St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition I

(Sub-title: Did Paul really submit to the so-called “Twelve” Apostles?)

Back in the days of the Catholic Fathers early Christianity was a deeply divided movement. Based on what the Fathers reported, early Christians often shared little in common other than the name “Christian” and a belief in someone named “Jesus.” Aside from this, the early “Christian” movement had no unity or sense of itself. The early Christian movement was divided among numerous dissenting sects which disagreed radically on even the most fundamental dogmas. Thus one Christian’s “Creator God” was another Christian’s “devil.” And one Christian’s “flesh and blood” Messiah was another Christian’s other-worldly phantom. Some Christians believed that Jesus came to save the flesh; others believed He came to destroy the flesh. Some Christians believed that Jesus wanted his followers to obey the Law of Moses; others believed that Jesus came to destroy the Law. Some Christians believed that the Law was given by God; others said this Law was given by lower angels who opposed God. Indeed no other religious movement in history was so profoundly divided as were the early Christians.

Yet another issue which divided early Christians was the basic concept of history. What was the history of the early Church and the Apostles? What did the Apostles teach—and did they agree on what Jesus taught? Who was the most important of the Apostles? Was it Peter?—or Paul? Were Peter and Paul brothers in the ministry? —or were they enemies? Once again early Christians were divided over these kinds of questions (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.13f., 15; Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 23f.).

The writings of the Catholic Fathers provide a valuable historic record of one faction—the Catholic Church—which tried to provide the ‘correct’ answers to all these questions, whether they concerned history or theology. All of the ‘correct’ answers came to be known as “orthodoxy” and all of the wrong answers came to be known as “heresy” —meaning that all the wrong answers were derived from the numerous “sectarian” churches or factions. Our word “sect” is the modern English equivalent of the ancient Greek word for sect(s) “aireseis” (=heresies). Today “heresy” is synonymous with wrong or evil doctrine. In ancient times it was associated with the ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ doctrines which were taught by other sects which also called themselves “Christian” and who professed to know the sacred history of the Gospel. The Catholic Father Tertullian described the word “heresy” also in terms of the word choice, which is another meaning of the word. This refers to the notion that sectarians split from the original church and doctrine because they chose to believe something different (Tertullian, ibid., 6).

In opposition to all the other “Christians” (i.e. the Gnostics, Marcionites, Ebionites, etc.) the Catholic Fathers advanced their ‘correct’ version of history which they referred to as the “tradition of the Apostles” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.1., Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, 20, 21). Also referred to as the “Apostolic Tradition”, this term refers to the standard theology and history which are at the foundation of all Christian orthodoxy. This “tradition” maintains that all the Apostles were 1) in complete agreement on the doctrine that Jesus taught, 2) that Jesus was a “flesh and blood” being, and 3) that Jesus revealed no other God above the Creator as the heretics often insisted. The Apostles in turn imparted this ‘correct’ tradition to their disciples who are designated, according to tradition, as the “Apostolic Fathers” (e.g. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Papias, Polycarp of Smyrna, etc.). The “Apostolic Fathers” were those men who supposedly spent their youth in the company of the Apostles and learned directly from them; and who in turn handed the ‘correct’ tradition down through a succession of Catholic bishops.

On the historical record Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202) was the first Catholic writer to set forth this concept of an Apostolic Tradition and succession (Irenaeus, ibid., 3.2.2–3). It must be noted of course that Irenaeus’s concepts were directed against other traditions which were advanced by the “Gnostics” and other heretical groups who had their own versions of the “Apostolic Tradition” (e.g. Ptolemy, Letter to Flora)[1]. Irenaeus’s basic summary of the ‘correct’ Apostolic history and theology is described in the following words:

“For after our Lord rose from the dead, the apostles were invested with power from on high…who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (2) These have declared unto us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If anyone do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with the heretics.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1–2. Emphasis added.)

I wish to stress the point to my readers that that the whole “orthodox” notion of history has its beginning with the words of Irenaeus above (A. Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 2, pg. 16; W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, pg. 151; Eusebius, Church History, 4:21). Moreover, Irenaeus is the first to quote the New Testament Gospels and Epistles by all the names we know today. Irenaeus is the first to quote scripture by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and to quote all of Paul’s letters by name. Before him the Gospels are never quoted by name in the literature of the Apostolic Fathers. Justin Martyr, who lived in the generation before Irenaeus, quoted the Gospels as “memoirs of the Apostles” but never by name (Harnack, ibid., pg. 41). Only with Irenaeus do these writings all of a sudden have names—although the extant manuscripts to this day have no one’s name on them. Nonetheless, since the time of Irenaeus the four New Testament Gospels, being anonymous in and of themselves, have been regarded exclusively as authoritative witnesses to the original Apostolic Tradition. (Irenaeus makes his case for these writings in book 3:11 of his massive anti-Gnostic treatise Against Heresies. Irenaeus claims to have learned this tradition from Polycarp, who in turn received the “tradition” from the Apostle John, ibid. 3.3.4.)

It must also be noted that Irenaeus is the first on the historical record to introduce and quote the “Acts of the Apostles” in support of his “tradition” (ibid., 3.13.3f.). There are of course numerous problems with the book of Acts as used by Irenaeus. First, there is no record of the existence of this book before him. Second, there is no evidence by which to verify that this book (and the Gospel section) were written by a companion of Paul named “Luke” as Irenaeus claims (ibid.). Third, and most important, is that the account of the early Church in Acts does not match with Paul’s account as recorded in his letters, viz. Galatians and Corinthians [2]. The lack of harmony in these accounts is our primary concern here. The Acts account provides a picture of the early church that is ideal, and in which there is little in the way of controversy. Paul and the “twelve” Apostles are portrayed as working together, and Paul has a subsidiary role; whereas in Paul’s letters the opposite is true (see below).

The differences between these sources in turn carry profound historical and theological implications—just as much today as in Roman times. Behind this is the essential question of authority. Who indeed possesses the true doctrine of Jesus which was handed down by His Apostles? Was it the Catholic clergy with their four conflicting and anonymous Gospels/Acts? —or was it the Gnostics and their secret tradition? Or was the true doctrine imparted through Paul alone as the Marcionites insisted? Or was Paul to be blamed for profaning the Gospel, as the Ebionites insisted? (E.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.26.2) The Jewish Ebionites insisted that the true doctrine was imparted by the “Twelve” only, via “Matthew”, and that the only true Christians were those who remained steadfast in the Law of Moses (Mt. 5:17f.).

What I have just described are the four main historical factions within early Christianity, and the diverse and conflicting concepts of Apostolic history and authority that they embraced. Everyone knows of course that the Catholic version of the ‘tradition’ eventually won the popular consensus. This consensus was eventually established as the law of the Catholic Roman state; and to question this tradition, or to espouse contrary views, meant jail time or exile (or worse). However, to this day neither popular opinion nor the rule of law can resolve one simple question regarding the Apostolic Tradition: Is this tradition based on a unity that can be found in the New Testament? Were Paul and Peter really buddies who preached the “Gospel” together at Rome? Were Paul and Peter, et al., ever in agreement on the ministry to the gentiles? —and did Paul really uphold any edict from the “Twelve” to the gentiles? If we believe the book of Acts then the basic answers to most of these questions are yes. But if we look to Paul’s letters, and the testimony of Paul himself, a radically different picture emerges. [3]

Let us now take a look at the evidence and see whether Acts provides a coherent account that is consistent with Paul’s own account, in his own words. An obvious problem is the blatant contradiction between the Acts account of Paul’s conversion, and his first visit to the JerusalemChurch, as compared with Paul’s account of these same events which he recounts under oath in Galatians 1:15–24.

In Acts 9 we learn that Paul was miraculously converted while on the way to Damascus [4]. After Paul’s conversion he obeys Jesus and goes straight to Damascus where he is anointed by one Ananias. Paul then preaches boldly for “many days” in the synagogues of Damascus until it becomes apparent that the local Jews are conspiring against him. Paul escapes from Damascus and goes to Jerusalem. According to Acts 9:23 the time span from his arrival to Damascus to his departure for Jerusalem is described as “many days,” which would surely be no longer than several weeks.

Paul’s stay at Jerusalem also appears to be of a relatively short duration. Paul preaches boldly with the Apostles “coming in and out of Jerusalem” (Acts 9:27–28). But then he gets into a dispute with certain Greek-speaking Jews who decide to kill him. And so the brethren pack him off to his home-town of Tarsus. In Acts 9:31 we learn that “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria, and were edified…”

According to Acts 9 the time-span from Paul’s arrival to Damascus to his departure from Jerusalem for home was probably three months; maybe six months maximum. We are definitely not talking about a period of years. I bring this up because of the extent to which this account is in conflict with Paul’s own words in Galatians 1:15–24. According to Paul, once he was converted he went immediately into Arabia and then returned to Damascus (in Syria). And then, only after three years, did Paul visit Jerusalem; and he stayed for only two weeks, and the only members of the Church that he met was Peter and James. Paul denies meeting anyone else and he expressly states in Galatians 1:22 that he was “unknown by face unto the churches of Judea…” (cf. Acts 9:27–28) Then Paul writes that after two weeks he departed for Syria and then Cilicia (Tarsus).

There is a major difference between the testimony of Acts and the testimony of Paul. Acts says that Paul was in Damascus for only a short time after his conversion; and that he had to flee to Jerusalem because of the ruckus he allegedly caused. Yet Paul mentions no such trouble in Galatians. And we must remember that Paul swore an oath regarding this matter (Gal. 1:20). So Paul himself was out to set the record straight. Accordingly, he states that after his conversion he spent the next three years in Arabia and in Syria. He mentions no ruckus or trouble whatsoever. And only after three years does Paul decide to pay Peter and James a visit. And he denies meeting or becoming acquainted with any of the other members of the churches in Judea. Paul also does not mention any preaching activities, or any trouble, during the two week stay with Peter and James. Paul indicates that his stay in Jerusalem was quiet and uneventful. (Paul’s writings in general show a different profile of his character as compared with Acts. 1 Cor. 2:1–5 and 2 Cor. 10:10 indicate that he was not an eloquent speaker so much as he was an effective writer. In the latter passage it appears that Paul was answering a charge of cowardice: viz. that Paul speaks boldly in his letters, but is timid in person.)

Yet in the Acts account of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem we get a completely different and libelous story. In this account Paul is portrayed as a belligerent trouble-maker, who stirs up so much trouble for the churches in Judea that the brethren put him on a boat for Tarsus! And the writer implies that Paul was to blame for the trouble that went on. And we learn that the churches of Judea had rest and were edified once Paul was gone. At this point it seems that one of these writers is not relating the truth. If Paul’s friend Luke was the author of this account then he certainly does not have the story straight, and he has done his friend and mentor a disservice.

Another discrepancy of note is the Acts account of Peter’s ministry to the Gentiles. The problem here is that according to Paul, in Galatians, there was no such ministry. And Paul makes the following statement regarding his second visit to Jerusalem where the Gentile ministry was discussed. Galatians 2:7–9, 

“But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcised was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcised was unto Peter; (8) [for he that worked effectively in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcised, the same worked effectively through me toward the Gentiles] (9) And when James, Peter and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go to the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcised.” (Emphasis added. Note: verse 8 in brackets is a creed inserted later by a scribe [5].)

And following this passage is the infamous account of how Peter and his fellow Jews withdrew the right-hand of fellowship toward Paul and his non-Jewish and uncircumcised converts at Antioch. And this gives us further insight into what Peter’s attitude towards Gentiles actually was: Peter was compelled to adhere to traditional Jewish cleanliness laws which forbade Jews to come into contact with uncircumcised gentiles. In other words: Peter was a Jewish bigot who regarded non-Jews as filthy people. (Note in Paul’s words above his lack familiarity with the Apostolic leaders “James, Peter and John.” Paul remarks that these men “seemed to be pillars” or leaders. This type of language reveals Paul’s lack of connection with the Apostles at Jerusalem.)

According to Paul’s testimony in Galatians, Peter preached only to Jews and was unwilling to even accept uncircumcised non-Jews into the church. Yet according to Acts the opposite is true. And in Acts 11 there is an eloquent speech attributed to Peter in which he defends his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet according to Paul there was no such ministry on Peter’s part; which means that this speech never happened. If we are to believe what Acts says, then there should have been no controversy as that in Galatians: because the whole circumcision controversy had already been resolved by Peter; who was already preaching to the Gentiles before Paul made his second trip to Jerusalem to resolve the issue (cf. Gal. 2:1–10, Acts 15).

Acts 15 covers Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem where the issue of circumcision was discussed. And in Acts 15:7–11 statements are placed in Peter’s mouth which are flatly contradicted by Paul’s testimony of the second visit in Galatians 2:7–14. Either the words attributed to Peter are true, or the words of Paul are true—but not both. In Acts 15 Peter is reported to have said “God made a choice among us that the gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel… And [God] put no difference between us and them…” (15:7, 9) James, the Lord’s brother, is shown to be in complete agreement with Peter (15:19–20). Yet in Galatians Paul reports that Peter preached to Jews only; and that Peter was unwilling to break bread with gentiles on account that James might find out (Gal. 2:8, 12). Clearly these accounts cannot be reconciled; and Paul’s testimony indicates that James never accepted the gentile ministry in the way that is reported in Acts.

Briefly we must note that both Acts and Galatians indicate, and agree, that James was the leader (or bishop) of the Jerusalem church and had the final say over everything. In Galatians 2, Peter submits to James when emissaries from the latter arrive at Antioch. In Acts 15 James has the final say over the edict agreed upon by the Apostolic council. A peculiar note however is that Acts does not list James as one of the ‘12’ (cf. Acts 1:14, 25–26).

A further problem with the credibility of Acts appears in chapter 10, and which further calls into question the historical veracity of Peter’s ministry to the gentiles. This is in regard to Acts 10:9–28 where Peter has the vision and the revelation that he is to begin preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. This passage contradicts Luke 24:47 where Jesus stated His intent that the gospel was to be preached to the gentiles, but only that the Apostles were to wait for the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49, Acts 2:1–4). Moreover in Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:19 there is strong language from Jesus commanding a ministry to the gentiles. This command is among Jesus’ last words before His ascent to heaven. Yet according to Acts 10 Peter was ignorant of any command to preach to the gentiles and that this ministry had just been revealed to him in a vision. Peter’s alleged ignorance of Jesus’ commission is evident in these words from Acts 10:28, “…You know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God has showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” From these words we learn that Peter and the other apostles had never received a command from Jesus to preach to the Gentiles–according to Acts. (cf. Acts 2:5, 10:28)

The scriptural comparisons above clearly show that Acts is at odds with the Gospels as well as with Paul in Galatians.

The next problem to be addressed is whether Paul upheld the Apostolic edict toward the gentiles as recorded in Acts 15:29. This is in reference to the final pronouncement by James at the council which took place during Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem. Both Acts 15 and Galatians 2 agree that this council was to discuss Paul’s ministry to the gentiles and the question of circumcision. Acts reports the final agreement and decree that was reached, and was affirmed by James. This edict in turn set forth the basic rules that gentiles were to abide by if they wanted to be Christians. They were absolved from most of the Law of Moses, and were required to abide by the following points, which Acts attributes to James:

“That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.” (Acts 15:29)

The problem of course is that Paul does not recall the agreement this way in Galatians 2. Paul tells the Galatians (swearing all the while that he is telling the truth) that the only requirement was that “we remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10). This meant that Paul was to send money to the churches in Judea.

At this point it will be helpful to understand the purpose behind Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches, and why Paul was compelled to swear to them that he was telling the truth. Emissaries had been sent from Jerusalem who were denouncing Paul and were telling Paul’s Galatian gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised. Paul defended himself by implying that he wasn’t in need of the approval of James and Peter, and that he had received his apostolic authority directly from Christ Himself (Gal. 1:10–17). Paul makes clear that he received his gospel directly from the risen Christ and that this had nothing to do with the Apostles at Jerusalem. Paul states that he only went to Jerusalem (the first time) a full three years after his conversion. Paul then swears that he does not lie (1:20, “behold, before God, I lie not”) and he explains the nature of his second visit, some 14 years later.

According to his account, Paul returned to Jerusalem a second time, after 14 years, in order to explain his doctrine to them. Paul indicates his lack of familiarity with the Apostles by stating that he sought out those who “were of reputation” and who “seemed to be pillars” (2:2, 9). He reports further that some members of the church required that Paul’s gentile companion, Titus, be circumcised. Paul steadfastly refused. He then reports that an agreement was reached to the effect that Peter would lead the ministry to the circumcised (i.e. to Jews), and that Paul would lead his own ministry to the gentiles (Gal. 2:7–9).

For reasons I have explained above, I see no reason to believe that Peter ever had a ministry to the gentiles, and that the more plausible historical reality is that Peter and the Jewish Church had always been concerned solely with preaching to Jews. Peter seems to have accepted Paul as a fellow missionary and the notion of a gentile wing to the Church. But this agreement later fell apart at Antioch when Peter withdrew under pressure from James (Gal. 2:12). This event was followed by a counter ministry against Paul, in which emissaries were sent to discredit Paul, and to inform gentile converts that they had to be circumcised. This was the onslaught Paul was reacting against in Galatians: and in this context he informed them that his authority and doctrine came directly from Christ alone, and that he recognized no such agreement that gentiles must be circumcised.

At this point I will state my suspicion as to why the edict in Acts 15:29 does not match Paul’s account in Galatians 2:10. I suspect that the Acts account covers up the reality that the Jewish Apostles did in fact require circumcision, and whoever wrote Acts refused to admit that this was true. Paul in turn never agreed to this requirement, at least not in spirit. Paul only agreed on his end to send money; and that’s what he reports to the Galatians. Paul in fact never agreed to any requirement for circumcision, or that gentiles abstain from meats sacrificed to idols. (Paul also never mentions anything about blood, or things “strangled.”) I believe these are the historic undercurrents behind the discrepancies between Acts 15 and Galatians 2. My readers should also bear in mind that there is a Jewish Christian counter-tradition to Acts which maintains that the Apostles always required obedience to the Law, and that Paul was an apostate. However, I will stop short of accusing the author of Acts of lying. But I do believe that this writer reports the ‘history’ of what he wanted to believe, and not what the facts actually were. It’s possible that the writer of Acts was presenting a tradition that he accepted and believed in good faith.

Getting back to the edict in Acts 15:29, I want to address the question of whether Paul upheld that edict as Acts reports. The first point of the edict is that gentiles abstain from meats offered to idols. An example of Paul’s position can be seen in these words from 1 Corinthians 8:9–11:

“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your’s become a stumbling block to them that are weak. For if any man see you which has knowledge (gnosis) eating meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through your knowledge shall the weak brother perish for whom Christ died?”

Obviously the concern of Paul has nothing to do with obedience to the ordinances of either the Law or the edict of the Apostles. And it is evident that Paul specifically allowed for certain members of the CorinthianChurch to eat meat sacrificed to idols: with the stipulation that this should not be done in the presence of the weaker brethren who lack gnosis (1 Cor. 8:7). Let us note here that this peculiar concept of knowledge is the source behind Paul’s concept of liberty and his variance from the Apostolic standard as reported in Acts.

The reality is that there is no evidence in any of Paul’s letters that he enforced an edict from the Apostles which prohibited the eating of meat which originated from idol sacrifices. Paul’s concern was not about the meat itself, but about who might get offended; hence the statement in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient.” Paul’s meaning is that while idol meats are “lawful”, it is not expedient to eat this meat in front of someone who will have a crisis of conscience, or who lacks “gnosis” (1 Cor. 8:7, 10:27–29). Paul also advises that “Whatsoever is sold in the meat-market, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake…” (1 Cor. 10:25) Otherwise, Paul does not prohibit anyone from eating meat in the “idol’s temple” or “feast” (a pagan religious festival) as long as no one has a crisis of conscience because of it (cf. 1 Cor. 8:9–11, 10:27).

Paul’s own words show that he allowed the eating of sacrificial meat: which was forbidden in the Law of Moses and the Noahide ordinances, and by edict of the Apostles. Thus what tradition expressly forbids as unclean or unlawful, Paul responds with the notion that “all things are lawful.” Hence Paul’s decisions on whatever he chooses to indulge in, or avoid, is not dictated by the Law, but by whether or not a given activity is spiritually edifying. Paul’s statements could be construed to mean that the traditional ordinances were to be regarded with indifference. Thus we read in 1 Corinthians 8:8,

“But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.

In short, Paul’s doctrine and reasoning do not reflect the Apostolic standard as reported in Acts. In the same vein, Irenaeus attacked the Valentinians for eating meat sacrificed to idols, “…they make no scruple about eating meats sacrificed to idols, imagining in this way that they can contract no defilement” (Against Heresies, 1.6.3). Yet Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 show that Paul himself did not live up to the standards of Irenaeus and the “tradition” that he sought to impose on all Christians everywhere (ibid., 1.10). The Catholic Fathers quote Acts 15:29, but Paul’s letters actually say something different.

In some respects Paul’s logic is also applicable to the question of his position on the issue of fornication. Certainly there is language in the letters in which Paul states plainly that he is opposed to fornication. But then Paul on this occasion also expresses extraneous rhetoric to the effect that “all things are lawful” (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:12f). Why doesn’t Paul just condemn fornication as unlawful and sinful and leave it at that? Why the qualification? (See my article On the Ethics of St. Paul.)

Overall, the evidence in Paul’s letters shows that he was not concerned with any edict from the Apostles as alleged in Acts 15:29. And the Galatian letter basically amounts to Paul’s declaration of independence from the 12 and the JerusalemChurch. Note the following comments of Paul toward the Jewish Apostles who had actually walked with Jesus. Paul refers to them as men who “seemed to be pillars” and Paul further says of them that “whatsoever they were” (i.e. being witnesses to Christ) that they “added nothing to me” (Gal. 2:6, 9). And this is all part of Paul’s message to the Galatians that he received his “gospel” and his Apostolic authority directly from the risen Christ and not from any man (Gal. 1:11–12). Paul can also be construed to have condemned the Apostles. Paul says that any man who preaches another gospel (in reference to circumcision) is “accursed” (Gal. 1:9, anathema). If the Jerusalem Apostles were ultimately behind the counter-ministry against Paul then they are the inevitable target of Paul’s condemnation. There is no evidence in any of Paul’s letters that Paul could depend on the 12 for support, or that the conflict in Galatians with Peter and James was ever resolved. (In 2 Corinthians 3:1–2 Paul admits that he has no letter of commendation from the Apostles.)

Paul’s ongoing conflict with the JerusalemChurch can also be seen in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, where the rhetoric is notably heated (e.g. 2 Cor. 11:4–5, 13–15, 22–23; 12:11–12). Here again Paul defends himself against accusations that he has not seen the Lord the way the other Apostles did (i.e. in the flesh), and that Paul’s authority is lacking. In part II of this series we will look at how the Jewish-Christian Clementine literature fills in the blanks on this conflict. 


Acts vs. Paul in history

The inherent problems between Acts and the writings of Paul were also part of the historic controversy between the Catholic Fathers and the Gnostic/Marcionite factions. The Catholic Fathers appealed to Acts in order to oppose the heretical view of Paul. In this case, the Catholic Fathers had to address a persuasive Gnostic argument which alleged that Paul had been a Gnostic sage who worked independently of the 12 Apostles and was spiritually superior to them. On the basis of this formula the Gnostics used Paul as a vehicle by which to establish the apostolic authority of their doctrine over against the Catholic clergy: The latter claimed its authority via an established line of apostolic succession which supposedly went back to a unified group of Apostles which included Paul. The clergy maintained that Paul and the other Apostles were unified, and that they preached the same orthodox doctrine (i.e. the “Apostolic Tradition”).

Paul was useful to the Gnostic cause because of such controversial statements as found in Galatians 1:1, where Paul described himself as an Apostle “not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ…” And in verses 11 and 12 Paul expressly denied that he received his gospel from any man, i.e. Peter or the other Apostles. For the Gnostics Paul’s statement would constitute a negation of the institution of Apostolic succession; and his testimony in Galatians was construed to mean that any man could have a revelation directly from the risen Christ and become an apostle. The approval of the ‘Twelve’ was not needed: nor was there any need for the approval of the Catholic clergy.

The Gnostics also tied Paul’s independent status into the notion that he rejected the traditional theology of the Jewish Church. And they would have recognized Paul’s spiritual independence from both the Jewish tradition and apostolic authority in his rejection of the Law of Moses; which was in turn imputed to symbolize his covert rejection of the Creator of the world. This was the basic theological spin which the Gnostics placed on the history of Paul and his doctrine. It was therefore necessary for the Catholic Fathers to counter all evidence in the Pauline letters which might support the Gnostic view of Paul: which the latter used effectively to lure proselytes away from the Catholic Church and into the Gnostic schools; and into the worship of a God other than the Creator of the world. In order to refute the heretical interpretation it was necessary that the Fathers demonstrate that Paul had been in submission to the original 12 Apostles. This would in turn validate the institution of Apostolic succession, and the Apostolic Tradition itself, and thereby refute the Gnostic claim to apostolic authority via the example of Paul and the notion of his independent ministry to the Gentiles.

Again the book of Acts was the primary document which the Catholic Fathers used to validate their ‘correct’ view of history. (In my view it is no coincidence that Acts was first quoted in history in direct reference to this conflict.) But the use of Acts also led to certain awkward problems: and this points back to the fact that Acts and Galatians do not really fit together, and that somebody is not telling the truth. The result is that the Catholic Fathers were forced to twist Paul’s words in order to force him into harmony with Acts. An example can be seen with the Catholic Father Clement of Alexandria and the way he twisted 1 Corinthians 8:11 and 10:25 so as to force these passages to fall into line with Acts 15:29.

In regard to the question of meat left from idol sacrifices Paul advises in 1 Corinthians 10:25, “Whatsoever is sold in the meat-market, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake…” But Clement’s reading and interpretation of the same passage are remarkably different:

“For the Apostle says All other things buy out of the meat-market, asking no questions with the exception of the things mentioned in the Catholic epistle of all the apostles… which is written in the Acts of the Apostles, and conveyed to the faithful by the hand of Paul himself. For they (the Apostles) intimated that they must of necessity abstain from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication, from which keeping themselves, they should do well (Acts 15:29).” (Clement, Stromata, 4:15; italics identify phrases from 1 Cor. 10:25 and Acts 15:29.)

In Clement’s statement it is obvious that 1 Corinthians 10:25 has been interpolated and subjected to Acts 15:29, and thereby Clement maintains the orthodox consensus that Paul was in submission to the Twelve. However, this consensus is maintained only upon violence done to the passage. Thus Clement has forced Paul to say that the Corinthians can buy anything in the market except meat sacrificed to idols; whereas Paul in fact said that it is ok to buy the meat, just don’t ask where it came from.

A more bizarre twist in Clement’s exegesis is that he justified his misrepresentation of Paul in accordance with the exact same principle by which Paul justified the partaking of idol meats: gnosis. Thus, according to Clement, Paul obeyed the injunction of the Apostles because “not all have gnosis and lest our liberty prove a stumbling block to the weak. For by your gnosis he that is weak is destroyed” (i.e. 1 Cor. 8:9–11; ibid.). Clement’s twist on Paul’s gnosis was of course designed to rescue Paul from the heretical theology which the Gnostics believed was implied in Paul’s rhetoric. The word “gnosis” in this case referred to Paul’s belief that the Law of Moses was “ordained by angels” and was not from the supreme Being (Gal. 3:19, 4:1–9).

Another example of such twisting can be seen in the way that both Irenaeus and Tertullian twisted Paul’s words in Galatians 2:5. In this case the purpose was to prove that Paul did submit to the Apostles and allowed his gentile companion Titus to be circumcised. Thus in Gal. 2:5 both Fathers removed the negative “not” so that the passage read “to whom we did yield by subjection…” whereas all manuscripts accepted by orthodox churches today read “to whom we did not yield…” In both cases Irenaeus and Tertullian twisted the passage in order to refute the Gnostics and Marcionites, and to establish that Paul did submit to the 12. Of course this is not what Paul said; and no orthodox theologian or historian engages in these tactics today. Obviously Irenaeus and Tertullian could not rely on the scriptures for what they wanted to establish in terms of a ‘correct’ historical account. Paul’s words do not fit the consensus in Acts and cannot be used in full, consistent support of the Apostolic Tradition without twisting in the process. (See Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul, pg. 104; see also Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.16.2; Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 19)

In direct conflict with Paul’s position, in Galatians 2:5, is the report in Acts that Paul circumcised Timothy (Timotheos; Acts 16:1–3). Yet in Paul’s own testimony, under oath, he vehemently refused to circumcise Titus because he believed it was a compromise against everything that the Gospel represents: “that the truth of the Gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:5). Can we really believe the book of Acts when it reports that Paul made such a compromise in regard to Timothy—when Paul’s position is so passionately stated in his own words?

The contrast between Paul’s testimony and the book of Acts constitutes an irreconcilable account of ‘Christian’ history. The book of Acts portrays the early church and its leaders as a unified institution: but Paul’s testimony shows that the opposite was true. Paul’s testimony shows that there was no original apostolic consensus or unity. Moreover this lack of cohesion is evident in certain other New Testament sources and themes when these are compared with Paul. One of the most obvious examples is the diverse teachings on the Law as found in the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letters. In Matthew 5 and 19 Jesus teaches that the Law is the path to salvation, and that his followers should obey it. Whereas Paul teaches that no salvation can come through obedience to the Law. Hence the Apostle wrote: “Therefore by the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified” and “Christ has become of no effect unto you; those of you who are justified by the Law, ye are fallen from grace” (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 5:4; see my article On the Ethics of St. Paul). These conflicting elements show that there was no original unity or consensus of doctrine, or theology, among the earliest Christian leaders. There was no original Apostolic Tradition, but instead there were many traditions; and all of these diverse elements are preserved in the New Testament. Orthodox tradition claims that there are no contradictions in the New Testament or any other part of the Bible. But this is yet another lie that needs to be laid to rest.

In part II of this series we will look at the similarities and differences between Paul’s letters, the book of Acts, and the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. In this presentation we will see how that Paul’s letters and the Clementines tend to corroborate each other, and together contradict the book of Acts. This interrelationship will show once again that the real history of the Apostles and their doctrine(s) was something radically different than the ideal picture that “orthodox” Christians derive from the dubious book of Acts. –jw



1] Ptolemy writes to Flora that the Gnostic secrets will be revealed to her if she is “judged worthy of the apostolic tradition which we too have received by succession” (Letter to Flora, B. Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pg. 314). Numerous books in the Nag Hammadi Library portray Jesus as imparting secret Gnostic teachings to his Apostles. Many of the Gnostic texts are named accordingly; hence there is the Apocryphon (“secret book”) of James, the Apocryphon of John, the Book of Thomas the Contender to the Perfect (Initiates), the Apocalypse of James, and the Apocalypse of Peter (Apocalypse = revealing of secrets). The Gospel of Mary also contains this theme where Jesus imparts a secret teaching to Mary Magdalene just as he has done with the other apostles. See my archive article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, IV: Did Jesus Teach a Secret Doctrine?.

2] Tradition tells us that Paul’s intimate friend Luke wrote the Acts account. But critics have expressed doubt on the basis that the Acts account of Paul’s life, ministry and doctrine cannot be reconciled with Paul’s writings: e.g. W. Kümmel, Introduction to the NT, pp. 181f., 183.  R. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the NT., pg. 145f. Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, pg. 133.

3] My presentation on the conflict between Paul and Acts is based in part on the research of the late Unitarian theologian Arthur Powell Davies and his excellent book The First Christian: A study of St. Paul and Christian origins. See also the sources cited in note 2 above.

4] Of note is that Paul never writes of this incredible conversion experience: which is repeated three times in Acts, and each time the story changes (cf. Acts 9:1–8, 22:4–11, 26:13–18). Would we accept such testimony in court where we swear our oaths on the Bible?

5] The phrase in Gal. 2:8, “for he that worked effectively in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcised, the same worked effectively through me toward the Gentiles” is more than likely a creed added by a later “orthodox” scribe—with the purpose of uniting Paul and Peter. The clue to this is the conflicting context between the statement above as compared with Paul’s statement in verse 9 that Peter “seemed” to be one of the “pillars.” If Paul really believed that Christ “worked effectively in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcised” then there would be no question that Peter was one of the “pillars” or leaders of the church at Jerusalem.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2013. All Rights Reserved.


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