Historians and theologians, not to mention everyday readers, have wrestled with Paul’s writings since his letters first began to circulate in the earliest Christian centuries (
Myth 1: Paul abandoned Judaism for Christianity.
This is one myth that most people have probably heard. Paul, the failed Jew, became Paul the triumphant founder or founding member of a new religion. The problem with this view is that Paul never wrote about founding a new religion. Historically, we know that there was no such thing as “Christianity” in the time of Paul, and the word “Christian” was likely not in use either. Paul was proud of his status as a faithful, Torah-observant Jew, and even said so (e.g.,
Myth 2: Paul wrote to Jews and Gentiles, both for his time and for all time.
Several times Paul wrote plainly that he had been divinely chosen as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” not an apostle to Jews. His gospel message was for the idolatrous nations (
Myth 3: Paul taught a “law-free” gospel.
Even skimming through Paul’s letters, it is clear that he never taught a “law-free” gospel that required only trust and not works. Paul was clear about Gentile obedience (e.g.,
Myth 4: Paul taught that Christ died for the sins of the world.
Paul never said this. Paul clearly wrote that Christ died for the ungodly and for sinners (
Myth 5: The meaning behind Paul’s letters is self-evident.
Much misunderstanding about Paul comes from overlooking his rhetorical strategies. Paul used a variety of literary tools to ingratiate, implore, persuade, and ultimately convince his audience. For example, Paul frequently used the social plural (“we”) when he wrote, identifying with his audience, even though he was not actually one of them. A classic example is when Paul writes as if he was one of the “ungodly” (
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There are other myths about Paul that result from our inability or reluctance to hear Paul for what he was: a first-century, Hellenistic Jew trained in Greek rhetoric and proficient in Pharisaic modes of scriptural exegesis. He used every tool at his disposal as an apostle to bring the Gentiles to obedience and spare them the wrath otherwise due them on the imminent Day of the Lord.
Historians and theologians, not to mention everyday readers, have wrestled with Paul’s writings since his letters first began to circulate in the earliest Christian centuries (2 Peter 3:16). However, it seems that scholarship has now turned a decisive corner by coming to understand this prolific apostle in the context of his own social and religious milieu.1 Much has changed to demystify Paul and help us understand him in a consistent, historical, and contextualized way. With this approach, many of the contradictions and misunderstandings surrounding Paul are resolved, and certain long-held myths evaporate. Let’s look at how this works by addressing […]