Biblical Studies Paul's Opponents
Jerry L. Sumney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0136


Beginning with some of the earliest, interpreters have sought to identify the teaching of those Paul opposed in his letters. At first, this investigation was done so that the interpreters could identify their own adversaries with those Paul opposes. In the era of critical interpretation, identifying these opponents of Paul has been seen as an important part of specifying the historical setting of the letters and thus as a part of the interpretive context. However, considerable disagreement exists about the identity of these opponents. Some argue that all of Paul’s letters address the same front of opposition, and others argue that multiple kinds of teachers opposed the work of Paul or that he told his congregations to reject. Modern critical study of Paul’s opponents begins with F. C. Baur. His foundational work has shaped the work on this issue since the late 19th century. He maintained that all of Paul’s letters are intended to oppose teachers who maintain that Gentile and Jewish church members must be Torah-observant, thus requiring Gentiles to receive circumcision and begin to keep the Sabbath and dietary regulations of Judaism. This single front of opposition was demanded by Baur’s Hegelian understanding of history. Even without that presupposition, some see a single type of opponent in Paul’s letters. While some continue to see those who demand Torah observance for Gentiles (often, and anachronistically, called Judaizers) as the single type of opposition, others see Gnostics as the single source of opposition. Most interpreters, however, find multiple types of ideas or practices that Paul opposes in his different letters. Part of the reason for the continuing disagreement about the identity of Paul’s opponents is that interpreters gave little attention to proper method for identifying them until the latter quarter of the 20th century. Interpretive differences will continue to produce different hypotheses, but the attention given to method can help explain differences in hypotheses and give ways to move forward toward more agreement. Even the turn in Pauline studies toward more literary investigations has not slowed studies of opponents because they can contribute to our understanding of the Pauline mission and the shape of the earliest church.

History of Identification of Opponents

The turn to reading Paul’s letters in context that began in more earnest with the Reformation became a greater concern as critical biblical study emerged in the 19th century. This concern about historical context increased the attention given to identifying Paul’s opponents. Baur 1831 and Baur 2003 mark a watershed moment in the study of Paul’s opponents. Employing the tools of critical study and a singular philosophy of history, Ferdinand Baur identifies a unified front of opposition to Paul that had its headquarters in Jerusalem and Peter as its leader. This opposition demanded full Torah observance for all members of the church. Most subsequent discussions of Paul’s opponents are in substantive dialogue with Baur’s legacy. Lüdemann 1983 and Goulder 1994 maintain Baur’s basic thesis. Schmithals 1972 finds a single type of opponent for Paul but identifies it as Gnostic rather than Torah-observant. Lightfoot 1865 and Lütgert 1908 are among the earlier rejections of Baur’s reconstruction. Lightfoot 1865 accepts the idea that all of Paul’s opponents came from teachers who wanted more Torah observance for Gentiles but rejected the idea that they were all part of a single movement. Lütgert 1908, however, finds two different types of opponents. Later, Sumney 1999 (cited under Second Thessalonians) finds two different organized anti-Pauline movements and other opponents not connected to these movements who appear in single locations or regions. Oropeza 2012 finds a number of different opponents across the Pauline letters as Paul works to define apostasy in the lst century. Most interpreters who have investigated groups of letters presuppose that Paul faces a single type of opposition everywhere. Sumney 1999 (cited under Second Thessalonians) and Oropeza 2012 are exceptions to that trend.

  • Baur, Ferdinand C. “Die Christuspartei in der Korinthischen Gemeinde, der Gegensatz des Petrinschen und Paulinischen Christentum in der Ältesten Kirche, der Apostel Petrus in Rom.” Tübingen Zeitschrift für Theologie 3.4 (1831): 61–206.

    This work is the initial essay in which Baur set out his overall hypothesis about the nature of Paul’s opponents and the development of the church in the earliest centuries.

  • Baur, Ferdinand C. Paul, The Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Work, His Epistles and Doctrine, 2d ed. 2 vols. Translated by Eduard Zeller. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003.

    Baur’s work set the agenda for the study of Paul’s opponents for more than one hundred years. While his Hegelian basis was abandoned, his view that had Jewish or Petrine Christianity opposing Gentile or Pauline Christianity has persisted. In addition, his pattern of finding two opposed Christianities as the only substantive groups in the 1st century is still found among interpreters. Originally published in 1873 (London: Williams and Norgate). German edition originally published in 1845.

  • Goulder, Michael G. St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions. Louisville: Westminster, 1994.

    Goulder argues that the earliest church was divided into two missions, that of Peter and James in Jerusalem, which requires Torah observance of all, and the Pauline mission, which does not require that obedience of Gentile believers in Christ. That basic tension led to many other differences in the theology of the two missions.

  • Lightfoot, Joseph B. Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. London: Macmillan, 1865.

    Lightfoot represents a common Briotish response in the 19th and early 20th centuries to Baur (see Baur 1831 and Baur 2003) and much of the Tübingen School. Particularly in the excursus called “St. Paul and the Three” (pp. 292–374), Lightfoot explicitly opposes Baur’s view.

  • Lüdemann, Gerd. Paulus, der Heidenapostel. Vol. 2, Antipaulinismus im Frühen Christentum. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 130. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983.

    Luedemann reasserts the Baur thesis (see Baur 1831 and Baur 2003) that Paul’s opponents are always teachers who demand that Gentiles convert fully to Judaism (including circumcision) if they want to be full members of the church. For an English translation, see Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity, translated by M. Eugene Boring (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989). Also see First Corinthians and Teachers Who Advocate Torah Observance.

  • Lütgert, Wilhelm. Freiheitspredigt und Schwarmgeister in Korinth: Ein Beitrag zur Charakteristik der Christuspartei. Beiträge zur Förderung Christlicher Theologie. Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann, 1908.

    Lütgert finds Paul opposing teachers who demands Torah observance for Gentiles in some letters (e.g., in Galatians), but elsewhere he finds teachers who are Gnostics. His position assumes a pre-Christian form of Gnosticism. Most interpreters today, however, do not think Gnosticism had fully emerged in Paul’s time. Also see Gnostics.

  • Oropeza, B. J. Jews, Gentiles, and the Opponents of Paul. Apostasy in the New Testament Communities 2. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012.

    As a part of his focus on defining apostasy more generally, Oropeza identifies various kinds of opponents across the Pauline corpus. In distinction from the other studies mentioned here, he relies more heavily on Acts for some of his information about these opponents. On occasion he allows information from other letters to inform his identification of the opponents of the letter under consideration.

  • Schmithals, Walter. Paul and the Gnostics. Translated by John E. Steely. Nashville: Abingdon, 1972.

    Schmithals sets out and argues for his overarching thesis that the opponents that Paul faces in all of his letters are Gnostics. Paul’s argument against them is so different in various letters because he did not understand what they taught in the earlier letters. As Paul understands them better, he more clearly begins to oppose their Gnostic teachings. Also see Gnostics, Philippians, and Romans.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.