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Paul the apostle

Posterity has treated Paul badly,  and the problem began early.   He found a biographer in the writer of Acts who was not equipped to present him as the person he really was,  but was still happy to compose speeches for him.   Six of the thirteen letters attributed to him in the Bible are spurious.   They were produced by people of later generations who felt they knew what Paul ought to have said.   The same sort of people also tampered with his genuine letters.   As a consequence of all that early misdirection,  later centuries have not been in a position to properly appreciate him.   Reformers and their followers have simply read him as being on their side,  whatever their particular agendas happened to be.

However things are beginning to change.   There is now a scholarly quest of the historical Paul that parallels the quest of the historical Jesus.   It has a long way to go no doubt,  but it already brings hope of better understanding.


We can't be sure that Paul came from Tarsus,  or was a Roman citizen,  because he himself doesn't offer that information.   What he does tell us is that he had been a zealous Pharisee  (Philippians 3:5),  and had gone far in his Jewish studies  (Galatians 1:14).   We learn from the quality and style of his writing that he had also absorbed a good deal from the Greek/Roman environment.   If Jesus came from the poorest of the poor among the peasants of Galilee,  Paul stood higher on the social ladder.

We are naturally interested in his so-called  'conversion',  which he himself regarded as a call and a commissioning  (Galatians 1:15,  compare Jeremiah 1:5).   Again we should rely on his own account of himself,  not the imaginative versions of the writer of Acts.   The prior question of why he was persecuting Christians at all needs to be explored against the religious and social background of the time.   The answer is not immediately obvious.   The first Christian fellowships did not abandon the Torah.   Observant Jews would not have been upset at Gentiles attending Christian worship  -  it happened in their own synagogues.   They would not even have objected to Christian Jews and Gentiles eating together,  for they themselves had regulations as to how this should be managed.   Announcing the arrival of the Messiah was a Jewish sort of thing to do,  and not inherently offensive.   Why was Paul stirred up?

The 'Roman peace' was maintained throughout the Empire not by benevolent administration but by state terrorism in which crucifixion was the ultimate terror weapon.   Anything that the authorities saw as a threat to law and order brought merciless retribution,  and executions often reached far beyond the group actually responsible.   To announce the arrival of a messiah was,  in ordinary Jewish understanding,  to fly the flag of revolution  -  and to invite reprisals.   There are several documented instances from the troubled first century.

The ever-present threat of Roman retaliation for out-of-line behaviour was compounded,  for Jews living as a minority amongst Gentiles  (as was the case in Damascus),  by the danger of doing something to antagonize the racial majority.   It didn't take much to touch off anti-Jewish riots and mob violence.

The common Jewish response,  even amongst those who ardently desired liberation,  was that their nation and its faith were best served by trying to live with the situation for the time being.   Why provoke massacres?   The present tribulation was God-sent and in time God would provide the remedy,  as the prophets had foretold.

Think of Paul,  then,  as a leader of the synagogue in Damascus,  powerfully committed to the Jewish cause.   Jewish Christian evangelists arrive and raise a storm by declaring that the Messiah has come,  albeit a crucified messiah.   Paul can make no sense of a crucified messiah,  but he can foresee the grim consequences of another outbreak of messianic propaganda,  especially when it centres on someone the Romans have already executed as a threat to law and order.   And he understands the immediate danger if the citizenry of Damascus get to hear about stirrings and disruption in the synagogue.   Being Paul,  he decides that action must be taken to nip this unfortunate development in the bud.   The application of a little violence now should diminish the threat of much worse violence to come.   This kind of scenario certainly offers a plausible explanation of Paul's vehement early opposition to Christian missionary activity.   His concern was not primarily religious,  but more a matter of prudent behaviour in a precarious social situation.

But then Paul had a mystical or visionary experience in which he saw Jesus,  the crucified,  in heavenly glory.   (Try to forget the accounts in Acts.   That writer probably had no more good information to build on than what he read in Paul's letters.   Go straight to Galatians 1:16,  1 Corinthians 9:1  and 2 Corinthians 12. The last may relate to the same or parallel events.)   Mystical probing to discover what God in heaven had in store for the earth was an accepted dimension of advanced Jewish devotion,  and Paul may have had previous experiences of the kind.   He may even have been preparing himself for revelations when all this happened.

The extraordinary thing,  for Paul and for us too,  was that Paul saw Jesus,  alive with God.   We may call it a vision,  but for Paul it was reality,  and it turned a lot of things upside-down.   It meant that Jesus had been right.   It meant that Paul's previous strategy of using measured violence to obviate greater violence was totally wrong.   It meant that Jesus had been raised from death,  even as the Christian preachers had declared,  and this had to be the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead.   It meant that God's plans for the earth were reaching a climax.   And it meant that Jesus was the Messiah.

And there were implications for Paul personally.   Through this vision he was being called and commissioned to bring the news to Gentiles.   Others had taken up that task for Jews,  but there was the whole wide Gentile world needing to know.

Paul's letters,  and especially the more orderly and reflective letter to the Romans,  help us to see how he finally tied everything together.

The problem God has  (and we have)  with this world is not just the sin that Adam's transgression introduced,  but the universal death and decay that arrived with it.   God nevertheless determined to put the wrong right,  and gave that promise to faithful Abraham in such a way that God's own integrity was henceforth on the line.   The law was later given through Moses,  not as a codification of arbitrary regulations,  but to express God's call for right living.   The arbitrary aspects of the law don't matter in the end.   The essence of the law is love,  and love does all that the law requires.   You don't have to be a Jew,  either,  to realize that this is what God asks for.

The law isn't God's final solution,  however,  because it too easily leads to the misapprehension that sticking to the rules is the sum of what God wants of us.   And we are forever focussed on the dangers and attractions of wrongdoing rather than on all the possibilities of doing well.   In that sense the realm of the law is also the realm of sin,  and we need a way around the problem.

The answer comes,  as the Abraham story already shows,  when we receive God's promise,  and trust it.   The resurrection of Jesus is that promise for Paul's own time.   Faith in the promise empowers us to live now the life of love that God asks for,  and to abandon our preoccupation with sin.   Power comes through the Spirit God grants us.   In technical language,  what God  has provided  for us  -  if we respond  -  is justification;  what God  will do  for us  -  by bringing us to share Christ's resurrection life in glory  -  is salvation.

God's integrity requires more than the face-saving of a minority response.   It must become possible to say that Israel,  and through them the world,  have returned to God.   (This is not necessarily to imply that every last individual will do so.)   The task of letting the world hear of the resurrection of Jesus as God's promise of salvation is thus an urgent one,  particularly because that event itself indicates that the time is short.

Paul is for us a high point in the early development of Christian thinking,  but he did not begin it,  and he should not be credited with,  or blamed for,  the whole of it.   'That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures'  is something he inherited  (1 Corinthians 15:3)  and although he repeats it occasionally he doesn't make a great deal of it.   Indeed,  that idea was something of a problem to him,  to the extent that it could suggest a legal imputation of righteousness only.   Paul certainly doesn't contemplate the kind of atonement theology that saturates the anonymous letter to the Hebrews.

In Jewish thinking  -  see for example Proverbs 8  -  'Wisdom' shared in God's creation.   Some Christians early began to identify Christ with God's wisdom,  which would suggest a history for him before his earthly life.   Paul is hospitable to such ideas,  for example in 1 Corinthians 8:6  and Philippians 2,  but they are not the centre of his argument.

Most of us find it impossible to live in Paul's thought-world.   To begin with,  we can't take First Testament texts as literally as he seems to have done.   We should be careful at this point,  however.   The best Jewish teachers were not as woodenly literal about their scriptures as latter-day Christians sometimes pretend to be.   They could imagine one verse having five different meanings,  with a good scholar coming along to add a sixth.   Paul's selection and interpretation of texts was dictated by what he found to be true in his own experience.   He would not have been blind to the fact that people who thought differently from him could just as easily have found scriptures to support their views.   There was an 'experimental' dimension to his religion that we can appreciate and imitate.

Another difficulty we face is that somebody else's visionary experience can never be better than secondhand for ourselves.   Certainly we ought to be respectful of their report and the conclusions they draw from their experience,  especially if we admire the quality of life that became possible for them as a result.   Their concrete existence,  as far as we know it,  may well become data for the shaping of our own lives.   Nevertheless,  as someone has said,  'the description of a dinner is not the same thing as the dinner itself'.   We are not relieved of the obligation to do our own life-building with integrity,  and to accept responsibility for what we make of ourselves.   It does need to be remembered,  too,  that mystical experiences necessarily take up the mental imagery available to the person concerned.   This may well be problematic for someone of a different time and place,  though that need not invalidate the earlier seeing.

Paul was mistaken in his belief that the end of the present age was at hand,  and God's salvation just around the corner.   And if mistaken in one thing then mistaken in any number of things.   We cannot load onto him all responsibility for leading us into the truth.   In any case,  that's not what we should expect.   Truth does not become our truth until a voice inside us confirms it.   Paul was totally engrossed in the missionary project he understood God to have entrusted him with.   He is beyond our criticism even though,  two thousand years later,  we cannot help having a different perception of God's immediate priorities.

But not everything that mattered to Paul has become problematic through the passage of time.   When he discovered that Jesus had been right all along,  a key implication for him was the supremacy of the demand for love over temptations to worldly wisdom and expediency,  and also over religious mystifications that might provide hiding-places for the unloving.   He worked this out in his absolute insistence that God's judgment is a judgment of works;  in his confrontation of wealth and privilege in Corinth;  in his passionate rejection of legalistic religion in Galatia,  in his challenge to the Gentile Christians of Rome to accept a caring responsibility for their pressured Jewish Christian neighbours;  in his affirmation of women in church leadership;   in his determination that Christian brothers cannot possibly be also master and slave.   He paid a heavy price for his commitment,  and in the end he died for what he believed.   He wrote his kind of insight and his kind of commitment into our scriptures,  something that would no doubt have surprised him greatly,  but for which we are for ever in his debt.

What of the more directly 'religious' aspects of his teaching?   He believed that energy for right living comes through hearing and trusting a pledge from the Highest.   With a little translation,  that may still appear to us as our only hopeful road into the future.

Evan Lewis

Paraphrase and notes on Romans
What Paul did NOT write 

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