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date: 01 December 2021

Paul as a Character in Early Christian Narratives

Abstract and Keywords

The apostle Paul is featured as a character in a wide variety of early Christian narratives. This chapter considers first how Paul is portrayed in a number of different story-style narratives, including the Acts of the Apostles, the Acts of Thecla, the Ephesus Act, and two different accounts of Paul’s martyrdom. Attention is drawn to the creative energy storytellers poured into telling tales about the famous apostle. The chapter argues that many storytellers seem to have felt free to shape their stories according to their own ingenuity and interests, rather than being preoccupied with producing ‘historically accurate’ accounts. It also highlights a range of factors that may have influenced how Paul is portrayed in any given narrative, including plot concerns, pre-existing traditions about other characters with whom Paul shares the stage, and recourse to stock motifs and story templates. In addition to this exploration of story-style narratives, the chapter examines how Paul functions as an authoritative voice in two narratives of slightly different genres, a fictional letter exchange known as 3 Corinthians or the Corinthian Correspondence, and a tour of the afterlife known as the Apocalypse of Paul.

Keywords: Paul, Acts of the Apostles, Acts of Thecla, Acts of Paul, martyrdom of Paul, 3 Corinthians, Apocalypse of Paul, storytelling, reception, memory

1. Introduction

Throughout the centuries, Jews and Christians have delighted in telling stories about famous figures from the past, such as Abraham, Elijah, Jesus, and the apostles. The apostle Paul is featured as a character in a wide variety of early Christian narratives, including the Acts of the Apostles, as well as many other works tracing to the second century and beyond.

In this chapter, we will first consider how Paul is portrayed in a number of story-style narratives, including the Acts of the Apostles, the Acts of Thecla, the Ephesus Act, and two different accounts of Paul’s martyrdom. As we will see, early Christian storytellers seem to have poured a great deal of creative energy into crafting narratives about the famous apostle, and generally appear to have felt free to shape their stories according to their own ingenuity and interests. The chapter will also highlight a range of factors that may have influenced how Paul is portrayed in any given narrative, including plot concerns, pre-existing traditions about other figures with whom Paul shares the stage, and recourse to stock motifs and story templates.

Following this exploration of some story-style narratives, the chapter will examine Paul’s role in two narratives of slightly different genres, a fictional letter exchange known as 3 Corinthians or the Corinthian Correspondence, and a work known as the Apocalypse of Paul, where Paul describes taking a tour of Paradise and Hell. We will see that while some early Christian storytellers put Paul on stage as a man of action and adventure, others employed him primarily as an authoritative voice.

2. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is one of the main characters. First introduced as Saul, a murderous opponent of Jesus’ disciples (Acts 7:58–8:1; 9:1–3), he is accosted by the resurrected and ascended Jesus on the way to Damascus and transformed into a powerful witness (Acts 9:1–30). Starting in Acts 13, he is on stage in almost every scene, proclaiming to Jews and ‘Godfearers’ that Jesus is the resurrected Messiah and fulfilment of God’s promises (e.g., Acts 9:22; 13:14–43; 14:1; 17:1–3, 10–11; 18:5; 19:8; 28:23), calling Gentiles to turn to the one creator god (e.g., 14:15–17; 17:22–31; 19:26; 20:9–12), performing miracles (e.g., Acts 13:9–11; 14:3, 8–11; 16:16–18; 19:11–12; 28:8–9), narrowly escaping death at the hands of various opponents (Acts 9:23–25; 14:5, 19; 21:27–31; 23:12–30), spending time in prison (Acts 16:19–40; 21:33–28:31), and getting shipwrecked on the way to Rome (27:9–44).

The portrayal of Paul in Acts has been extensively discussed in commentaries and other secondary literature (for overviews, see, e.g., Gasque 1989; Penner 2004; Flichy 2012). Especially in older scholarship, much of that discussion centred on the question of whether the depiction of Paul in Acts is historically accurate, a topic that still attracts scholarly attention today. Scholars have asked, for example, whether it is historically plausible that Paul was a Roman citizen, as claimed in Acts 16:37–39 and 22:22–29—a status of some privilege that most inhabitants of the Roman Empire in Paul’s day did not enjoy—and have reached varying conclusions on the matter (see, e.g., Stegemann 1987; Adams 2009). Scholars have also frequently compared Acts to Paul’s letters—especially the so-called ‘undisputed’ letters—and have offered a variety of opinions about whether they think the depiction of Paul in Acts is compatible with these other texts. In Galatians 1–2, for example, Paul talks about two visits he made to Jerusalem. Some scholars have found his comments difficult to reconcile with the account of his visits to the city in Acts 9:26–30, 11:27–30, and 15:1–29, and have concluded that Acts constructs a different version of events, while other scholars have suggested ways of harmonizing the accounts (see, e.g., Witherington III 1998: 86–97; Martin 2012: 67–76; Phillips 2014: 50–82).

Part and parcel of the debate about historicity has been discussion of the genre of the book of Acts. Was the storyteller even intending to write in a ‘history’ mode, or might he have seen himself as composing something more akin to a ‘romance’ or novel? And if the storyteller did understand himself as engaging in ‘history’ writing, what degree of freedom did ancient historiographical conventions allow in how people and events were portrayed? As has often been pointed out, many ancient historiographers do not seem to have made it their goal to produce CCTV-like accounts of ‘exactly what happened’ in the past. Some ancient ‘histories’ seem to be more akin to modern docudramas or even ‘based-on-a-true-story’ accounts. A related question regards the storyteller’s identity. Based on passages in Acts where the narrator uses the word ‘we’—e.g., ‘We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread’ (Acts 20:6)—some scholars have concluded that Acts was written by a companion of Paul who was an eyewitness to some of the events described (e.g., Fitzmyer 1998: 98–103; Witherington III 1998: 88), an interpretative conclusion that often accompanies a fairly positive assessment of the historical reliability of Acts. Other interpreters, in contrast, view the ‘we’ narrator as a fictional device. While these issues are often discussed in connection with debates about the historicity of Acts, however, it is important to note that the connection between genre and historicity, or between the identity of the storyteller and historicity, is not actually as straightforward as one might think. The storyteller of Acts could have been an eyewitness who was trying to write ‘history’ and still have exercised creative licence when framing his narrative. Likewise, he could have been essentially a novelist who did not know Paul and was not trying to write ‘history’, but still included many accurate historical details.

While the types of questions sketched out above will no doubt continue to be discussed for years to come, the emphasis in scholarship more recently has begun shifting away from questions of ‘historicity’, towards exploring Acts as an early example of ‘reception’ or ‘memory’ of Paul (cf. Marguerat 2008; Pervo 2010; White 2014; Schröter et al. 2018). These approaches ask not whether the portrayal of Paul in Acts is ‘accurate’, but how it reflects the context, interests, and purposes of the storyteller, or of the Christian community in the era when Acts was written. How were Christians thinking and talking about Paul at the time when Acts was composed? Along the latter lines, one striking aspect of the portrayal of Paul in Acts is the emphasis on his Jewishness (on this theme, see, e.g., Butticaz 2018). In Acts, Paul hangs around synagogues, citing Israel’s scriptures and proclaiming that his message is a fulfilment of earlier promises by Israel’s god. He goes through a Jewish rite of purification and offers sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 21:26). He addresses a Jerusalem crowd in ‘Hebrew’ (Acts 21:40). Within the context of the story as a whole, Paul’s speeches and actions help to flesh out a key theme: the Jewish roots of the Christian movement. Why did the storyteller want to emphasize those roots? It is difficult to know for sure, but one suspects that the primary impetus had to do with how the Christian movement was being understood in the storyteller’s local context, and that the portrayal of Paul in Acts—what the storyteller chose to depict Paul as doing and saying—was shaped by those concerns.

3. Paul in the Acts of Thecla

‘Reception’ or ‘memory’ approaches have also been applied to other early Christian narratives that feature Paul as a character. The next story we will look at is the Acts of Thecla, a popular tale about a young woman named Thecla, in which the apostle Paul plays a significant supporting role. This story circulated in a variety of different versions and languages over the centuries, probably beginning in the second century ce.

As the story begins, Paul arrives in the city of Iconium, where he proclaims ‘the message of God concerning self-control and resurrection’. Thecla, a beautiful young virgin, hears Paul’s message and is mesmerized. This causes considerable distress to Thecla’s mother and to her fiancé Thamyris, who sense that Thecla will now refuse to follow through on the marriage that has been planned. Thamyris has Paul brought before the local governor, where he accuses Paul of corrupting her. Thecla herself is then summoned and asked why she will not marry Thamyris. When she does not respond, but simply stares at Paul, Thecla’s mother calls for her own daughter to be burned in the theatre. Thecla is miraculously preserved from the flames, and leaves the city, soon discovering that Paul—who has been run out of town by the governor—has been fasting and praying on her behalf. Paul and Thecla now travel to Antioch, where a man named Alexander is so struck by Thecla that he offers Paul money and gifts in exchange for her—or perhaps for her sexual services. Paul denies knowing or owning her, however. Paul now drops out of the story for several scenes, while Thecla is sentenced to death again—this time by wild beasts—and escapes again. Only after the story of Thecla’s time in Antioch has been wrapped up do we hear about Paul. Paul and Thecla briefly meet up in Myra, where Thecla tells him about her experiences. She then announces that she is going to Iconium, and Paul replies, ‘Go and teach the message of God.’

3.1 Paul as Supporting Character in the Acts of Thecla

The Acts of Thecla reminds us that many factors will have influenced how Paul is portrayed in early Christian narratives, including plot considerations and the need for each story to work as a story. In the Acts of Thecla, Paul is arguably a supporting character, who plays an important functional role in the plot. Before storytellers could recount an exciting tale about Thecla’s escapes from death and her commitment to virginity, they first needed to have her hear the message about Christ—which is accomplished in the story by having her listen to Paul preach. Similarly, Paul’s striking claim in the Antioch episode that he does not know Thecla—which reads rather like a blatant falsehood—may also reflect plot considerations, at least in part. It conveniently gets Paul off stage for the part of the story where Thecla is condemned to death a second time, freeing storytellers from the need to explain why Paul does not try to rescue her.

Pre-existing traditions about Thecla may also have influenced how Paul is portrayed in the latter episode. Paul’s absence from most of the Antioch episode—along with other perceived differences from the Iconium episode, such as the fact that Thecla seems fixated on Paul in Iconium, but not in Antioch—has led to the suggestion that extant versions of the story have been built around an earlier story about Thecla in Antioch in which Paul did not appear as a character at all (cf. Esch-Wermeling 2008: 71–148). Perhaps, it has been suggested, a storyteller wanted to enhance the apostle Paul’s status by associating him with the famous virgin of Iconium (Pervo 2014: 146–147). In any case, the Acts of Thecla raises questions about the degree to which the depiction of Paul in any given story may have been constrained by pre-existing traditions about other famous figures.

3.2 Paul and Celibacy in the Acts of Thecla

Another striking aspect of the Acts of Thecla is Paul’s praise in the narrative for virginity and celibacy. The prominence of this motif, especially in the Iconium episode, illustrates how the portrayal of Paul in early Christian narratives was sometimes shaped by storytellers’ particular historical context and interests.

Not only is the main character of the Acts of Thecla a virgin girl who decides not to get married after hearing Paul preach, but praise of ‘self-control’ is put in Paul’s own mouth. At the beginning of the story, he offers a series of beatitudes, such as ‘Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they will be pleasing to God and will not lose the reward for their purity’ (Acts of Thecla 3.6). Some literary antagonists in the story also tell another character that Paul teaches, ‘There will be no resurrection for you if you do not remain pure’ (Acts of Thecla 3.12). Based on elements of the story like these, some scholars have argued that the narrative presents sexual activity as incompatible with Christian commitment (e.g., Barrier 2009: 42; Esch-Wermeling 2008: 230–242; Zamfir 2010: 285; Nicklas 2018: 181–182; cf. Frenschkowski 2017: 136). For these scholars, the Acts of Thecla attributes an ethical stance to Paul that differs at least to some degree from the position articulated in 1 Corinthians 7, which explicitly allows for sexual activity within marriage. Other scholars have challenged this interpretation, pointing out that Paul’s praise for singleness and celibacy in the Acts of Thecla need not be understood as an outright prohibition on sex, and that Paul’s opponents may not be presented as giving an accurate account of his teaching (see, e.g., Pervo 2014: 73; Hylen 2015: 85–89; McLarty 2018: 230–232; Snyder 2021). For these scholars, the story can be read as lauding exceptional people like Thecla for choosing to forgo marriage and sex, without assuming that all Christians can or will make that choice.

Regardless of precisely what stance on marriage and sexual activity is being attributed to Paul, the very fact that the topic is given such prominence in the Acts of Thecla is striking, especially since some other stories about Paul—such as the Acts of the Apostles—have very little to say about sexual activity at all. The difference between the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Thecla in this regard illustrates how different storytellers made different choices about what themes to incorporate into their accounts of Paul, in ways that no doubt reflected their own historical context and personal values, as well as their sense of what might ‘sell’ to audiences in their own time.

Determining precisely what constellation of factors might have motivated storytellers to include the sexual renunciation motif in the Acts of Thecla is difficult, of course. Does the story encapsulate some women’s hope of gaining personal autonomy by rejecting marriage (cf. Kraemer 1980; MacDonald 1983: 46–53; Burrus 1987; Wehn 2001)? Does it reflect men’s desire to assert the moral superiority of Christianity (cf. Cooper 1996: 45–67)? Among other things, do stories like the Acts of Thecla reflect concerns about what might happen if Christian women marry pagan husbands (cf. Snyder 2021)? Scholars will no doubt continue to discuss questions like these for years to come.

3.3 A Physical Description of Paul

The Acts of Thecla also contains a physical description of Paul: ‘a man small of stature, bald headed, bandy-legged, healthy, a brow meeting in the middle, a somewhat longish nose’ (3.3, trans. Callon 2014). Scholars today generally read this description of Paul in light of the ancient practice of physiognomy, which associated a person’s outward appearance with inner qualities. The description is understood as primarily designed to convey something about Paul’s character or personality, rather than as an attempt to record what the historical Paul actually looked like.

There has been little consensus on precisely what the description is meant to communicate, however. (For an overview of the debate, see Callon 2014; Omerzu 2008.) Some scholars have seen the description as positive (e.g., Grant 1982; Malherbe 1986). Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey (1996: 127–148), for example, suggest (1996: 148), ‘His stature, although short, is that of an active person who accomplishes much … His shaved head denotes piety to God. His crooked legs … suggest a fearless person who stands his ground…. His meeting eyebrows suggest manliness and beauty; his longish nose, virtuousness and handsomeness.’ János Bollók (1996), in contrast, thinks the description evokes negative qualities such as weakness, and hypothesizes that the story is drawing on 2 Corinthians, where Paul says that some people have criticized his bodily presence as being weak (2 Cor 10:11). Bollók suggests that the Acts of Thecla is drawing a contrast between Paul’s outward appearance and his real nature.

More recently, Callie Callon (2014) has argued that the description is part of characterizing Paul as a philosopher like Socrates, who is likewise described in some sources as short and bandy-legged. For Callon, the reference to Paul’s eyebrows should be interpreted as an intellectual ‘knitted brow’, and the description as a whole ‘lends credibility and authority to his teachings in the narrative’ (2014: 100)—a story where Paul is depicted primarily as a teacher rather than as a miracle-worker.

As this discussion illustrates, it is important to understand the portrayal of Paul in early Christian narratives in light of storytelling conventions that were prevalent at the time the stories were told, and to remember that these may differ in some respects from modern literary tendencies. One does not come across physical descriptions of Paul in most modern books about him, and if one did, it is unlikely that modern authors would be trying to encapsulate something about his character or personality—or describing him as having a long nose.

4. Paul and the Lion in Ephesus

We will now look at another story about Paul, often called the Ephesus Act, which may have its origins in the second century. Two manuscripts preserving this story are known, the fourth-century Coptic P. Bodmer XLI, and the third- or fourth-century Greek P. Hamburg bil. 1, which is missing the beginning of the tale. As the story begins in the Coptic manuscript, Paul arrives in Ephesus and goes to the house of Aquila and Priscilla. While he is there, he recounts how he was once approached by a lion that spoke to him and asked to be baptized. Paul goes on to have a period of successful ministry in Ephesus, but then begins to encounter opposition, and—now according to both manuscripts—is sentenced to death by wild beasts. A fierce lion is set on him, but it turns out to be the same one Paul had baptized, and it lies down by Paul’s feet instead of devouring him. Some other animals are then sent into the arena, but a sudden hailstorm interrupts the proceedings, and both Paul and the lion escape.

4.1 The Ephesus Act and Other Lion Stories

Research on the Ephesus Act suggests that storytellers have made use of a pre-existing story type for this account of Paul. Scholars have noted striking similarities to a story in which a runaway slave named Androcles helps a wounded lion and later meets the same lion when caught and sentenced to the beasts (cf. MacDonald 1983: 21–23; Adamik 1996; Klauck 2005: 79–80; Spittler 2008: 156–189). The latter story is included in some ancient written sources (see Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 7.48; Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 5.14, who says his source is Apion, Wonders of Egypt), and probably also circulated orally. As Janet Spittler (2008: 184) explains, the well-known Androcles story may have provided a ‘ready-made narrative structure’ that storytellers used to flesh out a pre-existing tradition about Paul and a lion. In 1 Corinthians 15:32, Paul refers to having ‘fought with wild beasts at Ephesus’, and 2 Timothy 4:17 reads, ‘I was rescued from the lion’s mouth’, and there may well have been other oral or written traditions about Paul and a lion, as well. As far as the Ephesus Act is concerned, the exact sources of inspiration are difficult to determine, but it seems likely that the Androcles story or one like it provided a sort of template, and thus exerted some degree of influence on the overall shape of the account.

Moreover, the lion plot is not the only ‘stock’ element of the Ephesus Act. Narrow escapes when facing execution are common features of stories about apostles, for example, as we have already seen in connection with the Acts of Thecla. In addition, the Ephesus Act includes a subplot in which a woman converts and refuses sex to her husband, which makes him angry. This is a common feature of stories about apostles, also appearing in tales about figures such as Andrew, Peter, and Thomas. It seems to have functioned as a stock plot device for early Christian storytellers.

4.2 The Ephesus Act and Other Accounts of Paul in Ephesus

Intriguingly, the Ephesus Act also offers a different account of Paul’s activities in Ephesus than Acts 19–20. Aquila and Priscilla are mentioned in both contexts (cf. Acts 18:18, 26), and both stories include metalworkers who oppose those preaching about Christ—silversmiths in Acts 19:23–27 and goldsmiths in the Ephesus Act—but the stories are otherwise largely dissimilar. In Acts 19–20, there is a riot, but Paul himself does not seem to be caught up in it, nor is he sentenced to the beasts. In the Ephesus Act, meanwhile, there are subplots that do not appear in Acts, such as the conversion and baptism of the governor’s wife. These are thus very different stories, a fact that scholars have interpreted in a variety of ways. Some have seen the differences as evidence that the ‘author’ of the Ephesus Act did not know Acts (e.g., Rordorf 1988: 232–237; Dunn 2014). Others have read the Ephesus Act as a ‘replacement’ for the account in Acts (Pervo 2014: 214) or as a non-polemical ‘rereading’ of Acts that gives Paul a more prominent role (Marguerat 1997). As I have argued elsewhere, however, there is something dissatisfying about all of these hypotheses (Snyder 2019b: 340–345). Storytellers of the Ephesus Act could easily have known and even liked the book of Acts, but simply decided to offer a different account. And whereas the ‘rereading’ theory implies that Acts was a central point of reference for the Ephesus Act, the almost total dissimilarity between the stories makes it more plausible that storytellers of the Ephesus Act were not trying to engage with Acts at all, and perhaps were not even thinking about it very much while producing their own account of Paul’s activities. Instead, they were simply telling their own story.

5. The Many Martyrdoms of Paul

Creative energy is also evident when one compares different stories about Paul’s martyrdom. Many such martyrdom stories have been compiled in an anthology by David Eastman (2015), who has analysed some of the fascinating variety they display (see, e.g., Eastman 2019). To illustrate, we will compare two accounts.

The first is the Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Paul in the City of Rome, which traces to the second century. Paul arrives in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, and begins to teach about Christ. Many people are attracted to the message, including some of Nero’s servants and officials. When Nero learns that they have become ‘soldiers of Christ’, he has them imprisoned, along with Paul and some other Christians in the city. The notoriously paranoid emperor sees Paul and his proclamation of Christ as ‘king’ as a threat to his own power, and orders the apostle’s execution by beheading.

The second story is the Passion of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, which may reflect a fifth- or sixth-century context, and which is actually a joint martyrdom account reporting the deaths of both Peter and Paul. When Paul arrives in Rome, Peter is already there. Many Jews and pagans accept their message about Christ, but some Jewish and pagan leaders are against the apostles, and encourage Simon (Magus), an evil sorcerer, to try to get rid of them. Simon tells Nero that Peter and Paul represent a threat to his reign. Paul says the same about Simon. Simon tries to convince Nero that he himself is Christ through magic and trickery. He even starts flying—held up by angels of Satan—but Peter commands the angels to drop him, and he is killed. Nero orders Peter to be crucified and Paul to be decapitated.

In both of these stories, Paul is executed in Rome at Nero’s orders, by beheading. There are a number of striking differences between the stories, however. Most obviously, the first account is about Paul alone, while the second features Paul and Peter together. Eastman suggests that the later tradition linking the martyrdoms of the two apostles may have been shaped in part by a liturgical tradition of celebrating their annual festival day on the same day—29 June—and by the political interests of the Roman church, which by the fifth century was losing influence in comparison to eastern rivals such as Antioch and Constantinople: ‘The proclamation of both deaths on the same day created a rhetorical history that illustrated the harmony between the apostles (concordia apostolorum) … This in turn reinforced Roman claims to a joint apostolic foundation and to ecclesiastical authority’ (Eastman 2019: 24; cf. 35–37).

The choice to combine the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul also had subsidiary consequences for the story of Paul’s final days. For example, Simon the sorcerer was already a stock character in stories about Peter, but does not seem to have appeared in accounts of the martyrdom of Paul until they became joint Peter–Paul narratives. Some stories about the martyrdom of Paul were thus influenced by traditions about Peter.

Another interesting difference in detail between the two stories regards military service and service to the emperor. In the Martyrdom, there are soldiers and servants of Nero who become Christians, but none of them are said to leave the military or Nero’s service as a result. In the Passion, in contrast, ‘Many abandoned military service and clung to God, such that even from the bedchamber of the king they came to him. And those who became Christians were unwilling to return either to military service or to the palace’ (Eastman 2019: 10; trans. Eastman). Does this difference reflect a greater aversion among later storytellers to suggesting that Christians might have continued to serve the wicked Nero? Were earlier (pre-Constantinian?) storytellers perhaps being more cautious not to imply that there was something tangibly ‘anti-imperial’ about the Christian message (cf. Snyder 2020)? As usual, one can only speculate about the various factors that may have given rise to the differing accounts. Regardless, a comparison between them illustrates the extensive creative energy that went into early Christian storytelling.

6. Another Letter to the Corinthians

So far we have been looking at story-style narratives where Paul is deployed as a character who both speaks and acts. This was not the only genre of narrative to be produced by early Christian storytellers, however. We will now examine two works where Paul is primarily employed as an authoritative voice, the first of which is a work referred to as either 3 Corinthians or the Corinthian Correspondence, which probably traces to the second century ce.

The Corinthian Correspondence takes the form of two fictional ‘letters’, one from the Corinthians to Paul and one from Paul to the Corinthians. The letter from the Corinthians reports that two men named Simon and Cleobius have come to Corinth teaching things such as ‘There is no resurrection of the flesh’ and ‘The Lord … was not born of Mary’. The letter from Paul responds to these ideas, and is almost exclusively theological in focus. One of the most prominent themes is the resurrection of the flesh, which the letter vigorously defends. It asserts, for example, that Christ came into the world ‘to free all flesh through his own flesh’ and to ‘raise us from the dead in the flesh’, and says, ‘Those who tell you there is no resurrection of the flesh—for them there is no resurrection.’

Fictional letters are common in ancient literature. They were sometimes embedded within larger story-style narratives—as in Acts 23:25–30—and at other times an entire literary work was framed as a letter or correspondence (cf. Rosenmeyer 2001; Hodkinson et al. 2013). The Corinthian Correspondence fits squarely within this literary tradition, as do other literary ‘letters of Paul’ to be composed by early Christians, including a popular Epistle to the Laodiceans and an imaginative correspondence between Paul and the philosopher Seneca.

As a literary device, fictional letters have much in common with the speeches given by characters in story-style narratives. In both cases, storytellers decide to have their characters voice certain ideas, the selection and form of which are influenced by factors such as the storytellers’ own interests, their sense of what might be well-received by audiences, and their desire to characterize the speakers in a certain way.

In the case of the Corinthian Correspondence, the storyteller seems to have wanted to have ‘Paul’ talk about resurrection, among other topics. Resurrection is discussed at length in 1 Corinthians 15, a work with which the storyteller of the Corinthian Correspondence was evidently familiar, since similar language and imagery appear. Paul says in 1 Cor 15:36–37, for example, ‘What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow—you do not sow the body that will be, but a naked seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.’ This naked seed imagery reappears in the Corinthian Correspondence, where ‘Paul’ announces that those who say there is no resurrection of the flesh ‘do not know about the sowing of wheat or other seeds, that they are thrown onto the ground naked, and after decomposing below, are raised by the will of God, in a body and clothed’.

And what precisely did the storyteller of the Corinthian Correspondence want ‘Paul’ to say about resurrection? The primary emphasis is on the resurrection of the flesh, an issue on which Paul’s own writings had apparently proven open to different interpretations. Christians in the second century ce seem to have disagreed about how Paul had been imagining resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, with some treating statements such as ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor 15:50) as an indication that Paul was arguing for some type of resurrection, but not a resurrection of the flesh (cf. Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 5.9.1). The Corinthian Correspondence takes a stand on the issue, having ‘Paul’ make clear statements in favour of fleshly resurrection (cf. White 2014: 108–134; D’Anna 2014).

Other theological issues are also raised in the Corinthian Correspondence, such as whether Christ was born of Mary and whether the world was made by God or angels. Based on the list of issues, some scholars have suggested that the Corinthian Correspondence could have been composed in response to a particular teacher or group—although with little agreement about the target’s identity. Behind the ‘Simon and Cleobius’ mentioned in the Corinthians’ letter, should we see Marcionites (cf. Rist 1969), followers of Saturninus (cf. Rordorf 1993: 35–44; Dunn 2006: 122–127), Bardaisanites (cf. Vetter 1894: 17–22, 70–79), Valentinians or Ophites (cf. Hovhanessian 2000: 81–131, especially 126–131), Simon Magus (cf. Klijn 1963: 22–23), or ‘Gnostics’ (cf. Luttikhuizen 1996: 91)? Many scholars have concluded that we will never know for sure, and some have now argued that the question itself might be flawed: the Corinthian Correspondence may not have been written in response to a specific teacher or group at all (thus, e.g., G. Snyder 2013: 155–168). Along those lines, Robert Calhoun (2011: 257) suggests:

The objective is not to combat a specific ‘heresy’, but to ensure Paul’s endorsement of the ‘orthodox’ consensus regarding ἀνάστασις σαρκός [the resurrection of the flesh] – in spite of his statements in 1 Corinthians 15 – and to discourage anyone from insisting upon a spiritual resurrected body on that basis, unless he or she wants to be immediately labelled a ‘heretic’.

Apart from the theological content, one of the most striking aspects of the Corinthian Correspondence is the storyteller’s decision to frame the narrative as a set of letters, and to shape those letters as he liked, rather than slavishly imitating the content or structure of letters like 1 Corinthians. While letters tracing to the historical Paul often discuss behavioural issues and relationships between followers of Christ, for example, the ‘letter of Paul’ in the Corinthian Correspondence is more exclusively focused on theology. In addition, the greetings at the beginning and end of this new ‘letter of Paul’ are more minimal in scope. At the end of the ‘letter’, there is no discussion of travel plans or list of people who send their greetings, but simply the phrase ‘Peace be with you’. The storyteller of the Corinthian Correspondence thus exercised creativity both in choice of genre and in crafting the content of the narrative.

In fact, even having Paul play the role of letter-writer at all represented a choice on the storyteller’s part: letter-writing is not one of the activities undertaken by Paul in narratives such as Acts, the Acts of Thecla, or the Ephesus Act (cf. Fewster 2017). For early Christian storytellers, this was apparently considered an optional rather than a mandatory element of one’s portrayal of Paul.

Incidentally, while it seems self-evident to modern scholars that the ‘letter of Paul’ in the Corinthian Correspondence is a creative composition by an early Christian storyteller, and does not trace to the historical Paul, it was considered an authentic Pauline letter by some people at earlier points in history. In the fourth century, Ephrem the Syrian wrote a commentary on it between studies of 2 Corinthians and Galatians, and the fourth-century Syrian monk Aphrahat likewise regarded it as Pauline, citing part of the work as the words of ‘the blessed apostle’ (Demonstrations 6.12; cf. Walters 2013). It was viewed similarly in some Armenian churches beginning in the fifth century and continuing well beyond (Hovhanessian 2000: 10–16; Hovhanessian 2012; Stone 1990, 149–159).

7. Paul in the Apocalypse of Paul

Another narrative in which Paul serves primarily as an authoritative voice is the Apocalypse of Paul or Visio Pauli. This popular work may originally have been composed in Egypt in the late fourth century ce (cf. Piovanelli 1993; Fiori 2015; Bremmer 2017), and circulated in a variety of different versions and languages over the years.

In the Apocalypse of Paul, Paul recounts being taken on a tour of the afterlife to see what happens to people when they die. He reports seeing some of the righteous living in a paradisiacal land of promise, and others residing in the golden City of Christ, receiving various degrees of reward depending on how they lived their earthly lives (cf. Copeland 2010). Paul also recalls taking a lengthy and gruesome tour of Hell, where people were being punished for various sins (cf. Bremmer 2017). For example, an old man was being immersed up to his knees in a river of fire, and struck with stones. According to Paul’s angel tour guide, this man was a bishop who had not given righteous judgements or shown compassion to widows and orphans (Apoc. Paul 35). Other people in Hell were suspended over a channel of water, and had very dry tongues but could not drink, and could see fruit but could not eat it. According to the angel tour guide, these people were being punished for breaking their fast early (Apoc. Paul 39).

While Paul is the primary narrator of the Apocalypse of Paul, not much is said about Paul himself, and it is not self-evident why the original storyteller chose him rather than some other famous figure of the faith to serve as narrator. Some extant versions of the narrative mention Paul’s remark in 2 Corinthians 12:2–4 about being caught up to the ‘third heaven’, but those references may not have been present in the earliest version of the Apocalypse, and the existence of other narratives with similar content but different narrators—such as the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah—means there is no reason to assume the first version of the Apocalypse of Paul was particularly inspired or shaped by 2 Corinthians or any other traditions about Paul (cf. Kraus 2018; Kraus 2019). Perhaps the storyteller just wanted to compose a narrative about reward and punishment in the afterlife, and chose Paul as a convenient and suitable protagonist. In any case, the Apocalypse of Paul illustrates how early Christian storytellers could use Paul as an authoritative voice in a narrative that was not really ‘about Paul’ at all.

8. Conclusion

In conclusion, let us pull together a few threads from the narratives we have explored. We looked first at a number of story-style narratives where Paul is a character who both speaks and acts—including Acts, the Acts of Thecla, the Ephesus Act, and two accounts of Paul’s martyrdom—and saw that considerable creative energy is exhibited by these tales. Many storytellers, it seems, felt free to shape their stories according to their own ingenuity and interests, and may not have been particularly concerned with the ‘historicity’ of their accounts. While pre-existing tradition provided some constraints—such that Paul always dies by beheading in Rome and never drowns to death in the Mediterranean Sea, for example—in other respects there is considerable variety in the stories told about the apostle, which tend to feature not only new speeches, but also new events and activities. In that sense, storytelling about Paul generally seems to have been driven less by a desire to record for posterity the words and actions of the ‘historical Paul’, and more by an impulse to deploy the famous apostle as a character in narratives that served storytellers’ own interests, whether those were in entertaining, instructing, bolstering the authority of a local church, etc. Scholarship on these narratives has therefore rightly been moving away from focusing on the question of their ‘historicity’, towards consideration of the stories through the lens of ‘reception’, ‘memory’, or ‘images’ of Paul instead (cf. White 2014). This promises to be a fruitful approach, as long as one understands ‘reception’ in the first instance as reception of the apostle Paul as a character, who, like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, could be deployed in entirely new stories, as well as in creative remakes of existing tales (cf. Snyder 2019a).

In our exploration of story-style narratives, we also saw that a range of factors may have influenced how Paul is portrayed in any given story. When Paul was staged alongside characters such as Peter or Thecla, for example, pre-existing traditions about those other figures may have influenced the shape and details of the account. Meanwhile, other aspects of the portrayal of Paul may have developed as a consequence of storytellers’ attempts to construct a reasonably coherent plot, or their recourse to stock motifs and story templates to flesh out their narratives.

We also saw evidence of creative energy in the final two narratives we considered, the Corinthian Correspondence and the Apocalypse of Paul, both of which employ Paul primarily as an authoritative voice. The person who composed the Correspondence felt free to construct an entirely new ‘letter of Paul’ in a style that differs somewhat from letters tracing to the historical Paul himself, and the storyteller of the Apocalypse of Paul chose Paul to be the narrator of an inventive first-person account of the afterlife, the content of which does not have much to do with the apostle at all.

Finally, we have seen that the details of narratives where Paul plays a role can often be interpreted in a variety of ways, leading to considerable scholarly debate. Overall, the portrayal and role of Paul in post-Pauline narratives is an open field of study, and much more fruitful and fascinating work in this area remains to be done.


The author thanks the Beyond Canon Project at the University of Regensburg (DFG FOR 2770) for its support.

Further Reading

Some general works on the reception of Paul in the early centuries include an essay collection by Schröter et al. 2018, as well as monographs by White 2014 and Pervo 2010. On Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, essay collections edited by Marguerat 2009 and Moessner et al. 2012 provide a way into the scholarly discussion. On the portrayal of Paul in the Acts of Thecla, Ephesus Act, and Martyrdom of Paul, and on the Corinthian Correspondence, a good place to start is Richard Pervo’s 2014 commentary, which includes extensive bibliography. On the many martyrdoms of Paul, helpful resources include Eastman’s 2015 primary source collection and 2019 analysis. On the Apocalypse of Paul, an essay collection edited by Bremmer and Czachesz 2007 offers an entry point.


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