Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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12. Paul


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize the life of Paul from his early years in Judaism through his career as a Christian missionary to his death as a martyr.
  • differentiate between first-person information about Paul (reported in his own letters) and third-person information about Paul (reported in the book of Acts or other sources).
  • devise a basic chronology for Paul’s life and letters, recognizing which points of this chronology are most secure and which are most open to dispute.
  • summarize Paul’s essential theological beliefs, including his understanding of the gospel, of Jesus Christ, and of Christian morality.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. The Reach of Paul’s Voice

Discussion A

How have Paul’s letters been used against groups of people today and in recent history? Paul does tell women to be silent (in a particular situation in Corinth), slaves to obey masters, people to obey their governments, some Jews to “go circumcise themselves,” and so on. Paul’s language has been appropriated and applied in many churches, societies, and nation-states throughout history. How have people utilized Paul’s words over the course of history? For homework, have students research particular readings of Paul used either to justify or to reject slavery, to restrict women’s roles in church leadership or to support women’s leadership in church, to uphold governments or to resist oppressive governments, to condemn Judaism as “legalistic” or to build stronger relations between Christian and Jewish communities. If multiple topics are chosen, invite discussion at the small group level after the homework is completed. Then join the groups for a full class discussion of how people appropriate Paul’s words to legitimate their own arguments. Many claim the authority of scripture, God’s word, to support their social or political position. How are they reading Paul’s letters? What analysis do they bring to the text, or what assumptions do they operate with? Have students identify the ways in which people are using the passages from Paul. What authority do people claim when they use the New Testament to construct modern social relations?

Discussion B

A contemporary topic, such as homosexuality in church and society, can further illustrate the ways people legitimate their social views using Paul’s letters (and scripture in general). This is a hot topic. Looking at Christian arguments about homosexuality reveals the variety of ways Christians use the Bible to authorize their social views and the variety of ways (often incompatible) that Christians interpret or read scripture. For some, it is a historical document, for others, the infallible word of God, a guide, a resource, or law. See if students can identify the variety of Christian hermeneutics operative in discussions of this topic.

Paper Topics

The students’ findings in discussion A or B may develop into a paper topic. A few students may choose the same topic and divide their research into pro and con according to time period, the same hermeneutical method on two or more topics, or a specific view on one topic.


Those who know Paul, or are Christian, often have very strong ideas about Paul and what Paul says. His words have been used and applied to support completely opposite ideological positions but with claims of absolute authority. It will take clear classroom guidelines for debate and discussion to lead students through some of these topics. Each case offers, however, a way for students to see the importance of interpretation and how the analytical tools they have been practicing influence the interpretation and application of particular texts that many call scripture. Once a discussion moves to the assumption of Holy Authority, participants move from historical and literary methods into the realm of theology and ecclesiology, even soteriology. Pointing out these stages, identifying the modes of argumentation that students or scholars and church leaders are using, is helpful to keeping the discussion focused on learning tools rather than personal ideologies. Learning to navigate “hot button” topics using reason and critical thinking is an excellent exercise in higher education.

2. Paul on Facebook?

Write an online profile for Paul for a social networking site such as Facebook. How would he describe himself? Who are his friends, how many would he have? What kinds of activities would he highlight? What are his winning characteristics and his negative aspects? Students can do this activity individually or in small groups of two or three people. What sites would he “tag” and what pictures would he post? If you are feeling particularly creative (or your students are), maintain a site for Paul (and other first-century figures) throughout the semester. Have the students (or yourself) stay in character while interacting with twenty-first-century influences and situations. What might Paul’s twitter feed look like—if students had to write one tweet a day on Paul as they read his letters?


Paul was a communicator par excellence. One can imagine that, as Barack Obama did in his presidential campaign, Paul would be one of the first in his field to take advantage of modern communication possibilities. Just as Paul was master of multiple kinds of rhetorical presentation in the first century, he would quickly adapt to the modes and rhetorical constraints of text messaging, tweets, and social networking. This gives students a chance to translate Paul into the rhetorical genres they use quite naturally. The exercise invites students to engage Paul in their daily lives and to get to know him more closely by constructing his character, personality, and message in twenty-first-century terms.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Who started Christianity? Is Paul the “founder” of Christianity, or is Jesus? Why or why not? To shift this discussion into an exercise, have students brainstorm points and evidence from the biblical text in support of their position. Then, stage a mock debate. To create a more elaborate exercise, students can establish biblical identities and call witnesses. In a less formal structure, simply divide the class in half and have each side of the room support the two opposing positions. At the very least, students should be able to think through the points Powell makes in the text. Elaborating their own points and evidence will, of course, require more time. Conversion or revelation (text pp. 242–44)? How did Paul describe and tell of his encounter with Christ and subsequent confession and vocation to preaching Christ crucified? Compare Paul’s autobiographical story with the way Acts portrays Paul’s encounter with Christ (Acts 9:1–19). What weight and connotations does the term “conversion” have today? What did Paul mean by “a revelation of Christ” (see Gal. 1:11–24; cf. Phil. 3)?
  2. Examine how Powell reconstructs Paul’s life. What source(s) does Powell use? How does he evaluate and present the information from these sources?