(c) 2010, Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa
Some Rights Reserved
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Lovely Stuff St. Paul Didn’t Say
". . . and the Greatest of Them is Love" . . . Really???!!!
One of the most amazing passages anyone can ever read in the Bible is found in one of St. Paul’s authentic letters, the first letter to the Corinthians. From Senén Vidal’s theoretical framework (which is the one I’m using in these series), 1 Corinthians is in reality a set of two very different letters. Vidal calls them Corinthians A and Corinthians B. Here is a reconstruction of both letters:
- Corinthians A (Fall, A.D. 52): 1 Cor 6:1-11; 10:1-22; 11:2-34; 15:1-18; 16:13-18
- Corinthians B (Spring, A.D. 53): 1 Cor. 1:1-5:13; 6:12-9:27; 10:23-11:1; 12:1-30a,14:1b-40;16:1-12,19-24
How do we know that these are two different letters? Because of the change of intensity regarding several subjects they deal with.
Cor. A deals with the cultural problems Corinthians had, especially one which had to do with the predominant social stratification which was reproduced in the small Christian community in Corinth, Acaya’s capital at the time. The relationship between members belonging to different social strata presented a big challenge to St. Paul, and resulted in different tensions in the community. The community was not fully integrated, and this was reflected in the manner in which it tried to create syncretic practices of Hellenistic life within a Christian environment. These syncretic practices apparently wanted to carry out a Eucharist ceremony mixed with some sort of libertinism, and others wanted to carry out certain prayers and practices which seem related to the gods worshipped in the area, including sexual behavior of all kinds.
Cor. B deals with the increase of synchretic practices already referred to in Cor. A. St. Paul seems to warn about serious misinterpretations of his earlier letter (Cor. A; e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9-10), or certain orders in that letter that have not been carried out properly (1 Cor. 5:9-11), or that they should not participate in pagan meals of any kind (1 Cor. 8-9:27; 10:23-11:1). There is also another concern regarding a division within the community caused by a Christian missioner called Apollo (1 Cor. 1:10-4:21), and other scandals (1 Cor. 5; 6:12-20).
However, if you take a very good look at the way Vidal reconstructed the letter, one very significant piece of 1 Corinthians seems to be missing — 1 Cor. 13. This is practically the loveliest passage you can ever find in the whole New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible. Here it is:
Though I command languages both human and angelic — if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. An though i have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all faith necessary to move mountains — if I am without love, I am nothing. Though I should give away to the poor all that I possess, and even give up my body to be burned — if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever.
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowaances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.
Love never comes to an end. But if there are prophecies, they will be done away with; if tongues, they will fall silent; and if knowledge, it will be done away with. For we know only imperfectly, and we prophesy imperfectly; but once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with. When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways. Now we see only reflections in the mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.
As it is, these remain, faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love. (1 Cor. 13)
This passage is recited again and again by very devout Christians, like the most beautiful poem about love you can ever find. For millenia, this passage has been thought as being written by St. Paul. The last verse has been called by Catholic theologians "the three cardinal virtues": faith, hope and love.
However, as much as I wish that St. Paul had written something as beautiful as this, I have to say that the evidence persuades me otherwise. Saint Paul did not write this passage.
How do we know? There are some criteria to determine if a passage is a particular later interpolation within an original writing or not. Here I am going to suggest two of them, which serious Bible scholars have used for quite a while now:
- The abrupt interruption of the original subject to talk about something else, another subject completely unrelated to the original.
- Inconsistency between the point of view presented in the passage, and the point of view of the original author of the writing.
One of the most important things we have to be aware of is that 1 Cor. 13 takes place when St. Paul talks about charisms of the Church, and then there are these "transitional verses" which create a sort of bridge between the original subject and the new unrelated one. We find these bridges at the beginning and at the end of 1 Cor. 13:
- And now I am going to put before you the best way of all (1 Cor. 12:30b)
- Make love your aim, but be eager, too, for spiritual gifts … (1 Cor. 14:1a)
What would happen if we omit these transitional verses along with the whole 1 Cor. 13? The result would be a very consistent and coherent Pauline passage about charisms (gifts of the Spirit). Let’s see if it works:
Now Christ’s body is yourselves, each of you with a part to play in the whole. And those whom God has appointed in the Church are, first Apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers; after them, miraculous powers, then gifts of healing, helpful acts, guidance, various kinds of tongues. Are all of them apostles? Or all prophets? Or all teachers? Or all miracle-workers? Do all have the gifts of healing? Do all of them speak in tongues and all interpret them? Set your mind on the higher gifts . . . especially for prophesying. Those who speak in a tongue speak to God, but not to other people, because nobody understands them; they are speaking in the Spirit and the meaning is hidden (1 Cor. 12:27-31a; 14:1b-2)
This makes a lot of sense, and 1 Cor. 13 clearly interrupts this line of reasoning. This is a very strong case of a later interpolation within 1 Corinthians.
The second evidence has to do with the consistency of the passage with St. Paul’s own points of view. For St. Paul it is clear that faith, hope and love (? ?????) are very important. However, St. Paul would not agree with the statement that love is the most important. Why is that? Because his doctrine states very, very clearly that faith is the most important factor for salvation. This is "Pauline Theology 101"! St. Paul’s theology states clearly that the love among brothers in Christ has its exclusive origin in the faith in Christ. Why? Because God and Christ have shown their love for us, and as such we should love others. Having faith in Christ (life, death, resurrection) is the origin of Christian hope (i.e. Rom. 6:5; Phil. 3:9-12), and at the same time Christian love, because it will enable a Christian to fulfill the Law, without having our mind fixed on such a "tutor". Faith leads to love, love leads to fulfilling the Law lovingly (to act according to love) (Rom. 13:8-10).
The fact that 1 Cor. 13 is an interpolation should not discourage us from holding this passage as God’s Word, revealing something about the way our spirituality should evolve, or how faith and love should relate. The only thing this means is that St. Paul did not write it.
Vidal, S. (1996). Las cartas originales de Pablo. Madrid: Editorial Trotta.
(c) 2010, Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa
Some Rights Reserved
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Perhaps one of the most popular accusations against St. Paul has to do with the fact that he "promoted" slavery. The proof of this is that if you read his letter to Philemo, you see immediately that he returns a slave to his "rightful" owner.
It is interesting to note that such attitudes of returning slaves was not unknown at the time. From the side of the Jews, we have plenty of Old Testament passages where slavery is indeed legitimized. Indeed, the majority of the passages that have to do with slavery come from the Priestly Tradition (P) in the Bible. This is a tradition made by the Jerusalem priests apparently as a response to the Yahwist-Elohist (JE) compilation that took place when Assyrians invaded the North of Israel. It is speculated that P could have originated under King Hezekiah’s rule (728-699 B.C.). Here are some passages:
The male and female slaves will come from the nations round you; from these you may purchase male and female slaves. As slaves, you may also purchase the children of aliens resident among you, and also members of their families living with you who have been born of your soil; and they will become your property, and you may leave them as a legacy to your sons after you as their perpetual possession.. These you may have for slaves; butt you will not oppress your brother-Israelites (Lev. 25:44-46).
There is more that P has to say about it:
When you buy a Hebrew slave, his service will last for six years. In the seventh year he will leave a free man without paying compensation. If he came single, he will depart single; if he came married, his wife will depart with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will depart alone. But if the slave says, "I love my master and my wife and children; I don not wish to be freed," then his master will bring him before God and then, leading him to the door or the doorpost, his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and the slave will be permanently his. If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not leave as male slaves do. If she does not please her master who intended her for himself, he must let her be bought back: he has not the right to sell her to foreigners, for this would be a breach of faith from her. If he intends her for his son, he must treat her as custom requires daughters to be treated. If he takes another wife, he must not reduce the food, clothing or conjugal rights of the first one. Should he deprive her of these three things she will leave a free woman,, without paying compensation (Ex. 21:2-11).
If someone beats his slave, male or female, and the slave dies at his hands, he must pay the penalty. But should the slave survive for one or two days, he will pay no penalty because the slave is his by right of purchase (Ex. 21:20-21).
Of course, even with such benefits, slavery itself, contrary to many historians and Bible apologists, was considered a social ill. It was an economic necessity, though, but still a social evil. This is the reason why there are so many prescriptions in the Bible which try to deal with the reality of a slave being "owned" by someone, while at the same time trying to prescribe some rules so that owners treat their slaves as "humanely" as possible. The result is a set of prescriptions where slaves are not treated "humanely" as a general rule.
This is not foreign at all during St. Paul’s own time. If anything, the Roman Empire at that time increased slave-trade exponentially as a result of Julius Caesar’s conquering Gaul. The whole system increased its overwhelming dependence on slave labor force. It was a social ill, but one very hard to get rid of.
Saint Paul, obviously, was accused of perpetuating this dark legacy both by the Jewish sacred texts and the Roman Empire. Here is a passage frequently quoted as proof of it:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are, according to human reckoning, your masters, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ: not only when you are under their eye, as if you had only to please human beings, but as slaves of Christ who wholeheartedly do the will of God. Work willingly for the sake of the Lord and not for the sake of human beings. Never forget that everyone, whether a slave or a free man, will be rewarded by the Lord for whatever work he has done well.
And those of you who are employers, treat your slaves in the same spirit; do without threats, and never forget that they and you have the same Master in heaven and there is no favoritism with him (Ephesians 5:5-9).
For all practical purposes, this passage reveals much of the same tensions we find in the Old Testament regarding slavery. However reluctant the author of this passage is regarding slavery, we can find here a form of perpetuity of slavery.
Yet, as we have seen in Part II and Part III, the letter to the Ephesians is not a letter written by St. Paul, but was written much, much later, by a member of his school, many years after he died.
So, what we are left with is, what were St. Paul’s real views on slavery? Let’s say in advance that the tensions we have mentioned here may be the same ones we find in St. Paul. He recognizes the essential evil of slavery, but at the same time it is difficult for him to propose non-slavery due to the necessary requirement of slavery within that system.
However, here is a hint of what he really thinks about the subject:
There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female– for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
The Letter to Philemo
The Letter to Philemo was originally written while St. Paul was in prison in Ephesus (Spring of A.D. 54). People who are often malicious and want to see in St. Paul all the sources of evils in Christianity, want to see this letter as legitimizing slavery. Yet, if you take a very good look at it, it is nothing of the sort. He wants to operate within the slavery system, but to free a slave. This is a mediation by St. Paul, using his position as an Apostle, in order to ask a Christian owner to be in tune with Christ’s own spirit, and free his slave so that he can serve Christ freely.
Since, it is a very short letter, I’m going to reproduce it here in its entirety. Read it, and you’ll realize how beautiful it is.
From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and from our brother Timothy; to our dear fellow worker Philemon, our sister Apphia, our fellow soldier Archippus and the community that meets in your house. Grae and the peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God, mentioning you in my prayers, because I hear of the love and the faith which you have for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s holy people. I pray that your fellowship in faith may come to expression in full knowledge of all the good we can do for Christ. I have received much joy and encouragement by your love; you have set the hearts of God’s holy people at rest.
Therefore, although in Christ I have no hesitations about telling you what your duty is, I am rather appealing to your love, being what I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner in Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for a child of mine, whose father I became while wearing these chains: I mean Onesimus. He was of no use to you before, but now he is useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him back to you–that is to say, sending you my own heart. I should have liked to keep him with me; he could have been a substitute for you, to help me while I am in the chains that the gospel has brought me. However, I did not want to do anything without your consent; it would have been forcing your act of kindness, which should be spontaneous.
I suppose you have been deprived of Onesimus for a time, merely so that you could have him back for ever, no longer as a slave, but something much better than a slave, a dear brother; especially dear to me, but how much more to you, both on the natural plane and in the Lord. So if you grand me any fellowship with yourself, welcome him as you would me; if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, put it down to my account. I am writing this in my own hand: I, Paul, shall pay it back–I make no mention of a further debt, that you owe your very self to me!
Well then, my brother, I am counting on you, in the Lord; set my heart to rest, in Christ. I am writing with complete confidence in your compliance, sure that you will do even more than I ask.
There is another thing: will you get a place ready for me to stay in? I am hoping through prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, a prisoner with me in Christ Jesus, sends his greetings; so do my fellow-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
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Did Saint Paul Hate Women?
I consider myself a feminist, but give me a break! Give me a quarter for every time I have had read or heard feminists complaining against St. Paul ad nauseam. Sometimes, it gets to the point of outright demonization of the guy. In the best of cases, they say that St. Paul was "ambiguous" regarding women.
The extreme way of dealing with this is what I call the "tabloid approach": "Was St. Paul gay?!" Yes, "tabloid" because that is the basic question every show-business news-reporter asks about famous artists. "Is Tom Cruise gay? Is Megan Fox lesbian?" I reply: "Who cares? Get a life!" Apparently these people have nothing more intelligent to ask.
Of course, there is an academic version of this, of academics who ask if St. Paul is gay or not. There is also an element that GLBTT communities have asked this question. I have nothing against the GLBTT communities, and I am in favor of gay marriage … but please, to further your cause you don’t have to make everyone famous in history gay. Sometimes, if I show signs that the person in question is more probably not gay, then the answer I receive from some of them is the annoying "you never know". Please, leave that kind of answer to the X-Files and the Twilight Zone, and out of historiography!
Why would he be gay? They argue, because St. Paul was celibate (1 Cor. 7:8), complained about a "thorn on my flesh" constantly bothering him (2 Cor. 12:7-10), and that he supposedly "hated women". Wow! I don’t know if this sort of question will ever help the GLBTT community by spreading the false stereotype that gay men hate women, and that lesbians hate men. Such stereotypes serve little to history or historiographical research about anyone, much less St. Paul, and they definitely do not serve to advance GLBTT causes.
But, where is the evidence that St. Paul hated women? Well, the passages are not difficult to find. Take, for instance, this passage:
But I should like you to understand that
the head of every man is Christ,
the head of woman is man,
and the head of Christ is God.
For any man to pray or to prophesy with his head covered shows disrespect for his head. And for a woman to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered shows disrespect for her head; it is exactly the same as if she had her hair shaved off. Indeed, if a woman does go without a veil, she would have her hair cut off too; but if it is a shameful thing for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, then she should wear veil. But for a man it is not right to have his head covered, since he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory, but woman is the reflection of man’s glory. For man did not come from woman; no, woman came from man; nor was man created for the sake of man: and this is why it is right for a woman to wear on her head a sign of the authority over her, because of the angels.
Decide for yourselves: does it seem fitting that a woman should pray to God without a veil? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but when a woman has long hair, it is her glory? After all her hair was given to her to be a covering.
If anyone wants to be contentious, I say that we have no such custom, nor do any of the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11: 3-10; 13-16).
Geez! Now that sounds discouraging and degrades our view of St. Paul. We could show further evidence:
As in all churches of God’s holy people, women are to remain quiet in the assemblies, since they have no permission to speak: theirs is a subordinate part, as the Law itself says. If there is anything they want to know, they should ask their husbands at home: it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly. Do you think that you are the source of the word of God? Or that you are the only people to whom it has come? (1 Cor. 14: 33b-36).
Ouch! There is more!
During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful. I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin. Nevertheless, she will be saved by child-bearing, provided she lives a sensible life and is constant in faith and love and holiness (1 Tim. 2: 11-15).
And last, but not least:
Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since, as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church is subject to Chris , so should wives be to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy by washing her in cleansing water with a form of words, so that when he took the Church to himself she would be glorious, with no speck of wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless (Eph. 5:22-27)
Maybe there is no passage that subordinates women to men than this passage! In this article, though, I wish to make a daring claim: St. Paul did not hate women, had deep respect for them, and he encouraged women leadership. After all the evidence I just presented, is there any possibility to rehabilitate St. Paul in such a way? On trial he should be condemned for misogyny … an open and shut case! Is it?
The Case of the Post-Pauline Letters
There is a problem taking some of these passages as expressing St. Paul’s real opinion on women, especially when some of the letters quoted above were not written by him. This is the case of the post-pauline letters. These are letters in the corpus paulinum which scholars, for different reasons, consider that were not written by St. Paul, but made later by members of the communities he established.
There are different criteria to determine the difference between the post-pauline and genuine letters. The history of how these letters were adopted shows that at the very beginning, when they appeared, they were not considered genuine by Christians in the first-place. For example, during the second century, only ten letters of the corpus paulinum were considered genuine letters, with the exclusion of 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews. By the end of that century 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were included, but Hebrews was still excluded. It was not until the third century that Hebrews was integrated to the corpus paulinum, first in the Eastern Churches, then in the West. By this history, we should take into consideration the fact that 1 and 2 Timothy were excluded in the first-place, which means that they were not considered genuine Pauline letters by Christians of the first half of the second century.
There are other indicators that 1 and 2 Timothy were not written by St. Paul. First, the style is completely different, and reflects the reality of the end of first century and beginning the second century C.E. For instance, 2 Timothy makes an explicit reference to the Gnostics, a group that did not exist until the second century C.E., which places 1 and 2 Timothy’s composition in that same century:
My dear Timothy, take great care of all that has been entrusted to you. Turn away from the godless philosophical discussions and the contradictions of the ‘knowledge’ [gnóseos: ???????] which is not knowledge at all; by adopting this, some have missed the goal of faith. Grace be with you (1 Tim. 6:20-21).
This means one very important thing: the opinion we find in 1 Timothy about women shutting up is not St. Paul’s opinion, but that of some of his communities long after he died.
The same happens with the Letter to the Ephesians. If we notice the letters to Colossians and Ephesians, which came from one sole source, they deal with a growing problem of the Christian churches at the very end of the first century C.E. There is already a growing influence of proto-gnostic groups, especially the radical dualist views on God and the cosmos, and extreme ascetic practices. Look, for instance at these passages: Col. 2:8, 18, 23. Ephesians builds on the worries of Colossians, and both letters elaborate a conception of the Cosmic Christ that is an alternative theology to these proto-Gnostic groups, but consistent with much of genuine Pauline theology: Col. 2:14-15; 3:2,5-6,9-10; Eph. 2:13-16; 4:9-10,15-16; 5:8,10-11,14. Scholars have also identified an unusual vocabulary compared to the known authentic Pauline letters. This means that Ephesians does not necessarily represent St. Paul’s views either, but instead of that of his communities long after he died.
An Interloper …
Of course, even if we say that 1 Timothy says that women should shut up is not a genuine Pauline letter, there is still a problem within a genuine Pauline letter: a passage where St. Paul seems to say that women should shut up in assemblies (1 Cor. 14: 33b-36). Yet, most scholars have recognized this passage as an interpolation in the genuine text. The problem is, how do we know? Let’s look at the whole passage again, and I’ll highlight the controversial passage:
Let two prophets, or three, speak while the rest weigh their words; and if a revelation comes to someone else who is sitting by, the speaker should stop speaking. You can all prophesy, but one at a time, then all will learn something and all receive encouragement. The prophetic spirit is to be under the prophets’ control, for God is a God not of disorder but peace.
As in all the churches of God’s holy people, women are to remain quiet in the assemblies, since they have no permission to speak: theirs is a subordinate part, as the Law itself says. If there is anything they want to know, they should ask their husbands at home: it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly. Do you really think that you are the source of the word of God? Or that you are the only people to whom it has come?
Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have any spiritual powers must recognise that what I am writing to you is a commandment from the Lord. If anyone does not recognise this, it is because that person is not recognised himself (1 Cor. 14: 29-38).
Don’t you get the distinct feeling that the highlighted passage is actually interrupting the original subject? Let’s read it without it:
Let two prophets, or three, speak while the rest weigh their words; and if a revelation comes to someone else who is sitting by, the speaker should stop speaking. You can all prophesy, but one at a time, then all will learn something and all receive encouragement. The prophetic spirit is to be under the prophets’ control, for God is a God not of disorder but peace. Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have any spiritual powers must recognise that what I am writing to you is a commandment from the Lord. If anyone does not recognise this, it is because that person is not recognised himself (1 Cor. 14: 29-33a,37-38).
And, as we shall see later, this passage is completely inconsistent with St. Paul’s genuine regard for women leadership in Christianity. This shows that the controversial text in 1 Cor. 14 is a later interpolation, most probably by the same guy who wrote 1 Tim. 2:11-15.
Women, Cover Your Heads!
Now, there is also this passage 1 Cor. 11:3-10, 13-16 which was written by St. Paul, no question about it! First it is known that St. Paul was influenced by several Hellenistic philosophies, among them Judeo-Hellenistic philosophies. Remember, he was born in Tarsus, lived in Damascus, and was plenty acquainted of both Jewish and Hellenistic thinking. This controversial passage is a very clear example of one aspect of Judeo-Hellenistic philosophy which conceived a hierarchical authority in the world. This can be seen in passages implying the hierarchy of God-Christ-man (1 Cor. 3:23). Since according to Genesis, women came from men, then the order of authority should be God-Christ-man-woman. Also, the authority he is talking about is only stated within the relationship of wife and husband.
Let’s not be deceived. St. Paul did hold a male-centered conception of man-woman relationship. This is the reason why he advised women to cover their heads. For a former zealous-Jew, this is not surprising at all. Every hard-core Jewish man would hold this male-centered view of women.
What is not expected, though, is that this male-centered view would be so mild. What do I mean? Despite the fact that in a way he sees women inferior to men, he feels uneasy supporting such male-centered view, and he later seems to correct it. Immediately after saying that women should cover their heads because woman came from man, he thinks it over and says:
However, in the Lord, though woman is nothing without man, man is nothing without woman; and though woman came from man, so does every man come from a woman, and everything comes from God (1 Cor. 11:11-12).
Wow! That one is unexpected!
But it gets better than that . . .
St. Paul’s Respect and Deep Love for Women
The New Testament has a Letter to the Ephesians that was not written by St. Paul, and another letter to the Ephesians that is! Of course, it is not called "St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians", but it is attached to one of St. Paul’s genuine letters. I’m talking about Romans 16:1-16;21-23, which itself was an independent letter which a later editor attached to the rest of the Letter to the Romans. How do we know this? If you follow the passages I’ll quote later, you realize that a lot of the people he greets in this passage did not live in Rome, so it is highly unlikely that he would send a letter to the Romans to people who lived too far from it. It’s like sending a letter to a community in Washington D.C. so it sends greetings to friends who live in London.
This letter was written probably in A.D. 54 or 55. He was about to deliver the collected money to the Church of Jerusalem. Phoebe was a deaconess of the Church of Cenchreae, a place in Corinth which serves as port. St. Paul has been staying in her house, and she is about to travel to Ephesus to deliver a letter. How do we know that it is addressed to Ephesus, in Asia Minor? Because much of the people he greets in the letter are from Asia, and some of them were living in Ephesus (e.g Rom. 16:5, see also Acts 18:1-2,18-21,24-26; 20:16-17; 1 Cor. 16:19).
This letter is a gem! It lets us see in all its glory the deep love and affection that he had for women, especially those who served as Church leaders. Let’s take a look at it.
He wants Phebe, a deaconess of the Church of Cenchreae to deliver this specific letter, and says: "give her, in the Lord, a welcome worthy of God’s holy people, and help her in with whatever she needs from you — she herself has come to the help of many people, including myself (Rom 16:2)
Next, he greets "Prisca and Aquila", apparently a married couple. The interesting part about these names is that the woman appears first. At that time, who appears first in the order of names meant a superiority in leadership. It is simply unusual to find the wife mentioned before the husband. This is repeated in another letter of St. Paul (1 Cor. 16:19), and even the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 18:18,26). Apparently St. Paul in this letter is not only respecting her leadership, but also says: "my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks to save my life; to them, thanks not only from me, but from all the churches among the gentiles, and my greetings to the Church at their house (Rom. 16:3b-5).
The next woman who appears is a certain "Mary" who is described as the one "who worked so hard for you" (Rom 16:6).
Then he greets another couple … a very interesting couple: Andronicus and Junia, the latter being the name of a woman. St. Paul describes them as "those outstanding [among] the apostles . . . my kinsmen and fellow-prisoners, who were in Christ before me" (Rom. 16:7). A woman apostle???!!! Now, THAT is interesting!
He also greets Tryphaena and Triphosa whom he says are very hardworking in the Lord (Rom. 16:12a).
Next he greets Persis, whom he describes as beloved friend and hard-worker for the Lord (Rom. 16:12b).
He even greets Rufus’ mother, whom he loves her as if she were his own mother (Rom. 16:13b).
He also greets a certain "Julia" and also someone who is "Nereus’ sister" (Rom. 16:15).
The evidence is not limited to this brief letter to Ephesus, but in other genuine letters, he expresses loving concern and admiration for other women leaders, such as in the case of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), and about Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3).
Finally, let’s not forget that at one point even St. Paul complained that he was not being allowed to have women missioners with him, and says: "[Have we not] every right to be accompanied by a Christian wife, like the other apostles, like the brothers of the Lord, and like Cephas [Peter]?" (1 Cor. 9:5).
If St. Paul is a woman-hater, then Paris is Venezuela’s capital.
P. S. …
- Why was St. Paul celibate? Answer: Because like every Christian at that time, he was waiting for Jesus Christ to arrive soon, and did not want his attention divided between things of the Lord and addressing the needs of a wife and kids. If you don’t believe it, read again the passage where St. Paul talks about his celibacy within context (1 Cor. 7:1-9).
- About the thorn of the flesh that bothered St. Paul (2 Cor. 12:7b-9a), it is most probably an illness of which he asked God to be healed from. It is not a sexual problem. Among the weaknesses he mentions later, he explicitly mentions illnesses and makes no allusions to any temptation of the flesh, such as a sexual problem (2 Cor. 12:10).
- Even when St. Paul supports a mild male-centered view of women, he also implies in his theology that before the eyes of the Lord, men and women are equal (Gal. 3:28).
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(This is the continuation of the first article on this subject)
Saint Paul has been accused of all sorts of things. I have known authors who have blamed him for the Great Fire of Rome, but this is impossible given that recent Bible scholarship has established solid chronology locating his death in the year A.D. 58, long before the Great Fire (A.D. 64). There are others who have accused him of creating a struggle between Judaism and Christianity, which, as we saw in our earlier article, is not the case. Some, like Robert Eisenman, accused him of being "the Teacher of Lies" whom the Dead Sea Scrolls talk about, which is impossible, because the texts in question have been dated all the way before Christ was born using carbon-dating. There are other more outrageous theories which compare him to Simon Magus (and it is something very interesting which I plan to write about in the future), or that he is somehow related to Herod’s family (the Idumean Dinasty). This shows how much St. Paul fires the passions and the imagination of scholars and not-so-scholars.
This does not mean that Bible scholarship is made up of people with outrageous claims. Quite the contrary, it has made significant progress regarding the corpus paulinum, making a critical evaluation of the Acts of the Apostles, and creating a better philosophical and theological profile of St. Paul. I will share only part of the most recent profile in this article.
For purposes of research, I will only take into consideration his genuine letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemo and Philipians. The rest of the letters are post-Pauline, written after St. Paul died, and are not helpful for our task: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Hebrews.
St. Paul: the Anti-Semitic?
One of the most widespread criticisms against St. Paul is that he supposedly hated the Jews, and that he made explicit anti-semitic statements. This is not surprising when we find such passages in the corpus paulinum like these:
[The Jews] put the Lord Jesus to death and the prophets too, and persecuted us also. Their conduct does not please God, and makes them the enemies of the whole human race, because they are hindering us from preaching to the gentiles to save them. Thus all the time they are reaching the full extent of their iniquity, but retribution has finally overtaken them (1 Thes. 2:15-16)
Beware of dogs! Beware of evil workmen! Beware of the castrated! We are the true people of the circumcision since we worship by the Spirit of God and make Christ Jesus our only boast, not relying on physical qualifications, although, I myself could rely on these too. If anyone does claim to rely on them, my claim is better. Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee, as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless. But what were once my assets, I now through Christ Jesus count as losses. . . . Brothers, be united in imitating me. Keep your eyes fixed on those who act according to the example you have from me. For there are so many people of whom I have often warned you, and now I warn you again with tears in my eyes, who behave like the enemies of Christ’s cross. They are destined to be lost; their god is the stomach; they glory in what they should think shameful, since their minds are set on earthly things. but our homeland is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transfigure the wretched body of ours into the mould of his glorious body, through the working of the power which he was, even to bring all things under his mastery. (Phil. 3:2-7,17-21).
Not only that, but we know many episodes in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Paul was victimized by the Jews: Acts 18:12-17, 22:1-29, 23:29-30. And even Saint Paul himself talks about how he was chastised and mistreated by Jews: Gal. 5:11; 2 Cor. 11:24, 26.
He even has some angry discussions with the part of the Church which favors a more Jewish approach to the Law (Gal. 2:1-14). He even refers to them as the false brethren (Gal. 2:4). The reasoning of many people who read these passages is as follows: "Saint Paul was persecuted by the Jews, and hated the most Judaizing sector of Christianity, hence he hated the Jews. He became a rabid anti-semitic."
Is this true?
Conflicts with the Jews: Are They Guilty of Everything?
It is far more complicated than that. Christianity was at first one branch of Judaism. Jesus did not intend his movement to become another religion, since He wanted the conversion of Israel and establish God’s Kingdom (Matt. 10:5-7). This view contemporary Christians have that Judaism persecuted Christianity just because it followed Jesus is a bit exaggerated. There was no doubt that a confrontation between Jesus and Jewish authorities existed, but after Jesus died there were two main branches of Christianity which existed many years before St. Paul converted: one was a Christianity which wanted to preserve the ways of Jewish Law, and a Christianity which did not adhere to many aspects of Jewish Law. The latter established itself outside of Palestine, for example, in places like Damascus or Antioch. This was the sector of Christianity which was most persecuted by Jewish authorities. If you think of the first martyr to die in the hands of the Jews, St. Stephen, shows this is true. The name "Stephen" is not Jewish, it is Greek: ????????. St. Paul himself, as we have discussed in the previous article, was born outside Palestine with a strong Jewish background, but surrounded by gentility. It is highly probable that the reason why he persecuted Christians in Damascus was because they didn’t adhere to Jewish Law. I don’t deny that Jewish authorities also persecuted Jewish Christians, but they were limited to chastisements. In St. Stephen’s case, it went as far as death.
Despite this, Christians, especially those who adhered to the Law, continued assisting to Synagogue meetings, and kept worshiping in Jerusalem’s Temple. All of that changed after A.D. 70, when Christians were banned from Synagogues, and in many cases were persecuted by Jewish authorities. In this case, the relationship between Christians and Jews became very bitter, and this can be seen very clearly in the Gospels of Luke and John, two of the latest Gospels, where Jews are almost always on the losing side, and sometimes refer to them in very strong words (e.g. John 8:44).
The Acts of the Apostles was presumably the same author of Luke’s Gospel, and the antagonism between Jews and Christians is displayed all over that writing. He wants to display St. Paul as a respected and eminent person before Christians and the authorities, but presents the Jews as antagonistic. Hence, we must be critically evaluate what it says.
For instance, in three passages of the Acts, St. Paul seems to remind authorities of his citizenship when he’s about to be whipped: Acts 16:37-38; 22:22-29; 23:27. In the last two of these texts, the problem originated with the Jews and the authorities backed off due to his citizenship. Indeed, any form of whipping or torturing Roman citizens was strictly forbidden by the lex Porcia. Yet of these three occasions only in the first one (Acts 16:37-38) he says he was whipped despite him being a Roman citizen. Saint Paul in his letters revealed he suffered far more than that. Without a doubt he suffered under the hands of the Jews and gentiles alike. Among the sufferings he went through we can mention: five times he was given thirty nine lashes, three times he was beaten with sticks, and once he was stoned (2 Cor. 11:24-26), practically contradicting the claim of the Acts that he was a Roman citizen, or that he constantly recalled it to the authorities.
Also St. Paul reveals in his letters that, unlike the claims of the Acts, much of the suffering Christians endured came from the authorities themselves, not the Jews per-se. For instance, the Acts of the Apostles says that the Jews were planning to kill him in Damascus (Acts 9:23-25), yet St. Paul says that this persecution came from the Damascene ethnarch Arethas, not the Jews (2 Cor. 11:32-33).
What was Saint Paul’s Real Relationship with the Jewish Tendency in the first Christian Church?
St. Paul’s relationship with the Judaizing sector of the Church was not easy, but that does not mean he hated it. On the contrary, he tried his best to recognize the authority of the Jewish Church authorities in Jerusalem, and to have a conciliatory approach with much of his opponents. This is apparent in many of the passages we find in Saint Paul’s letter, where he recognized St. Peter, St. James and St. John as being the pillars of the Church (Gal. 2:9). He even complained because of some of the divisions of leadership that appeared within the Church, which he feared would lead to disparate Churches not joined together in Christ (1 Cor. 3).
However, to understand well the relationship between St. Paul and the Jewish sector, we have to take a look at the Acts of the Apostles. It basically presents the Church as an organization where there are differences, but where the solution could be reached almost with ease. For instance, Acts says that the controversy regarding circumcision was discussed, leading the Church authorities to be convinced of St. Paul’s arguments against it, and submitting a letter to be followed by Antioch’s community and its missions (Acts 15:1-29). Following the meeting, St. Paul returned to his community in Antioch, where they finally received the letter, everyone was very happy and the Jerusalem party went back home (Acts 15:30-35). However, the meeting at Jerusalem and Antioch were far from peaceful.
St. Paul says that he discussed his case against circumcision and other issues in the Jerusalem Council, and then privately with the recognized leaders. However, he refers to the "false brothers" who accused St. Paul of subverting Christianity by saying that gentiles should not fulfill Jewish Law (Gal. 2:1-5). Yet, there is a problem with his account, apparently at the end of that passage he interrupts the sequence of events. For scholars, this silence is a sign that St. Paul lost the argument that day. The Jerusalem Council, contrary to what Acts claimed, was a total failure due to the irreconcilable position of the most fundamentalist Jewish sector within Christianity, which wanted it to require gentiles to follow the Law, and the Antioch community represented by Saint Paul and St. Barnabas. The letter that Acts is talking about was not written that day (Acts 15:23-29). St. Paul was not the one who was being intolerant to the Jewish sector of Christianity, but in this case we find the very extreme fundamentalist Jews in Christianity who were intolerant … the ones he calls "false brothers". This was the reason St. Paul wanted to discuss these issues later privately with the Church authorities.
There, they went into a process of mutual discovery of each other, which St. Paul describes as the recognition of St. Peter as the one in charge of the mission among the Jews in Palestine, and that it was up to St. Paul to be in charge of the mission among the gentiles. They also reached an agreement of solidarity, of Antioch should contribute to the Church in Jerusalem. This is due to the fact that by the years AD 47-48, there was lack of food in Palestine, during the Sabbath year.
Although the conflict seemed to be over, it was not so. St. Paul tells us in Galatians:
However, when Cephas [St. Peter] came to Antioch, then I did oppose him to his face since he was manifestly in the wrong. Before certain people from James came, he used to eat with gentiles; but as soon as these came, he backed out and kept apart from them, out of fear of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews put on the same act as he did, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity.
When I saw, through, that their behavior was not true to the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all of them, ‘Since you, though you are a Jew, live like the gentiles and not like the Jews, how can you compel the gentiles to live like the Jews? (Gal 2:11-14)
Apparently the most fundamentalist Judaizing Christians from Jerusalem’s Church (whose head was St. James) went to Antioch, and their show of force was so strong that even St. Peter felt he should Judaize despite his acting like a gentile before they arrived. What was the problem?
If you look at the letter as shown in Acts (15:23-29) it states that gentiles are no longer required to be circumcised, but it says the following: "you are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from illicit marriages. Avoid these, and you will do what is right" (Acts 15:29). In other words, "you don’t have to circumcise yourselves, but have a Jewish diet". Before the Jerusalem party arrived, St. Peter participated in the meals with the gentiles. After the Jerusalem party arrived and read the letter, he was forced to not share some of their meal, and required the Antioch community to abide to this Judaizing determination. St. Paul was not happy. The intriguing silence after telling the story reveals again that St. Paul lost this meeting as well.
Despite his anger at the whole situation, especially at the "false brothers", the rest of his missionary life was marked by his allegiance to Jerusalem’s Church, by collecting money which he finally delivered to Jerusalem in A.D. 55, when he was accused, which led in the end to be condemned to death in A.D. 58.
Saint Paul’s Real Views about the Jews
While many authors entertain the idea that Saint Paul hated the Jews, a close look at his attitude shows that this is not the case. For him, Jews should be saved through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross along with gentiles.
Let us look at the two quotes we mentioned in the first section of this article: 1 Thes. 2:15-16. The letter to the Thessalonians is presumably the first letter written by St. Paul (A.D. 51) and the first Christian writing that we have available. If we take a very good look at this passage, we become aware of two interesting things. First, it interrupts the flow of the text only to say that the Jews were the ones who killed Jesus Christ and the prophets. Secondly, it says that "retribution has finally overtaken them". What does this mean exactly? What kind of retribution? The only thing that comes to mind is the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, yet this happened years after St. Paul died. The interruption of the text, the harsh tone of the passage, and this little detail leads us to believe that 1 Thes. 2:15-16 has the traits of being interpolated in St. Paul’s original letter by a later copyist (presumably from a Pauline school during the last two decades of the first century C.E.). This passage, then, does not reflect St. Paul’s actual opinion about the Jews.
Let’s take a look at Phil. 3:1b-4:1, where St. Paul apparently refers to Jews with extremely harsh words: "dogs", "castrated", etc. But there are some things in this passage that seem too out of character for St. Paul. For instance, nowhere in the genuine letters St. Paul offers himself as a universal ethos or ethical example to be followed universally by Christians. The term "Pharisee", as I explained in our earlier article, is used to mean a pious Jew, which is a meaning developed by Christians after A.D. 70, after they were banned from all Synagogues and excluded by Jews. This long passage also interrupts the flow of the text between Phil. 3:1a and Phil. 4:2. Once again, we are at a piece of text which was not written by St. Paul, but interpolated within the original text of the letter to the Philippians. This interpolation does not count to find out Saint Paul’s views about the Jews.
To look at his real views, I suggest looking at his letter to the Romans. There are some reasons for that. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the latest letter he wrote (approximately A.D. 55), which means that he wrote it after having so many conflicts with the Jews, after being chastised and mistreated by them, and after his conflicts with Judaizing Christianity. Let’s see what he has to say:
This is the truth and I am speaking in Christ, without preference, as my conscience testifies for me in the Holy Spirit; there is a great sorrow and unremitting agony in my heart; I could pray that I myself might be accursed and cut off from Christ, if this could benefit the brothers who are my own flesh and blood [the Jews]. They are Israelites; it was they who were adopted as children, the glory was theirs and the covenants; to them were given the Law and the worship of God and the promises. To them belong the fathers and out of them came Christ according to the flesh. God is above all, may He be praised for ever! [Psalms 41:14] Amen (Romans 9:1-5).
So, for St. Paul, the Jews have an extremely important place in the history of salvation, and for that reason they should be respected as children of God. They were the chosen people where Jesus Christ came from.
There is still another very important passage regarding this subject:
What I am saying is this: it is possible that God abandoned his people? Out of the question! I too am an Israelite, descended from Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God never abandoned his own people to whom, ages ago, he had given recognition. . . . What I am saying is this: Was this stumbling [Jews not understanding the Gospel] to lead to their final downfall? Out of the question! On the contrary, their failure brought salvation for the gentiles, in order to stir them to envy. And if their fall has proved a great gain to the world, and their loss has proved a great gain to the gentiles — how much greater a gain will come when all is restored to them!
Let me say then to you gentiles that, as far as I am an apostle to the gentiles, I take pride in this work of service; and I want it to be the means of rousing to envy the people who are my own blood-relations and so of saving some of them. Since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, do you know what their re-acceptance will mean. Nothing less than life from the dead!
. . .
As Scripture says:
From Zion will come the Redeemer,
he will remove godlessness from Jacob,
And this will be my covenant with them,
when I take their sins away.
As regards to the Gospel, they are enemies, but for your sake; but as regards those who are God’s choice, they are still well loved for the sake of their ancestors. There is no change of mind on God’s part about the gifts he has made or of his choice. (selections from Rom. 11:1-32)
I invite people to read the whole passage of Rom. 11:1-32, perhaps one of the most beautiful ever written by St. Paul. One thing about it is clear, St. Paul was definitely not anti-semitic in any sense. He may have had harsh encounters with them, but this letter, the latest written by St. Paul, reveals that he feels a very deep love towards the Jews. His belief is that their failure to recognize the Gospel as coming from God prevents them from knowing the truth, but that in the end they will recognize Jesus as the Christ (the Messiah), and that through faith in Him God will forgive all of their sins.
Equality of Jews and Gentiles in Christ
According to St. Paul, Jews and Christians should never be distinct from one another in the eyes of God. Immediately after talking about the disagreeable incident in Antioch and his disgust at St. Peter’s actions, he expresses the reasons why he is so angry at the decision reached by the Jerusalem Church:
We who were born Jews and not gentile sinners have nevertheless learnt that sometone is reckoned as upright not by practising the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ; and we too came to believe in Christ Jesus so as to be reckoned as upright by faith in Christ and not by practising the Law; since no human being can be found upright by keeping the Law. (Galatians 2:15-16).
Later, he elaborates:
But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Law, locked up to wait for the faith which would eventually be revealed to us. So the Law was serving as a slave to look after us. So the Law was serving as a slave to look after us, to lead us to Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a slave looking after us; for all of you are the children of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ, since every one of you that has been baptised has been clothed in Christ.
There can be neither Jew nor Greek,
there can be neither slave nor freeman,
there can be neither male nor female
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And simply by being Christ’s, you are that progeny of Abraham, the heirs named in the promise (Gal. 3:23-29).
Are these the words of an anti-semitic?
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Rarely do we find a person in history who has been so loved and at the same time hated than Saint Paul. Christians in general love him and have a deep respect for him. There is a reason for that. For all practical purposes, Saint Paul provided the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity as we know it. Still, there are some who despise him. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that he was the founder of Christianity as the religious movement we know today. What about Jesus Christ? In the words of Nietzsche: "There was only one true Christian and he died on the Cross" (The Antichrist).
On the other hand, there are those who hate him for good reasons. First, there are the Jews. We can find plenty of statements from St. Paul where he said that the Torah, the Law of Moses, was no longer valid after Jesus’ death. According to him, Jesus’ sacrifice means the end of the Law. Only faith in Jesus Christ, and not the deeds of the Law, saves the soul. But for Jews, that is a minor transgression compared to several passages where St. Paul apparently demeans Jews in a big way, and even it seems that he is happy that they had suffered some of God’s chastisements.
Feminists are among the first who hate St. Paul. If you read his letters, you get the impression that he was a misogynist, declared women inferior, and even ordered them to shut up in assemblies. After all, sin entered the world thanks to women! Furthermore, for the modern mind, his views of matrimony where women should be subordinated to men are outdated and completely unfounded. And to worsen the whole thing, he even tells people to practice celibacy.
Last, but not least, the GLBTT (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transsexual-Transgender … etc.) community hates the passages where he actually says that effeminates and homosexuals will not go to heaven, because they carry out contra-natura acts.
This article is not meant as a Christian apology of Saint Paul, but rather an exposition of the best historical profile we can provide according to the most recent studies by serious Biblical scholars. I will use Senén Vidal’s analysis, but I’m not going to agree with him in everything. The purpose of this article is to show the most important points where Christianity and its opponents agree and diverge to who Saint Paul really was.
Some Considerations Regarding the Acts of the Apostles
Scholars have been skeptical about some claims made by the Acts of the Apostles. It is true that whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts, but we don’t really know his identity. We can recognize, though, that he wrote the Acts many years after St. Paul’s death (A.D. 58), about A.D. 80 or 90. We also know that it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus (A.D. 70). This means that the Acts came to be after Christians were banned from synagogues, as a result of being blamed by Jews in part for such horrendous outcome.
The author of the Acts showed a tendency among Christians who lived such dismissal from Judaism. Let us remember that Jewish leadership at the time was divided between different sects: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes (the latter established itself in Qumran). The Pharisees were members of the priestly elite in Jerusalem, and used their religious authority to preserve the purity of the Jewish ways. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees wanted to preserve the Torah and its integrity, while rejecting gentile or pagan influence. It is highly probable that the Pharisees were the ones who wanted Christians to be banned from synagogues after A.D. 70. Although not all zealous Jews were Pharisees, in the minds of many Christians, especially in gentility, they were synonymous.
If you read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the term "Pharisee" is used to mean a pious or "zealous Jew", not always it meant "the Pharisee priests".
Also, St. Paul’s influence in the Mediterranean, and the way people regarded him as an Apostle of Christ, led many Christians to question his authority, given that he never met Jesus. The author of the Acts of the Apostles was interested in showing St. Paul as an eminent figure with Apostolic authority.
At the same time, he liked to present St. Paul as someone who is respected by gentiles, especially by the Roman authorities.
Some Considerations Pertaining the Corpus Paulinum
To have an accurate profile of St. Paul we have to face the problems that come from the corpus paulinum, i.e. a set of letters in the New Testament which are considered to be written by St. Paul. I don’t have space to talk much about them, but there are three problems regarding it:
- First, some of the letters allegedly written by Saint Paul were not written by him. Some of the letters written by St. Paul reflect the Christian mentality of his time and were widely accepted in Christianity before the second century C. E. However, there were some others which were not recognized as coming from St. Paul until much later during the second and third centuries. These post-pauline letters are: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews. All of these letters speak of the situation of the Pauline communities at the end of the first century or the first part of the second.
- Still, there is another problem with the authentic Pauline letters: there are later Christian interpolations in many of them. Much of these interpolations reflect opinions which are clearly not St. Paul’s. Scholars had a hard job digging them out of the authentic texts, trying to make sense out of them.
- Finally, even if we take out the interpolations, and the pseudoepigraphic letters, we have the problem regarding the way these letters are arranged. For instance, according to the most recent scholarship, 1 and 2 Corinthians were originally five different letters. The sixteenth chapter of the Letter to the Romans was in reality a separate letter to a community in Ephesus. The letter to Philemo consists of two different letters.
Keeping in mind the inherent difficulties of the Acts of the Apostles, and the real authentic letters, let us proceed to find out who St. Paul was, and was not.
Different Aspects of St. Paul’s Life
Both Christians and opponents have a particular conception of St. Paul as being a person born in Tarsus, who inherited Roman citizenship, studied in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, was a witness of St. Stephen’s death, and traveled to Damascus to persecute Christians where he had a vision of Jesus and converted to Christianity.
There are many aspects of this that need to be clarified. It seems true that St. Paul was a Jew, specifically from Benjamin’s tribe. It also seems true that he was born in Tarsus, which can explain why he had two names, one Jewish (Saul) and one Hellenistic (Paul). However, he did not acquire Roman citizenship by being born in Tarsus or inheriting it, since being born there is not really a way to be a Roman citizen by birth. If we look at the documentation we have available in the New Testament, the only place where it says that he is a Roman citizen is in the Acts of the Apostles. Nowhere in the authentic letters does St. Paul say that he is a Roman citizen. In fact, if we explore them, we realize that he could not have been a Roman citizen, because particular chastisements he suffered were strictly forbidden for Roman citizens:
Five times I have been given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, and once I have been in open sea for a night and day (2 Cor. 11:25, my bold).
Why would the author of the Acts say that St. Paul is a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-29; 23:27)? The answer lies in the fact that he wants to show St. Paul as generally a good Roman citizen, as a respectable figure in gentility. However, everything we have from St. Paul himself speaks against that fact.
Also there is a problem with the allegation that St. Paul was formed by Gamaliel in Jerusalem, and that he witnessed St. Stephen’s death. But St. Paul’s own words seem to contradict all of these facts. In his letter to Galatians, he states the following regarding his conversion:
But when God . . . called me through his grace and chose to reveal His Son in me . . . I was in no hurry to confer with any human being, or to go up to Jerusalem to see those who were already Apostles before me. Instead, I went off to Arabia, and later I came back to Damascus. Only after three years did I go up to Jerusalem to meet Cephas (Gal. 1:15-18).
Some verses later, he says:
After that I went to places in Syria and Cilicia; and was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judaea which are in Christ, they simply kept hearing it said, ‘The man once so eager to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he used to try to destroy,’ and they gave glory to God for me (Gal. 1: 21-24).
Notice the curious scenario vis-a-vis the traditional knowledge on St. Paul. Why would St. Paul "return to Damascus" and only went to Jerusalem briefly? More puzzling still is his statement that none of the Christian communities in Judaea knew about him. Jerusalem is in Judaea. In other words, everything points to the fact that St. Paul did not live in Jerusalem, nor did he persecute anyone in that place. Apparently he persecuted Christians in Damascus because he was from that place. Only in the Acts of the Apostle does he appear as going from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Christians.
Which leads us to the next question: was he a Pharisee priest? This is a very difficult point. The Acts of the Apostles is a late document, whose author equates Pharisees with pious or zealous Jews. So, it could be possible that St. Paul was a zealous Jew, but was not a Pharisee strictly speaking. We could also say that his letters do not reflect the language of a Jew formed in Palestine, but rather as one formed in a Hellenistic environment, which would further reinforce the point that he did not grow up nor was he formed in Jerusalem.
We have to mention, though, that in the authentic Pauline letters we find a statement that St. Paul was a Pharisee, and it is in his letter to the Philippians:
Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless. But what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses (Phil. 3:5-7)
However, this passage itself forms part of a bigger passage (Phil. 3:1b-4:1) which has signs of being a later interpolation within the original letter. Practically such a passage demonizes the Jews (as we shall see, St. Paul never did that), it seems to reflect strongly on St. Paul’s death, and praises St. Paul in the first person (suggesting that St. Paul is writing his own praise, something out of St. Paul’s character). It also interrupts the sequence of the argument between Phil. 3:1a and 4:2. As expected, the term Pharisee, in this case, is used in the sense of zealous Jew, a person who wanted to follow the Law to the letter.
On the other hand, it seems that the one of the few reliable data provided by the Acts is that probably St. Paul grew up to be an artisan (Acts 18:3).
There is the issue regarding St. Paul’s own conversion. There is no reason to think a priori that the story of his conversion as presented in the Acts of the Apostles is wrong. St. Paul is sincere when he says that he had revelations. In fact, there were many times he had these kinds of mystical experiences. For instance, approximately by the year A.D. 40, he had experienced an abduction to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Some neurologists theorize that he may have had temporal lobe epilepsy, which would have led them to those kinds of experiences.
Regardless of whether this is epilepsy, or revelations of Our Lord, or both, we have to take the story we find in the Acts of the Apostles cum granus salis. Not all of the details offered in the Acts agree with each other. We know that St. Paul had a vision and ended up blind because of it. He saw a bright light, heard a voice, and fell from his horse. However, it is not clear whether the other men with him saw the light, or heard the voice, or fell from their respective horses, or were standing up (Acts 9:1-9; 22:5-16; 26:9-18). Maybe the core of the story regarding St. Paul’s experience might be true, but the discrepancy of the three versions of the story cry out "Handle with care!"
Finally, there is another very important point to this story. Why was St. Paul persecuting Christians in Damascus? As we now know in this analysis of the Biblical texts, he actually lived in Damascus as an artisan, but he was admittedly a pious and zealous Jew. Christians in Palestine were, for all purposes, a branch of Judaism, which practiced the Torah just like all other Jews. How can we explain St. Paul’s persecution of Christians before his conversion? The only possible explanation is that the Christian community in Damascus already showed signs of rejecting the strict path of the Jewish Torah. Damascus itself was very influenced by Hellenistic ideas, and already by 30 A.D., shortly after Jesus’ death, there were Christian communities which started to depart from Judaism.
This demystifies a statement made by many opponents of St. Paul: that he was the one who made Christianity depart from Judaism. Quite the contrary. It seems that before his conversion, St. Paul was furious at the fact that the Damascus community would betray one of the very foundations of Judaism. This also explains why he opened up to gentiles after his conversion to Christianity.
St. Paul’s First Partial Profile
From a biographical standpoint, we now have a partial idea of who Saint Paul really was. He was born in Tarsus, from a Jewish family, from the tribe of Benjamin, who was brought up in the ways of Judaism and Hellenistic thought and philosophy. He was a professional artisan, and was highly intolerant of those Jews who diverged from their Jewish roots and accept Hellenistic ways of thinking. For him, that would be a contamination of Judaism. While he lived in Damascus, he persecuted Christians for not adhering to Jewish Torah. During one of his persecutions, he had a revelatory experience which completely changed his views towards Hellenistic Christians. He converted to a more Hellenistic branch of Christianity, and actively advocated for tolerance towards them.
In my next post, I will talk more about traditional misconceptions about his thoughts and ideas about Jews and women.
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