The Apostleship of St. Paul

May 20th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

St. Paul’s Apostleship was unique because he was not part of the original twelve nor was he, like St. Matthias, ordained to fulfill a vacancy in the twelve. 1 In my recent article on Holy Orders, it may not be clear how some of the claims I made about the Apostolic office apply to St. Paul given his unique Apostleship and some of the statements he made. The following is speculation on possible explanations for St. Paul’s uniqueness as an Apostle.

In the Holy Orders article, I examined four New Testament passages concerning the ordination of the Apostles. 2 To recap, the four passages examined were the initial designation of the Apostles (Mark 3:13-15), the Last Supper, the appearance of the risen Christ (John 20:21-23), and Pentecost. Each of the four passages emphasized various aspects of Apostolic or episcopal ordination.

St. Paul’s own ordination seems unique in that his calling included a special emphasis on the preaching of the Word. In fact, St. Paul says “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.”3 I argued in the Holy Orders article that the sacramental charismata received by the Apostles was consistently associated in patristics with the breathing of the Holy Spirit in John 20. One interesting (but speculative) point is that St. Paul was not there. Thus, St. Paul’s absence at the point which signified the sacramental aspect of the Apostolic office shows, in part, that his Apostleship uniquely emphasized another aspect of the Apostolic office.

The point is not, in any way, to deny that the fullness of Apostolic authority was granted to St. Paul, nor to say that his mission to preach somehow excluded a sacramental ministry. 1 Corinthians 1:16 confirms, for example, that he did baptize. And presumably, it is St. Paul who presides over the Eucharist in Acts 20:7.

The Apostolic office was the fullness of the Christian ministry. It contained everything that proceeded from its authority: the rule of the bishop, the collegiate function of the presbytery, the service of the diaconate, the power to offer sacrifice, the power to forgive sins, the authority to interpret the Scriptures, and finally – the commission to preach the Word. As I argued in the Holy Orders article, each of these aspects were signified, in part, by the various passages shown above. I also noted (in section IV.b) that certain aspects of the priestly ministry varied in emphasis by locality. The episcopal or Apostolic office was so robust that one aspect could be, and often was, emphasized in harmony with the other aspects without excluding them. The emphasis for St. Paul was the preaching of the Word; for St. James it was episcopal authority; for St. Peter it was perhaps sacramentalism. 4

The Apostleship of St. Paul seems to be unique in that he wasn’t the equivalent of a bishop ordained by the Apostles such as Sts. Evaristus, Timothy, or Linus, et al, nor was he a replacement such as St. Mathias to fill the “episcopacy” of Judas. He was directly commissioned by Christ as an apostle with the unique mission of preaching the gospel throughout the world.

  1. Acts 1:15-26. For an argument that ‘the twelve’ and ‘Apostles’ are the same, see Cirlot, Felix Apostolic Succession at the Bar of Modern Scholarship, (1946) []
  2. See section IV.d []
  3. 1 Corinthians 1:17 []
  4. For St. Peter, the emphasis on sacramentalism can be seen in his emphasis on the necessity of baptism (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21) and in the Church Fathers’ understanding of the power of the Keys (Matt 16:18-19) being especially linked with the authority to ‘bind and loose’ and to forgive sins. e.g. Tertullian, On Modesty, 21. It can also be seen in St. Peter as the principle of sacramental authority. (See St. Cyprian of Carthage On the Unity of the Church, 4) []
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  1. Since Jesus was reestablishing Israel on a new spiritual foundation, it’s interesting to go back to the beginning and remember what happened with the original Israel. Genesis tells us that there were not simply twelve sons of Jacob. There were twelve sons and later one of the twelve (Joseph) was sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:25-28). Then there were eleven. A similar pattern to what happens with Jesus apostles. But don’t forget that the twelfth son was rediscovered (Gen. 45, 46). When the brothers found Joseph they found not only the twelfth son, but the twelfth and the thirteenth son as well (Gen. 49:1-27). The two sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) received a full inheritance with the other eleven sons (Gen. 48:22). So, in the twelfth, there were really more, numbers 12 and 13. When Jacob died, he recognized that he had thirteen sons.

    Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us then that there are thirteen apostles serving as the foundation of spiritual Israel.

  2. For my part, I’ve thought that Paul’s apostolic distinction was found not in function (which he compares evenly to Peter and the other pillars in Jerusalem), but in target and ministerial emphasis.

    The object of Paul’s ministry was the Gentiles, while Peter, James and John targets the Jews.

    Gal. 2:7-9: I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.

    There maybe some distinctions of emphasis (which might well be what you’re after above). Paul’s ministry was largely itinerant and to non-covenant members who were without faith. Since faith comes by hearing and that by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), Paul *probably* emphasized preaching more than the more established ministry in Jerusalem, but maybe not (see Gal. 2:7 where Paul and Peter are alike in preaching). Also, since the sacraments are for the body of Christ, the more established ministry in Jerusalem would have emphasized that more than Paul’s missionary work to the heathen.

    Tim, you wrote that the apostoic office includes “the rule of the bishop, the collegiate function of the presbytery, the service of the diaconate, the power to offer sacrifice, the power to forgive sins, the authority to interpret the Scriptures, and finally – the commission to preach the Word.” Do you cover these things in your larger article on Orders? Also, thanks for this little post.

  3. There is a distinction between the 12 and St. Paul, though that in no way minimizes St. Paul’s authentic title and role as an Apostle. The Church does fully recognize the Apostleship of St. Paul. In fact, drawing on the paradox of the Beatitudes and many of Christ’s parables (in summary, the humble are the greatest), Pope Benedict XVI has stated that, in some ways, especially in the way of mission work and preaching the Gospel, St. Paul could be considered the greatest Apostle (St. Paul’s claim of being the worst of sinners, for example… such humility and proper introspection makes him great in the eyes of God).

    However, as there are 12 tribes, there were 12 Apostles chosen to represent those tribes. The foundations of the walls of the Church represented in St. John’s Apocalypse are twelve, each inscribed with the names of the 12 Apostles. Once again, that doesn’t minimize St. Paul’s role at all, I’m just pointing out a distinction.

  4. Tim P – Good point, that’s another emphasis of St. Paul’s apostleship, his mission to the Gentiles.

    Tim, you wrote that the apostoic office includes “the rule of the bishop, the collegiate function of the presbytery, the service of the diaconate, the power to offer sacrifice, the power to forgive sins, the authority to interpret the Scriptures, and finally – the commission to preach the Word.” Do you cover these things in your larger article on Orders?

    Yes I do. I talk about the various emphasis of the Apostolic ministry by ordination passage in Section IV.d, and I talk about the varied emphasis on the role of the presbyter (by geographical location) in Section IV.b

  5. They way I always understood Paul’s Apostleship is that he was the replacement of Judas after Mathias filled the Apostolic role only temperarily. Paul qualifies as an Apostle just as much as the other 12 because he was given that ministry directly by Christ. So, in that sense Paul’s Apostleship isn’t unique from the others; it is only unique in respect to timing, the way I see it.

  6. “Paul qualifies as an Apostle just as much as the other 12 because he was given that ministry directly by Christ.”

    This is true, he just wasn’t one of the Twelve. Where St. Paul was called by Christ post-Resurrection, the Twelve (tradition holds that even Matthias was one of the 70 or 72 other disciples) followed Christ and were with Him throughout His earthly ministry. And Scripturally, one cannot divorce the significance nor the importance of the Twelve. Also, though you may hold the opinion that St. Paul “temporarily” filled Judas’ position, what we do know is that Matthias was chosen for that spot.

    No matter how you slice it, St. Paul was an Apostle as he was called by Christ. He was argueably the greatest Apostle in regards to his familiarity with the Law and his preaching and missionary capacity, but the fact remains that he was not one of the Twelve.

  7. Felix Cirlot argues, as I pointed out in footnote 1, that ‘the twelve’ is the basis for the office of “Apostle” and is in some way interchangeable. Some modern scholars have insisted that the office of Apostle was instituted post-resurrection. Cirlot denies this and insists that the term “Apostle” was not imposed on the lips of the pre-risen Christ (cf. Mk 3.13-15, Lk 6:12-13) The basis for the modern critical theory is that there appears to be reference in the NT and in early Christian writing to “Apostles” who were not among the twelve. For example, St. Clement of Alexandria calls St. Clement of Rome an “Apostle” and Acts 14:14 calls St. Barnabas an Apostle. I’m sure you’re also aware of the modern Pentecostal(ish) use of the term as if it were an office that could be applied to anyone who was an evangelist (even in modern times). This opinion is clearly false.

    That’s the sort of distinction we need to make. Whoever was called “Apostle” was an Apostle by virtue of their participation in the office that belonged to ‘the twelve.’ This is not exactly the same as the presbyter’s ministry as an extension of the bishop’s but something similar I suppose. (For bishops retained some powers that the presbyters never acquired such as the power to ordain whereas it doesn’t appear that any of the twelve exercised power that St. Paul did not). St. Paul is still unique in that he was commissioned directly by Christ in a way that, as far as we know, no one else was.

    The authority of ‘the twelve’ was the authority of an office conferred upon them by Christ. They were not Apostles merely by being close to Jesus or by being around Him from the beginning. Although, being with Him from the beginning was a requirement for the replacement as we learn from Acts 1.

    Sts. Matthias and Paul were both “Apostle” by virtue of their share in the ministry of ‘the twelve.’ So it depends on how we use ‘the twelve’ as to whether or not St. Paul was one of them. Obviously, he was not among the original twelve. But if by ‘the twelve’ we mean, as the Scripture certainly does in some cases, ‘the Apostles,’ then we can say St. Paul was one of them.

    Still, there is some uniqueness to St. Matthias’s apostleship (in comparison to St. Paul). I think this is the point Joe is getting at.

  8. Thank you, Tim. You articulated my thoughts better than I did. It seems like hair-splitting, but it really isn’t.

  9. Actually, after reading over post again, I realized that if I had filled out my fragmented thoughts, they would have been completely redundant. Oops. I’ll shut up now.

  10. Here are Pope Benedict’s discourses on the Apostle Paul. It is quite a bit of material but you may find it interesting.

  11. Joe,

    Sorry for the ambiguity, but I was saying that Mathias was the temporary.

  12. Joe, yowza!

    Tim, thanks. I’ll check out your larger article this weekend. I’m excited to read it!

  13. Tim, another question (while I’m thinking about it). Would you agree that in the NT, bishops and elders refer to the same office? Do you see the distinction between those two offices as something that developed early in church history?

  14. Tim – I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. Re: bishops and elders in the NT, I do spend a good amount of time on this question in the article so I’ll let you read the case I make in the text and see what you think. BTW – if you want to print it out, there’s a link to print it towards the bottom – just before the footnotes. (In case you prefer to read it on paper).

    The (way too) short answer is that I believe that sometimes when the NT says “presbyters” it might be referring to what we now call “bishops” and that sometimes when it says “bishops” it might be referring to what we now call presbyters. I even believe (though I don’t think this is the case) that it is possible that all the early priests were bishops (hence the interchangeability of terms in the early Church) and later presbyters began to be ordained. I don’t think that is the best explanation of the data though.

  15. Jared,

    I think I should be the one apologizing for ambiguity, as evidenced by my comments. :)

  16. Tim P.,

    Yeah, as you can see, Pope Benedict XVI really, really venerates St. Paul a lot. That isn’t the only material on him, of course. Those are just some of his public discourses during the “Year of St. Paul” that concluded not so long ago.

  17. The late Anglican theologian, E . M. Mascall, believed that the extension of the apostolate beyond the original twelve (as in St. Paul and others) did not rob the former of their unique typological role as patriarchs of the New Israel (“ye who shall follow me in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of His glory, shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel); but, because apostles not belonging to the twelve, seemed to have been given the fullness of apostolic power, at least with regards to ruling the Church militant, he speculated that with each lawful consecration to the Episcopate, the apostolate contines to grow. What do you think of Mascall’s theory?

    Terrific blog. Keep up the good work

  18. Mark, welcome to CTC. Mascall’s theory is interesting; there’s probably something to that. At least it seems like Christians did hold that sort of opinion for a while because Sts. Barnabas, Clement of Rome, and others were also called “Apostles.” There must be a sense in which those ordained to the episcopate are rightly called Apostles and I take it to be in the sense that they are true successors possessing the fullness of Apostolic authority.

    But for whatever reason, after the first century, this practice of labeling people other than St. Paul and the twelve as Apostles becomes infrequent. And as far as I can tell, it all but vanishes after the second century. There seems to be a change in how the Christian world referred to Apostles – or rather who was a candidate for that Apostle. I’m not real sure about why the change occurred, and I think the most we can do is speculate about it.

  19. Thanks for the welcome, Tim.

    I believe several early Fathers recognized the use of “Apostle” in the post-Apostolic Church, as a legitimate title for bishops; while acknowledging that it came in time to be reserved for Apostles, as a way to distinguish them from their successors.

    It is interesting how 17th-century Anglicans ( e.g., Hooker, Overall, Laud, Taylor) saw the origins of the Presbyterate in Christ’s commission to the 70 disciples. Thanks to their typological reading of the OT, it seemed natural enough to assume that the Church would not only have 12 patriarchs or tribal princes, but also a host of undershepherds corresponding to the Mosaic pattern.

    While I believe their typological exegesis is laudable, I am less certain it explains the origin of the Presbyterate-which seems to be a recognized order in the Jerusalem church, according to Acts 15.

    Have there been any Catholic theologians who esposed similar views?

  20. If I misunderstood this item, I would like a correction: St. Paul is still unique in that he was commissioned directly by Christ in a way that, as far as we know, no one else was.

    That he was chosen separately from the Twelve is obvious but we see him as an apostle, and not by any other designation. To the best of my understanding, except as noted below, the apostles were directly commissioned by Christ and are not substantially different than Paul in that regard.

    We are aware of Paul’s conversion and we are aware that a number of years passed (which would be consistent with fact that time was spent preparing the the Twelve) before he began a very public ministry.

    Certainly he is recognized as an apostle by Peter and the others at the Council of Jerusalem, and he equally recognized them in the same way.

    He was given the same authority as the others but pointed in a slightly different direction. My understanding is that he visited and wrote to the Jews in any locale where he went or wrote BEFORE he visited or wrote to the Gentiles in that same place. Except for the Letter to the Hebrews which is specifically written to the Jews, all Paul’s letters start with an appeal to a Jewish audience before moving on to the larger Christian community. This is consistent with Acts where he visits the Jewish community and the synagogue (if it exists) before making a case to the Gentiles.

    If I were to point to an apostle who arrived in an extraordinary way, I would point to Matthias who was chosen by lot by Peter.

    There are also some “apostles” named in scripture for which there is no reference to who made them apostles or how they became that way (eg, no indication of divine intervention, being picked by lot, or some other method).

    Barnabas Acts 14:14
    Silas Acts 15:40, 1Thes 1:1, 2:6
    Timothy 1Thes 1:1, 2:6
    Apollos 1Cor 4:9

    What the list above has in common is Paul.

    Lastly, there are missionaries who evangelized countries or lands and they are recognized as apostles, St Patrick (Ireland) and St Francis Xavier (India) being good examples thereof. Of the list noted by Paul and the apostolic missionaries, it is recognized that they did not write canonically, but then neither did most of the Twelve.

  21. Tim, I just printed off your (massive) article. I’ll do some reading and then bounce some ideas off of you. Had a question for you (Donald, Mark, or anyone else). It seems that Peter lays down the necessary criteria for being an apostle in Acts 1:21-22:

    Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.

    The Apostle Paul was one born in an untimely fashion (1 Cor 15:8), so it seems that the requirements are slighly different for him. Do you see Acts 1 as generally limiting to those who would hold the office of the Apostle? Further, do you think that the designation apostle can be used of people in a more general sense, but not in the narrow, official sense?

    Thanks for the conversation.

  22. @ Mark #19:

    Have there been any Catholic theologians who esposed similar views?

    I don’t know whether any Catholic has directly linked the two but I suspect someone along the line has. My recent article on Holy Orders links the presbyters with the 70 in a round-about way. Interesting side note – St. Augustine read 72 and linked the 72 with the mystery of the Trinity – (three 24 hour days = 72) whereas St. Cyril of Alexandria read 70 and linked it with the 70 elders in Exodus 24.

    I am less certain it explains the origin of the Presbyterate-which seems to be a recognized order in the Jerusalem church, according to Acts 15.

    I don’t understand why the order being recognized at the time of the Jerusalem council conflicts with the theory that the presbyterate arose from ‘the seventy.’ Can you clarify?

  23. Tim P. –

    Good question. This is an enigma! One theory is that the term “Apostle” has two senses – one meaning exactly: ‘the twelve’ and another meaning something broader like “the Apostolic office,” which technically could apply to any bishop. This would mean that St. Matthias was a replacement of “one of the twelve” and an Apostle in the first sense and St. Paul (and Sts. Barnabas et al) were Apostles of the second type.

    Alternatively, if “type 1” meant something more than just the literal twelve (e.g. if it were inclusive of a direct sending from Jesus Christ as an Apostle) then perhaps it would include the eleven + St. Paul and then St. Matthias would be grouped with St. Barnabas et al.

    If either of those theories are true, then the Church did come to drop the “second sense” of the word ‘Apostle’ eventually. It stopped calling any bishops Apostles. But she always refers to St. Paul as an apostle; she never stopped that. Therefore the second division (that the first sense belongs to those sent directly by Christ) is the more likely because it was the first sense of the word that remained in usage and St. Paul belonged to that group according to the second proposed division.

    ‘Apostle’ also may simply be a missionary bishop.

    So the term apostolos occurs 81 times according to Bruder’s concordance. 70 of those occurances are used by either Sts. Paul or Luke. Harnack used that information to conclude that the term originated among Pauline missionary circles. At that time, the term was used among the Jews to designate messengers between the synagogues of the dispersion and the high priest in Jerusalem. According to Harnack, Saul was likely acting as one such “Jewish apostle” on his way to Damascus. Fascinating stuff.

  24. Hi, Tim

    It doesn’t conflict, necessarily. What I had in mind was the NT account of the origins of the diaconate. Whatever questions Scripture raises about the function of this office, beyond its commission to oversee an equitable distribution to Church’s hellenistic-Jewish members, it origins have a historicity beyond dispute. Because the NT is silent concerning the origin of the Presbyterate, rooting it in 70 disciples is by comparison more speculative.

    Having said that, the theory has alot going for it. Hooker recognized the problem that twelve men would have faced in teaching and administering the sacraments to a church that had taken in upward of three thousand souls on Pentecost. So he saw in the 70 disciples a ready-made presbyterate who could perform these tasks, as apostolically- appointed delegates.

    A.M Farrer goes even further; the typology of the 70 disciples with the seventy men of the elders of Israel, mentioned in Num 11, was particularly strinking for Farrer; since the latter, in addition to their assisting Moses in the miraculous feast of the quails, were also responsible to deal with the mixed multitude. He writes:

    “The aposotolate of the Twelve might have sufficed a Jewish Church; it was a world-wide mission that made the presbyterate indispensible. To this agrees the significant number seventy. The Twelve are tribal princes, who, sitting on their twelve thrones, judge the twelve tribes of Israel. The Seventy are apportioned to the seventy nations commonly reckoned by rabbinic learning, for whom the Seventy Interpreters had already made the Scriptures available.”

    Harnack’s theory is new to me and fascinating. Does Harnack connect it in any way with the pre-Christian insitution of the Shaliach?

  25. Peter’s decision involved replacing Judas in early Acts, and he chose from those who had been “numbered among us.”

    Peter is also the individual who is given the task of receiving the Gentiles into the Church. I suspect that he had arrived at a place in his life where, should God surprise him, he generally came along obediently.

    It is certain that he recognized Paul and equally certain that Paul recognized Peter, who is the single member of the original Twelve who is most named by Paul and is recognized by Paul as one of the pillars of the Church. Peter is also one of those who get the task Paul gives to the Church in Jerusalem due to the on-going dispute over requiring Jewish works of the Law be applied to Gentiles. Peter had the vision in Chapter 10 of Acts followed by the visit to Cornelius’ household and his realization that salvation had a much wider scope than the Jews. It is Peter who noted that the Jews were unable to bear the weight of the Law and it should not be placed on the Gentiles.

    It is Peter’s speech at the Council of Jerusalem which vindicates Paul. Everything after that is an agreement with Peter’s position as given by God.

    Peter is so dynamic that when he fails, as avoiding the Gentiles at meals, that Paul feels the need to correct him. (What occurred from that correction is not noted.)

    Peter notes Paul in 2nd Peter 3:15-16 where he calls Paul his brother and recognizes the wisdom given to Paul by God.

    I think Peter’s choice of Matthias is one item, which stands by itself. Peter’s recognition of Paul (and back) is another item, which is defined by the recognition and relationship between them in their mutual service to Jesus.

    Do I know who will be manning the gates of Heaven? Eleven plus Matthias? Eleven plus Paul? Added gates? Not a clue. I would note that this particular train of thought takes me back to my Protestant days when we engaged in a lot of relatively idle speculation about things that will be resolved and revealed to me, should I have the privilege of access through one of those gates.

    On a personal note, Peter is my favorite. Perhaps this is due to having similar limitations on a personality level? I do recognize that John is the “beloved disciple,” and that Saul/Paul is the most educated of the Scriptural era apostles based on what is written. I have a keen appreciation for all of them, because they brought the Good News through time to me, in their own acts of obedience borne of love of God and neighbor.


  26. Mark,

    The theory makes sense.

    One thing I forgot to mention is that St. Matthias was traditionally one of the seventy as was Sts. Barnabas and Linus (according to some late lists). I believe Sts. Clement and Mark were also among them if I remember correctly.

    On the connection with the office of ‘shaliach,’ I am not sure about Harnack but I’m inclined to think he did make some connection. Ehrhardt (again if memory serves) rejected the connection between ‘shaliach’ and ‘apostolos’ but I can’t remember his reasons. I can check when I get home.

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