Paul is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the origins of Christianity. Yet he is not universally well-regarded, even among Christians. Some find him appealing, some find him appalling, some aren’t sure what to think of him, and some know little about him.

The cover of Newsweek for May 6, 2002, asked “What Would Jesus Do?” The story inside referred to Paul as well, citing passages attributed to him on slavery, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and heterosexism:

The Biblical defense of slavery is: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as you obey Christ” writes Saint Paul. Anti-Semitism was long justified by passages like this one from I Thessalonians: the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” And the subjugation of women had a foundation in I Timothy: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches … If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” And yet in each case, enlightened people have moved on from the world view such passages express.

The story continued:

And if science now teaches us that being gay may be a “natural” state, how can a reading of the Bible, including Saint Paul’s condemnation of same-sex interaction in Romans, inarguably cast homosexuality in “unnatural” terms?

These are among the passages in letters attributed to Paul that many find more appalling than appealing. So we begin our story of Paul by speaking about his importance, the reasons for his mixed reputation, and the foundations for our way of seeing him.


To say the obvious, Paul matters. But how he matters and how much he matters varies greatly among Christians. There are very diverse understandings of Paul’s importance, message, and character. To some extent, the same could be said of Jesus, for he is diversely interpreted as well. But all Christians agree that Jesus was admirable, attractive, and appealing. Not so with Paul.

Catholics and Protestants see Paul’s importance quite differently. For Protestants (at least historically – we’re not sure about the present), an interpretation of Paul’s theology and language is foundational for their understanding of Christianity. Not so for Catholics. Though they see Paul as a saint and his letters as sacred scripture, they have not made Paul central in the way that Protestants have. This difference can easily be seen in the history of Protestant and Catholic theology since the Reformation. But we illustrate it by speaking autobiographically.

Borg.  In the Lutheran form of Christianity in which I grew up, Paul was more important than Jesus. Of course, none of my pastors or Sunday School teachers ever said this. Indeed they would be puzzled by the statement. But as I look back on my experience of growing up Lutheran, it is clear that I was taught to see Jesus and God and the Christian gospel through a Pauline lens as mediated by Luther. I was blissfully unaware of this, of course. I took it for granted that our way of seeing Jesus, God and Christianity was not a way of seeing, but the way of seeing.

For me as a Lutheran, the foundational Christian message was “justification by grace through faith,” a Pauline and Lutheran phrase often shortened to “justification by faith.” What this meant to me is that I would be accepted by God “by faith” – and faith meant believing in Jesus and God as understood by Paul and Luther.

Not until I went to seminary in my early 20s did I realize how Lutheran my way of seeing Paul and the gospel was. Not that the Lutheran view is simply wrong – it’s much better than some. But I learned that there are other vantage points for seeing Paul, some that add greatly to his richness and fullness.

In another seminary decades later, I encountered the difference between Catholic and Protestant perceptions of Paul firsthand. While a visiting professor of New Testament in a theological consortium that included three Catholic seminaries, my courses included a number of Catholic students. As I was lecturing about Paul’s understanding of justification by grace, I noticed that several of the Catholic students looked puzzled and then one asked, “What’s all this about ‘justification by grace’? Why is this important?” I realized that the phrase was largely foreign to them. Their puzzlement did not reflect theological naivete but the different significance of Paul for Protestants and Catholics.

Crossan I, on the other hand, grew up blissfully unaware of those battling interpretations of Paul or even of the fierce Reformation controversies about him. I knew him first as the latter half of a June 29 feast-day dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul and my memory says that in the Ireland of the late 30s and early 40s that was a Holy Day of Obligation—like a Sunday.

Then, 1945, in a classical boarding school in Ireland I ran into “Romulus et Remus” and realized that the hero-twins of pagan Rome had been displaced by “Petrus et Paulus,” the hero-twins of Christian Rome—double Rs ceding smoothly to doubled Ps—and with both individuals always in that given order.

Next, in 1959, when I first stood in St. Peter’s Square in Rome and looked at the statues of St. Peter (on the basilica’s primary or gospel side) and St. Paul (on its secondary or epistle side), I realized that their unity was as apostles martyred together in Rome. Paul was not there as an author or a theologian but as a martyr. So, of course, while Peter held his keys, Paul did not hold his epistles.

I knew, by then, that there was already tension between Peter and Paul within the New Testament itself. Paul accused Peter “to his face” of “hypocrisy”—twice (Galatians 2:11-13). And, later, an author writing in Peter’s name, noted that "our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him … in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

So those twin Roman statues in front of St. Peter’s represented a visual reconciliation of a process that went back to the fourth century when Peter and Paul were emphasized together as the martyred founders of the new Christian Rome (match that Constantinople!).

Finally, then, I conclude with an iconic image of that foundational reconciliation from the later fourth century. It is a bronze hanging-lamp from the villa of the aristocratic Valerii on the Celian hill in Rome, now preserved in the National Archaeological Museum in Florence. The lamp is shaped like a boat. Peter is seated in the stern at the tiller. Paul is standing in the prow looking forward. Peter steers. Paul guides. And the boat sails full before the wind.

In co-authoring this book in the “Year of Paul” proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI from June 29 of 2008 to June 29 of 2009, our common hope is that we can get Paul out of the Reformation world and back into the Roman world to see him properly not as contrasting Christianity to Judaism, or Protestantism to Catholicism, but Jewish covenantal traditions to Roman imperial theology.


Mainstream scholarship as it has developed over the last two centuries has concluded that some of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul were not written by him. Rather, they fall into three categories.

First, a massive scholarly consensus: at least seven letters are “genuine” – that is, written by Paul himself. These seven include three longer ones (Romans, I and II Corinthians), and four shorter ones (I Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon). Written in the 50s of the first century, plus or minus a year or two, they are the earliest documents in the New Testament, earlier than the gospels (recall that Mark, the first gospel, was written around 70). Thus the genuine letters of Paul are the oldest witness we have to what was to become Christianity.

Second, an almost equally strong consensus: three letters were not written by Paul. These are I and II Timothy and Titus, commonly known as “the pastoral epistles” or simply “the pastorals.” Scholars estimate that they were written around the year 100, possibly a decade or two later. The reasons these are seen as “non-Pauline” include what looks like a later historical setting as well as a style of writing quite unlike the Paul of the seven genuine letters.

Thus the letters to Timothy and Titus were written in the name of Paul several decades after his death. In case some readers may think that writing in somebody else’s name was dishonest or fraudulent, we note that it was a common practice in the ancient world. It was a literary convention of the time, including within Judaism.

Third, letters about which there is no scholarly consensus, though a majority see them as not coming from Paul. Often called the “disputed” epistles, they include Ephesians, Colossians, and II Thessalonians. We are among those who see these as “post-Paul,” written a generation or so after his death, midway between the genuine letters and the later pastoral letters.

Naming the Three Pauls

Thus there are three “Pauls” within the letters attributed to him. To give names to these “Pauls,” we call the Paul of the seven genuine letters the radical Paul. We call the Paul of the three pastoral epistles the reactionary Paul, for the author of these letters is not simply developing Paul’s message but countering it at important points. What we see, is a strong accommodation of Paul’s thought to the conventional mores of the time.

Naming the “Paul” of the three disputed letters is more difficult. Compared to the cultural traditions of the Roman Empire, this is a liberal “Paul” —and probably much too liberal for those traditions. But compared to the radical Paul, this is a conservative “Paul”—and much too conservative. All in all, therefore, we prefer to name the Paul of the disputed letters as the conservative Paul.

Our purpose is not to raise a debate about the use of terms like radical, conservative, and reactionary. Rather, it is to insist that the post-Pauline pseudo-Pauline letters are anti-Pauline with regard to major aspects of his theology. They represent a taming of Paul, a domestication of Paul’s passion to the normalcy of the Roman imperial world in which he and his followers lived.

A Fourth Paul? The Paul of Acts

 We do not want to complicate matters too much by introducing a fourth Paul, but the nature of our sources requires it. Namely, as mentioned earlier, over half of the book of Acts is about Paul. By the same author who wrote the gospel of Luke, Acts was most likely written near the end of the first century, some thirty years or so after Paul’s death.

The literary form of Acts is very different from the letters, for it is a narrative – indeed, the only narrative about Paul that we have in the New Testament. It focuses more on Paul’s activity than on his message. In it are the stories of Paul’s conversion to be a follower of Jesus, told three times; his three missionary journeys; his arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment, and appearances before a variety of officials. Then he is taken to Rome as a prisoner to make his appeal to the emperor. Acts ends with him under house arrest in the capital of the Empire, still preaching the gospel.

Because Acts does not report Paul’s death, some scholars have argued that Acts must have been written while Paul was still alive, which would mean the early 60s at the latest. But this argument presumes that the purpose of Acts was to provide a “life of Paul” and that the most plausible explanation for Paul’s death not being mentioned is that he hadn’t yet died.

But the purpose of Acts, the plan of the book, is to tell the story of the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome (see, for example, Acts 1.8). And so Acts ends appropriately with Paul preaching the gospel in the capital of the empire. For the author to have ended with, “And then Rome executed him,” would have been an odd climax, to say the least.

To return to the question of the use of Acts as a source for Paul: there is significant scholarly disagreement about the degree to which the portrait of Paul in Acts is consistent with or quite different from the radical Paul of the genuine letters. Acts reports much that Paul’s letters do not. This is not surprising nor particularly significant, given the different literary genres. However, when there is overlap between Acts and the letters, Acts is sometimes consistent with the letters and sometimes not, making it difficult to assess the historical accuracy of Acts when there is no overlap.

Some scholars think that Acts and the letters can be harmonized quite nicely. Others argue that there are major differences. Because of this disagreement, we will not use Acts as a primary source for Paul, but as an important secondary source. Our primary source will be the seven genuine letters, supplemented when appropriate by Acts.