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Apostle Paul

Apostle Paul

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Apostle Paul

Course No. 657
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 657
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Course Overview

Coming to grips with Christianity means coming to grips with Paul. There is no figure aside from Jesus himself who is more important to the history of this world religion, and no figure from the age of the early church about whom we know more or of whom we have a more rounded view.

Historian Luke Timothy Johnson, the best-selling author of The Real Jesus, offers a fresh and historically grounded assessment of the life and letters of Christianity's "apostle to the Gentiles" in this 12-lecture series.

"One of the most fascinating, important, and controversial figures in the religious history of the West, Paul the Apostle continues to find champions and detractors, sometimes in surprising places," says Professor Johnson.

This course addresses many questions concerning Paul's embattled life and work:

  • Is Paul the inventor of Christianity or part of a larger movement?
  • Is he best understood from the Acts of the Apostles or from his letters?
  • Why does he focus on moral character of the community?
  • How do his supporters and detractors depict him?

You consider his letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians. You explore his religious commitments as a member of the Pharisaic movement, his persecution of the Christian sect, the dramatic experience that changed him into an apostle, and his work as a missionary and church founder.

The Controversial Apostle

Controversy has always swirled around Paul. In fact, it began during his lifetime.

As a Pharisaic persecutor of Christianity who became one of its most vocal and active exponents, as a Jew who preached to Gentiles, and as a missionary and pastor who had to deal with a wide range of demanding situations across several decades and many miles, it is hardly surprising that Paul should attract a body of critics and defenders who are as numerous and intense as his stature is titanic.

The 13 letters associated with Paul, together with the large sections of the Acts of the Apostles that recount his missionary journeys, form the bulk of the New Testament. His writings—nearly all of which were set down and circulated before the Gospels were written—have been endlessly scoured as sources for Christian doctrine and morals.

A Passionate Poet of the Divine

Paul is an eloquent and passionate poet of the divine. His works are full of unforgettable passages, and his words have exercised an important influence on countless "ordinary" believers as well as theological giants such as Augustine and Luther.

Paul's personality has been endlessly analyzed. He is one of the great converters (or turncoats, depending on one's perspective) in history. Modern thinkers inclined to fault Christianity—Nietzsche, Freud, and George Bernard Shaw, to name three of the more famous—often save their most intense scrutiny for Paul, whose views on issues of morality, sex, and authority continue to be contentious.

The Heart and Mind of a Pastor

Yet amid all the controversy around Paul, we tend to ignore the things which most concerned him, namely, the stability and integrity of the tiny Christian communities to which he wrote his letters.

Professor Johnson aims to rectify this by focusing precisely on these letters to learn something about Paul in the context of early Christianity. After all, before Paul became a source for theology and a part of the canon of Scripture, he was a missionary and pastor. This leads to thought-provoking questions such as:

  • What were the problems with which Paul and his readers had to deal?
  • How did his letters sometimes create as many problems as they solved?
  • What clues to reading Paul can we get from recent research on ancient rhetoric?
  • In what sense is Paul a "radical," and in what sense does he mean his letters to have "conservative" implications?
  • What relation do Paul's preaching and writings about the risen Christ have to the Jesus whose words and deeds we read of in the Gospels?

As you join Professor Johnson in reading Paul's letters as individual literary compositions devoted to solving the urgent pastoral problems of the Christian communities he was nurturing, you begin to hear Paul's voice speaking to real-life situations and genuine crises.

A Portrait Drawn from Life

Such reading yields a picture of Paul that is far more complex than any stereotype, whether positive or negative. It is a portrait drawn from life.

You find a Paul who struggles to establish the authority to teach even in a community that he has founded (1 Corinthians), then finds its allegiance slipping away just as he is engaged in the greatest act of his career (2 Corinthians). You discover a Paul who writes to relieve a community's mind (1 Thessalonians) only to find that he has inflamed its imagination (2 Thessalonians).

You appreciate a Paul who seeks to realize an egalitarian ideal, and succeeds on some fronts (Galatians), but has only ambiguous results (Philemon) and undoubtedly fails (1 Timothy) on others.

You see a Paul who sets out to raise money for a future trip and ends up creating a theological masterwork (Romans). And you see a Paul who finds himself imprisoned, "an apostle in chains," yet who uses his very confinement to expand his witness and set forth his vision of Christ's church as a sacrament of the world's best possibilities (Colossians, Ephesians).

Perhaps most provocatively, Professor Johnson parts company with much modern scholarship by arguing that Paul, though he may not have literally written any of his letters, should nonetheless be considered the true author of all.

"The only requirement for this course is the willingness to journey along with Paul as he thinks his way through the problems he faces," says Professor Johnson. "The payoff is learning why Paul has had such an enormous influence, and why he remains a vital force in the religious life of millions, a living voice whose summoning words sustain Christian communities to this day and subvert all tendencies to reduce Christianity to a form of religious routine."

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2001
  • 1
    An Apostle Admired and Despised
    What makes Paul the most important, most controversial, and least understood figure in earliest Christianity? Why does he have so many intense supporters and detractors? How should we understand his distinctive experience, the issues he faced, his way of thinking, and how all these affected the Christian religion? x
  • 2
    How Should We Read Paul?
    We must face three critical issues. The first is "personality or rhetoric?" Do we seek the psychology of Paul or an understanding of his letters? The second is "genius or tradition?" Is Paul the inventor of Christianity, or is he part of a larger movement? The third issue is "where is the real Paul?" Do we follow the Acts of the Apostles or his letters? And, among the letters, which are "really" Paul's? x
  • 3
    Paul’s Life and Letters
    By using the few extant sources critically, we can reconstruct Paul's career, at least in outline. In this framework, it is also possible to locate some of his correspondence that now forms the main basis for our knowledge of Paul and describe the main literary features of his letters that are important for their interpretation. x
  • 4
    Problems of Early Christianity
    Because Paul's letters respond to specific situations, they are irreplaceable sources of knowledge concerning the problems experienced among the first urban Christians. This lecture provides an overview of the issues that Paul had to wrestle with in his letters. x
  • 5
    First and Second Thessalonians
    These letters, dating from around 52 C.E., represent the earliest extant Christian literature. Although some scholars contest the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians, the two letters are best read as stages of Paul's response to a single crisis in a local church concerning expectations about Jesus' return and the last days. x
  • 6
    Life in the World—First Corinthians
    Paul's surviving correspondence with the Corinthian church reveals the real-life problems of a local church and Paul's view of his own mission. The Corinthians cannot agree on much of anything, whether the topic is food or sex or who gets to speak in the assembly. Paul tries to get them thinking less about their rights than about living in right relationship according to "the mind of Christ." x
  • 7
    Life in Christ—Second Corinthians
    This letter contains some of Paul's most personal, painful, and profound reflections on the meaning of ministry, which he sees as a process of self-emptying for the sake of others. Paul sees Jesus as the model for such a reconciling way of life, and asks the Corinthians to join him in freely imitating that pattern. x
  • 8
    Life and Law—Galatians
    One of the fundamental issues facing the first Christians—the connection between Christ and the law of Moses—surfaces with particular sharpness in Galatians. In this passionate yet rigorously argued letter, Paul insists on a vision of life empowered by God's spirit and shaped by the pattern of Jesus' faith and love. x
  • 9
    Life and Righteousness—Romans
    A magisterial argument concerning God's ways with the world, Romans is Paul's theological masterpiece. Presenting an orderly exposition of the "good news" as Paul proclaimed it, Romans has affected the course of theology in the Western church more than any other New Testament writing. x
  • 10
    Fellowship—Letters from Captivity
    Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians seem to have been written while Paul was in prison. Taken as a group, the letters share a concern for fellowship, especially when all-too-human tensions threaten to deface the ideal of equality and unity in Christ. Ephesians stands as the best expression of these concerns and the Pauline tradition's most mature reflection on the meaning of the church. x
  • 11
    History and Theology
    Most scholars today think that the three letters to Paul's delegates (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) were written pseudonymously after Paul's death and, when read not as real letters but as a fictional correspondence, reveal a stage of development in the organization of early Christianity. This letter makes a case for a different approach to reading these three epistles. x
  • 12
    Paul’s Influence
    Paul's letters have always been read aloud in worship, which is how he meant them to be used, and how they have continued to shape Christian awareness. Whatever his weaknesses, Paul still challenges his hearers to live more thoughtful and faithful lives as followers of the risen Jesus, and Paul's powerful voice subverts all reductions of Christianity to mere religious routine. x

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  • 12 lectures on 6 CDs
  • 72-page printed course guidebook
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  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

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  • 72-page printed course guidebook
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  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Luke Timothy Johnson

About Your Professor

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in...
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