Search the Site


Paul and the Gentiles

Was Paul’s message to the Gentiles any different from that preached by Peter, James, and John?

Ivory belt buckle from Castellammare di Stabia
Belt buckle of Peter and Paul

Q. When Paul refers to his message to the Gentiles as “my gospel,” can we infer that his message is distinct from that preached by Peter, James, John, etc.?

A. The reader asks an important question that calls attention to the fact that there are many factors to consider when we engage biblical materials: the primary texts themselves, their ancient contexts, and their appropriation across time and cultures. In this respect, the Pauline epistles have an especially rich set of traditions with which interested readers must contend.

For example, many Pauline concepts, such as “law,” “grace,” “faith,” and “works,” have been shaped by longstanding debates between Protestants and Catholics and by European Christian conceptions of Jews and Judaism. It’s important to note that the origins of biblical scholarship itself are rooted in German Protestantism. As a result, there has been a scholarly tradition of separating Paul and his “gospel” out from the Jerusalem apostles, namely Peter, James, and John.

According to this tradition, Paul and the Jerusalem apostles are oppositional forces to one another, with different sources of inspiration for their theologies and actions. Herein the main difference is that the “Jerusalem gospel” requires full Torah observance by Jews and Gentiles alike, whereas the “Pauline gospel” does not require Torah observance by Gentiles. This particular reconstruction has been the subject of much debate in contemporary scholarship.

For better or for worse, interpreting Paul’s gospel and/or mission to the Gentiles as completely separate than, and opposed to, the gospel and/or mission to Israel may obscure what the biblical evidence suggests: that the apostles were all Jewish; that they were all interested in spreading a message of “good news” about Jesus to as many people as possible throughout the Roman empire regardless of ethnic affiliation; and that they had different means of doing so.

This is not to say that Paul never invokes “my gospel” as a term in his letters (see especially Rom 2:16 and Rom 16:25), nor that he never had profound disagreements with Peter, James, and John (see Gal 2 and Acts 15 for different takes on these differences). It is also true that Paul uses language that suggests he had opponents (for example, in Gal 1 he curses other gospels and their proponents as anathema), or at least wanted to convince his listeners that he had opponents who were, as in the Corinthian correspondence, threatening his efficacy as a missionary (see his self-defense in 2Cor 10-13).

Overall, however, according to the New Testament evidence and perhaps contrary to tradition, we do not have much reason to suspect that Paul had a fundamentally different gospel than the Jerusalem apostles. Importantly, the nature of the evidence is rhetorical—that is, Paul writes to persuade the recipients of his letters to particular ends. It may very well be that Paul’s attempts to convince his addressees about the danger or inadequacy of opposing views serves the argumentative function of giving more credence to his own position among those who may not have been convinced.

Whether Paul’s own rhetoric on the issue does indeed reflect a social and historical reality of opposition between Paul and Jerusalem is underexplored in contemporary scholarship. That said, the vast and varied history of interpretation of Paul’s rhetoric about his life, mission, and agenda has served many ends to many communities, including those that benefit from the binaries of exclusivity over inclusivity.

  • Davina C. Lopez

    Davina C. Lopez is Professor of Religious Studies and core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida. A scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity with research interests in Pauline studies, Roman imperial art and literature, and theory and method in the study of religion, she is the author of Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Fortress, 2008) and coauthor, with Todd Penner, of De-introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley, 2015).