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Paul - An Obituary

by Gerd Lüdemann

Paul, from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, is rightly regarded as one of the most influential figures in the Christian West. At once a Jew, Roman, and a Christian, he saw himself above all as an apostle called by the risen Jesus to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. But his life's work, dedicated to the service of the Risen Christ, only partly explains his tremendous importance.

The primary reason for this lasting impact is that Gentile Christians made Paul the pillar of their church and gave him a permanent place in it, first of all as the author of seven authentic letters which became part of the New Testament, and then as a writer to whom six further letters were attributed and accepted as scriptural. Not only do thirteen New Testament letters bear Paul's name as author, but Paul's example stimulated the collection of an additional seven "Catholic letters" incorrectly attributed to figures like Peter, James, and Jude, or indirectly ascribed to John.

Since the second part of Luke's Acts of the Apostles is devoted exclusively to Paul, he stands at the center of a third of the New Testament. It is no wonder that he had an overwhelming effect on church history. And in world history, Paul still played a decisive role at the beginning of modernity. In the sixteenth century Western Christianity split over the interpretation of his doctrine of justification, a schism that still has incalculable consequences.

His significance for world history and the abundant Pauline literature make it eminently worthwhile to study him carefully. And the controversy over him will continue, because only now is the history of exegesis becoming an independent discipline and producing many new insights. Although welcome, such approaches make defining the historical Paul even more difficult. My thesis is that despite the two thousand years separating us from him, we can and should try to write a critical history of Paul in order to evaluate him in every respect. That is my aim in this obituary.

Paul was born around the same time as Jesus, some four hundred road miles north of his master's native Galilee. He was a Diaspora Jew who, having inherited Roman citizenship from his father, grew up in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. His basic education, mediated through Hellenistic Judaism, included instruction in the Greek language and rhetoric, and the macro-culture is reflected in his letters: Paul attended the theatre, followed contests in the arena, and witnessed philosophical feuds in the market place. In other words, he was imbued with both the breadth and beauty of the Hellenistic world, and its intrinsic rational temper.

But his ancestral religion also fostered a sense of belonging and a feeling of exclusiveness. Thoroughly steeped in Holy Scripture, he was no average Jew, but intensely devoted to the God who had chosen Israel and given it the commandments to live by. No wonder that he must study at the place where his heavenly Father had had the Temple built and where by divine grace daily sacrifice atoned for sin. Here at Judaism's epicenter the young zealot completed his education as a Pharisee, and here he wanted to work. His scholar's career, like that of his teacher Gamaliel, seemed predetermined.

But the Cilician synagogue he attended in Jerusalem included a group of Greek-speaking Jews devoted to a recently crucified holy man whom they hailed as Messiah and claimed to have been elevated by God. Equally unsettling were their neglect and even dismissal of the Law. As if a crucified Messiah was not bad enough! It was too much for Paul. As often with the elect of Israel, a zealous passion for the Law impelled him to attack this heterodoxy and nip it in the bud. Many fellow-countrymen, including his teacher Gamaliel, counseled patience and moderation, but the young zealot saw a dire challenge; and the subsequent development of this Diaspora group of Jesus-followers was to prove him right. The very suggestion that he was soon to play a key role in the dissemination of this deadly threat to Judaism would have taken his breath away.

Still, the inconceivable happened: in the midst of a bloody persecution, the very one whose followers he was pursuing appeared to Paul in heavenly guise, and suddenly Paul had no doubts. Surely this was the Son of God, and all that his followers said of him was true. Paul had no choice. He had to find a place in the community he had been persecuting. Since all this involved profound emotions, Paul temporarily lost his sight after the heavenly vision. But Ananais, his new brother in the faith, healed him in the name of Jesus and welcomed Paul into a faith which the erstwhile persecutor so far knew only in a rudimentary way.

As Paul reflected on Jesus' apparition and its significance, he recalled the scriptural passages prophesying a future Messiah; but how could he conceive of a Messiah who had suffered and died on a cross? Paul had never heard of a suffering Messiah. But since his encounter with the heavenly Lord utterly persuaded him that this was none other than the crucified Jesus, the ex-Pharisee's intimate knowledge of scripture provided a novel solution. In a bold leap of thought he combined the Jewish ideal of the Messiah with Isaiah's Suffering Servant - a leap made easier by the consideration that Jesus' suffering was only a transitional stage before his entrance into heavenly glory. And of course this would apply not only to Jesus; all Christians must suffer tribulation before the great Day.

Scripture also provided Paul a special role in the heavenly drama. Remembering that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had claimed divine election, Paul applied this directly to himself (cf. Gal. 1:15f.) and fantasized that like the two great prophets of the past he had been divinely ordained from his mother's womb to be a preacher. Hence the overweening self-confidence that exceeded even that of his pre-Christian period, and was the more extraordinary considering that this man from Tarsus never knew Jesus of Nazareth personally.

Could Paul derive his authority directly from the Lord without relying on those he had persecuted? What must he have experienced to justify his later claim to equal standing with the personal followers of Jesus? Indeed, Paul attributes the words of institution at the Lord's supper, which after all he must have learned in teaching from the community, to a direct communication from the Lord himself: "I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you..." So also for other traditions about Jesus he learned: the authority of the Lord, who had personally commissioned Paul to be his apostle, automatically hallowed them. Believing himself in direct contact with the Lord, Paul received special indications as needed - he calls them revelations or mysteries - and immediately followed them.

But while heaven was almost always open, Satan might also castigate him if all those revelations went to his head. Still, he felt secure enough to invoke the power of Satan in such serious cases as that of the fornicator condemned in I Cor. 5 so as to save both the community from uncleanness and the soul of the sinner from judgment. Furthermore Paul recognized that it was Satan who spread dissension in his communities in the form of false apostles. Yet whatever the adversity, Satan and his angels functioned only as predetermined by God, and had no power over Paul, his communities, or the rule of Him whose Son had come into the world to save people from sin.

As the agent of God and the Lord Jesus, Paul felt himself bound up in a cosmic drama of redemption whose pivotal issue was that salvation must include Gentiles, who need not first become Jews, but by faith in Jesus attained equal standing in the church of Christ. Such a view was repugnant to many Jewish Christians, but from the beginning Paul had experienced in an almost intoxicating way the unity of the church composed of Jews and Gentiles. He refers to this in two passages in which he quotes the baptismal liturgy: "There is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 3:26-28, cf. I Cor. 12:13). This oft-repeated formula demolished all the barriers that the Torah had erected around Israel: "If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (II Cor. 5:17). But this new cry of jubilation required the atoning death of the Son of God, as its continuation indicates: "All this (is) from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ"(II Cor. 5:18). And Paul continued to find new ways to proclaim the liberation: "If God is for us, who can be against us? For he did not spare even his only-begotten son, but has given him up for all of us*" (Rom. 8:31-32). Paul's present experiences of Christ in the present were Spirit-filled events which pointed to an even greater event, namely the consummation of the kingdom with the coming of Jesus on the clouds of heaven. Now Paul faced a problem. How was he to explain his visionary experiences to those in Jerusalem who had known Jesus personally and who similarly awaited the glory and the rewards of the coming kingdom? More important, how could he claim equal apostolic authority and an equally valid interpretation of the story of Jesus?

The history of Paul's relationship to the Jerusalem community shows that this was no easy task. A first visit, some three years after Paul's conversion, lasted two weeks and enabled him to make cautious contact with the leader of that community, Cephas, Jesus' first disciple. Besides Jesus' life and ministry, and the Easter experience, the Gentile mission was already an issue, and Paul was glad to arrive at agreements that would validate his apostleship in the greater Greek world. Then events came thick and fast. The mission to the Gentiles, which Cephas had agreed was Paul's task, proved extraordinarily successful, but Jewish-Christian communities also sprang up: Lydda, Joppa, Caesarea, Sidon, etc. Moreover, the "Holy Spirit", imagined as a mysterious and miraculous being, found acceptance and favor, first of all in Syria and then under the influence of Paul in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaea. A new movement was called to life by a man who had never known Jesus personally, but was thus all the more in contact with the heavenly Christ. It was like a huge covered kettle full of water at a rolling boil: to the energy generated by a growing number of Jewish disciples was suddenly added an influx of Gentile converts, and the kettle boiled over, the hissing and bubbling water creating new channels as it cooled, new communities composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Naturally conflicts arose; strict Jewish Christians were scandalized by non-observant activity in the mixed communities. For Gentile Christians to repudiate the niceties of Torah practice was one thing; for assimilation to endanger the identity of Jewish Christians was quite another. The demand for strict segregation of the Jewish Christians from their Greek brothers was inevitable: in Paul's presence delegates from Jerusalem started a bitter dispute over the purity of Jewish Christians in the mixed community of Antioch. This put at risk all that had been achieved; and fourteen years after his first visit to Jerusalem, it was revealed to Paul by his heavenly Lord that he must return. Apparently he traveled with an unbowed heart, for he took the uncircumcised Greek Titus with him to establish a precedent. Not coincidentally, Paul's former missionary partner Barnabas was also a member of the party, but so too were those strict Jewish Christians who, as Paul put it, had crept into the community and provoked the dispute. The situation in Jerusalem had changed. Cephas no longer stood alone as leader, for Jesus' biological brother, James, now stood at the head of a triumvirate consisting of himself, Cephas, and John. It is illuminating that two personal disciples of Jesus were junior to someone who, along with the rest of the family, was skeptical about him during his lifetime.

After vigorous clashes in Jerusalem, an agreement was reached: the Jerusalem church would spread the Good News among Jews, Paul and Barnabas among Gentiles. More important than this specific accommodation was the very fact of the accord; for it provisionally rescued the unity of the church, and that was Paul's main concern. Like so many treaties, this one allowed both parties to read their own understandings into it. Jews, for example, included those in the Diaspora as well as those in the Palestinian homeland. Further, the incendiary issue of people living in mixed communities was not discussed at all. Worse yet, the agreement did not rule out a strict segregation of Jewish and Gentile Christians; in fact the agreement established a divisive condition. However, despite all the problems of the "formula of union" in Gal. 2:9, there was agreement on the collection (Gal. 2:10), which was to become an acid test for the relationship between the Gentile- and Jewish-Christian churches. Here there was no ambiguity. Paul and Barnabas would straightaway collect from his mission churches an offering to sustain the Jerusalem community. By giving Paul a lever to hold the Jerusalem people to their agreement, this also served as an instrument in church politics by confirming that his Gentile apostolate was the key element of a unified church. Without that unity, his mission to the Gentiles was null and void. Paul had already envisaged a mission in Spain so as to conquer the last part of the world for his Lord; it was urgent for him to fulfill his destined role, for the Lord was near. But for now the agreement had to be safeguarded, and so Paul set out to secure the collection and cement the bond between his churches and Jerusalem.Accompanied by a staff of colleagues, Paul traveled through Galatia, giving detailed instructions for the collection, and sent his communities in Macedonia and Achaea instructions to do likewise. On the first day of every week the members were to set money aside in order to have a handsome sum ready for Paul to collect and deliver to the delegation that would take it to Jerusalem.

Of course, the journey served not only financial and political ends; Paul naturally initiated missions among new believers when, as in Ephesus, the occasion arose. Furthermore, the existing communities needed to be advised or exhorted in person or through delegates like Titus or Timothy.

Then disaster struck. Suddenly delegates from Jerusalem - the "false brethren" whom Paul had defeated there - now attacked him in his own communities and threatened to undo years of effort. They put his apostolic authority in question, introduced additional precepts of the law, and thus destroyed any fellowship between Paul and Jerusalem. The battle for the collection became the battle for the unity of the church. To assure the collection would be welcomed in Jerusalem, Paul decided to deliver it in person and again take up the battle he had won on two previous occasions.

At the height of this conflict, shortly before he set off to Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Roman church a letter no doubt intended for those in Jerusalem as well. In this memorable document the apostle proclaims his message of righteousness by faith, which is to be grasped in faith as free grace on the basis of the atoning death of Jesus and which is available to both Jews and Gentiles. Strangely, he does not seem to notice that in Rom.9-11 he partly takes back everything that he has written previously. Perhaps bewitched by an ethnocentricism he had ostensibly overcome, Paul promises that after "the fulness of the Gentiles be come in," all Israel will be saved - and he makes no mention of belief in Christ (Rom. 11:26ff.). Being one of the chosen people suddenly appears more valuable than it did in the first eight chapters of Romans.

Paul indicates the reason for this about-face in the beginning of chapter 9: he grieves that the vast majority of his Jewish brothers have not accepted salvation in Christ, and would willingly suffer Christ's curse for their sake. Here we see another side of Paul. After the sharp attacks on the law in Galatians and in Rom.1-8, this may sound strange; but it attests the ultimate priority of feeling over thought, in Paul as in nearly all humans.

A decade or two later, however, none of this was of any use to Jews. In the predominantly Gentile Christianity founded by Paul, the invention of a special Jewish salvation could not prevent unbelieving Israel from being damned to eternity, like the unbelieving Gentiles in a yet later period. The statement attributed to the risen Jesus in the secondary ending to Mark applies to both of them: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned."

Paul himself was to experience the Jewish Christian repudiation of the Gentile church. The collection he bore to Jerusalem was rejected, and hostile Christian brethren denounced him to the Roman authorities in order to get rid of him: he was charged with taking an Ephesian Gentile named Trophimus into the temple. The further course of events is well known. Fearing assassination by Jewish zealots, Paul appealed to the emperor and was safely taken to Rome, only to be executed there under Nero. He never made it to Spain.

However tragic these events, it is only fair to admit the factual basis of his opponents' charges. They claimed that Paul was teaching that Diaspora Jews should no longer circumcise their sons and was thus alienating them from Judaism. While this may be nowhere explicit in Paul's letters - he emphatically calls on Jews not to repudiate their circumcision - it must be conceded that the consequences of Paul's preaching largely validated the charge. In practice, the minority status of Jewish Christians in Pauline communities isolated them from their mother religion, and they ceased circumcising their male descendants. Sooner or later Jewish Christians lost their Jewishness in the Pauline communities. Furthermore, by proclaiming that grace is attained not by following the Law, but only through faith, the apostle's doctrine of justification led to ethical ambiguities (cf. Rom. 3:8) and could easily be misconstrued as fostering libertinism.

Finally, Paul's theology of the Law was anything but clear. In fact, having abjured the Law, he made contradictory, statements about Torah because he had already found his answer in the light of Christ. The Jewish side could no longer find common ground with such a man.

A further source of disaffection was that Paul had become a Gentile to the Gentiles, a Jew to the Jews, and thus in effect neither a Gentile nor a Jew. Where was his commitment? Throughout his public life he displayed not only a streak of arrogance but also a tendency to vacillation. It must have perplexed many, but as his accomplishments attest, this adaptability was a good way to succeed.

Only when he attempted to lecture the intellectual elite of Athens did it run him into a brick wall. The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers showed him his limits when he tried to impress them with future judgment through Christ and bodily resurrection. Despite his repeated (though sometimes deceptive) advocacy of reason, his religion, grounded in mystical experiences, was not up to the intellectual challenge of Greece. That he founded no community in Athens speaks volumes. One may also suspect that his remarks in I Corinthians about human wisdom being folly before God were at least partly an indirect rationalizing of the defeat in Athens.

Here it seems appropriate to note Paul's tenuous relationship to the Greek enlightenment. Paul did not arrive at truth through a mind trained to examine rigorously the content and viability of opposing views, to shun the phantasms of the imagination, and to acknowledge no authority over itself, whether divine or human. By contrast, the oriental mysticism we find in Hellenistic Christianity and its leading figure Paul has a supernatural character. It calls for uncritical surrender to authority and to divine guidance: the norm is not the intellect but the emotions, especially the mystical exaltation of the self seized by rapture. The spiritual man far outshines the logical man, for to him is disclosed the inscrutable truth which reason can never grasp.

But the fundamental reason for the victory of the Christianity of Paul and his pupils lay in the spirit of the time. The world had become weary of thought, and people found initiation into mysteries - of which baptism and the eucharist were but two of many - a less demanding way to confront their mortality. Ernest Renan's aphorism captures the ethos: The defeat of the human spirit while the public had become completely credulous.

Both the reaction against the Hellenistic Enlightenment and the orientalizing of the West paralleled an increasing authoritarianism in government, law, and social customs. The spirit of ancient Greece was throttled just as much as the constitutional ideal of the Roman state. Authority replaced research; faith preempted knowledge; the independent human spirit was made subservient to a cosmic deity; and slavish observance of divine commandments replaced the paradigm of responsible freedom. Hellenism marked the maturity of the ancient world; orientalism its downfall. This was the scene upon which Paul entered, and the drama in which he played a strong supporting role.

What did Paul's life yield? First of all, Christianity owes its existence to this Jew from Tarsus; he is its true founder. As he said, he worked harder than all the rest, for he laid the foundations for all future developments in the church. And by transplanting his misunderstanding of Jesus' religion to Gentile territory, he unintentionally formulated the lasting separation of the church and Israel.

This in turn occasioned the tragic outcome of his work. The Christian anti-Judaism he inaugurated had a devastating effect. We may almost ask whether it would not have been better had Paul never lived. Might not Reformed Judaism with a Christian name have come into being, with the possibility of a humane faith which retained the priceless legacy of the mother religion? At any rate, without Paul and his disciples Judaism would never have been led into the abyss.

Besides, Paul's ideas often involve affronts to critical reason: (a) the notion that God's Son had to atone for the sins of the world; (b) the nonsensical identification of Jesus and the Christ, and with it the arrogant claim to be the spokesman of someone whom he never met; (c) the view that people should expect decisive help to result from mystical wishes; (d) his confused and arbitrary assertions about the Law; (e) the claim that an historical event provided for the eternal salvation of mankind. Even though we may understand a first century enthusiast making such foolish claims, we have seen how dangerous they can prove when advocated by Christian churches and even by academic theologians. Some go so far as to propose an objective significance for Jesus' resurrection: that it is both the turning point of world history and an event of cosmic significance.

Paul was certainly the key figure in early Christianity, indeed its founder. But the view that his letters represent God's word is a crime against reason and humanity, and we should recognize that his way of thinking cannot guide our future, for lacking respect for "unbelievers" he summons them to obedience only to escape damnation. His monotheism is totalitarian, and his religious zeal too like the fanaticism which over two millennia has cost the lives of at least a million people per century.

One cannot deny Paul's human accomplishments nor doubt that they derived from his commitment to God. Unfortunately, conflict inevitably turns such a commitment against mere mortal men and women. Soli Deo gloria.

This "Obituary" is based on Prof. Lüdemann's forthcoming book, Paul: the Founder of Christianity, his first to be written in English, which will be published by Prometheus Books this Fall. Tom Hall, who worked with him on the book, revised the original version of this essay, which was translated by John Bowden," and prepared this condensed version for "The Fourth R."

The Fourth R, Vol. 15, no. 1; January - February 2002, pp. 9-11.14-16.18. Published by Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, CA.

Copyright © Gerd Lüdemann
Last updated on April 22, 2020
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