A New, Political Saint Paul?

Being and Event

by Alain Badiou, translated from the French by Oliver Feltham
Continuum, 526 pp., $21.95 (paper)

The Century

by Alain Badiou, translated from the French with commentary and notes by Alberto Toscano
Polity, 233 pp., $22.95 (paper)


by Alain Badiou, translated from the French with an introductionby Steve Corcoran
Verso, 339 pp., $26.95

Une querelle avec Alain Badiou, philosophe

by Éric Marty
Paris: Gallimard, 185 pp., €16.00 (paper)

On Belief

by Slavoj Zizek
Routledge, 170 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Tertullian called Saint Paul “the apostle of the heretics” and he was right. Ever since Marcion, the second-century theologian who thought Paul taught that the Christian God was a deity wholly distinct from and superior to the Hebrews’ Yahweh, the Pauline corpus has been creatively misread. It is hard to find much in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to inspire heretical thoughts, but Paul’s epistles, with their powerful intimations about sin, grace, and imminent redemption, are another matter.

As Monsignor Ronald Knox put it in his classic study Enthusiasm:

The mind of Paul has been misunderstood all down the centuries; there is no aberration of Christianity which does not point to him as the source of its inspiration, found as a rule, in his epistle to the Romans.

Paul continues to breed strange enthusiasms, which is why even today many Christians blame him for ruining the simple faith of the Apostolic Church. He has been denounced as a Hellenizer, a gnostic, a hater of the body, of Jews, of women, as the great destroyer of the pristine Gospel, a traitor worse than Judas. Even Nietzsche, who was no fan of Jesus, thought Paul had done him wrong.

Given these inflamed feelings, it remains difficult to figure out just “what Paul meant,” as Garry Wills puts it in the title of his clearheaded study. Though he thinks he understands why:

The heart of the problem is this. Paul entered the bloodstream of Western civilization mainly through one artery, the vein carrying a consciousness of sin, of guilt, of the tortured conscience. This is the Paul we came to know through the brilliant self-examinations of Augustine and Luther, of Calvin and Pascal and Kierkegaard. The profound writings of these men and their followers, with all their vast influence, amount to a massive misreading of Paul, to a historic misleading of the minds of people down through the centuries.

Wills wants to dislodge the myths and prejudices encrusting Paul’s epistles and restore his spiritual message to the language and setting of his own time before applying it to our own. This is a deflationary exercise, and Paul emerges from it a more ordinary figure in the early Christian world. Drawing selectively on contemporary biblical scholarship, Wills reminds us that nearly half of the Pauline epistles are probably inauthentic; that he never quotes the Greek or Roman authors that supposedly influenced him; that his condemnation of marriage was inspired by belief in the imminent Second Coming, not prudery; and that he argued for toleration between Gentile and Jewish Christians.

Still, one can’t help feeling that Wills’s apologia skirts the most interesting questions about Saint Paul’s place in Western thought. If the mythological figure is so different from the historical apostle, it seems to me the myths get more interesting, not less so. From Wills’s account you get little clue why a certain kind of mind is drawn to Paul, and to the Epistle to the Romans in particular, which contains…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.