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Introduction: Paul Found in His Letters

Introduction: Paul Found in His Letters

From the author: George Martin
I welcome feedback, editorial suggestions, and questions. I’m going public with my chapters as they evolve in the proper order. I’m am also seeking a major publisher who will publish this book. Let me know what you think using the comments part of this website. (Please note the working title for this book had been “Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet.” That  title has changed to reflect the basic strategy behind my research and what will be a continual theme throughout the book letting Paul tell his own story!) This version of the introduction has changed from what I wrote a year ago. I have tried to minimize typographical and spelling mistakes, but if you find them, please let me know. Eventually these chapter will received the proper scrutiny of a real editor. Praise the Lord for editors!

Note about Reading these chapters: The chapters are connected in what follows using this tab. Scroll down to each. Or go the tab above “Paul Pdfs” and you will find a separate list of each chapter in the correct order in the second post. You can print off copies of these chapters (per my request not to share them without permission) for easier reading.


Paul Found: In His Letters

Chapter 1


“Because of the entrenched nature of the traditional paradigm, it is very difficult to see Paul with a new set of eyes.”

Pamela Eisenbaum[1]

“Too much of Paul’s life is completely hidden from us…for any of us who have worked, or are working, in this field to be overconfidcent.”

John Knox[2]

For almost 2,000 years people have been asking questions about St. Paul. One of the first could have been a prison guard charged with censoring outgoing letters from the prison in which he was being held. Four of the letters that bear Paul’s name came from times when he was imprisoned: Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon.

What did this guard think about Paul who mentioned the loyal women who worked beside him in his letter to the Philippians? Men in authority and power didn’t consult with women or have them at their side during their work. Not in Caesar’s world. Woman as co-workers? It was totally at odds with the way most men in Rome saw themselves. The censor reading Paul’s prison letter sent to the Philippians had think the man is crazy. Paul had written that Euodia and Syntche were his coworkers, and he said their names were written “… in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:3)

Did this same guard happen to read Paul’s shortest letter, the one sent to Philemon? If so he must have surely wondered about Paul’s sanity in using kinship language describing a runaway slave—Onesimus—as his own child. Paul wished that Philemon would receive him back not as a slave “…but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” (Philemon 16) The world in which prison guards lived was vertically shaped in terms of power and authority. Clearly slaves could never be the equal of their owner. What a crazy idea Paul had! That a slave and his owner could somehow see each other as brothers?[3] My hypothetical guard charged with censoring prison letters had to be thinking Onesimus deserves death or at least a very severe beating at the hands of Philemon.

Romans, which is Paul’s longest letter, was not sent from a jail cell, and presumably the last one of his letters, but it would have been equally puzzling to any Roman in authority. Paul began that letter with the totally unexpected claim of being a “slave.” The Greek word is “doulos,” which is sometimes weakly translated as “servant”[4]—a term in our world fitting with the concept of helping one another. Paul knew, however, that a slave wasn’t free to serve —they just had to help and were always under orders. They were the possession (just property) of someone else. Paul’s consistent reference to himself as a “slave” was not how he started out in life. Why on earth would any man or woman in that world willingly adopt that personal identity?

Even more puzzling to a man in 1st century Rome would have been the last chapter of Romans where we find the longest set of personal greetings found in any of Paul’s letters. The chapter begins with Paul commending Phoebe who is “…a deacon of the church at Cenchrae.” (Romans 16:1). She holds an office of leadership! Next Paul mentioned Prisca and Aquila. They are a couple to be sure, but why would Paul mention Prisca first?

There is a reference to another couple, Andronicus and Junia, who were in prison at one point with Paul. Then he added an astounding detail “…they are prominent among the apostles and they were in in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16: 7) The reference to this couple obviously troubled some unnamed scribe, or maybe more than one, making a new copy of Romans in the centuries prior to the Renaissance. No one knows if it was intentional to turn Junia into Junias—the name of a man, but beginning with translations starting in the 13th century the masculine name, Junias frequently appears. Luther, for example, “opted for ‘den Juniam’, and continental translations have since then mostly followed this masculine interpretation.”[5]

Junia would be Junias in many translations in the past 500 years.[6] She had been turned into a he! A few scribes, perhaps independently, with tattered copies of Romans may have decided Paul couldn’t have meant that there was a woman who was an apostle. But he did.

From Paul’s letters, especially the seven certain to have come from his hand, we have a picture of communities of faith struggling with a variety of issues and challenges. What is fascinating are the many personal details that reveal surprising aspects about Paul inside those letters—seemingly lost or ignored for the past 1900 years. These include Paul’s amazing openness to working alongside women in ministry and what had to be his story of shaping his life around the least respected and most subjugated people in his world. As we will see communities of faith shaped from his preaching and missionary work were not reinforcing standard social practices of the ancient world. There is evidence that some of these assemblies continuing into the 2nd and 3rd centuries still practiced an unusual egalitarian set of values which they traced back to the teaching of Paul. Such values were also being contested by others in their time. The memory of Paul was being reconstructed, by some, at least in such a way that Paul would not have recognized himself. There are places where this story of rewriting Paul must be told alongside of our recovery of Paul from his own letters.

  1. 1 Preliminary Concerns about the Historicity of Acts

The one document that is the most troubling for this particular enterprise, with regard to its historicity, is “The Acts of the Apostles.” I will refer to it simply as Acts. For most of us, including this author for a good part of my ministry, Acts was, at best, the most reliable account regarding Paul because it filled in the blank spaces with questions unanswered from his letters. Its eye-witness accounts, from the earliest days after the resurrection, presumably pre-dated Paul’s letters.

For the last 1,900 years, when preachers and biblical scholars wanted to share something about Paul, in biographical terms, they nearly always began with Acts for most details regarding Paul’s story. There we find the dramatic account of his call to follow Jesus when Paul was on the road to Damascus. He was going to Damascus to continue his persecution of followers of Jesus. The same story, with a few variations, is told three times in Acts. Ever since this is the story most Christians tell. Paul who had been the one persecuting followers of Jesus suddenly and dramatically became a “Christian.”[7]

Each account of Paul meeting Jesus, in Acts, involved the question of the Lord, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). The repetition of someone called to serve God fits a pattern from the Scriptures. (ADD FOOTNOTE) Further on in this book we will examine Paul’s own account of his call and suggest that should be the one to trust. At least with Acts we have what might have been Paul’s former Jewish name, before he went by Paulus as a follower of Christ. Acts did not explain Paul’s name change but simply reported that Saul was also called Paul. (Acts 13:9) That becomes the name used for the rest of his account.[8]

Did Paul ever had such a distinguished name as Saul? Was Paul ever “Saul” but didn’t want any of his letter recipients to know his old name? That’s highly unlikely. In Galatians 2:13-14 Paul tells of his own past deeply rooted in protecting the Jewish faith and practice. Why not use his Hebraic name there as a frame of reference. The same argument applies to Philippians 3: 4-6 where he emphasized 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. (Phil. 3:4-6, NRSV)

You would think Paul would have added, to that account, his most Jewish name “Saul” if he had such. There is much more to be said about Paul’s name! The third chapter, “What’s in a Name?” will make the case that Paul’s name (Paulus in Latin) is the story of his life. In some kind of ironic twist the author of Acts knew this to be the case even as he turned Paul into the hero of his account.[9]

Acts, written most likely in the 2nd century, is a carefully framed narrative by an author able to construct a compelling story. The work itself has been important within the life of the Christian community ever since, but it is not a reliable historical source, particularly with regard to Paul. For centuries, however, nearly all scholars thought, at least in terms of its source material, that Acts predated knowledge of Paul’s letters. Acts is a carefully structured account of heroes of the faith in the early church with Paul getting top billing. Fascinating and exciting stories are there about Paul’s travels, miracles, escapes, imprisonments, and speeches, but a not a single mention about Paul ever writing letters.[10] Perhaps those collections of Paul’s letters came later.[11]

As noted earlier the scholarly consensus for most of Christian history was that Acts offered eye-witnesses to the early church in its birth. The author of Acts also seemed to write as a co-worker of Paul. In one account the author said that he met up with Paul in Troas. “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them…” (Acts. 20:7). A number of other passages follow in the later chapters of Acts where there is a reference to “we,” especially with regard to traveling to new places. (Acts. 21:1-8, 15-17; 27:1-8; 28:1, 11-16). Those accounts were taken at face value. Acts became the way to tell Paul’s story. It continues to be the main source for many with regard to the life of the early church.

As I proceed with the focus on what Paul seemed to say about himself, there will be occasions to consider some critical biblical research from the past fifty years raising some serious questions about the veracity of Acts. I believe it is equally important to frame those questions in way that still respects the way that Acts has been deeply ingrained part of the overall story of Christianity.

For the most part this account of “Paul Found: In His Letters” concentrates on the biographical details in the seven letters Paul wrote, while keeping Acts out of the picture as much as possible, even though it is impossible to ignore it’s account. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. Actually it isn’t the only elephant, because the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) also paint a different picture. It is of a heroic Paul who isn’t connected with other apostles since he is essentially considered the Apostle. By writing in Paul’s name, and even it is suspected re-writing parts of Paul’s letters, there is clear evidence that the identity of Paul was already in dispute among early Christians. The Paul speaking in the Pastoral Epistles in a number of important ways sounds different than the Paul in the seven generally accepted letters. Consider the observation of Dennis MacDonald:

“With all due respect to the author of the Pastoral Epistles, when we read the Acts of Paul we recognize that not all Christians in the Pauline circle would have silenced women from teaching, trimming the order of widows, exhorted slaves contain servitude, and commanded obedience to Roman authority. We can in short, no longer assume that the Pastoral Epistles were the rightful second century heirs of the Pauline legacy.”[12]

In recent church history with regard to the issues of the ordination of women we have continued that historic debate regarding the question of who are the rightful “heirs of the Pauline legacy.” The issue still isn’t resolved since some more traditional “heirs believe only men can be ordained. They read read as gospel the statement, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Tim 2:12). As the debate took place in the Episcopal church, however, in the 1970s that passage of scripture was weighed against the clear evidence that Paul had women working alongside him including Phoebe (a deacon[13]) and Junia[14] (an apostle). The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1976 , after much discussion and many tears on both sides of the question, approved a change in its Constitution and Canons to permit women to be ordained both as priests and as bishops. [15] We were debating the legacy of Paul.

Benjamin White in Remembering Paul extends the arguments regarding Paul’s legacy because the Pastorals and Acts were hardly unique in writings from the 2nc and 3rd centuries giving us false pictures of Paul—clearly at times contrary to what Paul said about himself. To be sure we will never have all the facts to discern the truth regarding Paul’s identity, and that’s in part because we only have a portion of what he wrote, and we do not have accurate eye witness accounts from his contemporaries. There is evidence of strong oral traditions from early communities which kept their stories about Paul while facing their own challenges in living their faith in Jesus, but we can only guess at time with regard to what they were saying. [16] We need to consider the possibility that some of the oral traditions might have carried more truth about Paul than the written records from the same period, but that isn’t verifiable. We’re left with his seven letters.

In the chapter on “Paul’s Letters” one of topics I’ll cover regards the collection or rather “collections” of his letters that finally took shape later in the 2nd century. There is evidence that some second-century writers knew Paul’s letters, while others emphasized the legendary Paul. White frames the questions this way: “Which Paul? then, is the first question we must ask of each invocation of the Apostle. Is it the legendary Paul? If so, which legend? It is the epistolary Paul? If so, which epistle(s)?”[17]

In a sense Paul beyond his letters, encased in the contested memories, and the struggles of various Christian communities is multi-faced. Once more White summarizes a number of different images of Paul[18]:

  • the heresy fighter and caretaker of the household of God in the Pastorals
  • the great Martyr in Ignatius
  • the writer to the fractious Corinthians in 1 Clement
  • the wise teacher for Polycarp
  • the challenger of traditional society in the Acts of Paul and Thecla
  • the public speaker and missionary for Luke (Acts)

For the average person in churches where the epistles and the gospels accounts in worship are read it is unlikely that when there’s a lesson from 1 or 2 Timothy a statement will be made to the effect that this document may not have actually be written by Paul. There is rarely, if ever, such a preface to explain that this letter came from a community that treasured Paul, but which disagreed with some of the things that Paul had written. It probably won’t help, in that worship, to say this reading reflects a community, maybe 50 or more years after he died, honoring the “legendary” Paul. It must be said, however, in the context of this book.

To take this account of the early contested images of the Apostle Paul just a little further it helps if we see that whoever was writing in Paul’s name, as if it was a letter from Paul, was, in a sense, doing the work of a historian. In a changed and changing world they were reaching back and bringing Paul forward. The historian Edward Carr emphasized that each historian “mirrors the society in which he (sic) works.”[19] Reading the Pastorals we find a far more organized church, but one facing a set of heretical challenges most likely from the early second century.[20] As noted earlier in this introduction there are three other letters that are seriously debated with regard to their authenticity: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Each may reflect a different set of circumstances and issues than those common to the other seven. Those three epistles, as it were, may reflect or mirror a different time.

There is another much longer story to be told about Paul’s identity as derived from his letters. So many scholars in Christian history seemingly have concentrated on his brain— on what Paul believed. Paul’s letters, especially in the Reformation and the centuries since, have been mined for their wisdom regarding Christian theology and doctrine. A nineteenth-century biblical scholar, Ferdinand Christian Baur is a particularly important figure in this story.

Baur came out of the school focused on Paul’s theology. After giving credit to Paul for basically being the founder of Christianity, Baur maintained that there were only four legitimate letters from Paul: Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians. He dismissed all the others for their presumed tendencies to present a more “Catholic Paul.”[21] Baur, essentially, set the pattern, still dominant at times in parts of the Protestant world, which in his case meant using the basic four letters as “…polemical weapons against both the Catholic Church and Judaism…”[22] N.T. Wright laid the same charge against Baur, but in a slightly different way: “F. C. Baur forced upon the material his rigid and anachronistic analysis of the two ‘isms’, Judaism and Hellenism, the latter to be preferred over the former.”

Paul for Baur, and many since, is the great architect of Christian dogmatics. The pursuit of Paul is really to understand “his theology” and not so much the man himself. One quite significant Pauline scholar is James D.G. Dunn. In his The Theology of Paul the Apostle, he singles out just one letter as the quintessential way to discover Paul’s theology. “In short, Romans is still far removed from a dogmatic or systematic treatise on theology, but it nevertheless is the most sustained and reflective statement of Paul’s own theology by Paul himself.”[23]

It isn’t as if this journey into the story of Paul will ever ignore what Paul thought and believed, but this is not another book on Paul’s theology, except as it relates to his story, and the churches he founded and visited. The bookshelves of our seminary libraries are filled with a history of debates about what Paul believed, but rare are the books seeking to let Paul tell his own story. I hope this is where my readers find this book is helpful.

There is one more reality regarding Paul’s place in history, especially as it relates to Christianity, and that what might have been, at the time, his minor, seemingly insignificant role as a leader. He wasn’t as he admitted even a significant or key witness to the resurrection. Peter was the first witness and Paul was the last. “Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15:8).

When we encounter the reality of many legends about Paul, we can see how they were shaping the early Christian communities in the 2nd century, but also how they were divided by theological quarrels and debates. That is the period in history when we find Paul taking on a much more significant role than he had in his own time. Paul Gray has observed, “It is uncertain whether Paul was as significant during his lifetime as he came to be in later centuries.”[24] To be sure, with regard to the communities that received his letters he was important, but we have no way of ascertaining how far his actual reputation spread in those early days. By his own admission there were divided opinions about him in Jerusalem. In that setting some opposed him, others like Peter were favorable because Paul was sent to the Gentiles. Even though there were “false believers” in Jerusalem (Paul’s report in Gal. 2:4) both he and Barnabas had the “right hand of fellowship” extended to them by James, Cephas and John, as they were sent on their way to “go to the Gentiles.” (Gal. Gal. 2:9) Sadly, the Jesus people in Jerusalem, along with the first apostles, had died out or were wiped out with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E..

In a very real sense the controversial Paul will always be in view in this analysis of his letters, but he may not be the “larger than life Paul” of some accounts such as we find in Acts and the Pastorals, or even in some of the 2nd and 3rd century legends about him. More likely we can find a complex man, with a deep faith, and an extraordinary constitution able to handle all kinds of adversity who happens to be very conscious of the historical significance of what “God has done in Christ.”

In what follows neither Acts nor the Pastoral Epistles will be ignored. Nor should it be. A more detailed analysis of the complicated issues with regard to these particular documents, however, will be covered in in what is called an excusus at the end of this opening introduction. An excursus is a literary device which is a digression from the main topic, but which, nonetheless, offers relevant information.


  1. 2 The Focus on Paul’s Seven Letters

What is important to discovering Paul’s identity is that we have letters he clearly wrote. In those letters he was present to those who received them. This concept of presence may be hard to grasp, given our desire to hear and see someone as the way in which they are present to us. The actual process of sharing the stories of our lives no longer takes place in writing letters. We live in a world of emails, text messages, and twitter statements, all of which can be lost in an electronic blizzard. We are blessed with the letters of the past. My worry is that with all our digital and screen technology we are may not be passing on to the future the letters of our lives. Paul’s letters allow us to hear him, and to gather a better picture of the man himself.

There are 13 letters in the New Testament with Paul’s name attached. Not all of them, however, were written by Paul. One or two may actually catch Paul’s voice, perhaps by those who knew him and worked along side of him. Other letters seem to paint a totally different picture of Paul. Consequently there are three different categories differentiating the degrees of certainty with regard to authenticity.

The seven letters that nearly all scholars agree were written by Paul are:


1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians



1 Thessalonians


There are three other letters that Paul might have written.

2 Thessalonians



The Pastoral Epistles carry Paul’s name but this particular designation can be rightly questioned because they are so different in many respects from the other ten letters.

1 Timothy

2 Timothy


In the early days of television there was a game show called “What’s My Line?”. There were three contestants all pretending to be someone with a particularly unique job or skill. They would all be introduced with the same name. Each might say “My name is Joe Adagio. I repair expensive violins.” Questions of the contestants followed, but then the judges needed to vote. After the judges cast their ballots for the one they thought was the real person, the host would say “Will the real Joe Adagio please stand.”

The example of the game show is relevant to this work because we have three different kinds of letters in the New Testament, and the narrative of Acts makes a forth candidate for whoever is to be called the real Paul. At one time I imagined Paul as a contestant on this game show and heard the Game show host ask “Will the real Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, please stand up?” Now I’m not so sure there is a “Real Paul.” But I’m convinced there are aspects to Paul’s story sometimes ignored or forgotten.

Further on in the chapter “Paul the Letter Writer” we will look more closely at the six contested letters that bear Paul’s name. There are biblical scholars, with some convincing arguments for keeping 2 Thessalonians, and especially Colossians and Ephesians in the corpus of authentic letters of Paul. For the purposes of discovering more of Paul’s story, given the premises of this account, we have an abundance of material in the seven letters clearly bearing Paul’s imprint. Looking closely at those seven letters is my strategy to let Paul tell us who he really is, even though in his own time, others saw him in their own way. In the years that followed there were other legends and stories of Paul continued in the oral world of the early Jesus communities. Some of them may actually be part of the legendary Paul, or even inside those contested letters.

The Pastoral Epistles present a different problem, because of the different voice of Paul emerging from what clearly are letters written decades after Paul. The situation of these early followers of Jesus had certainly changed as they faced issues of securing a stable position of acceptance for the practice of their faith in the Roman world.[25] The Paul in the Pastoral Epistles stands alone, not in the context of the other early apostles. “Paul is the sole apostle, a person who enjoys indisputable authority and whose gospel is the sole norm of Christian truth.”[26] It may or may not trouble us, but it seems these later documents were written to make Christianity more respectable. “Now Paul was sufficiently domesticated to serve the needs of a church increasingly eager to gain social acceptability.”[27]

In contrast to the Pastoral Epistles marginalizing the ministry of women we can find considerable evidence on the positive role that women played in the ministry of the communities founded by Paul in those seven letters. The evidence of Paul’s positive views on shared leadership stands in stark contrast to some particularly difficult passages coming from 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus which present a Paul who cannot support women in leadership. It is important to consider a few examples.

Could Paul really have written the following? “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Tim 2:11-12). What a contrast this statement is to the reality that women were allowed to pray or prophecy just as men were doing in public worship in the Corinthian assemblies[28]. (1 Cor. 11:405)

With regard to the prohibition of women having authority didn’t Paul call Junia an apostle? (Romans 16:7) Didn’t he entrust the delivery of the letter to the Romans in the hands of Phoebe? (Romans 16:1-2) To be sure there is another passage in 1 Corinthians 14:24-36 that declared that women should be silent in church. Most scholars are quite confident that Paul didn’t write those words.[29] They are what are considered an “interpolation”, meaning that some scribe, reflecting a later time in the church, gave these words to Paul in making a copy of this letter.

Paul found in his own letters is really quite different from most of other men in the first century when it comes to his view of women. In some surprising passages he uses metaphors that only a woman would be expected to use. So many of his co-workers were women as well. The patriarchal Paul is certainly present in the non-Pauline letters, while a less manly man emerges in the seven letters we are confident he wrote. There will be a dialogue in what follows with documents coming after Paul, but greater confidence will be placed in what Paul actually said, rather than the words put into his mouth by others who came after him.

In summary, Paul tells much of his own story in his letters. When there is information from other sources that can confirm or substantiate something about Paul it clearly will be helpful to this enterprise. Acts, for example, is not always at odds with what Paul wrote. The other side of this process, of course, is the premise that any stories or facts that contravene something Paul said must be treated with great suspicion.[30]


  1. 3 Paul isn’t at his desk writing theology

The Paul met in these pages is not some kind of dour pipe-smoking theologian tucked away in a book-filled office writing systematic theology. To this day so many of the books about Paul focus on what was in his head, instead of the kind of man he was. Beker’s observation is relevant, because this is not the Paul that I see in his letters. He wrote “…we continue to treat Paul as an abstract-propositional, dogmatic thinker.… Most of us perpetuate the custom of reading Paul in a historical manner by universalizing some of his theological ideas while ignoring its socio-historical setting.”[31]

In this account I can assure my readers that Paul emerges as a fascinating man in the midst of conflict but also in the context of unique emerging communities of equals living together in a way that few could have thought possible. He was a passionate man. He had strong feelings and opinions. He was also surprisingly gracious, forgiving (at times) and tender. The one thing lacking, at least from our limited point of view, may have been a sense of humor. [32] He certainly lived with a sense of purpose and direction, and was not afraid of challenges. In the end he left a legacy that I doubt he never even worried about having.

Paul knew one thing would happen when he writing those letters and sending them off with co-workers who would represent him well. It was that his presence would be felt as those letters were shared. We have to stop thinking that the letters were read by individuals. They weren’t read as we do with books like this. They were performed. They were embodied in a performance. They were voiced by those who carried them, not just in scrolls, but in their memory. Readings of Paul’s letters were more like a theatrical event in the context of worship, and it is highly likely that letter performances would be repeated in the same way that some of us watch the same movie more than once.

This Paul is still with us. We may have to blow the dust off of him when we find him on some long forgotten theology books in a seminary library. We know we must be suspicious of reports about Paul that came later. But we can read his letters with fresh eyes.

  1. 4     The Structure of this Picture of Paul

This book is divided into three main sections. It begins with “Finding Paul.” Even without knowing when he was born some reasonable guesses can be made regarding when Paul began his ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles. It is also possible to offer a rough course of his ministry based on information found in his letters, without relying on Acts. Paul’s revelation from God that Jesus was the Messiah may have happened within three years of the crucifixion—maybe within a year! The two were most likely close in age, with Jesus being perhaps a few years older.

This section begins with the story of Paul going to Arabia after his revelation that Jesus was the Christ—the expected Messiah. In a fascinating conjunction of two passages of scripture and with the help of a few historical detectives its possible to even determine n approximate date when Paul probably first went to Arabia. There is not a single clue in any of the other letters ascribed to Paul’s hand, where it possible to ascertain a particular date in the first century with regard to any of Paul’s travels or letters. The one clue we have though is sufficient.

Finding Paul means seeing the ways in which he remained a Jew who developed a focus and passion inviting gentiles (non-Jews) to know the story of God culminating in the resurrection of Jesus. Once called by God to know Jesus as Messiah, the ministry of Paul was focused on non-Jews learning the monotheistic faith now more clearly defined through Jesus Christ. Paul did this because he was a storyteller who lived the very story he shared as he founded one new Jesus community after another. What emerges is a story of downward mobility on Paul’s part that mirrors, as he tells us, the story of Jesus.

“Paul and Friends” is the title of second set of chapters. Here you’ll find Paul writing to communities of faith and commending a way of living the story of Christ. Each community was to demonstrate to the world what life in Christ was all about. Paul did not go about his ministry on his own. He had various teams engaged in ministry with him, Many were women. This gives me a chance to partly right the ship that for too long has labeled Paul a misogynist. There are also some fascinating things to learn about how Paul composed his letters and saved them. Thankfully, those letters serve two thousand years later to be our source for seeing more of Paul the man.

Though always Jewish Paul lived as a gentile among gentiles[33]. By his own admission, and without telling us what exactly he did, he worked with his hands. Chances are he special tools that he carried, and probably dressed like others in the same trade. He would have been hard to pick out in a crowd from others seeking to survive from one day to the next. Behind the story of assuming that trade—which had to come after his call—is where we find more evidence for that story of downward mobility. He shaped that story around his faith in Christ, and asked others, over and over, to follow his example.

A major question regards what kind of man was Paul? It seems he wasn’t always a “manly man.” He was even willing to consider himself a “fool for Christ” and called for others to think in the same way. (1 Cor. 3:18) There may be much more lying behind Paul’s condemnation of worldly wisdom. It is a piece of the story highly relevant to our times.

The last section is titled “Inside Paul’s World.” Even though it is impossible to construct a true biography for Paul we can read between the lines of Paul’s letters and ask some “wonder questions.” I wonder if Paul had a watch. He certainly had a clear view about the meaning of time in reference to what God had done and what was coming next. There’s much to consider with regard to Paul’s expectations regarding the second coming of Jesus—a return seemingly and problematically delayed.

Other questions covered in this past part of the book discuss a number of topics. I wonder if Paul paid much attention to politics of his day? What was it like for Paul to be in prison and why was he arrested so often? What about those who seemed to have been patrons who offered housing and sent him gifts? Did Paul have just one spiritual encounter of Jesus? Was Paul, perhaps, a Jewish mystic and someone who had frequent dreams and visions?

Finally, what about the journeys of Paul to Jerusalem? What was the first meeting like with Peter and James? What was the agreement Paul reached at the Jerusalem Conference? Did he ever return to Jerusalem with a collection for the poor? Did he ever reach Spain? There are, at least, some provisional answers to all these questions that can help fill in some of empty spaces in Paul’s story.

In the “Conclusion” of the book I offer a brief review of the aspects of Paul uncovered in my research. I will add some thoughts about the things that would perplex and trouble Paul about Christianity as we know it. If Paul started visiting Christian communities with all our differences and divisions would he even want to call himself a Christian?

There was something quite distinctive about the vision that Paul had for those who had been baptized and who were being shaped into a common life in the context of communities with an unusual common life. It isn’t a stretch to claim that the life these early Jesus people were sharing was quite distinctive and unique. To be in the Jesus community, seen through eyes of your Romans neighbors meant having them wondering about your civic loyalty. Paul’s Jewish cousins and friends, knowing about Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, had to be questioning the welcome extended to non-Jews. These same communities of faith were calling people away from national, ethnic, tribal, and even dare we say, religious loyalties of the past. What would Paul say about some of the ways we make compromises with some of those same loyalties while also claiming a Christian identity?

One other detail that must be discussed before heading into the main chapters of this book regards my reluctance to use the words “Christian” and “church.” The focus is on Paul’s ministry in the years 30 to 60 in the first century. We have the terms “Christian[34]” twice in Acts (11:26; 28:28) and once in 1 Peter (4:16)

Scholars believe the term was first used to condemn these strange people worshipping a crucified messiah.[35] The label “Christian” was first used against the followers of Jesus, and only adopted as a distinctive, more positive, label in the second century.[36]I will use the terms “followers of Jesus” or the “Jesus movement” as a way to distinguish these early followers who came from both Jewish and gentile backgrounds.

The other term that can be confusing is church. What we call church isn’t at all a good translation of the Greek word “ekklesia.” Church in our world implies an institution, and it can mean some kind of distinctive building. It is also the term that separates Jews (with their institutions of synagogue and temple) from Christians who gather in churches. Paul’s ekklesia were united—Jew and Gentile together “in Christ.” As N.T. Wright so wisely has observed “…nothing that we would even begin to recognize as ‘the church’ of today’s western world was thinkable in Paul’s day.”[37]

It is important in understanding Paul to realize that his Bible was the Greek version knows to us as the Septuagint. The translation of the Hebrew word for “assembly” became ekklesia, which in the Greek world meant a citizen assembly. It was a word with political overtones. Richard Horsley believes Paul’s word for these communities grounded “in Christ” should be understood as “…the political assembly of the people “in Christ” in pointed juxtaposition and “competition” with the official city assembly.” [38]

Exploring what it meant to belong to Christ Paul used coded language. There’s little doubt that Paul opposed the dominant ideology of the Roman Empire, but not in a blatant attacking mode. When writing to the Philippians Paul “…tells them his own story, the story of how he had abandoned his status and privileges in order to find the true status and privilege of one in Christ, and he encourages them to imitate him.”[39] Obviously Paul has a vision of community quite different from the vertical and hierarchal world of the Roman Empire.

One problem that must be recognized when using the NRSV translation for most of the quotations from the New Testament is its choice of translating the Greek word ekklesia with the English word “church.” For example in the beginning of Galatians it is a letter addressed “To the churches of Galatia.” (NRSV). I think it is wise to consider the counsel of Anders Runneson,

“In light of this ancient terminological and sociopolitical context it becomes quite clear that the English translation “church” is inappropriate and misleading, since it conjures up not only a (modern) religious non-civic, non-political setting, but more importantly, imposes on the ancients a separate non-Jewish institutional identity for those who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah.”[40]

In what follows, when thinking about those assemblies of early Jesus followers, I will more often use Paul’s term ekklesia. At times I will also talk about “assemblies” because the practice of gathering for worship on the 8th day of the week was a critical marker for membership in the ekklesia. This book concludes, however, with the implications of Paul’s story for who treasure the word church.


Excursus 1: Can the Historical Paul Ever Be Found?

An honest appraisal of doing history involves all that we don’t know and what we may never discover. The historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote “Much about the behavior of people of all classes today, is in fact, as unknown and undocumented as was much in the lives of common people in the past.”[41] What may set apart Paul’s letters and all that was written in his name and about him in the centuries following his death, is that many honoring Paul were living undocumented lives. They even wrote letters in his name, and didn’t want to be remembered. They were pseudopigraphers, which sounds to our ears, like they were criminals. What mattered in the issues of their time, years after Paul, however, was to let him speak to their time and their issues, and what better way than to write in Paul’s name.

There were different ways to hear Paul voice and teaching in the years after he was martyred. Certainly different communities had copies of some of his correspondence, and read them in worship. As those documents started to wear out, or when other communities wanted a copy, then copies were made. At that point discrepancies in the texts took place—some unintentional, and others to correct something Paul might have said, but which no longer applied. At other times some took the liberty to write in Paul’s name, and in a few cases it might even have been someone close to Paul in his ministry. (Sometimes it is suggested that Paul was not the author of Colossians and Ephesians, but rather they were written by followers close to Paul.[42]) In other instances there were oral stories and legends about Paul which in a few instances were eventually written down and passed around from one community to another. The goal in all these different ways of continuing Paul’s voice was to “…make the apostle useful and relevant for later times, as well as the theological perspectives that informed them.”[43]

A question that we can never answer from our 2nd and 3rd century church documents is “Who got Paul right….?”[44] It would also be presumptuous to lead my readers astray to think that getting “Paul right” is the way this account ends. Whoever takes a stab at “finding Paul” will have to honest about their own social location in history in the first place, and their place in the theological issues of their own time. The historical task with regard to the 2nd century, for example, is to understand Christians struggling in a pagan world in which they were often seen as a threat to a more traditional way of life. Christians, after all, weren’t showing up for the gladiatorial games and other public celebrations of civil life.

Another way to be realistic about the different “Pauls” in early church history comes from Wayne Meeks who mentioned the great divergence in those who were identifying Paul as the “most holy apostle” while others called him the “apostle of the heretics.”[45] He went on to note the many “inconsistencies” in Paul (i.e. in his letters) and said “Paul is the Christian Proteus.” In the Odyssey of Homer “Proteus was a daimon of the sea who could assume any form he choose.”[46] It was Paul, of course, who boldly declared that he “I have become all things to all people.” (1 Cor. 9:22)

Those early legends about Paul outside of his letters are examples of different communities of faith finding Paul’s voice for their issues of living the Jesus story. Paul didn’t live to see the way his teachings and his story would continue, but that is true for each of us. We all step into a past that begins to shape us, but we don’t have the benefit of knowing what the future will do with our memory when we are past.

Paul was raised up in the Pharisaic traditions of Judaism in a Hellenistic world. Then he came across communities of Jesus followers with a storytelling practice regarding Jesus, especially in terms of his crucifixion and resurrection. At first he considered them a threat, those to be persecuted, but then he became one with them. We really don’t know who baptized him or broke bread with him for the first time, but Paul certainly didn’t invent baptism or the Eucharist.[47] These were traditions he would accept as important practices for all those who would follow him into this Jesus story. (It is a tradition to this day in most Christian communities!) His particular call was to be a missionary, but his legacy was as a teacher and that is what he became in the context of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

While Paul may have wondered about the various adversaries who arose in communities he founded little could he image how diverse Christianity would become in the immediate centuries to follow, and how many opposed to each other would each claim him for their own arguments regarding Christianity. There would also be large segments of developing Christian communities without any stories or legends of Paul. The amazing travels of Paul extending from Arabia going West toward Rome (hoping for Spain), nonetheless, left large parts of the Mediterranean world untouched by his ministry or his letters. “…one must overlook the fact that there is ample evidence for the early spread of Christianity to Rome, North Africa, Syria, Cyprus, and other areas untouched by the Pauline Mission network.”[48]

The “historical” Paul is a kind of fiction. Who he is depends on who is seeking him, and what is their historical context. My own story is that for a long time I was usually avoiding Paul, rarely preaching on his letters, for example. When I first became more interested in Paul it was in pursuit of understanding a particular doctrine of his that in the context of the Protestant Reformation was definitive of Paul: namely the “doctrine of justification by faith.” Talk about a contested area of among Pauline scholars! I found it. What I also learned is that there was much more to Paul than a particular theology or doctrine.

So if we error in reading Paul through the different pictures from the early legends and the pseudopigrapha bearing Paul’s name, do we not equally fail if we cannot see how others in our times influence our view of Paul? N.T. Wright has observed, “… There are plenty of serious-minded people in the world today who read Paul through a series of lenses bequeathed by Luther, Kant, Bultmann and others, and then interrogate Paul as to his perceived inconsistencies and aporiae as though these were there in his writings rather than in the cross-eyed effect produced by the lenses.”[49] The danger in reading Paul is that we do so through the issues affecting us or those who study Paul with a particular worldview that seems amenable to us.

What if we take a step back, however, and let Paul speak for himself? That’s the question I found framed in a couple of scholars that have informed this effort. Going back to his letters we can find a consistency in Paul that seeks to model the story of Jesus which rather boldly (or so it can seem) involves Paul’s claim to follow my example as he was following Jesus. In a more colloquial way Wright translates an assertion of Paul in 1 Cor. 11:1 this way: “‘Copy me, just as I’m copying the Messiah.’” The short sentence that follows suggests this is a statement that helps us find Paul. “With that we are touching bedrock.”[50]

The example of Paul is what we will be looking for in this account. We will leave the issues of his contested identity for others to study, while we listen for Paul’s frequent autobiographical statements.

References for Chapter 1: The Introduction

[1] Pamela Eisenbaum, 2009, 216.

[2] John Knox, 1983, 364.

[3] Horrell (2016: 126) who notes that Paul’s language implies “equal-regard”…that (in some sense) supervenes over their (former) relationship as owner and slave.

[4] “Servant” is in the NRSV. Peterson’s translation The Message translates doulos as “a devoted slave.” Most of the well-known transalations use the word “servant,” but the Disciples’ Literal New Testament uses “slave.”

[5] Thorley, 1996, 18. See also Cervin (1994) for translations that use Junias (masculine) like the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version and those that retain Junia (feminine) such at the King James Version and the Latin Vulgate.

[6] The NRSV puts her name back in the text at Rom. 16:7 and then offers as an alternative the masculine name Junias.

[7] The word “Christian” appears in quotes because it wasn’t a term that Paul used for himself in any of his letters. Acts (11:26) makes the reference to this term. The only other time it appears is in 1 Peter 4:16.

[8] The name “Saul” does reappear in later chapters when the Damascus road story is repeated, albeit with variations, at the end of Acts. (Acts 22:6-16 and 26:12-19).

[9] In Smith &Tyson, ed.[ 2013; 148] the suggestion is made that giving Paul the Jewish name Saul was a kind of literary device. I disagree, explaining more in Chapter 3.

[10] Further on in this book there is evidence that the author of Luke knew at least one of Paul’s letters, but choose not to mention that Paul wrote any letters.

[11] Trobisch (1994: 70) thinks Paul, himself, saw four of his letters as a collection. It is the four letters speaking directly about a collection for the poor in Jerusalem (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.) Collections were formed early in the 2nd century about the time Acts was composed.

[12] MacDonald, 1983, 15.

[13] Romans 16:1

[14] Romans 16:7

[15] In 1973 approval had been given for women to be ordained as Deacons.

[16] White, 2014, 6, 13-14

[17] Ibid, 55.

[18] Ibid. 63.

[19] Carr, 1961, 51.

[20] Pervo, 2010, 83.

[21] White, Ibid. 21-23.

[22] Ibid. 24.

[23] James D. G. Dunn, 1998, 25.

[24] Paul Gray, 2016, 24.

[25] Zetterholm, 2009, 44.

[26] Ibid. 47 (Italics in original.)

[27] MacDonald, 1983, 89.

[28] K. Ehresperger, 2009, 172. “Paul and his co-senders apparently see no problem with women praying and prophesying during a worship meeting in ! Cor. 11.5, thus participating in an active role in the assemblies…”

[29] MacDonald, 1983, 86-88.

[30] My intent isn’t to trash Acts or to have it removed from the New Testament canon. We can bring historical criticism to this account and still admire the creative narrative handed down to us by the author of Acts, while questioning its historicity. I would hope the readers of my book appreciate that I am taking Acts as an important account of the emergence of early Christian communities, and I am treating it in a serious manner. I would wish for the same assessment accorded to an earlier Biblical scholar, John Knox, who questioned the historicity of Acts. It was said of him that he did “…indeed take Acts with the utmost seriousness; instead of assuming its reliability he subjected it to the rigorous cross-examination that is required in good historiography.”[ J.A. Hare, “Introduction” in John Knox, Chapters in a Life of Paul , p. xl]

[31] Beker, 1991, 28.

[32] Knox, 1987, 87.

[33] It wasn’t actually that unusual as I’ll explain in the chapter “Paul Apostle to the Gentiles”, with one very important difference regarding the people who shared Paul’s life.

[34] Actually the term is Chrstianos.

[35] Haenchen, 1971, 368 In a footnote he suggests that the term “Christianos” may have originally been used by Roman authorities to designate a sect of political conspiritors. If Luke, however, had know of the origin of this term, if it was so, it would have undermined the main theme of Acts regarding the friendly treatment offered the followers of Jesus.

[36] Smith, ed, 2013, 136

[37] Wright, 2014, 1414

[38] Horsley, 1997, Note 67 Page????

[39] Wright, 2000, 182

[40] Runneson, A., 2015, 72.

[41] Hobsbawm, 1997, 215 (From a lecture “On History From Below” 1985) Italics in original.

[42] Pervo (2010) thinks Colossians could have been written by an immediate follower of Paul (66) but describes the author of Ephesians as a “stranger” to Paul (72). At the opposite extreme is Douglas Campbell (Framing Paul, 2014) who maintains Paul as the author of Colossians and Ephesians, the latter which Campbell argues is the lost letter to the Laodiceans. Pp. 252-338).

[43] Pervo, 2010, 38.

[44] White, 174.

[45] Meeks, 1972, 435.

[46] Ibid. Italics in original.

[47] Ibid. 440

[48] Gray, 204.

[49] Wright, 2013, 67.

[50] Ibid. 1510.

Chapter 2: Paul in Arabia

Chapter 2: Paul in Arabia

This is the second chapter to my book “Paul Found: In His Letters.” I welcome comments and feedback.


Chapter 1                       Paul in Arabia (Dec. 4, 2017)


“Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character.”

[Alastair McIntyre, After Virtue, 215 – 216]

From Paul’s seven letters we are able to discover fragments of a man’s life. That’s the best we can do. This can never be a biography in the traditional sense of that genre. Obviously, if we let Acts frame our account, we’d have much more material, but still not enough to satisfy real biographical curiosity. What makes this enterprise both challenging and intriguing is this fact: by choosing just Paul’s own story we stand a better chance of capturing Paul’s spirit and character, even knowing we will have more questions than answers about the details of his life. All is not lost, however, with regard to some important scraps of his life as will be uncovered in this chapter.

Finding Paul has to begin with Paul’s description of God’s call[1] for him to be an apostle and how the Messiah was revealed to him.

“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.” (Gal. 1:15-17)

There are no clues in this report about when Jesus was revealed to Paul. Placing Paul in history isn’t easy, but it also not impossible. We don’t know when he was born or when he died. Nonetheless there are some chronological clues to be followed. It means piecing together a few biblical passages, the first of which is connected to his call. Note the disclaimer made by Paul after he was called to proclaim Jesus among the Gentiles. The focus needs to be on his declaration that he did not “go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me.”

He waited three years!
“Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for 15 days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.” (Gal. 18-19)

There was a three year period between Paul’s call and his first visit to Cephas, i.e Peter. In Galatians Paul refers four times to Cephas (Peter’s Aramaic name) and twice to Peter. In his memory of their meetings it seems that Paul preferred to use the Aramaic name, Cepahs, the one that Jesus used for Peter.

What is critical to solving the chronological mystery, i,e. placing Paul in history, are the two occasions when Paul and Peter were together: the first visit was three years after Paul’s call, and the second visit (described in Galatians 2) was fourteen years later as part of the conference recognizing two mission fields: one making Peter an “apostle to the circumcised,” and the other “sending me [Paul] to the Gentles.” (Gal. 2:8)

There is a seventeen year period of Paul’s ministry mostly lost to history. Even so, there is a little clue in the first fragment of his biography. Paul went to Arabia! With the eyes of a biblical detective it is actually possible to make an educated guess regarding the year when Paul went to Arabia and the year in which he made that first visit to Jerusalem—i.e. “then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem.” It was probably in late 36CE or early 37CE.[2] when Paul met Cephas (Peter). This means that somewhere around 33CE or 34CE Paul was called to be an apostle to the gentiles, and by his own account, traveled to Arabia.. There’s no real way to say how long he stayed in Arabia, but there is one clue from another letter that he was there long enough to get into some kind of trouble.[3]

Paul’s call to follow Jesus might actually have happened within a year or so of the crucifixion. Was Jesus crucified around 30 A.D.? Some say that’s a possible date. Was it 33 A.D.? That’s been suggested as well. The actual dates are less important than knowing that Paul and Jesus were contemporaries. There’s no reason to think Paul ever met or heard Jesus. Certainly if he had there would be evidence in one or more of the letters.

Based on Paul’s recounting we have intervals of time between events. John Knox observed that the intervals are more crucial than the actual dates. “For the understanding of Paul it matters little, if at all, just when, in terms of calendar years, his work began or just when it ended. What matters is what happened in it — the order of events and the intervals between them.”[4] I would simply add, following the basic strategy of this account, we want to trust Paul.

Acts states that Paul encountered the Risen Jesus as he “approached Damascus” (Acts 9:3). In Galatians Paul declared that he “returned to Damascus” (Gal. 1:17) after going to Arabia. It is logical to assume that Damascus was one of the places where Paul was, “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. “ (Gal. 1:13)

Among the details imbedded in Paul’s story in Galatians we discover Paul’s acknowledgment of having persecuted early Jesus followers. He found something wrong and even dangerous in those Jews declaring that Jesus had risen from the dead, and was the expected Messiah. In addition to the picture of Paul the Persecutior, we must also have Paul the Prosecutor. If he was a good prosecutor, and there’s no reason to assume less, he would not have proceeded with his persecution on the basis of flimsy evidence.

2.1 Why did Paul persecute the early followers of Jesus?

It is important to remember that Paul’s bible was always in his head. Trained as a Pharisee he wrote in Galatians, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age for I was for more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”(Gal. 1:14). Trained as rabbi meant Paul would have memorized the Bible. Teaching was by recitation. After hearing the same passage three or four times it was expected that the text would be memorized.[5] The Bible was not a book or set of scrolls that Paul carried around with him in a knapsack, but it was always there with him—in his head.

Paul’s “zeal” for the stories of his ancestors meant knowing Genesis by heart and living with a passion for preserving a Jewish identity that was threatened and hard to maintain when Jews lived beyond the borders of Judea. Even in Jerusalem itself, in the beginning of the first century there was a tense relationship between the Jewish authorities and the occupying Roman army. Clearly whatever Paul knew about those early Jesus followers troubled him. His previous concerns, though, were never mentioned in any of his letters. At the same time never denied his persecution of the community to which he would devote himself. He admitted it in three of his letters. (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal 1:13,23; and Phil. 3:6.)

We enter the realm of pure speculation trying to understand Paul’s opposition to the news of the resurrection of Jesus. We know the problem wasn’t resurrection per se. As a Pharisee Paul believed in the eventual resurrection of the dead, with the coming of the Messiah.[6] The problem wasn’t belief in a Messiah, but it had to be difficult to comprehend how one crucified as a criminal and rebel was the expected Messiah. Commenting on Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians about the message of the cross as foolish, Richard Gordon wrote, “…it would indeed have been ”folly’ (1 Cor. 1:23) as well as an anti-Roman political statement to proclaim and organize communities around a crucified political criminal as a central symbol.”[7]

It’s just a guess but maybe Paul was simply trying to preserve space for Jews to practice their faith without troubling the Roman authorities. Rome had already, through a decree of Augustus recognized that Jews could send a temple tax back to Jerusalem, and were permitted in some provinces to keep their Sabbath day practices. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. Jews lost the privilege to send the temple tax, and instead found themselves building a Roman temple with a new tax designed just for them.

A new Roman coin was also issued following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the capture of so many Jewish slaves. It is known as the Judaea Capta coin. Though there were some different issues of this coin most pictured a strong victorious Roman soldier standing by a palm tree, while on the ground slouched a naked defeated woman, representing all Judaea. Defeated nations in ancient Middle-eastern iconography were often depicted as women. The head of either the emperor Vespasian or Titus was on the other side of these particular coins.[8]

Jerusalem was still standing when Paul saw the early Jesus followers as a danger to Judaism. Paul’s analytical mind must have given him some clear reasons to oppose this new and fervent Jewish sect. What is hard to accept is the account in Acts regarding Paul having been sent by Jerusalem authorities to Damascus. (Acts. 8:1-3; 9:1-2). We are on safer ground to suggest that Paul, already living in Damascus, may have been trying to preserve Jewish privileges that existed within a kind of tolerance protecting Jews practicing their faith. Bridgett Kahl suggests that Jews actually had some kind of insider status not accorded other defeated tribes and territories. “In Paul’s time the Jews, like the Galatians, had by and large rather successfully gained an “insider” status and, for some of them, even upper status in the eastern part of the Roman empire.”[9]

Why would Paul feel that this Jewish sect proclaiming Jesus as Messiah was a threat to other Jews? Was it their refusal to accept the protection of Rome as disciples of Jesus? This is a critical question to ask, because our picture of Paul, as will be explained in detail further on, leads us to see that he also strongly opposed Rome, albeit in some subversive ways in his letters. By the time Paul was writing the letter to the Galatians it is clear Paul had concluded that Jewish accommodation to Roman protection was ultimately an inconsistent and even contrary stance for a true Jew to take. Paul, in other words, changed from preserving some space in which Jews were protected by Rome to challenging it as a faithless compromise of key elements of Jewish beliefs.

Bridgett Kahl offers some clarity on the conflict inherent in Jews accepting accommodation with Rome, and it’s many gods. It was so at odds with the insistent and uncompromising monotheism of the first commandment: “I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2). By minimally accepting some allegiance to Rome, Kahl maintains, Jews were accepting Rome’s sovereignity over them. She went on to explain, “This was a politically viable solution, though full of inherent contradictions and significant theological problems. The Torah of the one God who would not tolerate other gods had an effect become a favor granted by the supreme representative of idolatry, the one other god, Caesar.”[10]

2.2 Paul’s Call— Then Comes the Question: Did He Follow Abraham’s Journey?

 There is really just one, clearly identifiable, story of Paul’s call to be an apostle to the gentiles. It’s the story in Galatians. Unlike the three accounts in Acts Paul offers few descriptive clues. It’s more a statement of fact.

“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.” (1 Gal. 1:15)

What must be noted is the problem of language which translates into English Paul’s statement about being call by God. The problem is with the infinitive “to reveal.” “Reveal” is a word we might use to describe the opening of the curtains to begin a play. If that is the picture in our minds, this play begins Paul in the middle of his life. What is missing however, is the real drama of what happened. It was a revelation of dramatic consequences. It’s almost better to use the Greek word in our translations. Thus:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to apocalypse his Son to me. (1 Gal. 1:15)

Our word apocalypse is the Greek word for something dramatic and unexpected that can be both visual and audible. The connection to the life of Paul, sometimes overlooked with all the emphasis on Paul the thinker, is that Paul was more likely a Jewish mystic. This event may hardly have been his first, nor would it be his last, encounter with the holy. It’s misleading to think that Paul had a singular spiritual encounter with Jesus. There are serious reasons to question the idea that Paul’s call was somehow his first and only mystical experience with the holiness of God. In a further chapter the focus will be on Paul’s mysticism and his charismatic gifts. As Ashton points out there was enough in Paul’s story —including his openness to mystical experiences— that led some people to think he was crazy.[11] (See 2 Cor 11:16) And he may have been a little out of his mind to travel to Arabia.

In the rather extensive, even exhaustive, literature about Paul, there seem to be only a few scholars who have dared—or is it cared?—to wonder about Paul’s time in Arabia. There was a direction in Paul’s life, and, indeed, a dramatic turn in it with his travel to Arabia. The quote of the philosopher McIntyre, at the beginning of this chapter, speaks of lives with their unpredictable events, which, nonetheless, seem to have a teleological character. In the Excursus at the end historical data is what matters, but those details hardly tell us anything about Paul. There’s also a place for wondering about what Paul was doing in Arabia, and how it may have framed his ministry in the second half of his life. The bible in Paul’s head was leading him.

It is important that my readers understand that I am offering here some proposals and ideas about Paul in Arabia that are not based on a plethora of evidence. We are not covering well-traveled ground here. Paul’s journey to Arabia is one the least discussed pieces of his story in all the books on Paul I’ve read. Most scholars simply ignore this detail. Others are like Kirsop Lake, writing in 1919, who mentioned it, almost in passing, said of Paul’s involvement in the Nabatean kingdom of Arabia, “But for the present purpose the question is not of primary importance.”[12]

Others suggest that following Paul’s call what he needed was some quiet time. “What is likely is that he earnestly desired a time of quiet recollection.”[13] I once heard a seminary professor make an off-hand remark on Paul in Arabia. “It’s like he was off to seminary. Better to keep him silent for three years, before he gets his first parish!”

Perhaps, more insightful and helpful to our understanding of Paul’s motivation to travel to Arabia is a comment by Barclay noting that what had to haunt Paul, in all the years that he was the traveling apostle, was his earlier zeal when he opposed the very faith that now claimed his life.[14] In some ways, being called to follow Jesus as Messiah, placed the young man Paul in a difficult situation. Could he just go back to his Pharisaic friends and tell them of this revelation—this apocalypse? The answer is obvious; not now, probably never! Neither could he just appear at a gathering of early disciples celebrating the Lord’s Supper, especially in Damascus and say “Let me join you.” He had no credibility in either camp!

Rather than see Paul’s journey to Arabia as some kind of escape or even retreat (i.e. Diessmann), my thesis is that Paul connects what happened to him (his call) with a key part of his Jewish faith. He was going to follow in the footsteps of Abraham. This can’t be proven, but at least two of Paul’s letters (Romans and Galatians) have arguments grounded in God’s call to Abraham with this subsequent declaration; “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” (Gal. 3:8)[15]. The Abraham story clearly shaped Paul’s outreach to Gentiles to be included in the family that knows Jesus as Lord.

In 1977 my wife Caroline and I were blessed to travel for 11 days in the Holy Land. One afternoon our travels took us south of Jerusalem into the desert where we headed to the city of Haran, where Abraham had his call from God to go to the land of Canaan (i.e. Judea or modern day Israel). It is recorded in Genesis (23:19, 25:90 that Sarah and then Abraham were buried in Haran. To this day the burial site of the two of them is treasured by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. At the time of our visit it had only been included in Israel as a result of the 1976 war with Israel’s Muslim neighbors.

Tensions in 1977 were particularly tense between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Haran regarding some new Jewish settlements . We arrived in Haran later in the afternoon and visited a glass blowing factory. The visit was cut short around 4pm when our bus driver yelled at us to get back on the bus. The bus picked up speed quickly while our driver, said “Hold on to your seats. I’m driving us fast out of the town. It’s not safe for any us to be here after dusk.”

We had been in a city with a holy gravesite preserving the memory of Abraham who’s story is contested by differing ethnic and religious groups. Certainly in the time of Paul it was also a famous site. Perhaps on his way to Arabia Paul passed through Haran. Even more to the point of this story in terms of the first century world it may have been that the Nabataen kingdom claimed the territory to the north and east thus controlling the tombs of Abraham and Sarah. They may have preserved memories of Abraham and Sarah—some which might have been different than the accounts in Genesis.

Arabia was also the home of Mount Sinai where Moses stood when encountering the “thunderous” voice of God. (Exodus 19:19). There Moses received the 10 Commandments. What is relevant to our focus on Paul is the second reference he makes in the letter to the Galatians with regard to Arabia. “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” (Gal. 4:25) Jewish scholars must shake their heads at this unique and unusual comparison of Mount Sinai with Hagar, because it appears nowhere else in Scripture.[1] For now it is simply important to note the possibility that Paul saw Mount Sinai while in Arabia. Certainly while there he was thinking about what was also a most unusual call—that he was to go to the Gentile world.

In further chapters we will explore in more detail the implications of Paul’s understanding of his role as Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s vision of community uniting Jew and Gentile depended, in large part, on his unique and creative interpretation of the covenant and promises that God made to Abraham in Genesis. Romans and Galatians are the two letters where Paul’s concentrated theology swirls around his reading of that narrative.

[1] Martyns, 1997, 436-7.

  1. 3 Was a sketch of Paul’s face hung at the Petra Post Office?

Paul did something while in the Nabataen Kingdom that placed a warrant on him as a wanted man. We know this from his comment about fleeing Damascus in a basket because he was about to be arrested by the governor of that city.

“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 Cor. 11:32-33)

The Excursus “A date for the attempted arrest of Paul” found at the end of this chapter is an exploration into the unique politics of Arabs, Jews, and Romans preceding Paul’s perilous escape. It is likely, by the way, that Paul upon reaching the ground outside the wall of Damascus, made his first visit to Jerusalem. First century politics involving Roman provinces and tensions with Parthia were in the background when Paul escaped from the clutches of the Nabataen governor. Paul, who never played a role in the larger historical events, nonetheless, had his own story to tell.

Certainly if Paul had just gone to Arabia on retreat it would be hard to find a cause for arresting him. It seems plausible that he was in Arabia for a considerable time—two or maybe three years—long enough to establish some kind of reputation. Paul may have been one of the most surprised citizens of Damascus, a few years later after his sojourn in Arabia, when the Nabataen king took control of the city in which he was living. Unlike the account in Acts my suspicion is that Paul had a little time, maybe not much, to prepare his escape.

What matters is the warrant for Paul’s arrest. Why? What did Paul presumably do while in the Arabian kingdom to be declared, as maybe he was, an enemy of the state. There are some scholars like Betz who believe Paul was acting as a missionary while in Arabia. [16] There may be some truth in this matter, but there’s one question that I find lacking in all the scholars I’ve read. Most scholars, giving some thought to the Arabia visit, seem to ignore the fact of Paul needed to work at something in order to earn a living. Where did Paul learn to work with his hands? I think it was in Arabia.

Further on there is a chapter devoted to Paul the Artisan in which I explore questions regarding the kind of work he did, and why, at certain times, he also accepted help having someone as his patron. For now there are a few aspects of Paul learning to work with his hands, and taking up a trade while in Arabia that make sense. First of all, it’s clear he could not have continued a life as a Jewish rabbi, as a respected member of the Pharisees. As Horsley explains, “…Paul presumably would have received support in the tributary system of the Jerusalem Temple state…”[17] That couldn’t be the case anymore.

We will never know why Paul chose to travel to Arabia upon receiving his call, but we can be certain that there were Jews there. Frericksen wondered if he contacted other followers of Jesus while he was in Arabia, but thinks he didn’t based on his comment that he did not “…confer with flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:16) with regard to Jesus. She comes, to a logical conclusion regarding Paul’s knowledge of the essential message about Jesus: “…Paul’s sole exposure to the kerygma seems to have been through the Christians whom he had persecuted in Damascus.”[18]

Given the realities of the diaspora, however, it’s highly likely that there were Jews in the major cities of the Nabataen Kingdom. Some of them may have heard about Jesus and been convinced he was the messiah. We will never know. What we do know, however, is that Paul was heading to a land filled with foreigners from all over the world. The Roman historian Strabo was told by a friend and informant that Petra was a city “full of foreigners.”[19]

What would have Paul done while in one of the cities of the Nabataen Kingdom to get in trouble? It’s hard to imagine him immediately causing trouble in this new world, because a primary concern had to be finding some way to support himself. In the chapter “Paul the Artisan,” you will find an extensive discussion about what it means to learn a trade. We know Paul left behind the work of a Pharisee and all its privileges. In the second half of his life he would work on a daily basis alongside others.

Perhaps it was in Arabia, and maybe in Petra, when Paul began to see the possibility of creating a unique community of equals (Jews and non-Jews) in common fellowship. Who were the non-Jews in the Nabataen Kingdom? They could have been from China and India. Arab traders carried goods, and maybe even people from all over the world. The Nabataeans were speaking a semitic language with similarities to Aramaic[20] and Hebrew—languages Paul knew in addition to Greek, and probably Latin. They were the only other people in the 1st century world who practiced circumcision.[21] Most important of all they must have embraced Abraham and Sarah as their ancestors.

Equally important for understanding Paul in Arabia is that his first language was Greek. Paul must have traveled with Arabia with traders fluent in Greek—a language they needed in order to trade in Damascus, but also when they traveled toward the East. Peter Frankopan, in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, reminds us that following the military achievement of Alexander the Great 300 years before the time of Paul, the Greek language was spoken “…all over Central Asia and the Indus Valley.”[22]

Like so many in his world Paul was bilingual, meaning he was competent in two or more languages. As Kathy Ehrensperger framed it such people have “…’a distinct compound state of mind—multicompetance’.[23] Choosing Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles certainly makes a great sense given his bilingual skills.

What did those Nabataeans see in Paul? They would have seen him as a Jew keeping a somewhat strange set of practices, but would have realized he was fluent in Aramaic and Greek. His fluency in Aramaic would have helped him learn their Arabic dialect. What they wouldn’t have expected was Paul’s passion for them to be included in the same story that shaped his life and mission.

Paul would have found Jews living in Arabia with a life-style, to which he was familiar. His work and relationships must have included many interactions with his Arab neighbors. We can discern from Paul’s letters—which wouldn’t appear for another fifteen or twenty years—how the story of God in Christ became for Paul far more important than particular practices associated with the Jewish way of life. Life for Jews in the diaspora created it’s own questions about how to live with your non-Jewish neighbors. It meant constantly negotiating their lives: a life which kept Jewish traditions (maybe not all of them) while at the same time maintaining relationships with non-Jews through work and daily living. We know from Paul’s letters that what to eat and with whom to share meals were challenges in Corinth and Rome, and, most likely, equally so in Petra. It’s not possible to say when Paul came to the conclusion that “all foods were clean” (Rom. 14:20), but his openness to non-kosher food could have started in Arabia.

What was it, though, in Paul’s convictions about Christ as the culmination of God’s story that could have caused him trouble from the very beginning of his ministry? The answer must lie in our understanding of the demands and expectations Paul had for the way that this gospel was to be lived and shared. So much of what Paul asked of his followers was grounded in Judaism, but to faithful kosher-keeping Jews looking in from the outside it had to seem strange to see Jews and non-Jews breaking bread together. It had to be disturbing to see the social differences between slave and free disregarded in their times of worship and fellowship. We have already noticed the leadership of women may have been extremely disconcerting to Roman men, but it’s clear that women played a key role in the missionary work of the early church.[24]

Paul probably didn’t get in trouble in Arabia, however, for mixing with the wrong people or letting women share in leadership. More likely there was something Paul was condemning, perhaps in a more public way about the ideas and beliefs others held that he found reprehensible. Perhaps it was his presumably unwavering commitment to what he believed which caused an enmity that would make him a marked man with a warrant for his arrest.

Many of us live in a world where our religious commitments are negotiated alongside other responsibilities and interests. We also live in a highly individualized world —so unlike anything Paul could ever imagine. We talk about the freedom to choose your religion. Paul’s message was so different! Douglas Harink characterized Paul’s understanding of faith this way:

“In other words, the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is itself imperial in its demands, omnivorous in its appetite. The gospel creates and names a world, a “kingdom,” a people, a social and political body in practice in which the reign of Christ dissolves the loyalty claims of all other kings, lords, powers, empires, social orders, economies, and nations.” [25]

The phrase “dissolves the loyalty claims” may be the key for understanding something of the trouble Paul found for himself with various political authorities through his apostolic ministry. Communities drawn together around Christ could be generous, loving, forgiving, and celebratory inside their common life. They were commended by Paul to practice the same in their daily life. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…” Gal. 6:10) Their ultimate loyalty, though, was always to Christ crucified, and no other lord or master. Further on it will be demonstrated that calling Jesus by the Greek name for Lord (i.e. Kurios) carried many political overtones.

No evidence in any documents from the first century can inform us with complete certainty why that governor in Damascus, connected to the Nabataen king, wanted to arrest Paul. In his preaching or teaching, however, Paul must have asked for a loyalty to Christ that preceded and most likely precluded other loyalties valued in the Arab world where his ministry began. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time some authority tried to lock Paul up.

Much of this account of Paul in Arabia has been about unanswerable questions. At the same time this chapter has started us to seek our picture of Paul by relying on what he wrote. We would never know about Paul even going to Arabia, if Acts was our only source for his story. The story of escape from Damascus in a basket is there in Acts. The reason given there blames the Jews who were trying to kill Paul. (Acts 9:23-25) Jews seeking to have Paul arrested is a continual theme in Acts, but it cannot be confirmed within Paul’s letters. It’s so much better to take Paul’s words as the more credible account.

The few details from Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians (11:32) are sufficient to place Paul in history. He was in Damascus. The Nabeateans controlled the city, if only for a brief time, and it was during the time of King Aretas IV . Once we consider the background of 1st century politics involving the Arab Kingdom, Judea, and Damascus we can discover a date from which it’s possible to say when Paul made his first and second visits to Jerusalem. Even more interesting is how this one date (in late 36 or early 37 C.E.) places Paul’s call within a year or two of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Excursus 1: A Date for the Attempted Arrest of Paul

If we put a map of the Middle East in front of Paul today, he would most likely ask us “What’s a map?”. Maps as we know them did not exist in his world. We would find it hard to comprehend living in Paul’s one-dimensional, or “odological”, world, but that is what prevailed in antiquity.[26] Distances between places and towns were measured in some instances with regard to what a Roman army could converse in a day.[27] Sometimes the Romans placed mile markers along significant routes. Mostly distances and travel itself were thought of “…in terms of sequences or itineraries, like beads on a string.”[28] The kind of mental map that Paul must have had also seemed to go in one direction on that day he left Arabia to go back to Damascus. From that point on Paul’s map had an “…underlying itinerary or sequence that runs from east to west.”[29] Eventually he wanted to travel to the Western edge of the earth—to Spain. (Rom. 15:28).

Our map of the Middle East would seem strange to Paul for another reason—the boundaries marking off national states from one another would make little sense to him. The countries encompassing parts of the desert Paul knew as Arabia include Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. Arabia, though, wasn’t a nation state in any sense of the term in Paul’s world. Upon reaching Arabia Paul would have been told he was inside the Nabataean Kingdom whose boundaries were sand. More likely the absence of any Roman military presence is what would have told him that he was in a different part of the world. [30]

There is date, discovered through this inquiry, provides a few clues for a Pauline chronology regarding his call and his first and second visits to Jerusalem. As noted previously the most important detail is found in 2 Corinthians 1:32-33. Paul reminded the Corinthians that he had once escaped from Damascus when he was lowered over a wall that surrounded the city. In that passage he mentioned the name “King Aretas,” which is the detail that leads to a date for Paul.

Some background about the Nabataean’s will be helpful. Our knowledge of the history of the Nabataeans does not go back very far because they left few written documents. Their legacy, however, continues with the survival of parts of their magnificent cities carved out of stone. They are a lasting testimony to their artistic creativity and prosperity.

Written records, from other sources, of their story in history date from the mid-third century prior to the birth of Jesus. We have different pictures of them. One is that they “…were an uncommonly energetic and successful nomadic people.”[31] Another description was that they were a “sedentary people…given to the acquisition of possessions.”[32] Their economy was based in trade which led to their dominance and control over Western sections of the Silk Road—never a single road or route, by the way. At two points in our story their power over this key trade route extended up to its Western terminus which was Damascus. A portion of this road bore the ancient name “The Kings Highway” connecting Syria with the Gulf of Aqaba far to the south.

The capital of the Nabataean Kingdom was Petra. Called a “rock-bound city” it was located in the cavernous mountains southeast of the Dead Sea. It was an almost impregnable fortress-like city fortunately supplied with a constant stream of water—engineered through a series of manmade aqueducts. There have been many archeological excavations of various Nabataean cities which have “…brought to light a prosperous civilization in that territory which was at its peak by the time of Paul’s visit.”[33] The ancient city of Petra is the most popular tourist attraction in Jordan today.

What matters to this discussion is a brief interval when the Nabataean’s controlled Damascus for the second time in their history. Their control of this city, though, was quickly and shrewdly abandoned in the face of a Roman army returning from the East somewhere in late 36 CE or early 37 CE. The story itself involves shifting alliances with regard to Rome’s control of Judea and other provinces in East Asia, as well as the tabloid pages character of Antipas, the third son of King Herod (the Judean king at the time of the birth of Jesus).

King Herod died in 4 CE. Herod’s rule was remembered for its harsh brutality and onerous taxes. He may have called himself “King of the Jews,” but he never held the affection of Jews, whether in Jerusalem or Judea. Upon his death in 4 CE, there were riots throughout the land along with many voices crying out for freedom from Roman rule. His will stated that his three sons were to inherit parts of his Jewish Kingdom.

One of his step-sons didn’t last too long with his portion of the inherited kingdom. Herod Archelaus was the ruler over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, but he was so incompetent, that Emperor Augustus replaced him with a Roman governor, known to us as Pilate. Another stepson was Philip the Tetrach who ruled the Decapolis. At one point he governed territory extending from Lake Gennesaret almost to the edge of Damascus. He was its ruler from 4 CE to 34 CE.

King Herod’s third son Antipas[34] was named tetrarch of Galilee.[35] It may not seem to have been a significant part of the world, but Galilee was along major trade routes extending up to Damascus. (Southern Syria in our maps today.) Roman armies were stationed in this territory as well as in the neighboring provinces of Syria, Judea, and just to the east in parts of modern day Jordon. What is important to our story is the favor Antipas curried with two emperors, including Tiberias at the time of the Nabataean takeover of Damascus.

Ex. 2.1 The Nabataean Kingdom and the Fall of Herod Antipas

King Aretas IV (8. B.C.E. to 40 C.E.)[36] had a long mostly peaceful and prosperous rule over his kingdom. We don’t know the circumstances that first connected King Aretas to Antipas, but both Augustus and Tiberias understood politically arranged marriages could enhance Roman rule. At some point in the middle of Tiberias’ rule as Emperor (14-37 CE) Antipas married Phaesalis, a daughter of King Aretas IV. The Nabataean king obviously had his own motivations in approving this alliance, as it must have had something to do with the all important trades routes so essential to the success of their kingdom.

Antipas, following somewhat in the footsteps of his father King Herod, made it a point to curry favor with whoever was emperor. It was on one of his visits to Rome that he fell in love with the wife of his half-brother. Her name was Herodias, and she was the daughter of another half-brother Aristobolus. At this point Antipas, while still in Rome, determined to divorce Phaesalis. Herodias, in turn, would be divorced from his half-brother, to marry Antipas.

Word of the intentions of Antipas to divorce Phaeselis came to her while Antipas was still in Rome. To stay in Galilee would give Antipas opportunity to have her murdered. In the words of Campbell, “…she was the unfortunate party thrown over so that Antipas could marry Herodias…”[37] Several generals, supposedly connected to Aretas, helped her escape back to the safe custody of her father. From any Middle-Eastern point of view, even today, such a set of public events involving a daughter was considered outrageous and immoral—it was a matter of honor as well. Aretas needed revenge, but waited for the right opportunity. Bowersock says that Aretas was “enraged.”[38]

Another source for this tabloid-like story are the gospel accounts in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John the Baptist was horrified with this shameful set of events that should never have involved any person, but especially one claiming rule over Jews. Mark’s account claims that Herod was actually afraid of John the Baptist “…knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…” (Mark 6:20). All the things that described John the Baptist (as one who defended Torah; Mark. 6:18) found their complete opposite in Antipas. The story about the dance by Herodias’ daughter (Mark 6:22) may be fiction, but knowledge of the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Antipas, most likely reached the ears of King Aretas, while was waiting for the “right moment” to revenge the wrong done to his daughter and the need to defend the honor of the Nabataean Kingdom.

Death and politics played the critical roles in this narrative. Two deaths occurred which gave Aretas his opportunity to strike against Antipas. The first death took place in 33 CE when the appointed governor of Syria (which included Damascus) died. Tiberias sent General A. Vittelius to be its governor. He chose to live in Antioch. To the East was Parthia. Rome had reason to fear that the Parthians might mount military aggression against their Roman provinces. Through 35 and 36 CE Vitellius negotiated with Artabanus, the Parthian leader, a peace settlement that included an exchange of hostages. At the end of this agreement Tiberias asked Antipas to oversee the final arrangements.

Antipas was always one to curry favor with the emperor and did so on the occasion of this important settlement, thereby upstaging Vittelius. “…Antipas, Josephus tells us, had definitively upstaged Vitellius after the latter’s diplomatic triumph by reporting news of the important agreement to Tiberius in detail first (Ant. 18.104-5).[39] This was also the moment that King Aretas chose to take out his revenge against Antipas.

In late 36 CE the Nabataean army won a decisive victory over the forces of Antipas who received no help from Rome. It seems that Vitellius, with his army still in the East, heard about the Nabataean attack and was pleased to see the defeat and humiliation of Antipas. Tiberias died in early 37 CE. The next emperor Caligula ended up banning Antipas and his family to Gaul.

King Aretas took control of Galilee and his army proceeded to marc through part of the Decapolis all the way to Damascus, governing it maybe for six months. Hearing that Vitellius was returning with his Roman army, which would obviously want control of the territory of Damascus, King Aretas suddenly abandoned control of the city. For a brief time in late 36 or early 37 CE the Nabataeans were in control of the city to which Paul had returned from his own visit to Arabia. Most likely Paul’s escape in that basket was planned and carried out by friends he had made there who also were Jesus followers.

There was no Nabataean governor in Damascus when Paul most likely returned following his time in Arabia. Soon after when the Nabataean governor came to Damascus there was no Paul living there. He had escaped, most likely, to Jerusalem, spending two weeks with Peter and James. Oh the stories they must have shared!

Footnotes to Chapter 2: Paul in Arabia

[1] In the chapter on Paul the Story Teller, at other places in this book, the emphasis is on Paul’s call and not his conversion. There are many scholars (i.e. Alan Segal, 1990) who believe it was a conversion. It’s a debatable topic, to be sure. The landmark book emphasizing Paul’s call was written by Stendahl, 1976.

[2] The Excursus at the conclusion of this chapter explains in great detail the story behind our certainty for this approximate date for Paul’s escape from Damascus.

[3] D. Cambell, 2002:299 believes Paul was there for the entire three years.

[4] Knox, 1987,67.

[5] Horsley, 2013, Loc. 621.

[6] Eisenbaum, 2009 ,p.53

[7] Gordon, 1997:141

[8] Lopez, 2005;93 (Paul, Gender and Gender Paradigms)

[9] Kahl, 2010: 211

[10] Ibid. p. 216 (Italics in original.)

[11] Ashton, 2000, 138.

[12] Lake, 1919:271

[13] Diessmann, 1927:247

[14] Barclay, 2007:13

[15] See also Romans 4:1-12

[16] Betz, 1979:74

[17] Horsely, 1991, 249.

[18] Fredricksen, 1988, 157.

[19] Bowersock, 1983, 61.

[20][20] Hengel, 2002,49 reported that by the Nabataen traders “… by the end of the third century BC, they are reported to have corresponded in Aramaic, although they spoke an Arabic dialect.”

[21] Ibid. 50.

[22] Frankopan, 2016, 8.

[23] Ehrespereger, 2013, 56 [Quoting A. Pavlenko. Emotions and Multiculturalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005:12. Italics in original]

[24] Schussler-Fiorenza, 1994, 167.

[25] Harink, 2003,89.

[26] Mattern, 1999, 39.

[27] Ibid, 29

[28] Campbell, 2014, 275.

[29] Ibid

[30] Lewis, 2016, 6.

[31] Bowerstock,1983, 16.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Betz, 1979, 73.

[34] There is some confusion regarding which title and name should be used for Antipas. He is called King in one biblical account (Mark 6:14), and sometimes bears the name Herod Antipas (i.e. Josephus). For more on this matter:

[35] In some historical accounts he is known as Herod the Tetrarch

[36] Bowerstock, 1983, 55.

[37] Campbell, 2002, 288.

[38] Bowerstock, 1983, 65.

[39] Campbell, 2002, 294.

Chapter 4 — Paul the Storyteller

Chapter 4 — Paul the Storyteller

Chapter 4

 Paul the Storyteller

“The art of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another person’s story.” [Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, #6]

Against a background of a seminary library shelves filled with titles reflecting what Paul thought and believed, I want to emphasize a topic rarely considered. Paul was primarily a storyteller. There are multi-layered narratives to be discovered in Paul letters. We have some detective work to do. We will discover many clues to Paul that let us understand him as a real person at a particular moment in history. I’m convinced we can learn a great deal about Paul’s own story from his letters, and see him in his social world negotiating his Jewish traditions in light of his “call” while taking his message and story into a non-Jewish world.

Like all of us Paul was inside a much larger story. In Paul’s case he was born into the Jewish story of God. It was a story that gave him his identity as a Jew. Then it was no longer just his story alone, or of his Jewish brothers and sisters, but that of the whole world. The ethnic side of that story, that which once differentiated Paul from others, mattered no more. We will spend some time reflecting on this powerful tsunami-like transformation in Paul’s life, but we also seriously consider that Paul remained true to his roots as he became the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul had been brought up knowing from the Passover celebrations the Jewish story of deliverance from slavery in Egypt: Paul always had been a character in that story. He had to remember being a child in more than one Seder celebration which always called each Jew to see themselves as the people of the Exodus. That story never ceased for Paul. But in the middle of his life the story was extended—not ended! Through his encounter with Christ Paul saw all who were oppressed (the Gentiles, the Others) who he may had never considered as part of that story now as God’s people. He was after all, in his own discovery, “….the unique apostle to the gentiles…”[1]

Critical to this process of finding Paul in his words is that we do not fall into the trap of separating his life and understanding of God’s story in half. It was one continuous story for Paul, albeit marked by ineffable mystical experiences and one narrative of God. Nicholas Lash said of the mystery of God that is “…the story of a single process a divine self-bestowal, a single ‘economy’ of creation and salvation.”[2] In a nutshell, if that dense phrase can qualify for a briefer metaphorical sentence, it states: Paul discovered in Christ the new Adam, or better yet, a “New Human Being.”[3]

The primary pronoun in all of Paul’s letters, by the way, isn’t the singular pronoun “I” but the plural “we.” When Paul went back to the story of Abraham, and then took an even larger leap back to creation itself he was thinking about the whole world. He saw the entire narrative and the background of every action of God in history in light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In and out of this grand historical panorama were the personal elements and the stories Paul shared of his life, but also of the lives of his co-workers, the other apostles, and even those who opposed him. The social and communal aspects of Paul’s story must always be kept in view, lest we see him as this unique individual standing apart from the religious and political world of the first century.

Paul was grounded in a tradition (the one going back to creation, Adam, and most importantly the stories of Abraham). He belonged to a communal story that wasn’t of his own making. It is true for each and every one of us. The difference is that in our world we tend to think of ourselves   unique discrete individuals. That wasn’t the case in Paul’s world.

He wasn’t thinking of himself as having discovered the truth about God’s story on his own. This is in such contrast to our perception of an Einstein who discovered the theory of relativity, or an Isaac Newton who invented calculus[4]. As MacIntyre, the Aristotelian philosopher, notes, with some regret, I might add, “…we live in a world that assumes the egoistic nature of human beings – that we are primarily individuals.”[5]

Paul wouldn’t understand our focus on being individuals and doing your own thing. Never would he sing along with Simon and Garfunkel the lyrics, “I am a rock, I am an island.”[6] As we will learn many of his letters might have even been composed with the help of his co-workers. He might be one of those people we meet every now and then who use the third person pronoun “we” when talking about something personal. We want to interrupt and ask “What’s with the “we” pronoun?” Paul would most likely reply, “I am and always will be a “we.””

We should try to keep in mind an important question that MacIntyre once asked:

“… In what larger story or stories, if any, is the story of each individual embedded? And in what still larger story is that story in turn embedded? And is there then a single history of the world within which all other stories find their place and from which the significance of each subordinate story derives?”[7]

It is clear that Paul was convinced there was a single history of the world that extended back to creation and to the story of Adam. Paul, with his rootedness in Torah, and a special Hebraic way of life had in his past a community of friends, family, and devoted Jews who shared a common life of faith and practice. For the first part of his life that story gave him an ethnic identity. Then he changed. What changed was his understanding of who belonged to that story. The category of ethnicity no longer mattered. As we will see the categories of slave/free and male/female also disappeared into some kind of cosmic dust.

His grounding in scripture gave him the insight that this had been part of God’s plan all along, especially as it was revealed to Abraham, father of all the nations. The basic dichotomy in Paul’s Jewish world when he was growing up had been “Jew” or “Non-Jew.” Those categories of distinction were smashed into non-existence when Paul became “the least of the apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:9) Gaventa says that all the worlds that made such distinctions definitional had also come to an end.[8] These differences implied worlds of privileges, Gaventa notes, but “the pairs no longer exist.”[9]

As a young man Paul knew himself privileged to be a Jew—recipient of the promises of the covenant. After God’s revelation to him of Jesus Messiah, however, he would claim those same promises only as they extended to everyone in the world. He re-visited the Abraham story and God’s covenant: it became the springboard into his ministry to the non-Jew world—or what is usually called the Gentile world. [10]

We have to careful with the term “Gentile world.” If we say that Paul’s world was divided between Jews and Gentiles, we’re using, to be sure, a traditional Jewish perspective from the first-century. (Paul would tell us that was what was part of his story.) Even though Jew’s were not the dominant culture in that world and even though they were spread throughout the Roman empire and even beyond its borders (the diaspora), their identity was to claim themselves as separate from others.

There is another set of glasses we need to wear and this is the perspective that helps us see the world from the point of view of a Roman citizen.[11] Paul’s world, especially in political and military matters, was dominated by Rome! The Romans divided the world in terms of themselves and all others who were either just Greeks or Barbarians. Sometimes both terms were used to describe the others who weren’t Romans. Jews, who were considered strange by the Romans, were also in the category of Barbarians.

The lens of ethnicity is still with us. For many it is still the world of “we” (our world as we like it) and “them” (all the others, no matter who they are). We are not like them. We don’t think like them. In some ways it seems we haven’t changed much in the past 2,000 years knowing as we do wars and tribal conflicts causing so much death and creating millions of refugees throughout our so-called modern world.

Rather than simply reproach the reality of human beings holding views which allow them to claim a unique identity vis-à-vis others, however, we also need to understand the positive side of a social identity which shapes a view of the world and of others. Charles Taylor describes a “politics of identity” as that recognition we give to others in which we appreciate their “investment in a particular language, religion, customs, their construction of gender and racial difference, etc…”[12] The churches Paul was writing to were composed of people with great differences that remained, but which were, in Paul’s view, not meant to be divisive.

What is important to understand is that Paul came to see how the story of his people (Jewish people) had become the world’s story. Paul discovered a single history of the world into which all other stories were meant to find their place. What is astounding about this revelation is that Paul’s life was no longer one of privilege and status, or special claims based on ethnicity. He left that world behind and essentially became one of the “others” or one of the “no-bodies” of his time.

Paul would be surprised to find someone trying to tell his story, for Paul felt shaped by Christ and saw himself part a community in Christ—a family of brothers and sisters shaped around Christ-crucified. He was living the story of God, and it became the story of Christ best framed as a family created in the image of Christ. His letters were addressed to various families of believers called to live as witnesses to the world of the way the world was suppose to be. In Paul communal ethics always trumped theology! This doesn’t mean for a second that the story of what God had done in Christ was secondary. Paul was focused on what had happened (past) with Christ crucified and raised from the dead (present) as evidenced in the creation of communities of faith who were living the story on a daily basis in anticipation of Christ’s parousia (very near into Paul’s future.) The story of the world was changing before his eyes!

We have already noted that Paul’s story was a proud one. He declared in Philippians that he was “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews…” (Phil. 3.5). Yet just two verses later he declared that nothing in his previous story, the admirable credentials he once assumed were important or mattered any more. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Phil. 3.7) What Paul once knew was still there in memory, but of such insignificance. The past was still inside him, but it wasn’t directing his new life. He began living a life in a community he could never have imagined.

No one has a singular story to tell, and neither did Paul. MacIntyre observed, “We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being the main character in his own drama play subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.”[13] Even though we will want to understand more about Paul (knowing that there are so many questions we cannot answer), he would be saying, “I’m not the main story. Christ is the story.” Essentially the Jesus story is “A plot played over and in him.”[14] Paul kept telling Christ’s story in his life, and that is the way for us to see his life! At the same time were the many friends, and some who differed with Paul, in those living communities that claimed Jesus as their Lord and Messiah, and who received those letters we still have. Thank God he had a reason and reasons to write those letters, where he did indeed boast about himself, in a very strange way, as an example to follow.

MacIntryre, in the previous comment may have suggested we “…play subordinate parts in the drama of others…” but did Paul? It may be challenging to imagine Paul taking orders from anyone, but we must always remember his claim of being a slave of Christ. We will be looking carefully at those places where Paul was boastful because he could be the master of irony. Certainly within the larger context in which Paul placed himself, he was sincere in claiming a life lived more with others, especially the others he avoided prior to his life in Christ.

To whatever extent Paul was actually a Pharisee or lived a Pharisaic way of life, in the past, by virtue of that title, he lived a separated life. The Greek word for such is “…aphōrismenos,” which meant separated. “Aphōrismenos is nothing more than the Greek translation of the Hebrew term [Pharisee].”[15] The word Pharisee, in turn, is an Aramaic word. In actuality Pharisees distanced themselves from common people, called the “people of the land.” (In Hebrew the “am-haaretz, people of the earth, were the ignorant farmers who did not follow the law.”)[16] The rough callused hands those farmers developed were going to become Paul’s hands. Paul would have friends and co-workers who had to struggle literally for “daily bread.” In the second part of his life he was not separated from them. Our story of Paul examines the times he looked back on his previous life, but not with regret!

MacIntyre makes some remarkable observations about the way we can retrospectively learn to put into question some or many of the distortions and errors of the social and cultural traditions which initially form and shape us. He suggests that we can look back on our lives seeing both failures and success, and can also discern a “directedness” in our lives that brings us to “conclusions” which we could never have formulated in the beginning.[17] At the same time is it possible to go on living while “…repeating and transmitting the mistakes and distortions” characteristic of a particular culture or social world that has formed and shaped us.[18]

One theme that MacIntyre emphasizes in his latest book is that those who lead “excellent lives” (his term) are those who identify and learn from their mistakes. He maintains that the “capacity for rationality over any extended period of time” requires engagement “in mutual criticism with those who share their practical concerns.”[19] This is exactly the perspective found in Paul who admits his mistakes (i.e. as one who began persecuting followers of Jesus and as one who made a painful visit to the Corinthians. 2 Cor. 2:1.)

His writing also emerged from the conversational world in which he lived. Paul was not even the sole author of the first of the seven letters which was sent to the community in Thessalonica. Its authorship was shared: “Paul, Silbanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Tessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; Grace to you and peace.” (1 Thess. 1:1) In another sense each of the seven letters has strong echoes of previous and future conversations, and each in turn would have been heard, when read in community, as the very voice of Paul.

The truth about telling Paul’s story is that we actually don’t know much—or at least the kinds of things we usually want to find in a biography. When and where was he born? Acts offers an answer about the where (Tarsus) but not about when. We’re actually better off taking a guess about when he was born, rather than where. We also know nothing about his family, except for a brief reference to a relative at the end of Romans. Acts also mentioned the help given by the son of Paul’s sister who gave a warning to Paul allowing him to excape a deadly trap. (Acts 23:16.) It is a small detail from Paul’s life—maybe it was true.

4.1 Paul’s Memory Regarding History

Before we examine some specific autobiographical memories found in Paul’s letters—the process will continue throughout this book—we must consider our understanding of the role that memory plays in our understanding of history. To the extent that we might have been influenced by a Freudian concept of memory, we think of memories as hidden away, and maybe dark and fearful. That certainly doesn’t apply to Paul’s memory, or our consideration of the way he kept reminding others about God’s story.

We also tend to think of memory as personal and individualistic. My memory of the accident we just watched is different from your’s, perhaps, if we were on opposite sides of the street. I didn’t really see the accident clearly because I was leaning over the front my brake fixing it’s brake when the accident occurred. You were watching the traffic waiting for the light to change. Two perspectives and two different accounts of what happened in the same accident. The world we live in is often suspicious of stories drawn from memory, because they may be biased.

These examples of “witnesses” fits with the enterprise of listening more closely to Paul, because his letters serve as our doorway into his witness to his faith in Christ crucified. Georgio Agamben offers a helpful understanding of the specific kind of witness which is found in Paul. There are two words in Latin for “witness.” The first word “testis” is like the third party sitting on the witness stand describing how they saw the accident take place. Such a witness (a testis) “…is in the position of a third party..”[20]The other word is “superstes” which describes someone “…who has lived through something, who has experienced an event from beginning to end and can therefore bear witness to it.”[21] Paul is a “superstes” with regard to his call as an apostle, his experience of seeing the risen Lord, and is story of being an apostle.

The word for a “witness” most often used within the Christian story is martyr. It’s root is the Grek verb martureo. (The noun in Greek is martus.) In the many places in the New Testament where it is used it doesn’t mean “dying for what you believe,” but more prosaically means simply being a “witness to some person, something, or some truth.” To describe someone as a martus in the New Tesatment means they are standing for something or declaring some truth. Consider Paul’s use of this word in the introduction to Romans, “For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that with out ceasing I remember you always in my prayers.” It is God who is the witness for Paul!

While this work is focused on finding Paul in history, that is a concept that would have been puzzling to Paul. I’m sure he didn’t see himself playing a role in history, or having any impact on the direction in which the history of the world was heading. He certainly, though, had a sense that he was a witness to what God was doing, and how God’s amazing connection to a crucifixion outside Jerusalem of a peasant from Galilee was continuous with a history of revelation that had formed and shaped his people. And even Paul probably had to admit that it was a strange message that embraced him and called him to take this “good news” to those so unlike himself.

Paul’s understanding of what was happening in his world requires us to consider the apocalyptic expectations that swirled around Jews in the 1st century, and how, for someone like Paul, the sense that God was acting in history was an essential part of their story. The scriptural story from God walking in the Garden, to the call of Moses, and raising up the prophets, speaks of those unexpected times when something from God’s world was unveiled and disclosed on earth.[22] Equally unexpected was God’s revelation to Paul, who, as we will see, declared he even had an unexpected birth, or in his words, it was “untimely.” The real sense of revelations of God, though, were something that was meant to happen, and which was a window into the future—a future made present, as it were.

There is something else in this view of revelation in the sense that God is acting in history, but the main actors are often the least expected ones to play a significant role in the things that ultimately matter in history. “To adopt an apocalyptic style is to follow the biblical lead and turn our attention away from the power of kings and toward the power of ravens and peasant prophets in the wilderness.”[23]

One aspect of Paul’s story we will probably never be able to fully explain is why he felt driven to persecute the early followers declaring Jesus to be risen from the dead. I called it a matter of “pure speculation” in my chapter on Paul in Arabia. What I didn’t say there, but what must be clarified at this point, is that Paul was acting with a purpose to somehow preserve or protect the practice of Judaism from some kind of perceived threat. He was acting in history. He was trying to be effective.

Then came God’s apocalypse—the revelation that Jesus was the Son of God, and was raised from the dead.[24] It wasn’t just information for Paul. It was a whole new way to live the story of God. While it meant being in the world, it wasn’t a life meant to change the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). Their days were numbered. Paul clearly lived with a sense that the second-coming of Christ would come in his life-time. It was a story all in God’s hands, except he was to take the story to the “ends of the earth.”

Paul’s was following Jesus who had accepted the cross and in so doing “…renounced the claim to govern history.”[25] Some parts of the coming history would be unavoidable. In Philippians Paul proclaims the end coming to those who were the “enemies” of the gospel. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” (Phil 3:19). What followed were Paul’s thoughts on already having a citizenship that is in heaven and a future glory. Paul’s best advice isn’t to change the world, but to live in such a way as God’s people that we’ll be ready when the world ends.

What is especially relevant to our pursuit of Paul is that Paul was asking followers of Jesus to live the story and let that be their witness to God. In a very real sense, while not trying to change the trajectory of the Roman Empire, Paul was living in an alternative society which “…is in its very existence a point of resistance because of the way in which it recodifies power relations.”[26] This is where we find Paul. He is sharing leadership with others. He works alongside of them and earns his daily bread. He even thinks of himself as a “slave.”

One more perspective is helpful in understanding my claim that Paul wasn’t trying to change history, but certainly believed it was in God’s hands. The insights of John Yoder are helpful regarding the distance between so called “modern” or “post-modern world” and the first century. We think we can explain the cause of most things. In Yoder’s words, “..we take for granted a deterministic, even mechanistic vision of human affairs.”[27] The philosopher Charles Taylor described a long process in which the world has been purged “…of its connection to an enchanted cosmos…”[28] Paul could never have imagined that such a world was possible, steeped as he was in the possibility of always seeing God’s hand at work in this world. “Ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Rom. 1:20). It’s fair to say Paul always kept his eyes open to the possibilities of God incarnate!

What Paul said about himself whether in story form or narrative or simply with little pieces of personal identity are thus the forensic footprints we will follow to have a better picture of this enigmatic figure. The diverse topics covered in this book indicate how much material is actually available for us to have a clearer picture of this Apostle to the Gentiles. While we might wish for more source material, we have his letters. “Paul’s letters contain a great deal that is clearly autobiographical, but not autobiography.”[29] As George Lyons observed Paul’s writings stand out in the corpus of the New Testament for the number of autobiographical statements found in his epistles. Such a phenomenon was common in the ancient world.

4.2 A man with an “untimely” birth

We begin with an intriguing comment Paul made regarding his birth. He told the church in Corinth how Jesus came to him: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:8) Notice he did not say that the appearance of Jesus was untimely. He described his birth as “untimely.” A reasonable question to ask is “Does Paul mean that he was born prematurely?”[30] As we’ll discover shortly there’s a good reason for wondering about this.

The phrase “untimely born,” cannot mean that he somehow arrived late in his life to the truth about Jesus. (He was still a young man when his life changed!) The Greek term for “untimely born” could be translated as “miscarriage” but that doesn’t make sense given the context of this statement by Paul. What if he was born prematurely? Few such babies probably survived, but a few must have. And what if Paul, perhaps a premature baby, was stunted in his early growth? We’ll look at this question more thoroughly further on when we examine a 2nd century word picture of Paul.

Paul never made any mention to his own family, but there was one woman whom he cherished as a mother. Years after meeting Jesus, while Paul was waiting to go to Rome, and by this time an older man, he declared that the mother of Rufus had been a mother to him. “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.” (Romans 16:13) Many of us can testify to having more than one mother in our life, in the sense of someone who cared for us as a mother would.

More questions come to mind. What about his early years as a child and a youth? There is nothing direct in any of his letters, but we ought to take notice of some references that suggest a more tender and understanding appreciation of the challenges facing children.

Was he possibly an orphan? He shows empathy for a child alone in the world when writing his first letter to the Thessalonians. He wrote: As for us brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.” (1 Thess. 2:17) Perhaps Paul might have resonated with the title of the folksong “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.” There is nothing in the historical record about Paul’s birth family, but there are clues here that make us wonder.

There are added echoes in Paul of what it is like for an orphan to be adopted into a family. Writing to the Romans Paul said, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba![31] Father!” (Romans 8:15) The Romans also used adoption as a way to preserve a families reputation and place of honor in the world. For a man to die without a male heir meant the end of that family name. Adoption was the answer to the future of a family.

The most famous adoption in the time of Paul had to be the story of Octavian, who became Ceasar Augustus. Octvian was the great nephew of Caesar, who made him his adopted son and rightful heir to his fortune. In March 44 BCE Caesar was brutally assassinated, thereby making Octavian the rightful heir. From that point on he hardly ever used his old name—it was much better just to be Caesar’s son! One early move was to have the Roman senate declare that Caesar, now dead, was divine. From there it was a simple matter for his adopted son to be called a “son of God.”[32] A conflict was sure to come for those who called Jesus “the Son of God” and it was a title Paul never shied away from using.[33]

Having looked at the passage from Romans where Paul used the “orphan” metaphor, it is important to note that it was followed with the declaration that we are all the children of God. “…it is that very Spirit bearing witness[n] with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17) Can you imagine a pastor coming before his people on a Sunday morning and calling them all children? That’s what Paul did here. In another place he called those in Corinth and in Philippi “his children.” (1 Cor. 4:14-21; Phil 2:22) Remember, as well, as far as we know Paul was never married.

Paul remembered being a child. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child….” (1 Corinthians 13.11) That phrase can evoke all kinds of memories for each of us, and it must have done the same for Paul. Was he remembering certain words he said when people corrected his pronunciation? Most likely! Did he remember having some argument with his father, but learned that the reasons he offered didn’t perhaps persuade his father? Perhaps..

It is important to note that childhood was so different from what any of us experience. It basically was non-existent. Mary Beard in her history of Rome notes that many children “worked as soon as they were physically capable, whether slave or free.”[34] Beard discussed the archeologists who’ve studied the bones of the children in a cemetery outside of Rome. What those bones and joints revealed were signs of the hard physical labor those children endured. The fact that Paul recognized the reality of children as much as he did is probably the more surprising fact of this story.

There’s another interesting reference to a child and education in Galatians. Paul was discussing the role that Torah played in the lives of those who were raised within the Jewish world. He said, “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” ( Galatians 3:24) The word “ disciplinarian” in this verse, in Paul’s Greek, was “paidagogos.” A number of Biblical scholars have commented on this single word as if it contains a world of stories.[35] It does!

The word paidagogos is a compound word connecting the word for child “pais” with the word for someone who is a leader an “agogos.” The genitive construction of pais is paidos. The child, as it were, was never without the one who leads. Indeed in Paul’s world a child, if they came from a household of wealth, would usually, in public, be accompanied by their paidagogos, or literally their tutor. Often the tutor was one of the slaves, albeit in one with some education. That person was, therefore, responsible for bringing up the child.

Notice that a word which could have simply been translated as “tutor” became “one who disciplines” or as in the NRSV translation, “…the law was our disciplinarian.” To be sure some of the stories from that world were of stern, disapproving, even harsh servants bearing the title of paidagogos. But were they all this way? Krister Stendahl had a more holistic understanding a paidagogos as “…a sort of ambulant baby sitter, a slave who took children to school, taught them outward manners, saw to it that the did not fall into sin and difficulties…”[36] He suggested that “custodian” was a better translation, and that it was a role played out only “until Christ came”—exactly what Gal. 3:24 states!

Remember that the methodology undergirding this enterprise is to discover pieces of the story of Paul’s life. This is one instance when I wonder if Paul might have been thinking back to a paidagogos in his life as a child. Even if this seems like a stretch, please bear with this line of thought for a few moments. We must keep in mind that for at least 500 years since the Reformation, and maybe the 1500 year period that takes us back to St. Augustine, Paul has been pictured as guilty and troubled with regard to his conscience and the supposed burdens of the Jewish Torah. It was assumed he saw the law as his “disciplinarian.” If Stendahl was correct translating the passage so we hear that the “law” was his custodian we no longer have a Paul giving up on Judaism.

To consider Paul having had a more positive assessment of the Jewish law is a difficult, but critical concept to any reassessment of Paul. A case in point is the preacher W.A. Criswell who first offered an understanding of the word paidagogoos more as a “tutor”—meaning an image in relatively neutral terms. Then Criswell, perhaps putting on a Reformation perspective, focused on the limits of Torah, emphasizing it only in negative terms. Criswell said, for example, “…the purpose of it [Torah] was to lead us to a despair of ourselves and a paidagogos to lead us to the Lord Jesus Christ.”[37] That observation brings us to the concept of supersessionism, which in the world of Biblical studies, means all of those descriptions of Christianity as the religion that comes after Judaism. “According to supersessionists the church has replaced or superseded Israel in God’s program.”[38]

Was this the story Paul was telling? I don’t think so! But we must face the fact that church history has been marked, quite sadly at times, with this presumption. In another chapter in this book we will look more carefully at all the ways in which Paul always thought of himself as a Jew—most especially as a Jew who knew Jesus Messiah. It is sometimes forgotten that Paul as the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles was still a Jew.

Paul’s story, certainly in the centuries since St. Augustine, has been of a man with guilt, who was unable to find the grace and mercy of God within Judaism. This is the story, many of us learned, but it wasn’t his story. “Paul’s experience is not of that inner experience of conversion which Western theology has taken for granted.”[39] Paul felt indebted to God’s story that defined Israel. Then in light of the story of Christ he wished for all his brothers and sisters who defined themselves in terms of Israel could also see how God was in Jesus Messiah. (Romans 9-11)

A case can be made, I’m sure, that Paul never meant to say that the law was a disciplinarian. There is just one other time that Paul used this particular word. Another translation is possible, and this is a case where it would be wrong to translate paidagogos as disciplinarian.

In the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul discussed at some length the ministry of the apostles, and in particular what the life of an apostle looks like. This is a critical passage leading us into Paul’s story, which will be unpacked later when we examine in detail what Paul meant by describing the ministry of the apostles as “fools for the sake of Christ.” (1 Cor. 4.10). Our focus at this moment is Paul’s other use of the word paidagogos, albeit in its plural form, where the word translated as guardians.

For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Cor. 4:15)

What a difference between one who is a guardian and one who is a disciplinarian! If Paul was thinking back to his childhood with the passages we’ve discussed did he have in mind one who was his tutor or guardian—someone who genuinely who cared for him—or one who was like a prison guard? We know that Paul also met many a prison guards later on in his life. What about the early years? When he thought like a child it may have been with the pleasure of those around him who cherished what he said and did. When he thought of God’s story within the context of the story of Israel I’m convinced, as I found in a number of biblical scholars, that Paul’s thoughts were mostly positive and hope-filled.   My own sense is that it’s far better to translate our Galatians verse this way:

“Therefore the law was our guardian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” ( Galatians 3:24)

Calling the law our guardian has such a positive connotation. It fits will all the other things Paul said about God’s love of Israel. He didn’t tell us much at all about his early days and those who nurtured that love and respect he had for God’s story. Uniquely, or so it seems from his words about being the apostle to the Gentiles, he wanted to share that story with those who could never claim a heritage like his. But then, as he said, to the Phillipians, none of those credentials mattered anymore.

Trying to meet St. Paul isn’t easy because there are all these gaps in the story that in many places really isn’t a story at all. What we have in a metaphorical sense are a few snapshots left behind and they are few and far between.

There is one story of Paul, though, that has been greatly magnified. Acts tells of Jesus encountering Paul, not once, but three times. That version deserves our consideration even though we are going to let Paul have the last word on what happened.

4.3 The Story of Paul’s Calling to be an Apostle

The title of this section uses the word “calling” and not “conversion.” These two words get at the heart of a serious contentious debate among New Testament scholars. This is a huge topic taking up many shelves in our theological libraries. I can’t make an argument that settles the issue, but I believe that in answer to any of the major questions which swirl around St. Paul, we always should pay utmost attention to his own words. Paul said he was “called to be an apostle.” To be called doesn’t mean there is less drama in the story, but it may not give us the cinematic picture we were given from the accounts in Acts.

Writing about the narrative imagination, Barbara Hardy, a critic and novelist, has said, “…so a great story-teller naturally seizes every chance to tell a story.” This is true for the apostle Paul, when we pull him from the dusty shelves of dogmatic theology, into the flux of real life as most of us know it. In his letters he was telling stories again and again, or at least was alluding to them. Sometimes his story references were subtle, which means we have to use our imaginations to wonder at the possible stories Paul had in mind. There are a great many times, though, when Paul declared something God had revealed to him. Paul’s use of the word translated as “revealed” applied to those unexpected events when his life was changed or altered.

This isn’t the world of the predictable; in fact it is the opposite. Paul, in his earlier life, had probably lived in a fairly consistent world as a serious Jew[40], but that changed, or rather what happened changed the course of his life—even though, by his own account, the basic stories that shaped and formed him were always there!

Those amazing Renaissance artists with their paintings of the conversion of Paul sometimes depict a face of a man absolutely stunned and blinded. Did you ever hear a reference to Paul getting thrown off his horse when he met Jesus? That’s a detail found neither in Paul or Acts. Caravaggio, the Italian Renaissance painter created a masterpiece titled “The Conversion of St. Paul” (1601). The artist saw Paul, who has met the Lord, fallen off his magnificent horse looking up at the light shining from above. It’s a gorgeous painting—not true—but a masterpiece! [NOTE to Readers from this website version: a photo of Caravaggio’s painting is intended to be inserted in the text at this point.]

I believe it’s important to take Paul’s account of what happened to him as the main story, and we have it in the letter to the Galatians.

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… (Galatians 1:15-16a)

What needs to be emphasized is that this is Paul’s reflection on what happened to him and brought him forward to the point that he was writing to the Galatians. It’s a past-tense event informing his present ministry, except it shouldn’t be seen as a punctuliar event as in any sense completed and past tense. In Paul’s understanding of his call it had been pre-ordained when he was in his mother’s womb.[41] Like the prophets of old, whose words were inside Paul, his belief was that God had set him apart before he was born. He wasn’t born again, to leave behind his Jewish identity as a Christian. He was part of a divine plan, but did not see it initially unfolding before him. This event was, however, what led him forward to the ministry he’d had for years leading up to the time of writing to the Galatians. Krister Stendahl said,

“The emphasis in the accounts is always on this assignment, not on the conversion. Rather than being “converted,” Paul was called to the specific task—made clear to him by his experience of the risen Lord—of apostleship to the Gentiles, one hand-picked through Jesus Christ on behalf of the one God of Jews and Gentiles.”[42]

One word that needs to be unpacked in Paul’s account is the word translated “revealed.” In Greek it is apokalypsai. We could easily translate what happened to Paul was that Jesus as God’s Son had been apocalypsed to him. Such a translation suggests something sudden, dramatic, and in a moment, life-changing. That is actually the way J. Louis Martyn translated the verse: “So when it pleased him apocalyptically to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”[43]

If we used the picture from Acts to interpret Paul’s biographical account in Galatians we would be tempted to assume that Paul had a dramatic and sudden realization of all that was wrong with his past life, and how he would now live in a different way. Paul’s story is of call can understood as a revelation with mystical aspects to the event to be sure. If we think it was some kind of conversion the best advice may be to use the word “conversion” for him with some caution. Whatever happened the meaning took time to be fully embraced. Segal who wrote a book with the title “Paul the Convert” explains it this way:

“Although conversion is often thought of as a sudden change that alters one’s life immediately, the study of modern conversions shows that Paul’s own description is more characteristic…. That Paul claims the conversion took place without the help of flesh and blood underlines the extraordinary circumstances of the religious decision, but it does not mean that he immediately realized all the implications of his conversion experience. Only time could’ve disclosed these to him.”[44]

While there must have been a mystical component to his call, as there usually is with some kind of strangeness in all such accounts, there had to be something of this call requiring deep thought and reflection before it could even be partially comprehended. N.T. Wright observed, “The point about the single call’ is that it is not “an invitation to enjoy a new kind of religious experience’. It is a sovereign summons to acknowledge the risen Jesus as lord.”[45]

One aspect of this call to preach “among the Gentiles” which we must not forget is that Paul never lost sight of the story of God that shaped and formed him from his earliest days. Paul had not broken away from his Jewish past. “He has not abandoned his Jewish roots and meanings, but simply gained a radical new insight into them.”[46]

4.3 Paul and Peter: A Contested Memory

This book is only possible because there are stories that Paul tells, and allusions to other stories that are like windows into the scrapbooks we wish we might have of Paul’s life. An extended part of this story that encompassed at least three years and certainly a few more of Paul’s life was summed up in the nine verses that conclude the first chapter in Galatians. The story following Paul’s call begins with the line “I did not confer with any human being.” We need to keep in focus the single reference to the absence of any human being as well as this entire passage before us at this point.

15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to apocalypse [reveal] his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 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.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.

Talk about stories! Consider all the people who were part of this account, whether named or not. Who traveled with Paul to Arabia? Who did he meet there? As noted in Chapter 2 he must have landed in trouble there with some of the authorities.

Was it in Damascus that he found other followers of Jesus? Maybe he found them in Arabia. Somewhere along the way Paul learned some things about the Jesus story and more importantly met people who were present certainly with regards to the crucifixion and resurrection stories. In I Corinthians he referred to the traditions Paul learned which were given to him—what “he received.” (1 Cor. 15.3). Paul was imbedded in one large story of God and found it enlarged and more deeply explained through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the year or two that followed the death of Jesus there were small communities of remembrance telling this story. Paul must have made friends some of them, but he also, waited to go to Jerusalem.

When he was writing to the Galatians he had to be fully aware that Peter and James would have their story about meeting Paul for the first time. They, in effect, would confirm that Paul was also not known to the churches of Judea, but they also knew Paul’s previous reputation. They had heard about Paul and finally met him. We can only wonder with what fear or skepticism they had upon first meeting him. What we do know, and which is a fact critical to this enterprise, is that Paul had not hurried off to Jerusalem to meet the disciples of Jesus right after his call from God.

There are only two written accounts of the relationship of Paul and Peter. This is a good place in this story to note the difference between the “biographical memory” of Paul and the “cultural memory” of the author of Acts. The difference isn’t that one memory is necessarily more accurate than the other, because we know personal memories can be flawed or biased. One of the scholars studying the theory of memory in relationship to history wisely observed that “…the theory of memory has the priceless advantage of also being the theory of forgetting.”[47]

What is described as “cultural memory” is also known as “collective memory” in that it belongs to a community with various rituals, calendars, texts, and art forms that preserve their foundational narratives that allow the past to be present. Sometimes it is also understood to be the “traditions” of a community, but that term may suggest a hardening, or rigidity that isn’t indicative of the way “cultural memories” actually move through time. It is precisely this move through a moment of time where we find the account of Acts as a transition point in the story of early Christianity. We can reclaim the word “traditions” in studying early Christianity if we understand that what we call “traditions” were often born in contentious or changing times, and served to preserve significant memories and stories, that had to stand the test of time.[48]

What we know about St. Paul from the written sources in the 2nd and 3rd centuries is that no matter what the issues were which divided and challenged these early Christian communities they nearly always appealed to Paul when seeking an authoritative voice of to defend and support a particular belief or practice. A perfect case in point regards Marcion (140? C.E.), who sought to uproot Christianity from its Jewish roots. In the process Marcion, according to some of more orthodox church fathers, tried to edit out elements of Paul’s letters to accord with his non-Jewish understanding of Jesus. (Editing Paul’s letters seemed to also happen with in those same more orthodox circles.)

Followers of Marcion continued to remember his views for centuries afterwards in places as far apart as France and Syria. Congregations with Marcionite beliefs may have lasted into the 10th century in places far off to the east in Iran and Afganistan.[49] To this day Pauline scholars like N.T. Wright invoke the term “Marcionism” to refer to any attempt to pull Christianity from its Jewish roots.[50]

If Marcion stands for placing the Jewish story at a distance, the account in Acts fully endorses a connection of the story of the gospel connected to Jerusalem and to worship in the synagogue. We need to remember how often Acts places Paul in a synagogue upon beginning ministry in a new community. This account in Acts 17 is illustrative of this point. “After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures.” (Acts 17:1-2).

Even more telling for Paul’s relationship to the leadership in Jerusalem, especially to Peter and James, the decision to come to the Jerusalem conference was because Paul and Barnabas were “appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question (i.e. circumcision) with the apostles and elders.” (Acts 15:2). Paul’s reason for going was quite different. He went because he’d received a “revelation” (an apocalypse). (Gal. 2:2). Paul in telling the Galatians about his relationship to the leaders in Jerusalem emphasized his independence from their authority. Paul was an “independent missionary” who felt connected to the work of those in Jerusalem and Judea, but not in any subservient way. It helps to see this from a series of passages in Galatians:

  1. “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities…” (Gal.1.1)
  2. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed to me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, bit I received it through a revelation (apocalypse) of Jesus Christ.” Gal. 1:11-12)
  3. “But when God, who has set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal (apocalypse) to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went at once into Arabia and afterward returned to Damascus.” (Gal. 1:15-17)
  4. “..but we did not submit to them even for a moment…” (Gal. 2:5)

These claims of “independence,” so densely packed together, are clearly part of Paul’s argument with regard to the issues facing the Galatian communities from the unnamed opponents of Paul who were preaching “a contrary gospel.” Paul was clear that he was the apostle to the uncircumcised, while Peter “…had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised…” (Gal. 2:8) At the same point reading between the lines in Galatians there is no doubt of the respect that Paul had for the apostolic witness in Jerusalem, but it was also clear that his own mission was to the non-Jewish world. He kept his distance as having just two visits in a 1 year period demonstrates. He was only subservient to Jesus.

For out purposes it in important to understand Paul’s claims of independence coming from his “memory.” He did not belong to the community of believers in Jerusalem. Those who were his opponents in that mission field may have tried to make the case that they were sent from Jerusalem making their credentials more authentic than those of Paul. We don’t know. What is evident from what Paul wrote is that his “calling” was the only credentials he needed for his work in preaching the gospel.

After Paul discussed the nature of the conference in Jerusalem he added one more little story regarding his relationship with Peter. From Paul’s point a view the question about eating with Gentiles never occurred in Jerusalem, but afterwards in Antioch. It was there that Peter drew back from eating with Gentiles and “kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.” (Gal. 2:12) Clearly the issue was sharing the same table at the Lord’s supper and not any restaurants in Antioch. Peter had, according to Paul’s account shared the same table with Gentiles: “…for until certain people came from James, he (Cephas) used to eat with Gentiles.” (Gal. 2:12)

Paul’s last words regarding Peter tell us his side of the story. He confronted Peter as a hypocrite, as one who used to eat with Gentiles now wanted to compel Gentiles to live like Jews. Paul distinctly remembered this encounter. We can only wonder how this part of the story would have different if Paul had he known about Peter’s visit to the home of Cornelius.

The story in Acts regarding Peter and Cornelius is often understood as critical to that account because Peter entered the house of a Gentile and after a dream of all kinds of “four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” he was told to get up and eat.” That meant Peter was commanded to eat what he knew to be “profane or unclean.” (Acts 10: 12, 14) In the long story that follows Peter met Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort (i.e. a Roman solider and officer). The entire encounter concludes, not with the circumcision of Cornelius, but with the baptism of the entire household of Cornelius. (Acts 10:1-48).

One interesting detail about the whole encounter of Peter and Cornelius is the little story cleverly embedded in Acts regarding the night prior to meeting Cornelius. Peter stayed with a tanner by the name of Simon in Joppa, which was a town near the Dead Sea. Years ago I asked Walter Dunnett to help me with my Greek New Testament skills.[51] I remember him saying that Peter went as far as any Jew could go in terms of reaching out to other Jews with the Gospel and still be a Jew. To be a tanner mean engaging in a necessary task but in a process that was “primitive, malodorous” and one which was required to be done at some distance from any town. Those who were “tanners” were “…exempted from appearing at the Temple on pilgrimage feasts because their unpleasant odor prevents them from going up with all the men.”[52]

Walter Dunnett in his commentary on Acts noted how righteous and traditional (according to Jewish expectations) Peter sounded when God asked him to eat unclean food. Peter replied “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:14). The telling comment in Dunnett’s book is worth quoting: “How orthodox he sounded (yet all the while living in a tanner’s house)!”[53] Peter who had gone as far as he could as a law-abiding Jew, but he was about to go much further—only, according to the account in Galatians, it didn’t last!

A major discrepancy between Acts 10 and Galatians 2 is that Paul never made a comment about Peter once entering the home of Roman officer. Marcus Bockmeuhl asserted that if Paul had known of this event he certainly would have referenced it in his account of the Jerusalem Conference.[54] Galatians which predates Acts by at least 40 to 50 years placed Peter on the side of first sharing the Lord’s Supper with gentiles and then withdrawing in what turned out to be a rather dramatic encounter with Paul. It must be admitted that we only have Paul’s account of what happened. Even so the story that Paul told was that Peter accepted the authority of James. Nonetheless, both James and Peter had given Paul the “right hand of fellowship” and sent Paul off to the gentiles. (Gal. 2:10)

Earlier I framed this part of the differing accounts of the conference in Jerusalem as the difference between a “biographical memory” and a “cultural memory.” Paul’s memory of going to Jerusalem on two occasions emerged in the context of a serious issue requiring his attention with regard to the communities of faith he knew in Galatia. What we have with the account in Acts isn’t a fully-formed “cultural memory” connected with any rituals or celebrations, but it was clearly important for some more established faith communities to see Paul in a relational context to the founding figures of the apostolic faith. The intent of the author of Acts was for this story to have a wider audience in the early second century. Paul also sought a wider audience for the story of Christ crucified.

Both accounts of that conference are important to us. We ought to give priority to Paul’s version, while, at the same time, acknowledging that he remembered the facts as they suited his purpose in writing that epistle. The story told in Acts also served a purpose, and its author may have been trying to correct the account told in Galatians. There are scholars who believe Acts was written knowing at least one of Paul’s letters. “It is likely that Luke used the Pauline material in Galatians but intentionally shaped the narrative to support his own literary and theological purposes.”[55]

It hasn’t been my intention to dive deeper into all the differences between the accounts in the two sources for the conference in Jerusalem. Commentaries on both Acts and Galatians are filled with noting those differences. What matters to finding Paul is that we have two dense narratives with different purposes in mind. In both there are images of Paul. One reflects the traditions that made Paul if not the last, but in some ways, the only or most significant of all the apostles. In the other source—Galatians—we can almost hear Paul’s anger, imagine the story of his call, and start to see him in the midst of the kinds of company he most cherished. That is the story which continues.


[1] Wight, 2000, Letter to the Galatians, 211/

[2] Lash, 1986, 27.

[3] Wright, 2008,

[4] Please note that even during Newton’s life there was a claim made by Leibnitz that he should be the one credited with having discovered calculus. Thus the modern world of individualism was already in existence.

[5] MacIntyre, 2007, 229.

[6] From the song “I am a Rock.”

[7] MacIntyre, 1990, 144.

[8] Gaventa, 2007, 68.

[9] Ibid, 72.

[10] N.T. Wright, 2013, 1471 “Paul reads Israel’s scriptures as a vast and complex narrative…They narrate a faithfulness, and in doing so, invite the whole world into the faithful family whose source and focus is the crucified and risen Messiah.”

[11] I will argue that Paul was not a Roman citizen.

[12] Volf, 1996, 19.

[13] MacIntyre, 2007, 213.

[14] Wilder, 1973, 58 “That which makes the peculiar mystery of the life of a Christian is that the world plot plays itself over in him, yet in such a way that is it is always unprecedented…”

[15] Agamben, 2005, 45.

[16] Ibid. 45-6.

[17] MacIntyre, 2016, 74.

[18] Ibid, 75.

[19] Ibid, 224

[20] Agamben, 2017, “Remnanat of Auschwitz”, p. 772.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Wright, 2007, “Paul as Preacher: The Gospel Then and Now” , p.321 [Pauline Perspectives]

[23] David Toole, 1998, p. 210.

[24] In Section 4.3 of this chapter the focus is on God’s revelation or apocalypse to Paul.

[25] Yoder, 1972, 234.

[26] Toole, 224.

[27] Yoder, 1990, 120

[28] Taylor, 2007, 155

[29] Lyons, 1985, 60.

[30] Aasgaard, Reidar, 2007, 141 (In much of what follows in this section I’m indebted to this article by Aasgaard, one of the few scholars to study the various references to birth and childhood in Paul’s letters.)

[31] Please note that “Abba” is an Aramaic word. Paul knew they they knew this word. And Paul probably understood the Aramaic of the world of Jesus.

[32] Beard, 2015, 339-340

[33] The chapter on “The Subversive Paul” focuses on the language Paul used for the Jesus story that clearly borrowed from imperial ideology in Rome.

[34] Ibid, 448.

[35] See, i.e., W.A. Criswell,

[36] Stendahl, 1976, 21

[37] Ibid.

[38] Zuck, Roy B. Source: Bibliotheca sacra, 168 no 672 Oct – Dec 2011, p 487. Publication Type: Review of “The Jews, Modern Israel, and the New Supercessionism”

[39] Stendahl, K., 1976, p. 12

[40] In Paul’s words, “…as to the law, a Pharisee.” (Phil. 3.5) It could mean simply that he was telling us he was something like a Pharisee who lived according to the Torah.

[41] Lopez suggests that Paul is presenting himself as “fatherless” and that’s exactly in the model of “the First Testament prophets.” Lopez, 2008, 134.

[42] Stendahl, 7.

[43] Martyns, 152

[44] Segal, 1990, 13.

[45] Wright, 2013, 955.

[46] Ibid., 1422.

[47] Assmann, 2011, 48. Refers to the work of M. Halbawchs, The Collective Memory. 94.

[48] White, 70-79 for an extended discussion about “traditions.”

[49] Diamond, 2010, 126

[50] Wright, 1995, 107. “Yes, the Torah simply intensifies the sin of Adam in the people of Israel. No, this does not lead to Marcionism.”

[51] At the time he was the Professor of New Testament studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

[52], 1.

[53] Dunnett, 1981, 72.

[54] Bockmeuehl, 2007, 78.

[55] Smith and Tyson, 167.

Chapter 5: Paul Lost in The Crowd

Chapter 5: Paul Lost in The Crowd

 Chapter 5: Paul Lost in the Crowd

(Editorial suggestions are welcome! ghm)


“Exploring and narrating the Pauline story can be a means to articulate a counter narrative, a challenge to this (and other) dominant narratives, a means to envisage human communities in which a different story constructs a different sense of identity and undergirds different patterns of community practice.”[1]


“Let him wander through the city, an exile from the bridge and the hill Let him be the least among the raucous beggars Let him pray for the crusts of rotten bread thrown to the dogs.” Epigram on the Death of a Poor Man[2]


By the time we find Paul in any of the seven letters under consideration we have found a poor man, but exactly what that poverty meant for him we cannot immediately discern. We could not have picked him out from a crowd of people walking into a city in Asia Minor. Had we walked along one of the narrow alleys in which there were traders and crafts people hawking their wares, we would have seen what he had for sale, but we would not have known him as a follower of Jesus. By then he wouldn’t have appeared as a Jew but simply as another man struggling for his living.

Paul, however, was known to a great many who were also poor. Most likely many of them shared his trade or had nearby shops. In the busy marketplace banter of everyday life in one of those Greek cities he most likely would have asked for your name, and remembered it the next time he saw you. My image of Paul is that it wouldn’t be long before he learned much more about you, and began to ask you some questions about your view of the world and what would be giving you hope and joy. He would want to know your story, and when the time was right, as I think it must have been for many in his world, he’d tell you his story.

Later on those letters were sent to people who could remember when they first met Paul and what he looked like. They would have remembered hearing about the way God was revealed to him in the context of the story of Jesus who was crucified and raised from the dead. They would know, better than we do, how to head echoes of that story in what he was writing. The challenge before us to hear those echoes. What if Paul is re-telling part of his story, for example, in his first letter to the Corinthians even while making what appears to be a theological argument?

I am suggesting we consider three of Paul’s questions more as autobiography? The three questions under consideration are:

“Where is the one who is wise?

Where is the scribe?

Where is the debater of this age?” (1 Cor 1:20)

It reads differently if we put Paul’s name in the midst of those questions:

Where is Paul who was wise?

Where is Paul who was trained in skills like unto a scribe?

Where is Paul who took pride the in debates of this age?

(Or “Where is Paul who learned the rhetorical skills required by this age?)

We need to begin with first question because wherever Paul was raised, it had to be in the context of a Jewish community with leaders having deep theological questions regarding holy scripture and the meaning of their faith in such trying times.  Paul also knew scribes, which was a slightly different guild than the Pharisees, to which he belonged. At the same time, given the reality of living in a Greek world, Paul and others knew the legacy of philosophical inquiry that required immersion into the ideas of Aristotle and Plato. The New Testament scholar, Kenneth Bailey imagined what Paul was trying to say with these three questions:

“Yes, the scribes like to think of themselves as a powerful intellectual Guild. I lived in Jerusalem and I know them. But there are very few — do not be intimidated by them. On the Greek side, the philosophers of Athens like to think that they are the center of intellectual life of the entire world. But they also are very few. Trust me — I have just spent a serious block of time debating with them and I am not impressed. Do not be afraid of them.”[3]

It is true that Paul’s last question, at least, raises the possibility that Paul was trained in the philosophical traditions of the Greco-Roman world. There is evidence in so many of his letters that he wasa “man of his times.” There is a brilliant structure to so many of the arguments he makes his letters and it is clear that he could communicate to non-Jews. There is also more compelling evidence that he was formed in the oral Hebraic traditions which shaped discourse in a more concentric narrative style than was characteristic of Greek philosophy. Was he, though, ever one of the great debaters of this age?

The author of Acts answered that last question in the affirmative with his story of the speech Paul gave the middle of Athens in front of the Areopagus and the council of its leaders. (Acts 17:16-34). One scholar who examined that speech concluded that it shows the extent of Paul’s training in the world of the classical Greek orators. “Supporting his argument by quotations from Epimenides and Aratus of Soli, Paul employs a line of reasoning not unlike that of classical Greek orators.”[4]

Paul who doubted the validity of the debaters of this age,however, never needed to travel to Athens (Acts 17: 16-34) to know about the famous philosophers on his day. I believe the Acts story of Paul debating Greek philosophers in Athens is more the story of legendthan it is of fact. Once more, following the premise of this book, the more reliable path to take is to trustPaul as we read seven of his letters. In the letter to the Corinthians he didn’t want to be considered as one of the debaters of this age.

What came next in his argument in 1 Corinthians really set the stage for Paul’s audience to consider truly radical claims regarding the “wisdom of this world.”

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor. 1.22-25)

The contrast is between wisdom (sophia) and foolishness (moron). The contrasts of these two words form what is best called a polarity. We are dealing with a distinct contradiction. While we might think there is a scale of wisdom or maybe aspects of foolishness that aren’t really foolish, such distinctions are not at work in these statements of contrast by Paul. We’re in the either/orworld of Paul’s thinking.

What becomes clear in both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is that he is not heldin high regard byallthe members of those communities. More to the fact he is an embarrassment at least to a few. This, however, is not our usual picture of Paul. The opposition to Paul is particularly in focus in parts of 2 Corinthians where Paul admits to having better writing skills than speaking skills. (2 Cor. 10.10)  It’s clear that he has refused to accept patronage from any in his community, which means that his working with his hands was considered demeaning. (2 Cor. 11.9)  Welborn explains it this way: “To such elite Christians, Paul would have been an embarrassment, owing to the  weakness of his person, the defects of his oratory, his banausic occupation, and the content of his gospel.”[5]

What had to be particularly troubling about Paul was his consistent emphasis on Christ-crucified in a community that was more focused on the preaching of the resurrected Christ. Paul’s life wasn’t probably a gradual story of downward mobility, but more likely, a dramatic event in which he found his place with the most expendable in his world. In that solidarity Paul also found his voice that spoke against the “wisdom of the world” while proclaiming the weakness of God (dying on a cross) as strongerthan human strength.

Locating Paul in the midst of the nameless nobodies of the world isn’t the usual way to tell his story, but what he speaks about in his letters means that we shouldn’t look to find him exceptat home among those who struggle for their daily bread. To be sure there were some—emphasis “some”—with more security or status also attracted to the message of the gospel proclaiming Jesus risen from the dead. Those with some degree of self-importance, no matter what their reasons for such claims, had to be in disagreement when Paul said, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (1 Cor. 1:26) But some had to think they either were wise, powerful or of noble birth, either in their past or by virtue of what they become.

Whatever the case regarding those who considered themselves more important, Paul was addressing divisions within the Corinthian community, and the various groups (baptized by Paul, Peter, Christ, and maybe other groups?) where at least a few claimed superiority over others. “Thus the disagreement among different parties may be a matter of scrapping for position within a pecking order.”[6]

Claims of superiority within the communities founded by Paul seemed to be particularly troubling to Paul who, in his sometimes contrary ways, sided with the leastin the world. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:28-29) It is a stunning claim! I wasn’t personally raised to think like this, and I suspect it is counter to the values of many of us. Everywhere Paul looked and what was apparent to everyone, though, were the massive numbers of the “low and despised in the world.” They weren’t out-of-sight as they are sometimes in our world. What we need to understand at this point in our discovery of Paul is how large and visible, although nameless, the crowd was before we find Paul again.

5.1. The Visible Poor

Jonathan Sachs, in The Great Partnership, offered a most significant observation of what it has always meant to be a Jew living a world that doesn’t knowthe Hebraic story of God. He said, “Outside Israel, all religion in the ancient world was essentially conservative. It canonized the status quo.”[7]Sachs was claiming that the Jewish story is ultimately and fundamentally subversive of the dominant political powers no matter what the century. It was clearly true for Paul. Wherever he looked he saw the dominance of Rome and the subjection of all who had been conquered by Rome—including Jerusalem, Judea, and Gaililee. What he knew of God’s story, however, was counter to the story Rome was proclaiming.

We must consider what the world was like for Paul and Jews both in Jerusalem, Judea, the province of Galilee and throughout the diaspora in cities and towns wherever Jews had migrated. Their status wasn’t that of being citizens. While a few rights and privileges were carved out for them to continue their religious and community life, they knew how tenuous those agreements were. The stories they told and remembered, moreover, were those that distrusted tyrants, such as Pharoah, Now in Paul’s world was another tyrant in the form of Caesar who didn’t just tower over Egypt, but over the entire Mediterranean world.

Rather than the glamorous picture so often painted when looking at the Roman aristocracy we need a more factual account of the realities of life in this world from the point of view of the majority whose stories, sadly, are mostly lost to history. Sachs helps us start this story with this observation, “The religious literature of the ancient world was about politics and power, dominance and submission, struggle and victory. The race was to the swift and the battle to the strong.”[8]We know who generally wins that race. The public and official images of Rome were authored by the powerful and the successful. The authorities in the time of Caesar Augustus and moving through the first century tell just one side of the story—that of the winners! No one did a better job of framing this narrative than Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). While more needs to shared further in in this book with regard to the subversive language of Paul—which counters the Augustine narrative—at this point we must focus on the claims of Caesar and how the ordinary people (“the low and the despised” of the world) would have received those messages.

We may think that a unique characteristic of our political world is the mass of advertisements and messages with which we are inundated through print, social media, TV, and massive billboards, but something similar was true in the 1stcentury of the Roman Empire. People in Paul’s world were constantly reminded of who ruled their world with the many visual representations in media almost a pervasive as what we know. Caesar Augustus is considered the first Roman emperor, having become the sole ruler of the empire in 27BCE. His long rule ended with his death in 14CE. A year before he died he ordered inscriptions on various arches and temples throughout the empire which would display for all to see his many accomplishments—meaning his victories over his enemies. It was called the Res Gestae (“What I have done!). It is long document—over 2700 words in Latin—all of which were inscribed in stone and marble throughout the empire on monuments and temple walls.

The manifold ways in which people were reminded of the power of Caesar and his divinity (being called the “son of God”) included the coins that bore his image. Even Jesus gazed at one of those coins. Asked by the Pharisees if it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor, Jesus asked to see the coin in question. He would have looked at a relief of Caesar. There were many coins with Caesar’s image and a message of his power. One coin is called the Lugdunum 2BCE – 11CE[9]. The legend circling his profile reads “CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE” Translated: “Caesar Augustus Divine F (for Filius, i.e. “Son of God”) Father of the Country (Meaning all in the Empire!).

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The reply Jesus made after looking at whatever coin he was shown had to be understood by all in the audience as a subversive message in the context of the commandments proscribing the use of graven images, and the ridiculous assertion of Caesar claiming divinity. We should note that Jesus asked to be shownthe coin, instead of making a request to have it handed to him. That such a coin was so readily available should not, however, be seen as unusual as the people in Galilee and Judea were equally surrounded on a daily basis with reminders of the power of Rome.

What is especially important to this chapter with its suggestion that Paul would have been amongst the nobodies of his world, is how often all of those who had been conquered by Rome and considered its enemies, were constantly reminded of their status as “others”. As a Jew Paul may have been born in the later years of the reign of Caesar Augustus. He had to know that wherever Jews lived they were considered in the eyes of Rome as just one of the “…many defeated and incorporated peoples”[10]living inside the Roman empire. Even though Paul did not live to see Jerusalem destroyed by the army of Vespasian in 70 CE, he would not have been surprised to see the coin following his “so-called” victory which is known as the Judaea Captiva[11].

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As expected of an imperial coin the image of the Emperor is found on one side of the coin—this is an image of Vespasian. What interests us in terms of the iconography of images used as propaganda in the continuing suppression of conquered peoples is the story on the other side of the coin. With a palm tree growing tall indicating the agricultural prosperity of Judea, there are two figures on other side of the tree. One is a tall, proud, muscular Roman soldier. At the foot the tree, on the right side, with her head held in a despairing pose sits a defeated woman. As Davina Lopez noted with regard to this image “…it is not unusual individual representation of the Roman imperial period to use women’s bodies as personifications of territories and defeated peoples.”[12]Even Jewish men, following the destruction of Jerusalem, without regard to where they lived in the diaspora inside the extensive boundaries of the Roman Empire, had to see that they(as men!)were considered in the category of a defeated woman—like that women holding her head in shame.

We will be returning to the topic of the way Rome proclaimed its dominance over all the people it conquered when we consider the subversive language of Paul as members of his assemblies knew that faith in Jesus was incompatible with loyalty to Rome. What matters more to the topic of this chapter is the extent of poverty and the resulting context of living with the threats of hunger and illness that had to haunt the masses of people, especially those in the cities of the Empire. The emergence of these small Jesus communities seems, for the most part, to have been an urban phenomena, though there were clearly assemblies to be found in Judea and Galillee prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.

What the Roman semiotics of public spaces, inscriptions and coins created was the constant reminder of conquest over all considered in the category of “others”—those not like us Romans. At the core of every ethnic identity is the same concept— we are not like the others.What we need to keep in mind with Paul’s revelation (apocalypse) was that the Messiah was crucified asone of the “others.” Paul’s call was to be one too. Paul is to be found, as it were, among the plebs urbana, misera ac ieiunia.[13]A friend of mine offered a few translations of this phrase that help us see the people (plebs) Cicero had in mind.  A simple basic translation is “urban, squalid, and starving.” There is irony, however, in the Latin word ieiunia as it can mean “fasting.” We might see “fasting” as a chosen spiritual discipline, but in the lives of the poor its not “chosen” but it is a daily reality. Thus we might translate that phrase as “Urban common people: hopeless and forced into fasting.” [14]This was the life Paul shared.

He described his life as marked by “…great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” (2 Cor. 6:4-5). The same theme was repeated a few chapters later where he described a life “often near death.” (2 Cor. 11:23). Paul knew, from first hand experience, and not as a reporter, the world of the urban poor: “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Cor. 11:27)

Those sleepless nights were not in the comfortable bed of someone’s Roman villa. Those who lived in such villas would never be found doing anything that resembled toil. Then there was Paul’s reference to being naked? Not in any of the Renaissance art that I know is Paul nearly naked, but such he must have been, if we are to believe his words. Few in Paul’s world had anything like a closet full of clothes. He most likely wore the same patched clothing day after day!

All of this places us much closer to the radical life and story Paul was both telling and living. As we have already noted Paul’s previous life involved some status and probably security that gave him some privileges and honor. I don’t believe for a second that in his previous life Paul could have admitted to being “…in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” (1 Cor. 2:3) but that’s how he told the Corinthians he came to them. He admitted to the Galatians, moreover, that his first proclamations of the gospel took place in the context of “a physical infirmity.” We don’t know what it was, but it may have meant he was hard to look at because Paul admitted that they were “put to the test.” The entire passage reads:

“You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn me or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 4:13-14)

Bridgett Kahl came to a stunning conclusion about the way the Galatians (presumably non-Jew) welcomed Paul and nursed him back to health.

“He came to them as Jewish other, highly vulnerable and needy, and they could’ve treated him as an enemy or just let him die, but they took them in as neighbor and brother. In his weaknessand repulsiveness, he embodied the dying and crucified Christ for them (4:14), and in their solidarity with him they brought him back to life.”[15]

Not all Biblical scholars, though, have seen Paul as “highly vulnerable and needy.” One of the challenges in this attempt to have a more accurate picture of Paul is that a number of scholars have suggested that Paul had wealthy friends, and may have even benefited from those relationships. Gerd Theissen, for example, noted, as I am suggesting, “the majority of Corinthian Christians come from the lowers strata.” Then, in the same sentence, Thiessen states, “…it is all the more noteworthy that all of those baptized by him belonged to the upper strata: Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanus.”[16]The case Theissen makes is that even though most followers of Christ in Corinth we’re poor, the assemblies that worshipped together had “…a few influencial members who come from the upper classes.”[17]

An older source on Paul, but still respected, was Adolpf Deissmann. His book, “Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, was first published in 1912. In this book Diessmann emphasized Paul’s deep concern for those living in poverty, but he still talked about Paul’s world as having a class system such as he knew in 1912. “The people whose souls were moved by the mission of Paul and his faithful companions were—the overwhelming majority at least—men and women from the middle and lower classes.”[18]

In America in the early part of the 21stcentury much of the economic concern expressed in the political world has been on the effects of the economy on the middle class.  It is an assumption that presumably focuses  on the largest majority of Americans. If we take the “class” consciousness current in our world and apply it back to the first century in Rome, however, we are making a serious mistake. There are some real issues if we are tempted to think that the term “middle class” was operative in Paul’s world.

The first problem with the concept of social class when contrasting Paul’s world with the 21stcentury, is that “class” is primarily defined in economic termsin our world. But classin Paul’s world was a legalterm[19]and was restricted to an extremely small segment of society. There were really only two classes, as such, in Rome: the senatorsand the “ ‘equestrians’, or ‘knights’ (equites).”[20]According to Beard the “equites” were substantial property owners, often involved in financial and commercial businesses. Below these two categories were all the rest, lumped indiscriminately, into the category of the common poor that included some who were free, but a vast number who were slaves. Upon them the economy of the empire depended, and it was especially so in Italy with slaves concentrated in the agrarian economy and various mining enterprises. It has been estimated that there were between 2 to 3 million slaves in the first century, alone, in Italy out of a total population of 7.5 million[21].

Our discovery of Paul in the context of urban poverty brings up the issues of where he lived and worked. We know the cities and towns where there were assemblies he founded and we have a sense of his extensive networks of friends and co-workers in those communities. From the list of challenges Paul mentions we also have a glimpse into the daily challenges Paul faced alongside the fast majority of the poor.

It may be almost impossible for any of us to imagine what life was like for those living in any of the major cities in the Roman empire and that’s because life was so precarious and fragile for the majority of people. Most of the population of Rome, for example, lived in the upper levels of four and five story tenements or in the rear spaces of a shop. It was estimated that up to 90% of Rome’s population was housed in tenement buildings. There wasn’t such a thing as “privacy” and “sanitation” didn’t exist either. It was what Jewitt describes as a form of “vertical zoning” in which the overall density was estimated to have been 300 per acre, a number “almost two-and-a-half times higher than modern Calcutta and three times higher than Manhattan Island.”[22]

The question related to the topic of housing concerns whether or not there were actually houses in which these small communities of Jesus followers met? We’re they meeting in houses? It’s clear from the fragile archeological evidence of the tenements in Greek and Roman cities that there wasn’t space for more than 8 or 10 people in most of the apartments of the poor. But were their wealthy members with houses, or in that world “villas” of a size that could hold 30 to 50 people at a time? One such gathering seems to be referenced in Paul’s letter to Philemon with the opening greetings. “ Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” (Philemon 2) That is the only reference in any of Paul’s letters specifically to a “house church.”

Gerd Theissen looking at the social context for early Christianity suggests that there were gatherings at the homes of Phoebe and Gaius.[23]There is Paul’s statement that he baptized the “household of Stephanus,” (1 Cor. 1.16) but it comes without reference to where the baptism took place. More recent scholarship suggests that the term “house-churches” is entirely inappropriate to use in describing the urban fellowships known to Paul.[24]Given the social status of most of the early followers there are two or three other reasonable places that they met for worship and teaching, including a rear space perhaps in the shop where Paul worked, ate, and slept.

Based on the many references in Paul’s seven letter to his labors and working with his hands, it is reasonable to presuppose that during most days he would have been in some shop making things. We will discuss the possibilities of his trade and the extent to which Paul was familiar with the language of the marketplace further on in this book. What needs to be in view for the moment would be the taberna, or work place combined with a counter displaying goods open to a narrow alley in which people came to shop. There would have been room in the back of the tabernafor some stools or maybe a chair or two. Whoever rented that space for work probably cooked in the back and maybe slept on the roof. Perhaps there was space for small groups to gather in the evening.[25]

In his extensive study of early Christian meeting places Adams suggests a myriad of possibilities open to early assemblies. They could easily rent barns in a nearby countryside, or simply find a free open public space next to a lake, a river, or the ocean. Perhaps they rented dining rooms (called popinae) for their weekly Eucharist. There is also evidence of gatherings at burial sites, and that included funeral meals as well.

There are a few more things to consider regarding the reality of poverty in Paul’s world. Meggitt’s book title contains the word “survival” and I think that’s an appropriate frame to understand the daily realities facing the mass of people in the 1stcentury. Paul, in the context of having founded various communities of faith, and knowing the constant struggles faced both internally and externally, was concerned with their survival. The communities Paul wrote to were threatened. Sometimes Paul is very clear about those who would destroy what he had built. Nearly all in those assemblies were struggling at or near the economic level of basis subsistence. It was the life Paul had chosen for his life in Christ.


  1. 2 Excursus: What Paul Looked Like

Susan Eastman made a claim for Paul that is key to our understanding of “Paul lost in the crowds.” She asserted that “…only by crossing the boundaries to become like the Gentile “others,”without first requiring that they become like him, can Paul firmly communicate the grace of God who took the initiative to liberate enslaved humanity.”[26]The Jewish Paul, is still Jewish, but in terms of how he lived his life, and how he looked, he was one of the Gentile others. That would mean you could see in him what Romans expected to see in those who were not like them. Paul, in terms of his dress, his occupation, and his chosen companions (non-Jews, the poor) wouldn’t have been seen as any one of note or importance.

As hard as it may be for us to comprehend we must take Paul at his word in terms of his way of telling his story in Christ. God’s revelation (apocalypse) was a callmade while still in his mother’s womb to preach to the Gentiles the Jewish story of God’s grace—known now in and through the death of Jesus. (Gal. 1:15). Once this became clear, obviously when he was fully grown, this was his path to follow for the last decades of his life. As a Jew he was called to witness to the non-Jew world.  Paul “did whatever it took to ingratiate himself into gentile communities in order to establish intimate relationships, all the while offering himself as model of how to be justified out of the faithfulness of Christ.”[27]An important question is “How far did Paul have to go to ingratiatehimself into gentile communities?”

This is one of those points in our journey with Paul where we come, once more, to the question the historicity of Acts. This time we must wonder about the claim of Acts that Paul was trained as a rabbi in Jerusalem under the feet of Gamaliel. According to Acts Paul was about to be arrested by some Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, when he gave a speech in Hebrew, which the soldiers would not have understood. He began with these words: “I am Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous, just as you all are today.” (Acts 22:3)

With regard to the basic methodology of this book we need to look to what Paul actually said in his letters to affirm what might be found in other sources such as Acts. Of first importance is that there are really only three possible visits Paul made to Jerusalem, with the first coming at least three years after God’s revelation to him. He cannot have studied under Gamaliel. Thus Haenchen, “That Paul studied under him ‘is scarcely correct, since one must probably conclude from Gal. 1.22 that before his conversion Paul did not stay very long in Jerusalem.”[28]Another unconfirmed part of that speech was that Paul was speaking in Hebrew. As I stated in Chapter 2 Paul most likely was able to speak Aramaic, but his basic language for day-to-day conversations, as well as how he knew his Bible, was the Greek language. “…Paul’s extensive reliance on the LXX indicates that his native language is Greek, and that he knew the Scriptures of Israel in Greek rather than Hebrew.”[29]

Had Paul remaineda Phariseethere is no doubt, considering at least one factor of life in the Middle Eastern world, he would easily have been identified in any particular crowd walking through one of the cities in the Roman Empire. The New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, with over forty years of living and teaching in the Middle East as part of his background, said that in the time of Jesus [and Paul] there were two ways to identify a “stranger.” It was either by talking to him and hearing his dialect, or by looking at his dress. There was a clear difference between Hellenistic and Jewish garb. Bailey went on to note, “…even separate villages of Palestine and Lebanon had their distinctive dress.”[30]

Paul no longer claimed membership in the community of Pharisees by the time he was writing any of the seven letters we are considering, but he was “working with his hands” at some kind of “labor.” We will have more to say about the reality of that labor in the further on, but for now what matters is what he wore, or rather what little he wore. Trying to pick out Paul from the crowd walking through a town like Corinth or Ephesus is going to be extremely difficult, simply because he will have looked like nearly all the rest of the poor.

When we look to the gospels for indications regarding clothing the references are not numerous, but we do know that the clothing Jesus wore at the time of his arrest was a prize, as it were, for the soldiers who even gambled for his tunic. There is one telling condemnation on the lips of Jesus, however, regarding the dress of “the scribes who love to walk around in long robes.” (Luke 20.46) We have a phrase the “clothes make the man” and by it that proverb has a meaning that carries across the world and back into the time of Jesus and Paul. If you have the money for the clothes, you can look like you have the money. The clothes Paul wore, in his life as an apostle, could not have been, and were not by his own testimony, coming from a man of wealth.

We can only surmise that Paul wore the tattered and patched clothes identifying the majority of those surviving from day to day. The clothing had to be inadequate for keeping one warm or covering your body. There are small terracotta sculptures from the 1stcentury showing mime actors, those clearly at the bottom of society, which are wearing a chiton, which was a short frock, patches of small fabric sewn together.[31]Contrary to our Renaissance paintings of a well-clothed Paul wearing wool garments for a cold day, we need to consider a barely clothed Paul carrying an some equally shabby bags with his tools as he walks into the next city to bring the gospel of Christ.

If Paul walked into a new city as a stranger, the chances are that it wasn’t long before others knew who he was. Stowers makes the important point regarding the urban world of the 1stcentury that everyone made judgments about others with regard to dress, speech, posture, and even the way you walked.

This was a culture where people believed that you could determine another’s character, class and ethnic origins not only from dress and speech but also from such things as posture, the way one walked, how one sneezed and whether one scratched one’s head or not. Paul was a Jew and a leather-worker. It is doubtful that he could have overcome the stigma of these roles even if he had sought to do so.[32]

5.3 Excursus: Judged by Others

It has been said that ethnographywas invented by the Greeks and that the same Greeks invented the term barbariansto describe non-Greeks.[33]It is always part of a strong group identity to maintain its boundaries by having clear concepts regarding “others.” These boundaries must be maintained and reinforced, and if need be, established in laws. We know this story, from recent history, in terms of issues about building border walls, and enforcing immigration restrictions. Each community seemingly always finds way to define the people or tribes that it fears the most.

We are also going to find that the early Pauline communities had their own language to identify “others,” for they were the unbelievers, those without faith (apistis[34]). It is a word Paul used frequently in his letters to the Corinthians.[35]At the same time the “believers” —the Jesus people connected to Paul—were as unexpected as a community could have been possibly conceived in the first century. Paul’s preaching brought together the most unlikely mix of people that crossed the typical boundaries which usually kept others apart.

These early followers, in turn, would be designated as others and in the next few centuries as they experienced some periodic deadly persecutions for their reluctance to identify as citizens of Caesar’s Empire. Presumably, they were not willing to be participating subjects in the civil life of its games and community celebrations. They weren’t loyal to Rome or it’s Kurios(Latin for “Master’) known as Caesar. These strange people called the one crucified by Rome as their Lord  (Kurios) Jesus Christ! Many of them first heard about Jesus from a Jew with a Latin name that meant small.

What was he like? We really don’t have much to work with except for his letters, but there was one comment about him coming from a 2ndcentury account—from The Acts of Paul[36]. It is important to remember that Paul dealt with others spreading rumors about him in his own time, and the stories continued long into the 2ndand 3rdcenturies, as various groups claimed Paul for their own purposes. The first excursus in Chapter 1 was my warning about some necessary historical skepticism with regard to stories of Paul. The memory of Paul was contested territory in the life of the early church. As we consider a description of Paul from the 2ndcentury we must be cautious about accepting it as factual..

From the second century we have a document called “The Acts of Paul”, that may have been written a woman, and even if that’s not provable (and it isn’t), it is clear these stories were grounded in an oral tradition of women’s stories. In these stories Paul has many women friends with Thecla as the real heroine of the story. He has few male allies, as MacDonald noted, “The apostle’s only male allies are Aquila, an angel, and a lion.”[37]We should add the name of Onesiphorus to the list because he welcomed Paul to his house. From him we have this picture of Paul:

“And he saw Paul coming, a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, and a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and knows somewhat cooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.”

The only thing that conforms to what we know about Paul is that in Latin his name meant “small,” and it was the kind of name given to a slave. Does this conform to what Paul said about himself in writing to the Corinthians? They said “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor. 10:10). A little further on Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.”  Those comments don’t necessarily agree with what Onesiphorous saw in a man with “a good state of body.” It’s certainly not what the Galatians first saw when Paul came to them: “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Gal 5:13-14). With a miserable looking Paul, by his account, we, nonetheless, have the Galatians having treated him as an “angel.” That little detail does coincide with what Onesiphorous saw.

There is something very interesting about this single description of Paul, supposedly by an eye-witness, and that is how it resembles a description of Caesar Augustus written by another 2ndcentury writer Suetonius, author of The Lives of the Caesars.

“He (Augustus) was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life… He had clear, bright eyes… His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept; his hair was slightly curly and inclining to golden; his eyebrows met. His peers were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little of the top and then fit slightly inward. His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short stature…but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure.” (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesar’s 2.79.1-2, Loeb). p. 130

Not all the details in this picture of Augustus match that of Paul as seen by Onesiphorus. The similarities are in terms of stature, eyebrows, nose, and physical strength. Malina and Neyrey take these visual characteristics and offer an analysis of Paul based on what the ancients called physiognomics, which essentially meant they knew the character of a personby how they looked.[38]What these authors found in that description of Paul were all admirable traits, many of which described successful Roman generals.  It is a most interesting analysis, but I am somewhat skeptical. For one thing I’m not sure we should take the description by Onesiphorus as accurate. It stands alone in the ancient record and we argue from silence if we affirm or deny it as factual.

The one thing we know is that Paulus in Latin meant small. We have also enough from Paul’s own letters to have some ideas about his character, and we ought to take those comments as clues to his character, rather than an interesting, but singular account from the 2ndcentury that cannot be corroborated..

Something important, however, comes from Malina and Neyrey. In their unique study ancient personality, as it was defined in this ancient world, they help us understand Paul in the context of a world that primarily defined people in terms of generation, geography and gender. “To know someone [in that world] means to know their roots, ancestry, and genealogy.”[39]What really mattered was being a group-oriented person, because in that world anyone claiming individualitywas really defining themselves as a deviant.

It was a culture that “..valued stability and constancy of character. Hence “change” of character was neither expected nor praiseworthy.”[40]What I think will be important for letting Paul tell his own story, is that there was a major event in his life, but his character, or rather his rootedness in God’s story and belonging to “his people” (Rom. 9.2-3) never changed, and certainly didn’t make him an “individual.” What was clear is that he wasn’t claiming to tell his own story, but only that of Jesus. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

There was a real change that took place in Paul’s life. The evidence he said could be seen on his body: “for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” He was probably talking about those scars on his back (2 Cor. 11:24), which would clearly never have been found on the back of Augustus. But Paul had a new Lord and Savior. Paul had new communities of friends who claimed the ancient Jewish story in the context of a vision of community breaking down the vertical barriers which created such injustice and death in the world, even the death of Jesus.

What we will find is that these new communities founded by Paul are the same kind of group-oriented values stemming from Paul’s Jewish background, albeit bringing together in a unique way those mostly discarded as non-citizens, nobodies, and even those whose identity as slaves placed them as living in a category of “suspended death.” These Jesus people become familyand are called to unity and loyalty giving them dignity and hope they couldn’t have known as the “others” in that world.

Excursus 5.4: The Extent of Poverty in the First Century

With the letters of St. Paul we have a rather unique person from the 1stcentury of the Roman Empire. We have the words and the story of a “poor man.” My description of Paul, however, has been contested by New Testament scholars, many of whom, according to Meggitt have claimed “…that Paul came from a wealthy background and as a consequence did not share completely the bleak lives of the impovrished.”[41]Meggit on the same page has a long footnote with references to a great number of scholars who have claimed Paul had financial resources or kept contacts with wealthy patrons.

Jerome Murphy-O’Conner also believes that Paul’s parents lived in what he said were “easy circumstances.”[42]He came to that conclusion, in what I considered a questionable interpretation of comments from each of the letters to the Corinthians. Paul said, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (1 Cor. 9:19) Murphy-O’Conner interpreted that passage as if Paul was describing his manual labor as “slavish.” It’s not an adjective in that passage—it’s a noun (doulo, i.e a slave). It was Paul’s way to describe himself when he started his letter to the Romans, “Paul, a slave(doulos) of Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 1.1) It is term he adopted on purpose!

Murphy O’Conner uses as his other example for Paul’s attitude toward his work what he wrote in the 2ndletter to the Corinthians. “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge.” (2 Cor. 11.7) I don’t know how he came to his conclusion but Murphy-O’Conner thought Paul himself was calling his work demeaning.Actually Paul is most likely quoting the allegation laidagainst himsince he refused to be part of a patronage system in which he would be obligated toward some wealthy patron.[43]

There are also some scholars who maintain that since Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire he must clearly have had wealth to coincide with such protected status. Gerd Theissen states, “Paul was only a cloth worker, to be sure, but he possessed citizenship of both Tarsus and Rome.” He added “….Paul enjoyed an unusual privileged status.” All of these conclusions are based on the story from Acts where Paul had been arrested and bound. Just before he was about to be flogged he asked the nearby centurion, “It is legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25)

I think it may be possible to make a case that Paul was never a Roman citizen, but it has to be an argument from silence.[44]The best solution is simply to raise a few questions about the probability that the author of Acts was correct in this detail. The author of Acts needed the detail of “Paul’s citizenship” to continue the story. There is no doubt that Paul’s citizenship[45]is key to a story that not only saved Paul from flogging, but which brought to him to Rome where he was awaiting trial when the story of Acts comes to an end. It is a significant “plot device,”[46]and there is no other external evidence either from Paul’s letters or the other non-Pauline letters in the New Testament. Nowhere in any of the letters of Paul, even including the Pastoral epistles, is there any mention of Paul being a Roman citizen. Most significantly he mentioned a great deal about his Jewish credentials—which is critical to our account of finding Paul—but he never mentioned Roman citizenship.

We are on much firmer ground, however, to find Paul sharing the life of the poorer members of his world, with the question still remaining regarding the extent of that poverty. In our world many with skills making things, working with their hands, fixing machines and  using tools may not be wealthy, but they can often have a decent standard of living. Was that the case for Paul?

The historical problem is that the poor they are those, who in numbers we can’t count, “failed to leave any significant mark in the historical record.”[47]There were some poor within Rome, however, who left a mark on a few tombstones detailing their pride in work that society demeaned. In other words, as Morley noted[48], they were taking pride in their work, and there’s evidence of that attitude from Paul as well. At the same time the poverty, for the working poor, was a reality.

It is one thing to see Paul hard at work in his shop working with his hands, but it is much harder to for biblical scholars to connect the extreme poverty he knew to his work as an apostle and a creative Jewish theologian. Thus, Friessen, “For the most part, however, specialists have not assimilated Paul’s economic life into their portraits of ‘Paul the apostle’ or ‘Paul the theologian’.”[49]There is no doubt that Paul had a few times he stayed in someone’s house, that he could never have called his own. He also received some gifts and we don’t know what to make of Paul’s reference to Phoebe as “a benefactor of many and myself as well.” (Rom. 16:2).  The danger is that we might think of Paul as a poorly paid pastor, who nonetheless, gets free housing in the church’s parsonage and who receives a few free chickens from time to time.

The best picture I was able to discover in my research came from Steven Friesen who offered a seven-point poverty scale for the first century of the Roman Empire. In the following table I have listed his descriptions of each group, a brief description, and the percentage of those in each category.

Friesen’s Poverty Scale (modified by author)[50]

Category Title People in this category % of the total

PS 1: Imperial Elites



Imperial family, senators



PS 2: Regional or Provincial Elites Equesterian families, provincial officials, retired military  



PS 3: Municipal Elites

Decurial families, few wealthy non office holders, some veterans, merchants  



PS 4:  Moderate Surplus

Some merchants, traders. Artisans who employ others. Military veterans  


PS 5: Stable Near Subsistence Level


Merchants. Artisans, shop owners, some farm families  



PS 6: At Subsistence


Small farm families, laborers (skilled & unskilled) most merchants, traders, shop owners  



PS 7: Below Subsistence Level


Some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, day laborers  



What are we to make of this picture of the economic reality that faced the vast majority in Paul’s world? Friesen states it bluntly: “For nearly everyone in Paul’s assemblies, as for nearly everyone in the Roman empire, poverty was a way of life.”[51]

Even if we place Paul in the category “PS 5: Stable Near Subsistence Level”, we are talking about 22% of the population that is an illness or a broken bone away from near disaster. It is a world where over 90% of the people are near, at, or below subsistence level.

With Paul we certainly have a “religious genius”, but we should bear in mind that didn’t give him a social status that offered him much security. Meggitt said it best:

Undoubtedly Paul was not a ‘typical’ artisan of the Greco-Roman world — he would not have left such a mark on history if he had been — but his uniqueness, particularly the uniqueness of his religious genius, should not blind us to the fact that his experience of material existence is far from unusual: he was nothing less than the arduous and bitter experience of the urban poor.”[52]

This chapter began by turning three questions Paul was asking and suggesting they might even have been autobiographical in nature.

Where is Paul who was wise?

Where is Paul who was trained in skills like unto a scribe?

Where is Paul who took pride the in debates of this age?

(Or “Where is Paul who learned the rhetorical skills required by this age?)

Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians was to focus on “Christ crucified” as the key to understanding the mysteries of God who would choose the things that “low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:28). It’s an upside down world for Paul, and we have to believe his was also a story of being turned upside down. As one who was “down” he literally could be “one” with that vast majority, and that became the source of nearly all his friends in Christ.

Chapter 5: Footnotes

[1]Horrell, David G., 2002, 170.

[2]Woolf, Writing Poverty in Rome, 95.

[3]Bailey, 2011, 82. (Note: I have doubts that Paul ever lived in Jerusalem. Visited to be sure! But he had to know about the scribes. I agree with Bailey on that.)

[4]Charles, 1994, 52.

[5]Welborn, 129.

[6]Theissen, 1982, 55.

[7]Sachs, 2011, 129.

[8]Ibid, 168.


[10]Lopez, 2008, 25.


[12]Ibid, 37.

[13]A quote of Cicero, Epistulae ad Atticum 1.16 Referenced in Meggitt, 2008, 97.

[14]With thanks to my friend The Rev. Glen Lewandoski, The Crozier Community of Onamia, MN.

[15]Kahl, 2014, 283. (My italics)

[16]Theissen, 1982, 102.

[17]Ibid, 69.

[18]Diessman, 1912, 241.

[19]Gager, 1982, 262.

[20]Beard, 2015, 262.

[21]Jewitt, 2007, 51.

[22]Ibid, 54.

[23]Theissen, 1982, 89.

[24]Adams, E. 2013, 201-2.

[25]Meggitt, 1998, 62-67.

[26]Eastman, S., 2007, 186. (Italics mine.)

[27]Hodge, 2005, 281.

[28][28]Haenchen, 1971, 625. Quoting from Bultmann. Earlier Haechen suggested that with Acts we are dealing with a “Legendary portrait taken over by Luke..” (298). We should also note that in Gal. 1:16 God didn’t need a human teacher (a Gamaliel?)  to reach Paul regarding his Son. (Malina & Neyrey, 1996, 41).

[29]Eastman, Susan, 2007, 20.

[30]Bailey, 1996, (Through Peasant Eyes) 42.

[31]Welborn, 2005, 39.

[32]Stowers, 1984, 74.

[33]Mattern, Susan P., 1999, 70.

[34]It is important to note that the root Greek word pistismeans more than simply “faith.” It also means “loyalty.”

[35]Trebilco, Paul, 2017, 44.

[36]Lest the readers be confused please note that the Acts of Paul is not the book of Acts (i.e. Acts of the Apostles) found in the New Testament.

[37]MacDonald, 1983, 36.

[38]Ibid, 108

[39]Ibid, 24.

[40]Ibid, 39.

[41]Meggitt, 1998, 80.

[42]Murphy-O’Conner, 2006, 4.

[43]Ralph P. Martin, 1986, 529.

[44]Eisenbaum, Pamela. 141.

[45]He word is in italics, because I don’t believe we can prove either side of the question.

[46]Smith and Tyson, 275.

[47]Morley, 2006, 31.

[48]Ibid. 35.

[49]Friesen, 2004, 350.

[50]I have shortened some of the descriptions Friesen used in his chart of poverty.

[51]Ibid, 358.

[52]Meggitt, 1998, 96-7.

Annotated Table of Contents

Annotated Table of Contents

What follows is the annotated table of contents for my new book that I hope to complete by December of this year. I welcome comments and interest from others. In early 2017 I expect I’ll be able to be offering seminars and conferences on this topic. Please use the comment section of this web page and I’ll be happy to respond to your questions or reflections.

Annotated Table of Contents

“Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet”

by George Martin


The reader is invited on a journey of discovering reasons to admire and respect Paul based less on understanding Paul as a theologian and more on Paul who was both telling and living the story of Christ. The introduction reviews the overall structure of the book and indicates some of the reasons for each of the chapters.

Section I: Finding the Real Paul 

  1. Paul in Arabia

This chapter investigates the story of Paul’s escape from Damascus in order to find Paul in a particular year. That date allows for the construction of a reasonable chronology for Paul’s ministry. I have found very few accounts of Paul which logically recount the history of Rome’s control of the world that Paul knew within the context of his letters. Here Paul is connected to Caesar, the Nabataeans, Augustus, and even John the Baptist.

  1. Paul the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

The author of Acts never acknowledged Paul as an apostle, but it became an extremely important title that he used, not just for himself, but also for those sharing ministry with him. It’s important to consider how Paul was bringing the history of Israel and its monotheistic faith to the world. This was a “daring innovation.”

  1. Paul the Storyteller

In the eyes of some significant scholars Paul is a called a narrative theologian with regard to his use of scripture to tell his story of Jesus Messiah. Indeed he saw his time as the key point in which God had acted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He was embedded in that story. The story of Jesus in a sense became the plot of his own story. Were there clues to his life as he reflected on God’s story in his letters? Most important of all is the consideration of his call to follow Jesus with a particular focus on the letter to the Galatians.

  1. Paul a Victim of Identity Theft

In contrast to a statue of Paul within Vatican square which shows a huge muscular Paul holding a sword toward the sky, the Paul here aligned himself with the nobodies of this world. In contrast to the more individualized concept of faith that has shaped much of Christianity for 500 or more years, Paul’s emphasis was on the “faith of Jesus,” that could become the shape of a community called to live for “one another” composed as a “community of others.”

Section II: Paul and Friends 

  1. Paul in Community

The boundary-blurring community that marked off Paul’s communities probably involved real mutualism in all things including shared meals and the pooling of resources. Exploring the realities of wealth and poverty in Paul’s world locates him in a communities composed of slaves and trades people. What to do about those who didn’t willingly contribute to the common good was a real question. Central to Paul was his understanding of being “in Christ” as a shared life and language, not at all akin to the world of patronage that defined the important people in Paul’s world.

  1. Paul and his Team

The majority of the authentic letters of Paul offer us a picture of a gregarious Paul who must have had friends in every community he ever visited. A few had resources, but most were quite common people. Many were women. Of particular importance was the role that Phoebe played in bringing his letter to the communities in Rome. Timothy may have been his closest confidant. Looking at the people he mentions tells us a great deal about Paul himself.

  1. Paul the Letter Writer

There are aspects about Paul’s use of letters that are intriguing and even strange in our world. Most likely they were composed in his head, then dictated, and memorized by whoever would carry the letter. Once the letter was delivered it was probably performed! Chances are that Paul may have helped coach the best way to deliver it to each community of faith. It was called “speech in character.” At the same time some of the letters may be compositions of two or three letters. Questions of authenticity are also addressed.

  1. Paul the Fool

Sometimes we are perplexed when we discover a saint who could get “angry” or when we find a saint who “sheds tears,” which are two sides of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. In this chapter I focus on Paul’s issues with a community that seemingly lost trust in him, and how he challenged them to never think more highly of themselves than others. Paul was insistent on not seeking or claiming privileges at the expense of others. This Paul kept seeing himself as a “servant” and as a “slave” of Christ—forms of identification few in his world would have willingly assumed.

Section III: Inside Paul’s World

  1. Paul’s Politics

There was no distinction between religion and politics in Paul’ world. Worship of the emperor was visible on a daily basis in buildings and art. Most road signs were marked by their distance to and from Rome. Public buildings bore messages about the peace and security brought by Roman conquest and subjugation—a theme reinforced by the violence and terror enacted publicly in the arena. Paul’s focus on the cross (the ultimate terror) meant that God alone could bring life out of death—something imperial Rome could never do. Paul used words like “good news”, “Lord”, and “peace” in language that clearly was subverting Roman claims.

  1. Paul’s Watch

Paul was living in a time between the times, anxious for the return of the Lord and God’s judgment on the evil powers of the world. Paul used the politically charged word “parousia” with regard to the Lord’s expected return. Shaped in a world of Jewish apocalyptic expectations some scholars think Paul was an apocalyptic theologian. It’s better to see the continuity in Paul between the Hebrew story and what was new in Christ. Paul lived in a kind of time described by phrases like “already—not yet” or “the time that remains.” It wasn’t a waiting or wasting time, but was filled with the spirit of God.

  1. Paul’s Chains

Prisons in Paul’s world were unlike any in our time. They were nearly often dark damp caves in which the prisoners hadn’t been found guilty, but were awaiting trial. And they were chained together. They could have friends visit and bring them food, or maybe a blanket. Without any light or writing instruments Paul wrote letters from prison. Unable to work with his hands at his trade, Paul in prison had time to think, to compose, and to share his ideas with valued friends who then carried his prayers and exhortations to dearly loved communities he had founded.

  1. Paul’s Mysticism

For too long Paul has been portrayed primairly as a thoughtful theologian. What’s often lost in the dusty libraries where people study Paul is that he had a passionate and vibrant spiritual life shaped by experiences of prayer, visions, and revelations. He could speak in tongues, and knew the voice of prophecy. To be sure he had cautionary words about these elements in worship, but they were very real to him. When he spoke of a man who was caught up into heaven, it’s evident he was talking about himself.

  1. Paul’s Last Journey

Paul’s letter to the Romans described two trips he had planned. He would take the collection to the poor in Jerusalem, and come to Rome, but not to stay. Spain was his destination. What was it about Spain that Paul felt compelled to bring the gospel there? It was the land most recently conquered by Rome. It’s people, now enslaved, were reminded daily that their lives had been spared by the grace of the Roman army. In Jewish lore it had been called the end of the world. Was Paul thinking that the collection and then the gospel to Spain would conclude with the coming of Jesus? Perhaps.


After a brief review of the significant aspects of Paul emphasized in the previous chapters the book concludes with thoughts on what Paul would question with regard to Christianity today. Having tried all the different expressions of the Christian faith he’d probably want to convene a real ecumenical council. He’d certainly appreciate the fact that he and Peter share the same feast day. I’m sure he would speak to the issues of ethnicity, sexual identity, and class that flame into hostility and violence in our world just as they did 2,000 years ago. He’d want us to think about our time as the “already not yet” and the “time that remains.”


Sabbath Time — Trusting the Spirit

Sabbath Time — Trusting the Spirit

Sabbath Time — Trusting the Spirit

By George Martin
May 11, 2014
St. Mattthew’s Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades, CA
Sunday Bulletin, Easter 4

(A Reflection Based on the Walter Bruggemann lectures at the Clergy Conference this past week. All five of the St. Matthew’s clergy staff attended!)

 Many of us major in anxiety and fear. It even means at times feeling guilty when we’re not working very hard or seeming to make progress toward a goal. We live in a world where “certitude” rules, even though our faith is grounded in a God who values fidelity. We’re allowed to have doubts and uncertainty. That was the theme of our first session with Bruggemann.

The world tells us how to be happy by having things we purchase and own. The same world wants our attention every day. In its indirect enticing way it implies that the 4th commandment (“to keep holy the Sabbath) isn’t necessary. For the Jews Saturday was the Sabbath—for Christians its Sunday. Either way the Sabbath is no longer a day protected from the cares and occupations of our six-day world. It won’t be except as we intentionally and faithfully (with fidelity) choose such time to be more of who we are meant to be. Jews always had to be intentional about keeping it and could never assume support from the world for this practice. The same is true for Christians now.

Think about what this Sabbath time means this Sunday. Countering the usual world, our presence here means this time isn’t productive in terms of making something or accomplishing something that matters in the world. Here, however, we can find a critical and helpful perspective on those cares and concerns that marked the previous week. Here we may also set aside some of those worries that surfaced in our common life, or maybe we discover some serious questions that we needed to ask.

Sabbath time is the time for the work of the Holy Spirit to remind us of the creating God whose breath shaped a world defined as “GOOD”! We come here to affirm the goodness of God who calls us to be neighbors with all people. We affirm in Baptism that each person is made in the image of God, and that the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst. With Sabbath as a discipline we can re-enter the world or work and responsibility, but with the Sabbath in mind we do so commanded to bring blessing to the world that refuses to rest (even for a day) in God’s assurance.

(Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out Sabbath as Resistence: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW by Walter Bruggemann.)

I don’t have a strategy for Congregational Growth! How can that be?

I don’t have a strategy for Congregational Growth! How can that be?

A Friend of Mine (an Episcopal priest) is applying for a job another church. She asked me how I would answer a question they were asking about “Church Growth”? She was hoping I had the answers. At one time I thought I did, but that’s no longer the case. Thus I wrote the following for my friend to consider. The question comes first and then my suggested reply, that she’ll have to put in her own words, of course.

April 18, 2013

Dear Friend in Christ,

I’m glad you sent me the exact question. When we were talking on the phone you framed it as a question about renewal. And that’s the question they should be asking, even though it looks like they feel that the church is too small.  So here’s what I think I’d say, if I were answering their question.

b.  Drawing on your experience, your observations and education, describe how you would build a strategic plan for congregational growth?

I don’t know that there really can be a “strategic plan” for congregational growth, if that means “growth in numbers.” I do know it’s a question often asked by churches that have diminished in size and are feeling the need for more money just to maintain what they have. Even though we don’t want to say it publicly, the hidden text in pleas for a larger congregation is to have more pledging units.

If we are really thinking that being a larger church (number-wise) is our goal, then we need to ask “Why we want congregational growth?” Is this what God is calling us to do? In what ways are we a better church if we are larger? We also need to face the truth about the internal changes we might have to make in order to be ready to accommodate numerous new members. How adaptable are we to meet the needs of others? Those are tough questions. It’s a lot harder to do this work given the realities of the world today.

In the world of fifty years ago, when a great many churches were growing, you could use a number of methods to attract people, and that’s because going to church was far more normative than it is today. Looking around at most mainline churches you’ll find people who still like to come to church (Thanks be to God!), but the average age keeps creeping upward year by year, and yes, the numbers of pledge units are decreasing. Asking our regular faithful members where their children or grandchildren attend church, means hearing that many of them don’t go anywhere. So the field seems ripe for the harvesting. Indeed, the largest religious group in the country are now the “Nones” When asked, “What church do you attend?” more people than ever “None.”

Another large segment, so it seems, are those attracted to mega-churches, which are found in nearly every community. The truth of the matter is that their growth has often come at the expense of other congregations. It’s like one team trading for some players, but they don’t really trade, they just take on more players.

I think we need to talk about another kind of growth—the one related to the concepts of “renewal”, “spirituality,” and most importantly of all “discipleship.” I think a good case can be made is that if we are truly becoming the people of God, knowing more and more about the love of Jesus, and sharing that love and the reconciliation sustained by such love, then we can be what leads people to know Jesus as Lord. I like the translation by Eugene Peterson who translated 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 this way: “Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation — an aroma redolent with life.”

So what do I see us doing to be that “aroma redolent with life”? It happens in so many ways, but especially in worship marked by joy and gratitude for God’s blessings. Imagine being in a church where people smile and sing with joy for the gifts they know in Christ and in the active life of the Holy Spirit in their midst. That last sentence is meant to describe each and every community that gathers in the name of Christ.

There’s one more thing in all this that’s essential as the framework for congregational growth—even the kind that involves reaching more and more people. If the church, isn’t missional—meaning that it’s sent—then it’s not the church. It begins at the door of each church, and with the premise, given by our Lord, that we love not just each other, but the stranger in our midst. For all of us, if we are honest, know what it means to be an alien or a stranger. (It’s what the letter of Second Peter, says we were, prior to becoming God’s people.) Our call is to see every person who comes to our door as “Christ’s own” and to treat them as an “honored guest.” It’s not a strategy—but it ought to be what marks us off as a “People of God’s Making.” Which we are!  Thanks be to God.


His Love Found Us

His Love Found Us

This is the sermon I wrote for St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul MN for March 17th, the 5th Sunday of Lent.

“Hey! That was my line!”

George Martin

Sermon for March 17, 2013 (Philippians 3:1-14 and John 12:1-11)

 I’ve been in and out of prisons for most of my life. That’s not exactly the sermon opening I’m sure many of you were expecting to hear, but it is true. One summer when I was in college I was a guard in a juvenile detention center — the work matched up with my interest in sociology and criminology which I was studying in college. Nine years later I was an Episcopal priest and I was also working on a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Nebraska. Happy to have any kind of work the Bishop of Nebraska offered me $50 a month to be a chaplain to the Episcopalians in the state prison in Lincoln. Once more, something else you may not have expected to hear: Episcopalians locked up.

And one Episcopalian, about 33 years old, had been locked up for a long time. His name was Jim and he’d already been there for 12 years. He was serving a life sentence for a murder he committed. He served 17 years before going out on probation.

During his last year in prison, in 1973, Jim was in a work release program in Omaha and I was the curate in a church there. Jim’s many gifts included music. Our church had started a 9:15 folk mass with the lead guitarist coming from a work release program.   I can’t believe how naïve we really were at that time, but my wife Caroline would load the four kids up in our van (ages 3 to 8)—I was already at church. She’d go down to the Salvation Army which ran the work release program, sign Jim out for the day and then bring him to church. He’d have lunch with us after church and I’d take him back.

It was the gospel story for today and brought Jim to my mind — for there was Judas Iscariot who watched Mary wiping the feet of Jesus with “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard.” And Judas ask “why was this perfume not sold for 300 denaraii and give the money given to the poor?” Judas! Do you ever wonder why he was part of the community of disciples? The few references to him in the gospels paint such a negative picture. Why didn’t Jesus get rid of him?

But let’s set Judas and Jim  aside for a moment. I’ll come back to them with regard to a significant question I have to ask.

I want you to look at the Philippians passage — and as I asked you to do this I want to forewarn you. I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years researching a book I am now starting to write.  This passage from Philippians is part of the story.

Now the working title for this book is “Luther Misread St. Paul,”  but I am not attacking Lutherans. It’s just that Luther, and really many others in the time of the Reformation, had a few key passages from the Bible in mind that framed the theology we know as “justification by faith.” Sometimes it’s phrased as “Justification by faith alone.”  We heard one of these key passages used by advocates of justification by faith alone this morning. In Philippians,  Chapter three, the ninth verse,  Paul said that his hope was to be found in Christ “… Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.” (Phil 3:9)

Essentially that means that we are made right with God — in the sense that we are found not guilty of our sins while at the same time given a status of righteousness, being okay again — through our faith in Christ.

So what’s wrong with that? It’s  a foundation stone in the Protestant world. It underlies the argument which Paul also seemed to be making that we can’t get right with God through anything we do, any kind of works we offer, because everything we do is marred by sin.

Looking a little deeper into the explanations of the theory of justification we discover, somewhat frequently. an emphasis on God’s anger with humanity. Some explanations use the image of a court of law to explain how an exchange takes place making salvation possible.  Some of these ideas are really gracious in their tone and spirit,  but there are also scenarios and sermons where the message is “turn or burn.” As end up in that other place, not in heaven.

There is another way, however, to read the same scripture passages that shaped “justification by faith alone” For the past 30 years, at least some New Testament scholars have suggested that we can translate Philippians 3:9 in a slightly different way — and it may be a way that makes all the difference. Having graduated from seminary 46 years ago I had no idea of what was going on in Pauline studies, and never even noticed in the NRSV Bible I hold in my hands a little footnote “S.” It says, in point 4 type,  Paul may not have meant “our faith in Christ.” The little footnote says it may be read “the faith of Christ.”

Listen again to the same passage, with the change of one little word. The word “in” becomes “of.”  So Paul said his hope was to be found in Christ “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faith of Christ.”

There are two choices for translation: Either “our faith in Christ”  or “the faith of Christ”. Some also say “the faithfulness of Christ.”   The Greek words are actually “Pistis Christou” and it’s the the ending on the word Christ that causes all the trouble. That  little “OU” is a form of the genitive — grammar for what we would call a possessive noun. My car, your kids, our land. Things that we belong to or it is something belong to us.

Greek grammar is a little more complicated. Thus, New Testament scholars question if this is a subjective genitive—which means, the focus is on Christ (who he is and what he has done, or what God has done through Christ), or is it an objective genitive in that it’s about us (our faith our response to what God has done and then our understanding of who this Christ is, and what it means for our salvation.)

For the past 500 years, at least in the Protestant world, the emphasis has been on our faith in Christ as the key that puts us in a right relationship with God.  To be in that right relationship—to be saved—means many things, not the least of which is your final destination. The saved are going to heaven and those who are not saved are going somewhere else.

So what about Jim? What about Judas?

Jim got married after he was released from prison. A year later in 1975 I baptized his little girl. We then moved to Minnesota and he went to Seattle. We exchanged Christmas cards for a few years. Sadly, I know he got divorced – then we lost all touch with each other. If he’s alive he’s in his early 80s. I wonder what became of his little girl who’s now almost 40. And is he still an Episcopalian? Still helping church choirs sing? I don’t know.

And Judas—where is he? Any chance he’s in heaven? Let’s let that question hang in the air for a few minutes.

I made sure that we got to hear the opening verses to Chapter three. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. He’s a pastor, but he’s angry and he’s worried about some troublemakers who’ve shown up in his absence.  That’s why we heard his harsh words. “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” Who are these opponents of Paul?

These troublemakers, it seems, were probably troubled by Paul’s willingness, and  even enthusiasm for welcoming Gentiles into knowing Jesus as the Messiah the Christ. But why should they be troubled if people want to believe that Jesus was the Christ, a belief they shared?

Remember Paul said “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord.” And he gives us a listing of all of the things that should have counted for him as a Pharisee. He had all the credentials that were certainly needed to be proud of his heritage. He was born “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews;” Then he mentioned his loyalty to the Torah—as a Pharisee he exhibited zeal as he went about persecuting the church.

Also remember that before giving his credentials Paul called  his opponents “dogs” — a highly derogatory term in that culture.  It was probably the term his adversaries used for Gentiles.  As near as we can tell Paul’s opponents, to the extent that a Gentile might  be coming into faith in Jesus as the Messiah,  they also needed to become fully practicing Jews, even to the point of adult males being circumcised. Ouch.

We have to be careful here. We are mindful of religious choices in our world. Thus it can happen—someone who is Jewish becomes a Christian. He or she has changed their religion.   Or it can be the reverse— a Christian who  becomes a Jew.

In the time of Paul that were also religious choices. But Paul wasn’t a Jew who became a Christian, and then argued with Judaism. There’s some consensus among many New Testament scholars on this point today.  Paul’s issues weren’t with traditional Jewish ways or Jewish practices. He just did not believe that Gentiles who were coming to know Jesus as God’s Messiah —needed to adopt those practices definitional of traditional Judaism.

Gentiles coming to the faith that Jesus was the Christ were reminded of the entire faith story which included the narrative of God’s creation and God’s covenantal story with the people of Israel—Gentiles were now incorporated into this story—and the sign of it was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit making their lives different – Being a Christ follower meant you didn’t go back to the way you once lived. You now lived a new life—a life in Christ.

Paul did not change religions —but Paul’s perspective on religion changed. He was a changed man. Verse seven is a remarkable statement: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Actually the Greek should be translated, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as rubbish (or garbage) because of the Christ.” And now if you want to find Paul you couldn’t find him where he used to be. His mailing address was changed. He wrote that he was now located in Christ—now to be found in him not having a righteousness of his own or one that comes from the law, but one that comes from the faithfulness of Christ. And as it says at the end of our reading, it’s  “… Because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil  3:12).

Paul, you see, had a death experience. He had all those credentials, but now they were worthless. He says that he wants to know Christ, by—get this—“becoming like him in his death.”

All the things that used to matter to Paul are now without value. Hmm? Did I just say without value. Remember the word of Judas in our gospel today. We could have sold this perfume and given the money to the poor.” I’ve heard many similar statements in church settings in my years of ministry. Why are we redecorating that library? We could help others with that money. You’ve heard them as well.

That gospel story with Mary wiping the feet of Jesus, with her hair let down, and the smell of that perfume filling the whole house, and it all happening that context with a Lazarus raised from the dead. Lazarus stands there breathing, but Mary’s act foretells the death of Jesus. The risk that Mary took in exposing herself to ridicule and ostracism for what she did by exposing her hair and what she wasted. It was all gift and it was a prophetic act. I have to believe that Paul knew that story, but whatever he knew of all the pieces of the story of Jesus, they became one for him. One story: the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. And then it became the new life of a community that wasn’t to be shaped by the divisions and differences of this world.

Inside this story of new life and hope everything can be forgiven. The focus for Paul wasn’t about individuals being saved, or making personal faith commitments, but it was on a new world that God was bringing into being. And we, in the church, are still that world. We are that world if we are communities of reconciliation and new life.

So you remember, I was wondering about Jim and I wondered about Judas as well. Where are they with God? If it’s the faithfulness of Christ, and the God who raised Jesus from the death that is at the heart of our message, this is what I am thinking.  If Jim is alive today I hope he’s playing the piano, he was classically trained, and that piano is in some church today. I hope it’s is church where people love him and his smile. Do they know of his record? His being in prison?  I don’t know. I just know that questions like that don’t need to matter as much inside this new world, this Christ shaped community that God is creating in us.

As for Judas. Well I have this strange, heretical picture in mind. He’s walking arm in arm with Peter in heaven. And Peter mutters from time to time, “We both betrayed him. But his love found us.” And walking a few steps behind is Paul who says, “Hey! That was my line! Read Philippians.” Amen.

Holy Saturday – Waiting for What We Don’t Know

Holy Saturday – Waiting for What We Don’t Know

Reflections on Holy Saturday
April 7, 2012
George Martin

What is it that allows us to have just a hint of hope and the ability to grit our teeth in moments of crisis—those times when fear arises like a tsunami—and to respond in the same way at other times of foreboding doom that creeps ever so slowly like a storm on the horizon? I’m not talking about a kind of foolhardy charge of the light brigade into a thunderous blaze of machine gun fire. It’s rather that there are times when we retain a sense of dignity in the face of something horrendous and when with muscles contracted we’re willing ourselves to find a way through what seems impossible.

There is something in the human spirit that seems to find some resources to hold on to some possibility when the scene in front suggests that there is no possible resolution or success to be had. To speak of the human spirit finding strength and fortitude isn’t to talk about the human animal as if we always respond like other creatures when cornered or attacked. That’s sometimes the story of tragedy, but not always.

Life, as we sometimes know it, isn’t just about instinct or about biological survival. There is a story element at work in the response to certain unfathomable situations in human history. It’s not, however, a story that is necessarily logical or connected. Given the circumstances in which most tragedy occurs the response isn’t always scripted or plotted. Only in the rearview mirror of our history, or from the witness of others, does it seem that the pieces of the story, even though they can be horrific and unimaginable, someone carry meaning—a few words, maybe a touch—something that speaks of some kind of lighted way forward.

My thoughts on this topic are shaped in part by Holy Saturday—a strange day in the Christian story—a day mostly without a script. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer give this day two prayers, a few rubrics and four scripture lessons to read. I think of it as the “Nothing Day.” There isn’t a table to set for the service. No candles need to be lit. There are no assigned hymns. The rubrics say nothing about the role of the ordained on this day.

Still the last word isn’t about nothing. There are times in the face of great evil when at least a few seem bare a kind of resolve that speaks of something deeper—maybe a truth that overcomes the disaster itself. Their life may not matter, and certainly didn’t to the forces that were about to destroy them, but the way they responded suggests that life does matter. The story that is sometimes told, and one hard to fathom, is that what matters more than life itself, is how we die.

What did matter to those first disciples on day following the day now strangely called Good Friday, was that they’d witnessed a horrific ending to a life that was unlike any they had known. He died on a cross, after doing no wrong to anyone, and bringing life, sight, mobility, and most of all dignity, to all sorts and conditions of people. His silence and his failure to call for any kind of retribution toward those who unfairly accused him and plotted his death stood in stark contrast to the violence imposed on him by the crowds, the authorities, and finally by the conscripted Roman soldiers.

On that first Holy Saturday with a dead Jesus walled up in a cold cave covered by a large stone the story he was telling had come to an end. He who seemed so connected to God and who had breathed God’s Spirit, had proved to be fully human to the point of death. What were they, his friends, to do now? It must have been the question they asked over and over again. Some, we know from the story passed on to us, decided to return to their life back in Galilee. Other’s waited—waiting for what we know not, but maybe waiting in that way that involves this matter of the story that informs the human spirit and which leads us to harbor even the faintest hope for what might yet be possible.

I find myself on every Holy Saturday contemplating some of the hard realities of life—none of us avoids death. There is something tragic about all of life in that no creature endures in this world. Yet there’s some sense of purpose and some kind of direction to be discerned. There a moments of pure joy and times to laugh at the absurdity of all. You sing the blues and strangely you feel better, and know that you’re not alone. Any maybe that’s why we keep our Holy Saturday vigil. The disciples silenced by what they’d seen happen had to be keeping quiet vigil with and for their Lord. And we do the same. For the Lord. And for each other. Breathing God’s Spirit—that Spirit that was stirring in that dark tomb. And always stirs in times of waiting. Amen.


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