New Testament Scholar Says Apostle Paul Really Existed
But Not in the Way You Would Expect
Salt Lake City—Before tackling the historical question of the Apostle Paul, biblical scholar Robert M. Price engaged a colleague at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Bart D. Ehrman, in a national discussion about whether or not Jesus existed. Price is a church-going Episcopalian who questions Jesus’s place in history, while Ehrman is a lapsed Baptist who believes Jesus was real. Price is an oft-published Professor of Scriptural Studies at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary in Florida.
In Price’s new book, The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul, just published by Signature Books (Salt Lake City), Price suggests that Paul is a composite of several historical figures, including Marcion of Pontos, Stephen the Martyr, Simon the Sorcerer, and the iconoclastic evangelist who was named Paul. His letters were actually written and edited by other people, including Marcion and an early Church Father, Polycarp of Smyrna. This view, said New Testament scholar Hermann Detering from his office in Berlin, Germany, “represents a paradigm shift in the field of Pauline research.”
According to the Book of Acts, Paul entered the scene as a zealous persecutor of early Christians, then transformed the movement Jesus founded from a Jewish sect to anti-Jewish congregations that rejected Jewish law. A member of the Acts Seminar, Price has joined the ranks of scholars who conclude that Acts was a second-century historical novel based on the writings of ancient authors like Homer, Virgil, Euripides, and Josephus. The result, according to Price, was a collection of stories and myths that have “virtually no historical value,” especially in how they relate to a real Paul. Some scholars have even used word-print analysis and other techniques to show that Polycarp was Paul’s principal editor and sole author of the epistles to Timothy and Titus, a finding with which Price agrees.
The story of Paul in the Book of Acts is not evident in Paul’s epistles. Acts contains fanciful “miracle-mongering” motifs, including a resurrected Jesus who walks through walls and people who can make earthquakes happen through prayer. In fact, only in the Book of Acts do we have twelve apostles. Paul’s letters mention more apostles, some of them female. In the early Christian church, there were other sources of information about Paul which were for a time canonical, including the Acts of Paul and The Acts of Paul and Thecla.
As Price explains, the first collector of the New Testament letters was a wealthy merchant named Marcion, who traveled to Rome in 140 CE. Marcion’s father was an early Christian. Marcion himself traveled throughout Asia Minor, just like Paul, converting people, establishing churches, and keeping in touch through correspondence. A decade after Marcion’s arrival in Rome, Polycarp acquired copies of Marcion’s writings and edited them for orthodox consumption before Polycarp’s own martyrdom in 156. It appears that Marcion’s writings got mixed up with Paul’s.
Some of the early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, never even mentioned Paul in their extensive writings, so it is debatable whether or not Christians in Justin’s day had heard of Paul. Tertullian defended the addition of “lost parts” of the epistles he believed Marcion had deleted, acknowledging in an indirect way that the Church Fathers tampered with texts received from Marcion.
In the final analysis, according to Price, the canonical writings are not only infused with the hand of Marcion and Polycarp, as many scholars would acknowledge, but are an amalgam of biographical details derived from the other Christian martyrs’ lives.
Price’s expertise on the literature extends from his familiarity with the Bible to ancient Greek and classical studies. In The Amazing Colossal Apostle, he surveys the literature produced by nineteenth-century Dutch and German critics who grappled with the identity of Paul and draws on the most recent scholarship. He rounds out the book with his own translation and commentary of biblical epistles and summarizes the current state of the investigation into this question.
Until recently, Price was editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism. He is host of The Human Bible podcast. His career has been spent studying, teaching, and writing on the history of the New Testament.