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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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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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Apostle Paul is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 97.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stellar lecturer but read Acts & Epistles first I bought this course many years ago before I read the New Testament. I don't think it made much sense to me at the time. Having now read the entire Bible, I've listened to the course again and wow! Luke Johnson is an amazing lecturer and the course itself is a delight. Johnson had me hanging on his every word. He has a way of building suspense that is characteristic of some of my very best college professors. You wouldn't think the word suspense could be applied to a discourse on the life and writings of Paul yet there it was. As with most Biblical topics, Paul and his writings are surrounded by controversy. Johnson carefully explains these controversies, first presenting opposing views then laying out where he stands on many of these issues. Those familiar with Biblical scholarship are, doubtless, aware that seven of Paul's letters are universally regarded as having been authored by Paul. Scholars differ on the authenticity of the remaining six. Johnson will surprise some listeners by maintaining that Paul is the author of most of these as well. In this regard, he differs from Bart D. Ehrmann ("New Testament") and David Brakke ("Understanding the New Testament") but listeners shouldn't be put off by this. Instead, they should delight in learning a differing opinion. And Johnson is fair in his presentation of opposing views. Johnson also addresses other controversies: Paul's views on homosexuality, on the role of women in the church, and on inclusivity and exclusivity. Additionally, Johnson does a great job of illuminating the meaning of several Koine Greek phrases important to the understanding of Paul's views on faith. So I'm highly recommending this course but you will be best served by reading The Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles first.
Date published: 2020-07-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Christians Courses Here I lost a lot of respect for The Great Courses. I have noticed that this company provides courses on Christianity and all their courses on Christianity are an attempt to debunk it, ridicule it or cast doubt. On the other hand, all the courses on Islam are very apologetic and downright Islamic evangelism! This is sick. I wish this company had a neutral approach and provided neutral, apologetic AND polemic courses for all religions. This way, they are all treated equally and we understand all perspectives from all angles for all religions.
Date published: 2020-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Apostle Paul I enjoyed the course very much. I was interested in learning about Paul because of things I had heard about him being on the controversial side. I learned a lot. The lecturer was also very good. He spoke in way that was clear and understandable. Some of the material was very deep, so I had to go back and listen again. Then it became clear to me. Thank you very much for the course.
Date published: 2020-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An in depth look at the writings of Paul I learned quite a few things about both Paul and his writings. For example, I learned that we know almost nothing about Paul outside of Act and Paul's own letters. There is nothing else about him that is contemporary. I learned that Paul frequently contradicted his own positions in other letters; that some of the letters of Paul were probably not written by Paul; and that Paul seemed unaware of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels.
Date published: 2019-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Christianity's Second Founder The apostle Paul was a complex and peculiar man. As Professor Johnson reminds us, Paul began as a Pharisee persecuting Christians only to turn into one of them. He claimed to have seen the risen Christ despite never having met the latter during His lifetime. Paul’s letters to Christian communities are full of spiritual advice, yet one of his top priorities was practical--getting them to contribute money to the Jerusalem church. Himself a circumcised Jew, he believed the Torah was no path to salvation and raged against those who urged gentile Christians to obey it, especially getting circumcised if they were men. Finally, and most notoriously, Paul promoted the notion that all were equal in Christ, Jew and gentile, slave and free, man and woman, yet he refused to challenge pagan or Jewish norms of inequality, telling slaves and wives to continue obeying their masters and husbands. Professor Johnson is a believer and former Benedictine monk, so his approach to the Pauline letters is very different from that of Bart Ehrman, whose New Testament series I recently listened to. Ehrman shares the majority view among scholars that only seven letters were clearly written by Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon) and that the pastoral letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were clearly not written by him. He also dismisses as non-Pauline those some scholars think are authentic—Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians. These judgments are based on differences relating to style, vocabulary, and argument between the accepted and disputed letters. There are references, says Ehrman, to church offices that did not yet exist in Paul’s time. Johnson, however, argues that all the letters are authentically Pauline. He rejects style and argument differences as significant, since they appear among the accepted as well as contested letters. Even if some of doubtful authenticity were written by Paul’s immediate followers rather than the man himself, they reflect his views. That goes even for the infamous pronouncement in 1 Timothy that women should not teach or have authority over men and should remain silent in church. As for the argument about church offices, Johnson says that they did exist in Paul’s time. Early churches took their simple structure from contemporary funeral colleges, charitable organizations and Hellenistic synagogues, so even then they appointed an administrative supervisor or episcopus to manage their affairs—the origin of the bishop. You may or may not agree with Professor Johnson, but his clear and soothing voice makes for a good listening experience. It resembles that of a professional storyteller or a trained preacher—which as a former monk he probably is.
Date published: 2019-02-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Adequate for an introduction Sufficient for the time of the lecture; but I would have liked a better discussion of duality in Paul, such as in Romans the Christians following nature and Jews following the law.
Date published: 2018-12-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is the third copy I have purchased. Great course that I have shared with friends.
Date published: 2018-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Insight and Historic Findings of the Apostle This course opened my eyes to the historic account of the Apostle Paul. As the author of a majority of the New Testament, Paul was always influential to me. His many letters regarding human and spiritual accountability, the development and function of the church and the foundations of Christianity, are analyzed and given proper context through Professor Johnson's lectures. A great course for those who desire a deeper dive into the life of a Bible scholar and apostle. Highly recommend this course!
Date published: 2018-10-30
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