The Message of the Man from Tarsus
I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves! (Gal 5:12)
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers look out for those who mutilate the flesh. (Phil. 3:2)
Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye service, as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart. (Col. 3:22)
If any one will not work, let him not eat. (2 Thess.. 3:10)
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Col. 3:18)
Let here wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. (Neither was man created for the woman, but woman for man.) (1 Cor. 11:6-9)
If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:9)
God gave them (the Jews) a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day. (Rom. 11:8)
It is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:35)
I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (Rom. 11:13-14).
The Jews had survived the traumas of their national history by developing a powerfully protective shell that secured them against an alien and hostile world. In the service of that shell, they had constructed interpretive layers that justified the stance of isolation. Jews did not eat, intermarry, fraternized, or worship with gentiles. Such practices as circumcision, dietary regulations, and Sabbath observances set off the Jewish people form the world as distinct, unique, and even odd. Thus separatism also served the Jew's survival needs and kept them alive as a recognizable ethnic group. The binding force on Jewish identity was the Torah.
So it was that when, in the first century, a Jewish teacher named Paul of Tarsus moved outside this defining religious system and began to question it in the light of a different experience, he loosed the fear, anxiety, insecurity, national pride, and immense hostility that ultimately cost him his life. Before he died, however, he had built a new structure that possessed Jewish roots but that also opened his followers to the startling possibility of a universal community. In time that community would enshrine the letters of this man within the corpus of its own sacred story and call them Holy Scripture. Then the line that divided the words of this Paul form what was thought to be the Word of God would begin to fade.
Among the things lost by this confusion of Paul with God would be the interior humanity of this great first-century figure and the shape of the significant issues hat he engaged. Outside the head of this conflict, his words had already lost some of their meaning, for they were but one side of the debate. And when his words became frozen as sacred Scripture, the cultural accretions and scientific presuppositions became fixed in their first-century context. As time moved on and values changed and knowledge of the universe increased, the words of Paul would begin to sink into historical irrelevance, where, unless freed fro this literal bondage, they might finally lose their power completely and thus disappear.
Because I believe those words to be in touch with some thing eternal, transcendent, and holy, I want to rescue them from the hands of those who by claiming too much will finally accomplish too little. If the words of Paul cannot be broken loose form the cultural accretions and presuppositions of a first-century mind-set, they will never speak to this generation.
Some Christians who treasure the Bible will feel that my efforts in this enterprise will be only destructive. They will not recognize that although I work form a different perspective, I love this book no less than they. I am concerned, however, as a Christian facing the twenty-first century that my holy book presents me with the portrait of a man who believes that in religious conflict those who disagree with him should be cursed. He also appears to many to belittle women, affirm slavery, and express some measure of anti-Semitic hostility. Such an author is not likely to be looked upon as significant in today's world. Yet I believe the message of Paul, freed from its literal distortion, can still speak with power to the human experience. I write to realize that potentiality.
What Did Paul Himself Write?
The list of Paul's letters that are regarded as authentic does not include all of the letters attributed to Paul. He certainly did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews, despite its title "The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews" in the King James Bible. The vocabulary, thought forms, and conclusions of that book are simply not Pauline. he did not write those words we call the pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. They appear to have been written well after Paul's death, for they reflect a structure in the Christian church that did not exist in Paul's time. The issues with which these letters deal are also not the issues that were abroad during Paul's lifetime. Most scholars do not believe Paul wrote Ephesians. That letter seems to have been written by Pauline disciples of the generation after Paul's death, perhaps as an introductory piece to a collection of Paul's authentic letters that began to circulate around the Mediterranean world. There is even some doubt that Colossians is Pauline though this is a minority viewpoint.
The letters that Paul did write are Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, and Philippians and probably Colossians. Even within this corpus there is more refining to do. The sixteenth chapter of Romans is not always regarded as part of the original letter to the Christians of that pivotal city in Italy, and an internal analysis of the two letters to the church in Corinth reveals that there were probably as many as four letters to the Corinthians with pieces of the first and third now incorporated into what we call 2 Corinthians.
A further complication is presented by the Book of Acts, written by the author of the Third gospel some twenty to thirty years after Paul's death. Paul was the hero of much of this first history of the Christian church, and most people have had their image of Paul created for them primarily by Acts. yet the Book of Acts seems to have had no knowledge whatsoever of the Pauline Epistles. Furthermore, in Acts there are the dramatic stories of Paul's various journeys, his appearance before Festus, Felix, and Agrippa, and his actual journey to Rome; these are nowhere referred to by Paul. An adventure story told in narrative form is more colorful and more memorable than letters, which are always monologues that present only half of the intended conversation.
Yet the aforementioned omissions combined with major discrepancies between Acts and the Pauline corpus raise significant questions of accuracy. For example, the apostolic council described in Acts 15 cannot be reconciled with Paul's description of the resolution of the same issues in Galatians 2. Paul's writings reveal that he spent two to three years in Ephesus, but the Acts narrative reveals only striking isolated episodes. A comparison of the Damascus road conversion story, which Acts records no less than three times, with what is probably Paul's account of his conversion in 2 Cor. 12:1-5 is particularly striking. Paul here tells the story of the man caught up into "the third heaven" to hear "things that cannot be told, which man may not utter."
An analysis of the Book of Acts will reveal that its author wrote long after the major controversies in Paul's life had faded. Jerusalem had fallen to the Roman armed forces in 70 C.E., and the temple had been razed. From that day until 1948, the Jewish people of the world would not have a homeland. The power of the Jewish Christians in the burgeoning Christian church diminished sharply when its enter in Jerusalem was destroyed, and increasingly the Christian movement became a gentile movement, which of course meant that Paul's struggle to enable gentiles to find a place inside Christianity became an issue of antiquity. It lost its emotion, its vehemence, and its passion. For these reasons, when Acts and the Pauline corpus are in conflict, the weight of the evidence seems to be with Paul . Consequently, in this attempt to re-create Paul of Tarsus, I will rely primarily on the writings of Paul himself.
Paul is a (perhaps the) primary witness in the shaping of the Christian revelation. he penned his words at a time when there were no written Gospels to feed his memory or to create his images. His epistles came during the oral period of Christian history, when there was no one authoritative source of written Kerygma (the apostolic proclamation). As I have mentioned in chapter 6, the source known as Q and various portions of the passion narrative may have been committed to writings before Paul wrote. But we cannot be certain of this, nor do we have any way of knowing that Paul had access to them even if these portions of the tradition were written. These facts create an interpretive problem for modern expositors of Paul Our minds have been so shaped and informed by the Gospel content that we do not recognize how frequently we read Paul through the eyes of the Gospels. We need to embrace that fact that none of Paul's first readers read him this way, for in their lives there were as yet no Gospels. to interpret Paul accurately we need to put ourselves into that first-century pre-gospel frame of reference and to hear Paul in fresh and authentic ways. When one does this the insights into the primitive Christian experience are startling and challenging, as I hope to point out. First, however, we need to put together the biographical material available to us in Paul's writings and seek to bring this unique person into clear historic focus.
Who Was This Man Paul?
Paul was a Jew born in the province of Cilicia in Asia Minor. In the ancient world Tarsus had been the seat of Hittite power and later a center of a Persian satrapy. During the Hellenistic period it had remained an important city that some ancient writers said actually rivaled Athens and Alexandria as a place of learning. Like most cities in the Mediterranean world, Tarsus had a Jewish colony. How and when Paul's family arrived there we do not know. This colony supported the Jewish temple in Jerusalem with two drachmas for every Jewish male in their exiled community paid to the temple annually. They possessed a synagogue, where they worshiped regularly, which means, of course, that more than ten Jewish males had to be present.
Young Saul, which was Paul's Jewish name, was undoubtedly taken to the synagogue regularly. The synagogue services began with the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." It continued with prayers and readings of portions of the Law and the prophets. usually from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures). There would also be a sermon, typically assigned to any competent male in the congregations. The synagogue had administrative officers but not official priesthood. The ancient Jewish hope that God would raise up a king in the Davidic line to restore Israel to its destiny as God's elect was inevitable part of the milieu of that community. These were shaping influences in the life of the young Paul.
Paul's family had some status in Tarsus and perhaps even some wealth. His father, who was of the ancient tribe of Benjamin, had acquired Roman citizenship, whether as a reward for some service rendered or by purchasing it we do not know. But as C.H. Dodd notes, a person who writes of himself as "laboring with my own hands" (1 Cor. 4:12) is hardly on who was born in manual labor." Yet it was the custom for every person to have a trade, and Paul was trained as a tent maker. When Paul talked about his upbringing, it is clear that he was introduced to the Law early and rigorously. "Circumcised on the eight day, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Phil 3:4-6). It would have been typical for a prominent Jewish family from Tarsus to send their son to Jerusalem to complete his education. Perhaps then it is trust, as the Book of Acts suggests, that Paul studied under Gamaliel, the learned and respected member of the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:3). But whether accurate of not, Paul's letter's reveal a passion for the Law, a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, and a rabbinical style both in the use of texts and in bursts of rhetorical questions and even some oratorical diatribes.
Paul spoke and wrote Greek fluently, but with the inclusion of many second-hand Semitisms. His writing style, however, was the style of a speaker. He hardly ever used a period, only dashes. Sometimes his sentences would be so long, with so many parenthetical thoughts thrown in, that a reader would forget what the subject of the sentence was before reaching the verb. His writing had the rhythm of the spoken word, but he did read heights of almost poetic elegance in such passages as 1 Corinthians 13 and Rom. 8:31-39.
Whatever else can be said about Paul, on certainly must acknowledge that on his scale of values the Law, the Torah, and his religious traditions were supreme. By this Law he lived, defined himself, shaped his life, and sought his ultimate meaning. Of himself he says, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the tradition of my fathers" (Gal. 1:14). It is easy to understand how such a person would respond with fear and anger if a movement arose that threatened the supremacy or authenticity of this controlling value system.
When one discovers religious intensity this pronounced, one certainly must look at what personal needs are being satisfied, thus fueling the zeal of the religious devotee. Since Paul's religion gave him a sense of identity and meaning, one wonders what the source of the anxiety was that this imposed identity kept in check, or where the lack of self-worth came from that made the imposed meaning so powerful. Paul covered his insecurity with an exaggerated need to excel. There was in Jewish folklore a tradition that if one Jewish male could keep the entire Jewish Law for one twenty-four hour period, the Kingdom of God would come. Paul was so constituted that it would occur to him to think that he might be the one. We will examine this aspect of Paul in detail later, but suffice it for now to recognize that there is great frustration at work in an insecure perfectionist.
Paul's writings, reveal the combination of intense levels of self-negativity covered by intensely cultivated images of superiority. At first these forces fed Paul's devotion to Judaism at the same time that they created his defensiveness. Subsequently these forces became operative in his later devotion to and understanding of the gospel. But whatever was the source of Paul's anxiety, the rise of the Christian movement within Judaism threatened Paul's security and identity so seventy that he responded by becoming a persecutor of this movement. Persecution is always so revealing. One does not persecute something that does not scare, and it cannot scare unless it has appeal. Conversion in such a person is always traumatic. Earlier convictions, passionately held, cannot be passionately abandoned without a volcanic internal crisis. Paul recounted his career as a persecutor (1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:12ff, 1:22). And when his energies were directed to Christian ends, the intensity, passion, and single-mindedness of his personality were not diminished. He became an apostle in a manner no less consuming of his life. In one of his works he elaborated the various traumas he had undergone for the sake of the gospel. they included imprisonment, beatings, and near death:
This was a man of passion, power, commitment, and energy.
What did Paul look like? From Paul himself we have only one descriptive verse, where he was actually relating words his critics had used. "His bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account" (2 Cor. 10:10). Later in that same epistle, he defended himself by saying, "Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge" (2 Cor. 11: 6). The Book of Acts suggested that the people at Lystra mistook Barnabas and Paul for gods. Barnabas was identified with Zeus, which would seem to point to a physical impressiveness, since Zeus was the king of the gods. Paul was identified with Hermes (Mercury), the messenger god who was depicted usually as small, wiry and verbal (Acts 14: 8ff). A late second-century document entitled The Acts of Paul and Thecla referred to Paul as small in stature, bald headed, bow legged, vigorous, with meeting eyebrows and a slightly hooked nose., but we cannot trust this source for accuracy.
By Paul's reckoning in the Epistle to the Galatians, his conversion occurred seventeen years prior to the writing of that epistle. During that time he went away to Arabia, returned to Damascus, then went up to Jerusalem for fifteen days to visit Cephas, during which time he saw none of the other apostles, except James, the Lord's brother. Then he journeyed to Syria and Cilicia and resided for fourteen years before going back to Jerusalem again with Barnabas and Titus (Gal. 15-21). When these figures are put together, the time Paul's conversion is located somewhere in the early to mid-30s, depending of course on the date finally recognized as the date of Jesus' final days. Adolph Harnack, the great church historian of the nineteenth century, is still regarded as authoritative when he dates that conversion between one and six years following the life of Jesus.
Paul's career as a missionary does not seem to have begun earlier than the late 40s. No evidence points to any direct knowledge of the earthly Jesus on the part of this man. What he knew of Jesus he seems to have gotten through the oral tradition at the feet of itinerant preachers, from the various apostles, or from disciples of the apostles. John son of Zebedee, Mark, and Luke all appear in the letters of Paul as names of those with whom he had more than just a usual relationship (Gal. 2:9; Col 4:14; Philem. v. 23; Col. 4:10).
Paul's Opinion and Assumptions
Paul was not universal man. He was indeed a man of his times. He reflected the common assumptions of his day, assumptions that time has eroded badly. For Paul, women were clearly inferior. Yet he could say in Galatians that in Christ "there is neither male nor female" (Gal 3:28), and these words occur in his powerful argument to demonstrate the inclusiveness of all people, especially the gentiles, in the Christian movement. He also, in this same passage, said that "in Christ there is neither slave nor free." The fact remains that Paul accepted uncritically the patriarchal attitude of his day toward women and the cultural reality of the institution of slavery.
Paul was not married. He viewed women with something less than enthusiasm. He justified his unmarried status on the basis of the imminent apocalypse (1 Cor. 7:25). He stated, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor 7:1). A woman's hair fascinated him. Paul argued from nature, he said, that long hair was degrading for a man but pride for a woman. "We recognize no other practice," he asserted, "nor do the churches of God" (1 Cor. 11:14-16). He exhorted women to keep silent in the churches " as in all the churches of the saints." Women were "not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. if there is anything they (the women) desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (1 Cor. 14:34-35).
In these verses Paul revealed himself as uncritically part of the patriarchal system that so informed the Hebrew Scriptures. He has been quoted to support those opposed to the ordination of woman to either the priesthood or the episcopacy. the argument used by these groups asserts that a woman cannot adequately represent God at the altar, which is a not-so-subtle assertion that only the male has been created in God's image. The female thus becomes from this perspective a subhuman creature, above the animals in status but lower than the lordly male. Obviously, with such a working definition, the prejudices affiliated with second class citizenship can be justified.
By modern standards such attitudes are not only inadequate but wrong, and they are rapidly being abandoned. Margaret Thatcher, Corazon Aquino, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Geraldine Ferraro, just to name a few, are illustrations of women achieving equality in power with men in nations that have been shaped by the value systems revealed in Holy Scripture but now significantly challenged as inadequate in the practice of our daily lives. it is well-nigh impossible for this generation to believe that these Pauline ideas about women represent the Word of God, at least the words of a God they would be drawn to in worship.
Similarly Paul accepted the institution of slavery as one of the facts of life. he made no effort to call slaves into freedom. He expressed a kind of pastoral compassion for the slaves but contented himself with fine-tuning the institution of slavery itself so that is might be kinder and gentler. Paul urged the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his master, Philemon, and therefore to bondage, with the hope that Philemon would treat him kindly because of his service to Paul (Philem. 1:10ff). He enjoined the slaves in Colossae to "obey in everything those who are your earthly masters" (Col. 3:22). he balanced that admonition by urging masters to "treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a master in heaven." (Col. 4:1).
Apparently for Paul justice and fairness could be achieved inside the system of slavery by urging kindness. Here again is an attitude that is difficult for this generation, the world over, and on the lips of any politician today it would receive overwhelming rejection, even in a nation as violently race divided as South Africa. Yet for almost nineteen hundred years, slavery lived in the Christian West justified by an appeal to Paul and other biblical texts. There was not in the Christian West a sufficient moral sensitivity to challenge this inhumane institution. The dichotomy is best seen for me in that the most overly religious section of the United States, the evangelical Bible belt of the South, was the place where slavery flourished and segregation, the stepchild of slavery, was clung to with tenacity even into the latter years of the twentieth century.
The well-known and much-loved gospel hymn "Amazing Grace" was in fact penned on the deck of a slave ship with its writhing human cargo below struggling to survive their kidnapping from Africa, later to endure the cruelty of the master's lash, the breakup of families, sexual violations, and all the other dehumanizing marks of the evil system. Yet slavery stands approved and accepted in the writings of the Apostle Paul, whose words are regarded by many Christians as the inerrant Word of God. A God who tolerates slavery can hardly be God for this generation.
Paul also revealed a strange attitude toward legally constituted authority. He asserted in Romans that every person was to
That may have been good advice to be given to the tiny Christian community living before the church emerged as a threat to the emperor at Rome, but from our perspective it is politically naive.
These words have been used throughout history to justify the divine right of kings and political oppression of various types and to mute the criticism of various injustices. How would these words have sounded to the framers of the Magna Charta in 1215 C.E.? Did not the English royalists quote these words during the rebellion of Oliver Cromwell, and when the monarchy was reestablished in England under Charles II? Had George Washington taken these words literally would there have been an American revolution in 1776? Would not Benedict Arnold, remembered in the United States as a traitor because he supported the established government that ruled the colonies from London, have been accorded the honor of being one who properly acted on the "Word of God?" How do these words, if interpreted literally, sound to those who lobbied for and finally went to war for the abolition of slavery? What would be their message to the leaders of the labor movement as they struggled sometimes amid violence, for fair wages and an end to the exploitation of men, women, and children in the sweatshops of the industrial revolution? If these words are to be taken literally as the very words of God, what would they have done to the activities of American or South African civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, James Meredith, Desmond Tutu, or Allan Boesak? Could these words be the Word of God to the leaders of the Vietnam War protest movement, the feminist movement, or the crusade for gay and lesbian rights?
Paul was a limited man captured by the worldview and circumstances of a vastly different time. It is the height of foolishness to try to claim eternal truth for this culturally conditioned and time-limited words. Paul's words are not the Words of God. They are the words of Paul - a vast difference. Those who try to elevate Paul's words into being what they cannot be will finally discard Paul's words in the dustbins of antiquity.
Paul was not a universal scholar. He was not even a good biblical scholar. he studied the content of the Holy Scriptures, but he was not as conversant with the background, history and formation of the Old Testament as nay graduate from an accredited seminary in England or the United States would be today. The common wisdom of Paul's day attributed the authorship of the Torah to Moses. Paul accepted that common wisdom (see Rom. 9:15, 10:5; 10:19; 1 Cor. 9:9; 2 Cor. 3:15). Paul treated Adam as if he were as literal and historic a figure as Jesus of Nazareth had been (Rom. 5:14, 18). No biblical scholar will march today under that banner. Paul viewed Abraham in a similar historic fashion, dating him, rather interestingly, some 430 years before Sinai (Gal 3:17), which was a closer guess than he knew. He did use Abraham in a fascinating way to build his case for inclusiveness. The one whom the Jews acknowledge as the father of Judaism was in fact called to be the one in whom all nations are to be blessed, Paul's argument went (Gal. 3:8). This was a theme that Matthew was to pick up and use later, as we shall see.
Given Paul's level of biblical knowledge, the modern interpreter of Paul must face many questions. To treat the words of Paul as if they are the inerrant Word of God, however, presents us with far more problems than it solves. Such a claim suggests that to be a Christian requires the abdication of the mind to cultural patterns long since abandoned.
One could point further to such debates as to whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been offered to idols, which exercised Paul's mind so frequently. One could also look at Paul's view of angels and demons that shaped passages to his writing such as, "if with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? (Col. 2:20); or "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, will be able to separate us form the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39). He spoke of Satan "preventing him" (1 Thess. 2:18) from coming to visit the Thessalonians. This was for Paul not a literary device but a fully developed belief system that enable him to take spiritual forces quite literally. These supernatural spirits were, for Paul, responsible even for the crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:8).
The attitudes that shaped Paul's writing have long ago been abandoned. If Paul's writing is to be literalized, the assumptions and presuppositions he made are impossible to separate from his words. His assumptions and presuppositions are clearly dated and , as such, are increasingly difficult for us to accept. How can Christians living in today's world abandon Paul's underlying assumptions and still relate to Paul's words as if somehow they have captured a timeless truth? This is our task.
Paul cannot be taken literally. He did not write the Word of God. he wrote the words of Paul, a particular, limited, frail human being. But he had contact with a powerful experience that changed his life, and his changed life was instrumental in changing millions of other lives throughout the years of Christian history. Can we use his words to get into the power of his experience? Can we participate in that experience and know something of that life-giving power? Can we then translate that power into words that do communicate in our day with assumptions and presuppositions that are in touch with reality as we know it?
What was Christ for Paul? Can the Christ who is the reality pointed to by all of Paul's words still be Christ for us? What did resurrection mean to Paul? Can we meet and know that power of resurrection? What was the meaning of grace for Paul? Can we enter the grace experience that changed Paul's life? These are the questions to which our attention must now be drawn if we are to sing the Lord's song in this century.
Describing Paul of Tarsus externally is not a difficult task. Outlining the ideas that shaped his thinking and the cultural attitudes that rooted him in history and made him less than universal and the victim, as we all are, of assumptions that time has rendered inadequate, is an ordinary assignment. It may well trouble those who have made an icon of the literal words of Paul, but icons must and will fall every day.
If a religious system requires that a literal Bible be embraced, I must walk away from that system. I walk away without fear, for any religious system based upon such an inadequate foundation will never survive, not matter how many times it undergoes a face-lift. Doing a face-lift on a corpse does not restore life, it only restores for a moment the illusions of life. Organized religion as we have know it in the Western world is considered by many a friend and foe alike to be sick unto death. The periodic revivals of fundamentalism are momentary blips on the EKG charts of religious history.
If there is a way into a living religious tradition for our time it will not come from tinkering with the cumbersome structures we have received from the past. It will come rather by setting those structures aside, finding a new starting point, a new place of entry into whatever religious truth is, and being willing to explore that new terrain openly, honestly, and courageously. it means asking questions that have not yet been asked and raising possibilities that have not yet been raised. Finally, it means understanding the human experience that lies behind the explanation, the rationality, and the theological formulations as a valid arena in which to search for meaning, for the transcendent dimension to this earthbound existence and, ultimately, for God.
Understanding the Real Paul
At this point in our discussion it means trying to find the real man Paul beneath the words of his epistles and the explanations of him given by institutional Christianity., from the Book of Acts and the pastoral Epistles to this day. It means trying to climb into his life, feel his humanity, recognize his pain, and, from that perspective, seeking to understand who Christ was for him and at what point Christ met him. Then, perhaps we can understand why Paul thought of Christ as he did, what resurrection meant and why it was so crucial to him, and, finally, what conversion itself mean to this apostolic figure.
If this man Paul of Tarsus can become for us one at whose depths the recesses and universal pools of the human spirit can be fathomed, then Paul can be for us a point of entry into the meaning of God as the life of Jesus was for Paul a point of entry into the meaning of God. If this can occur, we will have shrunk the span of years and the superstructure of interpretation and theology that separates so many of us today from the timeless moment of incarnation. If we can comprehend and touch the experience through which the God who was in Christ met Paul, perhaps we can also see how and where the God who is in Christ can still meet us. Only in this way can authenticity be restored to the tradition in which we Christians walk. So enter with me into the realm of speculation as we probe the life of Paul, using his words not as literal objects but as doorways into his psyche, where along truth that changes life can be processed.
Paul's Profound Sense of Guilt
Who was Christ for Paul? Christ was for Paul the presence and power of God that called him into authentic personhood. Who was Paul? Was it autobiographical when he wrote that he was an impostor who yearned to be true, a person unknown to be alive? Was it of himself that Paul wrote that Christ had enabled him, who thought of himself as one who was being punished, to know that he would not be destroyed as he had once thought of himself inwardly as living in intense poverty but who now found incredible as it seemed, that he had make others rich? Was it Paul who had previously seen himself as having nothing of worth but now, because somehow Christ had given him back the very self Paul had found so rejectable, believed that he possessed all things (2 Cor. 6-810)? Could the Christ who forgave his tormentors, prayed for those who drove the nails into his hands and feet, restored those who denied and forsook him also love the unlovable Paul" Could the love of God in Jesus of Nazareth that loved even those who murdered the love of God also embrace Paul of Tarsus? That might be too good to be true. Yet is that not the reality that broke through the consciousness of the one who had sough all his life to be blameless before the law? With all his might he sought perfection and he failed. Over and over and over again he failed. His mind and heart were not in control. He was convinced that what he willed to do with his mind became the very thing that with his life he did not do (Rom. 7:14-15). Paul tried to explain this spiritual schizophrenia. If I will to do what I cannot do, he reasoned, then it is no longer I who do it but sin that swells within me (Rom. 7:18). Sin was for Paul a powerful force - a demonic power so strong it could make Paul do what he did not want to do. "Let not sin," he wrote, "dwell in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions" (Rom. 6:12). "It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure" (Rom. 7:13).
Paul also saw himself in some sense as a victim. It is not too harsh to say he loathed himself. His words reflected this self-loathing over and over gain. "What return did you get," he asked (of himself, I think), "for the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death." (Rom. 6:21). Ashamed, deserving death - these are the self-revelatory admissions of Paul. Was it not of his own life that he wrote so passionately, "just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification" (Rom. 6:19). Impurity, greater and greater iniquity - these are harsh and revealing words.
What is a "member" of the body that Paul says has been yielded in iniquity? the Greek word translated "member" is (melos). It means "a member, limb, part of the body. In the Epistle to the Corinthians Paul called the ear, nose, eye, hand, head and feet members of the body. (1 Cor.12:14ff). Then he referred to "our parts," which, he suggested, are to be treated with a modesty "that our more Presentable parts do not require" (1 Cor. 12:24). But can one loathe the head, the hand, the foot, the ears? Are these "members" operating independently of the mind? Could Paul say of them "sin reigns in my members. With my mind I will one thing, with my body I do another?" Cannot the mind direct the fee, the eyes, the ears? The only organs that cannot finally be controlled by the will are the genitalia. Sexual arousal comes sometimes despite our best efforts. Sexual impotency comes sometimes despite our mental desire to respond. Is there any compelling evidence to believe Paul is talking here about anything other than sexual despite our mental desire to respond.
Is there any compelling evidence to believe Paul is talking here about anything other than sexual desire that seems to plague him? Listen to his words: "I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions" (Rom. 7:14, 15). "Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right but I cannot do it" (Rom. 7:18). "I see in my members another law at war of with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" (Rom. &:23). Can these passages really mean anything other than a confession of a sexual passion or need beyond Paul's control, part of his being about which he feels a guilt so profound that it becomes an aspect of self-loathing?
Have we been prevented for all these years from seeing this because we placed a barrier between holy Paul whose words are recorded in Holy Scripture and the sexual yearnings that we could no believe were part of the life a saint and holy man? Have we Christians not been conditioned for two thousand years by the extolling of virginity and celibacy that were said to be the very marks of a holy life? Listen to more of Paul: "With my flesh I serve the law of sin" (Rom. 7:25); "The body is not meant for immorality but for the Lord" (1 Cor. 6:13); "The immoral man sins against his own body" (1 Cor. 6:18); "I pummel my body and subdue it lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).
A body that needs to be pummeled must be evil indeed. What plagues Paul that his body is deserving of such abuse? Listen once more to the ever-revealing Paul. "For ever since we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest but we were afflicted at every turn - fighting without and fear within" (2 Cor. 7:5). Certainly Paul's life was difficult and persecution was real, but does that adequately account for more than half of that enigmatic tag line "fighting without and fear within?" What is the fear within" What is the power so intense that Paul believes it is held over him by demonic beings? Listen once more, "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you are known by God, how can you turn your back gain to the weak elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?" (Gal.4:8,9). Not to know God, says Paul, is to suffer a confusion of identity, especially sexual identity. God gives up those dominated by such passions, says Paul, "in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies amongst themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator (Rom. 1:24,25). Again and again Paul drove home his painful revelatory cry. He was under the control of that which he could not master. It had invaded his body, his flesh. He warned. "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh" (Gal. 5:13). "Do no gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).
What does the flesh produce? For Paul these were clearly references in sexual passion out of control. The flesh produced "fornication, impurity, licentiousness" (Gal. 5:19). but the fruit of the Spirit was "self-control" (Gal. 5:23). yes, there was a longer list of works of the flesh and fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, but Paul was never far from the discussion of sexual passion and the need for self-control. he concluded this passage gain with a startling revelatory statement: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24). The flesh was for Paul the dwelling place of the evil that possessed him, over which he had no control and which produced in him a self-rejection that descended to the intensity of self-loathing.
One aches for the pain of Paul, who, out of this pain, exhorts the people of Colossae to "put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming" (Col 3:5). Paul felt a tremendous vulnerability as one who judged himself deserving of wrath because he was evil and base, and, if not evil in himself, then helplessly under the control of evil powers. "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hat" (Rom. 7:15). "So," Paul concluded, "I find it to b e a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!" (Rom 7:21-24). Wretched man! A revealing cry of self-rejection. Wretched man, who served the law of sin "with my flesh" (Rom. 7:25). Wretched man who stood rejected, condemned. "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24).
What I have done is to break Paul out of Scripture, to free him from those who would capture him inside the cult of an imposed holiness. I have let him speak for himself. He was a tortured man. His passion for perfection was in direct proportion to this torture. This way shy he had advanced in Judaism beyond many of his own age. This was why he had been so extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers. His pursuit of holiness through the Law was necessary to control a power which his mind had no control. The Law and pursuit of the life of righteousness were desired to control the uncontrollable passion. Without the structure of the Law, he was consumed with some inner desire. It was for Paul a loathsome desire, very probably connected in some way with sexuality., filled with evil and impurity. Any threat to the sanctity and power of the Law was a threat to Paul's control system, a threat to his fragile attempt "to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the lust of consuming concupiscence" (2 Thess. 4:54, KJV). I quote that text from the King James Version specifically because the Revised Standard Version changes the word vessel to the word wife - a translation that I believe misses Paul's point completely.
So it was that when the Christian movement appeared on the scene it seemed to Paul to undermine the Law, and if it undermined the Law, it undermined Paul's fragile security system. If Christianity prevailed, Paul would be destroyed, consumed by evil passions over which he had no control. Paul therefore hated Christianity. He hated it with a vehemence that was itself revelatory. Only something that shook the fragility of one's life support system could elicit the kind of killing hostility that Paul exhibited toward the Christians. Religious anger is always revealing.
Paul watching the first Jewish Christians decentralize the Law in favor of grace was not unlike a fundamentalist watching his or her infallible Bible being replaced by an irresistible call into the insecurity of freedom. His response was rage. He wanted to kill, imprison, persecute. The Christians were agents of lawlessness, the devil incarnate. They must be stopped. This is not far from the blind rage that emanates from the television evangelists when they are exposed, and the fragile control system that they have so laboriously constructed to keep their own passions in check begins to waver.
Powerful emotional commitments to a controlling religious system reveal not so much devotion and virtue but trouble waters that will not stay calm. Fears that reside deep in our being always seem to rise up to shake our world, our securities - fighting without , fears within. It is not surprising to me that time and time again the popular evangelistic preachers who speak so vehemently against the sins of the flesh wind up succumbing to the very fleshy sins they have condemned.
Paul was not free not to persecute the Christians, for if they survived, he knew that he would not. As a Jew he had been taught that "the study of the law diverted the mind from desire." The Fourth Book of Maccabees had stated that 'by mental effort" all sexual desire can be overcome (4 Macc. 2:2). "The temperate mind can conquer the drives of the emotions and quench the flames of frenzied desires, it can overthrow bodily agonies even when they are extreme, and by nobility of reason spurn all domination by the emotions" (4 Macc. 3:17, 18). Paul counted on these assurances. With the Law as his ally, he tried daily to bank the flames of an uncontrolled and , in his mind, evil passion.
The "followers of the way," as the early Christians were called, were, in Paul's mind, seeking to invalidate the power of the Law, and therefore they elicited from Paul the reckless and uncontrollable rage of a persecutor, and an emotional and unstoppable persecutor he was. As he said, "You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it" (Gal. 1:13ff). Nothing about Paul was moderate. He was tightly drawn, passionately emotional, filled with enormous feelings of self-negativity, seeking to deal with those feelings in the time-honored way of external controls, unflagging religious zeal, and rigid discipline. he could not, however, master the passions that consumed him.
What were these passions? There is no doubt in my mind that they were sexual in nature, but what kind of sexual passions were they? Searching once again though the writings of Paul, some conclusions begin to emerge that startle and surprise the reader. Paul's passions seemed to be incapable of being relived. Why was that? Paul himself had written that if one "could not exercise self-control" that person should marry. "For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." (1 Cor. 7:9). but we have no evidence from any source that Paul ever married. Indeed, he exhorts widows and the unmarried to "remain single as I do" (1 Cor. &:8). A primary purpose of sexual activity in marriage, according to Paul, was to keep Satan from tempting people "through lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:5). Why, when Paul seemed to be so consumed with a passion he could not control, would he not take his own advise and alleviate that passion in marriage? He did write that marriage was an acceptable, if not ideal, way of life. "If you marry you do not sin" (1 Cor. 7:25). The reason he gave for his recommendation against marriage was the nearness of the apocalypse. "I think that in view of the present (or impending) distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage, the appointed time has grown very short? (1 Cor. 7:26ff). Yet toward the end of Paul's life when he wrote Colossians and Philippians, there was in Paul's mind a gradual waning of the immediacy of the second coming, and it was replaced by a growing hope of universalism. Still, however, marriage never seemed to loom for him as a possibility.
Paul has been perceived as basically negative toward women. He did write that "it is well for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor. 7:1). The passion that burned so deeply in Paul did not seem to be related to the desire for union with a woman. Why would that desire crate such negativity in Paul, anyway? Marriage, married love, and married sexual desire were not thought to be evil or loathsome. Paul's sexual passions do not fit comfortable into this explanatory pattern. But what does?
Obviously, there is no way to know for certain the cause of Paul's anxiety prior to that moment of final revelation in the Kingdom of Heave. But that does not stop speculation the value of speculation in this case comes when a theory is tested by assuming for a moment that it is correct and then reading Paul in light of that theory. Sometimes one finds in this way the key that unlocks the hidden messages that are present in the text Once unlocked, these messages not only cease to be hidden but they become obvious, glaring at the reader, who wonders why such obvious meanings had not been seen before.
Some have suggested that Paul was sexually impotent. This theory does not fit the data. Others have suggested that Paul may have been sexually abused in his childhood thus was in deep conflict with the immobilizing twin emotions of fear and desire. This theory fits a little better, but it still leaves too many loose ends in the reconstruction.
Still others have suggested that Paul was plagued by homosexual fears. This is not a new idea, and yet until recent years, when homosexuality began to shed some of its negative connotations, it was an idea so repulsive to Christian people that it could not be breathed in official circles. This is not to say that our cultural homophobia has disappeared. It is still lethal and dwells in high places in the life of the Christian church, and it is a subject about which ecclesiastical figures are deeply dishonest, saying one thing publicly and acting another way privately. The prejudice, however, is fading slowly but surely. With the softening of that homophobic stance we might consider the hypothesis that Paul may have been a gay male. We might test that theory by assuming it for a moment as we read Paul. When I did this for the first time, I was startled to see how much of Paul was unlocked and how deeply I could understand the power of the gospel that literally saved Paul's life.
When I suggest the possibility that Paul was a homosexual person, I do not mean to be salacious or titillating or even to suggest something that many would consider scandalous. I see no evidence to suggest that Paul ever acted out his sexual desires and passions. he lived in an age and among a people that cloaked the way he would have viewed this reality with layer after layer of condemnation. But for a moment assume the possibility that this theory is correct and look with me again at the writings of Paul and more important at the meaning of Christ, resurrection, and grace in the life of this foundational Christian.
Paul felt tremendous guilt and shame, which produced in him self-loathing. The presence of homosexuality would have crated this response among Jewish people in that period of history. Nothing else, in my opinion, could account for Paul's self-judging rhetoric, his negative feeling toward his own body, and his sense of being controlled by something he had no power to change. The war that went on between what he desired with his mind and what he desired with his body, his driveness to a legalistic religion of control, his fear when that system was threatened, his attitude toward women, his refusal to seek marriage as an outlet for his passion - nothing else accounts for this data as well as the possibility that Paul was a gay male.
Paul's religious tradition would clearly regard gay males as aberrant, distorted, evil, and depraved. When discovered, gay males were quite often executed. The Law stated: "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman: it is an abomination" (Lev. 18:22). Do not defile yourself by these things, the Torah continued, for God will cast out those who defile themselves. God will punish, promised the Law, and the land will vomit out those who are thus defiled (Lev. 18:24ff). To do these things is to be cut off from the people of Israel (Lev. 18:29). Later in the Torah death is called for as the penalty for homosexuality. "If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, they shall be put to death" (Lev. 20:13).
Paul was a student of the Law. If homosexuality was his condition, he knew well that by that Law he stood condemned. His body was a body in which death reigned. he lived under that death sentence. What Paul knew himself to be , the people to whom he belonged and the law in which he adhered called abominable, and Paul felt it be beyond redemption. Is it not possible, even probable, that this was the inner source of his deep self-negativity, his inner turmoil, his self-rejection, his superhuman zeal for a perfection he could never achieve? Could this also be his thorn in the flesh, about which he wrote so plaintively? With this possibility in mind, listen once more to Paul's words: "And to help me keep from being too elated by the abundance of revelation, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I sought the Lord about this, that it should leave me: but he said to me 'My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Cor.12:7-9).
On another and perhaps earlier occasion, Paul had written, "You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first and through my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus" (Gal. 4:14). The word angel can also be translated messenger. Paul is the possessor of a condition that he believes to be incurable. It is a condition for which people might scorn or despise him. I have heard and read of a commentators who suggested that this physical condition was some kind of chronic eye problem. This is based, I suspect, on Paul's words to the Galatians that they would have "plucked out their eyes and given them" to Paul (Gal. 4:15). But chronic eye problems do not normally bring scorn or the activity of despairing, and through the eye, which Paul called "the window of the body," life and beauty as well as death and pain enter the human experience. Paul, in these words to the Galatians, told them that he had now "become as they are," one in whom "Christ has been formed," and assured them that they "did him no wrong" (Gal.4:12, 19). That refers to an inner healing not an external healing.
Others have suggested that epilepsy was the condition from which he was not free. This appears to me a stronger possibility. Epilepsy was thought of as demon possession, but it was a periodic sense of being possessed by an alien spirit, not a constant malady. Also, in the biblical narrative the epileptic elicited a sense of pity, or at times fear, but seldom did it elicit despising or loathing. Epilepsy does not appear to me to account for the intensity of the feelings that Paul expressed. The realization that he was a homosexual male does. it is a hypothesis that makes sense of the data and accounts for the tone, the fear, the passion, and the behavior.
If this hypothesis is correct, it also illumines in powerful ways Paul's experience of conversion, his understanding of Jesus, his view of resurrection, and his move toward universalism. Furthermore, it provides us with a means to step into Christ as Paul did and to see the Christ experience outside the context of limited words and in the context of a universal human experience. It thus becomes for us a pint of entry into a universal spirituality inaugurated by Christ that may endure into the unlimited future in a way that the narrow and brittle religious forms from our Christian past not longer seem capable of doing.
Listen once more the rescued, converted, accepted Paul. "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13, 14). Paul believed that his personal unrighteousness had been replaced by the righteousness of God, and this gave him the hope of resurrection. he assured the Phillipians that he had not obtained this gift or become perfect, but "I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil. 3:12).
Try to imagine the power present in these words if my thesis is anywhere near the truth. Paul, a God-fearing, strict Jew, a zealot for the Law, Pharisee-to-be, being raised in Tarsus, slowly awakened to the fact that he was different. He did not understand how own feelings. Everything he knew, loved, and honored, from his parents to his synagogue to the sacred Law, told him that what he felt himself to be was evil, depraved, and abomination. The Law informed him that if one were zealous enough for the Law, all desire would be curbed. So with the frenzy of the desperate and the lost, he sought to master these disturbing and threatening desires by mastering the Law. he advanced beyond all those his age in zeal. He became before the law blameless. But nothing worked. His condition was beyond this power to change. It was as if his body were possessed by an alien force over which he had no power. He felt as if there were a war going on in his members. With this in mind he willed on thing, but with this body he felt another. He sought exoneration by blaming his affliction on something outside himself. "If my mind wills one thing and my body responds another way, it is not I but sin that dwells within me." More and more he tried by his passion for the Law to master the passions of his body. He became a rigid, externally controlled religious, righteous man with the resulting cold, hostile personality who could lead a persecution movement to destroy utterly the movement within Judaism that revolved around the man named Jesus. To Paul Christianity weakened the Law that only by the most herculean efforts was holding Paul just above the abyss, so he struck back at that movement with the vengeance of a deeply threatened man. he killed, he hurled into prison, he sought to stamp out.
What Grace Did for Paul
One cannot persecute without drawing near to that which is the object of one's fury. Paul drew near to the Christ. It was for hams a fatal attraction. In the midst of the fury that all but consumed him, he began to hear the gospel message of love - unconditional love, even love for one thought by himself to be loathsome, called by the sacred law an abomination and condemned by society as a person with a depravity so complete as to be deserving of death. This Jesus could yet love this Paul. That was the gospel. The one who loved those who killed the love of God could also love this judged, drive, homosexually oriented Paul. Nothing Paul could do or be placed him outside the love of God present in Jesus the Christ. Somehow that message broke through on the hostile, hiding, vindictive, fearful Paul. It had all the force of an exploding, blinding light at midday. the scales fell, as it were, from his eyes. What the Law could not do, the grace of love had done. Paul was justified. Paul was loved. While still in his sin, Paul was accepted. Nothing could separate him from the love of God - nothing, not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, not even nakedness, not even the secret of his unclothed body. Nothing could separate him form the love of God. Paul was now God's elect.
Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies, accepts, loves. Who can condemn God's elect? It is Christ that died to make love known. Even the murderers of the Christ are not condemned, and if not they, so also not Paul. For God raised the righteous Jesus to his own right h and. this Jesus, loving the sinner, the outcast, the condemned abomination, has been vindicated by the Holy God. God is on the side of Jesus. God has raised him to the divine right hand. Jesus is the agent of God reconciling to God that which previous was thought to be irreconcilable. God has taken Jesus into the very selfhood of God.
Because the Christ loves me, I can now love myself. That was the way the gospel dawned on Paul. Because Christ accepts me, I can now accept myself. I do not have to become righteous by keeping the Law. God has declared the righteous as a gift of divine grace. God in Christ has reconciled me to God. Nothing will ever again separate me form this love - not death not life, not angels nor principalities, not present things nor things to come, not power over which we have no control, not heights, not depths. Nothing in all creation - not even that secret, unspeakable inner fear that possesses me and for which the world and the Law might well condemn me. Nothing shall separate me form the love of God. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! (Rom. 8:31-39).
The being of Paul, a being he did not understand, a being he could not control, a being that all of the wisdom of this world and all of his sacred tradition condemned as worthy only of death, that being of Paul met the grace of God in the person of Jesus the Christ. It was for Paul as if a light from heaven appeared, and a doorway into God opened and Paul saw the Christ to be part of what God is. This was Christ risen - enthroned. Listen once more to Paul's words. "Jesus was raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). "Christ being raised fro the dead will never die again, death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives h e lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:9). "Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to live, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness" (Rom. 6:12). "Just as you once yielded your members to impurity and a greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification" (Rom. 6:19). "If Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness" (Rom. 8:10).
The righteousness was, of course, the righteousness of the Christ that had been given to Paul as a gift of grace. The Spirit that raised Jesus dwelt in Paul and gave life to Paul's dead mortal body. Christ is our wisdom and our righteousness, Paul asserted, because of the action of God in raising him to heaven (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ is now God's and I am now Christ's, Paul exclaimed (1 Cor. 3:23). "For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all . . That those who live might live no linger for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Cor. 5:14). "The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). "So have this mind in you which is yours in Christ Jesus . . . and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:5-11).
Paul's Exalted Jesus
Who was Jesus for Paul? He was the reconciling agent for the grace of God. He was the image of the invisible God. He was the firstborn of all creation. he was a Jewish man who could be understood only in terms of the ultimate agent of God. He was identified with the son of man figure in Jewish mythology. He acted for God in creation. He held all things together and broke open the power of evil by being the firstborn form the dead. The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him so that through him God could reconcile everything and make peace where there had been enmity. Paul could add that to those who "were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death" in order to present even Paul "holy and blameless and irreproachable before him" (Col. 1:21, 22).
Was Paul's Christ the God man of later Christian theology? Was this the Second Person of the divine Trinity? Would Paul have said, Jesus is God? Although he might not have denied the truth to which these words pointed, those forms of communication would never have occurred to the Jew from Tarsus. They were words a later generation of Christians who had lost their Jewish roots would develop to try to give rational forms to their experience of Jesus . Jesus was for Paul God's "first creation." This is hardly an adequate Christology by later theological standards, but it served Paul well. For Paul, Jesus the Christ was a special human life through whom God had uniquely acted and in whom God was uniquely present. Jesus was for Paul a Jewish man so faithful to the meaning of God that when faithfulness cost him his life, God raised him to heaven in an act of vindication and as a way of saying that God is like what Jesus did and like who Jesus was.
When Paul speaks of the resurrection, he mans the raising of the dead Jesus into heaven. The vindication of the life Jesus lived was proclaimed by God's exaltation of him. For Paul resurrection and ascension were not two actions, but one. It occurred not on the literal third day but on the eschatological third day., for it was beyond time and history. Above all, it was the act of God. Paul's consistent verb form for the resurrection is passive. He was raided by God. The action was God's action because it was God's vindication. the active verb which suggested that Jesus did the rising himself was in a very much later tradition. For Paul, witnesses to the resurrection were not people who conversed with a resuscitated Jesus in some earthly setting, as the later appearance stories would tend to indicate. The separation of the resurrection from the ascension is not reflective of primitive Christianity. Paul gave no narrative details of resurrection appearances, and he said his conversion, which clearly was a dawning, in breaking vision of the now heavenly Jesus, was different in no way form all other appearances, save that Paul's was last..
Mark, the earliest Gospel, also had no appearance stories and assumed that it would be the glorified, ascended Lord who would make himself known in Galilee at some later date (Mark 16:1ff). Matthew had the risen Lord meet the disciples only in the vision of the ascended Lord who appeared out of heaven to send the disciples into all the world (Matt. 28:1ff). John said that it was the ascended Lord who appeared to the disciples and breathed on them the gift of the Spirit (John 20:1ff). Only Luke clouded the witness by separating resurrection from ascension and making resurrection the action of Jesus and ascension and making resurrection the action of Jesus and ascension the action of God. That was certainly a late-developing tradition, a concession, in my mind, to the need for literalizing the story of the breaking in to human consciousness of the meaning of God of love and grace.
When Paul talked of resurrection, he used four verbs. Jesus died, He was buried. he had been raised. he has show himself. The verb for "shown himself" is oplithe - a technical term for this "paschal event," and it means God cause Jesus to be seen. For the apostles and other witnesses in Paul's list, Jesus had become "Epiphanous": that is, they were all proclaiming that the crucified one had been raised and now the heavenly Jesus was at work in the missionaries. The apostles, including Paul, had been sent to proclaim this faith and none else. As the gospel moved form Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, to the uttermost parts of the world, Jesus, the crucified on, became "Epiphanous" in wider and wider orbits. he drew, through love and grace, all people to himself as he restored them to themselves, building finally that inclusive community in which there is neither Jew nor gentile, bond nor free, male nor female. For all are one in Christ, whose love can embrace even the outcasts of society, even the one pronounced depraved and called an abomination, the one who by the mandate of the Law stood under the sentence of death.
This is the way my thesis would suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ was experienced by Paul, the man from Tarsus. To me it is a beautiful idea that a homosexual male, scorned then as well as now, living with both the self-judgment and the social judgments that a fearful society has so often unknowingly pronounced upon the very being of some it its citizens, could nonetheless, not in spite of this but because of this, be the one who would define grace for Christian people. For two thousand years of Christian history this Pauline definition has been at the very core of the Christian experience. Grace was the love of God, an unconditional love, that loved Paul just as he was. A rigidly controlled gay male, I believe taught the Christian church what the love of God means and what, therefore, Christ means as God's agent. Finally, it was a gay male, tortured and rejected, who came to understand what resurrection means as God's vindicating act. In the life and love of Jesus, who both expressed the love of God and bore in human history the life of God, the ultimate meaning of God had been established. Because of Paul, no longer can we see Jesus in any way other than as the fullness of God.
When people consider scandalous this idea that a homosexual male might have made the grace of God clear to the church, I reply, "Yes, it is scandalous, but is that not precisely how the God of the Bible seems to work?" It is as scandalous as the idea that th4e Messiah could be crucified as a common criminal. It is as scandalous as the idea that a birth without acknowledged paternity could inaugurate the life that mad known to us the love and grace of God. It also suggests that known to us the love an grace of God. It also suggests that heterosexual people might be deeply indebted to homosexual people for many spiritual. gifts that arise out of the very being of their unique life experience. Indeed, I have been the recipient of just hat kind of gift from the gay and lesbian people who have shared with me their journeys with God through Christ.
What is the Word of God for us underneath the words of Paul? It is that each of us, no matter how dark our shadows, or how condemned we are made to feel, are nonetheless the objects of the infinite and graceful love of God. Each of us is called to live in the wholeness of that love as one who has been embraced by the giver of infinite value. Accepting that divine valuation, we are to find the courage to be the self God has created us to be, the self we are inside the graceful gift of the righteousness of Christ. For as the Epistle to the Ephesians, bu8rilding on the gospel proclaimed by Paul, reminds us:
The Christian church thus becomes not an institution struggling for power, status, or even survival. Rather, it grows into being "a holy temple in the Lord" in whom each of us is built into being "a dwelling place of God the Spirit" (Eph. 2:21, 22).
I submit that this is a long way beyond a culturally conditioned denigration of women or affirmation of slavery that we find in only a literal reading of Paul. This is also beyond the common wisdom of the first century that believed things about Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David that biblical scholars can no longer affirm. Once we lay aside a commitment to the literal truth of the literal words of a biblical text, we discover that there is a way through these words in order the timeless dimension of eternal love, graceful acceptance, and inclusive community. Beneath the words of the Bible is the living Word, acted out in the incarnate one, Jesus of Nazareth.
The ancient creed of the church that Jesus is Lord thus becomes a creed we modern folk can also shout with integrity authenticity, and commitment. Moved by that creed we can begin anew the mission of the Christian church to proclaim love and grace to all who feel without love or apart from grace. And we will do so even when the proclamation of that gospel disturbs, convicts, and offends that institution that dares to call itself the church when it does not live out the meaning of being the accepting, loving, forgiving, affirming body of Christ.