1 November 2011

Paul: Disciple, apostle, both, neither?

About a month ago now, Gurdur delivered an interesting post on the ministry of Paul, and how it does or doesn’t relate to the ministry of Jesus. The idea that Paul was the real “inventor” of christianity who misinterpreted Jesus is a very old one, but one that has had something of a mini-revival of late.

As it references a couple of other blog posts, I would recommend you follow-up on those as well. I promised Gurdur a response, so here is mine. OK, it’s the start of mine. This has started to snowball, and I’m still trying to dig up some reliable evidence for the later parts. So this is going to be split across several posts, to avoid it becoming a thesis.

As it happens, I was given the book Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? by David Wenham for my birthday, after I made that promise. Though I had an outline of a response in mind after reading Gurdur’s original post, I have subsequently read Wenham’s book (and a review will follow later). So while the thrust of my discussion is unchanged, some of the fine details have been influenced by this subsequent reading.

The main point I wanted to pick up on here was this quote:
“it's odd how much regard many Christians give Paul, given Paul never even was rumoured to have met Jesus. An experience, a vision along the road to Damascus? So what? Many of us have such things without getting adulated for it. Paul simply wasn't one of the disciples.”
I’m not sure if Gurdur meant modern christians, early christians or both, though I think in terms of the modern christians, the dominant reasons are the fact that he is credited with writing the largest number of books of the New Testament (even though the writings of Luke actually account for a largest number of words) and also his great erudition in those writings.

I think Gurdur has made a very common mistake here that many christians still get confused about; that of equating the terms “apostle” and “disciple” and using them interchangeably. The Greek term translated as disciple is ‘mathetes’ which can also be translated (according to Strong’s) as ‘student’, ‘follower’ or ‘a committed learner and follower’. In this parlance, a disciple is a very wide group, in a similar way that the term ‘saint’ was originally meant to mean ‘a believer’ and was not reserved for any special set of individuals, which is why I refer to Paul rather than to St Paul. If Gurdur meant he wasn’t one of “The Twelve,” then this is, of course, correct.

On the other hand, the term translated as apostle is ‘apostolos’ derived from ‘apostello’ which means to send out. Etymologically, this is also where get the term apostate from, although in the former sense it is used to mean sent out in a more missionary-style meaning, whereas the latter has connotations of excommunication. Again, referring to Strong’s, one of the uses specifies “often used as in a technical sense for the divinely appointed founders of the church.”

To me, one of the key passages in understanding the difference is Matthew 10, when the gospel author begins by saying “And having called his twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, so as to throw them out, and to heal every disease and every weakness of the body. And the names of the twelve apostles were….”

I understand this as a demonstration that there is a difference between a disciple and an apostle, and that difference is the authority given to them by Jesus. A disciple is someone who follows a given leader, but an apostle is someone who is sent out with authority by a leader.

The split in the uses between apostle & disciple is very interesting. The term apostle is used only once in Matthew (in the passage cited above), once in Mark, 6 times in Luke and never in John. The majority of the uses are in the book of Acts with the rest of the uses scattered amongst the epistles. If you compare this to the term disciple, the latter’s use is never used in the epistles. It is used 242 times between Matthew & Acts. Matthew has the most with around 75 uses; Acts has the fewest with about 27 (I haven’t been too precise in my counting).

Further evidence to support the difference between the disciples and apostles is provided in the first use in Acts, in chapter 1. Peter is described as standing up in the middle of the disciples, who numbered about 120. He goes on to talk about replacing Judas, who by this time had committed suicide. Two possible candidates were chosen from amongst those who had been with them since Jesus’s baptism from John. This implies to me there was a bit of a crowd that followed Jesus regularly, in addition to The Twelve. This does make for an interesting view when you read the gospels and read of Jesus talking to his disciples, where many (I think) assume the gospel author is talking about 12 individuals, when I think it may in fact be more; but I'm not certain of this.

Anyway, that was a long interlude. Back to Paul. The question is, was he really an apostle?

Although I am not well versed in the reasons for believing it, I am of the understanding that Galatians is widely considered to be the earliest of the books to be written by Paul. His opening statement is pretty unequivocal in affirming his apostleship.

It is not surprising that there is general harmony between the accounts of Paul’s conversion (I really hate that word, by the way, it makes it sound like a person is a car) in Acts and Galatians. Given that is likely that Acts was written by Luke, who joined Paul on one of his later journeys, then the accounts that Luke gives (in chapters 9, 22 and 26) was probably passed on to him by Paul in the first place. It has to be noted that even Luke makes a bit blunder in internal consistency as to whether or not Paul’s companions heard a voice or not (compare 9:7 with 22:9). Again, here we see a differentiation between the disciples and the apostles in that Paul says he didn’t meet up with the apostles for 3 years after Damascus (Galatians 1:12-20) yet in the account in Acts the first thing he did was go to the disciples in Acts 9:1-26.

When the term apostle is used in relation to Paul, the main passage I would reference is 1 Corinthians 9 where it seems evident that Paul has made a claim to be an apostle but that this is disputed by some people in in the church at Corinth. In verse 1, Paul’s own definition seems to be someone who has seen Jesus, which is where we come back to Gurdur’s point about the road to Damascus.

I don’t know precisely what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. I have heard the explanation of an epileptic fit, and indeed I have heard that used a possible explanation of what some passages of the bible describe as demonic possession. Some of this is explored by Charles Foster in his book, Wired For God, where he states, “The history of religion is crowded with epileptics,” and this is then referenced to The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginning of Modern Neurology by O. Temkin, though I have not read this book myself. The one thing I think it is fairly safe to say is that something happened to Paul; I think to claim that the whole episode was conjured up seems far-fetched, given that Paul was travelling was others present at the time who could have easily testified otherwise. The fact that they are neither named nor referred to again except for the Damascus testimonies is, for the historian, just a bit annoying. But it doesn't falsify Paul's testimony.

I think Gurdur summed it up well with the phrase: "Unanswered and unanswerable questions." From my point of view, I don't think it's particularly important whether or not we consider Paul to be an apostle. The only time it really makes anything more than a semantic difference is if one appeals to "apostolic authority" in relation to the formation of the New Testament canon.

In the next part of the response, I'll be looking a bit more at the authorship of some of the Pauline corpus and considering whether or not some, all or none was forged.

2 comments:

  1. Damien Owens05 November, 2011

    Good article as always, Sipech.

    I've often wondered whether Paul was actually aware of the gospel narratives detailing Jesus's life or not.

    It might seem strange, but Paul is almost exclusively concerned with a soteriology based on the risen Christ, and what took place in the three years prior to that barely gets a mention. In fact, I can't think of a single allusion Paul makes to any teaching or works undertaken by Christ to illuminate his, Paul's, teaching and ideas.

    Paul's concern with the risen Christ as fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew narrative may simply necessitate that consideration of the actual life of Christ moot, given that we/I believe he rose from death.

    There is also some echoing here in the differing approaches that the Catholic and Protestant Churches have adopted with regards to the cross. The more Pauline Protestant tradition depicts the cross as bare, acknowledging the defeat of death and the new life, whereas within Catholicism a more corporeal recognition of the Passion is expressed.

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  2. Thank you, Damien. Most kind.

    The history of the gospel narratives is certainly a very interesting one, with a wide range of views. For me, one of the most convincing is that of Kenneth Bailey in Informal Controlled Oral Traditions (I think I put a link in an earlier post recently).

    In the book referred to in the post above, Wenham does look at the issue of how much Paul knew, especially given that he didn't meet Peter for 3 years. Although it's only speculation, it might be reasonable to think that Paul's letters may have been different from his preaching. Since most letters were addressed to churches he had had prior contact with, he may not have felt the need to reiterate the gospel narratives, but rather to teach the implications of it. But as I say, that's just guesswork.

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