Was the Apostle Paul Really the First Reformer?




Any student of New Testament studies will be familiar with the names F.C. Baur and J.B. Lightfoot. Baur was a nineteenth German-Hegelian theologian and biblical critic who famously offered a thesis of Paul compatible with the post-Reformation hagiography of him, “Baur’s vision of Paul and his relationship with the early church was Hegelian and dialectical.… The post Was the Apostle Paul Really the First Reformer? appeared first on VoegelinView.
Any student of New Testament studies will be familiar with the names F.C. Baur and J.B. Lightfoot. Baur was a nineteenth German-Hegelian theologian and biblical critic who famously offered a thesis of Paul compatible with the post-Reformation hagiography of him, “Baur’s vision of Paul and his relationship with the early church was Hegelian and dialectical. It took conflict to be the key feature of the church, with Paul’s position being stringently opposed by an antithetical Jewish Christian view of the gospel.” Baur’s thesis held sway for decades, and even holds much sway today. By contrast, “Lightfoot offered much more urbane vision of the church that was rightly ordered ultimately in rather episcopal terms.” This is the backdrop to Brendan Case and William Glass’s new book, Least of the Apostles, looking at the Apostle Paul through the scholarly dichotomy found in Baur and Lightfoot.
Baur was a German Lutheran of an anti-Catholic disposition. Lightfoot was a genteel Victorian Englishman, the best representative of the scholarly tradition of the Church of England following the Caroline Restoration and Oxford Movement. Baur’s need for a conflictual Paul should be obvious: it gave biblical justification for the Lutheran reformation. Lightfoot, who became the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, wanted an ecclesiastical Paul that was amenable to the ecclesiastical theology of Anglicanism. Both have had a lasting impact on the debates over Paul despite their personal needs for a Paul who was a hero and justifier of their own theological commitments, Baur perhaps the more influential because of his contributions to the questions of Pauline authorship and broader notions concerning the development of Christianity and religion more generally.
While Baur’s radical division between Petrine (Jewish-Catholic) Christianity and Pauline (Gentile) Christianity no longer holds sway in mainstream biblical scholarship, his thesis that Paul was in conflict with the other apostles still does. Many of the most prominent scholars of the past generation, including E.P. Sanders, maintain a soft form of Baur’s conflict thesis. It is here, though, that Case and Glass take umbrage. Case, the Associate Direct for Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard (himself a trained biblical scholar) and Glass, an Anglican priest, offer a brilliant rebuttal to the conflict thesis that permeates too much of our post-Reformation reception of the Bible and biblical consciousness.
This is the segue into decentering Paul from the New Testament’s theology and controversies. Paul, of course, tends to take pride of place in New Testament theology. Paul was the biblical authority the Reformers turned to in offering their theology of grace and justification. While Catholics often don’t want to admit it, Paul is also the center of Catholic theology thanks to his prominence in the writings of Saint Augustine who relied on Paul in his disputes with the Pelagians which led to Paul’s prominence among the scholastics who regarded him as “The Apostle.” Furthermore, Paul provided the largest authorial corpus in the New Testament (by epistolary count). But as Case and Glass’s title makes clear, Paul should be understood as the least of the apostles, a term the historic Paul used for himself in his first letter to the Corinthians, in the sense that his prominence in the development of early Christian theology is somewhat overstated.
In their various essays, or chapters, Case and Glass make the case that Paul was responding to theological controversies rather than the center of theological controversies and that the other biblical authors have a positive reception and view of Paul. Our studious and superb authors therefore reveal, painstakingly but clearly, that there was also a lot of agreement between the conflictual parties. Little differences matter and caused controversy, but to focus on the few intense controversies blinds us to the immense agreement of Paul and the other non-Pauline New Testament authors.
I will focus on three of the chapters: James as the origin of Pauline justification rather than James responding to Pauline justification; Paul’s influence over Hebrews; and the Petrine reception of Paul in the two epistles that bear Peter’s name.
It is more common in biblical studies to view James as responding to Paul in the justification passages that presume the validity of the conflict thesis. However, Case offers a very persuasive argument that “[f]ar from being dependent on Paul, James might represent the earliest extant installment of justification discourse.” The view that James is “derivative from and somehow responsive to Paul” rests on several assumptions and presumptions, and that’s exactly what they are despite scholarly protestations to the contrary: James the brother of Jesus is not the author of the epistle because the Greek is too technical for a Galilean peasant; James is written after the authentic Pauline epistles therefore the similarities between James and Paul on the use of Abraham in justification must be a response to Paul; and James responding to Paul confirms the presumed validity of the conflict thesis.
Case deconstructs the most mediocre of the most popular biblical scholars, Bart Ehrman, who doesn’t come off that well in this book when being critiqued by fellow scholars without the mystic allure of the authority granted to him by 30 second TikTok videos or the History Channel. (It should also be acknowledged that Ehrman’s principal readers are generally ignorant of broader biblical scholarship and are largely anti-Christian and biblical skeptics to begin with and therefore represent an audience inclined to confirmation bias available to them in Ehrman’s skeptical scholarly disposition.) Case reminds his readers that Ehrman’s argument for a Greek-illiterate James doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Galilee and Jerusalem in James’s lifetime was filled with Greek speakers and if James was a leader in the Jerusalem church, as the Book of Acts details, then it is highly probable that such a leader would have known Greek to missionize with Greek-speaking Jews living in the city and who made pilgrimage into the city. This is but one of the many deconstructions of Ehrman Case gives.
Furthermore, a careful reading of the Greek in James indicates Semitic origins of the epistles. Multiple Semitisms are found throughout the writing which gives credence to the notion that the Epistle of James was likely first written in Aramaic before being translated into Greek which gives the writing a very early date—one that likely predates Paul. Moreover, James speaks to his audience as coming from the synagogue and not apart from it which is rhetoric that fits a pre-Jewish Wars composition. It was only after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans that the strong split between synagogue Jews and “church” Christians becomes prominent in early Christian writings (as in the Johannine writings). This lends credence to an early date for the epistle which makes it highly improbable that it was in response to one of Paul’s authentic epistles.
Lastly, Case presents the argument that if an early date of James is, in fact, the case, then Paul’s use of Abraham in his justification narrative in Romans is in response to the Judaizing missionaries who likely had ties to James and the Jerusalem leadership. In his conflict with the pro-Torah observant missionaries, Case notes, “the Teachers lifted justification from James’s discussion of covenant-obligations for Jews and transformed it into an evangelistic description of the condition for gentile entry into the covenant. Paul’s writings on justification would then prove to have been his particular response to the Teachers, employing their key terms and textual strongholds to hoist them on their own petard.” At the same time, Case is also careful to highlight how much similarity is found between the Judaizing Teachers and Paul on the issue of justification.
William Glass addresses the perennial problem of Pauline authorship over Hebrews. Christian tradition has generally granted Paul authorship, even if some church fathers as early as the third century raised concerns over the themes and language of the epistle as not being entirely in line with Pauline rhetoric. Glass goes over the common views of Hebrews: the epistle was written by someone in Alexandria familiar with Philonic and Platonic philosophy; it may be a writing influence by the apocalyptic literature of the Dead Sea scrolls and Qumran communities; or the author was familiar with Paul and Pauline theology.
Glass thoroughly rebuts the idea that Hebrews is undisputedly a product of Alexandrian theology. While sympathetic to the possibility, it is unlikely for numerous reasons. First, the church in Alexandria doesn’t even consider it a possibility which would be odd if it originated within their jurisdiction where ecclesiastical provenance was always sought in authorship disputes. Second, the post-1945 discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and apocalyptic texts of Second Temple Judaism have shown that Hebrew and Aramaic language and rhetoric using seemingly similar language and imagery to Platonic philosophy developed independently of Greek influences (the Greek-influence thesis ignores many of the post-Second World War discoveries and continues to promote an increasingly minority view in biblical scholarship that relies on century old material now largely discredited by the post-1945 discoveries and scholarly trends.) Third, the entire epistle to the Hebrews bears similarities to Paul and not just the assumed addendum by a scribal editor in Hebrews 13 to bring the text into Pauline conformity.
In examining Hebrews, Glass makes a careful and persuasive argument that a companion of Paul likely wrote Hebrews: Apollos. Apollos is referenced in the authentic Pauline letters. Apollos was a traveler with, and close associate of, Paul. Apollos, therefore, had intimate knowledge of Paul and Pauline theology and this helps explain the Hebrew-Pauline similarities concerning idol-meat and fellowship in Christ that dot the epistle, not to mention Pauline rhetoric also uses “light-dark” and “principalities of powers” motifs. Glass makes a very convincing argument for Pauline influence over Hebrews and, therefore, the early church fathers were likely correct in seeing a hand who knew Paul as its author even if Paul himself wasn’t.
Finally, Case and Glass come together to examine the supposed conflict between Peter and Paul by looking at the Petrine epistles. Once again, they deconstruct the assumptions and presumptions of anti-Petrine or forgery authorship to demonstrate that this view is not as univocal in scholarly studies as people like Bart Ehrman make it out to be. Some very respectable scholars do, in fact, believe in Petrine authenticity—especially 1 Peter. They equally dispense with the “Protestant and Catholic polemics” that cloud most of our engagement with the Petrine epistles.
If Peter and Paul were enemies, why is the early church’s witness entirely to the contrary? As early as the first decade of the second century, Ignatius commends the solidarity of Peter and Paul as an example of the faith to his communities as he prepares for his own martyrdom. Clement, Polycarp, and Irenaeus all draw on the Peter-Paul dichotomy as one of faithful witness and harmony rather than division. Scholars who hold to the conflict thesis must reject the patristic witness as nothing but a coverup, a giant church conspiracy. So much for following the evidence.
Furthermore, a careful reading of Acts returns us to the universal acceptance of missionizing to the Gentiles. Peter does preach to the Gentiles first. He sits with the Gentiles. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, then, isn’t a source of division as if a product of uniquely Pauline innovation and rebellion but wholly part of the already established Petrine tradition. (Again, scholars who need the conflict thesis to be true explain Acts away as editorial coverup.)
Lastly, in making the argument for a Petrine voice in the Petrine epistles, it strikes the reader as odd that 2 Peter refers to Paul as a “beloved brother” if the conflict thesis is true. The Petrine voice, if authentic, holds Paul in high regard. What about Paul though? Our studious authors remind us that there is only one verse in which a conflict-thesis is possible, in Galatians, and that isn’t compelling evidence of an antagonistic conflict as much as it reveals Paul on equal footing with Peter which confirms the patristic witness of the twin pillars of apostolicity in Peter and Paul.
Least of the Apostles embodies the best of revisionist scholarship. And it must be remembered that all scholarship is advanced through revisionist dialectic. While acknowledging that some conflict did push clarity in Pauline theological development, the conflict thesis is too overblown and exaggerated, “the conflicts that are found and traced through Paul’s life and work are not as extensive or fundament as Baur’s original thesis suggested.” Case and Glass give a thorough deconstruction of the limits of the conflict thesis, how it is marred by post-Reformation polemics and contemporary assumptions that do not necessarily hold up to greater scrutiny upon a second look. Paul’s prominent place in the New Testament still stands, though he may not have been as much a reformer as commonly made out to be.


Least of the Apostles: Paul and His Legacies in Earliest Christianity
By Brendan W. Case and William Glass
Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2022; 248pp.

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