In evaluating his historical likelihood, the Apostle Paul faces similar problems that Jesus does: neither of them show up in the secular record (outside of Christian communities), and both of them were later hijacked and obfuscated in order to advance the political and theological agendas of an emerging hegemonic structure within the Christian church. Like virtually every other early Christian, including Jesus, tradition holds that Paul suffered a martyrdom, being decapitated by the Romans.
The difference between Paul and Jesus is that we have writings preserved of Paul. There are also obvious historical examples of Paul’s allies and enemies. In that sense, the economy of Paul’s existence is superior to Jesus’. Yet, the legend surrounding Paul paints a picture that looks more like fiction than fact.
Paul was claimed as a great apostle and figurehead by no fewer than 3 distinct Christian sects: the
Johannines, the Marcionites, and the Valentinians. This is in contrast to later Ebionite, Nazarene, and Petrine sects, who seemed to have launched polemical attacks against Paul, referring to him as Josephus’ infamous magician-matchmaker (Antiquities 20.7), Simon Magus, described in Acts 8.
Adding to this compelling link between Paul and Simon Magus is that Josephus refers to Simon as a Cypriot; in Acts 13, Paul converts a Cypriot governor to Christianity. The governor’s assistant, Elymas Bar Jesus (son of Jesus) was, like Simon, a sorcerer, and tried to obstruct the governor’s faith. Paul defiantly responded to the sorcerer:
You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.
In Acts 13, there are several parallels that link Paul to Simon Magus – the geographic location (Cyprus), the reference to the magician, the reference to the proconsul (Pontius Pilate was also proconsul, as was Felix, who befriended Simon in the attempt to sway Drusilla to marry Felix…perhaps with magical love potions), and the reference to the sorcerer going blind, just like Paul in Acts 9! This subtle interweaving of details into the sorcerer story in Acts 13 seems consistent with other anecdotes, and their veiled ideological agendas. For instance, in Acts 5, Ananias withheld money from the apostles after a financial transaction – Peter caused Ananias to drop dead. Yet in Acts 9, Paul’s blindness was cured by (another?) Ananias. Of course, the Gospel of Mark’s awareness of Jesus ben Ananias should not be ignored in this context. These parallels might be a coincidence, but it seems more likely to me that they are an encryption that was delivering an obscured payload which Christians educated in the underlying mystery would have easily decoded.
Consider the following excerpts from Pseudo-Clementine literature, which depicts a fight between Peter and Simon Magus:
Then Peter, …began to deliver the following discourse: “It seems to me to be seasonable and necessary to have some discussion relating to those things that are near at hand; that is, concerning Simon. For I should wish to know of what character and of what conduct he is. ..that we may eat with him, how much more is it proper for us to ascertain who or what sort of man he is to whom the words of immortality are to be committed! For we ought to be careful, yea, extremely careful, that we cast not our pearls before swine
[Simon said] For before my mother Rachel and he came together, she, still a virgin, conceived me, while it was in my power to be either small or great, and to appear as a man among men (the Ebionites were staunchly opposed to the Apostle Paul [AH 1.26.2] rejected the virgin birth!)
In the above passage, Peter wonders if it is appropriate to eat with Simon, considering the tenets of his faith. Could that be any more obvious of a reference to Galatians 2, and Paul’s confrontation of Cephas with regards to the men from James and their influence on him, in terms of his willingness to eat with the Gentiles?
Because of the ongoing love-hate relationship with Paul’s Christianity which initially gave rise to Christianity’s inclination to reject the Jewish law, coupled with the Ebionite and Nazarene adherence to the law, a synthesis was required, which simultaneously rejected Jewish law but kept the Jewish God, in order to sanitize Paul. This synthesis included the creation of the Pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus), along with the creation of Acts of the Apostles, which re-crafted the Paul, the “bombastic cavalier” (in the words of Ken Humphreys) into a more acceptable figurehead within a modulated theology.
This heavy anti-Paul sentiment continued into subsequent generations, and by the mid-2nd century, Justin Martyr, in his 1st apology, was skewering Marcion (Paul’s most zealous student), along with Simon Magus, while complaining that Rome was overly harsh towards Justin’s sect, even erecting statues in reverence to Simon Magus (which was not true; in fact, it was quite a blunder on Justin Martyr’s part).
Compare Simon’s apostolic purchase attempt in Acts of the Apostles 8, where he bribed Peter and John with money for a seat at the apostles’ table, with Marcion’s, where he attempted to buy influence with a donation of 200,000 sesterces to the mid-2nd century “Roman church.”
In this sense, it violates reason that such a key detail in Marcion’s tenure, one which so closely parallels Simon Magus and Ananias (Acts 5), is one of the only things history remembered about Marcion. My conjecture is that the reason history remembered this Marcionite anecdote is it is because it was at the root of the Simon Magus story invented by the Ebionites (and perhaps Ebionite-sympathetic Cerinthians), and later adopted by the Johannines, depicted in Acts of the Apostles, and retold by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and a host of later heresy hunters and unskeptical adherents.
These proxy battles between the Marcionites (who claimed Paul) and the Ebionites (the “James” community, and those who sympathized with them) is obvious in the most distinctively Pauline text, Galatians, where Paul complains that “men from James” (Ebionites) corrupted Cephas, and caused him to stop eating with the Gentiles and the uncircumcised.
Interestingly, Galatians, which is exhibit A used to describe the developing schism between “Jews and Gentiles” was not only “discovered” by Marcion of Sinope, but was also the centerpiece in Marcion’s canon (which was incidentally the first multi-text canon any Christian sect used).
If Galatians is exhibit A in this fight, then James’ epistle is exhibit B, as it seems to respond to Paul’s tantrum:
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?…(see Galatians 3:1-5)
Now listen, you rich people (see Galatians 2:10), weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days…Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else (see Galatians 1:20).
There is no doubt that someone wrote the “authentic” Paul letters (1 Corin, 2 Corin, 1 Thes, Galatians, Romans, Philippians), just like there is little doubt someone else wrote Ephesians and Colossians. Yet another person(s) wrote the Pastorals. The Orthodoxical story is that the authentic Paul letters were written during the two decades which followed Jesus’ death. Yet, I see very little evidence for this. Moreover, if you consider the alternative Simon Magus=Marcion=Paul model, and put Paul (and his authentic letters) through this model, Paul’s historical profile as a 2nd century wealthy elite who was trying to force Christianity to fit his own paradigm fits better than the traditional profile of a Jew-turned-Christian who then proceeded to fight, at every turn, the people who supposedly knew Jesus and were followers of him.