Paul: Prophet or Apostle?
Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
The book of Acts presents Paul as a prophet, but Paul claims that he is an apostle. History has upheld Paul's claim rather than that of Acts. Why is this? Are there really significant differences between what these two titles mean? Or, does Acts not really present Paul as a prophet? Do the Pauline letters, perhaps, not really claim the title of apostle for Paul? But, if both claims are truly as I have presented them, how does one mediate between the two? How does one decide whether Paul should be understood as a prophet or as an apostle?
To uphold these two claims, this discussion first will turn to the portrayal of Paul in Acts, and then center on the perspective of the Pauline letters. Finally, I will suggest some reasons for the divergences between these two presentations of Paul, discuss the significant of these differences, and proffer a suggestion for deciding between these two claims.(1)
THE PERSPECTIVE OF ACTS
The author of Acts spends nearly half of the book describing the message and the feats of the missionary, Paul. Since the title of the work is the Acts of the Apostles, this implies that he considered Paul to be an apostle. Luke speaks much in the same way about Barnabas as he does about Paul, except that Barnabas never gives any speeches and we have no account of his call to be a missionary. Is Barnabas to be considered an apostle, too? Luke would seem to give that impression in Acts 14:4-6, 19 where, in two instances, he refers to Paul and Barnabas as "apostles." Does Luke really consider both men to be apostles?
If Luke wanted to show that Paul and Barnabas were apostles, why would he repeat the criteria for apostleship at the beginning of his work (1:21f) when he knew that they could not meet those criteria? Or, why would he not explain to us that they could meet the criteria, rather than relating a story which proves that they cannot (ch. 8-9)? A compunction for relating historical facts is certainly not common enough throughout Luke-Acts to be the case here. There must be a reason why Paul and Barnabas are called apostles at those two, and only those two, times in the work. There are no other instances where Luke-Acts ascribes the title "apostle" to anyone outside of the Twelve.(2)
If Paul and Barnabas are not apostles, what are they? There really seems to be only one place where Paul is given another title (13:1), and we cannot really be sure as to what that title is. Either Saul is one of the prophets or teachers at the Antioch church, or he is one of the men considered to be both prophet and teacher. From the story of the council of Jerusalem, we gather that two delegates were sent out with Paul and Barnabas - delegates who were themselves prophets (15:32) - but it is difficult to say whether this emphasis on "themselves" is to point out a similarity with Paul and Barnabas, or merely to emphasize the prophetic gift which confirmed the message of Paul to the Gentile churches. We do know that Paul and Barnabas "taught and proclaimed the Good News, the Word of the Lord" (15:35), and we can deduce that Paul was considered to be a preacher and teacher of God's word. Does this qualify him as a prophet? Or is this a circumlocution for Paul and Barnabas being apostles? It seems that the best way to answer these questions of how Luke viewed Paul, the missionary, is to look at the way Luke has presented Paul throughout the book of Acts.
Paul is introduced to us at the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen, where we are told that "Saul entirely approved of the killing" (8:1). The next word is that "Saul worked for the destruction of the church" (8:3). He rushed off to Damascus, "breathing murderous threats" against the disciples and hoping to arrest any "followers of the Way" that he could find. Now, would you believe a gospel that you heard from this sort of man? He does not seem a likely candidate for church missionary work. Yet, even amid all this, Saul is struck by a vision of great light and a voice calling his name; the heavenly voice belongs to Jesus, who sends Saul to the city where he will be told what he must do (9:6). The now blinded Saul is led to the city by his companions, who heard the heavenly voice but saw no one.
The Lord appears to one of the disciples in Damascus in a vision to tell him to visit Saul and pray for the return of his sight; Saul has already had another vision in which he was told that Ananias would come. The message to Ananias was that "this man is my chosen instrument (skeuos ekloges) to bear (bastasai) my name to the pagan nations and kings and the children of Israel" (9:15). So the disciple went and paid his visit to Saul, praying for the return of his sight and that he be filled with the Holy Spirit, and immediately it was so. Saul was immediately baptized and then, having spent a few days with the disciples in Damascus, began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus was the son of God (9:18, 20).
This first account of Paul's call to be a disciple emphasizes that he is called directly by Jesus, who appeared to him in the vision, and that this vision was unique to Paul - although his companions heard the voice from heaven speaking to Paul, they did not see the Lord. Like Isaiah, Paul had seen the Lord and yet lived, though he could see nothing else even with his eyes wide open. Only after the prayer of Ananias was Paul's sight renewed and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. That these two events are seen together points out the importance of the Holy Spirit for Paul's life from now on. He sees things in a totally different light, perceiving the world now through the Spirit which is given to him. No longer a persecutor of the disciples of the messiah, Paul becomes an advocate for the Lord. The words of the prophet Isaiah, "Who so blind as my servant, so deaf as the messenger I send?" (42:19), receive an interesting twist here. The one that is blind, yet has eyes, is made the witness, the chosen servant that all men may know the messiah of the Lord (cf. Is. 43:8-13).
The next thing that we hear about Paul is that "the Jews worked out a plot to kill him" but the disciples helped him to escape. The spokesman of the Lord tries to do his job, and he is immediately persecuted. Luke believes that all the prophets were persecuted (7:52) and Paul has to fit into this pattern.
After his rescue, Paul goes to the church at Antioch and, when the Holy Spirit informs the community that he is to be "set apart (aphorisate) for the work to which I have called him" (13:2), they laid hands on him and Barnabas and sent them off "by the Holy Spirit" (hypo tou agiou pneumatos, 13:4). At Paphos they meet with a "false-prophet" who tries to stop them from preaching. Paul condemns him for being an enemy of true religion, and prophesies that he will be struck blind. Immediately the impostor is struck blind; the true prophet's words are powerful and bring about that which they predict (13:6-11).
In fact, the words of God's messenger are so powerful that one speech in the synagogue will bring many Jews and proselytes to join Paul and Barnabas. Indeed, almost the whole town assembled to hear the word of God from Paul on the next Sabbath (13:42-44). But the prophetic message was never popular with everyone and this message is no different; even though great numbers of people turned out to listen to Paul, a number of Jews also came to ridicule and contradict the message. The result of this conflict is that Paul claims that he must turn to the pagans, since the Jews will not accept the word of God. He quotes Is. 49:6 as giving him the mission of going to the Gentiles with the message of God, which made the pagans very happy and they thanked the Lord for his message and became believers. This was so effective that the word of the Lord spread throughout the whole area. It was even effective with those who opposed Paul and Barnabas: they turned against them and expelled them from their territory - one more case where the word of God either brings salvation or hardness of heart.
The next pericope has all the same essential elements as the one we just looked at: (1) Paul and Barnabas start out at the Jewish synagogue, (2) they speak so effectively that "a great many Jews and Greeks became believers" (14:3), (3) some of the Jews refused to believe, (4) they "poisoned the minds of the pagans against the brothers" (14:2), but (5) Paul and Barnabas still stayed and preached and the Lord allowed them to perform "signs and wonders" (14:3). Finally, (6) the authorities got enough people together to attack and try to stone the brothers, just as their ancestors had done with the prophets (Luke 11:47-48) and (7) Paul and Barnabas escape to another place where they begin to preach the Good News.
These two passages are so similar and follow so closely upon on another (Acts 13:44-52 and 14:1-7) that one cannot help being suspicious about what Luke is trying to say here. By using this cycle (great popularity and effective speech to persecution and escape to beginning to preach again) he is able to account for why the message about Jesus eventually became one given to the Gentiles without undermining the efficacy of the word of the Lord. "The Jews" respond to this new word of the Lord in the same way as they always have: their fathers persecuted the prophets of old, and this generation persecutes the new prophets. But still, the word of the Lord will not return to Him void, even if it has to start with the Gentiles rather than with the Jews. His salvation will reach to the ends of the earth, even if the restoration of the tribes of Jacob and the return of the survivors of Israel (Is. 49:6) has to come afterwards.
We have seen that the persecution theme shows the affinity of Paul with the prophets of old. The story of the healing of the man crippled from birth (14:8-18) emphasizes another theme, the power of God's word as spoken by Paul. This particular story points out Paul's miraculous ability to read the heart of the crippled man (to know that he had enough faith to be cured) and the miraculous power of his word. In fact, so powerful were the servant's words that he was confused with the Master! But, even in this mistake there was some truth: Paul was considered to be the god Hermes, who was the mouthpiece of the gods.
Even this success cannot be left without a return to the persecution theme, but we are made increasingly aware of who is in control of these bouts with the Lord. Paul is stoned and left for dead but, when the disciples come out to him he stands up and goes back into town (14:19-20)! As the word of the Lord cannot be stopped, so also the prophet cannot be thwarted until his mission is complete. The ineffectiveness of persecution is only emphasized by the return of Paul and Barnabas to Lystra and Iconium, and finally to Antioch. These are the places where they have just been run out of town, but they return to "encourage the disciples" (14:22): the Word is powerful enough that even persecution will not prevent its being accepted by those who are destined to hear it.
The story of the council at Jerusalem (ch. 15) does not say very much about Paul himself. Rather, it affirms that Paul had the support of the leading apostles and that his mission to the Gentiles was seen as "entirely in harmony with the words of the prophets" (15:14-15). The Holy Spirit had decided in favor of what Paul had been teaching, namely, that circumcision was not necessary for Gentile converts (15:1-2, 28-29). In this account, the prophet certainly had his support group: the leading men of God and the Holy Spirit!
The Spirit not only vindicates Paul's message, it also tells him where to preach and where not to preach (e.g. the vision of the Macedonian pleading for help, 16:9). Of course, there must be immediate response to such a direct command from the Lord, and such obedience would be rewarded. The first convert mentioned, Lydia, causes her whole household to accept the new faith (16:14-15). If this can happen after only a few days, there is a hint of much greater things to come.
The next confrontation that develops is between Paul and a "soothsayer," a girl having a spirit of divination or prophecy (pneuma puthona, v.16). It is evident that the "soothsayer" is not speaking at God's instigation, but at the command of a demon: the choice of words to describe her makes that clear, and so does the fact that she takes money for her services. Even so, just as Balaam could not curse Israel because they were beloved of the Lord, this false prophetess cannot curse Paul. She is compelled to speak the truth about this servant of God. Finally, Paul expels the demon, again showing the power of the word of the true prophet (v. 18).
Even being cast into jail cannot stop the word from taking effect. A sudden earthquake frees the prophet from prison, causes the jailer to become a believer - and his whole family follows suit (16:29-34).
The similarities between Paul's speech before the Council of the Council of the Areopagus (17:22-34) and the speeches of the classical prophets are few, but important. The content centers on four main points, the first three of which are common in the classical prophets: (1) God is Lord of heaven and earth and thus cannot be confined to a "place" or shrine (Is. 66:1-2); (2) humans were created that they would seek and find the Lord (Is. 55:4-7); (3) idolatry is refusal to acknowledge the Lord rather than delusion and, as such, is culpable (cf. Jer. 10:1-16, 16:19-21; Is. 40:18-26, 44:6-20, and 45:20-25) and (4) Jesus has been raised from the dead and appointed as judge over the whole world. The result of this speech has great affinity to the result of the classical prophetic proclamations; Paul was mocked and disbelieved by most of his audience, but a few did become believers.
At Corinth, Paul ran up against the same sort of hard-heartedness as he had when preaching to the Greeks in Athens, only this time Paul's opponents are "the Jews" again. The Lord spoke to Paul in a vision to reassure him that he would be protected and that he should not be afraid, but continue to speak out. This promise of protection because the Lord would be with him is, again, not unique to Paul but was given to Moses (Ex. 3:12), Jeremiah (1:7b-8) and Ezekiel (2:6-7) before him. This is just another sign that Paul is standing firmly in the prophetic tradition.
The pericope which follows this promise of protection (18:12-17) gives credence to the vision by relating the results of "the Jews" attempt to get Paul in trouble with the Roman authorities. Paul did not even have to open his mouth to defend himself from the accusations brought against him; the proconsul himself rejected the validity of charges. That sort of "crime" was not a crime to him, since it was outside his jurisdiction. Gallio, the proconsul, certainly was not on Paul's side, but he was able to protect him by ignoring the charges brought against Paul by his own kinsmen.
We next find Paul at Ephesus, where he met a number of disciples who had received the baptism of John but had not yet received the Holy Spirit (19:1-7). The moment Paul lay hands on them, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and to prophesy (v. 6). The prophet, as a bearer of the Holy Spirit, was able to bestow the same gift upon these chosen ones - or, perhaps more accurately, to point out the individuals upon whom the gift should be bestowed by God.
There are some differences between this account and the story of Moses giving the Spirit to the seventy elders (Num. 11:24-25), but this notion that the Spirit is transmitted from one authoritative bearer to other bearers seems to be operative in both cases. The disciples for whom Paul prayed were not described as elders or as leading figures in the community, as were the seventy who received the spirit from Moses, but this does not discount the value of their gift. Rather, it simply points out the fact that Moses' desire that "the Lord give His Spirit to all His people" (Num. 11-29) was a prophecy in the process of being fulfilled among the disciples of the new "way."
As the "way" began to take hold in Ephesus, it began to have some negative effects upon the establishment. Paul's miracles were numerous and astounding (19:11-12), but the "wandering exorcists" (exorkiston) - who did not know Jesus and yet tried to use his name as a new magical formula - were virtually put out of business for lack of recognition by the demons (vv. 13-16). Some magicians gave up their practice and, after becoming believers, even burned their valuable books in public (vv. 18-19). Still a third group of craftspeople were not so pleased with the new teaching because it threatened to destroy their trade, and they joined forces to rise up against it. These were the silversmiths who made the statues and other articles of silver for the shrines of Diana (19:23-27). But even their uproar against the servant of God was a testimony to the effectiveness of the word which he spoke: that it threatened idol-worship "not only in Ephesus but nearly everywhere in Asia" (v. 26)! The opponents of the prophet may not like his word, but they cannot prevent the true word of the Lord from having its prescribed effect.
We saw that in Ephesus the word of the Lord cast down idols to the nothingness from whence they came; in Troas we find that this same word can bring life to those people who have fallen. In this story of Paul's miraculous gift of life to the dead young man (20:7-12) we have a parallel to the story of Elijah bringing the widow's son to life (I Kgs. 17:17-24). When Elijah found out that the boy was dead, he took him up to his room and prayed for his recovery. When this was granted, Elijah took the boy back downstairs and presented him to his mother, who responded by saying "Now I know that you are a man of God and the word of YHWH in your mouth is truth itself" (v. 24). This miracle happened after the miraculous meal, feeding Elijah and still not causing the widow to run out of food. The story in Acts occurs after the disciples had met for the "breaking of the bread" (v. 7). Paul went down to Eutychus and clasped him to himself, not pleading for the boy's life but merely announcing that "there is life in him" (v. 10). In this story the direction is reversed (Paul went down and came back up, whereas Elijah went up and came back down) and one could speculate regarding the importance of this change as a sign of the status of Paul. Still, the miracle is the key in these two stories and they have the same import: the prophetic word is life-giving because it is the word of the Lord. The prophet who speaks the true word of God can also do miracles, the work of God. But the most important miracle is the giving of God's words in human words. Thus, "Paul went back upstairs where he broke bread and ate and carried on talking till he left at daybreak."
The farewell speech before Paul goes to Jerusalem (20:17-38) points out some of the main characteristics of the prophet, traits which Paul applies to himself: (1) serving the Lord, (2) humility, and (3) trials/persecution at the hands of kinsmen (v. 19); (4) preaching a "turning" to God (v. 21); (5) the prophet as prisoner of the Spirit (v.22); (6) the prophet as intercessor (vv. 32,36); (7) doing the appointed task for no earthly recompense (v. 33); and, (8) the inevitable end of the mission as death or martyrdom (vv. 23-25).
This summary of Paul's ministry leads into the second account of his call. This second version shows some interesting divergences from the first account (9:1-19). The first adjustment is in the use of the word "appointed" to refer to Paul's task (22:10) rather than the phrase "what you must do" (9:6), a shift to the traditional idea of a post assigned by God from the Hellenistic, pagan idea of one's "fate."(3) The next change is the emphasis on the words Paul heard: the first story said that Paul's companions heard the heavenly voice but saw no one (9:7), but this one emphasizes that no one heard the voice except Paul, the chosen one, though his companions did see the light (22:9). When Paul reaches Damascus and Ananias comes to visit him, Ananias stands beside Paul (22:13) rather than laying his hands on him (9:17) to pray for his sight to return; this is more of a meeting of equals than seems to have been the case in the first account. In the first case, Paul was proclaimed to be God's chosen instrument to make His name known (9:15), but in this case Paul is chosen "to know God's will, to see the Just One, and to hear His own voice speaking" because he will be God's witness (martus), testifying first hand from what he has seen and heard (22:14-15). The idea of being witness is the same in both passages, but this second account highlights the verbal character of the revelation that is unique (not revealed to Paul's companions), while highlighting the total compass of the revelatory encounter and the proximity this revelation will have (has) to Paul as a person. The vision which follows (22:17-21) restates Paul's call as an envoy from God, and sharpens the direction by saying that Paul is sent "to the nations" (v.21) - a direction that was given as part of the initial call in the first account (9:15), rather than a supplementary or explanatory note. In short, where there are differences between these two versions of Paul's call to be spokesman for the Lord, they show that this second version tends toward heightening the experience of the call for Paul: the call makes an irrevocable change in Paul because he has "seen the Just One and heard his own voice speaking" and has yet survived the event.(4) So now he is called forth to witness to what he himself has seen and heard, and to speak this word to the nations.
The persecution theme is rejoined, with a different twist again now because it is the Jews of Jerusalem who are after Paul (cf. Lk. 13:34). Not only are his own kinsmen after him, but it is the Gentiles (the Romans) who try to preserve him from the hands of "the Jews" (23:12-35). The Lord's message to "have courage" because he must bear witness to the Lord in Rome, the promise of protection for the servant of YHWH (cf. Ezek. 2:1-7), is well within the prophetic tradition. But, the idea of being rescued by the opposing political force is, to my knowledge, unique to Paul. How appropriate that the prophet who is sent to preach the news of salvation to the Gentiles should be protected, indeed, rescued by them in return.
In chapters 23-26, Paul is tried three times: first, before the High Priest, Ananias, and the Sanhedrin; next before the Roman governor, Felix (and later, his successor, Festus); third, before the tribunal of Caesar and King Agrippa. The first trial ended as a farce (and a lynching party) because the members of the Sanhedrin could not decided whether or not Paul had committed any crime. The second trial results, in 25:25, with Festus' admission that there is no crime that Paul has committed. The third trial concludes not only with the admission of Paul's innocence (26:31) but with King Agrippa's admission that Paul has nearly convinced him that he should become a Christian!
This sequence is almost so triumphal as to be distracting, and the manner in which the name of Paul can be replaced with Jesus adds to the distraction at times, but the basic message persists: the Jewish leaders were given another chance to accept Paul's message, but they rejected him and the word of the Lord that was with him. The Roman officials, to whom Paul was destined to witness (9:15), did listen to his word (24:24, 26:28). They were without blame in Paul's demise; they would have freed him if they could (26:32). Only outside one's own country does a prophet have honor. Only among the pagans does this prophet have a chance to be heard.
Paul's third and final court appearance is the context for the third and final review of his call to the ministry. This account emphasizes the futility of resistance to God's call (26:14) or the sheer inability to stop oneself from obeying it (v.19), the direct nature of the call (the divine voice was "in Hebrew" and spoke directly to Paul of the reason for the vision - Ananias, the disciple, does not enter into this account at all), and that the specific character of this mission is that it is to turn the pagans from darkness to light and to give them a share in the inheritance of Israel (see Jer. 1:5-8; Is. 42:6-7, 16; Is. 9:1, 8:16-17, 61:1-2, 51:4-5, 49:6). Paul again affirms that he has stayed faithful to this mission, testifying to the resurrection and the prophetic promises which are fulfilled in the Christ event. The last two chapters are the final test of this commitment.
On the trip to Rome, Luke gives us one last chance to recognize Paul to be akin to the prophets of old . The only difference is that Paul is preaching the new message which (presumably) they themselves would be teaching if they were living in Paul's era. Paul prophesies that the trip will be unsafe (27:10), but no one heeds his word. After they have lost all the cargo, Paul has a vision which prophesies the safe landing of the crew because of Paul's own destiny (27:24-26; cf. 9:6, 15-16) to appear in Rome. The ship was stranded on an island, but everyone reached there safely, just as Paul had prophesied (27:44). On the island, Paul is bit by a viper but remains unscathed (28:3-6), and he heals many sick people (28:7-10). All in all, he makes himself very handy - but there is no mention of him preaching there. Perhaps this is to build up the suspense, for Paul's last speech will be given to the Jews at Rome.
"After three days" of being in Rome (is this mere coincidence?), having met with the brothers, Paul called together the leading Jews. They arranged a day for them to meet with Paul so he could explain why it was because of "the hope of Israel" that he was a prisoner (28:20). We know already that the outcome of this meeting will not be good: though Paul addressed these men as"brothers" (v. 17), Luke cannot prevent himself from referring to Paul's opponents as "the Jews" (v. 19) - even in a speech to this group of Jewish leaders! It is a bit of a surprise to hear that "some" who came to this discussion were convinced, but it is not surprising at all to find that most of them did not believe the message. This is the final chance to vindicate the prophet of the Lord who spoke His word to the nations because His own people would not accept it.
Our study of Acts has demonstrated that Paul is portrayed as a prophetic missionary. Paul has duties which correspond to those of the classical prophets, and the character of his ministry has many similarities. The content of his message reflects some of the major prophetic themes, and the results of the message are portrayed as being almost identical to the prophets of old.
First of all, Paul's duties are to preach the word of the Lord to the people, to teach them about the Lord and to present the terms of the covenant in a new way, and to intercede for them. All four of these duties belonged to the classical prophets(5) who were called by God, "sent out" by Him to the people of Israel, and given the responsibility of bringing the people back to the Lord. Even when the prophet is sent to "harden the hearts" of the people against YHWH, an eventual return to the Lord is still envisaged - but the return can only come after a period of estrangement from the Lord which will bring the people to their senses. Paul's mission is different from that of the classical prophets because he is sent to preach to the Gentiles, rather than to the people of Israel. But, he bears the same sort of responsibility as did Isaiah to the extent that, when Paul does preach to the Israelites ("the Jews"), it causes them to harden their hearts against his word. The order of preaching envisaged by the classical prophets is here reversed - going first to the Gentiles, rather than waiting until all Israel has come to heed the word(6) - but the preaching of the word of YHWH to the Gentiles is not a Pauline invention (or a Lukan invention). In spite of this difference, this portrayal of Paul still places him firmly within the classical prophetic tradition.
The character of Paul's ministry as portrayed in Acts also places him within the prophetic tradition. Paul is called by God to a special mission and by a special revelation. He is given the Holy Spirit, even to the point of being a prisoner of the Spirit. It is futile for him to resist the call of God, and the Spirit directs his actions thereafter: the Spirit tells him what to speak and where to speak it, and Paul obeys. Because Paul speaks the word of God, this word comes true. He is vindicated against the false prophet by his words and deeds. He is able to do miracles (even bringing someone back to life) which demonstrate the efficacy and veracity of the "word of the Lord" spoken by Paul. Paul takes no money for his work, instead preaching the message freely. He is marked by humility, long-suffering obedience, and faithfulness in the face of severe opposition and persecution. Because Paul is God's anointed, he is protected by God; persecution may follow the preaching of the word of God, but it cannot prevent the delivery of the message nor the unfolding of its ramifications.
The content of Paul's message in Acts is also akin to the message of the classical prophets. The primary goal of the proclamation is salvation, bringing the hearers back into a right relationship with God. The primary content of the message is a call to return to the Lord. Idolatry is opposed and knowledge of the true God is espoused. God is proclaimed to be Lord even of the Gentiles, and thus to demand obedience even from them. The unique part of Paul's message is, of course, the impact of the raising of Jesus on the process of salvation. But, this can also be seen as Paul's reinterpretation of the covenant in the light of the present situation. If this viewpoint is accepted, then even the preaching of salvation through Jesus can be seen as an example of prophetic proclamation.
Finally, the results of Paul's message are presented as nearly identical to the contemporary understanding of how the prophetic message was received. Paul is mocked by "the Jews" (Israel) who disbelieve him and try to prevent him from delivering his message. Their hearts are hardened against the "Word" - they refuse to believe it. Paul is persecuted and nearly killed because of what he proclaims, but is rescued by the Lord. Still, his final end is to be a martyr like nearly all of the prophets who came before him.(7)
THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE PAULINE LETTERS
The Pauline letters present quite a different picture of Paul than does the book of Acts. This is due partly to their differences in literary form: while the book of Acts is primarily a narrative "history" of the development of the Christian church, with Paul as one of the major figures in that story, the Pauline letters are occasional replies to questions and controversies that arose in the various Pauline churches. Whereas Acts can (and does purport to ) relate speeches presented by Paul before large groups of people, the letters are more personal addresses to individual communities and even, in the case of Philemon, to one individual. In Acts there is a possibility of reflecting the "all Israel" direction of the classical prophets by the speeches directed to "the Jews." This is simply not possible in the letters. Even their addresses point out this fact when they state, for example, "to the church of God in Corinth."
The occasional nature of the letters limits our information about the Pauline message in a way, since none of the letters are full-blown treatises on the Christian faith (not even Romans). All of them are, to some extent at least, polemical in nature. All of them are responses to specific difficulties, questions, and challenges that arose in a specific congregation of believers. This means that sometimes we get a more personal view of Paul, sometimes a more authoritarian figure, sometimes a great debater, or a teacher, or a consoler - all depending upon the situation he was addressing. This gives us a more rounded view of Paul, but it makes a comparison with the account of Paul in Acts a very difficult endeavor - primarily because the presentation in Acts is not a well-rounded view of Paul. So, with the one source (the letters) we are a bit short on the Pauline message (though presumably as close as we can ever be), and with the other source (Acts) we are short on the personality of Paul.
In this section of the paper, we will look at the Pauline letters to try to fill in some of the gaps left by the book of Acts in regard to the personality of Paul. The letters which will be used are the seven which are commonly understood as being truly Pauline: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon. The major emphasis of this view of the letters will be to come to an understanding of the role in which Paul saw himself. It is no secret that Paul claimed the apostolic title for himself, but what did this title mean to him? How did he think an apostle was supposed to act? What sorts of responsibilities did the apostle have, and what sorts of privileges? Why does Paul claim the apostolic title, when Acts seems clearly to present him as a prophet in the classical mold? What were the key differences, for Paul, between these two offices? How does the idea of authority fit in with prophecy and with apostolicity? There are a number of other similar questions which could be asked. Clearly, we can exhaust neither the questions nor the potential answers given in the Pauline letters; but, by looking at Paul's understanding of his own mission and office, we hope to come to a clearer and more useful understanding of Paul as a Christian missionary struggling to spread the news of God.
One of the primary places in the Pauline letters where we get a look at what Paul thought of his position and ministry is in the salutations.
The greeting in I Thessalonians sets the stage for the later letters. This letter begins with the simple "from Paul." From this address, we can tell that Paul can expect to be acknowledged by the Thessalonians, and we can deduce that his authority in the church of Thessalonika is not in question. This deduction is supported by Paul's description (2:13-16) of when he first preached the gospel to them, and his praise of their continuance in the belief of that gospel, even in the face of persecution: "as soon as you heard the message that we brought you as God's message, you accepted it for what it really is, God's message and not some human thinking; and it is still a living power among you who believe it" (v. 13). Paul is clear as to his understanding of what his gospel is - the logon Theou, the word or message of God - but he is not on the defensive here. He is repeating this message to encourage the Thessalonians in the face of persecution, not because they have challenged the authority of Paul's gospel.
The two letters to the Corinthians, however, begin with Paul making a point of his call as an apostle. Both of them are "from Paul, appointed by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ."(8) It seems clear from these salutations - and, indeed, large portions of the ensuing letters - that there is some question of the validity of the message which Paul preached to the church at Corinth and, consequently, of Paul's claim to be an apostle. Paul again reiterates this claim and adds supporting evidence to help convince his opponents, and especially points to the fruits of his ministry as evidence that this claim is true (I Cor. 15:9-10; II Cor. 3:1-18, 4:8-12, 6:3-10, 10:12-18, 11:22-29, 12:12f). We will look at this "evidence" in more detail below.
In contrast to these two letters to Corinth, the letter to the church at Philippi does not seem to begin with a claim to a great title or position. Paul calls himself "servant" (doulos) of Christ Jesus. This picture changes slightly when we discover that doulos was used in other ways than merely referring to a servant/slave of a human master. This word also meant "one unconditionally obligated to serve"(9) - a usage reminiscent of the third account in Acts of Paul's call, when the Lord tells Paul that "it is hard for (you) kicking against the goad" (26:14). The emphasis on inability to resist the call to be God's messenger, and on preaching as a duty imposed upon him, is a theme which Paul himself develops in I Corinthians (9:16-18) and which we have already seen to be a link between Paul and the classical prophets. It certainly does not seem that Paul is making any outright claim to being a prophet, but a servant of God by obligation (rather than by choice) is clearly what he considers himself.
Other meanings of doulos add weight to this conclusion. It also means "one of the king's officials" (especially, an ambassador of some sort) or "one subject to God" and owned by him body and soul.(10) The idea of being a messenger of YHWH, the King, is certainly not alien to the Hebrew religion, and the concept of the prophets as viziers of the King was certainly fundamental to their role as challengers of the king, priests, and nation of Israel. The idea of being utterly at God's disposal was also a very basic attribute of the prophet. Of course, this applies to any Christian - or to Israel as a whole - but there seems to be a difference of degree when applying the concept to an average believer as opposed to a missionary or otherwise public witness, such as Paul.
It is clear that this attribute was central to Paul's self-understanding. This same self-designation occurs in Paul's letter to the Romans (1:1), in the letter to the Galatians (1:10), in I Corinthians (7:22) and in II Corinthians (4:5). It must have been attractive to Paul for many reasons, not the least among them being the associations with the "Servant Songs" in the Isaianic materials. It is commonly known that these passages were used to explicate the crucifixion of Jesus, and Paul himself refers to Jesus as a humble, self-effacing servant of God. The letter to the Philippians quotes a Christian hymn known to Paul which uses the same term of Christ (2:7). Anyone who is a follower of Christ would have to take on this same nature, but Paul sees himself as one of the best examples of this - not by his own choice, but by the will of God.
In the letter to Philemon, Paul calls himself a prisoner (desmios) of Jesus Christ (1, 9). This clearly indicates that Paul believes he is in jail because of the gospel of Christ. It could also imply the same sorts ideas as does the term doulos, especially that of being totally at God's disposal. Other than this, however, it does not seem to be so much a claim to a special position (such as that of apostle) but rather an emphasis of his special need. Paul attempts to play on Philemon's pity as well as on his sense of duty to Paul (8-9, 13, 19), but it seems that the identity as "prisoner" is used more out of the former motive than the latter.
The letter to the Galatians is one of the most interesting of the Pauline letters because of the animated style it exhibits. Not only does Paul make a claim to be an apostle, he spends the first five verses of the letter with a defense of his claim and of the gospel he preaches and the next five verses condemning anyone who preaches another gospel! Right from the start we are aware that Paul's authority has been questioned, and the messages which he delivered to the Galatians is in question, and that Paul is certainly not willing to negotiate these issues. It is very clear that Paul sees his gospel as a revelation of Christ, and himself as one who was fore-ordained to deliver this message to the nations (1:11-12, 15f). These claims will also have to be examined at a later point. For not, it must to suffice to note that Paul uses the two previous formulas within the first ten verses of this letter in describing his role. Paul is an apostolos, not from men or through (the mediation of) men, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father (1:1). And, Paul is doulos Xristou, servant of Christ.
Finally, the letter to the Romans sets these two claims within the same verse: "Paul doulos of Christ Jesus, called apostolos and set apart unto the gospel of God" (1:1). There is unlikely to be a significant polemic going on, since Paul has never been to visit the Roman church, but it is clear that Paul wants to set out his claim at the very beginning to prevent any misunderstanding of who he thinks he is. This is made clear again in the epilogue to the letter, where Paul states the reason for his letter (15:14-21). God has given Paul a special "gift of being leitourgon of Christ Jesus to the nations, to do the priestly service of delivering to them the gospel, in order that it might come to pass that the offering which consists of the Gentiles be acceptable, sanctified in the Holy Spirit" (15:15f).(11) It is this special gift of being a "minister"(12) of Christ that gives Paul reason to boast, because Christ has used him to win the "obedience" of the Gentiles, "by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit."(13) Although Paul realizes that the church at Rome is knowledgeable, and that they are able to advise one another (15:14), he has written to them to "refresh their memories" (v. 15) - both about the gospel and about this true minister of the gospel who wants to visit them. The letter is perhaps more of an appeal for a hearing, and some reasons for why it should be granted, than a dogmatic presentation of the Pauline gospel.
We have reviewed the salutations from the letters and have gained some idea of how Paul viewed his position among Christians. It would probably be helpful to look at the overall structure of each of the letters, and to discover the sorts of themes which predominate, but that is beyond the scope of this investigation. Instead, we will look at only a selection of the passages which seem to impinge most closely on the question of what being an "apostle" meant to Paul.
Paul claims, in I Thessalonians 2:1-12, that he could have imposed himself upon the church with the full force of an apostle of Christ (v. 7). Instead, he never looked for any special honor from them, nor did he take any money from them; he was unassuming. Clearly, Paul believes it would have been his right to receive support from the community while he was preaching there, and to receive the honor due to one in his station, but he did not claim those rights while he was with the Thessalonians. He worked hard to support himself so as not to be a burden upon the community (v. 9), and he treated them as his own children - making sacrifices so they would come to know the Good News, teaching them what was right, and encouraging them to lead a life worthy of God's call (vv. 7-9, 11-12). For Paul, it is an important part of being an apostle to present the gospel at no charge to the listeners, and to be self-effacing.
This humility does not prevent Paul from encouraging others to model their lives after his (1:5f, 4:1-2; Phil. 3:17, 4:9). It is not just the words of the apostle that are full of instruction, but his lifestyle as well.
Suffering has a special place in this lifestyle. The suffering of the apostle gives heart to other believers and helps to spread the Good News (Phil. 1:12-19). Somehow, the spread of the gospel will help to save Paul. And, since his suffering makes others bold in proclaiming the message, his suffering will also help bring about salvation. This was exemplified by the life of Jesus, who humbled himself to become a doulos and then was raised on high by God (2:6-11) and will be acclaimed as Lord. The Christian must have the mind of Christ (2:5), being self-effacing and genuine (2:3f, 14). This will mean that Paul, the apostle, has not worked in vain; he will have something of which he can be proud at "the Day of Christ" (2:16-17). In short, for the Christian to live like Christ, he must suffer. And, if the Christians to whom the apostle preached the gospel do live up to their calling, then the apostle will receive glory on the Day of the Lord.
Just how does the apostle preach, and on whose authority? Christ is the one who sends the apostle to preach this "foolish" message from God (I Cor. 1:17-31). God shows the foolishness of human wisdom by the folly of the cross. This gospel cannot be preached by philosophical argument, but simply by declaring the testimony of God (2:1) in "fear and trembling" (v. 3; cf. Ezek. 12:18) and demonstrating the power of the Spirit (2:4). In this way, faith comes by the power of God rather than being subject to human reason (v. 5).
Christians have hidden wisdom, and Paul teaches this wisdom which has been revealed through the Spirit (I Cor. 2:6-11; cf. Is. 64:3, Jer. 3:16). Paul is God's "servant"(14) who plants the faith (3:5-6) that God makes grow. He is a co-worker with God (v. 9) who has, by God's grace, succeeded as "master-builder" (architekton) and laid the foundations of the Corinthians' faith (v. 10). Paul is Christ's "assistant"(15) - an "administrator"(16) who has been entrusted with the mysteries of God (4:1). It is his duty to pass on these mysteries, and to guide others in living according to this revelation from God.
Paul has the responsibility to watch over those to whom he has preached, and can also demand accountability from them (I Cor. 4:14-21). He can tell the community how to respond to moral issues (5:1-8), and can take them to task if they do not follow his guidance (4:21, 6:1-8). Paul did not choose this responsibility but, now that he has been chosen by God, he continues trying to save some people - at any cost - so that he may have a share in the blessings of the gospel (9:1-23). The Corinthians are some of the people God has entrusted to him, since Paul was the one to bring them the Good News. They are his "work in the Lord" and the seal of his apostolate (9:1f)(17) - their faith proves that he is a true apostle - and thus they have the duty to continue to acknowledge his leadership (15:1-2) by believing what he has taught them.
Paul seems to back down from this position a little bit in the second letter to the Corinthians when he claims that he is not one to "lord it over" (kurieuomen) their faith, ruling them as a dictator, but is a "fellow-worker" (sunergon) for their joy (1:24). Still, God makes Paul a partner in Christ's triumph, spreading knowledge of himself through Paul, who is one "from God"(18) (2:12-17). His qualifications come from God, who has made him a minister(19) of the new covenant - a task which is surrounded with glory, and which makes all Christians reflect the glory of the Lord as they are turned into his image (eikon) by the action of the Spirit (3:1-18). Paul's message is the truth, and the power behind his preaching is God's (4:1-7). God knows that he is an apostle (therefore they should recognize it, too); He has given Paul the work of handing on reconciliation, making him an ambassador (presbeuomen) for Christ (5:11-21). He proves he is God's "servant"(20) by the way he lives and by his character (6:3-10). So, Paul does not want to seem like a tyrant, trying to control the faith of the Corinthians; but it is his job to "build up"(21) the church (10:1-11; cf. Jer. 1:10; II Cor. 13:10). Paul wants to be sure that the Corinthians believe the true gospel (11:1-6), that is, the gospel that he has preached to them and which God has proved is His own message (11:22-12:13, 13:3-10). Why can they not understand that?
These same sorts of difficulties had already arisen in Galatia, where a similar
Gnostic Jewish Christian gospel challenged Paul's authority.(22)
Paul's response to the problem in Galatia is even more strongly worded than the
response to the Corinthians (e.g. Gal. 1:6-10), but the content of the reply is
basically the same. Paul defends his claim to be an apostle and defends his gospel
as being a revelation of Christ (1:1-5, 1:11-2:21). The evidence for this dual
claim is fourfold: (1)Paul's call did not come through other people but, against
all of his former opinions and actions, God called him directly - a choice that
was ordained even before Paul was born! (1:15; cf. Is. 49:1, Jer. 1:5) - to preach
the gospel to the nations (1:11-16a). (2) Even after his call, Paul did not discuss
the message with anyone else; he especially emphasizes his independence from the
Jerusalem apostles. (3) When Paul did finally go up to Jerusalem to meet with
the apostles, it was as a result of another revelation (2:1-2). He presented his
gospel to the ones who are reputed to be leaders (hoi dokountes) and they had
nothing to add to it (2:2-6). "Not only that, but they recognized that I am entrusted
with the gospel for the Gentiles(23) just as Peter
for those who are circumcised (v. 7). The same one who was at work for Peter in
delivering the gospel to the Jewish Christians was also at work in Paul in his
mission to the Gentiles (v. 8). So the three leading apostles, James, Cephas and
John, shook the "right hand of fellowship" with Paul to demonstrate their partnership
and support for Paul's mission; they are to preach to the Jews and Paul is to
go to the Gentiles (v. 9). (4) Even after they had all agreed on the authority
of Paul's gospel for the Gentiles, there was a time when Paul had to stand up
to Peter in defense of it - because Peter was obviously wrong (2:11-21). Even
though Peter had agreed to Paul's message, he compromised himself in that regard
and Paul, rightly defended the truth without regard to the status of the offender.
If he can act that way toward Peter, then surely he can reprimand the foolish
This investigation of the Pauline letters has shown that there are three primary facets to the meaning of the title "apostle" for Paul. The title carries with it certain implications for the actions of the apostle, a certain style and direction for the person's life. Secondly, it sums up certain duties which correspond to this position. Finally, there are some corresponding rights or privileges which should be accorded the apostle as a result of his peculiar responsibilities in relation to the larger community.
The actions and lifestyle of the apostle seem to be identical to those of the prophet as presented in Acts or in the classical prophetic works. The apostle is, first and foremost, made a servant of God by a special call to deliver his word to the people. He is given the power of the Spirit and, by "signs and wonders," the Spirit demonstrates the truth of the message which the apostle delivers. The apostle does not receive any tangible recompense for proclaiming this message. Indeed, he is continually making sacrifices for this ministry. The apostle suffers faithfully through persecution by his own people and trials from God; his life, and most likely his death, is characterized by martyrdom. His life is one of humility and self-effacing obedience to God, whose will for him is impossible for the apostle to resist. Because the apostle is under this "divine constraint," his every word and action are directed by God. This means that his word, being God's word, must bear fruit among its hearers; his words and actions effect the salvation that they proclaim.
The special duties of the apostle, according to the Pauline letters, are very similar to those of the prophet, but there seem to be a few more than are traditionally associated with the prophet. The apostle, like the prophet, is charged with delivering God's message and with being obedient to the Spirit of God. He has a mediating role as a "minister" of God:(24) the apostle brings the revelation of God to the people, and offers back to God the acceptable sacrifice of faith of the believers, interceding for them with God. The apostle calls the people to the right way of life (for example, he calls them to be merciful, just, loving) and presents them with the true understanding of their relationship to the Lord. His job is that of reconciliation, calling the people to return to the Lord and to walk in right relationship with Him.
But, the apostle is called to "build up" the community, whereas many of the prophets were called to build up and to tear down. He is called to encourage the community, leading and guiding them in the truth; many of the prophets were called to condemn the community for not living up to the truth. Certainly, there were certain beliefs and practices which the apostle did try to eradicate, to "tear down" (e.g. the practice of intolerance between Jewish and Gentile Christians, sexual immorality). Likewise, there were times when the apostle was called to condemn those who preached a false gospel, or to chastise the community as a whole for straying from the true gospel. And there were even prophets who were called to encourage the Israelites and give them hope for the future. Still, the apostle was charged with teaching and establishing a community around that message, whereas the prophets preached within an already established community.
The apostle also has certain rights which follow from his special position of responsibility in the community. The community owes a certain amount of honor and obedience to the apostle because he has been the vehicle by which God's message has reached them. Their new, justified relationship with God was made possible because the apostle preached God's word to them; they are the apostle's "children" in faith. Thus, he has the right (and the duty) to correct them and guide them as a parent guides a child, and they have the responsibility to acknowledge this guidance. The apostle is a leader in the community and can call others to account for their lack of obedience to his message, which is God's message. God's word is a gift; thus, the apostle has the right to tangible support as a sign of thanks for this precious gift that he delivers - even if the apostle does not exercise this right to support. The community did not always acknowledge these special rights of the apostle, but that does not make them less valid.
It is difficult to say whether these "rights" create a distinction between the apostle and the prophet, or whether they simply verbalize another set of similarities. These rights were never enunciated by any of the classical prophets, but one can easily see how the right to special honor can be applied to them. Certainly, contemporary Jews considered the lack of honor received by the prophets an abhorrent fact, and the cult of the prophet-martyrs must have been an attempt - though too late - to recognize this right to honor. Again, the "right" to call others to account in God's name was never spelled out by the classical prophets; yet, for many of them, judgment characterized most of their message to Israel. The image of parental correction in Hosea is an image of God's relationship to the people but, when viewed in light of the prophet's position as "watchman" for the people, one can also see how this image could (by association) be applied to the prophet himself. The prophets before the rise of the monarchy did receive at least some of their sustenance from the recipients of their message (e.g. Elijah, Elisha), but we do not have any information about the classical prophets receiving tangible goods in payment for their prophecy. One could easily imagine, however, that the prophets associated with the temple would have "earned their bread" by prophesying.(25) Finally, the prophets certainly believed that their word should be obeyed because it was the word of the Lord; disobedience of their message was equivalent to disobedience of God. This right to obedience was often disregarded - as is true of Paul's right, as an apostle, to obedience from the community - but it ideally should have been granted to the prophet as God's representative among the people.
Then are there really any differences between Paul's idea of an apostle and the classical prophet? Perhaps if we had investigated the actual content of Paul's message and compared it with that of the classical prophets, we could have arrived at some significant differences; though, in a grossly oversimplified understanding of Paul's message, we have seen that it is a new interpretation of the ancient covenant tradition - just as were the messages of the classical prophets. The iconoclastic tendency in Paul may be an extreme, but even the prophets exhibit a wide range of positions in regard to the tradition cult and the position of the Torah. The style in which Paul presented his message was, at times, very direct and forceful, as was the presentation of many of the prophets. At other times, Paul used a midrashic, expository style to deliver his message(26) - a technique which may have played a part in some of the prophetic proclamations(27) but would probably not be considered a major emphasis. Paul rarely uses the formula: "This is the word of the Lord,"(28) whereas the prophets frequently used the messenger formula: "Oracle of the Lord."(29) We get the impression, then, that Paul's concept of the apostolic role per de does not differ greatly from the contemporary understanding of the role of the classical prophet, but that he uses a different style for delivering his message and, to some extent, avoids the use of phrases that would associate him with the "prophets" rather than the "apostles."
Does Paul really dissociate himself from the "prophets" purposely? He certainly claims the title of "apostle" and defends this claim, but neither affirms nor denies any association with prophets. Is the difference in his manner of presenting his message great enough to account for this title of "apostle" rather than prophet? Or, does his lack of use of the oracle formula disqualify him as a prophet? If Paul considers himself to be an apostle, why does the author of Acts portray him as a Prophet and not apply the apostolic title to Paul (save the two isolated instances in chapter 14 where Paul is put on a par with Barnabas and both are called "apostles")? It is to these questions that we now turn.
"APOSTLE" VERSUS "PROPHET" - The Choice and Some Potential Reasons
In choosing to call himself an apostle, does Paul deny that he has a prophetic gift? This seems clearly not to be the case, for Paul himself reports that he has had visions and direct revelations from the Lord. His call to the ministry was one of these revelations, and Paul certainly speaks of it as a prophetic call.(30) Yet, when he discusses "visions" from the Lord, Paul does not place a great amount of emphasis on them.(31) The revelation on which he does place a considerable amount of stress is his initial call, but Paul declares that this call was to be an apostle. One does get the distinct impression that Paul's silent treatment is a disclaimer of the prophetic office.
The attitude of contemporary Jews toward the classical prophets was one of great reverence, yet Paul chooses an office and role which are almost entirely new to his people - and many of them who knew of apostles did not feel favorably incline toward them. The important title for a contemporary Jew was that of rabbi, for the rabbis were thought to have inherited what remained of the prophetic office: the responsibility for interpreting the Torah in terms of the present situation.(32) And the rabbinic method of doing this was midrash. So Paul, who uses this rabbinic technique, chooses a title which is almost certain to alienate him from the Jewish community; only among Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians will this title have any force.
Did Paul want to set himself apart from the mainstream of Pharisaic Judaism, of which he claims he has been a part? Was this the purpose for his claim to be an apostle? It does not seem likely that Paul would make this choice and cut himself off from his basic social group without some very important benefits coming from this sacrifice. Paul knew that he was not called to be an apostle to the Jews; he was as one "of untimely birth" (I Cor. 15:8), a miscarriage.(33) Paul was sent to the Gentiles, not to the Jews. Perhaps this claim to be an apostle would not have been accepted by his compatriots because he was "born out of turn" - the twelve had already laid claim to the title and Paul would not have been (indeed, he was not) considered as on a par with these "influential men." The only remaining possibility would be to take this claim to the Gentiles, who would not be so concerned with having an apostle from Jerusalem, or with whether he was one of the "original" band of apostles. Paul realized that the new mission which God had given him would not work among his compatriots; they would always see him in the shadow of the "influential" apostles in the Jerusalem church. Only among the Gentiles could his special gifts and call to spread the gospel have their full effect. It has been argued that Paul had no intention of separating himself from rabbinic Judaism,(34) but it is hard to see how Paul could have maintained his apostolic claim and have remained part of the rabbinic Jewish community. This would be the sacrifice Paul would have to make in order to live out the new call God had given to him.
And the sacrifice could not be without compensation. Paul gives us a strong clue as to what he saw as perhaps the most important difference between the prophet and the apostle: "In the Church, God has given the first place to apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them, miracles, and after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with (different) kinds of languages" (I Cor. 12:28). The prophet was the "influential man" in ancient Israel. Even the king sought the advice of the prophet, and even the king was to listen to the word that the prophet spoke. In contemporary Judaism, since there were no prophets, the rabbis were the "influential" ones. But, in the Christian community, neither the teachers not the prophets held first place. The apostles held the place of honor and influence. Not every one of the members of the Christian community have all of the gifts which Paul lists in I Cor. 12:28; but the apostle is one who does have the characteristics of both prophet and teacher, both miracle worker and healer, of a good leader and of one who speaks in tongues (I Cor. 14:18). The prophet has an important place in the community, and prophecy is a wonderful gift (I Cor. 14:1-5, 39f; I Thess. 5:19f). But even this gift ranks below the gift of being an apostle.
The other gifts which Paul lists below the rank of apostle are all gifts which involve a temporary situation or disposition. The prophet is only truly a prophet when he is involved in prophesying. The teacher, likewise, is a teacher truly when he is teaching and not at any other time. The gifts of miracles and healing may be given more often through one particular individual, but these are temporary manifestations of the Spirit. The one who leads may be replaced and the one who speaks in tongues can only do so for short periods of time. But the apostle is an apostle all of the time. Although he may have all of these other gifts, the other gifts are not what make him an apostle. The apostolic call is what makes the apostle what he is: one called by God and gifted with a permanent, indelible presence of the Spirit and sent forth to make that presence known to others.
Paul's claim to be an apostle, then does not deny his position as a prophet, but supersedes it. The gift of prophecy can be included under the gift of being an apostle, but prophecy could never usurp the place of the apostolic office. To prevent his opponents from relegating him to second place, Paul emphasizes his apostolic call rather than his visions, his apostolic teaching rather than oracles. Paul can even use the methods used by the rabbis when teaching and explaining the message, because the message itself has been a direct apostolic revelation. This is enough to validate the message, no matter how it is presented.
The key difference between the claim to be an apostle and the characterization of Paul as a prophet is an issue of authority. Paul writes to the Thessalonians without using any title of himself. But, later on, he begins to claim the title of "apostle" at the very beginning of his letters. Every one of the other six letters have some form of claim linked to Paul`s salutation, claims which present Paul as God's servant, minister, ambassador, prisoner. In short, each one of them claims that Paul is an apostle. This means that Paul's words are authoritative and that his leadership is to be the formative influence on the Christian communities to which he has preached. The "arch-apostles" who have received "wisdom" (gnosis) directly from God are subordinate to Paul. They are not real apostles, but Paul is. Paul could never have been successful in combating the Gnostics or the unruly prophets who arose in the churches if he had only claimed to be a prophet; there were many prophets, so many that each community had more than one prophet (cf. I Cor. 14:29-33). But Paul was the final authority under God, because he was the only apostle.
Acts characterizes Paul as a prophet because this is the way to show people how powerful and important Paul was. Paul could not be an apostle because Luke has already demonstrated that there can only be twelve apostles (Acts 1:1-26), but Paul is an extremely influential man in the early church. Paul is the one who has taken the gospel of God to Rome, the gateway to the rest of the world! Without Paul, the dominical prophecy that "you shall be my witnesses, even to the ends of the earth" could not have been fulfilled. So, if Paul cannot be an apostle, the next best thing is to portray him as a prophet of the Christian message - one with the same power and influence as the prophets of old, but preaching the new message of God's salvation in the messiah, Jesus.
Acts' characterization of Paul as a prophet, then, is a theological decision. Paul's own claim to be an apostle is a practical, sociological decision. This is not to deny that Paul believed that he was truly called to be an apostle to the Gentiles and that this call was part of God's mysterious will for salvation of all peoples. Paul certainly believed in the truth of his claim.
But, the overriding concern for Paul was the stability and endurance of the communities that he had founded. The fact that he had founded any new community at all pointed out a great difference between him and the prophets. And, to Paul, that these communities arose and continued in faith to his message was absolute proof of his claim to be an apostle. Perhaps Paul did not begin his mission with full knowledge of his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Perhaps it required the challenge of the Gnostics to bring Paul to the understanding of the true nature of his call, just as the fact that the "Jews" rejected his message may have brought him to the understanding that he was to preach to the Gentiles. This does not really matter. The fact remains that the communities arose, were nurtured by Paul, withstood the pressures of rival "gospels" because of Paul's influence, and remained faithful to the true message of the Lord which Paul had first delivered to them. The "master-builder" is judged by whether the edifice stands. Is Paul an opportunist turned apostle? Or is he a true minister of God's word who simply took some time to realize the full import of his call? The edifice speaks for itself.
1. The nature of the question requires a great amount of exegesis. I have attempted to note auxiliary resources for certain pertinent issues as they arose, but I have certainly not made use of an extensive bibliography. For further research in the area of the Pauline letters and/or the book of Acts, I recommend the bibliographies presented in those works which have been quoted or which have been marked with an asterisk in the brief bibliography attached.
2. One ought to note that the number twelve is constitutive for the author of Luke-Acts. The first chapter of Acts, leading up to and completed by the "election of Matthias," demonstrates this fact. The beginning of the chapter is devoted to a repetition of the last words of Jesus to the disciples: (1) that they would "receive power" from on high, and (2) that they would be his witnesses, beginning with Jerusalem and reaching to all nations, indeed, "to the ends of the earth" (1:8). This dominical prophecy/command is followed immediately by the listing of the eleven remaining apostles, and the account of the election of the twelfth. A detailed investigation of the set of events here presented is not within the scope of this paper. For further details, see Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God, a New Look at Luke-Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972); Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, A Commentary (Oxford: basil Blackwell, 1971), tr. from 14th German ed. (1965) by Bernard Noble and Gerald Shinn, under supervision of Hugh Anderson, tr. rev. by R. McL. Wilson; Richard J. Dillon and Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, S.J., "The Acts of the Apostles," #45, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Brown, Fitzmeyer & Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968).
3. Haenchen, Acts, 159 n. 8: "edei: in Luke dei implies that God wills something and that it therefore must happen. Such instances of the divine will can be recognized from the fact that they are prophetically expressed by the Spirit in holy scripture. The fated necessity embodied in the dei for Hellenism appears here (since God is personal will) transformed into the unconditional and inexorable supremacy of the Lord, in whose mercy the Christian may put his trust."
4. Compare Is. 6:1-5, Jer. 1:1-12, Ezek. 1:1-3:15, Exod. 33:18-23.
5. E.g. Jer. 7:3-4, 22-28, 17:19-27, 14:11, 31-31-34; Hos. 6:2-6; Ezek. 3:16-21, 18:1-32; Amos 5:21-25; Micah 6:1-8; Hab. 3:1-2. See also R. E. Clements, Prophecy and Covenant, Studies in Biblical Theology #43 (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1965); Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967); Delbert Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969) 120-142; Dennis J. McCarthy, S.J., Treaty and Covenant A Study in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament, Analectica Biblica, no. 21 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963) and Biblica 1979, 60 (2): 247-253, "Addenda to Treaty and Covenant."
6. E.g. Is. 66:18-23, Micah 7:15-17.
7. See H. A. Fischel, "Martyr and Prophet, " Jewish Quarterly Review 37 (1946-47) 265-80 and 38 (1947-48) 363-86.
8. I Cor. 1:1 reads: "Paul, called apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God..." II Cor. 1:1 is identical, except that it omits the word "called." (my translation)
9. W. F. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, tr. and adapted from Griechisch-deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriften den Neuen Testaments und ubrigen urchristlichen Literatur, fourth ed., 1949-52, by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1957) 204. Also, Robert Jewett, in unpublished lecture notes, has stressed that doulos was used in the sense of "ambassador" in contemporary commerce and politics.
10. Bauer, Lexicon, 205, #2 and #4.
11. My translation.
12. The term "leitourgos" has many uses, the primary one being "servant" with religious connotations. It is used in this way in the Septuagint and in Philo. More selected meanings are those of "pagan government official" or of "priest" or "minister," and sometimes of heavenly beings who are God's servants (e.g. Ps. 103:4, 102:21). Since "minister" can convey both the secular political connotation (such as, "minister of commerce") as well as the religious connotation, I have used this translation. Paul is not only a religious figure, but also is a functionary within the realm of the divine kingdom. His ministry has a political as well as a religious impact. See Bauer, Lexicon, 472 for further information.
13. "Obedience" (hupakoen) that every slave owes to his master, that is to be given to God's chosen representatives (the apostle and his emissaries), and the obedience to God's will as expressed in the gospel. See Bauer, Lexicon, 844-5
14. "Diakonos" - Bauer, Lexicon, 183, #1a: "a king's steward."
15. "Huperetes" - Bauer, Lexicon, 850: a member of a king's retinue; a servant of a board or court (e.g. the Sanhedrin); a synagogue attendant; a servant, helper, or assistant in general.
16. Paul is "oikonomous musterion Theou" - literally a "manager of the mysteries of God;" figuratively, this would mean Paul is an "administrator" of the mysteries. See Bauer, Lexicon, 562.
17. The Corinthians are Paul's "sphragis," the certification, attestation, or confirmation of the fact that he is an apostle. See Bauer, Lexicon, 804, #1d and 2a. See also I Cor. 15:9-10.
18. "Hos ek Theou." This phrase could even be taken in the sense that Paul is "as one begotten by God" or descended from God; but more likely it wants to stress that God is the effective cause for Paul's mission, the reason and source behind it. For further information, see Bauer, Lexicon, "hos", I-III, 904-7 and "ek", passim, 233-6.
19. "Diakonos." See note 7, Perspective of the Pauline Letters.
21. "Oikodomen." See Bauer, Lexicon, 561: #1. literally, a building, construction process. b. figuratively, a spiritual strengthening; edification.
22. Willi Marxsen, Introduction to the New Testament, tr. G. Buswell (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) 56, 83.
23. "... to euaggelion tes akrobustias" could also mean "the gospel of uncircumcision." See Bauer, Lexicon, 33, akrobustia #3.
24. All of the words which Paul uses to refer to his ministry or position emphasize his mediating role between God and humans. A diakonos is a king's steward; Paul is the steward of God's word. The leitourgon has a priestly function of delivering God's word to the nations and bringing the nations back to God. Paul speaks of his work as that of an "ambassador" (presbeuein) for Christ (II Cor. 5:20; see Bauer, Lexicon, 374). He is the "administrator" of the mysteries (see note 9, Perspective of the Pauline Letters), and a member of the retinue of the King YHWH (see note 8 on huperetas, Perspective of the Pauline Letters).
25. See Amos 7:12-13.
26. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, 1967) 105-8.
27. Perhaps the prophetic reinterpretation of inherited traditions (for example, the rib of YHWH as a form of this reinterpretation of Hosea's use of the covenant terms emet, hesed, and sedaqah) could be seen as a sort of exposition of the real meaning of these traditions. To my knowledge, no one has yet done a study of whether there are any midrashic elements in the prophetic proclamations.
28. E.g. I Cor. 7:10, 14:37. Archibald M. Hunter, in Paul and His Predecessors (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1940; rev. ed. 1961) 51, notes that "All Paul's express references to "Words of the Lord" occur in I Corinthians." Hunter rightly points out that this is significant, but he attributes it to the fact that Paul is answering a number of practical questions. It is also possible that Paul, in giving many of his own answers to these practical questions, wants to distinguish between what is a command rather than a suggestion. Or, perhaps Paul felt that he needed the extra attention-getting device of explicitly stating that this was a "word of the Lord." One who is "administrator of the mysteries of God" must demonstrate that he has some "mysteries" to administer.
29. For example, Is. 3:15, 49:7, 66:17; Jer. 10:1-2; Ezek. 5:17; Hosea 4:1; Joel 4:8; Amos 2:11; Obad. 1:1; Micah 3:5; Nahum 1:12; Zeph. 1:2-3; Hag. 2:6-9; Zech. 3:10; Mal. 1:2. See Westermann, Prophetic Speech.
30. Henry Chadwick, The Enigma of St. Paul (London: the University of London, Athlone, 1969) 17: "In Galatians i.15 he speaks of his apostolate in language directly allusive to that used by Jeremiah in speaking of his call."
31. When Paul "boasts" (II Cor. 11:22-12:13), he spends quite a bit of the time talking about his sufferings for the gospel. When he does mention his visions, he adds the fact that he was given a "thorn in the flesh" to prevent him from attributing more importance to that than to his own weaknesses which allow the power of God to work through him. Again, when Paul repeats the story of his call to the Galatians, he does not mention any specifics of the event. He simply emphasizes that this call was from God, and that it was a call to be an apostle.
32. Fischel, "Martyr and Prophet," 272-3 (esp. Note 32); also, 369 re: the Bath Kol. An interesting thesis is offered by David L. Petersen in Late Israelite Prophecy: Studies in Deutero-Prophetic Literature and in Chronicles, SBL Monograph series, Vol. 23 (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1977) where he argues that classical prophecy was divided into two segments. The deuteroprophetic element maintained that prophecy had ceased, and the Levitical group claimed that the gift of prophecy had been given over to the Levitical singers. In conjunction with Paul Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) who sees the prophetic-visionary groups vs. the cultic and political official, one can understand how the deutero-prophetic group of Petersen might be the "prophetic-visionary" group of Hanson - and have gradually developed into the rabbinic tradition of commentary on the prophetic traditions, under the influence of the Bath Kol.
33. "Ektromati," a word which has the meaning of an "untimely birth" or a "miscarriage," but was also sometimes used with the force of a "monster" or "horrible thing." See Bauer, Lexicon, "ektroma", 246.
34. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, passim.
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