The History of the Interpretation of the Apostle Paul


Dr. Peter M. Head [Web Page]


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The Interpretation of Paul in the Early Church


1. Earliest reception

            a) within Pauline churches in the NT era

            b) 2 Pet 3.14-16:

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

            c) 1 Clement (AD 96) [Clement of Rome]

ch5: But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes (lit.: ‘those who have been athletes’). Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.

Ch. 47: Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.

Knew: Romans, 1 Cor, (2 Cor), Gal, Eph, Phil, (Col), 1 Tim, (2 Tim), Tit. 'Clement thus provides us with indications that the greater part, if not the whole, of the Pauline corpus was probably known to him and was present to his mind as he wrote in c. 95 AD.' (Hagner, p. 237)

            d) Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – 107)

Ephesians 12.2: Ye are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, the deservedly most happy, at whose feet may I be found [JBL: ‘in whose footsteps I would fain be found treading’], when I shall attain to God; who in all his Epistles makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.

Romans 4.3: I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least [of believers]: they were free, as the servants of God; while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus Christ, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being in bonds for Him, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.

knowledge of 1 Cor, also Eph and Phil (possibly Romans and 1 Timothy).

e) Bibliography: A. Lindemann, 'Paul in the Writings of the Apostlic Fathers', Paul and the Legacies of Paul (ed. W.S. Babcock; Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990), pp. 25-45. A. Lindemann, Paulus im ältesten Christentum: Das Bild des Apostels und die Rezeption der paulinischen Theologie in der frühchristlichen Literatur bis Marcion (BhT 58; Tübingen: JCB Mohr, 1979). D.A. Hagner, The Use of the Old and New Testaments in Clement of Rome (NovTSS 34; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973). H. Rathke, Ignatius von Antiochen und die Paulusbriefe (TU xcix; Leipzig, 1967). C. Trevett, A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia (SBEC 29; Lewiston/New York/Lampeter: UPA, 1992). W.R. Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).




2. The collection and preservation of the Pauline epistles: Corpus, codex, canon Formation

I.                    Importance of Seven churches (Muratorian Canon, Hippolytus of Rome, Cyprian, Victorinus of Pettau): used to prove catholicity of the Pauline Epistles (Dahl; [cf. Rev 2-3; Ignatius by Polycarp]

a.       Muratorian Canon (late 2nd Cent): ‘the blessed Apostle Paul himself, imitating the example of his predecessor, John, wrote to seven churches only by name in this order [Cor, Eph, Phil, Col, Gal, Thess, Rom] … although he wrote twice of the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians, for reproof, nevertheless [it is evident that] one Church is made known to be diffused throughout the whole globe of the earth’.

b.      Cyprian (d. 258), Testimonia, I.20: Cyprian, Treatises [scroll down]

‘Whence also Paul wrote to seven churches; and the Apocalypse sets forth seven churches, that the number seven may be preserved; as the seven days in which God made the world …’

c.       Victorinus’ Commentary on Rev 1.20 (d. c. 304): [Victorinus' Commentary on the Apocalypse]

‘In the whole world Paul taught that all the churches are arranged by sevens, that they are called seven, and that the Catholic Church is one. And first of all, indeed, that he himself also might maintain the type of seven churches, he did not exceed that number. But he wrote to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Thessalonians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians; afterwards he wrote to individual persons, so as not to exceed the number of seven churches.’

d.      repeated pattern of using proof-texts (Is 4.1; 1 Sam 2.5): ‘these texts have led to a combination of the argument for the catholicity of the Pauline letters with traditional, originally Jewish, lists of testimonia for the importance of the number seven’ (Dahl, p. 166)

II.                 The Reception of the Pastoral Epistles

a.       C. Looks, Das Anvertraute bewahren: Die Rezeption der Pastoralbriefe im 2. Jahrhundert (Munich: Herbert Utz, 1999):

                                                                           i.      Lists all possible allusions: Apostolic Fathers, Gnostic Writings, Apologists, Jewish-Christian texts, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Didache, apocryphal writings, martyrdoms, etc. Rated one scale from certain to impossible.

                                                                         ii.      Conclusions: fairly widespread influence on early Christian thought, with allusions form throughtout the Pastorals, alongside some commonly quoted texts such as 1 Tim 1.4f, 10, 15-17; 2.4-6. NB. 6 certain uses and 25 fairly probable in Irenaeus.

                                                                        iii.      From review by J.K. Elliott JTS 52 (2001) 877-879.


LINK: On the Letter Collection: Trobisch {The previous text is a slightly edited version of the first chapter of Paul's Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1994) by David Trobisch.}

D. Trobisch, Paul's Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994): basically an english summary of Die Entstehung der Paulusbriefsammlung: Studien zu den Anfängen christlicher Publizistik (NTOA 10; Göttingen: Vandenhock & Ruprecht, 1989). Cf. also Die Endredaktion des Neuen Testaments: Eine Untersuchung zur Entstehung der christlichen Bibel (NTOA 31; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1996).

N.A. Dahl, ‘The Particularity of the Pauline Epistles as a Problem in the Ancient Church’ Neotestamentica et Patristica (FS O. Cullmann; ed. W.C. van Unnik; NovTSS 6; Leiden: Brill, 1962), 261-271. Reprinted (with some additional notes) in N.A. Dahl, Studies in Ephesians (ed. D. Hellholm et al; WUNT 131; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 165-178.


3. Marcion

a)      Introduction

b)       Harnack’s famous statement that ‘in the 2nd century only one Christian—Marcion—took the trouble to understand Paul; but. . .he misunderstood him.’ (‘Marcion and the Marcionite Churches’, 534, cf. also History of Dogma [ET of 1893; 3rd German edition; 7 vols.; London, Williams & Norgate 1894-1899] vol. 1, 89).

c) Euaggelion and Apostolikon

            d) Antitheses:

18.The Jewish Christ was designated by the Creator solely to restore the Jewish people from the Diaspora; but our Christ was commissioned by the good God to liberate all mankind.

19. The Good is good toward all men; the Creator, however, promises salvation only to those who are obedient to him. The Good redeems those who believe in him, but he does not judge those who are disobedient to him; the Creator, howeve, redeems his faithful and judges and pubishes the sinners.

20. Cursing characterizes the Law; blessing, the faith.

29. The Christ [of the OT] promises to the Jews the restoration of their formaer condition by return of their land and, after death, a refuge in Abraham's bosom in the underworld. Our Christ will establish the Kingdom of God, an eternal and heavenly possession.

30. Both the place of the pubishment and that of refuge of the Creator are placed in the underworld for those who obey the Law and the Prophets. But Christ and the God who belongs to him have a heavenly place of rest and a haven, of whcih the Creator never spoke.

e) Bibliography: Primary Text: E. Evans (ed.), Tertullian Adversus Marcionem (OECS; Oxford; Clarendon, 1972; 2 vols) [Also in ANCL]

A. von Harnack, Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott. Eine Monographie zur Geschichte der Grundlegung der katholischen Kirche (2nd ed.: TU 45; Leipzig, Hinrichs 1924); partial ET: Marcion: the gospel of the alien God [ET: J.E. Steely & L.D. Bierma; Durham NC, Labyrinth 1990]). U. Schmid, Marcion und sein Apostolos: Rekonstruktion und historische Einordnung der marcionitischen Paulusbriefausgabe (ANTF 25; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995) [pp. 315-319 for reconstructed Greek text]. P.M. Head, ‘The Foreign God and the Sudden Christ: Theology and Christology in Marcion’s Gospel Redaction’ Tyndale Bulletin 44(1993), pp. 307-321. Online Version J. Knox, Marcion and the New Testament. An Essay in the Early History of the Canon (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1942). E.C. Blackman, Marcion and his influence (London: SPCK, 1948). R. Joseph Hoffman, Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century (AAR Academy Series 46, Scholars Press, Chico, Cal. 1984). NB. Chap. 7 is on "the Constructive Themes of Marcion's Paulinism" (Note critical review by C.P. Bammel in JTS 39 [1988] 227-232); also ‘How then Know This Troublous Teacher? Further Reflections on Marcion and his Church’, SecCent 6 (1987-1988) 173-191.

            f) LINK:



4. Gnostic Interpretations

a)   Very complex phenomena, diverse groupings, fragmentary information (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I; Nag Hammadi Codices).

b)   General: began using allegory, first writers of commentaries (e.g. Heracleon on John)

c)   positively revere Paul as “the apostle”, a gnostic intitiate and primary source of gnostic theology (e.g. Ep. Rheginos, 45.24; see Pagels, pp. 1-12)

e.g. ‘they say that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas, and Theudas, in turn, a disciple of Paul’ (Clement, Strom. VII.17)

d)   provide evidence for Pauline collection; e.g. Gospel of Philip (Valentinian): knows Romans, 1 & 2 Cor, Gal, Phil [poss. Eph, Thess, Col, Heb] (opposed to pastorals).

e)   reflect Pauline themes, e.g. election, identification with Christ’s death and resurrection, freedom

f)    Claimed that Paul’s own secret wisdom tradition provides hermeneutical key.

Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III.2.1): “When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, "But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world."(1 Cor 2.6)

E. Pagels, The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (Phil.: Fortress, 1975).


5. Irenaeus

            a) Introduction

            b) Christian Bible

            c) Irenaeus and Paul:

i) orthodox rule of faith (e.g. Adv. Haer. I.10.1)

ii) Christ's headship and Idea of Recapitulation (Eph 1.10)

iii) Adam typology (Adv. Haer. III.18.2, 7; III.21.10; V.16.3) (cf. Rom 5.12ff).

            d) Adv. Haer. IV.41.4:

Inasmuch as the words of the Lord are numerous, while they all proclaim one and the same Father, the Creator of this world, it was incumbent also upon me, for their own sake, to refute by many [arguments] those who are involved in many errors, if by any means, when they are confuted by many [proofs], they may be converted to the truth and saved. But it is necessary to subjoin to this composition, in what follows, also the doctrine of Paul after the words of the Lord, to examine the opinion of this man, and expound the apostle, and to explain whatsoever [passages] have received other interpretations from the heretics, who have altogether misunderstood what Paul has spoken, and to point out the folly of their mad opinions; and to demonstrate from that same Paul, from whose [writings] they press questions upon us, that they are indeed utterers of falsehood, but that the apostle was a preacher of the truth, and that he taught all things agreeable to the preaching of the truth; [to the effect that] it was one God the Father who spake with Abraham, who gave the law, who sent the prophets beforehand, who in the last times sent His Son, and conferred salvation upon His own handiwork--that is, the substance of flesh. Arranging, then, in another book, the rest of the words of the Lord, which He taught concerning the Father not by parables, but by expressions taken in their obvious meaning (sed simpliciter ipsis dictionibus), and the exposition of the Epistles of the blessed apostle, I shall, with God's aid, furnish thee with the complete work of the exposure and refutation of knowledge, falsely so called; thus practising myself and thee in [these] five books for presenting opposition to all heretics.

e) Bibliography: R.A. Norris, 'Irenaeus' Use of Paul in His Polemic Against the Gnostics' in W.S. Babcock (ed.), Paul and the Legacies of Paul (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990), pp. 79-98. R. Noormann, Irenäus als Paulusinterpret. Zur Rezeption und Wirkung der paulinischen und deuteropaulinischen Briefe im Werk des Irenäus von Lyon (WUNT II/66; Tübingen: JCB Mohr, 1994). M. Jouron, ‘Irenaeus’s Reading of the Bible’ in The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity (ed. & trans P. M. Blowers; The Bible Through the Ages volume 1; Notre Dame: Uni Notre Dame Press, 1997), pp. 105-111. D.L. Balas, 'The Use and Interpretation of Paul in Irenaeus's Five Books Adversus Haereses' Second Century 9(1992), 27-40.; D. Jeffrey Bingham, ‘Irenaeus’s Reading of Romans 8’ SBL Seminar Papers (2001), 131-150.

C. Mount, Pauline Christianity: Luke-Acts and the Legacy of Paul (NovT SS 104; Leiden: Brill, 2002).


f) LINKS:        Useful page on Irenaeus and the NT Canon: DAVIS

Online Catholic Encyclopedia on Irenaeus



6. Jewish-Christian Opponents

a)   “The Ascents of James” (from Epiphanius, Panarion 30.16.6-9)

“Ebionite” view of Paul: ‘they declare that he was a Greek, child of a Greek mother and a Greek father. He went up to Jerusalem, they say, and when he had spent some time there, he was seized with a passion to marry a daughter of the priest. For this reason he became a proselyte and was circumcised. Then, when he failed to get the girl, he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision and against Sabbath and Law.’

b)   Kerygmata Petrou:

Paul as deceiver, supposed commission based on a dream or vision:

‘can anyone be qualified by a vision to become a teacher? And if you say it is possible, then why did the Teacher remain for a whole year conversing with those who were awake? How can we believe even your statement that he appeared to you? How could he have appeared to you, when your opinions are opposed to his teaching? No, if you were visited and taught by him for a single hour and thus became an apostle, proclaim his utterances, interpret his teachings, love his apostles – and do not strive against me, who was his companion. For you have “opposed” me, the firm Rock, foundation of the church. If you were not an enemy, you would not slander me and disparage what is preached by me, as if I were obviously “condemned” and you were approved. If you call me “condemned”, you are accusing God who revealed Christ to me, and are opposing the one who blessed me because of the revelation. Rather, if you really want to work together for the truth, first learn from us what we learned from him. Then, having become a disciple of the truth, become our fellow-worker.’

G. Luedemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989 [ET 'with emendations and additions by the author' of Paulus der Heidenapostel, vol. 2: Antipaulinismus im frühen Christentum (FRLANT 130; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983)]



7. Supplements to the Canon: Apocryphal Acts and Letters

a)   Acts of Paul (c. 190?): model ascetic, miracle worker.

Description: ‘a man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel’.


E.M. Howe, 'Interpretations of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla', Pauline Studies (FS F.F. Bruce; eds. D.A. Hagner & M.J. Harris; Exeter: Paternoster, 1980), pp. 33-49; D. MacDonald, 'Apocryphal and Canonical Narratives about Paul' in W.S. Babcock (ed.), Paul and the Legacies of Paul (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990), pp. 55-70; R. Bauckham, 'The Acts of Paul as a Sequel to Acts', The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting (BAFCS 1; eds B.W. Winter & A.D. Clarke; Carlisle: Paternoster & Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 105-152; Peter W. Dunn, The Acts of Paul and the Pauline Legacy in the Second Century, Cambridge PhD, 1996.


b) Epistle to Laodiceans; Epistle to the Alexandrians; Third Epistle to the Corinthians

V. Hovhanessian, Third Corinthians: Reclaimnig Paul for Christian Orthodoxy (StBL 18; New York: Lang, 2000) places the composition of the apocryphal Third Corinthians in late second century period, associating it with other examples (such as Irenaeus and Tertullian) of a rehabilitation of Paul among the orthodox (given its warnings against general gnostic heresies).

G. Luttikhuizen, ‘The Apocryphal Correspondence with the Corinthians and the Acts of Paul’ in The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla (ed. J.N. Bremmer; SAAA 2; Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1996), 75-91.

J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993)


Ó Peter M. Head, 18th Jan 2001 (rev. with add. bibliog. 5.3.2001)


The History of the Interpretation of the Apostle Paul


Dr. Peter M. Head [Web Page]


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