2017-10-10 04:44:03 UTC
Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie?
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason , Part I
Paul's inspiration was to bring Christianity to the gentiles. This inspiration seems to have come only after the Jews had rejected him. Nevertheless, it has won him a key place in the history of Christianity.
Paul was clearly an unusual and controversial personality. An Hellenic Jew, he seems to have been keen to establish himself amongst Jesus" followers. His writings in the New Testament reveal in him a number of less than admirable qualities: he generally comes over as a trouble-making, complaining, self-seeking misogynist who was clearly out of step with the 12 apostles. Of the many Christians regarded as trouble-makers, the one who caused most trouble was undoubtedly Paul. After his conversion he seems to have developed the knack of creating vast amounts of bad feeling. His visits to towns generally ended up in riots or plots to murder him. The usual picture was that he was at first welcomed into the community and invited to speak in the local synagogues. Sooner or later he stirred up hatred and dissent to such an extent that he was subsequently obliged to flee in order to save his life.
In Damascus he preached in a number of synagogues, and it was some time before anyone set about trying to kill him (Acts 9:20-24). When they did try, he escaped to Jerusalem, where Grecian Jews made another attempt on his life, so he was sent to Tarsus. Later, with Barnabas, he was welcomed into a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Before long there was bad blood, and the two of them were expelled from the region (Acts 13:13-52). Off they went to Iconium, where they narrowly escaped death by stoning (Acts 14:1-7). They then fled to Lystra, where Paul was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:8-20). Later, in Philippi, Paul and Silas were charged with causing an uproar. They escaped a rampaging mob only for magistrates to have them flogged and imprisoned (Acts 16:16-24). Some time after their escape following an earthquake, they went to Thessalonica. Paul spoke in the synagogue there on three Sabbath days before the riots started, and the two of them had to escape to Berea (Acts 17:1-10). Off they went to a local synagogue and before long there was more trouble. Silas stayed behind, but Paul was escorted to distant Athens (Acts 17:10-15). Here the sophisticated citizens seem to have regarded him with bemused contempt, so he was soon on his way again (Acts 17:16-34). When he arrived in Corinth, he spent every Sabbath speaking, and was soon being abused and attacked once again. In Ephesus he spent three months speaking in the synagogue before the derision of the inhabitants defeated him (Acts 19:1-9). He stayed in the area and appears to have provoked a riot (Acts 19:23-41) before deciding to leave (Acts 20:1). He went on to Macedonia and then Greece where there was another Jewish plot against him (Acts 20:3). Later he again narrowly escaped death when the people of Jerusalem tried to kill him (Acts 21:27-36). He owed his salvation to his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:22-30). Next he was transferred to Caesarea in order to avoid an assassination attempt by forty men who, for some unstated reason, had taken a solemn oath to kill him (Acts 23:12-23). He ended up in Rome, where his citizenship failed to save him and he met the death that so many had desired for him.
Why Paul had such an effect on people is not easy to tell. What he said to cause such hatred, we can only guess. To a disinterested reader, however, Paul's personality would seem decidedly odd. He has visions that are suspect in the extreme. He gives three contradictory accounts of his conversion and claims divine intelligence that was denied to the apostles. He likens himself to an angel of God and even to Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:14). He believes, or at least claims, that he is being crucified along with Jesus (Galatians 2:20), and that he bears the marks to prove it (Galatians 6:17). He refers to an otherwise unknown gospel, which he refers to as "my gospel" and says will be used by God to judge mankind*. He hints, rather heavily, that he has visited Heaven (the third heaven to be precise — 2 Corinthians 12:2-6), and refers repeatedly to his visionary contact with the divine (e.g. Ephesians 3:3 and Colossians 1:25-26). He believes himself able to judge others at a distance, being present in spirit to try them. He can then pass sentence by means of a letter, condemning people to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh — presumably some form of unlawful killing (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). When Paul is jealous, it is not with normal human jealousy but with "godly jealousy" (2 Corinthians 11:2).
He seems to know nothing of the gospels, just as they seem to know nothing of him. Paul threatens, abuses and blusters, appointing himself as an additional apostle. He has no qualms about lying if he thinks that he is doing so for the greater glory of God: "For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged a sinner?" (Romans 3:7). He also freely admits that he is prepared to become all things to all men in order to achieve his aims (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). His writings are threaded through with repeated assurances that he is telling the truth and attempts to deny implied accusations that he is not. He is known to have been ridiculed by other Christian groups. Some theologians have speculated that Paul was insane. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) described him as a morbid crank. Whether or not he was, he is by his own admission totally unreliable as a witness.
Paul seems to have known relatively little about the historical Jesus. He does not mention Jesus" place of birth, his parentage, or even when and where he lived. He does not refer to any of Jesus" miracles; neither does he mention any of his parables. There is no mention of Jesus" trial, nor even of the place of the crucifixion. This is probably not too surprising as Paul was writing before the gospels had been set down. He was operating in a vacuum, creating a new religion as his inspiration led him. He was a self-appointed apostle and spent considerable time and effort generating support for his interpretation of Jesus" message. It was Paul who first preached that Jesus was the son of God (Acts 9:20), a claim that in the gospels Jesus had never made for himself. Paul had not met Jesus during his lifetime but claimed to have seen him after the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Such claims were met with scepticism: when Paul came to Jerusalem the disciples did not believe that he was one of their number (Acts 9:26). Educated people have continued to distrust him down the centuries. Thomas Jefferson called him the "first corrupter of the doctines of Jesus"*.
Only after his rejection by his Jewish brethren did Paul offer his version of Jesus" teachings to non-Jews. His first missionary journey introduced a version of Christianity to the gentiles for the first time. This was unpopular among the apostles, not least because Paul appeared to have no qualms about amending teachings in order to make them acceptable to non-Jews. His approach to the Jewish laws provides a prime example of how his teachings differed from those of the living Jesus and of the apostles. Although Paul was a Jew he was an Hellenic Jew. He knew that few gentiles would be willing to accept the Jewish laws, so his solution was simply to drop them. Not being able to claim that Jesus, or any of his disciples, had sanctioned this he was fortunate in being able to state that the gospel he preached had been given to him by divine revelation*. God had suddenly decided to change his mind about the ancient laws. Why he should have revealed these changes to Paul but neglected to inform either Jesus or Jesus" disciples is a mystery to which no satisfactory answer has been provided. The disciples were left with an unfortunate burden of cynicism about Paul and his claims. Gibbon sums up the matter. Speaking of the Jewish followers of Jesus he says:
They affirmed that if the Being who is the same through all eternity had designed to abolish those sacred rites which had served to distinguish his chosen people, the repeal of them would have been no less clear and solemn than their first promulgation; that, instead of those frequent declarations which either suppose or assert the perpetuity of the Mosaic religion, it would have been represented as a provisionary scheme intended to last only till the coming of the Messiah, who should instruct mankind in a more perfect mode of faith and of worship; that the Messiah himself, and his disciples who conversed with him on earth, instead of authorising by their example the most minute observances of the Mosaic law, would have published to the world the abolition of those useless and obsolete ceremonies without suffering Christianity to remain during so many years obscurely confounded among the sects of the Jewish church*
Following his visions St Paul gave assurances that gentile converts did not need to undergo circumcision as prescribed in the Old Testament. Not all Churches accepted this, but the ones that did found it easier to attract converts and in time came to dominate Christianity. Now only the Coptic Church still retains the ancient practice of circumcision (though it also became popular among Victorian Anglicans). Again, it was Paul who advocated dropping Jewish dietary restrictions, and again only the Coptic Church still retains them. Gentiles were prepared to accept Paul's new form of Christianity, and did so. Other Churches that tried to retain the traditional practices have since died out,: a confirmation perhaps of Paul's inspiration.
Paul continued to proselytize and spread his version of Jesus" teachings, despite continuing opposition. He had trouble not only with the Jews, but also with rival Christian groups. It is clear from his letter to the Galatians that he was in dispute with those who insist on circumcision (though he himself had had Timothy circumcised — Acts 16:3). His enmity causes him to become offensive. He goes so far as to claim that Christ will be of no value at all to those who do allow themselves to be circumcised (Galatians 5:2), and expresses the wish that those who favour circumcision should go the whole way and castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12). In the space of a few verses of another letter he characterises them as unruly, vain talkers, deceivers, liars, evil beasts, slow bellies [lazy gluttons], defiled, abominable, disobedient, and reprobate (Titus 1:10-16). The rift seems to have grown wider and wider. He says quite plainly that he does not follow the Twelve in Jerusalem: "For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles"8. These, the original apostles, apparently preach "another Jesus". If we phrase this a little more neutrally we see that on the one hand Paul and on the other hand the 12 apostles were preaching different Jesuses. Later, Paul (or someone writing in his name) refers more dismissively to "false apostles" (2 Corinthians 11:13), whose Jewishness is specifically mentioned (2 Corinthians 11:22). In short he had fallen out with those who held what was then the orthodox line. Peter, it seems, had difficulties in reconciling the Jewish and Pauline factions. In the New Testament he is represented as being initially sympathetic to Paul's views, but then changing his mind after emissaries of James have had a discreet word with him (Galatians 2:12).
To the Jewish Christians the Pauline faction was a group of fickle marketeers, changing the unchangeable Mosaic religion to suit gentile preferences. For their part the Pauline Christians keenly felt the need to justify themselves as being the true inheritors of the ancient Jewish faith. This need to justify themselves continued for as long as the Jewish Christians were around and able to demonstrate that they were the orthodox believers. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew written around AD 160, Justin Martyr was still preoccupied by the need to establish the legitimacy of the Pauline line.