Did The Apostle Paul Exist?

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_project
Paul the Apostle

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

simon_magus
Simon Magus attempting to buy membership in the apostolic circle

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.

Sancus
The statue Justin Martyr imagined was erected for Simon Magus

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. 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.

 

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

13 thoughts on “Did The Apostle Paul Exist?”

  1. “In my current hypothesis, Paul did not exist. Or if he did exist, he was a much more marginal character than what he was later claimed to be. James probably did exist, although I doubt he ever claimed to be a Christian, and he was certainly not the “brother of the lord”…that is, unless the lord was John.”

    The true title of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine is given in the first verse: The Revelation of Jesus Christ.

    I am interested in what you have to say about James.

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    1. It’s my opinion that the reference to Jesus Christ was a later addition to Revelation – see my reconstructed prologue https://timsteppingout.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/reconstructed-revelation-prologue/

      From what I gather, the earliest Jesus-on-earth theology was a Docetic one, which can roughly be found in the Gospel of Mark, where the Christ descends on Jesus like a Dove. I also think the earliest Docetics saw a separate high God vs. the God who created the universe.

      This fight about God (or the Demiurge) seems to be the first fight, and appears to have occurred between Cerinthus and the Ebionites, whose figurehead was James. The Ebionites were said to have hated Paul.

      Though the Ebionites were still attached to Judaism, they were still Docetic, where they saw Jesus and the Christ as independent, occassionally overlapping.

      The Ebionites were succeeded by an integrated Nazarene sect, who seem to have added the birth story element to the Ebionites’ Gospel (Gospel of the Hebrews); from there, the Gospel became Matthew, which was an anti-Mark text.

      This Nazarene synthesis probably eventually gave rise to the Gnostic Naasseenes, who also revered James, but were more open to the notion that there was a “fall from the Godhead” – ie some other God created the universe, than the god who sent Jesus.

      There probably was a James character who can be placed in the Herodian era, who was persecuted by someone…we see inklings of that in Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (can’t remember details…see Robert Eisenman)

      But I think this James prototype was not a Christian; rather, I think the people of this time saw themselves in evolving tribes, just like what is featured in the OT (The 12 Tribes of Israel, etc). I also think Christian writers used Josephus as an encoder ring to encrypt their mystery religion.

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  2. I do find your study to be fascinating. At the moment I’m leaning towards the ideal that the “pillars of the church” were in fact Gnostic Jews of the the late first century, early second century. It is my opinion that Cephas/Peter was in fact Cerinthus and the rift between Simon Peter and Simon Magus in Acts is a fictionalized account between Cerinthus and Marcion/Paul. The many Johns may be replicas of John the Baptist, but this is complicated further by the fact that there are traditions of Cerinthus and Marcion being associates with a “John.” Did John the Baptist live after the Temple destruction, or was this another John entirely? As for a real James, he’s the enigma. In the Talmud there is a Jacob of Kephar, a disciple of Pandera, who heals and rebukes in his name. Could this be our James the Just?

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    1. That is a really brilliant solution (Paul=Simon, Peter=Cerinthus). This is especially plausible, given that Irenaeus contrasts the Ebionites (poor) to both Paul and Cerinthus. I’m gonna need to percolate on that a while, because it fits quite beautifully in a lot of different ways

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      1. Thank you for your consideration. This ideal came about trying to locate the “apostles” in history. If Jesus Christ was a figurative, non-historical character then where did his followers come from? The important ones are the “Pillars,” (James, John, and Peter), Thomas, Philip, Andrew, Judas, and Paul. Paul we already have in history — Marcion — so that’s our time-stamp: about 120-150. Thomas may himself be a figurative character, as his name means Twin in Greek. Andrew and Philip I’m at a loss on. They may be so marginal as to not be important. It’s been speculated that Judas may be an allusion to Judas of Gamala, but my opinion is that Judas is a later construct made to represent a church apostate. Who this was I haven’t a clue.

        This is just speculation on my end and further research could disprove it entirely.

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  3. I am not a Christian and have no beef in this debate, but this theory seems pretty far fetched. The dating of the authentic Pauline epistles has firmly grounded in the mid first century, even by most all Jesus skeptical scholars. Aside from his letters, we have Polycarp, Ignatious, Ireneaus, and Clement who either knew apostles or were taught be people who knew apostles. Paul mentions these same apostles (john and peter for example). The plain evidence supports a historical Paul. To argue otherwise you need to wrap yourself in a blanket of conspiracy. You can get there, but it requires backflips and contortions. I once thought the same, but it’s highly probable a historical Paul existed. Remove your bias and follow the evidence, not a conspiracy.

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    1. “The dating of the authentic Pauline epistles has firmly grounded in the mid first century”
      There’s a growing number of scholars who are putting the Pauline letters later. And remember, only half of them are authentic anyway.

      “Aside from his letters, we have Polycarp, Ignatious, Ireneaus, and Clement who either knew apostles or were taught be people who knew apostles”
      They claimed to know apostles, but keep in mind that many of those claims are widely debunked, even amongst the theologian-type scholars. For example, Irenaeus learned from Polycarp who learned from John the Apostle in Ephesus…except it’s widely accepted that John the Apostle was not in Ephesus nor wrote John’s Gospel.

      “Paul mentions these same apostles (john and peter for example)”
      Yes – and John and Peter were also in Samaria in Acts 8 doing battle with Simon Magus, who was trying to buy the Spirit – this is a blatant reference to Paul, and (though this isn’t a widespread consensus among scholars), it’s been noticed in academia for well over 100 years that Paul and Simon Magus were probably the same person, most recently written about by Robert M. Price in The Amazing Colossal Apostle. I believe Hermann Dettering also subscribes to this theory.

      “The plain evidence supports a historical Paul”
      Someone wrote those letters; yet someone also went to great lengths to sanitize Paul in the Pastorals and Acts of the Apostles. Of course that raises the question: why did so many heretics subscribe to Pauline Christianity with so many strange views? For example, the Marcionites, Valentinians, Carpocratians, and Johannines all had Paul as centerpieces in their theology. Of course, the most obvious answer is that Paul either wrote something different than what we have now (which is clearly the case anyway), or Paul meant something different than what we take him to mean (which is also quite obvious when you read Paul through the lens of a Marcionite or Gnostic).

      “Remove your bias and follow the evidence, not a conspiracy.”
      Someone existed who underlies Paul, but again, I’d say that I’m skeptical of the following:
      1. His name was Paul
      2. He was as early as the 30s or 40s
      3. His theology had anything to do with what was alluded in Acts of the Apostles, or what he is taken to mean by modern Christians.

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