A Layman Looks at St Paul

I begin by admitting that what little theology I know I have learnt at the occasions organised by the Tyndale Society. But there may be some benefit to the professionals in hearing what a member of their audience thinks – what misunderstandings, in fact, they have to contend with.

I was impressed by a talk given by Rabbi Sidney Brichto at the recent Tyndale Society Choppe and Chaunge in London on 26 October, and the brief discussion following it. As I recall, two hypotheses for St Paul’s original attitude to Christians were offered from the floor: one, that he was a Zealot very antagonistic to a failed Messiah, another that as a supporter of the Pax Romana he was against disturbers of the peace established by Augustus. It set me to thinking what I – an Anglican layman, who only knows what his Church has taught him – thought I knew about this man, whose conversion was, after the Resurrection Events, the most important happening in the history of early Christianity.

Paul, or Saul as we must call him, came from Tarsus in Cilicia. This was an important and sophisticated city. It had a university, and the River Cydnus there had been the scene of the first meeting between Anthony and Cleopatra, so graphically imagined by Shakespeare. Later it was to be the birthplace of Theodore, who as successor to St Augustine established in England the system of dioceses and parishes which endures to this day. There was in this city a firm of tentmakers – a prosperous family business (why do I say family? Because most craft businesses were, even before Diocletian made it compulsory; why prosperous? Because St Paul was a Roman citizen. He had not earned it for himself, but outside Rome the citizenship was an honour, a kind of hereditary OBE, given to families of substance and approved loyalty to the Empire). Being a tentmaker in Tarsus must have been a bit odd, rather like running a camping shop in Birmingham. There would be no demand for tents in the city, and there were no true nomads for three hundred miles. But there was, and still is, on the northern fringe of the Fertile Crescent, a good deal of the farming practice called transhumance, in which flocks are driven up and down the mountainsides following the seasons and the rainfall. Shep-herds and goatherds might need to be away from base for weeks at a time, moving camp daily to follow the grass. In addition, tentmakers often double as sailmakers, and there was a good deal of shipping round the Levant.

Such a family might well produce a clever, serious child, in whose future an investment might be made. So Saul was sent to Jerusalem to study under the best teachers. Who knows – he might return to Tarsus as a rabbi? Here, of course, comes the first gap in my knowledge of him; where was he during the Resurrection Events? If in Jerusalem, could he be in ignorance of them? Could he have been in Tarsus? Unless ill, it is hard to imagine a really observant Jew being away from Jerusalem during the Passover.

What we do know is that Saul’s career had taken a turn away from the rabbinate. To put it bluntly, he had joined the police. I belong to a generation that finds no difficulty in the idea of an Occupying Power and a puppet government; there were many such in Europe in the last century. Annas and Caiaphas remind me strongly of Marshals Petain and Laval, anxious to retain what they could of national prestige and independence, but well aware that when the Occupying Power said jump, they jumped. On the other hand, the Occupying Power, like a great clumsy animal, could on occasion be outwitted and used. For example, being coaxed into lending its resources – troops and gallows – to get rid of a troublemaker. But not for long; when asked to find resources to guard the tomb, Pilate irritably reminds the puppet government that they have a policy force of their own.

So they did; and when Stephen falls as the first martyr, the execution squad ‘put down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’. I take that to be code for saying that Saul was in charge of the execution. This is not a job on which one sends the office boy. An execution has to be carried out swiftly and as un-messily as possible. Saul is on his way up in the Temple Police.

The next occasion we meet him is when he gets warrants to investigate Christ-followers among the Jews in Damascus. This reminds us that law in the classical world had a key difference from modern law; it was not geographical, but based on communities. We accept that anyone, from any nation, who commits an offence in France, is tried by French courts according to French law. But in the ancient world, a man carried his law with him. A Roman citizen, like Paul, could claim the benefits of Roman law; a Jew, wherever he was, was subject to Jewish law. So off goes Saul to investigate these Jews who persist in believing in another of these failed Messiahs. Such characters had punctuated Jewish history, and it was Pharisaic policy to see what happened to them and let events take their course. It was worrying that this particular failed Messiah was still being followed by some people who persisted in believing stories about him.

And so we come to the Damascus road, and what happened on it. Saul has warrants, and a police unit in support. Again, this is not what an office boy gets. If Saul were a modern man, we would describe him as a Detective Chief Inspector in the Jerusalem Special Branch. It is not the route to being a scholarly rabbi. It is, perhaps, the route to being the next High Priest But One: that was a job in the effective gift of Occupying Power (in 18 AD Valerius Gratus had deposed Annas), and who better to have it than a policeman who had already shown his ruthlessness and was, in addition, a Roman citizen?

Yet, in a matter of moments (seconds, perhaps, or minutes, or over the three days of his blindness), Saul undergoes a complete reversal of his philosophy and values. What was good becomes imperfect and/or pointless; what had been evil a moment before is suddenly not just good, but the ultimate explanation of how the universe works and of its moral character. When I was young, it was usual for anti-clerical writers to ascribe the conversion experience to some sort of fit or illness – diabetes, maybe, or more probably epilepsy. We know that Paul had some such illness, because he refers to it himself; his ‘thorn’. I have known some sick people myself, and I have yet to discover any kind of episode that leaves the sufferer equipped with an entirely new philosophy and outlook on life – and one, moreover, that acts greatly to his worldly disadvantage.

Here I would like to offer another hypothesis for Saul’s pre-conversion behaviour. It is that he felt a dangerous, subversive attraction in Christianity. It pulled part of his personality, and the rest of him reacted with extra and extreme violence, trying to eradicate this new influence before it succeeded in pulling down the pillars of the temple. Such examples of a divided outlook have become familiar to readers of Freud and Jung; I can think of a shocking and extreme example from my own times: Heydrich, the greatest persecutor of Jews in the Third Reich, was himself part-Jewish, and felt the pull of his ancestry which could only be expunged by extirpating a whole race. Perhaps Saul was impressed by the benevolence of the community of Christ-followers; perhaps he was struck by the exemplary behaviour of Stephen. But what it all meant was explained to him on the Damascus road. Probably he did not understand it all at once: it may have been planted in his mind like a rosebud, whose petals unfolded one by one during his period in the wilderness, to which he retired after Damascus (very prudent, apart from being spiritually necessary; the authorities must have been very anxious to interrogate him once his volte-face became known).

Paul, of course, spent the rest of his life peddling a visionary religion. It was so vast a new concept that worldly issues became trivia. It was perfectly compatible with being a Jew, or with being a Greek, or with being a loyal subject of the Augustus (one wonders if he still felt this last element when Nero’s troopers led him out to execution in AD 69). All you had to do was to accept the initial premiss, and he would explain what followed. He was in no doubt that on the road he had not met an angel, or a demi-god, or a messiah, i.e. a man appointed by God. He had, quite simply, met God himself.

Back to Rabbi Brichto. He made the point that our minds are finite and of our times. When we imagine, or speak of, the Infinite and Eternal we can only do so in words and images we have available. As Wittgenstein observed, ‘the limits of my language means the limits of my world’, which means among other things that religious language, however beautiful and helpful, is also a barrier. We cannot cross it, because that would mean going beyond our language; the initiative must come from the other side. (Wittgenstein also said: ‘whatever can be said, can be said clearly’, which I find both a valuable and upsetting thought whenever I am faced with theological writing). Everything in religious language is a metaphor; just look at the Lord’s Prayer and the Creeds, in the Cranmer versions used by the Church of England, and every statement in them is inaccurate and inadequate.

But language has its strengths. Poetry extends its reach. And Paul was a poet. Who can hear unmoved the passage which opens Anglican funerals: ‘Now is Christ Jesus risen from the dead ...’? And Paul hits the ambivalence of our human nature perfectly when he says: ‘The good that I would, I do not; and the evil that I would not, that I do’.

George Wedd, November 2000

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