There were many St Pauls in Antiquity. Even more are still being invented. About each, there are stories, doubts, ambiguities. One problem is that Paul is an icon of early Christianity, and of Western culture. His central significance for later Christian theology means that any interpretation of his thought is necessarily grounded in personal belief, or prejudice. Objectivity is neither achievable, nor perhaps desirable. And this problem is compounded for those who wish to write about his life and character, because we know extraordinarily little about either.
Each rival group within Christianity, and there have always been several or many, has to take a position on Paul. For example, there is an ancient tale, no one knows quite how old, but in its original form probably dating back to the second century, or earlier. It describes a contest in magic which took place between St Peter and St Paul, at Rome. The miracles which Paul performed were so impressive that some Christians even wondered whether he was Christ, come again. Paul told them that he would come flying through the sky and arrive at the seventh hour at the city gate. At the seventh hour, a great crowd collected and lo, in the distance, a cloud of dust, like smoke with fiery rays, was seen in the sky. When it came close, it vanished, and St Paul suddenly appeared. All those who saw this miracle worshipped Paul, and called him ‘God in Italy, saviour of the Romans’. A few Christians said openly that he was a sorcerer, who had cheated them; but a greater number of the faithful lost their faith. Eventually, only two women, four invalids (who could not get outside to see the charismatic Paul), and a solitary priest remained true to the Catholic cause.
God, however, was looking after his own, and in a vision instructed St Peter to leave Jerusalem and hurry to Rome. On the first Sunday after he arrived, a great crowd gathered to hear what Peter would do about Paul, that ‘deceiver of good men’. Peter preached a mighty sermon, so that all who heard him repented and entreated Peter to overthrow Paul, who falsely claimed to be ‘the power of God’. Peter, too, performed impressive miracles. He cast out demons, made a dog talk and, wonder of wonders, resurrected some smoked fish, which showed their liveliness by swimming around in a pond and swallowing titbits.
To cut a rather long story short, the dénouement comes with a public confrontation in the Forum, in the presence of the City Prefect. He is determined to be fair. He chooses one of his slaves and says to Paul, ‘Kill this man,’ then says to Peter: ‘And you, restore him to life.’ Paul whispers in the slave’s ear, and he dies. The crowd is thunderstruck, but a Christian widow shouts out in distress that her husband has just died; please bring him back to life, too. Peter prays, and both are restored to life. The crowd roars: ‘There is only one God, the one God of Peter.’ A senator’s mother makes her way through the crowd, and throws herself at Peter’s feet (as all senators should do), and begs him to restore her dead son. The corpse is brought on stage and, to keep things fair, Paul is challenged to resurrect him. He performs his magic gestures. The senator raises his head, opens his eyes and bows to Paul.
At first sight, a draw. But Peter rapidly realises that the senator cannot stand or speak. He is not really alive; all that Paul has achieved is a half-resurrection. After bargaining with the senator’s mother (freedom for the slaves, the cost of the funeral donated to the church), Peter grandly completes the job. But Paul, that ‘angel of the devil’, has not quite finished. He tries to recoup his losses, with his aeroplane trick, by flying off to heaven. But this time Peter is there, and with a stunning prayer brings Paul crashing to earth, injured but not killed. So Paul retires hurt, and discredited. But with characteristic persistence, he still seeks to impress his handful of remaining disciples, by matching his divinity with that of Jesus. They are to dig his grave, and bury him alive. Paul says he will arise on the third day. But, so a much later source assures us, he never reappeared.
This is only one of many ancient variants on the Paul theme. There was also Saul the Pharisee, the only Pharisee whose writings survive. There was Saul, the rigorous persecutor of the Jesus cult. There was Paul, the self-appointed apostle to the Gentiles, one among several such ascetic missionaries, often in disagreement with each other. There is the Paul of the seven or so surviving genuine letters in the New Testament; and there is the Paul of the faked letters (Hebrews, Ephesians, Timothy, Titus, II Thessalonians, Philemon), also in the New Testament. And then, there is the Paul of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, not a cool work of objective history, but an exemplary work of theological polemic. It aims to show that Paul was the missionary appointed by the pillars of the Jerusalem Church (James, the brother of Jesus, Peter and John) to take the Christian message from Jerusalem to Rome, with his martyrdom omitted, perhaps to avoid depicting Rome’s opposition to early Christians. And then there is the Paul of the Aprocrypha, one version of which I have quoted. Finally, most important of all, there is the dead Paul, known only by his texts, real and attributed, which have been snippeted, endlessly, to support a myriad of irreconcilable doctrines, and to help inspire the faith of countless Christians.
Among Protestants, St Paul ranks almost as the co-founder of Christianity, whereas Catholics have tended to favour St Peter, the rock of apostolic succession. Indeed, the main message of A.N. Wilson’s book is that it was Paul, not Jesus, who founded Christianity (‘if anyone did’). Paul is the earliest surviving Christian writer, a radical Jewish thinker and, for many Protestants, the inspired witness to primitive Christianity, before it was corrupted by ecclesiastical wealth and ambition. Paul was the hero of the Reformation. It was Paul, practically single-handed (so such worshippers of individual heroes imagine) who with his burning faith and inspiration transformed Christianity from a Jewish sect to a universal church, based on faith and his inspirational message (from I Corinthians):
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Jerome Murphy O’Connor and A.N. Wilson are not interested in the images of Paul, nor obviously reflexive about the subjectivity of their own interpretations. Both share the fantasy that they can recapture the real Paul of history. Unfortunately, O’Connor imagines that the real stuff of history is dates. He begins solemnly with Paul’s birth-date: ‘In the letter to Philemon 9 Paul calls himself presbytes. Both the NAB and RSV have the translation “ambassador”, which means they accept the variant presbeutes. This reading, however, is without manuscript support, and is no more than a conjecture based on a misunderstanding of the letter ... Hence we must translate “old man” (NRSV, NJB) or more accurately “elderly”.’ And so he goes on, without any surprising or sound findings, but with a chronological series, which has no more chance of being generally accepted than those of a hundred and more of his predecessors. To add spice, he suspects that Paul must have married, on the grounds that all Jewish men were expected to marry, and that the non-genuine letters are genuine, because how else could they have been accepted by Christians (are, then, the Gospels of Matthew and John by the so-named disciples?) etc. In short, this book is inexpressibly tedious, even by the permissive standards of obsessional academics.
For O’Connor, Paul was a Jew who by conversion became a Christian, and a Catholic. For Wilson, Paul remained a Jew for the whole of his life. Wilson’s view is more challenging, but I suspect both are right. This is not so much because Paul equivocated, nor even because he was a master of ambiguity and paradox. It is rather because, during the whole of his life, Christianity is best understood, not as the stand-apart religion which it later became, but as a loose amalgam of cells, dispersed across the eastern Mediterranean, mostly consisting of Jews or Jewish sympathisers, who with more or less intensity believed that Christ was the salvific redeemer. At this period, the boundaries between Jews, Christians and Gentiles were porous. The categories Jew, Christian, pagan were not as watertight as believers, then and now, would like them to have been.
Paul’s letters represent a classic case for historical interpretation. They are complex, ambiguous, mystical, paradoxical, inconsistent, interpolated, imitated and edited. Paul worked in the cut-throat marketplace of competing religious opinions. To win adherents, he had to be, like a politician, persuasively ambiguous. So, for example, he taught both the continuance of the validity of the Law for Jews and the admissibility of Gentiles to eat with, and worship with, those Jews who had faith in Christ. Conservative Jews interpreted such behaviour as violating custom and eroding the protective boundaries of traditional practice. Jewish Christians (for long the majority in the new sect – that is why Paul is reported consistently as pitching his message in synagogues) presumably saw nothing incompatible between observance of the Law and their additional belief in Jesus as Saviour. Gentile Christians presumably saw little advantage and much difficulty (e.g. circumcision) in obeying the Law. It is worth noting that these ex-pagan Christians became the majority, only a century or so after Jesus’ death. Hence the retrospective importance of Paul as hero-missionary to the Gentiles. As with Jesus, his success was retrospective. But during his lifetime, Paul had to try to attract all three groups, Jews, Jewish Christians and Gentiles. The very ambiguity of his teaching, and the ease with which snippets from his letters can be used to support contradictory positions, indicate the tensions among his supporters and desired customers.
Wilson makes much more of all this than O’Connor. He writes with flair, elegance, insight and wit. He sets the scene for Paul’s life deftly. We get lively pen portraits of strife-torn Palestine, the insensitive cruelties of the Roman occupation, the character of Herod Agrippa and the diamonds of Berenice. He makes history interesting. His text is peppered with asides, which waver between gratitude for useful scholarly endeavour and scornful rejection of historians in favour of common sense. That said, Paul often disappears from view, if only because there is so little to say about him, especially since Wilson is understandably wary of filling his book, a biography, with what Paul is most noted for, i.e. theology. That comes in small, digestible bites. Indeed, the whole bravura performance presents a glittering assortment of opinion, facts and factoids, with insight and error proffered in roughly equal proportions.
By error I mean opinions with which I disagree. For example, I very much doubt that the city of Rome had a population of two million (twice the size of London in 1800); or that the hyper-sophisticated Philo popularised anything, let alone a Neoplatonic way of reading the Bible; or that ‘all Jews believe’ one thing in particular (that is surely a Christianising formulation); or that the authorities in Rome were suspicious of the early Jesus movement (it was too small and fragmented for them to be consistently aware of it – their alleged concern is a product of Christian self-inflation). And I am sure that you cannot get ‘solid’ answers to theological questions by treating sacred texts with a ‘mixture of reverence and caution’; the procedure sounds as reasonable as the liberal Church of England, but is not therefore sound. Finally, it seems to me highly unlikely that Paul first came across Jesus when he was a member of the temple guard responsible for Jesus’ capture. Wilson admits readily there is no evidence for it, ‘but that does not prove anything’. ‘To assert that Paul never met Jesus is to argue from a negative.’
Both books, for all their differences, strangely share a common delusion. Both authors seem to think that knowing the man and his context will explain his thoughts – as though knowing that Beethoven was short, deaf and lived in Vienna from the age of 22 helps us understand his music. I suppose it does, but only at the 5 per cent level. And both authors presume that the real Paul, the essential Paul, was univocal. They imagine that they can capture his basic message by listing events, contextualising his background and telling stories about his life.
I understand that people want to know what Jesus and Paul were really like. The simple, if sad, answer is that we do not and cannot know. In effect, all we have for Paul are seven letters, and the semi-fictional, miracle-filled heroising account in Acts. Even the credulous O’Connor hesitates to trust Acts as accurate, while Wilson both acknowledges its unreliability and uses it persistently. Even so, Wilson’s book, for all its superficiality, is much the more thought-provoking. Neither book, however, escapes from the limitations of naive biography. Their very form precludes serious analysis. For Paul as for Jesus, the retrospective construction of image and significance is much more important and interesting than their unreconstructible lives. If Wilson wanted to speculate, like Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, whose devil was actually there at the Crucifixion and saw it happening, why didn’t he write a novel about Paul?