Making connections with
Paul the apostle
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.