What Paul Meant

Sacred texts are living documents. We have a relationship with them and they inform and shape us over the years, even if they aren’t contemporary with us. That’s a mystery to me yet it’s an experience I’ve had often enough to believe it. A spirit within the texts spans the centuries so they remain insightful and incisive. And when we study them it’s as if we’re in a dialogue that leads us to learn regardless of the march of time.

It’s reasonable to ask in the Judeo-Christian tradition how stories of a tribal people that reach back centuries hold wisdom relevant to life in the 21st century. That’s the mystery.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading the apostle Paul lately and I happened across the small book by Gary Wills, What Paul Meant. Paul appeals to me in many ways, partly because he deals with the frailties of our humanity. If anyone understands religious people in conflict, it’s Paul. Wills brings this home.

I think this understanding of humanity gives Paul’s writing resiliency. In addition, as Wills notes, Paul understands faith as an active response to the person of Jesus and not as belief in a set of propositions or commitment to dogma. Paul was in complex relationships and he writes from within the frustration, anger, joy and hope these relationships hold. That’s pretty human stuff.

Paul has been criticized, accused of gender bias, patriarchy and even teaching contrary to the words of Jesus. Wills takes on these charges and dispels them in this small book that is quite remarkable for its accessibility and compactness. Wills makes the case that Paul is not only consistent with Jesus, but that he is closest to Jesus in time and is, therefore, likely the most reliable reporter of Jesus’ own words.

Paul is not, however, a biographer as the gospel writers, all of whom wrote from three decades to nearly a hundred years after Paul. Paul’s letters, excepting Romans, are written to address specific problems in the emerging religious following of Jesus.

Wills points out that Paul’s “flock” is made up of Jews who have no New Testament and exist before the word Christian has been applied to them. They rely upon Jewish law and practices for their religious grounding. They don’t have an “Old Testament” either, and don’t know the words church, priests or sacraments.

To understand Paul, we must understand the historical setting in which he wrote and why he wrote. Wills led me to reflect how little I actually do understand, and how our own cultural filters and historical accretions affect comprehension of his writing.

Paul’s letters precede the narrative we know as the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke, yet Luke has been regarded as the authoritative account of Paul’s conversion experience, travels and relationships with the early gatherings of the followers of Jesus. Wills points out how this cannot be. It’s not that Luke is untrue but that his reporting about Paul comes from a later time and for a different reason than Paul’s. Wills views Luke “not necessarily as untrue, but as not commanding trust.” (p. 153)

And this leads to a much deeper appreciation of the living reality of Paul’s enduring legacy and of Luke’s task to unify and harmonize the leadership of the nascent church centered in Jerusalem under Roman occupation. Luke’s task was different from Paul’s.

Scripture arises from the depths of human experience. It reflects how the Holy is comprehended in this complex reality. It requires engagement and in this we discover the spirit that bridges time and enters our lives. When Paul writes,
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind, love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; Does not rejoice in inequity, but rejoices in truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”


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