As the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul wrote many letters to gentiles, he knew in many places. An “apostle” is a messenger, derived from Classical Greek ἀπόστολος (apóstolos), meaning “one who is sent away”, from στέλλω (“stello”, “send”) + από (apo, “away from”). In these letters Paul offers practical solutions to some of the complex issues gentiles were experiencing living with their Jewish neighbours in the Roman world.
Whereas the new perspective on Paul considers his letters in the context of first century Judaism, a more recent trend in Pauline studies considers his letters in the political context of imperial Rome. In the Mediterranean world where Paul exercised his vocation as the apostle to the Gentiles, the fastest growing religion was the Imperial cult, the worship of Caesar.
This new perspective on Paul promises to help us:
- Better understand Paul and the early church;
- Reconcile contemporary biblical scholarship with theology;
- Build common ground between Catholics and Protestants;
- Improve dialogue between Christians and Jews; and
- Flesh out a theological foundation for social justice.
What is this new perspective? At its core is the recognition that Judaism is not a religion of self-righteousness whereby humankind seeks to merit salvation before God. Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about Christian grace versus Jewish legalism. His argument was rather about the status of Gentiles in the church.
- Paul’s authentic letters are thought to be the oldest texts of the New Testament, predating the Gospels and Acts.
- Around 800 ancient copies of Paul’s letters have survived to the present. Compared to other collections of ancient letters, this is an enormous quantity. No two copies are identical.
- Although Paul’s letters were written to ancient communities and individuals, there are no known surviving letters from individuals or communities to Paul.
- Although the contemporary notion of conversion as a dramatic turn from one religious orientation to another is traceable to Paul, in his letters Paul describes his own experience as both immediate and gradual, and nowhere does he explicitly say that he left Judaism or became a Christian.
- Very little is known about Paul’s family of origin or his marital status. Although Paul does not have many encouraging words about marriage, part of his first letter to the Corinthians (1Cor 13) is popularly used in contemporary wedding ceremonies.
- The canonical New Testament texts do not describe Paul’s death. According to legend and the noncanonical Acts of Paul, he was beheaded under the Emperor Nero, as befits a Roman citizen sentenced to death.
- 13 of the canonical New Testament’s 27 books are letters attributed to Paul. Scholars debate whether Paul wrote all of them, with some consensus as to the authentic letters (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon), and further conversation about the other letters (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus).