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Paul and His Influence in Early Christianity

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Paul and His Times

   The Christian church of the first two centuries was composed of many communities spread across the Roman Empire and beyond. The peoples' languages, customs, traditions, history, and religious roots varied. As a result, different churches valued different scriptures and traditions, many of which were later declared heterodox (heretical).

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   This mosaic of Paul is in the archepiscopal oratory of St. Andrew in Ravenna, Italy. See also Saint Paul with his book (rotulus), a mosaic (late 5th/early 6th century) from an Arian (heterodox) baptistry in Ravenna [standard link].

   In the early years of the church, few would have thought the writings of Paul of Tarsus would become so influential. He was a scrappy fellow, always ready to defend what was then a minority viewpoint even among those doing mission work among the Gentiles.

   Paul's penchant for not mincing words and holding on to his understanding of God's call was not limited to skirmishes among the leaders of the early church. He could and did write scathing letters to the churches themselves; we can only imagine his demeanor when he met with them face-to-face. Paul's letter to the Galatians contains some of his sharpest written words (5:2-12); his letters to the Corinthians are not far behind.

   At the beginning of the second century, Paul's work remained unknown or unimportant in some parts of the church while other parts embraced it enthusiastically. For example, a few decades after Paul's death, a key bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 110) wrote several letters but he neither mentioned Paul nor quoted Paul's letters. In contrast, others in Rome, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt embraced Paul's writings enthusiastically and began to re-interpret his teachings in the light of their context, experience, and needs. Among these groups were women, especially those from the eastern churches, where asceticism was an important aspect of Christian life.

Biblical and Extra-Biblical Pauline Traditions

   In addition to Paul's undisputed letters, Christianity has inherited several writings which continue aspects of the Pauline tradition and build upon it in new ways. Two groups of writings in the Pauline tradition were canonized:

Writings from nonbiblical orthodox and heterodox traditions include:

   Next we will examine the Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles and why scholars believe these were not written by Paul. Then we will look at The Acts of Paul and Thecla, an orthodox apocryphal book, in relation to the Pastoral Epistles. The Acts of Thecla probably emerged from circles of women; whereas the Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles were most certainly written by men. The authors of these writings were familiar with the not only some of Paul's letters but some of same oral traditions about him.

Next: Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles
Pauline Biblical Traditions

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Notes and Credits

   All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission.