Based on Paul: The Founder of Christianity. Prometheus Books, 2002.
Paul, from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, is rightly regarded as one of the most influential figures in the Christian West. He was at once a Jew, a Roman, and a Christian. Above all, he saw himself as an apostle called personally by the risen Jesus to take the Gospel to the Gentile world. But his life’s work, dedicated to the service of the Risen Christ, only partly explains his tremendous importance.
The primary reason for this lasting impact is that Gentiles who believed in Christ made the apostle Paul the pillar of the Christian church and gave him a permanent place in it: first of all, as the author of seven authentic letters which became part of the New Testament and then, as a letter-writer to whom six further letters were attributed and similarly accepted into holy scripture. (Those who collected the letters of Paul did not, however, realize that half the letters did not come from him at all, even though they claimed him as the sender.) In other words, thirteen of the New Testament letters bear Paul’s name as author. Nor is that all. An additional seven were added which were falsely attributed to figures like Peter, James and Jude, or were indirectly ascribed to John. The model of Paul’s writings stimulated the formation of this collection of Catholic letters. Without the apostle to the Gentiles and his work, it would never have existed.
Paul’s influence shows itself not only in the authentic, the forged, and the fictitious letters, but it is evident also in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the second part of which is devoted exclusively to Paul. So Paul’s person stands at the center of a third of the New Testament. It is no wonder that he had an overwhelming effect on church history, quite apart from the fact that whole libraries have been written about him. But in world history, too, Paul was still playing a decisive role at the beginning of modernity. In the sixteenth century, Western Christianity split into two blocs over the correct interpretation of the doctrine of justification. This still has incalculable consequences, even in politics.
Of course, Paul can hardly be held responsible for everything that has been written about him and done with reference to him. Given his significance for world history and the abundant literature about each of the extant letters, it is eminently worthwhile to study him carefully. And the controversy over him will continue because only now is the history of exegesis being discovered as an independent discipline, a perspective from which new insights are being gained. Although these approaches are welcomed, they make the way towards the historical Paul even more difficult. My thesis is that despite the tremendous distance of two thousand years separating us from him, we can and should try to write a critical history of Paul in order to evaluate him in every respect. That is the task I am setting forth for myself in this obituary, which takes the form of a retelling of his life.
Paul was born around the same time as Jesus, but some four hundred road miles north of his master’s native Galilee. He was a Diaspora Jew and had inherited Roman citizenship from his father. As a result, he had a share in two worlds: the Jewish world and the Greco-Roman world. Certainly some restrictions were imposed on contact with Greeks, and we cannot be sure that Paul studied the Greek classics. However, he did receive a basic education, mediated through Hellenistic Judaism, which included instruction in the Greek language and rhetoric. At the same time, impressions from his environment remained, and these are reflected later in his letters. Paul went to the theater, followed the contests in the arena, and witnessed philosophical feuds in the market place. In other words, he was imbued with the breadth and beauty of the Hellenistic world and its innate rational temper as well. Even as a child, Paul may have been prompted to wish that one day he would become part of this great cosmos.
But, at the same time, his ancestral religion gave him a sense of belonging and with it, knowledge of its exclusiveness. He learned by heart large parts of the Holy Scripture in Greek (Septuagint). He was no average member of his ancestral religion but someone who took seriously the God who had chosen Israel and given it the commandments by which to live. No wonder, then, that sooner or later Paul left his ancestral home for Jerusalem. He had to go and study at the place where his heavenly Father had had the temple built and where -- by divine grace -- daily sacrifice took place for the sins of the Jews. Here, the center for all true Jews was to be found. Here, the young zealot completed his education as a Pharisee, and here, he wanted to work where God had placed him. His was a scholar’s career, which, like that of his teacher Gamaliel, seemed to have been pre-programmed.
However, as a result of his zeal -- or should we say fanaticism? -- things turned out otherwise. In Jerusalem, Paul got to know a group of Greek-speaking Jews who went to the same Cilician synagogue as he did but who named themselves after a crucified Jew named Jesus and even confessed that he was Messiah. Not only that, they claimed that he had been elevated by God and to this added criticism of the Law: as if the proclamation of the crucified Jesus as Messiah were not enough! It was too much for Paul. As had often happened to the elect of Israel, he was driven to act out of zeal for the ancestral law, to the glory of God. He attempted to nip this new movement in the bud by the use of physical force. Other fellow-countrymen, including his teacher Gamaliel, thought that as yet there was no reason to intervene -- at any rate in such a Draconian way. But the young zealot took a completely different view, and the subsequent development of this group of followers of Jesus who originally came from the Diaspora was to prove him right. It was the beginning of a movement that would soon be a deadly threat to Jews; the notion that he was to play a key role in its dissemination would have taken his breath away.
Still, the inconceivable happened: in the midst of a bloody persecution, the very one whose followers he was pursuing appeared to Paul in heavenly form. Seeing him in his glory, Paul had no doubts. It was imperative to enter into his service, for surely this was the Son of God, and all that his followers had said of him was true. All this happened so suddenly that Paul had no choice. He had no alternative. He had to seek to join the community that previously he had been persecuting. Since all this took place at a deeply emotional level, Paul temporarily lost his sight immediately after this heavenly vision. But one of his new brothers in the faith, Ananias, healed him, of course in the name of Jesus: Ananias welcomed Paul and instructed him in the new faith which the persecutor so far knew only in a rudimentary way.
Now, Paul had time to reflect on how Jesus had appeared to him and what it meant. He recalled all those passages in scripture in which a future Messiah had been prophesied. But how could he reconcile with this the fact that the Christian Messiah had died on the cross, in other words that he had suffered? In his previous studies, Paul had never learned of anything like a suffering Messiah. However, since his encounter with the heavenly Lord unmistakably proved to him that this was none other than the crucified Jesus, the ex-Pharisee who was so knowledgeable about the Bible did not find it difficult to give an answer. In a bold leap of thought, he combined the Jewish ideal of the Messiah with the Suffering Servant from the book of Isaiah. This was made easier by the fact that the suffering of Jesus was in any case only a transitional stage before his entrance into the heavenly glory. And this must be true not only for Jesus but also for all other Christians. They would all suffer tribulation before the great Day.
In scripture, Paul also discovered a special role for himself in the heavenly drama. He swiftly remembered those passages in which the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah said that God himself had set them aside from their mothers’ wombs. Paul applied this directly to himself (cf. Gal. 1:15f.) and fantasized that, like the two great prophets of the past, he had been called from his mother’s womb to be a preacher -- of course by God himself. So a tremendous self-confidence developed in Paul that exceeded even that of his pre-Christian period. This becomes even more remarkable the more one considers that this man from Tarsus never knew Jesus of Nazareth personally.
How then could Paul derive his own authority immediately and directly from the heavenly Lord himself without learning from those whom he had persecuted? What had he experienced to claim this immediacy from heaven that allowed him later to set himself on the same footing as the personal followers of Jesus? Indeed, Paul attributes the words of institution at the Lord’s supper, which, after all, he must have learned in teaching from the community, to a direct intervention and report by the Lord himself: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you...” In the same manner, he also accounted for everything else that had been communicated to him about the Lord. The authority of the Lord, who had personally commissioned Paul to be his apostle, automatically hallowed it. Believing himself in direct contact with the Lord, Paul received the special indications he needed -- he called them revelations or mysteries -- and immediately followed them.
Thus, while for Paul heaven was almost always open, an angel of Satan could also castigate him if the Lord so willed and if the abundance of revelations went to his head. At the same time, he was strong enough to invoke the power of Satan where grievous sinners had to be condemned to a just death (cf. the adulterer in I Cor.5) in order to preserve the community from uncleanness and to save the spirit of the sinner (imagined in a bodily form -- it had been made incorruptible through baptism) on the day of judgment. Furthermore, Paul recognized the spirit of Satan where Satan made life difficult for him in the communities in the form of false apostles. Still, whatever adversity they gave rise to, Satan and his angels functioned only as predetermined by God and never had power over Paul and his communities. Their real power in no way opposed that of Paul or the rule of God, who had sent his Son into the world to save men and women from sin.
Paul felt that he was the agent of God and the Lord Jesus, who was bound up in this drama of redemption, which was of cosmic magnitude. Here, the key point for Paul was that salvation would and should include Gentiles: they did not have to become Jews first but were to belong to the church of Jesus Christ on the same footing as the Jews who believed in Jesus. Such a view was repugnant to many Jewish Christians.
From the beginning, Paul had experienced in an almost intoxicating way the reality and the praxis of the unity of the church made up of Jews and Gentiles. He refers to this in two passages in which he quotes the liturgy for the baptism of converts: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:26-28, repeated in I Cor. 12:13 without “male and female”). In this formula, which was repeated time and again in worship, all the barriers that the Torah had erected around Israel were demolished: "If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (II Cor. 5:17). That was Paul's cry of jubilation. But this new element could be introduced only through the atoning death of the Son of God himself, as the continuation of this cry of jubilation indicates: “All this (is) from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ”(II Cor. 5:18). Paul constantly finds new descriptions to explain the liberation brought about in this way: “If God is for us, who can be against us? For he did not spare even his only-begotten son, but has given him up for all of us” (Rom. 8:31-32).
Experiences of Christ in the present were experiences of the Spirit. But the Spirit pointed to an even greater event, namely the consummation of the kingdom with the coming of Jesus on the clouds of heaven. Now Paul faced a problem. To those who had known Jesus himself and who in Jerusalem were awaiting the future glory and the rewards of the coming kingdom, how was he to explain experiences that he had had time and again in his home community? Moreover, how could he persuade them that his authority was the same as theirs and that he could offer an independent interpretation of the story of Jesus which was of at least equal value to theirs?
The history of Paul’s relationship to the Jerusalem community is a conclusive indication that all this was far from being a matter of course. A first visit, around three years after Paul’s vision of Christ, lasted two weeks and enabled him to make cautious contact with the leader of that community, Cephas, Jesus' first disciple. During the visit, the mission to the Gentiles was already a topic of discussion, along with Jesus of Nazareth and the Easter events. Paul was glad to have this meeting and the resulting agreement over the Gentile mission as validation of his preaching activity which then followed. Then events came thick and fast. The mission to the Gentiles, which Cephas had agreed was Paul’s task, proved extraordinarily successful, but Jewish-Christian communities also came into being: Lydda, Joppa, Caesarea, Sidon, etc. Moreover, the “Holy Spirit,” imagined as a mysterious and miraculous being, found acceptance and favor everywhere: first of all in Syria and then under the influence of Paul in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaea. A movement was born and really first called to life by a man who had never known Jesus personally but, as a result, was all the more in contact with the heavenly Jesus.
We will perhaps understand this event better if we compare it and its antecedents with a gigantic closed container of water which is coming to a boil. The growing number of disciples who invoked the risen Christ had brought Judaism to the boiling point. The water could no longer be kept in the container. It burst, and the water poured out hissing everywhere until, still steaming, it made different ways for itself into somewhat calmer channels. In this manner, numerous new communities composed of both Jews and Gentiles suddenly came into being. But this inevitably generated later conflict, for strict Jewish Christians were scandalized by non-observant activity in the mixed communities and attempted to put a stop to it. While they did not mind what Gentile Christians did, it was important to them that their mixing with Jewish Christians did not endanger Jewish identity of the latter.
Understandably, the demand for strict segregation of the Jewish Christians from their pagan brothers was only a matter of time. The inevitable happened: in Paul’s presence delegates from Jerusalem started a bitter dispute over the purity of the Jewish Christians in the mixed community of Antioch. This put in question all that had been achieved. Thereupon, fourteen years after his first visit, Paul received a revelation from his heavenly Lord to go to Jerusalem. No doubt he traveled with a proud and unbowed heart since he took the uncircumcised Greek Titus with him to establish a precedent. It is no coincidence that Paul’s former partner in the mission, Barnabas, was also a member of the party, but so too were those strict Jewish Christians who, as Paul put it, had crept into the (mixed) community and provoked a bitter dispute.
The initial situation was completely different from that of the first visit. In Jerusalem, power had shifted. Now no longer Cephas alone, but also Jesus' biological brother, James, had a say. James stood at the head of a group of three consisting of himself, Cephas, and John. Here, it is illuminating that Cephas and John, the two personal disciples of Jesus, were junior to someone who had not followed Jesus in his lifetime but, along with the rest of the family, including Jesus’ mother Mary, was skeptical about him.
After vigorous clashes in Jerusalem, an agreement was sealed with a formal handshake. In spreading the Good News, the Jerusalem church was to be responsible for the Jews, Paul and Barnabas for the Gentiles. More important than this rule, which needed interpretation, was the very fact of the meeting, for it provisionally rescued the unity of the church, and that was Paul's main concern. The agreement was, like so many treaties, a kind of elastic statement which allowed both parties to read their own understandings into it. In the case of the Jews, for example, one had to consider both those living in the mother country of Palestine and also those in the Diaspora.
It should also be noted that the most burning problem, how people were from then on to live together in mixed communities, was not discussed at all. At any rate, the agreement did not rule out an interpretation in favor of a strict segregation of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians; in fact, the agreement was about conditions for separation. However, despite all the problems of the “formula of union” in Gal. 2:9, there was agreement on the collection (Gal. 2:10) which was to become an acid test for the relationship between the Gentile-Christian and the Jewish-Christian churches. No dispute was possible over the terms of the collection.
The Gentile-Christian communities, represented by Paul and Barnabas, were to bring it. Since this gave Paul the possibility of holding the Jerusalem people to their agreement by expeditiously collecting from his mission churches an offering to sustain the Jerusalem community, it also served as an instrument in church politics; at the same time, this was confirmation of his own hope that his apostolate to the Gentiles was based on the unity of the church made up of Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s own assessment was that without this unity of the church, his apostolate to the Gentiles was null and void.
To be sure, Paul had already envisaged a great plan to carry out a mission in Spain. In this way, the apostle wanted to conquer the last part of the world for his Lord; it was urgent for him to reach his destination as the Lord was near. But, for now, the agreement had to be safeguarded. Paul first undertook a journey among his communities to secure the collection and to cement the bond of unity between his churches and the church in Jerusalem.
Accompanied by a staff of colleagues, Paul traveled through Galatia where he passed on detailed instructions about how the collection was to be made; he gave his other communities in Macedonia and Achaea instructions to do likewise. On the first day of every week, the members of the community were to put something aside in order to guarantee a handsome sum when Paul traveled through to collect it and deliver it to the delegation that would take it to Jerusalem.
Of course, the journey for the collection did not serve only financial and political ends; Paul naturally initiated missions among new believers when occasion arose, as in Ephesus. Furthermore, there was constant need to advise and to exhort the existing communities personally or to strengthen them through delegates like Titus or Timothy.
Then disaster struck. Suddenly delegates from Jerusalem began to invade Paul's communities and threatened to destroy all that he had laboriously built up and steadfastly defended in Jerusalem. The “false brethren” whom Paul had defeated in Jerusalem now attacked him in his own communities. They put his apostolic authority in question, introduced additional precepts of the law, and thus destroyed any fellowship between Paul and Jerusalem. So the battle for the unity of the church became the battle for the collection, or rather the battle for the collection also became the battle for the unity of the church. To make sure that the collection was still welcome to the people in Jerusalem, Paul changed his plan to have others take it to Jerusalem. By appearing in person, he would be fighting for the third time a battle in which he had on the previous occasion prevailed.
At the height of this conflict, shortly before he set off to Jerusalem, Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, an intended destination of which must also have been the Jerusalem community. In this memorable document, the apostle proclaims his message of righteousness by faith, which is to be grasped in faith as free grace on the basis of the atoning death of Jesus and which is available to both Jews and Gentiles. But he does not seem to notice that in Rom. 9-11 he in part takes back everything that he has written previously. Suddenly, an ethnocentricism that Paul thought that he had overcome draws him under its spell, for now he seriously wonders whether after the fullness of the Gentiles has entered in, all Israel will be saved without any ifs, ands, or buts -- in other words, even without believing in Christ (Rom.11.26). Thus, membership of the chosen people suddenly seems more valuable than one might expect after reading the first eight chapters of Romans.
There is a special reason for this about-face. Paul indicates it in the introductory remarks at the beginning of chapter 9. In the face of his Jewish brothers, the vast majority of whom have after all not accepted salvation in Christ, he suffers and expresses the wish that he could even be accursed by Christ for their sake. Here, we see another side of Paul. After the sharp attacks on the law in Galatians and in Rom.1-8, it sounds strange, but, at the same time, it attests the ultimate priority of feeling over thought, in Paul as in nearly all humans.
However, none of this was of any use to the Jews in the subsequent era. In the Gentile-Christian church, which must be taken to have been founded by Paul, the invention of a special way for Israel to attain salvation could not prevent unbelieving Israel from being damned to eternity, like the unbelieving Gentiles in a yet later period. The statement by the risen Jesus from the secondary ending to Mark, in fact, applies to both of them: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned."
Paul himself was to experience how the Jewish-Christian church repudiated its bond with the Gentile-Christian church. The collection which he had made was rejected, and the Christian brethren who were hostile towards him had even denounced him to the Roman authorities in order to get rid of him. He was said to have taken an Ephesian Gentile by the name of Trophimus into the temple. The further course of events is well known. Paul appealed to the emperor and reached his destination, Rome, after all, but was executed there under Nero. He never traveled to Spain.
Tragic though all that was, it is only fair to say that the charges made against Paul by his opponents in Jerusalem were based on facts. They had claimed that Paul was now teaching in the Diaspora that Jews should no longer circumcise their sons and was alienating them from the Jewish law. Granted, we do not find anything of this sort said explicitly in Paul's letters -- Paul emphatically calls on Jews not to go back on their circumcision -- but it has to be conceded that the consequences of Paul’s preaching were similar to those expressed in the charge mentioned.
In practice, Jewish Christians who lived in Pauline communities were alienated from their mother religion, and as a result, the minority of Jewish Christians ceased to circumcise their male descendants. In other words, sooner or later Jewish Christians lost their identity in the Pauline communities. And there was another thing. The apostle’s doctrine of justification, according to which grace is attained only through faith without the Law, left the ethical question unanswered (cf. Rom. 3:8) and could easily be misconstrued as libertinism.
Finally, Paul’s way of dealing theologically with the Law was anything but clear. In fact, Paul no longer stood on the ground of the Law but made mutually exclusive, i.e., contradictory, statements about the Torah because he had already found an answer in the light of Christ or in the light of that answer made mutually exclusive statements about the Law. The Jewish side could no longer come to an understanding with such a man.
There was one last point. The Jewish theologian Paul had become a Gentile to the Gentiles, a Jew to the Jews, and thus in effect neither a Gentile nor a Jew. Where then was his commitment? Throughout his activity there was not only a dash of arrogance but also a tendency to vacillation, which must have been perplexing to honest spirits. But as his great life’s work attests, this openness on all sides was a good way to succeed. Only in Athens did it cause him to run into a brick wall on the occasion when he attempted to convince the intellectual elite, the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who showed him his limits when he tried to impress them by speaking of the future judgment through Christ and the bodily resurrection.
Despite his repeated -- if sometimes deceptive -- advocacy of the right use of reason, his religion, grounded in mystical experiences, was not up to the intellectual challenge of Greece. The fact that there was no community founded by Paul in Athens speaks volumes here. At the same time, it suggests that his remarks in I Corinthians about human wisdom being folly before God were at least in part an evasion and a way of coping with the defeat in Athens.
Here, some general remarks about Paul’s relationship to the Greek enlightenment might be appropriate.
Paul did not come to a knowledge of the truth through a mind trained in logic which examines strictly the content and viability of all concepts and views, which heedlessly fights against the phantasms of the imagination and acknowledges no authority over itself, whether that of a god or of a human being. By contrast, the oriental mysticism which Hellenistic Christianity and its leading figure Paul represent is of a supernatural kind. It calls for mindless subjection to authority and surrender to divine guidance: the norm is not the mind but the feelings and the mystical exaltation of the self seized by the Spirit. In this way, the pneumatics are elevated high above people with everyday minds, the psychics, so that to them is disclosed the vision of the mysterious truth which can never be grasped by reason.
But the deepest reason for the victory of the Christianity of Paul and his pupils lay in the spirit of the time. The world had become weary of thought. Large numbers of people sought a more convenient way to secure their immortality -- through initiation into mysteries, of which baptism and the Lord's Supper were only two of many. Ernest Renan's aphorism captures Paul and his time: the defeat of the human spirit while the public had become completely credulous.
Thus, in Paul, both the reaction against the Hellenistic Enlightenment and the orientalization of the Western world took place in the sphere of spiritual and religious life in the same period in which state and law and customs, even forms of greeting, came to be dominated by authoritarianism. The spirit of ancient Greece was throttled just as much as the constitutional sense of the Roman state. Authority took the place of free research; faith took the place of knowledge; the humble subordination of the human spirit to the deity above the world took the place of its independence; and slavish observance of the commandments imposed by God on human beings took the place of the moral law recognized as morally free life. This was the world that Paul entered. As a result, the downfall of the ancient state and its world-view and culture, which had grown up out of Hellenism, was complete: they succumbed to orientalizing.
What did Paul's life yield? First of all, it has become clear that the Christian church owes almost everything to this Jewish man from Tarsus. He is the true founder of Christianity. He was right when he said that he worked harder than all the rest, for he created the foundations for all future developments in the church. Here, he transplanted his misunderstanding of the religion of Jesus to Gentile territory and, without really wanting to, formulated the lasting separation of the church and Israel.
This, in turn, occasioned the tragic outcome of his activity. Christian anti-Judaism on pagan soil was given decisive stimuli by Paul and had a devastating effect. Here, surely, we may pause and ask whether it would not have been better had Paul never lived. In that case, would not Reformed Judaism with a Christian name have come into being, one that would have had the possibility of developing a humane religion while preserving the valuable legacy of the Jewish mother religion? At any rate, without Paul and his disciples, Judaism would never have been led into the abyss.
In addition, Paul finds himself facing insuperable arguments from the side of critical reason. They extend to almost all the details of his life: (a) the notion that God's Son had to atone for the sins of the world; (b) the nonsensical identification of Jesus and Christ and with it the arrogant claim that he was the spokesman of someone whom he had never known personally; (c) the view that human beings can derive a serious expectation of decisive help from mystical wishes; (d) the confused statements about the Law which persistently conceal their presuppositions, including the assumption that a solution has already been found before a question can be put; (e) the claim that a historical event can mean the salvation of the world.
One can perhaps understand a man of the first century making such foolish claims, but we see how dangerous they can finally become when we see how they are still advocated by the Christian churches and even by academic theologians. To cite just one example, this means that the resurrection of Jesus has an objective significance for the history of the world: indeed, that together with the death of Jesus, it becomes the turning point of that history and at the same time also an event of cosmic significance.
To retell Paul’s story means to make at the same time a critical judgment about him. He was certainly a great figure in early Christianity, indeed its founder. But the view that his letters represented God's word is a crime against reason and against humanity. Studying Paul today may make us realize that no real pointer to the future can be expected from his way of thinking. Because of its image of God, such thinking cannot respect the “unbelievers” but only summon them to be obedient so as to avoid the eternal punishment of hell. With Paul, monotheism, too, becomes totalitarianism. His religious zeal remains suspiciously close to a fanaticism of faith, the kind of fanaticism, which in the past twenty centuries has cost the lives of at least a million people per century.
One cannot deny Paul’s human accomplishments nor doubt that they derived from his conscious commitment to God. Unfortunately, as history shows, conflict inevitably turns such a commitment against human beings, mere mortal men and women that they are. Soli Deo gloria.