Who Is Paul?
Probably one of the larger surprises I had when I began serious Bible study in Seminary was the need to pay some attention to when some of the material was written and how various duplicate versions of the same account might make sense.
Galatians 1: 11-24 is one of the examples. In this passage Paul tells of his background (a very limited autobiography.) Of course the version of Paul’s life story I knew was from the book Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9. There you have the familiar story most of us learned in Sunday Schools. Saul goes out with letters of authority from the Jewish religious leaders to find and persecute (in whatever fashion he felt appropriate) any followers of The Way (followers of Jesus). He is sent out toward Damascus.
Damascus, Syria is a distance of about 138 miles from Jerusalem.
The writer of the Acts of the Apostles places Paul’s Conversion Story somewhere on the outskirts of this city. There, according to Acts of the Apostles, Saul had a vision, was temporarily blinded, and from that day forward was a fierce preacher of the Christian faith, establishing churches throughout the Mediterranean.
I thought that was the one and only story of Paul’s beginning ministry. Not so fast. The version in the Acts of the Apostles was written about two generations after Paul by an unknown writer who was given the name “Luke”, but was not the Luke of the earlier generation who worked with Paul. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (volume one and two, as it were) were written sometime in the early 2nd century. Paul died around 67 Common Era.
We do have Paul’s account of his beginning ministry. It is found in these verses of the book of Galatians, which he wrote around the year 50 Common Era. There are places where the two accounts agree and places where they do not. Bible scholarship gives a preference to the earliest version, particularly when the source is the person himself. So what can we know about Paul?
The first thing Paul wants everyone to know is that his vocational call was directly from God’s Own Self. In the book of Acts, Paul gets his authorization for ministry from the Jerusalem leadership of “The Way” (as the early Christian Church was called).
In Galatians Paul says he got his authority from God and God alone.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s account in the book of Galatians gives a broad hint that he was persecuting Christians in Damascus (he says he returns to Damascus after this time in Arabia). He gives no indication he was sent to Damascus from Jerusalem. In fact the Jewish leadership had no authority to do such a thing. Besides, 138 miles is quite a distance from their jurisdiction! Paul was likely a member of the Jewish community there in Syria who did not like the emergence of this Jewish based by Gentile leaning community. Paul admits to violently persecuting the followers of The Way and trying to destroy it. He was definitely a Jew:
I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. (Rom. 11:1)
Are they Hebrews” So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. (2 Cor. 11:22)
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. (Gal. 1:14)
Why would a Jew be so vehement against those who followed the teachings of a Jesus teacher who lived and died as a Jew? It would make more sense to see this level of vitriol coming from the Roman Empire.
By this time Rome was well engaged in controlling any threat of the Jews to Roman sensibilities. In fact around 70 Common Era the Jewish people would loose literal battles to control the territory, including the city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself would be destroyed. Rome didn’t need to have individual zealots tamp down an emerging religious strain of Judaism. They had Roman legions to do that.
The Jewish religious leaders did not have their own forces. Nor could they authorize persecution as the account in the book of Acts suggests. There was growing tensions between the established Jewish leadership and this upstart group called “The Way”. There was growing tension between Jewish Christians and converts to Jesus’ Way also. To both Jewish authorities and the Jewish Christians, the appropriate way to follow Jesus was to become a Jew (circumcision and adherence to all the teachings of the Law) as well as affirmation of belief in the Risen Lord. People were finding something important in the teachings and the experience of Christ and were not feeling the need to also become a Jew. That was a problem. That was the issue, no doubt, about which Paul was so adamant.
In Galatians Paul says that he had an experience of God that was life changing – and life affirming. God revealed God’s Self to him. God revealed to Paul that the “Good News” of Jesus was open to all people – Jews and Gentiles. There was no need to become a Jew to become a Christian. Jesus had broken that barrier. When Paul is writing his letter to the churches of Galatia he is confronting them about this same issue. The missionaries that were on their doorstep were telling them they were inauthentic Christians because they had not become Jews first. Paul says no emphatically and illustrates with his own experience.
It seems to me there remains a relevance here to our life experience. No, no one is encouraging members of any church to become Jews and undergo any ritual of circumcision. However, it seems to be that the Church is at odds within itself in many ways about what it means to be a “Real” Christian. On one side of the spectrum we are hearing that real Christianity means certain things, including: a born-again experience (time and date identifiable), a pro-life stance that is unerring in relationship to birth but little else, a strict adherence to the Law as found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The other side of the spectrum has it’s own litmus test, including: broad vision of justice and advocating for the poor, a variety of experiences that lead people to God, an appreciation for the multiple religions of the world. It goes on in the ways we worship (high church, low church) and govern (hierarchical or individual church). Each side seems intent on declaring that if you don’t believe as we do, you are not Christian.
I do think there is a lot of danger in this. The more we concentrate on the litmus tests to faith, the less we pay attention to the actual words and teachings and attitudes Jesus himself taught.
We become so divided we cannot work effectively in a community to address the needs of people, to walk the path of Jesus. We become so divided into our various ways of faith that those who are seeking meaning in their lives get a very confused choice placed in front of them. How might we cross lines of differences within our faith communities to affirm our common discipleship to Jesus Christ?
Grace and Peace