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“Paul and His Predecessors”

November 5, 2019

In 1940 a slender book was printed that the author justifiably regarded as a pioneering study:  Paul and His Predecessors, by Archibald M. Hunter.  Unfortunately, because of the war then underway, the book was “still-born.”  It had been printed, but was not published, as the publisher (Nicolson and Watson) went into liquidation.  SCM Press purchased the printed copies, but the book was not formally published, because of the distresses and demands of the war.   Sadly, therefore, the book lay widely unnoticed among scholars for many years.

Hunter’s thesis was that, although the Apostle Paul was an innovative and impressive thinker and defender of his mission, he was also heavily indebted to “those who were in Christ” before him.  Hunter conducted several investigations of Pauline texts to demonstrate this, and he did so persuasively in my view.

Then, some twenty years after its initial printing, SCM Press commissioned a revised edition from Hunter, which was published in 1961.  For this edition, Hunter left the original in place and added a 35-page Appendix, “After Twenty Years,” in which he took account of how the topic had developed.  In the main, he rightly judged that his pioneering work had been reinforced and justified by numerous subsequent scholars and studies.  In a few matters, however, he changed his mind, demonstrating a commendable scholarly readiness to follow the evidence and arguments.

Given the oceanic body of works on Paul as creative theologian and Paul’s theology, it is well to recall Hunter’s pioneering study and his argument that Paul’s main theological convictions, and the liturgical practices that Paul affirmed were not his invention, but derived from the circles of Jesus-believers that he initially opposed and then came to embrace.  Given also the still-touted notion that Paul “invented” the christological claims and devotional practices reflected in his letters, still echoed in some popular and ill-informed circles, Hunter’s book is all the more worth noting.

It has been reinforced by numerous studies since it was first printed, and there is now a growing consensus, for example, that the Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters, including the incorporation of the exalted/resurrected Jesus into the liturgical life of believers all goes back to the earliest circles of the Jesus-movement in Jerusalem.

Next year (2020) will mark the 80th anniversary of the first (albeit “still-born”) appearance of Hunter’s book.  It is now in the public domain, I believe.  Serious students of Paul have no excuse for ignoring it.

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  1. Hey Dr. Hurtado,

    Would you be willing to mention the name of some recent and up to date piece of scholarship on this topic? I’ve read your Lord Jesus Christ and now you’ve made me interested in all the other ways Paul could be indebted to his predecessors.


    • I don’t know of another book as focused on “pre-Pauline” material in Paul’s letters. But commentaries on the individual letters will often comment on such material.

  2. Thanks for bringing our attention to this book, Larry. I am surprised that he does not refer to Rom 15:15, where Paul says that he has written by way of reminder. Doesn’t this suggest that Paul’s teachings are mainstream for the audience?

    Gal 1-2 seems to be the outlier if we adopt the usual interpretation. If the Jerusalem church leaders insisted that male Gentile believers be circumcised, then Paul was indeed branching out from their position. However, in my recent article I argue that the Jerusalem church leaders were on Paul’s side of the argument. The agitators were saying “You should be circumcised because Paul now believes in circumcision, and if he tells you otherwise he does so dishonestly and only to please the Jerusalem church leaders. He delivered the letter from the church leaders, but only out of loyalty to them, for his circumcision of Timothy shows his true views.” Galatians is Paul’s response to this confusion. If I am right then it is even harder to find a theological difference between Paul and his predecessors.

    See “Paul, Timothy, Jerusalem and the Confusion in Galatia” Biblica 99.4 (2018) 544-566.

  3. Tim Whitaker permalink

    Martin Hengel liked to say that the most neglected text in New Testament studies is 1Corinthians 15:11, which follows Paul summary of the earliest apostolic tradition, “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe” (NRSV).

  4. Perhaps you would give attention to Galatians 1:11-12 to, what I understand you to say (…the liturgical practices that Paul affirmed were not his invention, but derived from the circles of Jesus-believers…). I have read many, but have not read what you think. I am interested in what you think. I was disappointed that Habermas gave no attention to it in the only book I read of his (historical Jesus), but I may have not seen what he wrote on it elsewhere.

    • Ron: Paul’s use of the term “evangelion” (gospel) varies, and here it quite obviously refers to his commission to preach to gentiles. This he claims came by revelation, and in Galatians that is the issue, not christology or liturgy.

  5. Steven Nunes permalink

    Book is in public domain, as indicated:

  6. MIchael Smith permalink

    If this is the case, that Paul was shaped by those who came before him, what do we do with Paul’s own words in Galatians 1:11-12? Would Paul agree with Hunter’s thesis?

    • Paul affirms Hunter’s thesis, e.g., in 1 Cor 15:1-11! See my reply to Ron Thomas’ query about Gal 1:11-12.

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