Paul occupies the dominant position in the early Gentile church, even to the extent of being called by some the founder of Christianity. It was he who formulated a meaning for Jesus’ death and resurrection, one that he used creatively in the years in which the first troubled Christian communities were establishing themselves, and he was important too in planting these communities in Asia Minor and Greece and in devising ways for them to maintain themselves in a world they had come to see as hostile. Unlike Jesus he insisted on a dramatic break with traditional culture, not only his own, but also that of the Greco-Roman world, and so he brought new challenges and tensions to Christianity as it spread among Gentiles. While Peter and the Jerusalem Christians were, understandably, suffused with their memories of Jesus as a human being (“a man commended by God” as Peter had put it), Paul’s Christ has relevance only through his death and resurrection, in a theology presented in his own words in letters whose eloquence has reverberated through the ages.
Yet any study of this highly emotional man is fraught with difficulties. Paul cares desperately about his fragile Christian communities and each letter records his frustrations and enthusiasms as they struggle to find their own identity. He is trying to formulate new conceptions of Christ, and Christ’s meaning, in volatile situations. The demands he places on the recipient communities are heavy, and his own authority with them is often under threat. For Paul it is essential that each community flourish, and he is ready to adapt his theology of Christ to the needs of the moment. (As Paul’s thoughts changed with the context in which they were expressed, often resulting in contradictions, it could even be argued that one should talk of his “theologies” of Christ, underlying which, of course, were some consistent themes.) Furthermore, while we are privileged to have Paul’s own voice in his letters, they are responses to situations that can only be guessed at from their content. Hence the contradictions and obscurities that make the letters so difficult to interpret. This is not all. As the church subsequently became increasingly authoritarian, the Church Fathers (the term used to describe a loosely defined group of early Christian writers whose views on doctrinal matters carried special weight) were to attempt to press Paul’s teachings into a coherent theology, bypassing or smoothing over the obvious contradictions. From the second century his letters had also become part of the New Testament canon and had been placed alongside the Gospels. So Paul’s views on idols, sexuality and Greek philosophy, issues that had not featured strongly in Jesus’ teachings and often sit uneasily with them, became embedded in the Christian tradition. When Paul composed responses to his communities in the turbulent and confused years after Jesus’ death, years that Paul believed were a prelude to the imminent second coming, he could hardly have expected that they would be given the status of universal and authoritative truths and be used in contexts totally different from those in which he had written them. One consequence of Paul’s elevation as a theologian was to shift the emphasis away from his personality, yet it is certainly arguable that his own psychological needs defined the distinctive teachings that he preached to his communities and should be central to any study of him.1
Paradoxically, “the Apostle to the Gentiles” was himself Jewish, and Judaism pervades his theology. Paul was a Pharisee, apparently from the Cilician city of Tarsus, and unusually for an easterner in this period he was also a Roman citizen.2 He was one of those many thousands of Jews, far greater in number than those remaining in Judaea and Galilee, who had scattered in the Diaspora. By now many of these Jews spoke only Greek and used Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures—the Septuagint, so called because some seventy scholars were supposed to be responsible for the translation, made in the third century B.C. The date of Paul’s birth is unknown but is usually placed in the first decade A.D. He came from a very different world from that of Jesus’ original followers; a tent-maker by profession, he knew city life, and he was at ease travelling the sea and land routes of the eastern Mediterranean. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he had studied with Gamaliel, a well-known Pharisee teacher, in Jerusalem, and he certainly knew the scriptures in meticulous detail. He wrote in Greek (“fluent and competent Greek, although much of his vocabulary is coloured by Septuagint usage and he rarely achieves a really polished style”), and it is likely that he spoke Aramaic and knew Hebrew as well. Although no direct connection has been demonstrated between Paul and the Essenes, much of his terminology— “God’s righteousness,” “children of light,” “sinful flesh”—is reminiscent of theirs, as is his eschatology (teaching on “the last things,” such as the end of the world and rewards and punishment after death) with its strong emphasis on insiders and outsiders, the saved and unsaved.3
Paul’s life is known from his letters (the Epistles) and from the Acts of the Apostles, about half of which is devoted to his activities. Not all the letters attributed to him are accepted as such by scholars—those usually recognized as his are Romans, both letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, the first letter to the Thessalonians, possibly the second, and the letter to Philemon. Many would also add Colossians. Both the letters and Acts have limitations as biographical sources. As has already been suggested, the letters were written as responses to particular situations that confronted Paul and provide biographical information only by chance. It is also possible that when writing to Gentile Christian communities Paul played down his early missionary activity as a Christian among Jews. The author of Acts does mention this activity but appears to be concerned to stress reconciliation between Gentiles and Jews and may have provided a more harmonious account of Paul’s relationships with the Jerusalem Apostles than was the case. Many scholars treat Acts with caution—some going so far as to doubt whether Acts is reliable in saying Paul had studied in Jerusalem. Even when both Acts and the letters are used together with the meagre information from other sources that correlates with them, much of Paul’s life and the dates of his missions, particularly the early ones of the late 30s and 40s A.D., are difficult to reconstruct.4
In both the letters and Acts, Paul comes across as austere and, despite some physical ailment which he never specified (epilepsy has been suggested), extraordinarily tough and mentally resilient. After his conversion he maintained his commitment to Christ through every conceivable hardship, probably to the extent of martyrdom. He could also be abrasive and deeply sensitive to any threat to his assumed authority, which at the beginning of several of his letters (those to the Galatians and the Corinthians in particular) he proclaims to have come directly from God or Christ. He was, as he puts it in Galatians 1:2, “an apostle . . . who has been appointed by Jesus Christ and by God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead.” He appears never to have married and to have been ill at ease with sexuality, above all homosexuality. It is difficult to know how much this was cultural, absorbed from his training as a Pharisee or perhaps from contacts with the Essenes, and how much inherent in his personality. He was certainly unusual in not being married, especially as mainstream Judaism was actively hostile to celibacy, though the Essenes were in favour of it. There are moments in his letters when he relaxes, writing with protective affection of his followers (see, for instance, 1 Thessalonians 2:7–9, and the tenderness with which he speaks of Onesimus in the letter to Philemon, even though in this case he was returning Onesimus, a slave, to his master), but no one could pretend that he was an easy man to work with. His life appears to have been one of constant conflict. Gamaliel is believed to have been tolerant to Christians (Acts 5:34–40), so Paul’s early desire to persecute them must have come from elsewhere, perhaps from his own combative personality. He had violent confrontations with Barnabas, his companion who had put him in contact with the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15:39), though he travelled extensively with him, and even with Peter, the undoubted early leader of the Jerusalem Christians (Galatians 2:11). In fact, he seems to have accepted that conflict with others was a normal part of life. As he puts it himself in writing to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12:20): “What I am afraid of is that when I come I may find you different from what I want you to be and you may find that I am not as you would like me to be; and then there will be wrangling, jealousy and tempers roused, intrigues and backbiting and gossip, obstinacies and disorder.” This is certainly not a man who has any confidence in his ability to charm those he met. While Jesus drew people to him, Paul appears to have had the opposite effect; there was not one Christian community in which he can be said to have been fully at ease.
The result was that although Paul could write, and perhaps speak, with great eloquence, he often failed to win over audiences, and may even have provoked their opposition by his manner. In his final confrontation with the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court at Jerusalem, he knew his speech on the resurrection of the dead would arouse the sensitivities of the Sadducees, who did not believe in an afterlife at all, and yet he went ahead. The ensuing confrontation between Sadducees and Pharisees was so heated that Roman soldiers had to intervene to haul Paul out of the council chamber (Acts 23:1–10). One senses also that he failed, as a Jew, to realize how difficult his theology would prove for a Gentile audience used to the polytheism and mores of the Greco-Roman world. On the other hand, without the turmoil and confusion that his preaching often created and his desperate need to maintain his authority, he would never have been impelled to define his beliefs in the depth he did.
According to Acts, it was while Paul was “on the road to Damascus” on a mission to persecute Christians there that he had a vision of Christ (Acts 9:1–9). Once in Damascus he began to preach that “Jesus is the Son of God.” A date of about A.D. 33 is proposed by scholars. This sudden shift of perspective is difficult to explain (was it really a vision of Christ, or the culmination of a psychological crisis?), but it defined a new life for him. His first “Christian” mission, again according to Acts, was to Jews; in other words, like the Apostles in Jerusalem, he did not see himself as working outside Judaism. It seems, however, that he was unsuccessful, continually arousing opposition, and in his letters he makes no mention of this part of his life. He returned to Jerusalem but was accepted by the Apostles there only through the good offices of Barnabas, one of the earliest and most trusted of the Jerusalem Christians (middle to late 30s). Soon in trouble again, this time with the “Hellenists,” the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Jerusalem (Acts 9:29), Paul returned home to Tarsus, and it was from there some years later that he was brought by Barnabas to Antioch, where the first community to call itself Christian was based. Perhaps because of his difficulty in preaching to the Jews, he began concentrating on those Gentiles, the theosebeis, or “god-fearers,” who, while attracted to the fringes of Judaism, often through attendance at the synagogue, did not formally accept the Law and rituals such as circumcision. Many Jews accepted that there was a place for righteous Gentiles in God’s kingdom (see, for instance, Isaiah 2:2, where it is said that all nations will eventually flow into God’s house),5 but Paul went further in developing a theology in which, through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, the barrier between Gentile and Jew would be broken down, the Law superseded and rituals such as circumcision and dietary restrictions no longer be of importance. Some passages in his letter to the Romans (for example, 11:11–14) even suggest that the Gentiles are now God’s preferred people because the Jews have broken his trust. Gradually Paul defined a role for himself as exclusively committed to the conversion of the Gentiles, though his Jewish background remained influential in his commitment to a single God, his hatred of idols and his adherence to the scriptures. As his role was clarified, his independence grew. His first missions to Galatia and Macedonia in the 40s may have been as an assistant to Barnabas, but he then returned to Jerusalem in around 50 and negotiated a role with the original Apostles as an Apostle working exclusively with the Gentiles. They would allow him to preach among the Gentiles without requiring converts to be circumcised; in return, he promised to collect money for the poor of Judaea (who were heavily burdened by the combined weight of Roman and priestly taxation).
In view of Paul’s difficulties with other Christian leaders, this was probably the only role that was realistically sustainable, and he developed it to the full. Over the next few years, in the 50s, he travelled widely in Greece, to Philippi and Thessalonika in Macedonia and to Athens and Corinth. In Asia Minor he worked with the communities of Galatia, Colossae, and Ephesus, raising the collections he had promised the Jerusalem community. However, when he faithfully delivered the monies to Jerusalem around 57 he fell foul of the Jews and was taken into custody by the Roman authorities after creating mayhem in the Sanhedrin. Having successfully claimed that his Roman citizenship allowed him to appeal to the emperor, he was eventually transported to Rome and appears to have been martyred there in the 60s. As Paul reminded the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:22–29), there had not been much that he had not suffered on his missions. On no less than five occasions he had received the traditional punishment of thirty-nine lashes from Jewish opponents (his Roman citizenship apparently offering him no protection—one reason why some have doubted it).
Paul was always aware of his vulnerability as one who had not known Jesus personally—in one of his most attractive asides (1 Corinthians 15:8) he describes himself in this respect as like a child born late when no one expected it—and this may explain why he distanced himself from those who had known Jesus. This “distancing” is very evident. In Galatians (1:11) he goes so far as to emphasize that the “Good News” he preached was “not a human message given by men” but “a revelation of Jesus Christ”; in other words, his knowledge of Jesus has been received directly from revelation rather than through the disciples, a remarkable and telling assertion given that he had had every opportunity to learn directly from them. Moreover, Paul makes a point of stressing that faith in Christ does not involve any kind of identification with Jesus in his life on earth but has validity only in his death and resurrection. Why this particular emphasis? Could it be that as others can speak with much greater authority of Jesus’ life, he feels he has to carve out a distinct area of expertise where he has scope to develop a theology that is not dependent on knowledge of Jesus’ life on earth? Alternatively, he might, for motives of his own, have felt drawn to Jesus at his moment of greatest weakness, on the cross, seeing it as a prelude to the triumph of the resurrection, a transformation that reflected and symbolized the fulfillment of his own psychological needs. As he put it to the Romans (6:3–4): “when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.”
However, if Paul thought that a defined role outside Judaism and apart from the original Apostles would solve the problem of his authority, he was mistaken. There were Jewish Christians in the churches outside Jerusalem (perhaps including the community for which Matthew wrote his Gospel) who were outraged by his argument that the Law and ritual requirements such as circumcision for believers had been superseded (hence the beatings), and there were many Gentiles who found a theology that was rooted in Judaism yet not strictly part of it impossible to comprehend. Paul appears to have known little of the spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world outside Judaism and made little attempt in his letters to explain the Judaic concepts he used in a form that would have been comprehensible to those not brought up in that tradition. Others, such as the Alexandrian Jew Apollos, provided a more intellectual approach to Christianity. Buffeted by these conflicts, Paul seems at times to hardly know who he is. In particular, his identity as a Jew seems to fluctuate according to the pressures he encounters. “Paul’s Judaism was no longer of his very being, but a guise he could adopt or discard at will,” as one influential scholar, C. K. Barrett, has put it.6 It is hardly surprising that on a personal level this highly insecure man became acutely sensitive to threats to his leadership. “Let me warn you,” he tells the Galatians (1:8), “that if anyone preaches a version of the Good News different from the one we have already preached to you, whether it be ourselves or an angel from heaven [sic], he is to be condemned.” He is desperately afraid of competition, and it is highly significant that in none of his letters does he ask his followers to evangelize themselves, as if by doing so they might undermine his own authority. In fact, his desperation as he hears of rival Christian preachers breaks through again and again in the letters. He boasts, cajoles, threatens, and pleads his case, claiming that because of his hard work and suffering for the cause he deserves to be seen as the foremost of the Apostles. In one passage of his letter to the Colossians (1:24), he even gives himself the role of completing what Christ has left unfinished. “It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone [sic] by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”
And yet it was Paul’s insecurities and abrasive personality that acted as a spur to his highly individual theologies. Paul was not an intellectual, certainly not when compared to his contemporary Philo of Alexandria, who wove Plato and other Greek influences into Judaism (and who was probably an influence on Apollos). There is virtually no evidence of the influence of Greek ways of thinking in his letters, though some have argued that he picked up elements of Stoicism from Tarsus, where there were a number of prominent Stoic thinkers. “It does not seem that he had more than a rudimentary knowledge of Greek literature or philosophy,” his is “a rhetoric of the heart,” and, as V. Gronbech has put it, “the attempt to understand the logic and argumentation of Paul must give a Greek a headache.”7 Although the account of his speech in Athens in Acts must be treated with a certain amount of caution, as probably re-created by the writer of Acts (traditionally Luke), his insistence that an “Unknown God” to whom an altar in the city was dedicated must be the Christian one, and that there would be a resurrection of the dead, clearly failed to convince his audience, and he was openly mocked by the sophisticated and sceptical thinkers of the city (Acts 17:23–34).8 Even though Acts records that Paul attracted some new followers, a rejection by others in the public arena must have been unsettling and possibly underlies his powerful condemnation of Greek philosophy.
As has been suggested, Paul’s theology developed in response to specific challenges—the nature of which is often unknown—that impelled him to provide varied and often inconsistent responses. It was not only the differing needs of the fledgling Christian communities which made coherence difficult; as John Barclay has suggested, there is a tension inherent in Paul’s attempt to create a new spiritual world while remaining within a conceptual mould of Judaism from which he is unable to break free. As we have seen, “he interprets the Christ event in categories drawn largely from Jewish apocalyptic.”9 However, some broad themes can be established. Like all early Christians, Paul had come to terms with the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, and, as has already been suggested, an exploration of its meaning forms the core of his theology. The death and resurrection of Christ, proclaims Paul, bring a new era for mankind in which all who have faith in Christ (Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female) will enter a new life. As is usual with Paul, those readers who rejoice in the equality of all enshrined in this proclamation are then brought down to earth with a text such as 1 Corinthians 14:34, which enjoins women to remain silent at meetings and, if they have questions to ask, to ask them of their husbands at home! Paul sets the coming of Christ in a historical context that can be reconstructed from different passages in the letters. The story starts with Adam. Adam sinned in the garden of Eden and with him sin entered the world. For Paul sin is a heavy, albeit abstract, entity that burdens the human race. Yet, and here Paul maintained his Judaism, there is a God who acts providentially for mankind. At times Paul even seems to go so far as to suggest that God introduced sin into the world deliberately so that he could exercise his saving compassion: “For God has consigned all people to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11:32). God is the opposite of the darkness of Sin, “the Spirit” that contrasts with “the Flesh.” For Paul “the Spirit” is the power of God’s love for humanity, the driving force of the Christian life. The term “Flesh” is used to sum up the state of humanity when in opposition to God. “Flesh” is backed by other dark forces. Paul saw the Greek gods as demons, and the letter to the Ephesians (probably not written by Paul but reflecting his theology) refers to “the Sovereignties and the powers which originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). This concept of good and evil as two forces in opposition to each other can be traced back to Zoroastrianism, which spread from its native Persia into the Mediterranean world and can be found reflected in the Essene Judaism in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in Gnosticism. Paul presumably absorbed it from Jewish sources.
Until the coming of Christ, the conflict between Spirit and Flesh is unresolved. It is true that God has given the Law to one chosen people, the Jews. The Law gives Paul great problems. On the one hand it provides a code of behaviour, “Our guardian until the Christ came and we could be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24); on the other it cannot be perfect as a standard because otherwise the salvation of Christ would not be necessary. Paul’s attitude to the Law is ambivalent, as with much of his theology “he wrote different things about it according to the circumstances.”10 He praises the Law for its concept of loving one’s neighbour as oneself, which he regards as its central message, yet he believes that those living under the Law remained enslaved and subject to Sin. An added difficulty is how to explain why the Jews alone had the Law and what would happen to them now that the Law is superseded. Paul’s answer seems to be that they have to adapt to the new world where they too can share in the faith in the risen Lord (Romans 11:25 suggests this), but they will not be in a position of any privilege as their own relationship with God has not been perfect. In short, the Law has to be set in context as some kind of inadequate instrument available only to one people—the Jews—until Christ came for all, Jews and Gentiles alike, and the Law could be set aside as superseded. There is a sense, therefore, in which, for Paul, Christ replaces the Law. Jesus himself, as we have seen, may have intended only to fulfill the Law, not replace it.
It is not clear whether Paul believed that Jesus had been preexistent from the dawn of time. Many scholars think not, arguing that the “hymn” in Philippians (2:6–11) that suggests that Paul believed he was is a later addition.11 Rather, Jesus appears on earth as a man, and it is through his death and resurrection that he is exalted by God as “a second Adam.” Paul had, further, to explain why Christ had to die in such a horrific way; Geza Vermes suggests he may have drawn on Jewish myths (not contained in scripture) of an Isaac who was willing to be sacrificed for the Jews but never was. Isaac’s readiness to be sacrificed was held in abeyance, as it were, until it was fulfilled by the death of Christ. 12 Paul also draws on the traditional Jewish idea that a sacrifice atones for past misdeeds, but he develops it to argue that Christ’s is so significant that it does away with the need for any further sacrifices. As Hebrews (9:12–13), which develops Paul’s ideas, puts it:
The blood of his sacrifice is his own blood, not the blood of goats and calves, and thus he has entered the sanctuary once and for all and secured an eternal deliverance. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of a heifer have power to hallow those who have been defiled and restore their external purity, how much greater is the power of the blood of Christ.
So Christians should not sacrifice; while Paul may have been thinking of sacrifice primarily in the Jewish context, the prohibition extends to pagan sacrifices as well.13
Exalted though Christ may have been, Paul does not go so far as to make him as part of the Godhead. He envisages him as subject to God. At the second coming, which Paul believes to be imminent, “When all things are subjected to Christ, then the Son himself will be subjected to the Father who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Corinthians 15:27–28). In other words, Christ is an intermediary between humanity and God. Paul casts himself in a comparable role. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” he told the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:1). Although the particular instance of Jesus as intermediary between man and God was eclipsed by the later doctrine of the Trinity, stating that he was an intrinsic part of the Godhead, the concept of intermediaries—and these were to include the Virgin Mary, the martyrs and other saints—flourished in the early Christian centuries. Paradoxically, Paul’s contribution in this respect was overlooked at the Reformation, when his writings were used to support the idea of direct faith in Christ without the mass of intermediaries, the saints and martyrs who had become part of Catholic Christianity over the centuries.
Paul’s teachings on faith have proved difficult to interpret, but they are essential to his theology.14 Having faith involves an opening of the heart to Christ, underpinned by a simple trust in God’s goodness. It is essentially an emotional rather than rational state of being. “Faith,” said the fourth-century ascetic Anthony, “arises from the disposition of the soul . . . those who are equipped with the faith have no need of verbal argument.”15 Yet, for Paul, the consequences of having faith in Christ’s death and resurrection are dramatic. Through faith the believer is “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved son” (Colossians 1:13–24). Paul writes of the process by which the sinner who has faith dies with Christ (Romans 6:3–11), becomes part of a single body with Christ, even puts on Christ as if he were a piece of clothing, achieving a full identification with Christ through his death and then rising with him from the dead. This personal and highly emotional commitment to Christ is something new in antiquity (although again there are precedents in the writings of the Qumran community). Whereas in traditional Greco-Roman religion the public observation of rituals is primary, Paul presents something radically different, proposing that the orientation of the inner person to God and Christ is essential. It is an idea that reaches its fruition in Augustine, who, in his Confessions, talks of God actually being inside a person’s intimate being and in a continual and often, in Augustine’s case, stormy relationship with him.
Many passages of Paul suggest that having faith is in itself sufficient to ensure salvation in Christ. This is the important concept of “justification” by which God accepts the believer as righteous simply because of his or her faith. In other passages, on the other hand, Paul stresses the importance of charity, as in the famous passage of 1 Corinthians 13, where it is the greatest of “faith, hope and charity,” and in Galatians 5:6, where “what matters is faith that makes its power felt through love.” This leaves open the question of whether “good works” are necessary for salvation. For Paul this may not have been a major issue because, like the Christian community in Jerusalem, he believed in the imminence of the second coming. There is an urgency in the need to adopt faith. So short is the time before Christ returns that there is not even a chance to make major changes in one’s behaviour. However, as time elapsed, and the second coming failed to materialize, it became clear that this was not enough. Paul found himself in the difficult position of having to explain how the faithful should live when the death and resurrection of Christ had superseded the Law, which had hitherto provided a coherent basis for behaviour. Paul wrote of “living according to the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16–26), but what this would mean in practice was very vague. Perhaps without intending to do so Paul had raised a radical possibility, that through faith in Christ one might be free to live without the traditional restrictions of society. With the overthrow of old laws, the “liberated” could potentially grasp every kind of freedom. Many Christians had already begun to define their own lives—to Paul’s horror, one Corinthian had even formed a sexual relationship with his stepmother! Paul’s response to this was that “he is to be handed over to Satan so that his sensual body may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). There are echoes here of the banishment and perpetual exclusion ordered by the Essenes for those who transgressed their codes.
While the rewards for those with faith are great, the corollary dimension of Paul’s teaching, the fate of those without faith, has had an equally powerful and enduring influence. Once again Paul’s teaching is inconsistent: at times he suggests that the faithless will be condemned when Christ comes again, at others that all might be saved. So while Paul tells the Corinthians that just as all died in Adam so all will be saved in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22), the Philippians (3:19), in contrast, are told that the enemies of the cross of Christ are destined to be lost. In the first two chapters of Romans Paul seems to include not only the enemies of Christ among those who will be condemned. He implies (Romans 1:20–21) that the existence of God is so obvious those who “refuse to honour” him have no excuse.16 They will be abandoned by him to their degrading (sexual) passions and worse. “Your stubborn refusal to repent is only adding to the anger God will have towards you on that day of anger when his just judgments will be known” (Romans 2:5). (It is significant that Paul refers to the day of judgment as one of “anger” rather than, say, “joy.”) In the second letter to the Thessalonians it is made clear that those who refuse to accept “the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ” will be punished for eternity (1:9). Perhaps the important point to be made is that Paul’s teachings, or those assumed in the early Christian centuries to be his, read in conjunction with others in the New Testament, have allowed many Christians to conclude that punishment for evildoers is eternal, even for those who have not heard of Christ. Even as late as 1960, for instance, it was possible for the Chicago Congress of World Mission to declare that “in the years since World War II, more than one billion souls have passed into eternity and more than half of those went to the torment of hell fire without even hearing of Jesus Christ, who He was or why He died on the Cross of Calvary.”17
The idea of being open to “faith” is a powerful one; the longing to surrender the self to another who can provide certainty is an enduring part of the human psyche. However, for those who believe in the importance of using reason to define the truth, this surrender must raise concerns. Plato, for instance, specifically condemned “faith” as a means of finding the truth; for him the only secure way of understanding the immaterial world was through the use of reason (note, however, the conceptual difficulties in Plato’s “reasoning” explored in chapter 3). Although there is no evidence that Paul knew of Plato’s thought, we can assume that he realized that his concept of “faith” was vulnerable when set against the mainstream of the Greek intellectual tradition. As we have seen, he may have been unsettled by his confrontation with the pagan philosophers in Athens. His response was to hit back with highly emotional rhetoric, the only weapon to hand. So for Paul it is not only the Law that has been superseded by the coming of Christ, it is the concept of rational argument, the core of the Greek intellectual achievement itself. “The more they [non-Christians] called themselves philosophers,” he tells the Romans (1:21–22), “the more stupid they grew . . . they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened.” In his first letter to the Corinthians (1:25) he writes, “The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” There is something of the mystic in Paul’s disregard of logic (and a paradox in the way he uses his considerable rhetorical skills to attack the very intellectual tradition of which rhetoric was part).18 This disregard had unfortunate consequences. As Paul’s writings came to be seen as authoritative, it became a mark of the committed Christian to be able to reject rational thought, and even the evidence of empirical experience. Christians would often pride themselves on their lack of education, associating independent philosophical thinking with the sin of pride. Even educated Christians such as Gregory the Great (pope 590–604) followed Paul. Drawing directly on the Corinthians verse quoted above, Gregory commented, “The wisdom of this world is concealing the heart with strategems, veiling meaning with verbiage, proving false to be right, and true to be false,”19 and, as we will see, the Greek intellectual tradition was to be increasingly stifled by the churches. So here are the roots of the conflict between religion and science that still pervades debates on Christianity to this day. By proposing that Christian faith (which exists in the world of muthos) might contain “truths” superior to those achieved by rational argument (logoi), it was Paul, perhaps unwittingly in that he appears to have known virtually nothing of the Greek philosophical tradition he condemned, who declared the war and prepared the battlefield.20
In elaborating his views on everyday conduct Paul had two particular preoccupations. Paul was true to his Jewish inheritance in deploring idols, and he denounced their worship. Here again he was challenging the deep-rooted spiritual traditions of the Greco-Roman world, which allowed the gods to be shown in human form and cult worship to be offered to statues. Now Paul insisted that Christians must remove statues of gods and goddesses from temples and public places. During Paul’s lifetime Christians would have been unable to desecrate pagan temples without massive retaliation, but by the fourth century Paul’s teachings, supported by Old Testament texts, were used to justify the wholesale destruction of pagan art and architecture. There were, nevertheless, tensions within Christianity itself over the issue. From early times Christians were scratching symbols and painting representations of Old and New Testament stories in their tombs; later Christians created reliefs and actual statues. As the adulation of relics developed, the boundary between simple representation of Christian stories and objects and the worship of idols became increasingly blurred. Eventually there were to be major reactions within Christianity (the iconoclast movement in Byzantium and the wholesale destruction of Catholic art during the Reformation are only two examples).21
Secondly, Paul appears preoccupied with the evils of sexuality. In Romans he fulminated against “filthy enjoyments and the practices with which they [non-Christians] dishonour their own bodies” and “degrading passions,” which cause both sexes to commit homosexual acts (Romans 1:24–32). And in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11: “You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, usurers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers . . .” “Sex,” he tells the Corinthians, “is always a danger.” Paul stresses the value of celibacy, his own chosen path, but he accepts the importance of marriage, not least as a means of containing sexual desire; as his much quoted phrase puts it: “Better to marry than to burn.” Although Judaism had always stressed the value of continence (“The Law recognises no sexual connections, except the natural union of man and wife, and that only for the procreation of children”),22 Paul’s strictures and the central place given to sexual “sins” in his theology suggest that the act of sex in itself troubled him deeply. (While Jesus went beyond conventional Jewish teaching in his prohibition of divorce, perhaps because family structures were under particular stress in first-century Galilee, he does not appear to have been preoccupied with sexuality in the way that Paul was.) Before Paul sex was not seen to raise major ethical problems, although sexual behaviour in the Greek world was constrained by deeply held conventions.23 There were those Greeks who valued celibacy in so far as it allowed the mind to concentrate on philosophy, but a positive acceptance of celibacy was seldom accompanied by passionate rejection of the desires of the body. Most Greeks accepted sexual desire as a natural part of being human, which could be sublimated, temporarily or permanently, in the service of other values. The body as such was neutral. Paul introduced a very different view of sexuality (although one can see analogies in Plato’s approach to sensual desire). As Peter Brown puts it, for Paul “the body was not a neutral thing, placed between nature and the city. Paul set it firmly in place as a temple of the Holy Spirit, subject to limits that it was sacrilegious to overstep.”24 The idea of the body as a “temple” that can be desecrated by sexual activity has been extraordinarily influential in Christianity, as can be seen in the enormous energy still devoted to debates on sexuality within the churches.
Central to Paul’s teachings, therefore, is the condemnation of a variety of activities: idol worship, sexuality and—implicitly—the practice of philosophy. The roots of Paul’s beliefs appear to be diverse. He drew on traditional Jewish teaching for his views on idols, possibly the Essenes and his own personality for his views on sexuality—while his condemnation of philosophy may have been evoked by his need to defend faith over reason. The punishment for following condemned practices is, for Paul, exclusion (here again there is a strong possibility of Essene influence), and although alternatives to permanent exclusion and/or punishment can be drawn from others of Paul’s statements, these were not the ones that were to prevail. Guy Stroumsa has argued that the power of an insider/outsider dichotomy was intensified by the emphasis on the universality of the Christian message. “By right, the Christian community must include all mankind. A refusal to join the community of believers reflects a perverse and rather shocking vice.”25 The stress on perfection laid on Christians by Paul and other Christian leaders inevitably resulted in tensions that were projected onto those outsiders who refused to join the community, as can be seen in Paul’s own letters, especially the first chapter of Romans. “Since they [the unbelievers] refused to see it was rational to acknowledge God, God left them to their own irrational ideas and to their monstrous behaviour” (Romans 1:28). This approach certainly does much to explain the reactions of Christians to “outsiders” both before and after the granting of toleration to Christianity in the fourth century.
No one reading Paul can ignore the powerful emotional force of this message: human beings live at the centre of a cosmic drama that reaches to the core of each personality as the forces of good and evil battle within the individual. Paul tells the Romans (7:14–20) that “I have been sold as a slave to sin. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate . . . I know of nothing good living in me.” The battle is not won until death, and the believer receives his reward with God. “The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). It could be suggested that this stress on the fragmented personality that can never be at peace with itself until the final salvation through Christ is among the most enduring of Paul’s legacies. It is certainly a feature that strikingly marks out the Christian thinkers discussed in this book from their pagan counterparts (Stoics and Epicureans, for instance), who tended, although this must be a generalization, to deal with the challenges of life more calmly. 26
Not least of Paul’s legacies was his providing of an institutional framework for the church. By fixing on a comprehensible symbol, the death and resurrection of Christ, and by proclaiming the enormous and imminent rewards of Christian faith (and the awful consequences of rejection of “the cross of Christ”), Paul had created a focus for community worship. When the second coming failed to materialize, this had to be sustained in an institutional form. Paul cannot be given credit for founding every Christian community—the Christian churches in Antioch and Rome were founded without his direct influence or involvement, and there is no evidence of his having any contact with the church of Alexandria, soon to be one of the most important in the Mediterranean, or with the many communities of north Africa—but he did nevertheless provide a hugely significant impetus. However, it pays to be cautious here. While the letter to the Galatians is often seen to be one of Paul’s finest, there is no material evidence of any surviving Galatian Christian community, nor of a Colossian one: the first archaeological evidence for Christianity in these areas comes centuries later. It is quite possible therefore that Paul’s communities lapsed. He certainly seems to have been responsible for suggesting ways in which commitment to the Christian community could be expressed (through the rite of baptism) and sustained (through the Eucharist). His first letter to the Corinthians insists on the importance of all, whether rich or poor, sharing a communal meal at which bread is eaten and wine is drunk in commemoration of Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 11:17–34). This letter dates from about A.D. 55, and some scholars suggest that it was Paul who, drawing on what he had heard from the Apostles of the Last Supper, established the Eucharist as a repeatable ritual. The Gospel writers, writing later than this, of course, may have recast their own descriptions of the Last Supper to accord with the existing practice of emerging Christian groups.27
In time, the Christian communities also needed some kind of administrative structure. Here again the influence of Judaism was profound. The earliest communities seem to have been led by presbyters who played a comparable role to the elders of a Jewish synagogue. Over time the need arose for a more senior figure, and again Judaism may have provided a model. The Essenes had acknowledged the need for a guardian who “shall instruct the Congregation in the works of God . . . he shall love them as a Father loves his children and shall carry them in his distress like a shepherd his sheep.”28 Such a role is echoed in descriptions of bishops in the letters to Timothy and Titus (neither by Paul and both written after his death). By the second century the bishop was accepted as the senior figure of a Christian community, with the presbyters (or priests as they in effect became) as his delegates. Increasingly, the priesthood became a distinct elite within a community, and only priests could administer the sacraments or offer interpretations of the scriptures. So began the evolution of institutional authority within the early church, a development that opened the way to conflict with rival sects such as the Montanists, who believed Christian revelation could come at any time to those who were open to it. The Greek word used for bishop, episcopos, traditionally referred to a secular administrative official, reflecting the fact that bishops had an administrative as well as pastoral role from early times.
Paul’s influence has been immense—E. P. Sanders is surely right to call the Epistle to the Romans, which treats most of Paul’s theological themes, “one of the most influential documents of western history.” 29 It takes considerable imagination to conceive what form Christianity would have taken without his highly original and utterly distinctive formulations of Christian belief: institutionally, Christianity might have faltered without him. The richness and evocative power of his language still inspires. Paul’s theology, however, is confined in that it is shaped by his personal isolation, his acute insecurity about his authority and his ambivalence about his Jewish roots. The difficult circumstances in which he wrote can explain much of the incoherence and contradiction in his letters, which have taxed theologians ever since. He seems to have failed to absorb, or at least express in his letters, any real awareness of Jesus as a human being, or to reflect his teachings, other than, significantly, the prohibition on divorce. It has always to be remembered that Paul is the only major Christian theologian never to have read the Gospels, and one cannot be sure that he interpreted Jesus’ teachings, on the Law, for instance, with accuracy. Can one assume that Paul preached what Jesus would have wanted him to preach? It is worth reiterating that his theology was conditioned by his belief in the imminence of the second coming. Had Paul known that the second coming was to be delayed indefinitely, his theology may well have taken a different direction and would certainly have lost much of its sense of urgency (although a sense of urgency in general seems to have been an intrinsic part of Paul’s personality). Furthermore, although his theology appears to be radically new, conceptually it is still rooted deeply in the Jewish (and perhaps to some extent the Essene) tradition. The paradox of Paul is that while he created a Christianity for the Greco-Roman world, he also confirmed or implanted within Christian theology elements that set it in conflict with Greco-Roman society and traditions, over sexuality, art and philosophy. Greeks were asked either to turn their backs on significant aspects of their traditional culture or to risk eternal condemnation. This aspect of Paul’s teachings is often neglected in surveys of his theology, but the history of Christianity, in particular the relationship between Christians and the pagan world in the fourth century, a period when Paul’s influence was very powerful, cannot be fully understood without it.
Paul cannot have expected his writings to have lasted—the second coming, the day of judgment, would have swept them into oblivion, their purpose in bringing some to salvation achieved. So it is again paradoxical that they not only survived but were placed alongside the Gospels and given, like them, canonical status as sacred texts. They were first collected by a fervent admirer, Marcion. Marcion, apparently the son of an early Christian bishop, was from Sinope on the Black Sea, but he moved to Rome, where he came deeply under the influence of Paul. He collected the texts of ten of Paul’s letters, to which he added an edited version of Luke’s Gospel to make the first canon of New Testament texts. Marcion went further. He believed that Paul had grasped the essential fact that Jesus was the instrument of a new God, one who was “placid, mild, and simply good and excellent,” and thus entirely different from the God of the Old Testament, who was “lustful for war, inconstant in his attitudes and self-contradictory.”30 For Marcion, there was no way in which there could be a reconciliation between these two very different gods. Paul was, therefore, right to reject the Law of the Old Testament God, but, according to Marcion, the Hebrew scriptures should also be discarded by Christians on the grounds that Christ offered the world a totally new beginning. The idea that one god or set of gods could overthrow or otherwise replace another ran, of course, deep in Greek mythology. The Olympian gods had overthrown the Titans, and their power was demonstrated by their success in doing so. So, for Marcion, the Christian God too had demonstrated His power by overthrowing an old, untrustworthy and warlike God and his Law.
Marcion was excommunicated by the Roman church in 144, although his ideas continued to prove highly popular, and Marcionite communities flourished well into the third century.31 In response, his opponents created their own canon of New Testament writings, including all the four canonical Gospels together with thirteen of Paul’s letters. The “orthodox” Christians also reasserted their commitment to the Hebrew scriptures, so effectively that no challenge to their inclusion in the Christian canon has ever been raised subsequently. So began the formation of the Christian Bible as a set of disparate texts from Jewish history and the early Christian communities, which was, however, to share a common authority as the word of the Christian God. Within these texts, those of Paul were deeply embedded and his authority was assured.
Meanwhile, Paul’s conflict with the Jerusalem Christians over the requirements for entry into a Christian community remained unresolved. According to the surviving sources (Galatians 2:11–14), the conflict reached its most personal and bitter moments when Paul and Peter confronted each other in Antioch. This conflict may have had important consequences. It has been argued that Matthew’s community in its determination to maintain itself as a Christian community within Judaism, and thus faithful to the Law, had to define itself against the teachings of Paul with their insistence that the Law had been superseded.32 This could explain why Matthew, in opposition to Paul, lays such powerful emphasis on the continuation of the Law (in statements of Jesus such as 15:24, where he says that he has come only to the “lost sheep of Israel,” and 5:17: “I have come not to abolish [the Law and the Prophets] but to complete them” [my emphases]). In effect, Matthew is using Jesus to challenge Paul’s claim to authority, and this raises again the question of whether Paul interpreted Jesus’s teachings accurately. Furthermore, if Paul’s leadership is rejected by Matthew, then where better for his community to look for inspiration than from Paul’s rival, Peter, who would have been known to the Antioch Jewish Christians from his time (one tradition says some seven years) in the city and who would presumably have supported their continuing adherence to Jewish requirements?
Matthew stresses Peter’s closeness to Jesus, perhaps again to distance his community from Paul. “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church,” says Jesus in what has become, once it was used to justify the primacy of the bishops of Rome as successors to Peter, historically one of the most influential phrases of the New Testament. Evidence that supports the argument that Matthew’s community was Jewish and rejected the attempts of Paul to supplant the Law can be found in the writings of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (died c. 200). Describing a Jewish sect, the Ebionites, he notes: “They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law.”33
With the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70, however, Jewish Christianity began to wither. Peter, Paul and James were all, if tradition is sound, martyred in the 60s, and in the intense passions raised by the Jewish revolt it appears that the loyalty of even those Christians who continued to follow Jewish Law and rituals was suspect. The future was to lie with the Gentile churches. While the earliest Jewish Christians had been able to make some, if uneasy, accommodation with the society in which they lived, Gentile Christianity, through Paul, had declared war on the Greco-Roman world, its gods, its idols and its mores. So we must see the early Christian communities as introspective and exclusive, even dysfunctional, in relation to their surroundings. Paul himself recognized their isolation (1 Corinthians 1:23): “While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness.” The Greeks or Romans could not be expected to offer any support or particular tolerance for a movement that rejected such significant aspects of their culture. The isolation of the Christian communities was to be further deepened by their increasing rejection of their connection with Judaism. Christians desperately needed to find coherence in their beliefs and unity in their communities if they were to survive at all. This is the context within which the fledgling Christian churches developed; it does much to explain the search for authority which was to preoccupy them from the earliest times and help make Christianity so distinctive among rival spiritual movements.