How late was the name “Paul”?

A recent post on this site concluded: “I find it curious that both Marcion and Paul bear names that are diminutives. ‘Marcion’ means Little Mark. ‘Paul’ means little. Is this purely a coincidence?” Here I attempt an answer to this question…

Diminutives are generally disparaging. There are sarcastic exceptions (“Little John”, “Tiny Tim”) but—unless the names Marcion and Paul are original—the possibility exists that these were nicknames coined with hostile intent. As regards “Paul,” we are told in the New Testament that it was not his only name—the Apostle also went by “Saul” (Acts 13:9). As was common in antiquity, he had a Roman and a Jewish name, and neither one was demonstrably a nickname or disparaging.

But, then, we are repeatedly reminded in the Christian writings that Paul was the “least” of the apostles (1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8), the last (1 Cor 15:8), and that he may even have been physically afflicted (Gal 4:13–14; 2 Cor 10:10 & 12:7—epilepsy is often suspected). “Small,” then, is curiously apposite for this latecomer to the Christian fold. This is further cause to suppose that “Paul” was not a name given at birth, but one given by the Christian tradition.

Now, if “Paul” was a name subsequently given to him by the Church—one that describes his “lesser” (or “later”) position relative to the apostles of Jesus—then that name was invented. And if so, then we can consider a further question: Was “Paul” himself also a contrived, invented figure?

The history of the name “Paul,” and its attestation in the Christian records will help us answer that question…

Early witnesses to the name “Paul”?

In this case, a review of Christian literature yields some astonishing surprises. Excluding the Pauline epistles (see below), the earliest Christian texts (including the Odes of Solomon, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel of Thomas) make no mention of Paul. The Apostle also does not appear even once in the canonical gospels.

Paul and Thecla, fresco from an early Christian cave shrine near Ephesus, western Asia Minor.

Paul and Thecla, fresco from an early Christian cave shrine near Ephesus, western Asia Minor.

Suddenly, however, the Acts of the Apostles mentions Paul well over one hundred times. Indeed, Acts (at any rate, from chapter nine onwards) can be described as the “Acts of Paul.” There is, in fact, a work known as the “Acts of Paul [and Thecla],” as well as an entire apocryphal Pauline literature all of which belongs to the second century and later. These lesser-known Christian writings include the so-called Third Epistle to the Corinthians, The Prayer and Apocalypse of Paul from Nag Hammadi, and the (rather strange) “Correspondence between Seneca and Paul.” For our purposes, it is worth emphasizing a chronological point: all of these works postdate the time of Marcion, who was active in the second quarter of the second century.

Marcion was apparently the first to bring “Paul” to the world. Indeed, we know that Marcion was very devoted to Paul. The heretic considered Paul to be the only true apostle. Marcion was also the first to present the world with Paul’s letters (see below).

Chronologically, it is interesting that “Paul” suddenly assumes enormous importance in the Catholic tradition (e.g. in the Lucan book of Acts) immediately after Marcion’s known activity. Not only the Catholic tradition was now fascinated by Paul. Gnostic traditions also claimed him for themselves (on this, see E. Pagels, The Gnostic Paul). The Apostle was the quintessential Christian hero—or, in Jewish Christianity, the quintessential villain (e.g. under the cipher “Simon the Magician” in the Pseudo-Clementine literature). In either case, Paul was suddenly of first importance. And he has remained so to this day.

As the foregoing review shows, however, before the mid-second century there is no reference to “Paul” at all.

The battle for Paul: the epistles

The various figures of Paul in the above texts are not uniform. Most familiarly, he is the model Christian who sets forth true doctrine and correct praxis in terms that the layperson can understand. However, the texts differ in how they view ‘ideal’ and on what is both ‘true doctrine’ and ‘true praxis.’ Sometimes Paul is also something of a savior figure in his own right (particularly in the apocryphal literature). As regards praxis, there was a huge divide between the Jewish and Gentile factions of Christianity.

“Paul” was the hero of the Hellenist Christian factions, but the Ebionite/Jewish Christians considered him an apostate and even an anti-hero. The grounds for the opposing views were not merely praxis but also theological. As regards the latter, the Jewish Christians did not accept “Paul’s” cosmic view of the atoning death of Jesus. On the other hand, when we look at the New Testament epistles, we see that the redeeming death of Jesus is all-important. The Catholic tradition took over this view—perhaps from Marcion.

51ygdjpgskl-_sx315_bo1204203200_It is evident that the Catholics redefined Paul. The fact that Marcion predates all these texts that mention Paul (including the canonical Acts) is of significance. Joseph Tyson in his Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle writes (p. 77) that “Luke wants to disassociate Paul from Marcion” and “that the claims of the Marcionites to be followers of Paul are mere fabrications, unsupported by the historical ‘facts’ and, what is more important, contrary to the ‘Spirit of Jesus’.” In second century Christianity, ‘ownership’ of Paul was a real battleground—particularly between the Marcionites and the Church. It is no surprise that half of the New Testament is devoted to Paul—namely, his epistles. “Paul” is also mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter (3:15–16), but this letter is a late second century production as well (Price 2006:834).

As to the thorny issues of the authenticity and dating of the Pauline epistles, it is not possible to go into them here in any significant way. Many books (indeed a small library) have been devoted to those issues. In any case, it is clear that the Pauline epistles are not monolithic—they come from different pens (cf. the so-called “Pastorals”), different temporal contexts, serve different purposes, and presuppose different stages in church formation. Furthermore, in many cases the epistles are compilations of shorter units that may once have been independent. Of the thirteen epistles (the Letter to the Hebrews is not Pauline), only seven are now generally viewed as authentic. For well nigh a century, however, even those have been doubted—i.e., by the so-called Dutch Radical School.

51l-r0us08l-_ac_ul320_sr204320_Here Marcion once again comes to the fore. As is well known, Marcion was a great devotee of “Paul.” Most astonishingly, it was Marcion who ‘discovered’ the epistles of Paul. It seems that they were entirely unknown until the heretic appeared with them before the mid-second century CE. Tertullian writes that “Marcion discovered [or “stumbled upon,” Lat. nactus] the letter of Paul to the Galatians…” Robert M. Price (The Pre-Nicene New Testament, 2006:834) interprets this as evidence that Marcion wrote the epistle. Hermann Detering goes a step further and proposes that the Pauline writings are generally “pseudepigraphic writings from the school of Marcion” (Detering, The Fabricated Paul, 1994:102). As we have seen, this fits in perfectly with Tyson’s view above, that in his Acts of the Apostles Luke subsequently attempted to divorce Paul from Marcion.

So, the accumulating data is showing that the figure of “Paul” is attested in history no further back than the second quarter of the second century. “Paul,” of course, may be based upon a more ancient personage—perhaps under a different name—and the epistles may indeed contain elements that go back even to the first century. However, it is clear that the name Paulos (Gk. “Small”) is not attested in Christian literature prior to the time of Marcion (“Little Mark”).

The battle for Paul: the Church Fathers

(Click on photo for review. PDF download available here.)

PDF download available here.

And what of the Catholic heresiologists? As we will now see, their writings also show that the name “Paul” was unknown in Christian literature before the mid-second century CE:

PAPIAS. No mention of “Paul” (not even by later attribution).

FIRST EPISTLE OF CLEMENT (middle-late II CE). The work Mentions “Paul” several times. It is traditionally attributed to Clement of Rome and dated somewhere between 81 and 98 CE. However, H. Detering (1994:75) has noted that the epistle knows 1 Corinthians and, by implication, also some of the other Pauline letters. When we recognize that those Pauline letters are themselves Marcionite or post-Marcionite (see above), then it is clear that 1 Clement is also. It dates mid-II CE or later.

IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH (d. ca. 107 CE). Of the seven so-called “authentic” Ignatian epistles, “Paul” is mentioned at Romans 4:3 and Ephesians 12:2. Once again, however, Detering (1994:75) notes that the author knows the Pauline epistles. In fact, late forgery must be imputed to the entire Ignatian correspondence (Detering 1994:83; Price 2006:329)—as has now been suspected for over one hundred years. These letters in all likelihood date to early III CE.

SECOND EPISTLE OF CLEMENT (first half II CE). No mention of “Paul.”

JUSTIN MARTYR (d. ca. 165 CE). No mention of “Paul.”

The Letter of POLYCARP OF SMRYNA to the Philippians (trad. dating 110–40 CE). “Paul” is mentioned several times. However, R. Price concludes that this letter is “post-Pauline Paulology” reflecting the Sitz im Leben of the Pastoral Epistles—i.e., post-Marcionite (Price 2006:471–78, 640). The correct date is not before mid-II CE.

HEGESIPPUS (d. ca. 180 CE. A few passages alleged by Eusebius). No mention of “Paul.”

Conclusion: the late invention of “Paul”

From the foregoing evidence, it is clear that Paul the Apostle was indeed a “latecomer”—he did not exist before the second century CE.

“Paul” was a marcionite/post-marcionite creation.

 The name “Mark”

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


How late was the name “Paul”? — 2 Comments

  1. Acts was clearly written to address ‘The Problem with Paul’. That it’s such a sloppy pastiche hints at some urgency in countering a real and present danger to the Roman sect. The timing marks the appearance of the Pauline Epistles as that threat. ‘Paul’, as characterized in the Epistles must, therefore, be a new manifestation.

    The historical Paul would be none other than Simon Magus — all clues point in that direction. Thus, though no mention of Paul appears prior to Marcion’s apostolikon, we find multiple (negative) mentions of Simon Magus. Justin Martyr, of course, but also the Acts of Peter and the basic document behind the Pseudo-Clementines can be seen as parallel attempts to discredit Simon, albeit somewhat heavy-handed ones. The author of Acts displays his subtle genius in bifurcating Simon from Paul, quickly dismissing the former, then assimilating the latter as dutiful lackey to Peter and the Pillars.

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