As I prepare for a Dean’s Forum tomorrow with a focus on what we know about Paul the Apostle, this handout which has been prepared for participants might be of wider interest.
Rather than rely on the imaginative representation of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles—where the polemical missionary and composer of controversial letters on theological differences morphs into a more irenical figure with no mention of him ever writing a letter to anyone about anything—it seems best to rely on the occasional autobiographical comments made by Paul in those letters that are widely regarded as authentic.
The citations are all from the NRSV.
Paul in his own words
Romans 11:1–2 | A clear statement of his Jewish identity
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
2 Corinthians 11:16–33 | A summary of his personal history and experiences
I repeat, let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence, I am saying not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool; since many boast according to human standards, I will also boast. For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves! For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
2 Corinthians 12:1–10 | An account of his own ecstatic religious experiences
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Galatians 1:13–2:14| His encounter with the risen Jesus and his acceptance by the early leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us—we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles),and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Philippians 3:4–6| Further details of his Jewish credentials
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Philemon 1:8–16| Self-description as an old man and a prisoner
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
One of the most enigmatic aspects of reading the NT is the anthropology of Paul. Phrases like “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…” (Gal 2:19) puzzle me every bit as much as ” I no longer am doing it, but sin dwelling in me..” (Rom 7:15ff). Any thoughts?
Yes, Gal 2:19 is one of the gems as Paul speaks in the first person about his own religious experience. Romans 7 is another classic example, but in darker tones, as Paul wrestles with some form of brokenness in his own self. Thanks for reminding me of these elements of his autobiographical texts.
Reading Paul against his context I wonder perhaps whether Paul would have been unique if not revolutionary in ascribing “personhood” as a universal attribute to all homo sapiens.
Perhaps those with better socio-cultural knowledge of first century Mediterranean cultures than I could say whether slaves, those of another religious group or indeed women and children were regarded as “persons”. No one could accuse Paul of lacking a robust sense of himself but the question is did he ascribe that same “personhood” or sense of “self” to others beyond what was culturally normative or beyond his own religious or kinship group? I think he did. Comments?
Paul distinguishes between groups such as Jews and Gentiles no doubt, but elsewhere he subverts that distinction. His language is global and inclusive “All have sinned” (Rom 3:23) “as in Adam all (pantes) die, so also in Christ shall all (pantes) be made alive (1Cor 5:22). Christ died for all (pantes) (2 Cor 5:14-15). All seem to be Adam’s heirs.
Some big issues here. As a child of Hellenism, Paul will have been alert to the individual person as well as the role of the hero, albeit often flawed. Both are critical to his view of Jesus as a Second Adam who, as an individual, makes a heroic choice to trust God even to the point of death, and whose individual act of trust (faithfulness) God uses as an opportunity to bless all humans rather than just Jews. While I cannot endorse the self-serving tribal theology in the covenant ideology, I can understand how it provided Paul with a lens through which to make sense of the cross as well as his own direct experience of a risen Jesus who changes everything for this 1C Pharisee, including eliminating the deep cultural boundaries based on ethnicity, gender, and civil status: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28–29 NRSV)
Thanks, Greg. very helpful to have all those readings together. Blessings, Sue
” self-serving tribal theology in the covenant ideology”. I appreciate the thoughts offered. Good stuff to digest but may I ask that you tell me a little more of what is meant in this phrase?
I suspect you are playing with me, Graham. 😊 Any religious ideology that develops the concept of my own group being chosen for a unique and special relationship with God is inherently ethnocentric, self-serving and tribal. In light of his experience of God in Christ, Paul enunciated a more generous religious ideology in Gal 3:28 (see above) that eliminates privilege based on ethnicity, gender or power. As subsequent church history demonstrates, this is much harder to implement over the long haul than “self-serving tribal theology” (= populism?), but it is surely “a more excellent way”? The shorthand expression for the vision that Paul is sketching is “kingdom/reign of God”.