Paul, Appealing or Appalling Apostle

Everybody claims to know Jesus – without much self-awareness of our subjectivity and bias. That was yesterday’s set-up before Lent begins. Today, I’m asking you to think about your version of ‘Paul’, if you have one. As the ‘Living the Questions’ people put it: ‘Appealing or Appalling Apostle’?

Let’s guess if you do have a Jesus movie between your ears, it reflects well on Jesus, and gives lots of hints about what you think is the best in being human, with hints of the divine. The Marxists called it a projection of an ideal, a false consciousness of eirenic grace, to suppress revolution.

If Jesus is a video between your ears, then Paul is more of an ear worm, a few phrases echoing as devotional mantras or enraging slogans. At least that’s the impression I get from decades of parochial bible study. Is your Paul easy listening announcer host, or a provocative talk radio personality?

Paul, born Saul, was a Roman citizen, literate and trained in Hebrew traditions, and never met Jesus. So Paul says. He preached in a lot of communities in Asia Minor, now Turkey, Syria, and Greece – and wrote to Rome that he was on his way to Spain. He wrote a lot of letters.

Paul’s letters are the oldest documents in Christian scripture, and records lots of earliest factions and divisions. So much for fantasies of a united early golden age! Letters to Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, maybe Philippians, hint at the ‘heresies’ or partisan politics in local communities like ours.

If we only read Paul’s letters, what would we know about Jesus? There is nothing about Jesus’ life, or teaching, or healings, or companions here – just a reference to his crucifixion, and maybe his last supper, and his resurrection. Paul writes more about life in his life, not Jesus’ life.

Can you choose and change who you are, and whose you are? Can others rename you for their purposes? Paul tried, and others tried it on him: misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic, and worse. Which side of the fence is he on? Who is with him? Paul kept company with heretics like us.

Imagine Paul’s context, a couple of decades after Jesus, in communities scattered around the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Paul hangs out in the commercial centres, the towns and cities, in synagogues of ‘god-fearers’, not all Jewish by birth, generally speaking Greek, the language of commerce, as English is today.

There’s a Jewish Christian movement in Jerusalem, associated with Peter. We can identify with that sense that the ‘real’, ‘church is somewhere else, in the US, on TV, in Europe or Tibet. We also know how hard it is to live out such ‘real religion’ ways ourselves, here in Canada. ‘Real religion’ is great – but we’re working on ‘religion lite’, local yokels, parochial by definition.

‘Primordial soup’ is the metaphor used by Akenham in ‘Surpassing Wonder’ about the ‘Axial Age’ and all the rich elements stewing around the time and place, which would eventually be served up as Judaism and Christianity. Paul is credited as a key chef to mix Hebrew tradition with Greek culture, served up as if Rome were the centre of the earth, ‘Medi-terranean’ style.

It was Paul who offered a bottom line: ‘Nobody can say ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Spirit – and nobody can say ‘cursed be Jesus’ by the spirit. He also said ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free’ in his vision of the faith. Which ear-worm in Paul’s voice do you echo?

Beware lest you or anybody else loses the humility of realizing that you don’t really know Paul. What you know is his own self-promoting polemic, the autobiography, which can’t be reconciled with the more familiar biographical spin from Acts of ‘Damascus Road’ and ‘missionary journeys’.

To muddy the waters more, we’ve just finished reading a few of the letters admitted to the canon of our Christian bible by 4th century CE claims they were among 13 letters of Paul - which modern scholars call ‘pseudo’ Paul and I call ‘tribute bands’, for whom imitation was a sincerest form of flattery.

Having set aside Jesus and Paul, let’s meet some additional heretics like us from the first century of the Common Era, the ‘naughts,’ tomorrow.