Garry Wills: What Paul Meant

 

There is no more Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Merely by belonging to Christ, you are Abraham's seed, the heirs he was promised.  --Paul, Galatians 3:38-9

 

By Eric Mader

 

Several years ago I undertook a project to compile a composite Gospel, a text or anthology of texts that would present in as few pages as possible the bare essentials of the Gospel message (see The Durationist Gospel).  Amazingly to some readers, I included nothing of Paul.  After I put the anthology online, my In-box was hit with a handful of incomprehending letters: How could I not have included at least a few key Pauline passages?

    

Leaving out Paul entirely was rather outrageous, granted.  But the Apostle to the Gentiles was important mainly to the historic movement of the faith, I argued; my efforts were to present the life and teachings of Jesus to non-Christian readers, not the life and teachings of Paul.  Besides, Paul's letters were not part of the Gospels as such.

 

Though true in general, this was a bit disingenuous.  In fact I had other reasons for neglecting Paul, which I explained to one correspondent:

 

Though I take the authentic letters of Paul as authoritative, I don't believe they should be accorded the importance given the Gospels.  Paul may have been the earliest writer of the New Testament, but the Gospels offer our most complete picture of Jesus.

 

Of course Paul's story and his role are crucial in the history of the revelation.  It is Paul who taught us that we too, we Gentiles, are invited through Christ to become sons and daughters of Abraham.  Nonetheless Paul's giant role in the history of revelation should not make us forget one thing: Paul is small next to Christ. 

 

The nature of Paul's writing--his concern to address the problems of the churches, his exposition of theology--has had an unfortunate effect.  It has somehow made Paul more quotable, more the model of Christian discourse and action, than Jesus himself.  This centrality given Paul's particular stresses, the constant quoting of Pauline formulas in instances when one should be thinking of Jesus, is a great error.

 

My problem with Paul was a matter of Pauline rhetoric and gesture more than anything.  It was a matter of the position these had come to occupy in Christian discourse, particularly in Protestantism.  I didn't appreciate the extent to which the spirit of Paul lorded it over a Church in which he was neither Spirit nor Lord.

 

The question remains, however: Can a Christian tell the story of Jesus as Messiah without also telling the story of Paul?  Perhaps not.  Those with a grudge against Paul--and there are many--once they begin to explain Jesus' importance, will most likely find themselves repeating one aspect or other of Paul's theology.  Perhaps only Gnostic Christians could offer a doctrine of Christ that in large measure ignored the writer of Romans.  And this may be one of the reasons many modern Christians find Gnosticism so compelling: it allows them, finally, to jettison Paul.

 

But would it really be Paul they are jettisoning?  Might it not be the case that the Paul they want to separate from Jesus is not the real Paul?

 

Garry Wills' little book What Paul Meant offers a brilliant defense of the widely maligned apostle, arguing that our understanding of Paul is skewed by historical and doctrinal accretions.  Wills addresses many of the common accusations against Paul--that he was sexist, that he was anti-Semitic--and convincingly makes the case that they are grounded either a) on texts not actually written by Paul, or b) on misinterpretations of what Paul was getting at.  Wills needn't resort to special pleading or rhetorical sleights either: one has the sense in this book of an eminently reasonable mind, and a very gifted writer, who has long struggled with Paul's meaning and is now, as concisely as possible, presenting his conclusions.  Informed by the best recent scholarship, Wills directs his readers through a more nuanced consideration of the communities Paul lived with and wrote to.  Through his reconstruction of this communal context, he brings Paul's thought to life, making clear at the same time why the apostle has so often been misunderstood.

 

Wills begins by recounting the reasons one may suppose Paul not to be a reliable source as regards Jesus' teachings.  Truth to tell, these reasons are pretty formidable.  Not only did Paul never meet Jesus during his lifetime, he never, in his formative period, spent much time in Judaea:

 

[D]uring the earthly career of Jesus, Paul was never in the same country with him.  Jesus came from Judaea and never moved outside it.  Paul came from Cilicia . . . and became a follower of Jesus in Syria . . . .  Paul did not even go to Judaea for three years after he professed allegiance to Jesus, and he remained there for only two weeks.  After this first visit, he stayed away for another fourteen years (Gal 2:1).

 

Aside from not spending time in the places where Jesus lived and where, presumably, Jesus' closest acquaintances and followers could be found, Paul even dared criticize those who had known Jesus: "Paul dared to disagree with and criticize the original Twelve; and Peter, their leader; and James the brother of the Lord, who presided over the gathering in Jerusalem." (2-4)  It is hard to credit Paul here.  Against the firsthand knowledge of Jesus' original Judaean followers, Paul's familiarity with Jesus and his teachings would seem suspect.  How could he be expected to know what Jesus really taught?  Who was he to take such a prominent role in spreading Jesus' message?  And further: Who was he to interpret that message in ways that irked Peter and James?  There are three reasons Wills gives for Paul's reliability, two of them valid on historical grounds, one acceptable only on the grounds of faith.

 

Anyone who has done even a modicum of historical study of the New Testament knows that Paul's letters were written before the Gospels.  This fact has led some, Wills among them, to argue that we find the most reliable portrait of the early Jesus movement in Paul.  Wills is quite persuasive here, pointing out that the common idea of Paul as a new convert going forth alone to spread the good news to places that had never heard of Jesus is false.  In fact, as his letters show, Paul typically worked and traveled in teams with other believers and, what's more, was usually visiting places that already had gatherings of believers before he got there.  Wills draws out the implications of this: Paul's ideas of Jesus' teaching could not have come entirely from himself; he was not a lone instigator of faith, but part of a community of faith that was there before him.  The various city gatherings that made up that wider community, because they accepted Paul, must have agreed with him on essentials.  In fact, having spent so much time among them, he'd probably gotten many of his ideas from them.  Paul is thus our earliest witness not simply to his own understanding of Jesus, but to the emergent Jesus movement as such.  His letters to the gatherings are the only texts to survive the first decades of Christianity.

 

Aside from these two grounds for accepting Paul--on the one hand, his chronological priority; on the other, the fact of his being part of an already vibrant Christian movement--Wills, a Catholic, presents a third, one that will only be credited by the faithful: Paul was given his message directly by the risen Jesus himself.  We have two sources in the New Testament that tell us of Paul's experience of the risen Jesus, the first being his own letters, the second being Luke's accounts of Paul's life in Acts.  Wills argues that in cases of conflict between what is narrated in Acts and what Paul writes in his letters, we should normally accept Paul's own testimony first.  That seems reasonable enough.  In fact attentive readers will find hardly a single point on which there is not conflict.

 

Regarding Paul's experience of the risen Christ, Luke narrates the story three times in the course of Acts.  The three versions do not agree among themselves, and none agrees with what we find in Paul.  Specifically, as regards Luke's famous first account--in which Paul, on the road to Damascus, is struck blind by a bright light and hears the voice of the Lord--if we read Paul's letters we find nothing to confirm any part of this story.  In Paul's version, there is no bright light, no blindness, and it wasn't a matter simply of hearing a voice--no, Paul writes of seeing the risen Lord and speaking with him.  Also, going from Paul's accounts, we may assume that he didn't see the risen Jesus only once, but many times. 

 

Throughout Wills' book and in much current scholarship, Luke is shown to be almost uniformly unreliable as a historical source.  Scrutinize them from any of a number of angles, and his accounts fall apart.  Luke, it is clear, was more concerned with the ideological effects of his writing than with any question of historical accuracy. Placed just before Paul's letters in the New Testament, Luke's Acts casts a heavy shadow over how most readers understand Paul, one from which Wills and the scholars he relies on have tried to extricate him.

 

Luke's presentation bears some of the responsibility for the fact that Paul has been considered anti-Jewish.  Paul, as Wills explains, did not consider himself part of a new religion separate from Judaism; rather his faith in Jesus as Messiah was inseparable from his Jewish identity:

 

Paul never thinks of himself as a convert to some new religion.  He preaches the Jewish God, Yahweh, and the Jewish Messiah.  He preaches in synagogues.  When he brings others to believe in Jesus, he teaches them only from the Jewish holy writings, which were the only 'Bible' of the day--his letters would not be joined together with later documents to create a separate 'New Testament' till long after his death.  Though relations between Jews who believed in Jesus and those who did not were becoming strained and combative in Paul's time, he says there can be no permanent break.  History is moving fast toward its conclusion, and the only conclusion he recognizes is the one God has arranged for his covenanted people.  'Has God rejected his own people?  Far from it' (Rom 11:1).

   . . .

   Other peoples are to be included in God's final plan, but the original people cannot be excluded.  How this was to happen was mysterious, but Paul and his fellow believers in the Diaspora were hurriedly trying to work the matter out. (12-3)

 

And later:

 

For Paul there was no such thing as 'the Old Testament.'  If he had known that his writings would be incorporated into something called the New Testament, he would have repudiated that if it was meant in any way to repudiate, or subordinate, the only scripture he knew, the only word of God he recognized, his Bible. (127-8)

 

Paul held that God had opened the blessing to the Gentiles in order to shame his chosen people, the Jews.  "He is using the Gentiles, as he used Pharoah, to correct the Jews.  For they will be corrected.  Their defection is only temporary." (133)  Wills quotes the Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl on this aspect of Paul's thought: "The Jews have been put 'on hold,' to bring the Gentiles up to speed."  As Stendahl has it: "The Jews in God's plan had to step aside for a little while so that the Gentiles had time to come in." Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

 

All Israel will be rescued, as scripture says: 'Out of Zion comes the Rescuer, to rip away iniquities from Jacob, so my covenant abides with them, to remedy their sinfulness.' (11.26-27)

 

Wills:

 

Paul speaks of the Brothers [i.e., believing Gentiles] as joined to the Jewish promise, history, and fate, not vice versa.  As Krister Stendahl says, Paul always thought of Gentiles as 'honorary Jews.' (137)

 

Given the sustained effort we see in Paul to bring Gentile Brothers into the covenant while maintaining proper respect for his own people (those with whom God initially made the covenant), how did it come about that, first, relations between Jewish and Christian communities became so bitter, and, second, Paul himself was accused of being anti-Jewish?  Historians of the period have recently come to a better understanding of this world-historical falling out.  The main cause is to be found in the way the emergent Jesus movement destabilized relations between Diaspora Jewish communities and pagan Rome.  Under constant threat of sanction by their Roman rulers, Jewish communities felt threatened by this charismatic new movement.  But why?  To answer this one needs to consider how Jews outside Israel managed to get along under Roman rule.  There were Jewish communities in many cities across the empire and a large community in the capital itself.  Unwilling to take part in pagan festivals and refusing as well to engage in worship of the emperor, Jews were always potential targets for reprisal.  Their strict food laws exacerbated things by placing yet another barrier between them and their pagan neighbors.  Still, there was an important minority of pagans who admired Jewish belief and even attended synagogue and became supporters of the Jews.  The number of these pagan enthusiasts, called God Fearers, or Theosebeis, has recently been found to be larger than previously believed.  They formed an important bridge of goodwill between the Jews and the wider pagan culture surrounding them.  Although not Jews themselves, they took part in Jewish belief as outsiders.  Wills describes the situation of the God Fearers as follows:

 

[They were] inquiring and sympathetic non-Jews welcomed in synagogues, where they could study, pray, and contribute money or advice, without being (yet) circumcised.  They might go on to full membership in the faith, or they might just help create goodwill for the Jews in their dealings with the 'pagan' world.  The Romans of the first century were out on quest for spiritual knowledge, and they welcomed many Eastern sects or cults--principally that of Mithras.  But among the exotic beliefs being entertained, the Jews had, for some, a special appeal, based on their monotheism (in a polytheistic world), their purity of life, and their ancient learning. (64-5) 

 

Some scholars now believe that the ire that sprang up between Jewish communities and Christians was due in large part to the fact that many of the God Fearers were joining the Jesus movement.  Once "in Messiah," as Paul put it, these previous pagan admirers from the outside of Judaism could consider themselves finally part of the Jewish religion without having to undergo circumcision or accept other ritual demands.  What's more, they might even begin to criticize Jews who didn't accept Jesus, as these latter may, in their eyes, be seen as out of step with the fulfillment of their own covenant.  Jews who did not believe in Jesus would find themselves in conflict not only with Jews who did but now also with an increasing number of pagans who did too.

 

Given the always precarious position of Jewish communities under Roman power, the falling away of the God Fearers must have been felt as boding nothing good.  Conflicts between Jewish believers in Jesus and non-believing Jews would likely become bitter; the same might happen between pagan believers in Jesus and non-believing Jews.  Disputes would lead to small-scale conflicts, which might attract the attention of the Roman authorities, which could only make matters worse.  The Roman historian Suetonius records that the emperor Claudius "expelled from Rome the Jews because of continual disturbances provoked by Chrestus."  It is now assumed that this name "Chrestus" is a misunderstanding on the part of the historian, and that the name in question was actually Christus.  Probably, then, it was disputes over the Jesus movement that led to trouble in Rome's  Jewish community, which, in turn, led the emperor to expel the whole lot from the city.  The Jews were eventually allowed back in after Claudius' death, but the situation of Christians vis a vis the Imperium only became worse.  The reign of the succeeding emperor, Nero, would see the persecutions in which, it is believed, both Paul and Peter died.

 

While Paul's work spreading the good news was successful, then, his effort to maintain harmony between God's chosen people and God's newly welcomed people failed dismally.  This failure is echoed in many passages in the Gospels, where the bitter conflict between traditional Jews and those who believe in Jesus is projected back onto the story of Jesus' life.  To take but one of the most famous examples, we might recall the dialogue between Pilate and the crowd over the question of Jesus' execution:

 

They all said, 'Let him be crucified!' 'Why?' [Pilate] asked. 'What harm has he done?'  But they shouted all the louder, 'Let him be crucified!'  Then Pilate saw that he was making no impression, that in fact a riot was imminent.  So he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd and said, 'I am innocent of this man's blood.  It is your concern.'  And the people, to a man, shouted back, 'His blood be on us and on our children!' (Matthew 27:22-5)

 

Did this exchange ever occur?  Only Biblical literalists believe it likely. 

 

The polemical concerns of later New Testament writers cast a shadow over Paul that obscures our vision.  But this is not the only shadow.  Working in line with the scholarly movement known as the "new perspective on Paul," Wills sketches out how our understanding of Paul's theology was distorted yet again in the Reformation.  Once more the insight of Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl is crucial, as it was he who put into question the stark Lutheran stress on "faith versus works."  In a famous 1961 talk entitled "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," Stendahl suggested that Luther had misinterpreted what was at issue in Paul's letter to the Romans.  Paul was not, as Luther interpreted it, insisting on our utter helplessness given the fact of sin, but only making the point that neither pagans nor Jews could avoid sin: neither side could accuse the other of being depraved.

 

Luther's misinterpretation of Paul came about through the fact that the German reformer could not appreciate the degree to which Paul's writing was taken up with the problem of relations between Gentiles and the Jewish Law.  Without rejecting Mosaic Law as entirely as many Christians believed he did, Paul asserted that the Law was not binding on Gentile believers, and that in any case, as Wills puts it, "the claims of the prophets had to be fulfilled, making a religion of the heart replace that of external observances."  Paul and Jesus agreed on the essential core of the Law.  As Paul wrote, echoing Jesus: "The entire Law is fulfilled in this one saying, Love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal 5.14)  Luther took the Pauline struggle with the problem of how Gentile believers related to Jewish Law and reinterpreted it as a contrast, in the life of every Christian, between "faith and works."  Wills:

 

Luther was thinking in terms of the internal struggle of the individual sinner, not of the rescue of whole peoples, as Paul did . . . .  Paul saw God's plan as dealing 'wholesale,' not retail.  He was in a race with history, on his way to Spain, recruiting Romans in his effort to cover the whole Gentile world while he went back to bring the Jewish Brothers 'on board' this mission.  He was counting on the Jewish Brothers to bring their countrymen to a realization that Jesus is the one they had been promised and were still hoping for.  His message was always of and for his--and Jesus'--blood kin. (139)

 

Paul's message was metaphysically less radical than the Reformation interpretation of that message.  For Paul, sin was not the utterly annihilating force it was in the mind of the late medieval monk Luther.  The doctrine of original sin, we must remember, would not be formulated until the fourth century.  Rather than focus on the individual soul--the soul so corrupted by the curse of Adam that no works could gain it any credit with a wrathful God--Paul addressed peoples who had strayed from the law: the Jews who had not kept Mosaic Law, and the Gentiles who had not kept the natural law God inscribed in their hearts.  Straying humanity, according to Paul, is reunited with God on the bridge of the Messiah: the Jewish covenant is fulfilled through Christ, and the pagans are, through Christ, welcome to become God's children alongside the chosen people.  According to Wills and other scholars of the "new perspective" movement, Paul's theology had a fullness and optimism one wouldn't expect looking back at it through the dark glass of intervening centuries: the first century, for instance, when relations between Christians and Jews would turn sour; or the fourth century, when Augustine would write of original sin; or the fifteenth century, when Luther would recast Paul's thinking on the Law as treating of the value of good works as such.

 

Wills has a lengthy central chapter on "Paul and Women," in which he discusses Junia, Prisca, Phoebe and other important women in Paul's circle.  To go from the authentic letters, Paul obviously had great respect for these and other women in the movement, whom he calls "fellow workers in Messiah."  One of them, Junia, Paul even refers to as a fellow "apostle," a fact which confused the medieval Church to such a degree that they added an "s" to her name to make it masculine.  Wills: "Only the most Soviet-style rewriting of history could declare Junia a nonperson" by dubbing her "Junias."  "Paul believed in women's basic equality with men. . . .  There is no more 'man and woman' as originally divided, since they are now united in Messiah--a concept Paul would expound when he said that the reborn Brother and Sister are 'a new order of being' (ktisis, 2 Cor 5.17)." (92; 89-90)

 

When quoting Paul, Wills uses his own translations, and they are some of the most finely balanced translations of New Testament passages I know of.  An appendix gives his principles on this, telling us that "modern translations, even those that seem most 'objective,' distort what Paul was saying":

 

It is hard to avoid anachronism when we try to reenter Paul's world--to avoid terms that did not exist for Paul, terms like Christian, church, priests, sacraments, conversion.  All such terms subtly, or not so subtly, pervert what was being said in its original situation.

 

Wills insists that we must "scrub away linguistic accretions on Paul's text" in order to "travel back into the Spirit-haunted, God-driven world of Paul in the heady first charismatic days of Jesus' revelation." (177)  I couldn't agree more; anyone who reads Wills' translations along with his exposition will see firsthand the importance of this work of linguistic scrubbing.  There have been other attempts to do with New Testament texts what Wills does here (Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia had similar goals in their version of Jesus' sayings; Reynolds Price's Three Gospels is also worth consulting), but none seems to me as successful as Wills'.  There is a hewing to the primal sense of the ancient text, combined with a respect for English, that one rarely finds.  Robert Alter accomplishes something similar with the Pentateuch, but I know of nobody who has done it successfully with the New Testament.  One can only hope Wills comes out with a complete edition of the Pauline letters, perhaps reprinting What Paul Meant as a lengthy introduction. 

 

Though the issue will probably never be decided and though there remain strong arguments to the contrary, Wills has argued persuasively for the closeness of Paul to Jesus, whether that closeness be grounded in Paul's experience of the risen Christ or Paul's place in an authentic, and very early, Christian movement.  How did the movement Paul was part of relate to the Jerusalem gathering headed by James?  It is, as Wills points out, encouraging that Paul and Peter, regardless of early conflicts, ended as fellow workers in Rome.

 

To take these issues seriously is to face up to one encompassing question: Is it perhaps true that Jesus, as the Gospels tell us, went to Jerusalem intending to be crucified, that he conceived of his body as the new Temple, and that he, as Paul insists, knew himself to be a new bridge between God and men--first the Jews, as children of the promise, and second the Gentiles, as newly chosen?

 

March 2007

 

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Check Garry Wills' *What Paul Meant* at Amazon.com

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A second recent book on Paul I highly recommend is N.T. Wright's Paul: In Fresh Perspective.  It is in large measure

a summary of Wright's work on the apostle and delves into many of the same issues addressed by Wills.  Wright's treatment

is more academic and somewhat denser, but should be accessible to most (serious) readers familiar with the Bible.

Check N.T. Wright's *Paul: In Fresh Perspective* at Amazon.com

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