Archbishop Mark continues to explore the Great Characters of the Bible and looks to Paul who took Christianity and turned it into an urban phenomenon which gave Christianity its institutional profile.
Episode 7 – Paul – is available here:
- Episode 7: Paul - Transcript
Episode 7: Paul - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
In this last of our podcasts on the great characters of the Bible. We are going to meet a character about whom we know an extraordinary amount, certainly extraordinary for the ancient world, because again, their sense of individuality and of personality, it was very different from our own sense of individuality or personality. I’m talking of Paul. Whom some would say was really the founder of Christianity. That’s a well-worn claim. That it wasn’t Jesus who founded Christianity. It was really Paul.
Now, it’s not a claim with which I agree, but I understand why people might make it. I mean, Jesus called something into being but didn’t give it its institutional profile in any very clear or strong way. But what Paul did was he took Christianity, which began in rural Palestine. There’s no doubt about that.
But Paul and his mission turn this movement of wandering, charismatic preachers in rural Palestine, and turned it into an urban phenomenon throughout the Mediterranean world. So, it became settled rather than wandering. It became urban rather than rural. And so that gave Christianity its institutional profile. And there’s no doubt that Paul was central to that process.
Once Christianity left Palestine or the leavened that part of the world and into the Mediterranean world. So, Paul, not the founder, but you might like to think of him as the midwife of the church. I mean, again, an old rather well-worn claim is that Jesus preached the kingdom, and what we got was the church. It is more complex than that.
But Paul is somehow at the heart of that process historically. That happens really quite early, the church becoming essentially geared to resident communities in cities around the Mediterranean basin. Jesus didn’t found local communities. He depended upon local supporters in his own wandering mission, but he didn’t found local communities. Whereas for Paul, the whole point of his mission was to found local communities. And he depended upon them and their survival in every way, as we shall see.
We know where he was born, Tarsus. Which is in modern day south-eastern Turkey. Which was quite a city and an academic centre at the time. He was a Roman citizen. His parents probably bought it, which was the way that it often happened in this period of the empire. And we also know that his name wasn’t Paul, it was Saul or Shaul. Which was, you know, a very common Semitic name.
Sometimes it’s thought that the name Paul was given to him only once he became Christian as it were, after his so-called conversion. I’m not so sure about that. I suspect living in this, what we call a Hellenistic city, he was part of the Jewish diaspora. In other words, he didn’t grow up in the Holy Land. He grew up in the world of Greek culture, that’s what Hellenistic means.
So, he would have certainly been bilingual at least. But he may also have had a couple of names, see Shaul is a Semitic name, which would have been a bit strange to Greek speaking ears in the Hellenistic world. So, he might have used one of the commonest of all Roman names, Paulus, which relates to the word for small. Out in the streets or when he went to school.
It’s not unknown here in Australia, for instance, that at least in the past you had anyone who had the magnificent Italian given name of Salvatore was known here as Sam. And similarly, there were and again, it’s changing a bit now, I think. Children of Vietnamese background who had a Vietnamese name, obviously, but they chose to use, you know, a more accessible name in this particular culture when they went to school. So, they might have been, you know, John Nguyen, and so on. There are many examples of this through history and even now.
So, my own sense is that he was he was Saul Paul from a pretty early age. Now, it may have been, and this is where we tend to surmise a bit. It may have been that he was sent as a gift, and he must have been a very gifted child, he’s an intellectual, Paul’s a giant in adult life. But as a child and a very gifted Jewish child, he may have been sent to Jerusalem. This often happened in the diaspora. Gifted boys were sent to Jerusalem to begin their proper religious studies from a quite early age, even as young, I think, as five or six. And they would have been sent there to live usually with extended family.
Now Paul, however it happened, Paul did find his way at a young age, perhaps not that young, but at a young age from Tarsus to Jerusalem. And he was engaged in some kind of rabbinic study. He was associated with the Pharisaic sect of Judaism; he makes that clear. The Pharisees were a fascinating group in many ways. Of all the Jewish groups or sects. They were the ones in a sense, closest to Jesus, even though the controversy against them in the New Testament is, you know, pretty forceful. But that reflects the situation after 70 A.D. the destruction of Jerusalem.
So, Paul was a Pharisee, and the word Pharisee itself means separate ones. They regarded themselves as separate in the sense they were strictly obedient to the law, not because they were obsessive characters necessarily. But because they saw the law as the way of liberation.
So, if we were in search of perfect freedom, perfect obedience to God’s law was the only way to do it and to attain it. So, you’ve got to think of the Pharisees as men and I presume, women searching for freedom. Keeping in mind that Exodus is at the heart of the whole Biblical tradition or biblical religion. So passionately searching for freedom is at the heart of who Paul was and will become.
He gets to Jerusalem, but did he ever see or hear Jesus? It doesn’t seem he did. There’s nothing in his letters that would suggest that Paul ever met Jesus, spoke to him. I mean, technically, you could argue he might have seen him, but we can’t know that one. But there’s nothing in the letters that suggest that he did see or meet Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the things he does make clear in Galatians is that he was persecuting the Christians. Whom he would have seen as just another rebel sect within Judaism. This is an intriguing touch. Because there wasn’t or isn’t any evidence of intra Jewish persecution going on at this time. It doesn’t mean to say it didn’t happen. And we have to take what Paul says in Galatians seriously. He says that that’s what I was doing.
But there is an unanswered question, perhaps an unanswerable question, surrounding why that was so. Again, Paul is so present to us psychologically. You’re tempted to surmise or speculate about why. I have sometimes wondered if he wasn’t somehow attracted to Christianity in his search for ultimate freedom. There was something about Christianity as he encountered it that was deeply attractive to him in that search. And then therefore he strikes against seeks to destroy the source of the attraction. This is not unknown as a psychodynamic. That you seek to destroy the source of the attraction because the attraction is experienced as a threat. So, Paul may well have been both threatened by and attracted to the Christianity against which he was striking.
Certainly, in Romans 7, which is an intriguing text. Paul speaks about his Pharisaic search for freedom, for liberation. And the frustration of not being able to attain that which he seeks. And the cry of a kind of cosmic frustration erupts in verse 24. Who will deliver me from this body doomed to death? Who will liberate me, even from the Egypt of death? And the answer comes in the very next verse, first 25. Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ. So, it was only in the encounter with Jesus Christ that He found the fullness of liberation that the law itself couldn’t deliver.
Paul will come to say that the law was a kind of a tutor. It was to prepare for the encounter with the risen Christ. It couldn’t deliver the fullness of God’s liberation, but it could prepare you to receive that gift. The gift which came only in the encounter with the risen Christ. So that’s where the encounter on the Damascus Road is absolutely crucial. So, let’s look at that for just a moment.
It’s told not just once, but three times in Acts. To emphasise what a crucial moment this was, not only in Paul’s life, but in the life of the early church because of Paul’s influence. Now it’s often called his conversion. And I find that difficult because in coming to Christ, no Jew converts. That’s what Pagans do. Convert means you’re going in one direction and then you turn around, go in the other direction.
For a Jew to come to the encounter of the risen Christ is more of a completion. You go in the same direction, but you go further. That’s certainly the way Paul saw it. So, when Paul becomes Christian in this moment of the encounter with the risen Christ, he doesn’t cease being a Jew.
And if you tapped Paul on the shoulder before he got his head chopped off at the end. Excuse me, Paul, just before you go, are you a Jew or a Christian? I don’t think he would have understood the question. He was both. So, for him, the encounter with the risen Christ was the completion of a lifelong search.
So, if you read what he says of this moment himself in Galatians 1, not so much what Luke says in Acts later. But what Paul himself dictates. Because Paul dictated these letters, he didn’t write them, occasionally signed them. It reads more like a prophetic commissioning because you can hear echoes of Jeremiah, the call of Jeremiah when he talks about his own call on the road to Damascus, the God who had chosen me before I was born. It’s all the language of Jeremiah. And Jeremiah somehow looms over the whole story of Paul for various reasons, which will come to.
But certainly, at the beginning it’s Jeremiah and the call. So, I like to think of the Damascus Road encounter as a kind of prophetic commissioning of Paul. Now, after that encounter, he’ll spend the rest of his life unpacking its meaning. I mean, until the day he dies, he’ll be trying to unpack the meaning of this extraordinary encounter. So, he mightn’t have met Jesus in the flesh, and this will be held against him by his opponents.
But he always goes back to this encounter on the road to Damascus with the risen Christ as his justification for claiming the title of Apostle. Because a lot of people said to Paul, you’re not an apostle, you’re a false apostle. Because you weren’t with Jesus from the beginning. You never met Jesus. You never saw him when he rose from the dead.
So faced with that kind of criticism, which was constant by his opponents, Paul always goes back to the Damascus Road moment and what it meant. It was the moment of apostolic encounter and apostolic commissioning by Christ himself. What Paul also comes to see in that Damascus Road moment is important about his understanding of the church. Because Jesus says Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? To which Paul could have replied, I’m not persecuting you, I’m persecuting them. Your disciples. But what Jesus is implying is that if you persecute the church, my body, you’re persecuting me. So, this identification of Christ and the church. Again, this needs to be handled with great care because it can be dangerous talk. In other words, it can lead to a kind of an idealisation of the church. But if we take the Pauline image of the Body of Christ, one of the most extraordinary images that has ever been created to understand what the church really is, one of the most radical and beautiful was created by Paul. It was he who devised the notion of the church as the body of Christ.
We take it for granted. But it wasn’t to be taken for granted back in the first century when Paul was and these were the very early days, the years, the decades, a couple of decades after the actual death and resurrection of Jesus. So, he comes to this extraordinary understanding of the church as the body of Christ, that if you persecute the church, you are persecuting Christ and vice versa.
Now, after the Damascus Road encounter, the first thing that happens is he goes to Damascus, he was always heading in that direction. But he was heading up to give hell to the Christians in Damascus. So he goes to Damascus, but not to give the Christians hell. But he now is preaching that Jesus is the Christ or the Christ is Jesus.
So, the Jewish community, they hear this and think, what is going on? So, persecution shadows Paul’s path from the very, very start. And it’ll shadow his path until he gets his head chopped off in Rome. And here again, the figure of Jeremiah became important for Paul to interpret his experience of persecution. Because Jeremiah was persecuted and people said, oh, if you were a true prophet, you wouldn’t be persecuted and rejected like this, God would look after you.
But in fact, suffering and rejection became one of the signs of the true prophet. So, Paul understands his own experience of suffering, persecution, rejection as a sign that he is the true apostle. Because you see the false apostles, as he calls them. They don’t get persecuted, rejected, they don’t suffer. They do very nicely, shalom, shalom. So, Jeremiah again, becomes an important, the important source, I think, for Paul to interpret his own experience of rejection, suffering and persecution in the apostolic ministry that will be there from the first to the last.
He escapes from Damascus under pressure. He’s lowered down in a basket to escape. I love that image of Paul in a basket. And then we’re told he goes off to Arabia is what they say. Now by Arabia, they don’t mean what we think of as Arabia, Saudi. Arabia almost certainly here means the desert country east of the Jordan.
So, let’s just say he goes off into the desert and he seems to have been there not just for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, but for at least a couple of years. Now, why was Paul going off into the desert at this point of his life? Again, I can only surmise and say I think it’s because he had to unpack an experience of encounter that had turned his whole religious cosmos on its head.
Paul had to rethink everything from the ground up. And he goes off into the desert, you know, that place of the great silence. And listens, listens, listens to the voice of the risen one in order to unpack the meaning of this encounter. Eventually he does emerge from that, let’s call it a time of retreat. And he appears in Jerusalem. Now, word had got around about Paul.
But they didn’t trust him in Jerusalem, some of the leaders of the mother church in Jerusalem, that this is, he’s not to be trusted. We don’t really believe what we’ve heard. So, Paul needed a kind of diplomatic bridge across which he could approach the church in Jerusalem, and particularly Peter.
And he finds that diplomatic bridge in the figure of Barnabas. Now, again, Barnabas is a crucial figure in the story of Christianity for many reasons, but this is one of them. He it seems, he was a very trusted member of the Jerusalem Church. Barnabas introduces Paul to them and to Peter. Because Paul wanted to talk to Peter and Peter wanted to talk to Paul.
They had an exchange of information to make. Peter because he’d been with Jesus from the beginning. He had a unique experience of Jesus, Paul needed to hear about that. Peter also needed hear Paul tell his story, you know, from the horse’s mouth. You tell me how you see it. Don’t let me rely on second and third hand information and interpretation.
So, he’s there for two weeks. And then in agreement with Peter, he goes back to Tarsus, back home. Was Paul married? Almost certainly he was. But there’s no indication of that. But it’s distinctly possible that he, like Peter, was, in fact, the widower. But something then happened. He goes back to Tarsus for some years, but it might have been something like seven years.
And at that stage, he could have just vanished from the stage of history. The question is, how did he come back onto the stage, thunderously as he did? The answer is in Antioch, what happened there? Because it was in Antioch that in fact, the gospel was preached to Gentiles, non-Jews for the first time. And this was revolutionary.
Antioch, a big city, third city of the Roman Empire. We had Rome, Alexandria, and then Antioch. So, he lots of Gentiles and the Gentiles respond extraordinarily to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But what does this mean? It’s upsetting to a lot of the conservative Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. So, what do they do? They send Barnabas to Antioch to make a discernment?
Is this of God or is this not of God? What’s going on in Antioch? So, Barnabas, trusted leader in the community of Jerusalem, goes down to Antioch, has a look at what’s happening, decides it is of God. And then makes another crucial discernment, he says we need the right leadership in this situation because it could get out of hand.
So, leadership is crucial in this situation, and he thinks we need the right people in the leadership team. Who do we need? And then late one night, the penny drops, he says Saul. So, Barnabas goes, personally up from Antioch, north and around, to Tarsus. And finds Paul’s place and, you know, knock, knock, knock, knock. Hello Paul, it’s me, Barnabas. Oh, Barnabas, what are you doing here?
And anyway, Barnabas tells the story of what’s happening in Antioch. Says, I’ve got a job offer for you, Paul. Will you come back to Antioch with me to be part of the leadership team? Paul says, yes, I will. Which again suggests that if he had been married, he was single at this point, perhaps widowed.
Now he comes back with Barnabas. And Barnabas stays in Antioch as the leader. Paul becomes part of the leadership team. It’s a very interesting list of leaders. It shows you how diverse the Antioch church was. Then eventually, the church in Antioch decides, big decision this, that they were going to launch the first ever Christian mission outside Palestine.
So, again, they need to choose the mission team. Well, who do they choose? Barnabas is the leader, not Paul, Barnabas. Paul is with Barnabas. And then the third member of the mission team is my namesake, John Mark, who will desert them, I’m afraid to say during the mission, the first ever Christian mission outside Palestine. And once the gospel leaves Palestine, it’s on the way, even to places like dare I say, Brisbane, Australia.
So, they only go across to Cyprus. Is it just a stone’s throw really? And that was Barnabas as home territory. Barnabas was originally from Cyprus. His real name is Joseph. Barnabas was a nickname. Barnabas means the son of encouragement. He must have been that sort of character. So, Paul accompanies Barnabas on the first ever Christian mission. Again, the whole thing is shadowed by persecution.
John Mark deserts them. So, it’s just Barnabas and Paul. Barnabas unquestionably the leader. Who comes, they come back to Antioch, they report. They report on the mission, they say God has opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. In other words, they don’t have to walk through the door of the synagogue to enter the church. They go straight into the church. It’s an extraordinary development.
So, then we have the brawl at Antioch. After all that’s happened with the first mission, you’ve got Jews and Gentiles sitting down at the one table in the church of Antioch. Peter comes down and joins them at table. Even Peter, then the James party from Jerusalem come down and say, Peter, stop wrong way, go back.
One church, two tables, Jews here, Gentiles there, thank you. And at that stage, Peter does decide to withdraw tactically for the sake of peace. Paul says, no, no, no, no, no. And it reaches a point where Barnabas actually agrees with Peter. So, Paul is very isolated at this stage. Now he’s got a number of choices. He could just go home to Tarsus and say this was all a bad joke, or he could just say, look, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have been so stubborn. Yes, you’re right and I’m wrong, doesn’t sound like Paul.
Or he can, as he does, decide to set up his own mission team. Now, this was an extraordinary decision. Because people were saying, oh, you’re a sore loser. You’re a lone rider, you’re an empire builder. You’re no true apostle. And he copped this right through his life.
He did have some support, though, influential support. Silas is certainly one of them, or he will become Silvanus. Which is again, Silas was his Semitic name, Silvanus was a common Roman name. He tended to use Silvanus in the letters. And then he will also recruit Timothy. So, they’re the three key figures, Paul Silvanus and Timothy. They’re the names you see in the letters very often.
But you’ve got to think of Paul as presiding over what becomes a large, complex and costly missionary operation. He’s definitely not, you know, the lone hero, as it were. Now he says, I am going to go where others have not gone. I’ll go to the Gentiles, and I’ll go into new territory. I’m not going to build on the foundations laid by others.
His is a life of ceaseless mission. Sometimes I talk about various, you know, the first, the second, the third apostolic journey of Paul. It was a life of ceaseless mission and travel. And it was only interrupted by three things first of all, ill health. Secondly, imprisonment. And third, the weather. They were the only things that interrupted this life of ceaseless travel that was the Pauline mission.
It was a mission that was made possible by the structures of the Roman Empire. Such as roads and the postal services. These were huge achievements of Rome in the Mediterranean basin. And they really enabled the Pauline mission. Founding the communities in Europe was everything to Paul. They were his great credential. Faced with all the criticism, he could say, but look at my communities that I brought to birth.
The first of them in Europe was Philippi. Just by the way, Paul didn’t found the church in Rome, but in many ways Paul sowed the seed of the church in Europe. The first of his communities in Europe, once he crosses the Dardanelles, well known from Gallipoli. He crosses into Europe and his first community was at Philippi and then down the Greek coast.
Now these communities were all fragile and they were threatened from the beginning. And threatened some of them with collapse. Now if those communities collapsed, Paul’s mission had no credentials to speak of. So, Paul had a hugely vested interest in making sure those communities, for all their problems and their pressures, survived and flourished because they were his great credential.
When they were in trouble, Paul’s first option was to go personal. Even though he says, I know when I come to you personally, I’m not that impressive. He says of himself, I’m not a great speaker. A bit hard to believe, but he says that. He says I’m tougher on paper than I am in person. But so, his first option was to go personally. If he couldn’t go personally, he’d send one of his team, could be Timothy or Silvanus or whoever. Or send one of the team with a letter dictated by Paul.
So that was his standard tactic. Coming to Athens, just by the way, would have been a real high point for Paul because Athens was the artistic, intellectual and religious capital of the world, the Mediterranean world, not Rome, Athens. He comes to Athens, and I think there’s evidence that his mission there didn’t succeed.
Acts 17 tells the story. Why didn’t it succeed? If you look at the speech in Acts 17, the one thing he doesn’t mention is the cross. Probably because he was embarrassed because the cross to Greeks was just unthinkable that you could have, as it were, a crucified God. And why do I say he seems to have failed in Athens? Because there’s no Athenian community.
And that was the criterion of success. We don’t have a letter of Saint Paul to the Athenians. So, he seems to have gone south then to Corinth, to as it were lick his wounds, after the disappointment of Athens. And interestingly, when he writes 1 Corinthians, the huge focus at the start of that letter is upon the cross. We preach, we have only the cross to preach, only the cross and the crucified.
So perhaps the failure in Athens led him to a deeper understanding that we only have the cross to preach. And it wasn’t just the words he’s talking about his own life because he talks about reproducing the pattern of the Lord’s death. He experienced death, suffering, rejection, imprisonment, and eventually martyrdom. That was all the Lord’s death. But what he comes to see is that it was all that stuff, even the experience of failure that served to advance the gospel.
That’s what he says in Philippians. That what I’ve come to see is what has happened to me, meaning imprisonment in that case. Has served to advance the gospel. So, all that was done to try and stop him and silence him only gave his mission greater impetus. That’s what he means by reproducing the pattern of the Lord’s Death. Jesus dies, but it only provokes the thunder of the resurrection.
So why did he keep going in the face of all the suffering? Why didn’t he give up and go back home? Precisely because he discovers this rhythm in his own life story, reproducing the pattern of the Lord’s Death. Eventually, he is imprisoned when he returns to the Holy Land.
By the Roman authorities, he appeals to Caesar. And then we have the great story of his triumphal journey across the Mediterranean to Rome, shipwrecked in Malta. But then eventually lands at Italy at modern day Pozzuoli. He’s under house arrest on the Aventine Hill in Rome, possibly in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Who knows? That’s a bit of a tradition. Then he is released after a first trial. And he may have then gone to Spain. We know he wanted to go to Spain.
And there is a bit of a tradition there that he did visit Spain, who knows? But he came back to Rome. And was one of the leaders of the Christian community, swept away like Peter during Nero’s persecution. He was beheaded because he was a Roman citizen. We find beheading brutal, but it was regarded as a privileged form of execution.
The story is that I used to live quite near where he was executed. It’s called Three Fountains, Tre Fontane. And the story is that when Paul’s head was chopped off, it bounced three times and each time it bounced a fountain sprang up. So hence the three fountains. Now, you know, if you’d been there watching it, do you think it would have happened like that, I don’t think so.
But the story tells a deeper truth. That the ultimate wound of beheading became the ultimate fountain and that was the story of Paul’s life. The wound always became the fountain. All the attempts to stop him and silence him only gave him greater impetus. And this again, was the reproducing pattern of the Lord’s death.
So, in his death, the ultimate wound, the fountain, threefold fountain springs up all around the world. And we drink from that fountain even now. His body was taken, it is said, to a place called Lucina Vineyard. She was a wealthy Roman matron who, had a vineyard and said, bury him in my vineyard.
And on top of the grave of Paul, eventually a little monument was built. And on top of that monument again, Constantine built the magnificent Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls. The Basilica Ostiense, on the road to Ostia. Again, the grandeur of the Basilica speaks about the grandeur of Paul’s apostolic witness to the risen Christ. Peter and Paul. They fought in life. They disagreed on important things, but they are always represented together.
If you go into Saint Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, you’ll see Peter and Paul. If you go into St Paul’s Basilica, you’ll see up the front just in front of the altar Peter and Paul. They’re always together in icons. They have one feast day June the 29th and their memory is preserved most resonantly in one city, Rome. Why is this? Because the two great apostles, they disagreed in life. But they were united in death. Because there they came so completely absorbed in the mystery of the crucified and risen Christ. That if you look at Peter and Paul, we see not so much them in flesh and blood, but we see the risen Christ himself. The one whose scars shine like the sun.