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Apostle Paul Attacked Part II - Defending Paul's Character
Not long ago I discovered that there are those who follow Christ who deeply believe that Paul is a false apostle. Based on their interpretation of scripture, they attack Paul's character, his teachings, and ultimately deny that Paul was ever selected to be an apostle at all. They believe Saul changed his name to Paul so he could go among the apostles without being recognized and spread false doctrine. They believe that Paul was rejected by the other apostles and sent away. In fact, Paul's teachings are said to have completely contradicted the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The conclusion they draw from this is that Paul hijacked Christianity and started his own religion that were primarily about his own teachings rather than those of the Christ he claimed to follow.
This is part 2 of the series "Apostle Paul Attacked". Part 1 focused on attacks on Paul's apostleship. Below, I will outline the attacks against Paul's character and provide an alternate view based on what I find in scripture. Please feel free to comment and provide your own perspective as well.
Lying About the Damascus Experience
Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus is used to show that Paul blatantly lied to King Agrippa during his defense. Acts records this story three times (chapter 9, chapter 22, and chapter 26). In chapter 9, Luke describes the events as part of his narrative. The second account in chapter 22 is considered to be very similar to the first. They take issue with the third account in chapter 26, which is Paul's defense to King Agrippa. It turns out that the differences are fairly obvious. According to the account in chapter 9, Jesus simply told Paul to go into the city for further instructions. Now as Paul is describing the event to King Agrippa, Jesus is instead portrayed telling Paul all about his mission right there on the road to Damascus. This is used to show that Paul is a liar who can't seem to keep his story straight.
From Scott Nelson's "Paul and Christianity":
"Now wait just a minute Paul! According to what you and Luke have previously testified, when you asked Yahshua what you were to do, he told you to do absolutely nothing other than to go to Damascus, and there you would be told "all things" you were to do! Now you want us to believe Yahshua told you all of this on the spot?"
It's very easy when we read the Bible to make the mistake of assuming that what has been written down for us are the exact words of Jesus or Peter or Paul. We know this not to be the case simply by examining and comparing the dialogue in the four gospels. The miracle where Jesus fed the 5000 shows up in all four gospels, and yet the dialogue is slightly different in each. This is especially noticeable in the account found in John chapter 6, in which Jesus tests Phillip directly which isn't actually recorded that way in any of the other gospels.
The story of Jesus calling Peter to follow Him is found in all four gospels as well (Matthew 4:18-20, Mark 1:16-17, Luke 5:1-11, John 1:40-42), and yet here the differences are much more significant. Luke records significantly more detail of these events than anyone else did, showing a progression to the events that led up to Peter's decision to follow Jesus. Matthew and Mark simply painted a picture of Jesus walking up, calling them, and off they went! John didn't record the fishing encounter at all. Instead, John shows Andrew meeting Jesus and racing to bring his brother Peter to the Messiah. None of this is a crisis. In John's account, Jesus didn't actually call Peter and Andrew to follow him during that encounter. It seems clear that these events happened prior to the meeting found in Luke chapter 5. Regardless, the point is that the scriptures do not give us word for word what was said anymore than they give us every detail of Jesus' life. To take the dialogue so literally that we begin to accuse these characters of lying simply because the stories don't match just isn't reasonable.
If Luke had recorded Paul's speech word for word (which I doubt, because there were no tape recorders back then), it's entirely likely that Paul was simply trying to convey the gist of the events without having to go into every little detail. He was talking to a King who only had so much time to hear Paul's side of the story. It seems clear that Paul would want to be as brief as possible here. On the topic of whether or not Paul had actually heard this message directly from Christ himself, Acts 9:11-12 shows that Paul was praying and receiving visions according to Ananias. The bottom line is that there is no evidence here that Paul was lying at all.
Paul's Other Lies
2 Corinthians 12
"Now for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek yours, but you. For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved. But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning! Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you?" (2 Corinthians 12:14-17) NKJV
Because of the underlined part in this passage, Paul is accused of admitting to lying and dishonesty. They say that the Hebrew word for cunning (dolos) is only ever used in a negative way. In other words, he's not saying he was simply being clever here because the word does not mean that in Greek. This to me is a silly and pointless argument. From a context perspectve, it's clear that this is meant to be tongue in cheek. If I look at my wife and say "You lie, woman!" with a big grin on my face, I can tell you from experience that she would not feel that I was actually accusing her of dishonesty.
“Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." (Acts 26:9) NKJV
Even this verse is used to accuse Paul, taken completely out of context. Paul is actually alluding to his role as a persecutor of Christians prior to his Damascus experience. This is clearly the context of the passage. In fact, the verses immediately following (shown below) make that clear.
"This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them . 11 And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities." (Acts 26:10-11) NKJV
And yet they still use this verse to claim that Paul was being dishonest and was secretly against the teachings of Christ.
The most tricky verse is the one below because it's the easiest to misunderstand. The NLT seems to be the translation that most clearly show's Paul's intent, but the translators apparently had to paraphrase some to get there. Here is the passage from the New King James Version:
But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?
For if the truth of God has increased through my lie to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?And why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come”?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:5-7) NKJV
The underlined part of the passage is used to show that Paul admits that he is a liar, when in actuality Paul is simply asking a question speaking with the words of someone else so that he can argue with him. He is simply pointing out what arguments people would use against him so that he can show that they are wrong. This actually starts in verse 5 in which he introduces an argument he doesn't agree with and then says "I speak as a man." Then in the next verse he disagrees, saying "Certainly not!" In verse 7, he says that people are slanderously reporting that he teaches these things and then he adds "their condemnation is just", meaning that they deserved to be condemned for treating him and his friends this way. Yet again, it's clear that this verse is used out of context to discredit Paul.
There are other examples used to show that Paul is a liar but each can be easily discredited as shown here. In each, Paul's words are either being used out of context for the passage or are taken from the narrative in Acts and coupled with an invalid assumption on which their argument rests. What we discover from all this is that Paul is being slandered once again by people who want to discredit him and his teachings. Paul certainly has rubbed people the wrong way. Did he have issues with pride that would come through in his writings? Possibly, especially since that seems to be an issue with pharisees in general. He was human after all. It's unfair to expect perfection from Paul when only Jesus has ever been able to attain that level of perfection. Paul was clearly a man with faults like the rest of us. That in no way diminishes his accomplishments for the cause of Christ. In the next installment, we'll go through some of the key arguments used to show that Paul's teachings were in direct conflict with those of the Christ in whom Paul claimed to believe.