No one in the first century of the Common Era was more important in drawing people to become followers of Jesus of Nazareth than the man Christians call the Apostle Paul, or St. Paul.
And it's hard to think of anyone in Christian history who has been more misunderstood over the centuries, especially by Christians (and Jews, for that matter), than Paul.
But starting in 1963, with the publication of an article in the Harvard Theological Review by Krister Stendahl, bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden, Paul has been coming into a clearer focus in countless ways. In recent times, in fact, a Kansas City scholar, Mark D. Nanos, has been at the forefront of this Pauline scholarship. One of the essays you can find on Mark's website is "Paul -- Why Bother?: A Jewish Perspective." You can read it here.
Among the major themes of this new perspective on Paul are that he always thought of himself as a Jew, that he never converted to Christianity because, in his lifetime, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism didn't exist and that Paul didn't ever say a lot of what people have long thought he said. Beyond that, this misunderstood and, thus, mischaracterized Paul has been among the roots of almost 2,000 years of anti-Jewish teachings in Christianity.
One reason many people don't know about this newer view of Paul is that the considerable scholarly work that's been done rarely seems to find its way into the pulpits of churches even if the scholarship is read and grasped by the people who deliver weekly sermons. In some ways, that's understandable, given that explaining to a congregation that although the scripture passages being used as the basis of the sermon is attributed to Paul, someone else actually wrote it in Paul's name -- and sometimes, thus, it misrepresented what Paul said or would have said on that subject. By then, half the sermon time is gone and half the congregation is yawning.
However, retired Episcopal priest George H. Martin has written a new book -- Paul Found in His Letters -- in which he does his best to equip preachers to make it much clearer to those who hear their sermons who Paul really was and what he really said and thought.
It's helpful, insightful and rooted in Martin's own long experience as a preacher. And if Christian pastors preaching sermons would just read it and take its message to heart, a lot of the controversy caused by what people think Paul said might disappear or at least diminish.
Paul is credited with writing 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament. However, scholars consider only seven of them indisputably authored by Paul. So Martin limits his effort to find the real Paul to those seven. And he notes quite carefully and thoroughly how the Paul he finds in Paul's authentic epistles differs -- sometimes starkly -- from the Paul who appears in other books, especially in the Acts of the Apostles.
For example, writes Martin, "Paul's way of telling the story of being called to be an apostle is quite different from the account in Acts. . .(W)hen we let Paul have the last word on what happened, we will see a different Paul. . ." Among other things, we will be more likely to say that the risen Christ "called" Paul to be an apostle, not that Paul had a conversion experience. The latter always sounds as if he converted from Judaism to Christianity. Instead, he became part of the rather small segment of Jews at the time who were convinced that Jesus is the Messiah for whom Jews had waited so long. And far from leaving a Jewish life, Paul spent his apostleship calling others "to live Jewishly," Martin writes.
The book of Acts, Martin writes, "has played such a significant role in planting the image of Paul in our minds. More often than not all that is reported in it has been accepted as fact, not fiction. But it seems likely that it contains both fact and fiction."
So he suggests always checking Acts against what Paul really said in his authentic letters: Romans, I and II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians and Philippians. There is general consensus (though with some dispute) that II Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians were not written by Paul, but there is even more solid scholarly consensus that Paul did not write I and II Timothy and Titus. And as Martin notes, it's from those three so-called "pastoral epistles" that come "most of the most troubling statements attributed to Paul." By contrast, it's in the so-called "Letter of Tears" (II Corinthians chapters 10 through 13) where we find "the greatest amount of autobiographical material from any of the undisputed letters."
Martin acknowledges that neither he nor anyone else, using the New Testament as the sole source, can "present an organized biographical story regarding Paul," mostly because "we actually don't know much." But by using the undisputed epistles, Martin believes he can get closer to that. And much more important for the church today, he can get closer to Paul's theological thinking about such hot-button topics as slavery and the role of women in both the church and marriage. In this way, Paul's thinking turns out to be much more nuanced and even liberated than it might seem to be when we read the epistles he didn't really write.
As Martin notes, "what will surprise some about this Paul is that he cannot be categorized as a misogynistic patriarchal male who distrusted women." Indeed, in many ways, by the standards of his day, Martin says, Paul could be called an "unmanly man," meaning he was comfortable with his feminine side.
The picture of Paul that emerges from Martin's study is of a poor man who gave up any privilege he had as a Pharisee with, perhaps, Roman citizenship so that he could not just identify with the poor and outcast on whom Jesus focused his ministry but actually become poor and outcast himself. And yet it was all worth it to Paul, who, Martin writes, may have traveled more than 10,000 miles in his ministry for the sake of being "in Christ."
As Martin writes, "Paul knew, from firsthand experience, the world of the urban poor, who lived (in the words of II Corinthians 11:27) "in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked."
Even after reading Martin and other books on Paul, we still see the apostle "through a mirror, dimly," to use words found in his famous chapter on love in I Corinthians. Still, what we can discern quite clearly in the authentic Pauline letters is that, as Martin writes, "his wasn't a gospel for some kind of inner spiritual renewal, but it was actually a bold political vision, a direct challenge to those claiming to rule the world."
That's the Paul people in the pews of Christian churches can and should hear and hear about. This book can help make that happen.
My only negative surprise about this book was that the publisher, Claremont Press, the official imprint of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif., has done the author no favors by allowing too many typographical and punctuational errors and misspellings into the final text. In the end, it doesn't affect meaning but careful readers will find it needlessly annoying.
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ONE WAY TO HELP RIGHT A LONG-TIME WRONG
To combat the historic practice of redlining (making it difficult, if not impossible, for people of color to buy homes in certain parts of metro areas), a church in California's Bay Area has created a Black Wealth Builders Fund to help first-time home buyers get the down payment money they need, this RNS story reports. It's a good example of people of faith responding to injustice in a way that can change the future for at least some of those who have been wronged. I hope this idea spreads.