Ask a Scholar

Paul and the Gentiles by Davina C. Lopez

Q. When Paul refers to his message to the Gentiles as "my gospel,” can we infer that his message is distinct from that preached by Peter, James, John, etc.?

A. The reader asks an important question that calls attention to the fact that there are many factors to consider when we engage biblical materials: the primary texts themselves, their ancient contexts, and their appropriation across time and cultures. In this respect, the Pauline epistles have an especially rich set of traditions with which interested readers must contend.

For example, many Pauline concepts, such as “law,” “grace,” “faith,” and “works,” have been shaped by longstanding debates between Protestants and Catholics and by European Christian conceptions of Jews and Judaism. It’s important to note that the origins of biblical scholarship itself are rooted in German Protestantism. As a result, there has been a scholarly tradition of separating Paul and his “gospel” out from the Jerusalem apostles, namely Peter, James, and John.

According to this tradition, Paul and the Jerusalem apostles are oppositional forces to one another, with different sources of inspiration for their theologies and actions. Herein the main difference is that the “Jerusalem gospel” requires full Torah observance by Jews and Gentiles alike, whereas the “Pauline gospel” does not require Torah observance by Gentiles. This particular reconstruction has been the subject of much debate in contemporary scholarship.

For better or for worse, interpreting Paul’s gospel and/or mission to the Gentiles as completely separate than, and opposed to, the gospel and/or mission to Israel may obscure what the biblical evidence suggests: that the apostles were all Jewish; that they were all interested in spreading a message of “good news” about Jesus to as many people as possible throughout the Roman empire regardless of ethnic affiliation; and that they had different means of doing so.

This is not to say that Paul never invokes “my gospel” as a term in his letters (see especially Rom 2:16 and Rom 16:25), nor that he never had profound disagreements with Peter, James, and John (see Gal 2 and Acts 15 for different takes on these differences). It is also true that Paul uses language that suggests he had opponents (for example, in Gal 1 he curses other gospels and their proponents as anathema), or at least wanted to convince his listeners that he had opponents who were, as in the Corinthian correspondence, threatening his efficacy as a missionary (see his self-defense in 2Cor 10-13).

Overall, however, according to the New Testament evidence and perhaps contrary to tradition, we do not have much reason to suspect that Paul had a fundamentally different gospel than the Jerusalem apostles. Importantly, the nature of the evidence is rhetorical—that is, Paul writes to persuade the recipients of his letters to particular ends. It may very well be that Paul’s attempts to convince his addressees about the danger or inadequacy of opposing views serves the argumentative function of giving more credence to his own position among those who may not have been convinced.

Whether Paul’s own rhetoric on the issue does indeed reflect a social and historical reality of opposition between Paul and Jerusalem is underexplored in contemporary scholarship. That said, the vast and varied history of interpretation of Paul’s rhetoric about his life, mission, and agenda has served many ends to many communities, including those that benefit from the binaries of exclusivity over inclusivity.

Davina C. Lopez, "Paul and the Gentiles", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Davina C. Lopez

Davina C. Lopez
Professor of Religious Studies and core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies, Eckerd College

Davina C. Lopez is Professor of Religious Studies and core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida. A scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity with research interests in Pauline studies, Roman imperial art and literature, and theory and method in the study of religion, she is the author of Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Fortress, 2008) and coauthor, with Todd Penner, of De-introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley, 2015).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

One who embarks on a mission of good (usually religiously motivated) works, often to a distant locale.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

Relating to persuasive speech or writing.

Rom 2:16

16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Rom 16:25

Final Doxology
25Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the myster ... View more

Gal 2

Paul and the Other Apostles
1Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.2I went up in response to a revela ... View more

Acts 15

The Council at Jerusalem
1Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of M ... View more

Gal 1

1Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the de ... View more

2Cor 10-13

Paul Defends His Ministry
1I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward yo ... View more

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