Who Was Saint Paul?

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Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Parmigianino: The Conversion of Saint Paul, circa 1527

I doubt that Karen Armstrong really believes that Saint Paul is “the apostle we love to hate,” as the subtitle of her book proclaims, not least because her view of him is so balanced and well informed. But she shows clearly that he is the most enigmatic and controversial figure in the early history of Christianity. He was a Jew from Tarsus, in what is today southeastern Turkey, and a Roman citizen. His Jewish name was Saul, but Paul his Roman one. He made his way from Tarsus to Palestine, where he became a virulent opponent of the growing movement that Jesus had launched, a movement that both Jews and Romans feared as potentially seditious precisely because it constituted, as Armstrong rightly calls it, “a sect within Judaism” and had in this case a Messiah of its own.

Paul’s complicity in the stoning in Jerusalem of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, remains one of the most shocking episodes in his career. He was later to devote himself to spreading the message of Jesus, whose followers had accepted him as the Christ (the anointed), which was the Greek equivalent of Messiah. But Paul had never met Jesus or even heard him preach. Only once did he hear his voice, and that was during a miraculous revelation on the road to Damascus, when Jesus addressed him after the Crucifixion. The risen Christ wanted to know why Paul was persecuting him.

This dramatic revelation, which led to Paul’s instantaneous conversion, did not, however, immediately inaugurate his extensive travels, for which he is best known, to promote the teachings of Jesus. Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles, but as eleven of them (Judas Iscariot having died) had seen Jesus after his resurrection, Paul determined from his encounter with the resurrected Jesus that he too was an apostle. Even so, he prudently chose not to confront the other apostles in Jerusalem, who might reasonably have questioned such an abrupt change in one of their most vigorous persecutors.

He opted instead, as he wrote later to the Galatians, to travel in Arabia. Why he went there and what he did no one knows, although Karen Armstrong suspects that his skill as a tent-maker would have been useful among the nomads, who were known as tent-dwellers (skênitai). She also speculates that he may have been inspired to reflect on Abraham as the father of the Jews, even though Abraham had not been born a Jew, or on Moses, who had received the Torah not so far away in Sinai.

Paul ultimately returned to Damascus, which had come under the control of the Nabataean Arabs. He was obliged to make an ignominious escape from the city wall in a basket, supposedly to avoid a Jewish plot against him. By his own account three years had passed when he finally went back to Jerusalem, although Armstrong can do little, apart from her allusions to Abraham and Moses, to suggest where he was or what he was doing in those years. Paul’s modest credentials as an apostle may have given him pause, certainly in Jerusalem, where he spent only two weeks and limited his visits to Peter and to James, the brother of Jesus.

This would imply that he had difficulty in launching his evangelical career. From Jerusalem, as he told the Galatians, he went into Syria and Cilicia, but since his face was unknown to the churches of Judaea he was known only by reputation as the persecutor who had by now become an evangelist. That is, they did not know him as a person. Since we next hear of Paul when the Christian disciple Barnabas summoned him from Tarsus to address the Jews at Antioch about 40 AD, he had obviously gone back to his own city. The years between the revelation on the road to Damascus and the mission to Antioch are the most significant gap in Paul’s career.

According to the Acts of the Apostles the word “Christian” first came into use at Antioch, and it must have been coined for those Jews Paul met in Antioch. Before he undertook his many missions to spread the “good news” (euaggelia) across the Mediterranean world—from Antioch, to Cyprus, to Turkey, to Greece, and ultimately to Rome—he had first to secure his claim to be an apostle with the survivors of the Twelve, and that meant finding a part for himself in the Jewish sect that Jesus, now the Christ, had created. He and the apostle Peter divided up the missionary work of the Christians, so that Peter would preach to the Jews and Paul to the gentiles. But from that day to this the concept of gentile has been a slippery one. Paul never hesitated to speak before both Jews and gentiles, and to instruct them on their obligations both as Jews and as Christians.

Yet these obligations were by no means compatible. Jewish males had to be circumcised, and at Lystra in Asia Minor Paul had not hesitated, out of respect for the Jews in the area, to circumcise his follower Timothy because his mother, though a Christian, was a Jew. Everyone knew, as the Acts report, that Timothy’s father was Greek, which evidently meant that he was neither Jewish nor Christian. Jews had to live by the Torah. But as Paul told the Galatians with breathtaking audacity, the law could actually be fulfilled by following a single precept, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In saying this, he effectively collapsed into one Jesus’s two greatest commandments, to love God and to love your neighbor. According to Matthew, Jesus had said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Paul’s startlingly reductionist interpretation of the law, as he expounded it to the Galatians, was not an aberration, for he later repeated it in writing to the Romans, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” The biblical scholar L.L. Welborn begins his book on Paul’s preaching about the Messiah with this bold doctrine about fulfilling the law through love. He stresses that because Paul was concerned with the present time (ho nun kairos), not with what lay in the future, it was important to recognize that the Messiah had already come, and that the law could be observed through universal love by all who followed him.

Paul’s willingness to accommodate non-Jewish Christians seems to have set in motion the gradual detachment of Christianity from its Jewish origins. As early as the first decades of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch could write, in his letter to the people of Magnesia-on-the-Maeander in Asia Minor:

Let us learn to live in accordance with Christianity, for whoever is said to be more than this by another name, is not of God….It is unnatural to talk about Jesus Christ and to live like a Jew. Christianity does not put its faith in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity.

For all that, Paul was himself a Jew, circumcised, and a former Pharisee.

What we know at first hand about Paul’s preaching derives entirely from his own writings, which consist largely of letters to churches. Of these half a dozen are considered inauthentic in that they are not actually his own work, though they possibly incorporate Pauline material. The narrative account of his missions, which can be found in the Acts of the Apostles, is generally ascribed to the evangelist Luke, who clearly had his own agenda in conveying an image of Paul as an ecumenical Jewish philhellene, more indebted to classical Greek language and culture than he probably was. Long ago the Harvard scholar Arthur Darby Nock pointed out that Paul’s own Greek is distinctly unclassical and largely dependent on the Greek of the Septuagint; the soaring rhetoric of the speech that Luke assigns to him on the Areopagus at Athens about local worship of the “Unknown God” probably says more about Luke than it does about Paul.

Paul’s authentic utterances in his letters often conflict with one another. At times they advocate Jewish law and Jewish practices, such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and observance of the Sabbath, and at other times they appear to suggest that the love imposed by Christian universalism should bring Jews and Christians together without distinction.

Famously Paul proclaimed in his letter to the Galatians that there was no difference between slave and free, Jew and Greek, and male and female: “You are all one in Jesus Christ.” In doing this Paul seemed to separate Christians from the Jewish roots of their faith. That is why Paul’s doctrine has sometimes been seen as moving the new religion away from the Torah. In the nineteenth century the Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) wrote, “It was Paul who delivered the Christian religion from Judaism.” In fact it was this perception that had greatly impressed deviant Christian teachers, such as Marcion of Sinope, in the middle of the second century. Inspired by Paul, Marcion had rejected the Hebrew Bible altogether in favor of a uniquely Christian scripture, of which the New Testament was the fundamental part. It was only a few decades after this that the eloquent church father Tertullian declared Paul to be haereticorum apostolus, “the apostle of the heretics.”

In giving Paul that label, Tertullian was well aware that Paul himself had written in his letter to the Romans that he was “the apostle of the nations” (apostolos ethnôn). This has always been taken to mean that he was the apostle to the gentiles as Peter was the apostle to the Jews. But as with most issues that involve Paul, there is confusion and contradiction. For one thing, the concept of gentile—a Latin word—was originally neither Jewish nor Greek. A recent attempt to credit Paul with “the invention of the gentiles” founders on the ambivalence of the relevant words in Greek.1

But there is no doubt that when Paul said he was the apostle of the nations he was clearly following the usage of the Septuagint in rendering the Hebrew goy. This is a word that initially meant people or nation, just like ethnos in Greek, but later acquired in rabbinic texts the sense of non-Jew, or gentile, and this seems to be what Paul means when he refers in Greek to nations. Yet even when he contrasts Jews with nations (in the sense of gentiles), he also makes exactly the same contrast by referring to non-Jews as Greeks, therefore gentiles under another name. For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians, in successive verses, he distinguishes Jews from nations, and then Jews from Greeks—obviously intending in both cases to make the same distinction between Jews and gentiles.

Similarly in his letter to the Romans Paul contrasts Jews with Greeks, even though elsewhere he breaks up the category of nations (ethnê, in the sense of gentiles) into Greeks and barbarians. This clearly reflects the Greek practice of calling non-Greeks barbarians. But the concept of gentile seems ill suited to barbarians. Perhaps Paul actually believed that barbarians were gentiles, but nothing in his mission suggests that he did.

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Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome/Scala/Art Resource
Caravaggio: The Conversion of Saint Paul, 1600–1601

The spurious letter to the Colossians contains a passage that closely parallels the famous universalism that Paul preached to the Galatians, when he brought together as one both Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female. But the non-Pauline letter to the Colossians varies the formulation unexpectedly by adding Scythian and barbarian. David Goldenberg was the first to see that this was nothing less than the traditional rabbinic opposition between extreme north and extreme south—between the Scythians in the north and the inhabitants of Barbary (Kush), in the Horn of Africa, in the south.2 But the barbarians in Paul’s undoubtedly authentic letter to the Romans, where they are contrasted with Greeks, can only be there to represent non-Greeks. They are, in effect, to the Greeks what the Greeks or ethnê are to the Jews. The barbarians are the Greeks’ gentiles.

Paul’s pronouncements shifted over time. He sometimes advocated the harmonious cohabitation of observant Jews who accepted Christ with gentile Christians whom he released from the Jewish law. At other times, as in his letter to the Romans, he segregated the two groups and strongly defended the Jewish law. Hence, to what extent Paul, who by his own admission was a missionary to the gentiles, nonetheless remained a Jew remains highly contested. Karen Armstrong is quite correct to state unequivocally, “Paul never forgot that he was a Jew,” but remembering his Jewishness does not necessarily imply that he lived according to Jewish law. Some of the apostles in Jerusalem might conceivably have felt that he had turned his back on Judaism in consorting with uncircumcised Christians whom he had baptized as one with him in Christ.

In his new book, with the puzzling subtitle The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (how many lives did he have?), John Gager wrestles heroically with the divergences and contradictions in Paul’s message. He tries to reconfigure Paul wholly as a Jew. He does so by attempting to reconcile those Pauline texts that he characterizes as “pro-Israel” (pro-circumcision, pro-law) with those that he finds to be “anti-Israel” (anti-circumcision, anti-law). His book is only the latest stage in a series of revisionist approaches to early Christianity that have progressively diminished the strongly anti-Semitic side of the early church in favor of a more benign view of the separation of Judaism and Christianity as a mere “parting of the ways.” By now we have grown accustomed to representations of Jesus the Jew, as he undoubtedly was. But Gager’s book goes far beyond that in giving us not only the most recent but the most uncompromising depiction of Paul as a Jew. By his own admission he presents “an entirely new view of Paul—the view that he was not the father of Christian anti-Judaism, indeed that he was not Christian at all.”

Gager explicitly acknowledges his debt to the last work of the noted rabbinic scholar and philosopher Jacob Taubes, whose book The Political Theology of Paul brought together in 2004 the views that he had expounded in a seminar at Heidelberg in 1987 near the end of his life. For Taubes, Paul was a Jewish zealot, “more Jewish than any Reform rabbi or any Liberal rabbi I ever heard.” In advocating a Jewish Paul at Heidelberg, before a Protestant audience, Taubes was being deliberately provocative in the nation where Adolf von Harnack and other Protestants had long since looked to Paul as the apostle who divorced Christianity from Judaism. But he was also tapping into a growing interest in Pauline universalism that came to include such left-wing European intellectuals as Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek, who have adopted and enlarged Taubes’s perspective on Paul.3 The view of Taubes and his admirers has transformed Paul’s insistence on loving one’s neighbor into a shortcut to satisfying Jewish law, but such a simplification of his preaching is more well intentioned than well argued.

Gager’s argument for reconciling the contradictions in Paul’s message proceeds differently, but it too does not carry conviction or take us beyond the current debate. He proposes that Paul’s “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel” texts merely indicate the different constituencies to which he was talking. In addressing Jews, Paul is imagined to have upheld circumcision, dietary restrictions, the Sabbath, and the law; in addressing gentile Christians he supposedly adapted his message so as not to frighten his listeners by suggesting that they had to become Jews and undergo circumcision. Gager’s interpretations of the blatant contradictions he identifies in Paul’s letters presuppose that Paul’s Jewish enemies must have been entirely inside what Gager and others regularly call the Jesus movement. Of course this movement was Jewish at the start, but even though some two decades or more have elapsed, Gager insists that Paul is talking to Christian Jews in his “pro-Israel” texts.

With commendable candor Gager admits that almost everyone has read Paul’s words differently. But the supervening question is one that he does not address, and that is when Christianity ceased to be a Jewish sect and became a distinct religion. There is no way in which Christian Jews of the first generation could have continued to be observant Jews if they followed the precepts that Paul dispensed to the gentile Christians. There is no way that he himself could have consorted with the gentile Christians if he saw himself as totally Jewish. It is hard to believe that Paul would have been preaching different and irreconcilable messages to two different congregations as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Since Peter had undertaken to be the apostle to the Jews when Paul went to preach to the gentiles, one has to ask where Peter was in the internal disputes that Gager believes Paul was addressing when confronting Jewish enemies inside the Jesus movement. These could only have been Christian Jews.

Paul’s letter to the Romans, in anticipation of his visit to the imperial city, resumes his injunction to love one’s neighbor as a means of fulfilling Jewish law, but in his letter this injunction immediately follows, to the astonishment of many readers, an impassioned plea to obey civic authorities:

Every person must submit to the supreme powers, for this power can only be of God…. The ruling authorities pose no fear to good action but to bad. Do you wish not to be afraid of authority? Do good, and you will receive praise from it. Therefore pay taxes, for civic officials (leitourgoi) are of God.

These words seem so out of place before the ensuing plea to love one’s neighbor that some have thought they were not by Paul at all, but added later. Yet this is a desperate recourse in interpreting one of the clearly genuine letters. Armstrong reasonably proposes that Paul is calculating the impact of his arrival in the capital city of the Roman empire, where a few decades earlier the emperor Claudius had expelled those Jews who followed Christ for being seditious. Paul’s advocacy of temporal authority, though not inconsistent with loving one’s neighbor, looks more pragmatic than pastoral.

The new Paul, both Jewish and universalist, as Taubes, Badiou, Gager, and others have delineated him, is attractive, but Paul’s own writings remain an immovable obstacle to accepting this view. The contradictions and inconsistencies in his preaching still provide ample support for the old Paul, the Paul of Tertullian, who was the apostle of the heretics, and the Paul of Harnack, who delivered Christianity from Judaism. It is perhaps best to see Paul as infinitely flexible, perhaps even opportunistic, in his evangelical mission. After all, he was barely an apostle at all at the start. He had to work hard to establish himself in the apostolic tradition after his sudden conversion from persecutor to evangelist. In setting himself up as the apostle of the gentiles, while being himself a Jew, he faced incompatible traditions that he did his best to reconcile. If Gager goes too far in imagining that Paul might not even have been a Christian, he plausibly dissects the dilemma that Paul faced in advancing his apostolic career.

A contemporary of Harnack, Friedrich Nietzsche, certainly did not admire Paul, as Harnack did, for delivering Christianity from Judaism. Nietzsche had a very different view of Paul, as a Jew who was “ambitious and importunate” with a mind “as superstitious as it was cunning.” He was a “very unpleasant man” with an “extravagant lust for power,” but wracked by anxiety over how to fulfill the Jewish law. “How he hated it,” wrote Nietzsche. By converting to Christianity Paul succeeded in throwing down the cross of the law “to which he felt himself nailed.” Obviously Nietzsche’s Paul is hardly today’s new Paul, but he is still very much a Jew.

As Abed Azzam tries to show in Nietzsche Versus Paul, a dense study that is regrettably almost unreadable, it was Paul’s anxiety about the Torah that led him to take up Christianity and thereby to subvert the radiant Greek culture that Nietzsche associated with Apollo and Dionysus. The decline had begun earlier with Platonism, which Nietzsche seems to have viewed as a kind of Christianity before Christianity. By a tortuous path, Azzam brings Nietzsche oddly close to Taubes and Badiou. Yet Nietzsche’s Antichrist remained stubbornly Dionysian. Ezra Pound, in his poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” intuitively grasped this when he wrote:

Christ follows Dionysus,
phallic and ambrosial.

What Nietzsche did not know was that Dionysus had his revenge in the fifth century. An accomplished Christian poet from Egypt, Nonnos of Panopolis, the author of a verse paraphrase of the Gospel of John in Greek, wrote a huge epic poem in forty-eight books of Greek hexameters on the travels and exploits of Dionysus. For centuries scholars have found it hard to believe that a Christian could have written this dazzling work. We know better now, as the line between pagans and Christians has become ever more blurred, but Nietzsche would have understood. Nonnos became Dionysus’s apostle of the Christians.

  1. 1

    Ishay Rosen-Zvi and Adi Ophir, “Paul and the Invention of the Gentiles,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 105, No. 1 (Winter 2015). 

  2. 2

    See David M. Goldenberg, “Scythian-Barbarian: The Permutations of a Classical Topos in Jewish and Christian Texts of Late Antiquity,” Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 49 (1998). 

  3. 3

    See Mark Lilla’s review in these pages, October 23, 2008, of Taubes’s book, Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, and works by Agamben and others.