To what extent is there a "Search for Paul"? I am curious as to what historical evidence there is of Paul's life outside of his writings and, particularly, what skeptics have to say about what motivated Paul if he was not, indeed, divinely inspired.
Your question is very perceptive. Christianity derives a considerable part of its doctrinal content from the writings of the Apostle Paul. In the early 1800s, some scholars, especially in Germany, attempted to deny the Pauline authorship of the writings attributed to him. However, the evidence for Paul's historical existence and the consistency of the presentation of thought in his writings have convinced the majority of modern scholars that there was indeed an Apostle Paul and that he is responsible for the writings attributed to him. Today, some scholars object to crediting certain of these writings to Paul on various grounds, but there is little discussion about the historicity of the Apostle Paul and the profound impact of his ministry on the development of Christian theology.
Some of the more convincing evidence for the Apostle Paul's existence is found in the following ancient literature. Clement of Rome cites Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth (c. 95 C.E.). Irenaeus (140-202 C.E.) cites Paul in his work "Against Heresies." There is also a description of Paul's physical appearance in the apocryphal work "Acts of Paul and Thecla." Then, of course, there is Peter's reference to Paul in 2 Peter 3:15 and Luke's discussion of Paul's ministry in the book of Acts.
Many of the same German scholars who sought the "historical Paul" also attempted to understand the motivating force behind his writings. Some saw Paul's work as an attempt to Hellenize, or create a Greek expression of, Christianity. Others saw Paul's motivation for his work deriving from his conviction that before the Jewish people would come to accept Jesus, the gentiles must first be won. Others have sought to identify various unifying elements within his writings that provided the foundational starting point for all his work. However, no argument to date is as satisfactory as the most obvious one: Paul was called by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit to transmit many of the most profound theological revelations ever made known to humanity.
What was your honest opinion of the recent telecast on ABC about Jesus? Do you think it is right to participate in this debate [with Jesus Seminar scholars] in order to support the Bible, or do you think that to participate lends credence to otherwise irrelevant comments from unbelievers?
I thought the telecast was very one-sided and unfortunately heavily influenced by the Jesus Seminar. They totally ignored the material alluded to in my column, along with a vast field of conservative scholarship that gives tremendous credence to the accuracy and historicity of the Gospel accounts.
However, I do believe it is necessary to participate in the debate because, as the Apostle Peter commands us, "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15).
It is always better to seize the opportunity to present the evangelical and biblical alternative, lest some suppose that there are not credible answers to critics' questions.
What did Jesus do during the three days between his crucifixion and his resurrection? Did he preach in hell?
You have asked one of the most difficult questions Bible interpreters face. There are four "plausible" understandings of 1 Peter 3:18-20: "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit. By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water." They have been summarized in a study Bible that I helped prepare years ago. That summary is as follows: "This passage is one of the most difficult to interpret in the Bible, there being more than ninety variations of interpretations attempted by Christian scholars since the second century.
Generally, however, these may be reduced to four plausible understandings: (1) Jesus descended into hades (the realm of the dead) between His crucifixion and resurrection to proclaim judgment upon those condemned in the Old Testament period.(2) Jesus descended to tartarus (the place of confinement for fallen angels) to proclaim judgment on fallen angels. (3) Jesus descended into a realm of hades known as paradise in which Old Testament saints were held until the atonement could actually be accomplished. The preaching would be the message of the finished atonement on Golgotha. (4) The Spirit of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:11) preached through Noah concerning impending judgment to the disobedient spirits of men in the antediluvian (pre-flood) civilization. The latter two views are the more popular among evangelicals and are the most feasible. The third view offers an explanation of Ephesians 4:8-9, to the effect that Christ descended to the lower parts of the earth and led captivity captive (a reference to the loosing of Old Testament saints). The fourth view better explains the specific mention of the antediluvians and their disobedience. It is in accord with Peter's assessment of Noah as a `preacher of righteousness' of Jesus from the cross, `Today shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43) and `Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit' (Luke 23:46)." (Criswell Study Bible, pp. 1454-1455).
My own personal understanding is that the fourth view is the most plausible.