January 01, 2017
The Historical Paul
First, I would like to say God bless you for all that you do with reasonable faith and your many other endeavors. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I have ever read that you have written and I enjoy the live stream of your defenders class. Recently I was witnessing to a friend of mine who is an atheist and he had a friend with him who is a religious studies major. As we got into the historicity of Jesus and His resurrection I argued for the origins of the church and the subsequent conversions of James the brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus. I was a little thrown off by the response of the religious studies major who stated "Hardly any scholar believes Paul actually existed. It is believed it was a pseudonym for a number of anonymous church members to get their beliefs into church doctrine." I had never encountered this rebuttal before. I was able to move past it but it stuck with me. I have done some armchair research and discovered a whole following of people (including Christians) who take this view in some degree. I have learned there is extrabiblical evidence that Paul existed but it is not as plentiful as would be expected. Most of what I read asserts that a lot of what is known is believed to be legendary including the book of Acts. They claim only 5 epistles were truly written by the historical Paul the rest are forgeries. I was wondering if you have ever encountered this argument and if you have any rebuttals to this particular line of dialogue. Thank you so much for all you do Dr. Craig!
Your brother in Christ,
Man, oh, man, oh, man! Nothing illustrates the truth of the aphorism “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” better than your friend! When I first read your letter, I thought he was just one of the kooks out there—how else could you explain the palpable falsehood that “Hardly any scholar believes Paul actually existed,” when in fact every scholar agrees that he did? Even the Jesus mythicists, who fly in the face of scholarship by denying the existence of the historical Jesus, typically admit the existence of the historical Paul, as one way of explaining away the Jesus myth! How much kookier the claim that Paul never existed?
But as I contemplated your letter, it began to dawn on me that your friend is just terribly mixed up. He’s learned a few things in his religious studies classes which he misunderstood and mixed up into a mishmash of errors.
What’s correct is that seven of Paul’s letters are recognized today by scholars as “undisputed” letters written by Paul: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon. The authorship of the remaining epistles is disputed among scholars. If Paul himself did not write them, that’s not to say that they’re “forgeries” in the modern sense. They may have been written by disciples of Paul on his behalf.
Now obviously if Paul wrote these seven letters, then the historical Paul existed, case closed. Moreover, we know a great deal about his teaching and life on the basis of these letters alone. They alone more than suffice to establish the claims you were making to your friend.
I suspect that your friend heard in class that some of the letters attributed to Paul are disputed as to their authorship. He exaggerated the number and mistakenly inferred that pseudonymity implied the non-existence of Paul himself. Since many scholars dispute the authenticity of some of the letters, he took this to mean that they denied Paul’s existence—which then was exaggerated to the claim that “Hardly any scholar believes Paul actually existed.” All this would be laughable if it weren’t so sad!
Even you, David, seem to have been misled when you say that you “discovered a whole following of people (including Christians) who take this view in some degree.” What view? That Paul never existed? Nonsense! What you probably found is that a number of scholars, including Christians, dispute the Pauline authorship of some of the epistles ascribed to him. It goes no further than that.
Not only do we have seven undisputed letters from Paul, but we also have an independent account of Paul’s conversion and ministry in the book of Acts. I was puzzled by your remark that “a lot of what is known is believed to be legendary including the book of Acts.” I wondered what you could mean, when it hit me that you must be talking about the apocryphal, second century document called The Acts of Paul, which is indeed legendary and derivative. But the canonical Acts of the Apostles is indisputably historical, as has been ably demonstrated by the late Colin Hemer in his The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Indeed, it is precisely because the Acts is taken seriously by historians that scholars have been at pains to understand any apparent conflicts between Paul’s letters and the Acts.
As if that weren’t enough, Paul is also mentioned by apostolic fathers like Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, not to mention the authors of the letters whose Pauline authorship some scholars deny. So not only Paul’s existence, but his teaching and missionary activities, are abundantly well-attested historically.