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Casting Paul in a New Light


In his lifetime, the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, left for dead - all to spread the gospel of "the risen Christ," whose initial appearance on earth was celebrated worldwide yesterday.

Yet modern times are proving no less bruising for Paul - arguably the second most significant figure of the early church, a man whose blinding conversion and organizational genius changed the ancient world, whose letters make up one-third of the New Testament, and who walked 10,000 miles through the Roman Empire.

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Both in academia and in popular culture, Paul of Tarsus is becoming ignored or forgotten, scholars argue. While study and interest in Jesus of Nazareth is today going through a minor renaissance, Paul is often shunned as a difficult or unworthy figure to fathom.

"Marginalized?" questions Neil Elliott, author of "Liberating Paul." "I would say he's practically become invisible!"

On the academic left, Paul is widely seen as an oppressor of women and slaves and a supporter of the social status quo. The writings of Paul, warns one leading feminist scholar, "may be harmful to your health."

On the religious right, Paul is often used - or misused - to support a subservient role for women in society and family. Many young scholars don't want to risk a career on Paul for fear of being seen as sympathetic to that position.

Ironically, the popular view of Paul may be shrouding new work that challenges interpretations dating as far back as AD 300 and that discovers a figure of spiritual radicalism. Much of the new work is a closer look at Paul's relation to the social and religious atmosphere of his day.

Contrary to a popular reading of Paul as a chauvinist, he is seen as undercutting a system of patriarchy and a society that had never allowed women to share public space with men.

New readings of the book of Philemon turn hundreds of years of interpretation on its head - showing that Paul did not accept the slavery of an early Christian, as has long been thought, but that he wanted the slave Osinemus to be freed. And until now, translations of the Greek word "calling" (1 Cor. 7:20) have been interpreted as a rationale for Christians not to attempt to better their social status in this world, even if they were downtrodden. New interpretations suggest "calling" means accepting a preordained spiritual status in Christ, where all are equal and free.

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"Paul would have you define yourself entirely by your new relationship with God," says Scott Bartchy, a professor of Christian origins at UCLA. "Many of us now see this completely undoes the patriarchy of the day, and the existing social system. Land, family, tribal identity, class, gender - Paul says all these ways of identifying yourself, all the old forms of power, are not principally important anymore, if you are in Christ. It's very radical. Twenty years ago, scholars weren't talking like this."

Mick Jagger on Paul

But such views have not dented most public and academic perceptions. Even Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones has gotten into the act, if not the Acts. The opening lines of the signature song for the Stones' new Bridges to Babylon tour disparage Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. Similarly, a new biography by British writer A.N. Wilson, "Paul: The Mind of the Apostle," treats Paul as a tormented genius, a Nietzsche of the Holy Land, who exalts a minor Palestinian exorcist named Jesus and invests him with cosmic significance.

Paul was born as Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Pharisee of the Shammaite order, the strictest of the Pharisaical schools. He likely studied with Gamaliel, a wise teacher who appears in Acts advocating leniency toward early Christians - a position Saul would never have taken at the time. Rather, it is clear Saul saw Christians as renegade Jews who were polluting Israel, preventing her from receiving the covenant with God, and that in order to keep the promise of the Torah, it was acceptable to use violence against those who were following an anti-Messiah, as N.T. Wright describes it in a new biography, "What Saint Paul Really Said."

Paul is famously on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians when a blinding light knocks him to the ground. Paul insists that he actually sees and hears Christ Jesus. The significance of that moment, says Dr. Wright, dean of the Lichfield Cathedral in England, is that Paul realizes that the "one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time." Saul becomes Paul. He appears on the scene just as the central question is whether Christianity will be limited to a Jewish movement. Paul takes a radical leap - arguing that through grace in Christ, all persons are chosen, not just those raised under Jewish law. (Martin Luther later relies on Paul's insight to challenge the Pope and inaugurate the Protestant Reformation ideal of a "priesthood of all believers.")

Today, what lies at the heart of the rejection and even hatred of Paul is quite simple, say sympathetic scholars. It is not something reducible to Pauline texts on women and slaves (1 Corinthians 11 and 14, which some scholars suspect may have been added by later church leaders) or the various uses to which Paul is put by ideological camps.

Rather, it is Paul's absolute conviction in Jesus as the Messiah, and the lengths he will go to affirm that conviction. That attitude itself is out of sorts with current sensibilities.

"Paul is a problem for a contemporary world of liberal and breezy postmodern styles. He isn't necessarily going to be a fun guy to spend the weekend with," says Richard Hays of Duke University, author of "The Moral Vision of the New Testament."

"He is terribly serious and passionately driven by his sense of mission, and wants others to be touched by that."

In part, the today's new view of Paul owes much to a clearer idea of the social context he operated in. "For years, people wrote about the theology of Luke or the theology of Mark. But we have learned lately that ideas are embedded in historical and social realities," says Herman Waetjen, professor emeritus at Presbyterian Seminary in San Anselmo, Calif.

For example, Paul's nature was reflected in his behavior. It was always known that he was a tentmaker, and paid his own way (most rabbis accepted the equivalent of lecture fees). What is now known is how unusual this was. Working with animal skins was considered unclean; working with one's hands was worse. "His profession put Paul in a questionable position regarding his honor at a time when everything was about honor," says Dr. Waetjen. "It actually was considered better for a holy man to beg than to work with his hands."

In total, the new view that is emerging among scholars is one of a man who deeply challenged worldly forms of power. "Business, patronage, relations between sexes, all were power relationships with male honor at the top," says Waetjen. "Paul is smashing that."

"For years, attempts were made to make Paul look good in the living rooms of kings and oppressors," says Bartchy. "Our breakthrough is that no one believes that anymore. It isn't the context he lived in."

This emerging view of Paul was actually applied by a small group of ardent Christians in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and '40s.

At odds with Nazis

Paul's unwillingness to serve any authority but Christ put him at odds with the official church, and inspired anti-Nazis like the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "There is a cult of Jesus in the official church in the '30s. It was Paul they hated," says Helmut Koester of the Harvard Divinity School. "Jesus they presented as pure, unspoiled, original. But Paul was dangerous - a rallying point for the confessing church movement that opposed Hitler."

Other scholars feel Paul is unpopular simply because it takes real effort to understand his letters. Paul is struggling with the question of how to have a church and live in the world with the awareness and the implications of Christ Jesus' resurrection.

In the first 100 years, the Christians were a tiny minority. There were seven million Jews in the Roman Empire, but only 150,000 Christians. They asked: If Jesus is who we think he is, why isn't everyone flocking to us? Instead, we are a persecuted minority. What they rely on, in part is Paul's conviction of God's love, and his wisdom about what binds a new community together where Jew, Greek, and slave are equal.

"The superficial 'wonderful Jesus' is easy, you can sell it on the street," argues Dr. Koester. "Wrestling with Paul is not so easy. But until you grapple with him you have not started to work seriously on the New Testament."

New Views of Paul

Recently published books that challenge conventional views of the apostle.

Liberating Paul

By Neil Elliot

Undermining Ancient Patriarchy: Paul

By Scott Bartchy

Paul: A Radical Jew

By Daniel Boyarian

Paul and Politics

By Richard Horsely

Rediscovering Paul

By Norman Peterson

Paul: The Apostle to America

By Richard Jewett

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