What Is Pauline Christianity?

Pauline Christianity or Pauline theology (also Paulism or Paulanity[2]) is the theology and Christianity which developed from the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. Paul’s beliefs were strongly rooted in the earliest Jewish Christianity, but deviated from some of this Jewish Christianity in their emphasis on inclusion of the gentiles into God’s New Covenant, and his rejection of circumcision as an unnecessary token of upholding the Law.
Christian orthodoxy, which is rooted in the first centuries of Christian history, relies heavily on these teachings, and considers them to be amplifications and explanations of the teachings of Jesus.
Since the 18th century, a number of scholars have proposed that Paul’s writings contain teachings that are different from the original teachings of Jesus, the earliest Jewish Christians, as documented in the canonical gospels, early Acts and the rest of the New Testament, such as the Epistle of James.

Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515. This sermon addressed early issues in Christology.

Definition and etymology


Pauline Christianity or Pauline theology, also called “Paulism” or “Paulanity”,[2] is the theology and Christianity which developed from the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. Paul’s beliefs where strongly rooted in the earliest Jewish Christianity, but deviated from this Jewish Christianity in their emphasis on inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s New Covenant, and his rejection of circumcision as an unnecessary token of upholding the Law.


According to Hans Lietzmann, the term “Pauline Christianity” first came into use in the 20th century among scholars who proposed different strands of thought within Early Christianity, wherein Paul was a powerful influence.[3]

Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), who stressed the similarities between Primitive Christianity and Marxism, used the phrase ‘Christo-Paulinism’ not only to indicate Paul’s greater importance, but also to distinguish between theological and ideological beliefs and the organization of the institutional Church.[4]

The expression is also used by modern Christian scholars, such as John Ziesler[5] and Christopher Mount,[6] whose interest is in the recovery of Christian origins, and the importance of Paul for paleo-orthodoxy, Christian reconstructionism and restorationism.

Paul and the inclusion of Gentiles

The first Christians were Palestinian Jewish Christians.[7] According to Paul, he initially persecuted those early Christians, but then converted, and started to proselytise among Gentiles.

Inclusion of Gentiles

An early creed about Jesus’ death and resurrection which Paul probably used was 1 Corinthians 15, verses 3–5 (plus possible additional verses). Probably originating from the Jerusalem apostolic community, the antiquity of the creed has been noted by many biblical scholars:[8]

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve,…

Paul the Apostle, by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn c. 1657

Paul the Apostle, by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn c. 1657

There has been widespread acknowledgement of the view of W. D. Davies that the essential Jewishness of Paul’s Christian perspective has been underplayed. In Davies’ view, Paul replaced the Torah, the Jewish law or Law of Moses, with Christ. According to Christopher Rowland, “the problems with which he wrestles in his letters were probably typical of many which were facing the Christian sect during this period”.[9]

According to Krister Stendahl, the main concern of Paul’s writings on Jesus’ role, and salvation by faith, is the problem of the inclusion of gentile (Greek) Torah observers into God’s covenant.[10][11][12][web 1] The inclusion of Gentiles into early Christianity posed a problem for the Jewish identity of the early Christians. Many of the Jewish Christians were fully faithful religious Jews, only differing in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Observance of the Jewish commands, including circumcision, was regarded as a token of the membership of this covenant, and the early Jewish Christians insisted on keeping those observances.[13] The new converts did not follow all “Jewish Law” and refused to be circumcised,[14] as circumcision was considered repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean.[web 2][15]

Paul objected strongly to the insistence on keeping all of the Jewish commandments, considering it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus.[16] For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection solved this problem of the exclusion of the gentiles from God’s covenant.[17] ‘Dying for our sins’ refers to the problem of gentile Torah-observers, who, despite their faithfulness, cannot fully observe commandments, including circumcision, and are therefore ‘sinners’, excluded from God’s covenant.[18] Jesus’ death and resurrection solved this problem of the exclusion of the gentiles from God’s covenant, as indicated by Rom 3:21-26.[17]

Paul insists that salvation is received by the grace of God; according to Sanders, this insistence is in line with Judaism of ca. 200 NCE until 200 CE, which saw God’s covenant with Israel as an act of grace of God. Observance of the Law is needed to maintain the covenant, but the covenant is not be earned by observing the Law, but by the grace of God.[web 3]

Split with Jewish Christianity

There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. Even though it is commonly thought that Paul established a Gentile church, it took centuries for a complete break to manifest.[19]

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, wrote in the latter half of the 2nd century that the Ebionites rejected Paul as an apostate from the law, using only a version of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, known as the Gospel of the Ebionites.


‘‘The fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity, namely that Christ is God “born in the flesh”, that his sacrificial death atones for the sins of humankind, and that his resurrection from the dead guarantees eternal life to all who believe, can be traced back to Paul—not to Jesus. Indeed, the spiritual union with Christ through baptism, as well as the “communion” with his body and blood through the sacred meal of bread and wine, also trace back to Paul. This is the Christianity most familiar to us, with the creeds and confessions that separated it from Judaism and put it on the road to becoming a new religion.’’

— Professor James D. Tabor for the Huffington Post[20]

Paul had a strong influence on early Christianity, transmuting Jesus the Jewish messiah into the universal[note 1] savior. This thesis is founded on differences between the views of Paul and the earliest Jewish Christianity, and also between the picture of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and his own writings. In this view, Paul is to be taken as pro-Hellenization or Romanization.

Scholarly views

There are considerable differences of scholarly opinion concerning how far Paul did in fact influence Christian doctrine.[note 2]

According to the 19th-century German theologian F. C. Baur, founder of the Tübingen school whose view was widely influential, Paul was utterly opposed to the disciples, based upon his view that Acts was late and unreliable and who contended that Catholic Christianity was a synthesis of the views of Paul and the Judaizingchurch in Jerusalem.[21] Since Adolf von Harnack, the Tübingen position has been generally abandoned.[22]

According to James Tabor, Paul led the church in its decisive break with the Ebionites, whose teaching contained the authentic teachings of Jesus.[23] Ultradispensationalists such as E. W. Bullinger viewed the distinction abhorred by the Ebionites as positive and essential doctrine.[24]

Robert Eisenman sees Pauline Christianity as a method of taming a dangerous sect among radical Jews and making it palatable to Roman authorities.[25] Pauline Christianity was essentially based on Rome and made use of the administrative skills which Rome had honed. Its system of organization with a single bishop for each town was, in Bart Ehrman’s view, the means by which it obtained its hegemony.[26]


Some literary critics of Christianity argue that Paul distorted the original and true faith, or claim that Christianity is largely his invention. The former include such secular commentators[27] as the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. Nietzsche’s criticisms are based upon his moral objections to Paul’s thought. Other writers, such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, also agree with this interpretation, but hold much more positive opinions about Paul’s theological influence.

Christian anarchists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Ammon Hennacy, believe Paul distorted Jesus’ teachings. Tolstoy claims Paul was instrumental in the church’s “deviation” from Jesus’ teaching and practices,[28] while Hennacy believed “Paul spoiled the message of Christ.”[29]

Criticism of the “Pauline Christianity”-thesis

Christians themselves disagree as to how far there was tension between Paul and the Jerusalem Church. Roman Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and conservative Protestants, contend that Paul’s writings were a legitimate interpretation of the Gospel. The idea that Paul invented Christianity is disputed by numerous Christian writers.[30][31][32][33]

According to Christopher Rowland, Pauline Christianity is the development of thinking about Jesus in a gentile missionary context. Rowland contends that, “the extent of his influence on Christian thought has been overestimated,”[34]concluding that Paul did not materially alter the teachings of Jesus.

Hurtado notes that Paul regarded his own Christological views and those of the Jerusalem Church as essentially similar. According to Hurtado, this “work[s] against the claims by some scholars that Pauline Christianity represents a sharp departure from the religiousness of Judean ‘Jesus movements’.”[35]

As a pejorative term

The pejorative use of the expressions “Pauline Christianity”, “Paulism,” or “Paulanity,” relies in part upon a thesis that Paul’s supporters, as a distinct group, had an undue influence on the formation of the canon of scripture, and also that certain bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome, influenced the debates by which the dogmatic formulations known as the creeds came to be produced, thus ensuring a Pauline interpretation of the gospel.


Citations to web-sources
  1.  Stephen Westerholm (2015), The New Perspective on Paul in Review, Direction, Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 4–15
  2.  “CIRCUMCISION – JewishEncyclopedia.com”jewishencyclopedia.com.
  3.  Jordan Cooper, E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul
Citations to printed sources
  1.  Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985. pp. 316–320. Harris cites Galatians 6:11Romans 16:22Colossians 4:182 Thessalonians 3:17Philemon 19Joseph Barber Lightfoot in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians writes: “At this point [Galatians 6:11] the apostle takes the pen from his amanuensis, and the concluding paragraph is written with his own hand. From the time when letters began to be forged in his name (2 Thessalonians 2:22 Thessalonians 3:17) it seems to have been his practice to close with a few words in his own handwriting, as a precaution against such forgeries… In the present case he writes a whole paragraph, summing up the main lessons of the epistle in terse, eager, disjointed sentences. He writes it, too, in large, bold characters (Gr. pelikois grammasin), that his handwriting may reflect the energy and determination of his soul.”
  2.  Ide 1993, p. 25.
  3.  Lietzmann, Hans History of the Early Church Vol. 1 p. 206
  4.  James Leslie Houlden, Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ABC–CLIO, 2003, p. 595
  5.  Ziesler John, Pauline Christianity (OUP 2001) Zielsler comments “Pauline Christianity is the earliest for which we have direct documentary evidence…”
  6.  Mount, Christopher, Pauline Christianity – Luke, Acts and the Legacy of Paul, Brill, 2002
  7.  Hurtado 2005, p. 79-80.
  8.  see Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man translated Lewis Wilkins and Duane Pribe (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968) p. 90; Oscar Cullmann, The Early church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966) p. 66; R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973) p. 81; Thomas Sheehan, First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (New York: Random House, 1986) pp. 110, 118; Ulrich Wilckens, Resurrection translated A. M. Stewart (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, 1977) p. 2; Hans Grass, Ostergeschen und Osterberichte, Second Edition (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1962) p. 96; Grass favors the origin in Damascus.
  9.  Rowland 1985, p. 196.
  10.  Stendahl 1963.
  11.  Dunn 1982, p. n.49.
  12.  Finlan 2001, p. 2.
  13.  McGrath 2006, p. 174.
  14.  Bokenkotter, 2004 & 19.
  15.  Hodges, Frederick, M. (2001). “The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme”(PDF)The Bulletin of the History of Medicine75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119PMID11568485. Retrieved 2007-07-24.
  16.  McGrath 2006, p. 174-175.
  17.  Mack 1997, p. 91-92.
  18.  Mack 1997, p. 88-89, 92.
  19.  Dunn 1991.
  20.  “Christianity Before Paul”Huffington Post. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  21.  Paulus, der Apostel Jesu Christi (Eng trans. 1873–5)
  22.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F. L. Cross
  23.  James Tabor The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster 2006)
  24.  The Pauline Epistles. – Appendix to the Companion Bible
  25.  Eisenman 1997
  26.  Ehrmann,Bart: Lost Christianities (OUP) p 175
  27.  Articles – People who have understood Paul is Anti-Christ – Oneness – True Faith
  28.  Tolstoy, Leo (1882). Church and StateThis deviation begins from the times of the Apostles and especially from that hankerer after mastership Paul
  29.  Hennacy, Ammon (1970). The Book of Ammon. Hennacy. p. 475. Paul and the Churches
  30.  David Wenham, “Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?”
  31.  L. Michael White, “From Jesus to Christianity”
  32.  F. F. Bruce, “Paul & Jesus”
  33.  Machen, J. Gresham. “The Origin of Paul’s Religion”
  34.  Rowland 1985, p. 194.
  35.  Hurtado 2005, p. 160.
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