Why are Paul's letters authoritative?

Just wondering (as an atheist): Why are Paul’s letters considered to be authoritative to most Christians?

Is it because he was an apostle?

But consider: “Get behind me, Satan.” Seems like apostles can be dead wrong sometimes, right? If Peter can be influenced by Satan, why can’t Paul?

Is it because the Catholic Church included Paul’s letters in the cannon?

This seems like a rather arbitrary metric. Christians in the early Catholic Church could have decided to include anything in the cannon. Are you saying that a bunch of 5th century RCC bureaucrats get to decide what is divine truth and what isn’t?

I’m not trying to be annoying or trollish. This is something that genuinely bothers me about the Christian religion/ Bible. I think Paul’s writings are inspiring and poetic. But (it also seems to me) that Paul contradicts some of the things that Jesus teaches in the Gospels (especially concerning judgment of others).

The Jesus guy seemed to be able to love others, even the ones who nailed him to the cross. But Paul (at times) seems full of resentment. Sure, Paul wrote some powerful passages about love, but he also wrote some bitter things. I don’t hold Paul’s bitterness against him or anything. I just wonder if it is wise to take one ancient man’s bitterness to be the unblemished truth (as many Christians seem to do).

Also, Paul himself might not have ever intended to have his letters put on the same level as the teachings of Christ. Taken at face value, they were simple communiques (albeit super inspiring ones) perhaps meant to keep Paul’s various parishes running smoothly and NOT intended to be “just as true as the things Christ said” as most modern Christians take them to be. Maybe Paul himself would say that (where there is contradiction between his words and Christ’s), the words of Jesus ought to supercede his own. But modern Christianity doesn’t seem to afford Paul that option. Every one of his rants or opinions is taken to be divine truth. If Jesus and Paul say two things that seem incongruent, both statements are warped so that they can fit together and (to the comfort or inerrantists) count as divine truth.

If the Jesus guy is the one you consider to be God, what’s wrong with saying that Jesus was right and (if there is a contradiction between Jesus and Paul) Jesus always wins out? Isn’t it a bit risky to take the teachings of Christ and warp them so that they are congruent with Paul’s writings?


Wendell Berry (Agriculturalist / Poet / Author) agrees with you … it isn’t uncommon to find those who don’t mind hovering around the edges of orthodoxy who don’t at all care for Paul’s eventual “dominance” over the fledgling Christian movement. Most Christians today (who keep at least an eye toward mainstream orthodoxy and a respect for the canon process [cannons are revolutionary war era guns, btw]) would say rather that Paul helps give early clarity to what Jesus accomplished. Of all the “talking heads” that give us post-game analyses, Paul and Peter would seem to be among the most valuable. For all that you (and many) find so distasteful from Paul, he also is the mainstay bulwark against so many directions that people tried (and still try!) to take Christ’s significance such as turning it back into new sets of laws as if it were simply Judaism 2.0. Paul’s writings are invaluable towards helping us stay focused on Christ instead of straying into strange gnosticisms and elaborate new legalistic systems.

For what it’s worth, Paul did show a humility toward what he wrote sometimes by clarifying that certain things were only his opinion and shouldn’t be considered as from the Lord - an ironic self-deprecation entirely lost on those who want to turn today’s Bible into an iron-clad, inerrant collection of facts. But his deliberate humility towards some words also then imply a confidence in God’s spiritual backing in the rest of what he writes. So on the whole, nobody would ever accuse Paul of having excessive humility. But the way the early disciples disputed and resolved things with each other serves as a wonderful model for their spiritual heirs. I’m glad they weren’t perfect because that sort of hagiography becomes a spiritual problem when we use it as an excuse ourselves from having to emulate anything they did or thought … “well that was Paul … or that was Jesus …”. So we do thank God for those examples (especially like Peter) where their screw-ups were explicitly on display. [and yes, when one reads between the lines, Paul almost certainly had regrets of his own as well.]

Real people, real struggles, real need, … real life faith.


on road again today, so will be missing out on subsequent discussion here till maybe later tonight.

It wasn’t the Catholic Church that included the letters. I won’t reproduce the reasons for inclusion here but the history of the formation of the canon is interesting.

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I resonate with a lot of your concerns; and agree with @Mervin_Bitikofer 's thoughts, too. Pete Enns posted here Interview with Craig Allert: Where Did the New Testament Come From? - The Bible For Normal People about the canon in the NT; and Josh McDowell’s “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” discusses some reasons why the NT canon included Paul

Here’s an overview that is reminiscent of that–and also why the gnostics weren’t included

It is very true, in my opinion, that we can misunderstand Paul because some of his letters were directed to specific conditions (eg Romans to the Judaizers in the church in Rome) so that we (and Augustine and Calvin) blew them out of proportion, implying that the Jews relied only on the law for salvation (they didn’t; they also relied on grace).
Scot McKnight, in “Blue Parakeet,” quoted the famous NT scholar FF Bruce as saying that Paul would be rolling over in his grave if he knew we elevated his writings to the level of Torah.

GK Chesterton and George Macdonald remarked to the effect that those who concentrated on (mostly false interpretation) of Paul’s writings as “not Christian,” when they did it to exclusion of Christ and the gospels. I’ve heard such preachers regarded as “Paulinian.”

I resonate (you may have read my post in the “Inerrancy and Mass Slaughter” thread with your question about the interaction between Paul and Peter.

Having said that, there’s lots in there that teaches us about church thought and interpretation of Christ’s life.

Good question. My post may be a bit misleading as it lists my questions, too; but I do think that the modern church misinterprets Paul.

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They are part of the canon, which Christians believe the early church established under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They were probably put in the canon because he was an apostle, but he undoubtedly wrote other letters that weren’t preserved by the church, so it’s not like everything he wrote became Scripture.

The issue isn’t whether the person Paul or Peter is fallible. Clearly they are. The teaching in the letters was evaluated and the early church decided it was from God. They probably decided that based not only on his apostleship but on the consensus of other apostles and people who had studied with Jesus. It wasn’t like they said, “Oh Paul wrote this, it must be infallible.” Apollo was an influential early Christian teacher who was a contemporary of Paul and none of his writing made it into the canon.

The early church that established the canon in the 300s and 400s predated the Roman Catholic Church which emerged after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. The Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic Church were all the same church until 1054.

Their decisions weren’t arbitrary. They looked to see what letters the church Fathers (Christian leaders who took over leadership from the apostles) had quoted as authoritative in their writings. The idea was that they wanted to include what had been considered authoritative by the early church that had a direct connection to the Resurrection and Pentecost.

That’s one narrative. Believers would say a bunch of righteous people experienced in hearing God got together and were led by God to preserve the teachings most central to the faith.

You aren’t the only one who has noticed this. Scot McKnight wrote a book called the King Jesus Gospel that tries to understand Paul as preaching the same message as Jesus. It matters who Paul and Jesus were talking to. Their Jewish audiences and their Gentile audiences had radically different philosophical and religious frames of reference, and sometimes apparent contradictions make more sense if you can see things from the perspective of the listeners and what kind of expectations and baggage they would have brought to the conversation.

They definitely had different personalities. I think maybe some of Paul’s “bitterness” comes from the fact that he was really powerful in the Jewish system. Went to all the right schools. Had the right family ties. Knew all the right stuff. He was very much an insider in the Jewish culture, but his message got rejected and they repeatedly beat him up, tried to kill him, and threw him in prison for trying to preach his message. The Gentiles on the other hand were very welcoming and accepting. So you can see how being ostracized from the people that you had been trying your whole life to be a model exemplar of would take an emotional toll. I think it’s normal for us to have less patience with the people we most closely identify with.

I think he might take issue with modern Evangelicalism putting the Bible as some fourth member of the Trinity. But over and over again, he claims that he has been given authority by Christ himself, and he definitely saw himself as Christ’s ambassador and spokesperson. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 1 Cor 11: 1

Some people do. But generally, there is a commitment to the idea that Jesus and Paul aren’t preaching different things, and if it sounds like they are we need to figure out how the context informs our interpretation, because they are supposed to harmonize.


Thanks for this reference. I just found it on Audible–I need to listen to this and will do so this week.

No. It was an ecumenical agreement by a gathering of patriarchs of the church from all over Christendom, largely in response to Marcion who wanted to cut this down into a much smaller subset. Their response was all of these writings were a standard part of the Christian ministry for all the churches throughout Christendom. To be sure some groups and areas may have used additional texts but these at least were considered indispensable and the church needed to make this clear in response to those who wanted to alter Christianity into something completely different.

Does it matter that his texts predate the physical writing of the Gospels?

It’s a legitimate question, but couldn’t you also ask, why are the Gospels considered to be authoritative to most Christians?

“Seems” is the operative word. Because the fact is that other people don’t see a contradiction and the reason is that they don’t read either one in a way that contradicts the other.

More than this, it is Jesus whom Christians believe to be God, not Paul. But Paul was an educated intellectual and thus his writings provide a great deal more theological precision. Nevertheless, Jesus and His teachings are indeed the gold standard by which the writings of everyone else in the Bible should be understood. However, it probably should be argued that theology which Paul helps so much with should never be the center of Christianity.

Nobody will ever say that Paul was right and Jesus was wrong. But they do see a problem with stubbornly insisting on an interpretation of Jesus that contradicts the teachings of Paul.

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Dear Dillion,
Thank you for the perspective. I would add the following point to your argument. If a Christina believes that Jesus is God, then shouldn’t that make the words of Jesus the infallible witness and shouldn’t Paul yield to them?

The other thing I would stress, is the cannons and councils were the works of men, not God. It was Constantine, for example, that invited the 318 clerics to Nicea and there is no way that politics had anything to do which ones he invited nor which he let out? Was the overwhelming support a work of God or a good politician? The fact that he consulted the oracles before this event raises no eyebrows?
Best Wishes, Shawn

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Vulcan logician…Are you a Trekkie?

Paul’s letters are valued because of his status as one of the apostles — though, as he put it, “one untimely born.” He was not the inventor of Christianity, as some try to presume. He was an early opponent of it who later learned his basic theology from those who had known and believed Jesus before Paul. As Ehrman has said, the only way for Christianity to have spread is for people to have been preaching it — and the basics of Christian belief go back to earliest times.

When you say that Paul contradicts some things Jesus said – such as judgment of others — that is another sort of discussion. Jesus Himself made judgments. I am not sure what you refer to when you discuss Paul’s “bitterness.” And while he was generally writing to specific people and to specific church groups with particular questions or concerns, his writings were cited (elsewhere) by Peter as being inspired by God. I am not sure what you are referring to specifically with regarding to warping Jesus’ writings?

Shawn…I think Constantine is a bit late in the game. Ignatius, bishop of Lyons, was one of the earliest (but not the only) to cite as canonical the books and letters currently known as part of the New Testament. The Book of Revelation was a bit of a late-bloomer. But Ignatius and others began in early to mid 2nd century to compile a concept of a canon as a defense against Marcionism.

Marcion was an early heretic. As for the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), the vote on all that was not even close and was concerned more with the definition of the Christian deity than what Vulcan is talking about. It is hard to find much of a conspiracy theory in all of that, especially since (from later events) it is hard to tell how well Constantine understood or agreed with the outcome of Nicaea…and remember also that Constantine commissioned the making of 50 copies of the New Testament — at least one of which may have been what we today call Codex Sinaiticus. There are biblical fragments from the 60s C.E. that have connections with the later text now known as Codex Vaticanus…

The historian Jacob Burkhardt had a different take on the events. He describes how Constantine saw the potential of hijacking Christianity for the power of Rome and went about it systematically. First he stop the persecution of the Christians, but only those who supported him, he allowed his critics to be killed. He regularly visited the pagan oracle to help with his strategies. When he finally commissioned the Codex Sinaiticus, he had the scribes lose the critical fragments that spoke against doctrines established until that time - revision by omission.

The pope just provided us with confirmation through his reformation of Matt 6. There are officially no surviving manuscript fragments of Man 6 prior to the writing of Codex Sinaiticus, yet the pope claims prior knowledge consistent with the Greber Bible.

PS. I am very careful when anyone is called a heretic or, likewise, great.

Are you referring to Carl Jacob Christoph Burkhardt (1818-1897)?? He was a Swiss historian of art and culture, and most noted for his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

Is this whom you refer to??? —that is, a preacher’s son who studied some divinity, abandoned Christianity, adopted “a kind of pantheism” — per Britannica.com and see also some sort of wikipedia comment…

If this is the Jacob Burkhardt you mean — he sounds interesting, taught art history and covered the art of ancient Greece to the French Revolution.

But Vulcan is referring to something other than art history. He is querying the importance of the words of Paul versus the words of Jesus. The First Council of Nicea created the Nicene Creed, fixed the date for the celebration of Easter, and resolved (or attempted to) some disagreements over the nature of the Son as related to the Father. This is a slightly different emphasis than what Vulcan is concerned about.

And while Burkhardt sounds like a fascinating fellow, his emphasis was art history. For more on church history, such as the varied councils, try The Story of Christianity, vol 1, by Justo L. Gonzalez and The Path of Christianity by John Anthony McGuckin — plus any of a number of other sources that focus on this aspect of things.

Constantine did not commission the Codex Sinaiticus. He commissioned the production of 50 Bibles — one of which, text historians now speculate (at least some do) may well have been the famous Codex Sinaiticus. And there are multiple sources for the biblical text, not just one…

As I said, Nicaea had a different focus than what Vulcan is interested in…


Burkhardt was aa very successful historian of more than just art. Successful in that he learned from history to accurately predict the future. His most important works are:

  1. The Greeks and Greek Civilization
  2. Judgments on History and Historians
  3. History of Greek Culture

It is in Judgements that he carefully looks at Nicea which has implications for all the political maneuvering that went on in early Christianity, including the establishment of the cannons. The Word was not the central focus, it was power and politics.

I just looked up this Greber Bible – of which I have never before heard. Greber was a Catholic priest who moved in interesting spiritual directions and then developed a Bible aided by “spirits,” since he got into spiritism. His wife also was led by “spirits” in translating or writing this text.

We are really going far astray here, Shawn. Was there not a man in Europe in the 1880s who was also moved by a spirit and then jumped out his kitchen window to get away from what he thought was the devil? Will have to look that one up…but the idea he got from some spirit eventually worked its way into literature that influenced a certain disturbed young man ----- and tens of millions died as a result. This is why the Bible says “test the spirits.”

And the idea of a canon was not considered repressive or anti-intellectual in the early 2nd century CE. A “canon” was a list of approved literature — they had it for the Iliad and other works of literature in that era.

Well…a good conversation.


Thanks,. The Britannica article did not mention that. Interesting. Accurately predict the future? Did he foresee the birth of the hamburger ?? ( Joke).

I would suggest though that one source for your thoughts here is not enough. It is especially challenging when the individual is known more as an art historian. There are specialties for everything these days. A young English lit major got a job as an accountant recently — but only because her father was head of HR at a major financial institution. Same sort of situation here with Burkhardt. Read Gonzalez and McGuckin…plus others. (Even the English lit major had to go back to school.) If you really want to know a subject — read those for whom this is their specialty — that is, church history. That Greber Bible guy is a bit frightening. None of this really relates to what Vulcan was asking, of course. It would be nice to engage with him here…maybe we have sent him running for the hills by now.


Dear Robin,
This is a little off track, but it should be of general interest. It was not until I discovered Burkhardt’s 360 degree method, that I started to learn from studying history. He wrote: “With a careful study of history, we find that man has not learned by studying it.”

Many question an art history major, but this is something that I discovered in my journey to be the place to look for hidden jewels. Heinrich Schliemann had used only Homer’s Iliad to find the lost city of Troy, when historians had written it off as myth. The enlightened cultures knew how the written word can be falsified or destroyed over time, but art and song (poetry) is more difficult to erase from a culture’s memory. In an enlightened society, the artists were tasked with preserving their most important truths. Homer, Hesiod, Aesop, Sappho preserved enlightened history while the conquerers rewrote and destroyed the written works they felt were dangerous to their rule. They did not recognized the hidden stories in poetry, song and painted vases.

Closing the loop with @vulcanlogician, I would just suggest reading as many inspired works as you can, paying specific attention to the works that were excluded from the cannon and think about who they would have threatened. God inspired far more than the 40 authors the current bible and so has the adversary. Should we really trust a group of questionable men who lived long ago to make this important decision for us?

I have never heard of “Burkhardt’s 360 degree method” — except something used for performance appraisal. I do not know the source of the quote you gave, but it seems a reworking of the well-known phrase “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” or “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

The statement has been made a number of times evidently.

This is a bit like reading different versions of the Golden Rule and comparing how one culture has stated it against what another culture or preacher has said.

No one is questioning the value of B’s art history interests. But his focus and writings were (it seems) all in that area. I presume that writings were peer-reviewed even in the 19th century, and that can help to nail down stray details or correct small inconsistencies in any writer. Same with any church history writings of his, if they occurred.

When it comes to church history, all that can be said is that your information on what occurred during the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (early fourth century CE/AD) is a bit off base. If you got it from Burkhardt, then this adds to my questions about his expertise in areas beyond art history. He was a “rebel PK” who turned to pantheism and lost contact with some of his earlier lessons, perhaps.

His new beliefs were his beliefs – no doubt about it. But he forgot his old lessons, perhaps. If I decide to make a chocolate cake, I look for a recipe — that is, a canon which is what a recipe is. Tell me to add lettuce and a bit of parsley to my cake mix — and I will give you a funny look.,

That is what I would give anyone who said Burckardt said what you seem to say he said.

People actually love my chocolate cake — but it is, in general, not known as a health food. Mention parsley in your recipe and you will have me scratching my head. Are you looking at an actual recipe for chocolate cake?

This is some of my reaction to what you say you learned from Burkhardt – not mention this spirit-fueled Greber Bible. Not all spirits are friendly, remember. When it comes to recognizing who Jesus is, the Bible says “even the demons believe — and shudder.” But Jesus Himself said that lying is the Satan’s native tongue. When someone says he made a new Bible after being influenced by “spirits,” I want to ask what language those spirits spoke.

You cite Burkhardt as asserting things (??) — although I can see no specific citations from you — that sound a bit like parsley in the chocolate.

The Council of Nicaea occurred at least two centuries after the books of the canon for the New Testament were first listed. Nicaea focused on various issues but not the one at hand here.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, was the first or one of the first to cite the writings of the various apostles (Paul, Peter, James, John) as authoritative. The four biographies of Jesus — known to us as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — were all well known by —and in many cases long before the end of the first century CE.

The formation of a canon was part of the process of developing the New Testament, but it was also a response to a denial of much of it by Marcion — who decided he did not like certain books of the Old and New Testament. Developing a canon of right books to read was a secular as well as religious practice in that era — don’t read Ovid, do read Philo, that sort of thinking (to cite part of a secular version of a canon from that era)…

At any rate, Vulcan wondered how to square some things Jesus said with some things Paul wrote and thought people were mashing things together in an attempt to make it all seem great. I wondered from him what he referred to.