Books Theology

Reconstructing the Apostle Paul: Yoseop Ra’s “Paul, The Founder of Christianity”

Yoseop Ra. Paul, The Founder of Christianity. Eugene: OR, Resource Publications, 2021.

I have said in another review on a recent book on the Apostle Paul that Christianity has a Paul complex. Of course, Paul looms large because his writings constitute the largest single authorial voice in the New Testament. He is considered the chief theologian of Christianity for almost all of Protestantism, and while he does not carry that reputation in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy his status as apostle and martyr—and association with the church in Rome—makes him an essential figure among non-Protestant Christianities (especially Catholicism were Catholic theologians leaned heavily on his writings in theological controversies). This necessitates us to ask: who was the Apostle Paul?

Yoseop Ra is a South Korean biblical scholar famous for his work on Q. For the uninitiated, Q is the now-lost early document (dated generally late 30s-early 50s) which provided for the comparable material found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are technical and linguistic reasons for this that are too numerous and extensive to get into here. Needless to say, Q is almost universally accepted in academic scholarship as one of the pillars of New Testament studies.

Building on his work on Q, Ra makes a new argument about Paul also built on some of his prior scholarship on the Pauline epistles: Paul’s authentic corpus (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) can be broken into sixteenth individual letters through a selective redactive methodology isolating key themes and rhetoric. In doing so, Ra asserts, “The conflict between Paul and the apostles of Jerusalem was the motive that gave birth to Christianity” and “[t]here was an aftereffect of theological controversy over the Gentile table…Having been challenged by some Gentiles in the middle of it, Paul made a theological transformation of decoupling from the apostles of Jerusalem. Finally, Christianity was born with a focus on the cross of Christ for the salvation of people.”

Ra’s new book, then, counters what is the prevailing attitude of most New Testament Pauline scholarship: The New Perspective of Paul (NPP). Ra offers, in some sense, a more “traditional” (Reformed) reading of Paul regarding the Cross of Christ and his perceived negativity to the Mosaic Law. Given that a strong central point of Ra’s thesis is “decoupling from the apostles of Jerusalem,” Ra’s book also challenges the prevailing NPP thesis that Paul’s theology must be understood within the context of Jewish theology. Ra’s new perspective, pardon the pun, is with reading Paul in light of redacted chronological composition which, he maintains, reveals a Paul shifting his theological understanding in light of this conflict with the Jerusalem apostles that led to the formation of Paul’s mature—and familiar—theology.

There are highs and lows in Ra’s book for me. I will start with the lows before moving to an appraisal of what I found to be the strengths of the book.

First, Ra’s thesis largely rests on his own scholarship independent of the bulk of New Testament scholarship. He’s upfront about this though, “Many biblical scholars have studied the theology of Paul. Thus, I was doubtful whether there was a need to write another book about it. However, I reached the conclusion that there are still many things that can be reinterpreted.” And reinterpret he does. Though we are only treated to a small sliver of interlocutors leaving those more familiar with the larger spectrum of Pauline scholarship and debate wondering where names like EP Sanders and Krister Stendahl are and remaining skeptical toward the inclusion of other prominent NPP names like James DG Dunn and NT Wright who are only sparingly and sparsely included with little robust engagement with their material.

Next, a core pillar of Ra’s new interpretation is that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles had a falling out and the critics of Paul who are referenced in his missionary letters were sponsored by the Jerusalem apostles to check Paul’s preaching. That Paul and the Jerusalem apostles had a falling out is not controversial—it’s explicit in Acts and some of Paul’s writings. However, the assertion that Paul’s opponents referenced throughout his missionary epistles as being sponsored on behalf of the Jerusalem apostles is controversial and ultimately unconvincing. That assertion is all conjuncture and there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. Other New Testament scholars, like NT Wright, maintain the more traditional view: Paul’s opponents were most likely diaspora Pharisaic Jews who, like Paul, had come to believe Jesus as the Messiah but continued to promote the need of Gentiles to adopt Jewish rituals to become members of the covenant. But the thesis that Paul’s opponents were sponsored by the Jerusalem apostles is core to Ra’s argument because it allows him to decouple the Jewish Paul of the New Perspective into his Paul—the inventor of the Christianity we are familiar with. In short, Ra’s Paul needs a conflict with the Jerusalem apostles as part and parcel of his thesis that their conflict spurred his theological innovation and brought forth a Gentile Christianity distinct from what the Jerusalem apostolate was preaching.

Another problem is Ra’s axiom of redaction criticism applied to Paul’s letters. It is not uncommon for some Pauline scholars to believe the neat division of his letters, especially Corinthians, were more than what the biblical canon entails or implies. Ra goes as far as to claim that 1 and 2 Corinthians were originally six letters that got redacted together in the composition of the New Testament writings. If so, then all the Pauline introductory greetings (common to Paul’s letters) got excised. Among the scholars and scholarship that assert a larger division to Paul’s Corinthians writings, it is generally accepted within this school of scholarship that Corinthians originally constituted four separate writings (and this is not universally accepted even among critical scholars). Ra, again, relies mostly on his own scholarship on Corinthians to advance his point which allows a coherent reading of the six letters from Ra’s perspective. Likewise, Ra breaks Romans into four letters—something also at odds with most New Testament scholarship which again serves to further his thesis of chronological innovation on Paul’s part as he wrestled with certain theological crises and dealt with them thematically in his letters that later got compiled together as if singular writings.

Lastly, Ra’s association of Paul with a negative view of the Mosaic Law is definitely at odds with most New Testament scholarship. Reclaiming a Paul with a negative disposition to the Mosaic Law is essential to Ra’s broader claim of Paul’s changing theology as the conflict with his opponents (again, interpreted to be sponsored opponents from the Jerusalem apostles) wore on which provided the basis for the Paul we are more familiar with from pastoral preaching and the Protestant Reformation. (Of which Ra is implicitly indebted to.) Where Paul does make more positive statements regarding the Mosaic Law, Ra implies it was from pushback from the communities he wrote to (such as the Romans) which led him to soften his tone in subsequent letters (as mentioned, Ra maintains that Romans was originally four letters that got synthesized into a single composition during the formation of the New Testament canon).

Let us, now, turn to the highlights of Ra’s work. For those unfamiliar with some of the technicalities of the Q-tradition of scholarship, Ra’s book is a good short introduction to Q as he regularly employs what scholars believe—and reconstruct—about Q especially in regard to influence upon the synoptic gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as the likely influence of Q on Paul himself. This helps one buttress the asinine and utterly uneducated and illiterate conspiracy theories that float around the internet about Jesus never having existed and Paul having invented Jesus (even though, as Ra points out convincingly, Paul almost certainly encountered a Jesus community in Damascus where he received the basics about Jesus and the attendant theology surrounding the Nazarene).

Furthermore, Ra’s extrapolation on how Paul’s conflicts with his opponents sharpened his theological acuity is superb (that Paul’s theological beliefs were sharpened in the disputes with his various critics isn’t controversial – who they were, is). Ra’s work provides a good and concise summary on how theological disputation did, in fact, crystalize Paul’s preaching. (But we still have the thorny issue of who these opponents were and the continued reliance on the unsubstantiated claim that they were fronted enemies by the other apostles.)

Given the thematic division of the chapters when Ra assesses Paul’s theology, this exposes the reader to a comparative reading of Paul’s theological beliefs within his many letters. For instance, we are treated to Christology across his writings and Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit across his writings (even if we, again, don’t necessarily accept his redacted chronology and composition of the Pauline letters). This allows us to better understand the “whole Paul,” as it were, instead of the usual sectioned and segmented Paul wherein we get bits and pieces of Paul’s Christology, Paul’s soteriology, Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit, etc., from concentrated readings of single letters as if there is no systematic consideration to them. The fact that Ra is able to provide such a comparative analysis from Paul’s writings on these theological themes allows the reader to journey with Paul as he wrestled with these issues across time and across his writings to their eventual maturity and preserves a systematic understanding of Pauline theology. The issues that Paul wrestled with in his writings are the issues Christians have been wrestling with ever since and Ra does a commendable job revealing the nuances of Paul’s theology as they developed over time.

Here, Ra’s treatment of the advancement and maturity of Paul is exceptionally well-done on several accounts. The language that we have inherited and assume to be universal to the New Testament—“Lord Jesus Christ,” “Jesus is Lord,” Jesus as the mouthpiece of creation, Christ as sacrificial atonement, etc.—are all Pauline. We often forget that since Paul’s authentic letters predate the gospels, his language is what comes first. Moreover, his language is still unique to him. Virtually all our inherited Christological beliefs are from Paul: Christ as the New Adam, Christ as the Passover Lamb, Christ as the body of the Church. Ra’s thesis on a progressive development of Pauline Christology drawn from the Damascene and Jerusalem (Q) traditions eventually spurring his unique typologies and descriptions of Christ is persuasive (though we still don’t necessarily accept that declarative assertion that his opponents were sponsored opponents sent from Jerusalem). As a summary of the development of Pauline Christology, Ra’s book is an excellent primer and can be a useful companion for anyone wanting a chronological guide to Paul’s Christology. Had it been just a book on Paul’s chronological theology it would have a wider potential audience.

In the end, however, I am unconvinced with Ra’s more assertive argument that Paul’s Christ was conceived and matured through conflict with the Jerusalem apostles. He is, however, open to critique and openly admits so. “I do not think that my interpretation is completely correct. So, I am open to critiques against my research.” Such humility in scholarship is a breath of fresh air and a good embodiment of the Christian spirit among Christian scholars (of which Ra is one). In today’s day and age of sanctimonious dogmatism—amplified in sound bites on social media—Ra’s openness to challenges and critiques invites the best of scholarly consideration and dialectic.

While I am broadly sympathetic to the New Perspective (though don’t entirely agree with it) from my own graduate school education at Yale—though I focused mostly on historical theology and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament—Ra’s book will undoubtedly be a welcome new addition to the flourishing of New Testament and Pauline scholarship. What I found extremely edifying was his discussion on the centrality of Christology and the Cross which are sometimes lost within NPP scholarship and the chronological assessment of the development of Pauline Christology. Obviously, whenever reading Paul these two theological/Christological issues are paramount and Ra rescues the central importance of both to Paul’s writings—even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with the heavy reliance on a dialectic of conflict with the Jerusalem apostles as the reason for that development and maturation or his redaction of Paul’s authentic letters into 16 smaller writers which permit Ra’s chronological reading and Pauline progression.

Seeing that I just reviewed David Clausen’s book Meet Paul Again for the First Time and now Yoseop Ra’s book (I did so deliberately)—readers who choose to have both and read both will expose themselves to the flourishing currents of New Testament-Pauline scholarship (and one should have the obligatory writings of EP Sanders for the paradigmatic pillars of contemporary New Testament and Pauline scholarship). The garden is growing. Christian or not, those who seek a deeper understanding of the currents of these scholarly debates should be versed in some of the latest works. It’s part of embracing and living the well-read life. In the end, Ra’s Paul, The Founder of Christianity attempts to strike a unique synthesis in attempting to advance a new understanding of Paul in light of critical methodologies while salvaging an implicitly Reformed interpretation of Paul’s theology. I remain, however, unconvinced of this new-old Paul despite some of the new insights I did gain in assessing Pauline theology.

This review was originally published by VoegelinView under the same title, 28 March 2022.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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