Now let’s talk about the early Church Fathers for a moment because their view of Paul is a bit different than the modern Church view of Paul (a modern view that is actually closer to Marcion’s).
While many modern Bible scholars, and language experts, and Bible historians honestly believe that they have a better idea of who the various New Testament Bible characters were, and how they lived, and what they meant by what they said 2000 years ago, they must necessarily also question and at times shun some of the writings of the early Church Fathers; some who were but a generation or two removed from Paul and in some cases knew people who had known Paul personally.
Tom Bradford believes their premise is upside down. Rather he contends that those people, who are closest in time to any particular historical event, and especially those who lived within the social and cultural context of that same cultural event, have the better perspective on how to interpret and understand the meaning and intent of that event.
So Tom is quite at odds with many post-modern Bible scholars on that account. But it also explains why modern historians feel so confident in their opinions as to easily and often rewrite history to conform to their viewpoint.
So what did the Early Church Fathers have to say about Paul and the Book of Acts?
Well, fragments of various works from about 40 different authors who commented on the Book of Acts from about 100 A.D. to as late as 800 A.D. have been found. However there are only 3 ancient works that are complete commentaries (or very nearly complete) on the Book of Acts that have survived over the centuries.
The oldest is by John Chrysostom from 407 A.D. The next oldest was written by Arator about 550 A.D. And after that the one written by Venerable Bede in 735 A.D. Any commentaries written after that time are considered too late to be categorized as “ancient Christian commentary”.
One fragment that was found written by the early Church Father Tertullian is especially insightful because he is responding to Marcion’s heresy, which 50 years later in 200 A.D. was still unsettling many Bishops (I think the reason for this is that the Bishops were at that time beginning to seriously address the possibility of creating a New Testament, and if so what documents might it contain).
In Tertullian’s work appropriately titled “Against Marcion”, he says this (and I quote him):
“You must show us first of all who Paul was. What was he before he became an Apostle? How did he become an Apostle?”
In other words, since Luke’s Acts of the Apostles was where this information about Paul was contained, Tertullian was an advocate for this book’s validity and its importance for understanding Paul (remember that a key issue with Marcion concerned Paul and Marcion’s characterization of him).
Who Paul is and what he believes and teaches in his religious Jewish context is found primarily in the Book of Acts. Remove the Book of Acts from the scene (as Marcion insisted upon) and the Paul of the Epistles becomes a different Paul who will necessarily be understood differently. That is the magnitude of what we are dealing with when we decide to undertake a study of the Book of Acts.
Every Bible character, and every human for that matter, has a foundational context for knowing them and understanding them (and when it comes to the Bible, for interpreting them). When we lift anyone out of their foundational context, we get it wrong.
This issue of using the Book of Acts to provide the foundational context for understanding Paul compares favorably with what Tom Bradford has taught us about the importance of establishing the foundational context for understanding the person and purpose of Yeshua HaMashiach.
When we discard this well-known, pivotal statement by Jesus explaining His identify and His purpose in His own words, then we lose the foundational context for understanding who Yeshua is.
“Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete.
Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah- not until everything that must happen has happened.
So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 5:17-19 CJB
When we read this, we hear our Messiah insist that He did NOT do the very thing that the gentile Christian Church insists that He did: abolish the Law and the Prophets.
And of course, as most of you are well aware, there is an equal insistence within Christianity that it is Paul who says Christ DID abolish the Torah and the Prophets.
Truth be told, the position that Christ DID abolish the Law and the Prophets is precisely what led Marcion to his heresy, and the early Church Bishops and Church Fathers renounced Marcion for it. And it is also true that if you read sections of some of Paul’s Epistles it is hard NOT to take it that way.
But, just as there is a pivotal foundational context for understanding Christ in Matthew chapter 5, so there is a pivotal foundational context for understanding Paul that we will dissect in depth in the Book of Acts.