Was Paul as an Apostle?

Paul claims to be called to be an apostle in each of the undisputed letters (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1) as well as several other letters (Eph 1:1, Col 1:1, 1-2 Tim, Titus). In addition to the headings of these letters, Paul refers to his apostleship in several other contexts. In Rom 11:13 he calls himself the “apostle to the Gentiles” and in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul defends his status as an apostle on a par with Peter or Barnabas. But Paul never claims to be one of the Twelve. With the exception of Matthias, the replacement for Judas, this group were chosen by Jesus before the crucifixion.

In fact, in Galatians 1 Paul emphasizes his commission as an apostle but distinct from the Twelve.  An “apostle” is someone who is sent as a representative of another, usually some kind of a group.  Most lexicons suggests the English “ambassador, delegate, messenger” for the Greek concept of an apostle.  Most scholars now associate the Greek apostolos (ἀπόστολος) with the Hebrew shaliach. A person who was sent as a representative or agent acts on the same authority of the sending group.

For example, when the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, it is possible he was send as a shaliach or apostle of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22).  He would have acted as their representative on the scene should questions arise. Paul is not an apostle sent by the church of Antioch to the churches of Galatia, nor is he an agent sent out by the Jerusalem church. He never claims to be one of the Twelve Apostles, in fact Galatians 1-2 make it clear he is not part of that particular group. Paul’s claim in Galatians is that is an apostle of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

In 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul alludes to his status as an apostle in his discussion of the resurrection. Paul was not a follower of Jesus until his encounter in Acts 9. As is well known, he was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul claims in in 1 Cor 15 to be an eye-witness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

This experience was like an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” or that he has some spiritual deficiency disqualifying him from being considered a “real apostle.” Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the apostles. But again, he does not claim to be one of the Twelve; like James, the Lord’s Brother, he is commissioned by the resurrected Jesus to be an apostle, but NOT one of the Twelve.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul sarcastically refers to his opponents in Corinth as “super-apostles.” But since this rare word can mean superior, it is possible the opponents considered themselves to be superior to Paul and described themselves as his superiors to the members of the Corinthian church. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title (like added “so-called” to something to question its authority). More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church.

By way of summary, there was a group called the Twelve who were apostles, and a few other people who were commissioned by Jesus after the resurrection (James and Paul) and were therefore also considered apostles. There were others who claimed to be apostles, like the super apostles mentioned in 2 Corinthians who claimed authority as apostles but were not commissioned by the resurrected Jesus.

What is Paul claiming when he calls himself an Apostle?  What does it mean for a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where he does not use the title but then says he could have made demands as an apostle of Christ?

5 thoughts on “Was Paul as an Apostle?

  1. Acts 22:17-21, Acts 26:16-18, Acts 9:15-16 are all versions of the sending, or making of an apostle. John 13:20 is a very important verse in this regard, because in it the Lord Himself states very clearly who we are accepting or rejecting when we do so with one who is sent by Him. All of these references are “red letters” in red-letter Bibles.

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  2. Even though Paul never calls himself an apostle, I think it is fair to confirm that he still acted as one and was still called by Christ in a unique way to do a unique task; preaching the gospel to the gentiles. Looking at his conversion/calling in Acts 9, we see that the voice of Jesus doesn’t specifically call him an apostle nor give him his specific task yet. Instead he uses Ananias to reveal him his mission. In Acts 9:17, Ananias himself uses the word apostello (in greek), our english word sent, when revealing his mission; to reveal Paul’s mission. The 12 apostles were different in that they were with Jesus from the beginning, and their original intended mission was different; preaching the gospel to the Jews, not gentiles. This makes Paul kind of a unique apostle; not one of the 12, but still sent on a mission.

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    • He does call himself an apostle several times, see Galatians 1:1, for example. Luke only calls him an apostle once.

      But you point about Ananias is excellent, the verb “to send” in Acts 9 is certainly the same idea, he is God’s representative to the Gentiles.

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  3. With the way, Paul starts many of his letters it is clear that he is an apostle. He was not one of the 12 who walked and talked with Jesus, however, he received a perhaps more clear revelation of who Jesus really was, Just as Peter did in Matthew 16:16. So even though Paul did not walk alongside Jesus he still received a revelation of Jesus Christ. I think having that encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus helped consider him to be an apostle. For he saw Jesus in His radiance. Now I think there is validity in Paul being sent by God through the disciple Ananias. Paul’s mission was clear now that he was not only to preach the Gospel to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.
    I find it noteworthy that in l Corinthians 15 Paul says ” For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.” and that He, “labored more abundantly than they all-” (v 9-10). I think this takes down the proposed insult of “super-Cristian”.

    Though Paul does not record that he is an apostle in l Thessalonians, he, however, does walk with the authority of Jesus Christ and as an ambassador carrying out the mission and representing Jesus with His very own authority.

    I would also like to point out that Peter mentions that it is hard for him to understand some of Pauls letters. I personally believe this is because Paul was in deeper into the depth of God’s wisdom and knowledge. So it can be misleading to say that the 12 were more intimate and knowing of Jesus Christ simply because they walked with Him.

    Lastly, I would propose that Paul was in Thessalonica for awhile and perhaps he did not have to let them know that he was an apostle? According to Thinking Through Paul, it says, “It is unclear how long Paul’s founding visit to Thessalonica lasted.” later saying that he likely forged good relationships with the people and that he worked as a leather worker. (TTP, 61).

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