our modern view back through accidents of history.

    I'm not even sure that “diversified” is really what I have in mind, I'm speaking more in the sense of Thompson's The Mythic Past than any New Testament criticism. It's not so much that I'm inclined to see it as diverse as it is that I'm inclined to see something we can define as “Judaism,” in any sense we might recognize it, as non-existent.

    If we can speak of Paul being “apostate” to Judaism, as defined by what we know of Judeans, and Jerusalemites in particular, what is to stop us from speaking of Paul as an apostate to primitive Christianity, since that was, as you note, the base of the church?

    It seems odd in the latter case because of the remove from the base and Paul's preaching and community. “Christianity,” in the Pauline communities, is defined by Paul, not by the Jerusalem base. Likewise, the standard against which Paul's apostasy (or lack thereof) should be judged should be from the communities in which he engaged.

    As to Romans, I think that actually demonstrates perfectly why the generic question “Was Paul apostate” is meaningless. Rather it's the specific, akin to what Stephen suggests at the outset. The meaningful question is whether Paul was viewed as apostate by the Romans, not whether a more generic “apostate to Judaism.”

    Do you think Paul would have felt less compelled to defend himself if Rome thought him apostate and Jerusalem did not? What's relevant in Romans is not whether or not he is apostate in the eyes of Jerusalem, Paul needs to defend himself from the eyes of Romans, regardless of what Judeans think.

    This nicely captures what I suggested at the start–that it's wrong to give Jerusalem centrality in these types of questions. Indeed, I can't think of a reason to give anywhere centrality, and instead think it needs to be relative to the community in question.

  7. I should also clarify (and intended to, though completely forgot by the time I was done), I don't mean “meaningless” in the sense of “unimportant,” which (if I'm reading you correctly) is how I think you're taking it. I mean “meaningless” more in the positivist sense of “unanswerable.”

  8. If we can speak of Paul being “apostate” to Judaism, as defined by what we know of Judeans, and Jerusalemites in particular, what is to stop us from speaking of Paul as an apostate to primitive Christianity, since that was, as you note, the base of the church?

    Nothing at all, and that's part of my point. As I've written about in the past, I think it is legitimate to speak of Paul's heresy, or apostasy, in the eyes of the pillars (and again, depending on the point in time).

    As to Romans, I think that actually demonstrates perfectly why the generic question “Was Paul apostate” is meaningless. Rather it's the specific, akin to what Stephen suggests at the outset. The meaningful question is whether Paul was viewed as apostate by the Romans, not whether a more generic “apostate to Judaism.”

    I disagree, or at least in part. I maintain that Paul wrote Romans in view of his heated history and battles with the pillars/Judeans and how that sat on top of the specific occasion in Rome, not to mention his future plans for ministry in Jerusalem itself (and Spain). That question of Judean-based authority, which galled and chaffed him so much, was an omnipresent reality that shaped his thought and behavior patterns.

    Do you think Paul would have felt less compelled to defend himself if Rome thought him apostate and Jerusalem did not? What's relevant in Romans is not whether or not he is apostate in the eyes of Jerusalem, Paul needs to defend himself from the eyes of Romans, regardless of what Judeans think.

    That's true too. The problem in Romans seems to be a heavy blanket of pagan arrogance over thinner doses of Jewish sense of privilege, and how to mix ethnic groups while playing fair ball to both sides, and also taking them down in equal measures (though in different ways). Paul's delicate strategy in itself would seem to indicate he's concerned about not appearing the apostate in Roman eyes, anymore than Judean.

    This nicely captures what I suggested at the start–that it's wrong to give Jerusalem centrality in these types of questions. Indeed, I can't think of a reason to give anywhere centrality, and instead think it needs to be relative to the community in question.

    I think Jerusalem's influence plagued Paul enough that the question remains vital, but your emphasis on the standards of local communities is appreciated.

    Thanks for coming out to comment. Hope things are well up in Canada-land!

  9. Nothing at all, and that's part of my point. As I've written about in the past, I think it is legitimate to speak of Paul's heresy, or apostasy, in the eyes of the pillars (and again, depending on the point in time).

    But is he an apostate in the eyes of the Judean pillars? Or an apostate to nascent Christianity?

    In the former case I think he certainly was. In the latter I think it depends on who you ask, because Christianity was still formative, and there was no orthodox line for him to oppose. I see Judaism in much the same light, with Jerusalem overplayed because we know how the story ends.

    That question of Judean-based authority, which galled and chaffed him so much, was an omnipresent reality that shaped his thought and behavior patterns.

    I agree with this, but I think that one of the biggest reasons it chaffed him so much was that his view was closer to mine. Their influence over Christianity was disproportionate to their representative-ness of Judaism; that there was a difference between being apostate in the eyes of Jerusalem and being apostate generically to Israelites.

    If the Jerusalem church didn't have influence in Rome–if Paul had written first–do you think he'd have offered a defence a priori? It's a speculative question, of course, but the answer might be telling. I'd say that he wouldn't, that if anything he'd have moved directly to the offence in the hope that Rome would view the Jerusalem pillars, and not himself, as the apostates.

    Thanks for coming out to comment. Hope things are well up in Canada-land!

    They are indeed, though crazy busy. More kids than hands, though they're worth all the trouble. But even though I don't pop up for many comments, I still read religiously!

    BTW Rick, why aren't you on Facebook anymore?

    Heh, the “like” buttons became too numerous for my tastes. I'm not a privacy nut or anything, but no company should be able to follow me that well. It was either remember to log out every time, or delete the account, and I'm way too absent-minded for the first option.

    I'll probably sign up for Google+ when it launches though. . .Google's about the only online company I trust with that much information.

    Hope things are good with you too.

    As an aside, saw your glowing comments on Un Prophete, and couldn't agree more–brilliant film. But I'm left to wonder where it would have placed on your best-of-decade list if you'd had a chance to see it in '09?

    PS

    Two words. Meek's Cutoff. If I see a better movie this year I'll be astounded.

  10. I'm sure A Prophet would have placed in my top 7 or 8 if it had made the decade top-40 cut. And thanks for the Meek's Cutoff tip; I'll have to check it out. Good to know you're still out there keeping an eye on all of us!

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