In Their Own Words
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Many BAR readers are familiar with the quest for the historical Jesus, but what of the historical Paul? James D.G. Dunn, Emeritus Lightfoot Professor at the University of Durham, asked this question in his contribution to a recent festschrift for fellow New Testament scholars Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor and Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer.1
A popular theme in New Testament scholarship over the past two centuries has been “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” The quest provided the main driving force behind the development of tools and techniques in Biblical scholarship for most of that period. It was widely recognized that the way Jesus was portrayed in the Gospels and other New Testament writings might be very different from the way he actually lived and spoke during his mission in Galilee. So it became a guiding principle in studying the beginnings of Christianity that the actual history of the prophet from Galilee could not be taken for granted but had to be reconstructed by historical critical scholarship.
Somewhat surprisingly there has been no real equivalent in the case of Paul, no real “quest of the historical Paul.”
This is not altogether surprising, since, unlike the case of Jesus, we have Paul’s own writings which we can consult … But the lack of a quest for the historical Paul is surprising nonetheless, partly, because the other principal testimony to Paul available to us, the Acts of the Apostles, is now widely regarded in the same way that the Synoptic Gospels’ testimony to Jesus is regarded. Does Acts give us any more secure testimony to the historical Paul than the Gospels give to the historical Jesus?
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The other reason why the lack of a quest for the historical Paul surprises is that Paul’s influence in determining the beginnings of Christianity was almost as great as that of Jesus … Without Paul, the Messiah Jesus renewal movement might have remained, and eventually withered away, as a sect within Judaism. And this evaluation of Paul is typically echoed by Jew and Christian alike.