Real letter to real peopleNicholas King
- 28 June 2008
The next 12 months have been set aside as the Year of Paul. Here a leading scripture scholar begins our series to mark the year with an exploration of the writings of this difficult, passionate figure who taught the non-Jewish world the teachings of Jesus
Paul's legacy is a complex one. First, he is responsible for a large part of the New Testament. The letters ascribed to him are about a quarter of the whole, and if you add the 17 chapters of Acts that are given over to him, it is more like a third. After Jesus, you could argue, Paul is the central figure of the New Testament.
Secondly, Paul is (as far as we know) the first Christian author. Then there is the fact that the letters have been preserved, even though they are clearly written for particular purposes and addressed to Christians in one city rather than another. That means that from the very beginning Christians must have thought that there was something of general import. This would have astonished Paul.
Lastly, the Pauline letters have touched hearts down the centuries; think of his effect on St Augustine, Luther (though even Lutherans today recognise that the great reformer misread St Paul), Wesley and Karl Barth, and all the lives that have been influenced through them, including our own.
What kind of a person is it that has bequeathed this legacy to us? One of the great advantages of letters is that for the most part they are personal. Paul is writing real letters, to real people, aiming to solve the difficulties that arise in real situations. Paul is, moreover, unmistakably flesh and blood, a real person, whom we overhear threatening the Corinthians with corporal punishment, and accusing the Galatians of stupidity, and of being bewitched. There are, moreover, one or two other remarks that he makes, which cannot easily be repeated in polite society.
There is no doubt at all of Paul's humanity: he is a passionate lover, and a prickly, irritable authoritarian, both at the same time. He is a gifted theologian (one of the three unmistakably great minds in the New Testament), with a startling ability to think on his feet when faced with new and unforeseen situations.
One of Paul's strengths is that he is at ease in at least three backgrounds. He is, according to Acts, a Roman citizen. Then he clearly belongs in the Hellenistic world into which he was born at Tarsus, and to which he spent the last 30 years of his life preaching. Finally but by no means least in importance, he is a Jew who took his Law-based Pharisaic Judaism immensely seriously, and if Acts has it right he studied under the great Pharisee teacher Gamaliel.
All three of these backgrounds are important to Paul, though he has reservations about each of them. Paul was also an innovator, unafraid of change. Notably, his encounter with Jesus meant that the story of the one God, in which he had been brought up, now had to be radically adapted to include the Risen One whom he learned to call "Lord".
One of the difficulties about letters is that they represent only one part of a continuing dialogue, and, maddeningly, we do not have the other side of the conversation. Paul's readers (or rather hearers - the letters were written to be performed rather than studied) knew a great deal more than we do about the background, and in places we must simply guess at what might have been going on, where they would have not been at all puzzled.
Because Paul is addressing many different situations, it is inevitable that he is not always consistent, and although he remains unmistakably the same Paul, different problems call forth different, or at least nuanced, responses from him. It is not respectful to the Apostle always to force him into consistency. At times, too, he is frankly very difficult. I defy anybody to read carefully through the Letter to the Romans and claim that they fully understand what Paul is saying. Even in that first century people were aware of this obscurity as a problem, as we see in 2 Peter, where the author warns his audience about "our beloved brother Paul" that in all his letters ... "there are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction". And it is certainly possible that when the Letter of James makes some dark remarks about the relationship between faith and works, the author is attacking either Paul or some of his more enthusiastic followers.
In more recent times, it was recalled how an illiterate old woman, freed from slavery in the United States, would say "Not that man!" when her family read the Bible to her, and suggested something from St Paul. The family remembered that she told them, "the master's minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters ... as unto Christ.' Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible."
St Paul, it is important to repeat, simply did not envisage that he might be taken as legislating for us today. So although as a good Jew, Paul, as he makes it clear in the opening chapter of Romans, felt that homosexuality was "against nature", it does not follow that we are faithful to his inspiration if today we use that as the end point of the debate, rather than one of its starting points.
To get Paul right, and to assess his legacy properly, it is essential to listen for the heart of his message. What is this heart? The moment that ineradicably changed his life, and has not ceased to echo today, was when he met Jesus. Paul is quite clear that he has done so, and Luke thought it such an important encounter that he tells the story no fewer than three times. The effect on Paul was quite startling. He was in no doubt that it was Jesus, quite against the run of play, whom he had met; so there was no question of "wishful thinking", or sunstroke or an epileptic fit, such as are often peddled as explanations of what took place. From that, it followed that what these irritating Jesus people had been claiming was, after all, true - that the Crucified One had indeed been raised from the dead by God. Therefore, he was indeed God's Messiah (which Paul had thought impossible).
More radical yet, Paul realised that he had to address Jesus as "Lord", the title that hitherto Paul would have reserved for God. This was doubly subversive, for it would lead him into conflict not only with his fellow Jews, but also with Roman society, at a time when the emperors were sending out signals that they were quite happy to be so addressed, and to be regarded as divinities.
Two further consequences seem to have followed for Paul. The first was that he understood himself to be charged with the task of telling "Gentiles" (non-Jews, such as most people reading this article) about this lordship of Jesus. The second was that this new way of life is not a private matter - not a matter of individuals in solitary relationship with Jesus. Christianity (to give the new movement a name that it did not yet possess) is not something you do alone, but is a corporate affair, done in solidarity with others.
That, it seems to me, is the heart of Paul. But a word of caution is necessary. Many competent scholars would give a very different account ("What about justification by faith?" I hear you cry), and the fact is, and has been for almost two millennia, that, just when you think you have pinned him down, Paul goes laughing away from you, and you are forced to look again at a text that you thought you understood.
One more feature of St Paul is essential to grasp - and it may be that "ordinary" readers (or hearers) of his letters are in a better position to understand than academics, who tend to shift uneasily at this sort of talk. It is that Paul was head over heels in love - there is no other phrase for it - with the Jesus whom he had met. That love drove him onwards for the rest of his life, and made all the horrid things that happened to him, and which occasionally he mentions (have a look at 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, for example), entirely worthwhile.
That love enabled him proudly to describe himself, in the first line of the Letter to the Romans, as "a slave of Jesus Christ". That same love drove him, like a demented gadfly, all the way round the Greek cities of the Mediterranean basin, preaching about the Risen Jesus. So if you really wish to grasp what is Paul's legacy, what you have to do is to read and re-read (preferably in company with others, rather than on your own) the letters that are attributed to him. Do so with an enquiring and attentive heart, and with an open mind, and allow him to exercise his age-old spell upon you. You will not regret it.