RETURN TO RELIGION PAGE | E-MAIL ME
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT PAUL
no single figure in the history of Christianity has been more responsible for
shaping the modern church's theology and beliefs than the Jewish Pharisee from
Tarsus named Saulthe man we know better today as Paul. The supposed author
of thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, Paul's writings
have achieved the status of Holy Writ no other church father has come close
to emulating. His writings far surpass those of John and even Peterperhaps
the best known of Jesus' inner circleboth in terms of prolificacy and,
some might argue, theological depth. So great is his influence, in fact, that
his words are consistently quoted alongside those of Jesus. I often wonder if
Paul himself might not be surprised at the rarified stature he has achieved
through his letters. I suspect not, though that is pure conjecture.
However, this entire issue produces, at least for me, an intriguing question. How could Paul, a man who never met Jesus of Nazareth, never sat at the man's feet and learned how His Father's Kingdom was to be realized, and never witnessed him perform a miracle have surpassed those who did in authority? It seems remarkable that the bulk of the New Testament, arguably the most important collection of writings in history, was penned by a man who started out as the sworn enemy of the very church he later went on to champion.
what was it that made this man different from the other disciples? We know nothing,
for example, of Andrew's writings, or those of Philip and Nathanael. In fact,
of the twelve named disciples that originally followed Jesus, with the exception
of Peter, John and, potentially, Matthew, we have almost nothing of their writings.
It's not that they didn't have their roles and ministries; it's just that compared
to Paul, their accomplishments seem far less significant, which makes one wonder
why Jesus bothered to call out these twelve at all if a man from outside their
group was to one day be given the responsibility of taking the Gospel to all
So who was this Paul? What made him so special? Why was he believed, and even more importantly, were his writings divinely inspired and inerrant, or were they simply his perspectivea perspective shaped by his years as a Phariseemasquerading as unassailable truth? And if the latter, what does that portend for the Christian church? Clearly, finding the answers to these questions is important, for without the authority of Holy Spirit to back up Paul's words, much of the foundational teachings of historical Christianity must be brought into question. After all, it was Paul who championed salvation through grace and the all sufficiency of Christ's atoning death on the cross. It is Paul from whom we learn most of what it means to be a Christian, and it is Paul who set the moral tone for an entire faith. If all of it is merely his opinion, however, the church may be forced to reconstruct itself. Without Paul, we must go back to, if not square one, at least back to Jesus as our sole source of authority, and Jesus left much open to interpretation (as the early centuries of the Christian church consistently demonstrated).
Before any assessment of Paul's teachings can be made, however, it is imperative that the man himself be examined, for it is within the context of his biases and world view that we begin to understand why he wrote the things he did. No belief structure is produced in a vacuum; they are always driven by an agenda. Paul had a particular and unique perspective on what Christianity meant and that is what determined his theology. He was the apostle to the Gentilesor so he believedand that came with certain responsibilities and obligations unique to his counterparts at the time. He was a Jew in a Gentile world, and it would be only natural that would shape his beliefs. It is with this in mind we must examine Paul's writings to see how much of what we read is of God, and how much is simply Paul. It's vitally important to understand that the two are not the same.
who was this Saul of Tarsus? We can never know precisely, of course, for he
has long ago been mythologized into a larger-than-life character and, as such,
long ago lost the ability to be perceived in purely human terms. However, in
looking over his actions as recorded in Acts and his mindset as perceived in
his writings, we might begin to form at least a thumbnail sketch of the man.
Perhaps in doing that we might begin to understand what made the man "tick"so
to speakthereby making it possible to weigh his words and actions from
a purely psychological perspective and in so doing begin to detect how his mind
worked. If nothing else, it should provide us a valuable insight into the humanity
of a man who exists for us today only in legend.
Paulor, as he was known at the timeSaul, appears rather suddenly in scripture without preamble or introduction, as the young man guarding the people's coats at the stoning of the disciple Stephen in Acts chapter seven. He appears to be an obscure character; an observer of the stoning though not a participant, snuck into the narrative almost via the proverbial back door. Perhaps he had a role in the preacher's death as some have suggested, though Luke does not tell us that. At this point we simply don't know who the man is. All that quickly changes, however. By Acts chapter nine we have learned that Saul is soon much more than a disinterested bystander. He is a persecutor of Christiansan inquisitor of the kind that would not be seen until the darkest days of the Spanish Inquisition centuries later, making his role in Stephen's death, though not clearly spelled out, highly suspiciousespecially in light of his later activities. Was he the sort of man capable of blithely standing by and watching Stephen succumb to multiple abrasions and fractures, confident in his own mind that he was having a hand in "God's work" in ridding Jerusalem of the hated Christian sect? Did Saul, in his own mind in any case, see himself as God's chosen vessela man who, like one of the prophets of old, Jehovah would use to destroy the latest challenge to His sovereignty? This was a man steeped in the legal technicalities of the ponderous Mosaic Laws and confident of his own righteousness, which is the very attitude that exists within the heart of every persecutor.
Saul's rise to "stardom" was rapid and he quickly built a name for himself among the Jews. To some, he was a feared man intent on driving the members of the fledgling Christian sect underground or out of the city. To others he was God's chosen instrument to maintain the purity of the faith once given to the patriarchs. His capacity to instill fear into the Jewish Christians must have been considerable, for it was only a short time before he had successfully put many of the dead Nazarene's followers into prison. So successful was he, in fact, and by now so intoxicated with his own sense of purpose and righteous indignation, he sought permission to seek out the Jewish Christians in Damascus. His campaign of terror, so successfully perpetrated in Jerusalem, was going on the road.
But something quite unexpected happened. Saul had a vision of the very Jesus whose followers he was systematically repressing. Struck blind by this "chance" encounter, the shaken and terrified Saul is led into the city by his companions and left to ponder his fate. Three days of sitting in the dark pondering his own now dismal futurefor the life of a blind beggar was all he could look forward toleft him depressed and broken. Not only were his career aspirations dashed, but his entire world view had been destroyed. If Saul ever contemplated suicide over the course of his life, that was probably the moment.
Remarkablyand ironically, it seemsthree days later Paul's sight was miraculously restored by one of the very Christians he was attempting to imprison, perhaps forcing him to admit to himself how presumptuous he had been in deciding that Jesus was a sham. Obvious, God had shown him the error of his ways in a most dramatic fashion. Not remarkably, he abruptly changed allegiances and began loudly proclaiming the Lordship of this Jesus of Nazareth. Also not remarkably, he wasn't believed. To some it was a clever trick. To many, it was evidence Saul had left his senses. His detractors were legionhis supporters almost nonexistent. It was only through the greatest bit of luck he was able to escape the city at all, only to spend the next few years wandering the region trying to figure out what to do next.
Eventually Saul came to understand what he was to do. His task was clear. Jesus had commanded him to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and he threw himself into his new role with the same degree of determination and energy he had expended in persecuting the church. He quickly dropped his Jewish name and adapted its Greek or Gentile equivelent and "Paul" was born. Within a few decades his ministry had set the Gentile world on fire and would secure him a place in history as that of the greatest of the apostles.
But what kind of man was Paul? What can we determine about him through a careful examination of his letters and some understanding of human nature? Much, it seems. A careful review of his writings reveal much about this enigmatic character, and gives us much to consider when deciding whether Paul is a man we can trust and follow.
first thing we can surmise it that it seems Paul wasn't a very different sort
of man in his later years than he had been in his younger. Less brash to be
sure and considerably more thoughtful and compassionate, he was no less judgmental
and intransigent than he had been when he wore the robes of a Pharisee. Paul
was always a black and white thinker who saw the world through very narrow blinders.
To him, people were either an ally of or the enemy of Christ. People were either
made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb or were depraved sinners
bent on their own sensual path of destruction. There was, apparently, no in
between with him. Consider this passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
"So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no
longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are
darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of
the arrogance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost
all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge
in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more." (Eph. 4:17-19
Clearly, Paul is a man who sees God's wrath as clearly as he sees His love, never for a moment addressing the obvious contradiction between the two. It is with this world view that he pens most of his epistles, and why the wrathful God is alive and well today. Without Paul's assurance of the existance of an angry God, I suspect the traditionally-held view of God might be significantly different. To Paul, God was a wrathful being who would and will destroy mankind except for those who have embraced Christ, maintaining, as he has written, that all humanity ". . . were by nature objects of wrath." (Eph. 2:3 NIV.) He even sees God as the great equalizer when he finds solace in the knowledge that "Alexander the metalworker" will be "repaid" by the Lord for the harm he has caused (2 Tim. 3:14 NIV.) It was the very same attitude Paul maintained against the Christians he had earlier persecuted with such zeal. It is the mindset for a persecutor.
But what of the Damascus road experience? Didn't Paul have a legitimate revelation from God that made the reasons for his later writings self-explanatory? Shouldn't we follow him on that basis alone, regardless of what sort of man he might have been at times?
That depends upon whether the Damascus road conversion was a truly miraculous event that took place outside of himself or something that occurred all within the confines of his own fevered imagination. I'm not saying here that Paul invented the experience or that something didn't happen to him that afternoon. I'm only asking if there isn't more than one way to perceive what it was exactly that did happen?
Here's what we know about the incident, at least according to Luke's gospel. Saul, after apparently finishing his nefarious work in Jerusalem, had received permission to ferret the Christians out from among the Jewish community (remember, at this point most Christians were Jewish) in Damascus. While on the way there he saw a "bright light" all around him that knocked him to the ground and blinded him, at which point he believed he was in the presence of the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, who told him that he was to take his gospel to all the world. Three days later he was to regain his eyesightthanks to the prayers of a Jewish Christian in Damascus named Annaniasand Saul became a full-fledged convert to the fledgling faith.
So what are we to make of this story? A genuine vision or something more? I think the key to answering this question is contained in the earlier incident in which Stephen was stoned to death for heresy. Recall in that story Saul appeared to be little more than a bystander, though there are clues that he was more than that. In Acts chapter eight, verse 1 we read that: "And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him [Stephen] to death." In fact, that's when Saul's anti-Christian rampage began, for it tells us just two versus later that: "Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison." Curious how quickly Saul went from bystander to chief inquisitor. Does this not suggest he had more of a role in Stephen's death than the scriptures ascribe to him? Consider the following possibility: Saul, a fiery and self-righteous Pharisee determined to destroy the tiny Jewish sect known as Christianity before it can grow too large looks for a way he might do this. Stephen, one of the leaders and most eloquent defenders of the new faith, stands in his way. His popularity and pursuasiveness is a threat to Saul's self-styled mission to purge the orthodox church of all traces of the Galileean rabbi's teachings (teachings which may have been around for almost a decade by the time he came on the scene). Perhaps using what influence he has with the more senior members of the Jewish elite, Saul is able to convince a select groupor perhaps simply tap into the antiChristian vein already running through the more radical elements of the faith that Stephen is a threat, which manages to bring him before the Sanhedrin for trial. Of course, Luke doesn't tell us that Saul was part of this august body, though it is almost inconceivable that he wouldn't have been involved in some way in bringing events to a head, especially in light of the authority this same body was to grant him in the immediate aftermath of what happened next.
What happened next is well known: despite an elegent defense of his beliefs, emotions became charged and some of the more excitable among the people drug Stephen out into the street and began stoning him. Saul, satisfied with the day's work and too proper to get his own hands dirty, decided not to engage in the Divinely mandated punishment but offered to keep an eye on the coats of those who had no such qualms. He watched as the young man died a slow and painful death at the hands of his fellow Jews, never for a moment raising his voice in an effort to restore reason and calm to the situation. In fact, scripture tells us he even felt the killing was justified and, in being permitted, was evidence of God's will. Whether directly responsible for Stephen's death or not, Saul had played a role in the man's death, at least as an instigator.
What's important to realize about this, however, is that Saul wasn't a killer in his own right. The contemporary belief that he martyred Christians en masse is merely tradition unsubstantiated by scripture. The Bible instead tells us only that Saul had the authority to put Jews into prison for their aberrant beliefs. He probably also had the ability to put them out of the temple which, to a Jew, was the equivalent of being permanently exiled. It meant a break with family and friends who did not choose to follow the Galilean rabbi's teachings and even destitution as work was denied one who had been put out of the synagogue. In other words, Saul's role was never to kill Jews but to merely disenfranchise them, which was a slow death in its own right. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that Stephen was the first man to die directly as a result of Saul's actions. What sort of effect it might have had on him could only be surmised, but I suspect if history is any indicator, it was a very powerful one, and one likely to have started him down the road to becomming a true killer. He must have felt a surge of power run through him at the idea that God was using him as an instrument of his righteous wrath, which in turn encouraged him to become more vocal and bold in his denunciation of the fledgling Jewish sect known as the Christ ones (or Christians). It was the same mindset that later persecutors must've felt (and continue to feel today). After all, even the most prolific heretic hunter of the sixteenth century probably started by throwing people out of the church at first before eventually graduating to throwing them into prison. Next they might oversee the tortures before finally taking a turn at applying the pain personally. The final step would be sending men and women to their death for heresy as a natural, final product of a religious belief turned into an excuse for mass murder. Had Saul taken the first sure steps in that direction?
Perhaps. In any case, he was apparently successful enough at suppressing the Christian sect in Jerusalem that he decided to try his hand in Damascus, where there was another small but thrivingand as such dangerouscommunity of Jewish Christians to persecute. Receiving permission to take his one man heretic hunt on the road, that's when he had his little incident that was to change his outlook for the rest of his life. So what happened that afternoon? Did the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth suddenly appear to himas he contendsto talk him out of his nefarious plans or could there be another explanation? I contend that what happened was that Paul had not an encounter with the Son of God but was instead greeted by a common and dangerous meteorological phenomenon. I submit, in fact, nothing less than that Saul of Tarsus was hitor nearly hitby lightning.
Consider this possibility: what if Saul, riding along with his companions (probably hired guards to defend him from robbers) was ridingh upon a horse (or whatever it was that Saul was riding) across an open plain beneath a dark and cloudy sky (the scriptures doesn't tell us what the weather conditions were at the moment, only that he claims that he was struck around "noonday"). Clearly he would have made a superb lightning rod; was that what sent him to the ground and singed his eyes, temporarily blinding him? Certainly such symptoms would not be inconsistent with a lightning strike and could easily explain the three days he sat in darkness. Then his companions, apparently somewhat less impressed with the experience as Saul was (they, after all, supposedly only heard a "sound"a thunderclap?but could not understand what it said) and apparently placed the man back on his steedor put him on one of their own if the poor animal had not been as fortunate as the rabbiand dropped him off at the first place they could find in Damascus, leaving him to fend for himself. (Not exactly the sort of companions I would want on my heretic hunt.)
But what happens next is the key to understanding Saul's dramatic change of heart. Consider that the man had just about been killed by a bolt of lightning and had, at a minimum, lost his eyesight. In the context of that era, such and event would not have been seen as a common meteorological phenomenon but as an act of God. Even more so, it would have been interpreted by the ultra-religious Saul as a warninga warning he would have naturally interpreted as meaning that he must cease all further persecution of the Christians (of course, in being rendered blind his future as a persecutor looked bleak in any respect). He could have interpreted it no other wayespecially three days later when a Christian named Annanias came by to pray over him to "miraculously" restore his eyesight from a blindness was only temporary and that it would return naturally after a few days in any case. But in his world Annanias' act of kindness was another sign from God and confirmation that the Christian church was the "true" church. He had merely chosen the wrong side initially but now understood what side God was on. Taken in the context of his possible guilt over instigating Stephen's martyrdom, it's difficult to see how he could have seen the event in any other way. Poor Saul had no choice but to convert, both for his own safety and because once more God had chosen him to be his instrument of righteousness. The transition from orthodox Jew and persecutor of Christians to Messianic Jew and defender of the Christian faith was as natural as a change of clothes and the rest is, as they say, history.
Of course, I can't prove that this is what happened on the road to Damascus but it does seem to hold together logically (and even goes far in explaining Paul's eye problems alluded to throughout his writings; a permanent after effect of his close call with electricity, perhaps?) All I know is that if human nature is any guide, a lightning strike would have been interpreted as a divine event rather than a natural one and would have undoubtedly had a profound effect on anyone with Saul's mindset at that time in history (just as it likely would to some people today). It may be that traditional Christianity owes more to the vagaries of static electricity than to the deft hand of the Almightybut then perhaps might not one be part of the other? In any case, it's curious to imagine what the history of Christianity would have been like had Saul not had his little experience, thereby changing the very nature and thrust of the burgeoning faith. Just a thought.
this in mind then, we can ask ourselves just how did the Damascus road experience
impact the man? Did it change him for the better or simply alter his allegience?
Clearly the case can be made for the latter far easier than for the former.
Paul considered himself God's chosen instrument to restore the purity of the
Jewish faith when he set about persecuting the Christians living in Jerusalem
and then later thought of himself as God's chosen instrument to take the Gospel
to the gentiles (and only after the Jews had all but rejected him in any case).
Clearly, Paul was the type of person who always considered himself special,
a chosen vessel, the guarantor of eternal truth (despite his later statements
to the contrary. His true beliefs belie his writings.) And that is the great
problem with the man. Paul is not a man who could be trusted, for he is a man
who never changed. The humility of the Divine is often absent from his pen when
he writes of the real or imagined sleights against him perpetrated by those
for whom God will "punish later." He is just as angry with and determined
to do battle against his "enemies" as he was in the beginning, so
again we must ask the question of whether it is wise to follow this man too
closely. Yes, on occasion his pen could capture the soul of a truly repentant
man, and at times his words could sing with beauty, truth, and radiance, but
we would be wise to recognize that Paul and his writings are an unavoidably
human construct designed to present only a single point-of-view from a man who
was the product of his day and age. Take from them what you find of value and
disregard the rest, for to invest them with more weight than they should have
| RELIGION PAGE | HOME