Pauline Interpreters

Pauline Interpreters

In modern Biblical studies, the problem of the interpretation of Pauline’s writing is one of the most disputable issues. In his book, Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates, Wright critiques the major schools of thought in recent Pauline scholarship. The author provides a sophisticated and judicious analysis of the seminal works created by the most outstanding theological thinkers of the previous centuries. The list of the works included in the book is an extensive one, and it contains the representatives of the German school of theology such as Bultmann, Bornkamm, Conzelmann, Jeremias, Käsemann, Wrede, Schlatter, and Schweitzer. It also offers a comprehensive analysis of Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and Meeks’s The First Urban Christians. The book contains three main parts that disclose three wide categories. The first part is defined by its author as the representation of Paul and his Jewish world, and it comprises chapters 1-4. The second part deals with Paul and ‘apocalyptic’ writing and is represented in chapter 5. Finally, chapters 6-10 depict Paul and his ‘social world.’ The current paper aims to analyze the bulk of literature connected with extensive Pauline writing, consider recent developments in Pauline scholarship, evaluate the current state of the discipline and the major schools of theological thought, and define the spheres of its practical application.

Section One: Pauline Scholarship during the Late Modern Period (Chapters 1–2)

The first part of the analyzed book is titled “Paul among Jews and Gentiles?” The author proves the claim by stating that Paul should be treated primarily as a figure of ancient history. However, while interpreting his works, it is necessary to avoid such dangers as anachronism and anatopism. By anachronism, the author meant thinking that people who lived many centuries ago saw the world and the relations between God and humans in the way modern people comprehend it.[1] In its turn, anatopism presupposes that people living in various locations have the same ideas of the world and the same outlook.[2] The initial studies of the Pauline heritage began at the end of the 19th century. According to Wright, the most influential studies of the late nineteenth century created certain problems that modern scholarship has been trying to avoid.[3] These problems included ‘secularization’ or the process that initiated the representation of the ‘historical Paul’ as a ‘religious’ figure. The second problem is the Hegelian Idealism, which interpreted the concept and theory of ‘religion’ through the application of two broad hypothetical streams, namely Judaism and Hellenism. This problem stemmed from the original understanding of the concept of religion that was seen as the moments when a  separate individual or a group of people were in touch with the divinity through worshipping, invoking, or any other manifestations of the activities intended to celebrate its power. Such understanding of religion predetermined the main focus of interest typical for early researchers of Paul’s heritage. The scholars concentrated mainly on the analysis of Paul’s place within the ancient communities. They also intended to define whether the apostle was a Jewish or Hellenist thinker and whether his theological doctrine was meant for the Jewish or gentile audience. It is possible to argue that the mentioned issues created the canvas of the early scientific research of Pauline scholarship.

The first attempt to cope with the contradictions described above was made by Ferdinand Christian Baur, who became one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called  ‘Tübingen School’ that is commonly considered the best-known German theological and exegetical movements. Baur was one of the ardent supporters of the principles of Hegelian Idealism at the beginning of his theological career. The thinker stated that the traditional Christian concept of a transcendent personal God was outdated. Baur did not believe in divine revelation and denied the possibility of miracles as the manifestation of God’s intervention in human history. In this respect, he manifested himself as a supporter of the philosophic approach to theology.

In the middle of Baur’s career, the influence of the mentioned approach became stronger, and he concluded that traditional Christian views should be replaced by the philosophy of Hegel. In Baur’s opinion, Hegel’s views and theories provided the most comprehensive explanation of natural phenomena and the universe. It should be mentioned that in the last fifteen years of his life, Baur radically changed his views and began to reject the Hegelian abstract concept of God. For instance, he did not support the idea according to which  God should be understood as the form of the infinite Spirit and an eternal idea arising from its previous finite manifestation in the course of the developing process of history.[4] Even though Baur returned to rationalism that emphasized universal ethical principles as the meaning of life and the value of Christianity, his Hegelian orientation noticeable in earlier writings on Paul strongly influenced subsequent biblical studies.

The most influential article of Baur was published in 1831, and in it, the scholar laid out the foundations of his understanding of Paul’s theology. He also explained a unique approach to the history of the early Christian church by applying the evolutionary theory established by Hegelian philosophy.[5] Baur applied it to one of the most famous works of the apostle, namely to 1 Corinthians 1: 11-12.[6] Having based his conclusions on the mentioned text, Baur put forward the theory according to which there were two main directions of early Christianity. The first of them was called Judeo-Christianity. It remained within the framework of Judaism and Jewish national isolation and was based on the strict observation of the Law of Moses. Apostle Peter was the main figure in this direction of early Christianity. The second trend was defined as Gentile Christianity. It confessed Christianity as universal evangelism open to all nations that did not emphasize the importance of strictly following the Law of Moses. It also carried a great influence on Hellenism and the cultures associated with it. Paul was attributed as the main figure in this direction of early Christianity.

In his article, Baur stated that the Corinthian “party of Christ” was one of the Judeo-Christian factions that opposed the dominating influence of Paul. The theological doctrine of this party focused on Peter and emphasized its direct relationship with the historical Jesus through the original apostles established by Christ. Baur also argued that in opposition to the continued attacks of Judeo-Christian opponents, Paul developed the doctrine of justification by faith, which became central to his theology. Moreover, this initial and acute conflict between Peter and Paul directs the historical development of the church until the end of the second century, after which it was extinguished by the emerging unity of the hierarchical Catholic Church. The main approach supported by Baur is that Paul stood between the ‘early Jewish’ Christianity and the (later) ‘early catholic’ variety. Besides, Baur tried to prove that original texts written by Paul are only those in which the conflict between Petrine Judaeo-Christianity and Paulinist Gentile Christianity can be easily traced. According to the thinker, only four of Paul’s letters can be considered original, namely Romans, Galatians, and the two Corinthian epistles.[7] It should be mentioned that in the 20th century, the majority of Baur’s ideas and theories were rejected by the researchers who denied the influence of the inner conflicts in early Christianity. They also offered an approach that emphasized the unifying influence of Paul.

Most New Testament scholars also did not accept Baur’s historical skepticism and his philosophical rationalism, which excluded the supernatural by definition. Despite the weakness of historical and theological judgment, Bauer’s consistent attempt to fully describe the history of the early church based on a purely historical approach without an appeal to miracles proved to be influential. The works of Baur marked the controversy between the teachings of Jesus and Paul’s theology. Even more critical contribution of Baur was his formulation of three key interrelated questions that were later addressed by the scholars of the subsequent epochs. The first question was about the opponents of Paul and the main concepts of the teachings. The second question was Paul’s theory concerning the law and its relationship to the gospel. The third issue was the main focus of Pauline’s theology. These three questions determined the subsequent direction of research.

Albert Schweitzer offered an innovative approach to Pauline debates more than a century ago. Schweitzer made an attempt to define the role of Paul in the development of early Christianity and his relation to Jesus. The scholar debated the view according to which Paul was seen as the Hellenizer or as a person who was a linking element between early Jewish Christianity and late Hellenistic Christianity. In Schweitzer’s opinion, Paul always remained Jewish, but his Judaism was an apocalyptic one, and it was characterized by its radical eschatology. The thinker wrote that the main achievement of Paul was providing Christianity a form that later enabled its Hellenizing.[8] Schweitzer also argues that the letter to Philemon is one of the most important works created by the apostle since it discloses all aspects of his personality. [9] It should be pointed out that the ideas offered by Schweitzer were innovative ones, and they were developed in the more recent research.

Section Two: The New Perspective on Paul (Chapters (3–5)

The new perspective on Paul’s scholarship is commonly associated with the works of Ed P. Sanders and especially with his famous book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This seminal book became the culmination of a long process of denial of the approach used in the Christian scholarship concerning Judaism. Sanders’ understanding of Judaism revolutionized the scientific understanding of Paul and his writings. The thinker believed that this religion should be characterized as covenantal nomism, meaning that the covenant given by God requires that people should obey the commandments that provide atonement for sins. He described Judaism as the religion of grace and characterized the Tora as the book, the rules of which should be obeyed because of gratitude and not fear or pride. The book created by Sanders is also based on the idea stating that Paul was a Jewish thinker and not a Hellenistic one.[10]The main conclusions made by the author of the mentioned work resonate with the Reformed tradition of theology. For Paul, there is a unity between the future, present, and past manifested in the notion of the verdict. The apostle stated that there would be a future verdict based on the total account of the life events.[11] This verdict should be anticipated in the present using the justification or the divine declaration represented by the belief in the gospel. At the same time, this notion is based on the past act when God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead.[12] Sanders’ ideas also resonated with the exegetical scholarship, and this fact is often mentioned by the scholars criticizing his achievements. Finally, the analyzed book gained popularity due to its social and cultural location. Its author represented the world described by Wright as the new American ‘religious studies’[13] that embodied a new kind of Pauline investigation. Despite the undeniable influence the work of Sanders had on the development of the scholarship researching the legacy of the apostle, Wright indicates that “I believe he [Sanders] did not ground his thesis deep enough and seemed not to notice some of its weaknesses at that level.”[14] This citation proves that the author of the book has a critical attitude towards several aspects of the analyzed work, but he does not reject its importance and characterizes it as a real milestone of the new studies that shifted the old paradigm of the twentieth-century New Testament theology.

Since the early 1980s, several significant studies were published to re-evaluate the findings made by Sanders and define their impact on the research of Pauline scholarship. The works of Wayne Meeks, Krister Stendahl, and Martin Hengel became a matter of public discussion since they had a lasting impact on the mentioned sphere of knowledge. Still, the most important contribution was made by James Dunn, one of the pioneers of the new wave of scholars who offered their innovative perspective on Paul. Dunn is the author of numerous works that include Theology of Paul the Apostle, Christianity in the Making, a two-volume commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Galatians, Colossians, and Philemon. In these works, Dunn proves the thesis statement that Judaism of the first century was not legalistic. He also rejected the view according to which the antithesis of such concepts as law and grace should be treated as the main key to Paul’s understanding of the law and the theology of his opponents. In his recent article published in the volume The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays, Dunn attempts to prove that there is indeed a single ‘new view’ of Paul. [15] This approach is marked by the following attributive features:

  • the term covenant nomism offered by Sanders is the one that accurately describes the structure of the first century Judaism;
  • the law of Moses played the role of a social barrier since sanctification for God required separation from other nations;
  • Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was aimed to overcome the barrier that was placed by the law between Jews and gentiles since it presupposed the possibility of salvation for all people, irrespective of whether they were the Jews or belonged to other communities;
  • Paul contrasts his doctrine of justification to simply following the commandments since many Christians believed that it was enough for receiving salvation.

In the next chapter of his work, Wright states that the 1990s were marked by the ardent confrontation between the supporters of the new view and classical Lutheran understanding of justification. The most outstanding works belong to such scholars as Simon Gathercole, Andrew Das, Seyoon Kim, Martin Hengel, Friedrich Avemarie, and Austin Farrer. The author indicates that the decline of the Bultmann School in Germany led to the rise of religious studies in Europe and North America that applied a variety of approaches.

Section Three: Apocalyptic Readings of Paul

According to Wright, apocalyptic readings of Paul became one of the main trends in interpreting the texts of the apostle. The first scholar who re-introduced the term ‘apocalyptic’ into the discourse of Pauline studies was Christiaan Beker. In his book, he wrote that the central motif of the Pauline works is the celebration of the divine victory manifested through the death and resurrection of Christ over the evil.[16] Besides, Beker understood apocalyptic writings as the beginning of the divine triumph and not as a negative strain typical for early Christian literature.[17] The other scholars who supported the apocalyptic approach included Ernst Kӓsemann and Klaus Koch. In his book, Wright indicates that Kӓsemann is one of the most outstanding researchers of Pauline scholarship.[18] Being the student of Rudolf Bultmann, Kӓsemann opposed the Gnosticism of his famous teacher. He believed that the application of the apocalyptic approach created a religion-historical matrix necessary for the proper interpretation of Paul’s ideas. One more achievement of Kӓsemann was his break with the Reformation tradition and representing Paul as a religious thinker who was influenced by the Jewish background.

The ideas voiced by Kӓsemann were later developed by Martinus de Boer and Louis Martyn. While commenting on their ideas, Wrights points out that both scholars understand Paul within a Jewish context. They read the phrase pistis Christou as a clear reference to Christ’s ‘faithfulness’ that reached its climax in his death.[19]According to the mentioned scholars, the most important questions of apocalyptic writing were the problems of responsibility for evil and finding rescue from evil.[20] Martyn also offered an innovative approach to the problem of defining the term apocalypse and arguing that it took place the moment Jesus died.[21] In the final chapter of this part, Wright analyzes the work written by Douglas Campbell and states that his book is full of numerous contradictions, and it does not provide a comprehensive understanding of the apocalyptic theory. To illustrate this claim, Wright writes that Campbell opposes a basically ‘Lutheran’ understanding of Paul, but at the same time, he represents the apostle as a Jewish-Christian ‘Teacher’ and as a turn-or-burn preacher.[22] The mentioned contradictions and the lack of systematic approach are seen by Wright as the major issues that prevented the scholar from the proper understanding of the main messages of Paul’s writings.

Section Four: Social-Cultural Studies of Paul and His World (Chapters 10–11)

In chapters 10 and 11, Wright provides the analysis of social-scientific studies of Pauline heritage. According to the author, the study of the New Testament within the framework of its social paradigm reached its highest swing in the early 1980s, even though the roots of this approach have a much longer history.[23] One of the first scholars who insisted on the use of the mentioned approach to the New Testament was Gerd Theissen, who offered the idea of sociological exegesis and was deeply dissatisfied with the interpretation of the Bible as the book that represents only theology and ethics.

The ideas formulated by Theissen were supported by other researchers, namely Emil Schürer and his History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ and Ed Sanders and his Judaism: Practice and Belief. These works offer the representation of Paul as a religious leader who stood on the crossroads between the non-Jewish world and the wider Jewish world of the diaspora.[24] One more important work that became a trigger of the modern interest in social studies of Christianity was Edwin Judge’s book, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century. The judge provided a detailed description of the Roman world in the period of late antiquity, and placing the history of early Christianity into a wide paradigm is an advantage of the mentioned study. Several conclusions made by Judge are of particular importance.

First of all, his distancing of Christians from the other religious societies of the analyzed epoch is an innovative idea that deserves careful analysis. The judge pointed out that Christians did not practice animal sacrifices, did not have a system of hierarchical priesthood, and did not build impressive sacred buildings. The second conclusion made by the scholar is that Christians were innovators who undermined the molds of the societies they lived in. They were in constant confrontation with the Greco-Roman world, offering an alternative system of the transnational society. [25]The works of Judge and Theissen are commonly considered as the most outstanding books representing the early stage of the modern movement for sociological approaches.

More recent works were created by the members of the Society of Biblical Literature operating in the United States. Its most famous members included Wayne Meeks and John Gager. The other scholars who made a significant contribution to the development of the sociological approach were Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, John H. Elliott, Philip F. Esler, and Robert Jewett. It should be mentioned that under the general term of social approach, Wright means such main categories as description, explanation, prediction, and application.[26] The scholar states that the examples illustrating the mentioned categories can be found in the works of the American researchers, but description remains a dominating method of representing the material related to early Christianity.

In the next chapter of his book, Wright concentrates on the detailed analysis of the works created by Wayne Meeks, whose influence on the social studies of Pauline’s writings was the most noticeable one. The scholar wrote The First Urban Christians as the reaction to the dominating idea according to which Judaism and Hellenism were two incomparable movements separated by two different doctrines. According to Meeks, it was a wrong idea since, in the ancient world, communities could not exist separately without an interchange of information.[27] In the introduction to his book, the researcher demonstrates the interconnection of the cities in which Paul lived and taught with the rural environment and the broadness of the Roman Empire. Then the scholar proceeds to the analysis of the central issue of all sociological studies that he formulates as the social level of Paul’s churches.

Having read the impressive number of resources, Meeks concludes that these communities comprised not only poor people. They served as examples of “a fair cross-section of urban society.”[28] It means that the members of Paul’s churches belonged to different social classes and represented various origins, professions, and levels of wealth. Meeks also offered the idea according to which early Christian communities can be described as local tightly-knit groups the members of which separated themselves from the other religious organizations by practicing monotheism and a strict code of morality. Having commented on the significance of Meeks’ contribution, Wright indicates that this scholar characterized Paul as the person who saw his main aim as “spearheading the scripturally rooted and messianically focused new movement of God.”[29]

The other achievements of the researcher include shifting the focus from the history of religion to the broader understanding of historical processes that took place in the ancient world and the representation of the question of belief within a wide paradigm of the worldview. The next book analyzed by Wright in the chapter is David Horrell’s Solidarity and Difference. The main advantages of this book include comprehensive research of such concepts as boundaries, purity, and identity. This book also offers commentaries on the various models that can be applied to the analysis of Pauline’s writings. These models include communitarian, mediating, and liberal ones. Horrell argues that all of them can be used by scholars, but neither can reflect a complex character of Pauline’s heritage. Still, according to Wright, Horrell’s book is one of the most significant works representing the social-historical approach.

Section Five: Personal Assessment    

It is possible to argue that it is one of the most comprehensive studies reflecting all possible aspects and approaches applied to the research of Apostle Paul’s writings. Wright comments on more than a hundred various books and articles published within the 20th century and demonstrates both their advantages and drawbacks. The bibliography of the book is extremely extensive, and it represents the authors who worked in Germany, Australia, and the United States. Their contribution is difficult to underestimate, but despite a variety of the used sources, Wright manages to create the methodology that enables him to group the authors by the theories they represent. It is also important that the scholar can spot out the ideas that dominated a certain generation of researchers.

The author of the analyzed book also concludes that all real breakthroughs in Pauline’s studies stemmed from the people’s dissatisfaction with the previously dominating approaches. For instance, the New Perspective on Paul developed as a negative reaction to the improper representation of Judaism as the religion that significantly impacted the development of Christianity. Kӓsemann’s approach can be interpreted as the opposition against Bultmannian existentialism with its inward-looking concentration. Finally, social-historical approaches that dominated the scientific thought of the end of the 20th century appeared as the reaction to the abstract theology of the word with its lack of practical application. In this way, the author emphasizes the idea that Pauline’s studies can be characterized as the ones having evolutionary development.

While it is impossible to deny that all of the studies included in Wright’s book have certain benefits, their main problem is the limited character in terms of concentration on a certain idea and failing to notice the significance of other approaches. This claim can be easily illustrated by the following example. The approach that seems to be the most applicable to Pauline’s writings in modern times is the social-historical one. It has its clear objective and methodology; the research tasks are easy to understand, and they have a particular practical value. At the same time, it is not clear why the research of historical factors and circumstances influencing the apostle and the churches established by him cannot be compared with the serious linguistic analysis of his writings. In any way, language is the reflection of culture, and a wise concentration on the theology of words will bring extra information that can be effectively used by scholars.

Besides, modern studies seem to ignore the biographical approach to the research of the heritage of the apostle. In the whole volume, there is not a single mentioning of the main life events that shape Paul as one of the most influential leaders of Christianity. Modern scholars do not pay any attention to the fact that Paul was an extremely complex personality who refused his social, religious, and cultural background when he sincerely believed in Jesus Christ. It seems that a careful biographical analysis with the use of modern methods of research can significantly contribute to the development of Pauline scholarship and its popularization. However, at present, the biographical approach is one of the areas that remain underexplored and need further attention of the scholars.

There is also one more moment that is emphasized by Wright and should be supported. This moment is the negative attitude to reductionism that impacts the understanding of Paul’s role in the development of Christianity. As the scholar writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither apocalyptic nor salvation history, neither participation nor justification: all are one in the Messiah.”[30] It is possible to argue that this citation is the central message of the analyzed book, and it transmits its comprehensive character. The author convincingly proves his main thesis and demonstrates that the research of Pauline writings and their influence on the development of Christianity is a promising sphere of future research that has considerable potential and allows an unlimited number of interpretations. Finally, it is important to mention that the analyzed volume is a part of the work called Paul and the Faithfulness of God in which the author offered his understanding of the apostle’s heritage. Consequently, it is wise to read them together to get a proper idea of Wright’s theological theory and his contribution to the Pauline scholarship.







Wright, Nicholas Thomas. Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates. Fortress Press, 2015.

[1] Nicholas Thomas Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates (Fortress Press, 2015), 3.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Ibid., 32.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] Ibid., 72.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Ibid., 68.

[14] Ibid., 74.

[15] Ibid., 97.

[16] Ibid., 135.

[17] Ibid., 150.

[18] Ibid., 145.

[19] Ibid., 156.

[20] Ibid., 159.

[21] Ibid., 171.

[22] Ibid., 200.

[23] Ibid, 225.

[24] Ibid., 228.

[25] Ibid., 232.

[26] Ibid., 236.

[27] Ibid., 258.

[28] Ibid., 263.

[29] Ibid., 269.

[30] Ibid., 345.

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