It could reasonably be argued that no other human, apart from Jesus himself, has had a greater impact on the world than Paul of Tarsus. His theological reflections on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have had a profound impact upon every branch of the Christian faith.
His missionary journeys took the gospel across the Roman world. He mentored many second-generation Christian leaders. Thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven books are attributed to him, and one-half of the Acts of the Apostles is devoted to telling his story. Today, one-third of the world’s population look to his writings for inspiration, spiritual direction, and ethical guidance, more than follow the teachings of Muhammad, the Buddha, and Confucius combined.
Yet Paul is not without his critics.
Jews typically see Paul as a misguided and even apostate first-century Jew who misrepresented Judaism and whose writings contributed to anti-Semitism over the centuries. Jews view him as the founder of Christianity, transforming the life and teachings of Jesus, a rabbi and reformer within Judaism, into a divine redeemer and object of worship.
Muslims often see Paul as one who corrupted the teachings of Jesus, trying to turn a man whom they regard as a prophet into the divine Son of God. Many Christians believe that Paul’s teaching regarding women—that they were to be submissive to their husbands (Colossians 3:18), that they were not to teach in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34), that they were to “learn in quietness and submission” (1 Timothy 2:11)— contributed to centuries of women’s subordination.
In passages such as Romans 1:26-28, gay and lesbian people see words that led countless men and women to be treated as shameful for loving persons of the same gender. In centuries past, Paul’s words were regularly quoted in support of slavery and God’s approval of it.
It is clear in reading the New Testament that even in the first-century church, Paul had his critics. We get hints of Paul’s conflicts with Peter and James. Some Jewish followers of Jesus, particularly those called “Judaizers” or the “circumcision party,” vehemently opposed Paul and rejected his teaching that circumcision and obedience to the Law were no longer required of Christ’s followers.
And of course, for reasons stated above that persist in our time, mainstream Jewish leaders found his teaching offensive and blasphemous.
Christians today will reject some claims of Paul’s critics but may recognize truth in others. For example, Christians recognize that Paul offers an interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that became normative within Christianity, but we reject the claim that his theologizing about Jesus was a corruption of Jesus’ life and teachings.
We recognize that Paul’s teachings about slaves being obedient to their masters or women being silent in the church have sometimes been used to destructive ends in Christian circles. New Testament scholars of the so-called “new perspectives on Paul” acknowledge that typical interpretations of Paul’s writings concerning the Law and first-century Judaism may not accurately reflect Paul’s true views on those subjects.
For me, many of these critiques are mitigated by recognizing that Paul was a man of his times. Paul was shaped by his childhood, his education and experiences, his profound conversion, and his years spent reflecting upon the meaning and implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The context for his ministry was the Greco-Roman world of the first century. He was educated both in the currents of Greek philosophy and in a specific school of thought that was part of first-century Judaism. His understanding of the gospel was molded by his own faith crises and spiritual experiences. In this, Paul is little different from any of us.
When we read Paul’s letters, we see his humanity shining through. He is not simply a mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit; he is a man who has strong convictions, is aware of his critics, and regularly defends himself against them. At times he gets angry and defensive.
He has physical ailments and has faced his share of adversity. He is a devout Jew whose thinking is completely immersed in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He is a Roman citizen aware of the events and ethos of the empire. He is familiar with the Greek philosophers and poets. Though a brilliant and skilled orator and philosopher, his theological arguments are sometimes confusing and difficult to grasp.
At times he is a pastor seeking to encourage his converts and address their needs; at other times he is a politician trying to navigate among religious parties and between two worlds—the Greco-Roman world and the world of first-century Judaism. Through it all, he seeks to be an apostle and disciple of Jesus Christ, proclaiming the good news as he understands it.
This month, my publisher, Abingdon Press, is releasing my new book, The Call. It explores the life and message of the Apostle Paul. During the next few weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book here on the blog.
In this book, I aim to share Paul’s story, hear his message, and reflect on the meaning of his life and message for our own lives and our world today.
Check out the book’s promotional trailer below.
Today’s post is an excerpt from The Call.