review – The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul

Robert M. PriceReviewed by Marcello Jun de Oliveira

“Without Paul there would be no church and no Christianity. He’s the most decisive person that shaped Christianity as it developed. Without Paul we would have had reformed Judaism … but no Christianity.”  —Gerd Lüdemann, Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity at the University of Göttingen

For many decades now, it has been common practice among scholars, academics, and even Sunday School students to consider Paul of Tarsus as the de facto co-founder of Christianity. The preeminence of his missionary, theological, and literary contributions has risen above all others in importance and influence, such that it hardly seems possible to imagine the growth and evolution of the Christian faith without him.

This perception of Paul has troubled me for more than a decade now, and many scholars have articulated (and shaped) this concern for me. Much of what many consider as Paul’s signature contributions do, upon further careful analysis, seem artificially laden with importance by those who either appropriated his message in support of their own particular religious views or simply and unscrupulously appropriated his persona and shaped it to fit their own religious views.

In either case, it seems virtually undeniable for anyone that, regardless of the actual magnitude of his original influence and importance, Paul had created a reputation and an authority among early Christians enough for him to be cited, or appropriated by them, in their shaping of the evolving faith.

Well, not for everyone.

Robert Price is an accomplished and erudite New Testament scholar, with a prolific publishing career in biblical studies that is only surpassed in quantity by its quality. In his new title The Amazing Colossal Apostle:  The Search for the Historical Paul, recently published by Signature Books, he makes a comprehensive and coherent case against, if not the actual historicity of, the person of Paul of Tarsus, then of his importance and relevance in the historical foundations of Christian origins.

It must be said that these are hardly new or revolutionary ideas or arguments. Students familiar with the works of scholars such as Peter Gandy, Timothy Freke, Earl Doherty, and the earlier G. A. Wells, who mostly argue against a Historical Jesus, will hardly be surprised by the analytical tools and modes of reasoning employed by Price. Even in Pauline studies, the so-called “Dutch Radical” school, beginning in the late 19th century with Allard Pierson, A. D. Loman, and G. J. P. J. Bolland, all the way to their modern-day successor Hermann Detering, has long argued for the non-historicity of Paul, employing much—if not all—of the same arguments.

This is not lost on Price, of course, who readily and openly admits—even embraces—the work and the contributions of all of these authors from the past and present. If anything, Price may have the often annoying tendency to quote or mention too many academics, authors, and ancient texts or engage too many of their arguments in rapid succession without properly laying an expository background for the reader to follow. This may disrupt the flow of the reading and may be off-putting for those readers who are less familiar with the scholars and ideas mentioned (it seems, unfortunately, to be an idiosyncrasy of Price that can be found in most of his other works), but it may also be an excellent starting point for a more interested and curious student for further research.

In any case, regardless of how well explored and developed the theme (i.e., non-historicity of Paul) has been in the past or in other venues, this book has the outstanding advantage of presenting a concise, coherent case within one set of covers, encompassing most—if not all—of the relevant scholarship on the issue.

The book can roughly be divided in two major sections. The first section contains 8 chapters in which Price tackles the major academic and historical-critical subjects surrounding Paul individually and thematically, thereby introducing ideas and laying the groundwork for further reflection. The second section, arguably the most relevant and important original contribution by Price and worth the price of the book on its own, consists of analyses and exegeses of the Pauline epistles individually, where Price will quote each epistle section by section, and provide academic and historical-critical consideration of each sequentially.

SECTION 1

Chapter 1 deals with Paul’s conversion narratives (legends).

In this brief but very interesting chapter, Price discusses the inconsistencies of the many extant conversion narratives of Paul and argues for their historical unlikelihood. While the obvious embellishments from Acts of the Apostles are duly noted, his dismissal of Paul’s own epistolary hints seems striking and a bit cavalier, even though he elaborates on them with more profundity in section 2.

The argument of interpolation is textually and intellectually valid, but it seems to demand a bit more caution and reservation than that of prima facie evidence, especially since Price himself strongly (cogently) argues against the use of the argument of interpolation to excuse seemingly anachronistic Christologies in the Pauline epistles.

(It should be noted here that Price takes a decided step-wise approach, whereby his exact opinions are not entirely manifest and obvious from the onset, but gradually emerge throughout the book. For instance, in this chapter he claims that the Galatians conversion self-reference must be an interpolation, as argued by Bauer and O’Neill. However, Price himself thinks Galatians is an outright Marcionite text, which means the passage is not interpolated, but rather anachronistic for a first-century letter but entirely fitting within its own historical context.)

Nevertheless, the chapter is thought-provoking and should raise further considerations regarding this historical nugget many (most?) scholars simply take for granted. Price’s analogy with the historical problems with the conversion of Constantine, particularly, are very apropos and illuminating.

Chapter 2 deals with the authorship of the Pauline epistles.

In this all too brief chapter, Price superficially enumerates the many arguments scholars, of differing schools and opinions, have espoused to discredit the authorship claims of many (if not most) of the Pauline epistles.

Among them, he lists (and ever so briefly discusses) form criticism, redaction and interpolations, anachronisms, and lack of historical context. He also elaborates (again, briefly) on some key concerns about the lack of a coherent picture of Paul’s opponents, the uneven leadership relationship Paul seems to maintain over his churches, the historical retrospective tones, and other such anachronistic insertions.

This chapter is too short and superficial, offering little to any reader familiar with Pauline scholarship, and overwhelming with statements underdeveloped to any reader so unfamiliar. Also, there is little argument here that would convince anyone over the pseudographic nature of the “established” Pauline epistles, considering few (apologists excepted) would argue for authenticity of the Pastoral or the Deutero-Pauline epistles.

Nevertheless, the chapter does serve the purpose of establishing, especially for the unaccustomed reader, these textual-critical and historical-critical questions, which will be discussed more in-depth in section 2.

Chapter 3 deals with the collection and historical evolution of the corpus of Pauline canon.

This chapter offers an interesting and insightful discussion on how the corpus of Pauline epistles came into existence. It is hardly an obvious and common question, but it proves to be invaluable, and quite intriguing, viz. how did a collection of letters written by Paul come to exist to begin with.  The easier, more common answer (that Marcion came up with his set of letters that would eventually become known as the first Christian canon, in the middle of the second century CE) completely ignores the question as to how he came by them in the first place.

Price surveys the academic literature and comes up with a 4-theories summary that permeates the scholarly community: 1) Paul kept copies of his own letters and collected them for future reference; 2) disciples of Paul, immediately after his death, distributed among themselves copies of letters each community had received (and kept for decades) as a way of continuing Paul’s influence and presence among themselves; 3) organically, these letters cropped up here and there as situations and controversies erupted, and Christians turned to older writings of past charismatic leaders, such as Paul; and 4) the publication and circulation of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles sparked tremendous interest in Paul, which ensured his letters (or recently forged letters in his name) would come out of the woodwork and fill a demand for more material on such a heroic figure (as per Luke).

Price, as expected, eventually embraces Marcion as the ultimate Pauline collector/creator, including the reigning ur-Lukas hypothesis (a hypothetical primitive version of the Gospel of Lucas that supposedly circulated long before it evolved into its present form, popular in certain circles of New Testament schools).  Unfortunately, he does not spend time defeating arguments for a first century, non-Marcionite authorship of ur-Lukas as much as he does (expertly) demolishing the scaffolding for the competing collectors’ hypotheses, but one can expect only so much detail in one book. Such as it is, Price manages to construct a plausible—if not complete—intellectual framework for a second century origin.

Chapter 4 deals with the apocryphal Pauline literature.

In this chapter, Price explores works from the second to fifth centuries CE, that never made it into the forming Catholic canon. Countering that Church Fathers and early apologists avoided Paul’s writing altogether (i.e., Clement, Polycarp, Justin, etc.) because Paul was used by the “wrong” Christians (i.e., Marcionites and Gnostics) as Tertullian’s “Apostle of the heretics,” Price finds hints and traces of the Pauline epistles in such works as the “Prayer of the Apostle Paul,” the “Revelation of Paul,” the “Apocalypse of Paul,” the Coptic “Apocalypse of Paul,” “Third Corinthians,” and the “Acts of Paul.” Herein, Price argues that this marks a movement, coincident with the gradual acceptance of Paul by Irenaeus and Tertullian in the late second century, toward a “Catholicizing” of Paul and the Pauline material.

Chapter 5 deals with Jewish Gnosticism and the concept of Apostles.

This chapter offers a thought-provoking analysis of second- to fifth-century apocryphal ‘Acts’ literature on the formation of the original concepts of apostleship and docetic Christologies. Price argues, weakly, that these represent the original initial outlines of the Christian sect within a Hellenized Judaism, infused with proto-Gnostic philosophies. The intellectual, philosophical discussion is expert and engaging, even though its historical analysis is somewhat lacking. For instance, there is no adequate debate of dating materials and chronological cogency, but he offers one powerful insight that cannot be ignored: Paul never mentions the apostles by numbers (i.e., the Twelve), save in one established posterior interpolation.

Chapter 6 deals with the propagandistic nature of early Christian historiography.

This chapter explores, through a precise and concise case study approach of the canonical Acts of the Apostles compared to the non-canonical Acts of John, how it could be argued that the Lukan work reflects later (second century) congregational strifes, and attempts to mollify them. Price’s overarching theme here, however, is to lay the ground for further discussion of how the Pauline literature will be (or has been) used later to establish and settle posterior discords.

Chapter 7 deals with Simon Magus.

Simon Magus might well be the most important subject of the book, in Price’s own estimation. It certainly is the most important chapter in the first section of the book, the longest chapter, the mid-point of the entire book, and probably the most controversial discussion therein.

Expertly building on the material discussed in previous chapters, Price tracks the narrative evolution of Simon Magus through the canonical Acts, to other second-century writings of Clementine and the Acts of Peter, the Ebionite Preachings of Peter, then on to fourth-century pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. Paralleling the literary evolution of the Magus with the real life stories and conflicts of Marcion of Pontus, Price creates a compelling, albeit controversial, case that Simon Magus might’ve been a literary construction partly based on, partly used to malign, Paul and some of his (alleged) heretical teachings.

Then, further down the controversial river, Price sides with Detering in the supposition that the Magus (a historical figure known to Josephus) was the real personage while Paul of Tarsus became a fictive literary device onto which certain theological expectations could more easily be pinned.

Price’s case for conflating both Simon Magus in the Christian literature and in Josephus is quite compelling, and while his argumentation regarding the conflation with Paul is sketchy, it is not entirely irrational and illogical. Drawing heavily on Josephus’s accounts of Simon and his dealings in Queen Helena’s court, Price reconstructs a relatively well documented view of the historical Simon. He then proceeds to extrapolate from numerous other less obvious (and less trustworthy) accounts that hint at the magician. His final historical reconstruction is of a splintering sect rudderless after the sudden death of its spiritual leader (i.e., the Essene Teacher of Righteousness or John the Baptist), evolving into diverging factions under different leaderships (e.g., Ebionites, Sabeans, Mandeans, Nasoreans, Gnostics, etc.). Some of the leaders emerging from this traumatizing event might have included Simon the Samaritan (a.k.a. the Magician), Jesus the Nasorean (a.k.a. the Anointed), and later, Marcion of Pontus.

Price then moves to re-creating a compelling narrative for early Christian evolution, though not without problems. His allusion to the Toledoth Jeschu (the Generations of Jesus Gospel) is thought-provoking and exciting (Simeon is Paul for the Nazerenes), but he fails to contextualize its very late date of composition and obvious polemic (read: suspicious) nature. Also, his review of Marcionite evolution is, although reasonable, mostly devoid of actual historical documentation.

The argumentation and the documentary/literary evidence is interesting, compelling, and intellectually sound, if convoluted and sketchy at places. No one, however, could possibly excuse the frailties of the historical framework better than Price himself:  “… if someone objects that the whole procedure is subjective and circular, I deny it. Right or wrong, I have laid out my criteria, derived from a paradigm of widely attested religious evolution. If someone charges that my endeavor here is wholly speculative, I congratulate him on his grasp of the obvious.”

Regardless of whether Price is correct in his precise historical reconstruction (viz. regarding Simon Magus and Paul of Tarsus), he elaborates on very important, substantive points. Expanding F. C. Baur’s notion of Christian factions and D. F. Strauss’s notion of emerging cults, Price asks whether the Corinthian mention of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ does not suggest a fossilized remnant of an ideology of pre-Christian contentions between “rivals, distinct saviors, avatars, gurus, or gods …” which coalesced into an eventual supremacy for Christ, “with Paul, Apollos (perhaps the same as Apollonius of Tyana), and Simon Peter (Cephas) being reinterpreted as subordinates of Christ.” Furthermore, Price’s assessment of a possible Marcionite influence in the development stages of the canonical Gospels (particularly Mark and John) is quite intriguing and deserving of further scrutiny.

Specific historiographical problems aside, this chapter is a tour de force in rethinking current paradigms in early Christian history, and might suggest clues for further, sorely needed, research. Every serious Bible student needs to read this essay, and most scholars benefit from engaging it, as well.

Chapter 8 deals with the evolving Christian conceptions of Soteriology.

In this chapter, Price attempts to lay out his own reconstruction of how early Christianity evolved theologically by countenancing what he perceives are the chronological markers of Christian thought regarding the concept of salvation. He establishes Christianity as moving from Primitive Sacramentalism to Gnosticism, then to Apocalyptic theology, to Marcionism, and ultimately to Catholicism. He describes each theological identity briefly, coupled with succinct expositions as to the rationale behind this historical reconstruction.

Interesting and didactic as an introduction, though entirely superficial (to some, it may be unfulfilling, but it’s possible Price might just be working on an entire book on this topic, given his proclivity for writing) to the subject of evolving soteriologies, this chapter seems but a preamble—a contextualization, of sorts—for the next section of the book.

SECTION 2

As mentioned previously, section 2 of the book consists of chapters devoted to exploring the texts (generously provided in the main text) of all the Pauline New Testament corpus with extensive annotations and discussions, most especially pertaining to such minutiae as dating the texts, establishing authorship, debating themes and motifs (e.g. Christologies, ecclesiastical structures, theologies, etc.), determining specific sitz-im-leben for the texts, providing summaries of many scholarly views on specific sections of the texts, and commentary on early Christian fathers’ and apologists’ approaches to them.

The structure of the chapters is laid out thusly: The entire New Testament epistle is transcribed (translation by the author, apparatus unmentioned) in paragraph form but with standard modern verses in upper script (for ease of citation), from 3 or 4 paragraphs to several pages at a time, and printed in red. Interspersed between each block of scriptural text are blocks from 3 or 4 paragraphs to several pages of academic discussion pertaining to the previous citation, usually debating the various Marcionite, Simonian, and Catholic elements in that particular segment, plus a discussion on interpolations from a wide array of sources. Each chapter is prefaced by an introductory essay of varying length and depth.

Chapter 9 deals with the Epistle to the Romans.
Chapter 10 deals with the First Epistle to the Corinthians.
Chapter 11 deals with the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
Chapter 12 deals with the Epistle to the Galatians.
Chapter 13 deals with the Epistles to the (Laodiceans) Ephesians.
Chapter 14 deals with the Epistle to the Philippians.
Chapter 15 deals with the Epistle to the Colossians.
Chapter 16 deals with the Epistles to the (I and II) Thessalonians.
Chapter 17 deals with the Epistle to Philemon.
Chapter 18 deals with the Pastoral Epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus).

The majority of the discussions are too long to be included in a book review, but several examples might provide a clear flavor.

1) After the text for II Corinthians 10:1-6, Price writes:

“Most scholars believe chapter 10 was originally the beginning of a separate epistle, perhaps even of the ‘severe letter’ for which Paul was half-apologizing in 7:8 and that had shaken them up. That may be, but the scenario envisioned is fictive. The emphatic claim to be Paul, as always in such cases, indicates that the writer is not who he pretends to be. It is a staple of pseudepigrapha.”

[Footnote 7 here then lists 73 such examples from canonical and deutero-canonical sources.]

2) After the text for Ephesians 4-6, Price writes:

“In verse 4:6, the reference to ‘one God’ refutes the doctrine of the Marcionites that posits two Gods (1:17; 2:2; 3:9-12). If the Catholic writer seeks to reduce the number of deities, he equally wants to expand the number of apostles (4:11). Marcionism is subtly dismissed as a fad without merit in 4:14 and the author is just as intent, despite some vagueness, in 4:31 when he mentions blasphemy. Can he have thought his readers might be casually maligning God? No, of course, he refers to the unwitting but real blasphemy of the Marcionites who deny the identification of the Christian God with the Hebrew Jehovah.

“Notice that our Catholic writer is at home with language of sacrifice (5:2), which was alien to Marcionites but re-applied allegorically to Jesus by Catholics. He does not hesitate to quote Jewish scripture (4:8; 5:14, 31; 6:3, 17), and already in 2:17 he may have inserted an anti-Marcionite verse. The Catholic response was to allegorize the Old Testament and make it seem to teach Christianity. An excellent example greets us in 5:32, where the union of man and woman in Genesis 2:24 is said to really be about the union of Christ and the church, much as Rabbinic allegory abstracted the spicy Song of Solomon to make it an unlikely paean to Jehovah’s love of Israel.”

[No footnotes for these paragraphs]

Here the reviewer must freely admit that these are among the simplest, shortest entries, but that the more interesting, scholarly discussions are much too long to include herein. It should be said, as well, that one of the strengths of Price’s discussions and exegeses is that, regardless of making his case or coming across as convincing, he offers excellent summaries of the positions of a large array of differing scholars, and thus paints an interesting picture of what the academic landscape looks like in these particular topics, naturally with precedence of citing the scholars who will provide support for this or that specific issue surrounding his overall theme. While one might complain of undue bias, it only serves to demonstrate that Price’s overarching hypothesis is completely within the bounds of current New Testament scholarship.

This section is worth the price of the book by itself. Aside from a very informative, thought-provoking read, it offers an invaluable New Testament study tool, as it doubles as a Pauline New Testament with very long, very extensive in-depth annotations. Undoubtedly, this is the part of the book I will be returning to again and again over the course of the next years, as my own personal studies into the New Testament evolve.

CONCLUSION

Robert Price offers but brief conclusory remarks, probably trusting the merits of his arguments and exegeses to stand on their own. All things considered, the presentation is forceful and reasonable, even if not entirely convincing. Given the paucity of the historical data, and the historical blemish of its provenance, it is entirely unreasonable to expect any argument to be more conclusive than that.

In the concluding words of Robert Price himself:

“If New Testament scholars, at least those who retain any Christian faith, were to lose Paul, they wouldn’t know what to do! To whom would they appeal for a true vision of God and his purposes for mankind?” Nevertheless, “[h]ere at the end of this exploration of the amazing colossal Paul, who looms so large over the religious landscape, it is worth asking whether and in what sense we have retained a useful Paul.”

The main academic and intellectual problem remains that “Paul does not have a unitary voice, is not a single author whose implied opinions might be synthesized and parroted. He is not even a single historical figure” and there is “[n]o author, no authority, only texts—and finally not even texts but fragments.” One must conclude, therefore, that “[a]ll we can do, it seems to me, is read them for what they have to say, or seem to be saying and let them strike us as they may. Very likely, many of them will open our eyes to interesting new possibilities, may unveil responsibilities we tried our best to forget we had. Some will edify and some will challenge, and it will no doubt prove to have been well worth reading them, but we cannot hide behind the artificial figure of Paul” any longer.

Reassessing the historical data surrounding the actual person of Paul of Tarsus and, more poignantly, whatever religious philosophies he might have bequeathed us, may be a never-ending proposition, but it may prove enormous academic dividends and it will undoubtedly improve our religious and spiritual understandings.

For the religious, this book provides intellectual stimulation to better contextualize early Christian history and thought, and perhaps allow one’s faith to become more flexible and comprehensive, sorely needed traits in a world that constantly flirts with intolerance and destructive dogmatism. For the academic—and, naturally, for the student—of the Bible and early Christian history, this book provides a trove of reasoned arguments and historical-critical thought experiments that will enrich and deepen one’s own understanding of the origins of Christianity, perhaps even convince and change entire paradigms.

All in all, The Amazing Colossal Apostle is an amazing colossal book that provides a concise, though comprehensive, overview of the historical-critical method as applied to a specific theme (i.e., Paul of Tarsus) and an excellent in-depth discussion of the Pauline epistles that will undoubtedly provide tools and insights for any student of the New Testament, lay and professional, while enlivening—perhaps changing, even—the future of academic biblical research.