St. Paul may be known as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” but his high ideals make him an apostle for believers today, too.
When you ask Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor why he studies St. Paul, you get a simple, down-to-earth answer: “He gave me my start, and that got me my job.” The start was a doctoral thesis on Paul’s approach to preaching, which eventually landed Murphy-O’Connor a position at Jerusalem’s prestigious École Biblique, where he has taught New Testament for the past 40 years while lecturing on every corner of the globe as well.
But if Paul got Murphy-O’Connor in the door, the Dominican priest has repaid the apostle in spades, writing a dozen books about Paul for both scholars and general readers.
Though he refers to Paul as “the theologian in the New Testament most relevant to the church today,” Murphy-O’Connor also appreciates Paul’s weaknesses: “I think Paul’s personality was a difficult one,” he says. “He could be very self-absorbed, but he saw that as total dedication to his mission.“
You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get something out of Paul, argues Murphy-O’Connor. “People only need an expert like me for historical details or colorful background,” he says. “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they’re perfectly capable of discerning religious truth themselves.”
Despite Paul’s importance, few know much about his life. What do we know about Paul?
We have two sources for Paul’s biography: the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters. The first two chapters of Galatians tell us that Paul was a convert, spent three years in Damascus, had an important encounter with Peter, and then went off on his own missionary way.
Scholars call him Paul “of Tarsus,” in modern Turkey. Was he really from there?
I don’t think so. There’s an important text by St. Jerome that says Paul was actually born in a small village in northern Galilee called Gischala. His family was swept up by the Romans after a rebellion following the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. Romans sold prisoners as slaves to cover the costs of war. Paul’s family would have been sold to slave dealers, who would have taken their catch up and down the Mediterranean coast. Paul’s family happened to be sold in Tarsus.
So Paul was a slave?
Yes, but how long that lasted we don’t know. Slaves were not usually kept into old age. At around 35 or 40 they were released, because they would be eating more than they were producing. We don’t know how old Paul was when he and his parents were freed, though he was probably a young man.
Paul’s writing shows a lot of education. How could a slave have gotten so much schooling?
Slaves were often educated because that made them more valuable. It was cheaper and more secure to have your own slave manage your estate.
Modern readers associate slavery in the first century with slavery in the American South. There is absolutely no comparison. Slaves in the South were considered simple laborers, whereas in the ancient world, slaves could become very rich. Slaves could have their own slaves.
How did Paul end up in Jerusalem?
As a Jew Paul really didn’t have much chance of progressing up the social ladder in Tarsus, so after he finished his education at about age 20, he might have done what many American Jews do today: go to Jerusalem to seek his roots.
In Jerusalem Paul had to make a choice between the different Jewish sects. There wasn’t much political ferment at that time, about 15 A.D. The Zealots, who fought Roman occupation, didn’t exist yet. The Sadducees, the priestly party, looked for wealthy conservative people and would have had no interest in Paul. The ascetic Essenes, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, avoided Jerusalem and lived in Qumran and in towns and villages.
That left the Pharisees, and Paul tells us explicitly that he became one. He would have lived in Jerusalem as a Pharisee until his conversion about 33 A.D., so he spent the best part of 15 years there.
He would have been there at the time of Jesus?
Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in the year 30, and Paul could have crossed his path. But I doubt if they ever even heard of each other. Jesus was not very successful in Jerusalem, and even on the day he was crucified, the streets would have been swarming with people preparing for Passover. It’s very unlikely that Paul or anyone else had time to pay attention to a small execution party.
Why did Paul start persecuting Christians?
The Acts of the Apostles says that Paul was sent as an official prosecutor by the Jerusalem authorities to seek out Christians, though Paul himself says he did it purely out of zeal for the law. Paul believed, as all Jews did, that history was divided into the period of the law and the period of the Messiah. Once the Messiah came, there would be no need for the law. For Paul it was an either/or situation.
But these Christians, who were all Jews, were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and were continuing to observe the law. Christians obviously saw it as a both/and situation, which Paul could not accept. He believed the Christians were in error, and it was his duty to bring them back to the truth.
But Paul’s persecution would have been purely verbal. He had no right to arrest or execute Christians, as Acts suggests; under the Romans the authority of the high priest was limited to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. All Paul could do was harass Christians, try to trick them into prayers for the coming of the Messiah, which would deny that Jesus was the Messiah.
What happened to Paul on the way to Damascus?
He obviously had an experience that changed his life, but we really don’t know the details. Acts gives specifics, but Paul merely tells us that it was similar to what happened to Mary Magdalene and to Peter after the Resurrection.
The end result was that Paul was convinced that the Jesus he knew was crucified was in fact alive and was the Messiah.
And suddenly he became a preacher, not just a believer?
Paul understood his experience as a commission. When he was persecuting Christians, it was on an either/or basis. Jesus cannot possibly be the Messiah, therefore it is the time of the law, and we have to obey the law. But Paul came to believe that Jesus was alive. Therefore Jesus must be the Messiah. Paul’s either/or approach now flip-flopped, which meant the law was irrelevant.
That also meant for Paul that salvation was not limited to the Jews. Before it was available only through the law. If Gentiles wanted it, they had to become Jews. Paul’s interpretation is that salvation is now open to Gentiles because Jesus has taken the place of the law as the touchstone of salvation.
It was typical of Paul’s effervescent personality to react immediately, so he rushed off to find the nearest pagans, who were in Arabia—northern Jordan or southern Syria—though he wasn’t successful there.
If Paul didn’t know Jesus or his message, what was he preaching?
He was preaching Jesus as the Messiah, and that would imply that Jesus was Lord and Son of God.
How did Paul understand those titles?
“Son of God” was used in the Old Testament, though not as a divine being. The angels were called sons of God, for example, which meant they were simply at God’s service.
“Lord” is a title of authority, and Jesus was given that title. He didn’t possess it by right though, because for Paul Jesus was simply a human being, though a perfect one. He was alive, whereas the rest of humanity was dead. That is why he was able to save humanity: Being alive, he was able to transform those who were dead spiritually into those who were alive spiritually.
Paul had no sense at all of the divinity of Christ. It’s not that he denied it, he just never thought of Christ in those terms. Jesus was the new Adam and therefore the perfect image of what God desired humanity to be.
Were Jesus’ teachings important to Paul?
It took time for Paul to really appreciate Jesus as an individual. I think he would have had a genuine curiosity as soon as he met Peter. That’s the only topic that would have really interested him, to know exactly what this man, Jesus of Nazareth, had been like. He knew him perfectly well as Savior and Lord, but not what he did, what he looked like, how he acted, what he said. I think he learned an awful lot from Peter.
But I think Paul focused much more intensely on who Jesus was and drew out the implications. He is the one who formulates a theology, who gives us an interpretation of history.
Paul may have understood who Jesus was more clearly than Jesus himself, because he had much more time to reflect on it. He really saw the birth of the Messiah as a defining moment in history. I think Paul was much more focused on interpreting the event that was Jesus.
Can you give an example?
Paul writes a lot about Jesus’ Crucifixion because he realized that a dead Messiah was a problem. For Jews death was punishment for sin; it was not a part of God’s plan. If humanity had not sinned, they would have lived forever.
But Jesus, being the Messiah, was not a sinner; therefore he should not have died. Paul’s solution was to say that if Jesus did in fact die, then it was because he chose to die.
But Paul went a step further: If Jesus died in this particular way, namely by crucifixion, then he must have chosen to die that way, which forced Paul then to ask why Jesus chose such a horrible death. The only answer can be that it was an act of love; this was the measure of the love Jesus had for sinful humanity. That’s why Galatians says, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20).
When Paul rejected the law, was he rejecting morality in general?
When Paul became a Christian, the Jewish law became irrelevant. If Jewish converts to Christianity continued to circumcise their children, fine, but it didn’t make any difference. If they wanted to abstain from pork, fine, but it had no relevance to salvation.
At a later stage, however, Paul realized that any type of law in a Christian community would tend to take over and become an end in itself because it is much easier to obey a list of precepts than to follow Christ. There’s a tendency to switch your attention from Christ to the list. At that stage Paul became radically anti-law. Law as such has no place in the Christian church.
Does that mean people are free to do what they want?
No, it doesn’t. For Paul there was a new law: the person of Christ. Christians were to act as other Christs. The difficulty is knowing what Christ would have done in different circumstances. That’s why Paul’s model of morality is very burdensome; you’re never quite sure you’re doing the right thing. You are doing it with your fingers crossed.
Paul must have had a lot of confidence in people.
Not really, but he wanted them to try it. You can see it in his attitude toward the Galatians on one hand and the Corinthians on the other.
Paul had done his standard thing with the Galatians, gave them a few indications of how to love your neighbor and then left them to work it out for themselves. They refused to do it because they were afraid to be wrong. They found themselves in the middle of a minefield with just a couple of candles, and they couldn’t see where the mines were, so they were paralyzed by prudence.
That’s why they listened to the Judaizers—Christians proclaiming the law—because that gave them a whole bundle of searchlights. The law has 613 precepts; it covers all the details. Paul has no patience with the Galatians.
The Corinthians, on the other hand, were delighted to accept the challenge to work it out for themselves, and in their enthusiasm they got a lot of it horribly wrong. But Paul doesn’t condemn them; he shows them where they went wrong and points them in the right direction. But he wouldn’t lay out a new law, because he found that completely contradictory.
For Paul a new law would impose goodness by compulsion, which of course has no value. Goodness has to be freely chosen and actively lived.
In a way Paul’s form of Christianity was extremely idealistic, and that’s why it didn’t last.
Did preaching to Gentiles start with Paul?
It was definitely a paradigm shift, but whether Paul initiated it is an open question. He certainly did it, but I have the impression that Barnabas, whom we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, came to the same conclusion as Paul did: If Jesus is the Messiah, then the law is irrelevant. Barnabas seems to have been carrying on that sort of mission completely independently of Paul. But we know a lot more about Paul because we have his letters.
To whom did Paul preach?
Jews were not excluded, but they didn’t respond. For them Jesus was just a false Messiah. But Gentiles who were attracted by monotheism and associated themselves with the synagogue, the “god-fearers,” would have been an ideal audience for Paul. Though not Jews, they would have heard about the Old Testament and would have known the stories and the prophecies.
Others were attracted for reasons unique to their situation. In Corinth some people knew themselves to be more important than society recognized. Prisca and Aquila, for example, were tentmakers, a very important business. They were making good money but were looked down upon because they were Jews and foreigners. Phoebe, who was wealthy enough to patronize the whole church at Cenchrae, was still only a woman.
For these people the story of Jesus resonated. He was the savior of the world but had been executed as a criminal.
Why did Paul write letters?
Paul only wrote when there was a problem in one of his communities, and all of his letters are highly specific responses to particular situations. That was a problem in the early church because the problems of Corinth are the problems of Corinth, and they’re not replicated anywhere else. Certain scribes even tried to eliminate the particularity by taking out the name of Rome in the Letter to the Romans or Corinth in First and Second Corinthians to give the impression that they were written to the church at large.
It was only toward the end of the first century that Christians at large realized that Paul’s solutions to problems were based on general principles of universal value. They began to collect the letters precisely for that reason.
Did Paul write all the letters attributed to him?
I’m more optimistic than most scholars. I think that only three letters are inauthentic: Ephesians, First Timothy, and Titus. Others would say that Second Timothy and Colossians were also written by someone else, but I think Paul wrote those two, as well as a letter to the Laodiceans that is buried in Ephesians.
Women seem to have played a major role in Paul’s ministry.
I think women were fully equal in the Pauline communities. Paul simply takes it for granted. You certainly have women leading house churches. Prisca and her husband, Aquila, are an example. Phoebe led the church of the town of Cenchrae, and Euodia and Syntyche in Phillipi would have been heads of individual house churches.
Women rose to the very top in the Pauline churches, and that would have been considered scandalous. That’s why in First Timothy and Titus, which Paul did not write, women are ordered not to teach men. Women are unfortunately demoted back to second-class citizens.
I think the idea was that Christians would make more converts if they weren’t too different from society. If they got a reputation for being a bunch of weirdos because they gave women full equality and even obeyed them, no one would want to join. You can make it look very reasonable. That’s why I say the idealism of the Pauline church didn’t really survive the death of Paul.
Could any of Paul’s churches live up to his ideal image?
Probably not. Paul expected a lot, but then he had a sense of humor about it. In Philippians he says anyone who thinks he’s perfect is a mess, or words to that effect. But whereas we tend to lower our standards to meet our abilities, Paul was prepared to live with a sense of failure, of not having achieved what he knew to be the truth.
He couldn’t live up to what he was preaching himself?
I think the “thorn in the flesh” Paul writes about was that he could never look back at a community and say it was perfect. That’s what kept him humble.
Paul can give us a lesson there. One of our 21st-century failures is that no one wants to use the word failure. Paul was quite happy to admit failure because it was a spur to do better.
We’ve become too pragmatic. There’s too much stress on what we can achieve and too little on what we should achieve. Paul is the idealist who keeps everyone disturbed. He sets the bar high, I would say almost impossibly high, given human nature. But if we had a genuine Pauline community where everyone works to support everyone else, who knows what we could achieve.