In the winter of 50-51 AD, a small group of early Christian listened in the Greek port of Thessalonica to the reading of a letter written by St. Paul. It is the earliest Christian document that we possess. It does not mean that it is the oldest, however it was written 20 years after Jesus died. It asked the listeners, in the name of the Lord himself, to refrain from sexual immorality and to be ready for the return of Jesus that, according to the author, would be soon. Those who already died in the Messiah would rise first and then those who are still alive will be taken up in the sky to meet the Lord. As we know every thing prophesied in the First letter to the Thessalonians in 51 AD turned out to be untrue since Jesus did not return on earth. However the author of this prediction still enjoys a great influence and respect among the Christians. Christians still sing hymns expecting the return of Christ. It forms part of the traditional Christian liturgy for a month each year before Christmas. To understand the author, St. Paul, we must read his other writings.
Paul often uses the words “Gospel of Christ” that means “Good news about the Messiah”. The word “Christ” or “Messiah” means the Anointed One. This refers to the Jewish belief that in the last days of this earth God would raise up and anoint a Chosen One who would then lead the people of Israel. The Good News for Paul is that, according to the Gospels, this figure has come. In the century before Christ was born the Jews believed in the arrival of a Messiah of royal birth, and descendant from King David, who would deliver them from their Gentiles oppressors, the Romans. His victory would be both military and mystical. This was believed by the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but also by the sect at Qumrân on the Dead Sea. The Book of Daniel, written between 167 and 164 BC, that is before the rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucids, foresaw the collapse of the Greek Empire and the triumph of a Jewish hero who would introduce a government of the Holy Ones who had kept faith. According to Paul this hero was Joshua, Yeshu, or Jesus, that means Saviour. Some of the people who heard the words of St. Paul may have been Jews of the Diaspora, those who did not live in the Promised Land, but the majority were Greeks with different expectations about God. For these Gentiles who were not acquainted with the idea of the Messiah, it would have been easier to identify him with a kind of demigod or a God incarnate. As soon as Paul had succeeded to implant the Jewish Messianic idea, the Gentiles had no difficulty in turning Jesus into a God. In this environment the Jewish Messiah was perceived as Divine and Jesus as a God. Paul, on the contrary, never said explicitly that Jesus was God but only that he was the image of God. However in the following years his opinion changed and Jesus became a sort of Divinity. As his initial prophecy did not materialise, his language about Jesus became more and more hyperbolic. The rise of Jesus became more important that his arrival in Heaven. The notion of Resurrection became central in Paul’s teaching and meant that his followers could conquer death as a result.
This teaching had a more universal appeal that the esoteric claim that a Jewish Messiah was born, who would lead to Jewish rule by Jewish saints. The notion that the dead will rise is at the heart of Paul’s message. Jesus rose and, as a result, he brought hope of everlasting life to those who believe. By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians around 57 AD, the mystic Messiah was a figure with a life of his own, he is the Lord of Life and the Conqueror of Death. This Messiah was Paul’s invention although he still bears the name of the historical Jesus. This First Letter to the Corinthians is the only document in which Paul makes specific reference to the historical Jesus that instituted the Christian Eucharist, and who rose from the dead. Paul also said that he did not receive this message from the Church, or from the Jesus’ friends who where present the night before he died, but directly from the Lord. In reality it is Jesus’ death that matters to Paul, the Eucharist being only a symbol of that death. Paul does not present Jesus as a moral teacher, a story teller, a healer or a miracle-worker. He presents Him in mythological terms, Jesus is the Messiah, the Rock in the desert from which the Jews drank pure water. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus means that death has been defeated. He told his followers that if they were baptised they would rise again with Jesus after their death to lead an immortal life in Heaven. With Paul the Catholic Christianity is born. He may be said to be the inventor of the Catholic religion but this is true up to a point since the offering of the body and blood of Christ has been invented by Jesus; moreover Jesus arose from the grave and was seen afterwards by hundred of people, …
Paul is supposed to have been remote from the historical Jesus. One generally assumes that the first three Gospels tell us all there is to know about Jesus, and that the rest of the New Testaments writings are embellishments, interpretations, suppositions, … In fact all the texts including the first three Gospels are interpretative. However Paul’s writings seem to be the more accurate ones as if he was the only witness. What is known about Paul has been written by him in his autobiography. It is full of moral, religious and psychological contradictions, and he wrote about them. Paul alone took the religion of Jesus from the Jews and made it available to the Gentiles. From a Jewish heretic belief he constructed a Universal religion. He was, in a certain way, obsessed by the idea of Jesus during all his life, even if it is generally assumed that they never met, and that he was somehow converted on the road to Damascus.
Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire, being a native of Tarsus in Cicilia, Asia Minor now Turkey. It was a very cosmopolitan place and the Judaism of its Jews was sophisticated and Hellenised. Proselytising was common. This kind of Jewish credo had a certain appeal and was different from what it was in Galilee or Jerusalem at that time, more genial and expansive in any case. They also were more open to the Gentile world, and that was against the Jewish law that made it impossible for the Jews and the Gentiles to socialise. It is known that Paul lived and worked in the Gentile world, in opposition to Jesus who lived in a completely Jewish one. Paul was primarily a great religious poet more that a thinker. As a Jew of the Diaspora he was more open, whereas Jesus, who only mixed with Jews, never even thought that the Gentiles could know God and his Law. At some point in his youth Paul rejected the broad-based Hellenism of his up-bringing and became a Pharisee. He came to believe that men born outside the Covenant could approach God, and be loved by Him. Some even think that, at one point of his life, he persecuted the Hellenised Christians such as Stephen, that he was sent to Damascus by the high Priests of Jerusalem to arrest all the Christians there. This is however difficult to believe as Damascus was outside the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin from Judea. Outside the New Testament there is no historical evidence that the Jews were ever guilty of religious persecution, even if it is well known that they argued a lot among themselves. In any case Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. He told the Galatians that he had never met any member of the Jerusalem Church before, which is contradiction with the Acts that tell that he persecuted them. Later on, when Paul thought that the Gentiles could be Christians in the same way as the Jews, he had a strong argument with Peter (Cephas), Jesus’ closest disciple, who was then the leader of the Antioch Christian Church. Peter wanted his church to remain in the fold of Judaism, but Paul won the argument and the Gentiles were admitted in the Jewish Church.
The Acts, as the Gospel of Luke, were written about 40 years after the letters of Paul, and aims to reassure the Romans that Christianity was not threat to the Imperial Authority, that it was distinct from Judaism that was regarded by Rome, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD, as a dangerous enemy. The “Acts” is in fact similar to a political pamphlet and is not very reliable from a historical point of view, but not everything in it is propaganda. After all, Paul himself admits that he was a persecutor of Christians and that he only changed his mind after a confrontation with Jesus. This would tend to confirm that he met Jesus in his lifetime. We must remember that Paul boasted to have been a Pharisee in his youth. Now the tradition preserved in the Gospel tells us that in almost all Jesus’ clashes with the Jewish authorities, the Pharisees were involved. There is some doubt that these conflicts ever happened, but Paul believed that it was the case, and in the Gospel written by Paul’s companion, Luke, Jesus attacks strongly the Pharisees to which Paul boasted of belonging. The Pharisees believed that the Messiah could not come, and with it the redemption of Israel, until the Jews had purified themselves. They were eager to purify the daily life with trivial rules governing cooking pots, cleaning, … That the Hellenised Paul, born in Tarsus, could claim to be the son of a Pharisee is difficult to believe, even if it is easier to go on with his claim that he was, in his youth, the spiritual child of this doctrine. The assumed quarrel between Jesus and the Pharisees is also difficult to admit since, after all, the teachings of the Pharisees and of Jesus are very similar. It could be that Paul meant that he was a kind a religious bigot in his youth, then things became clearer. The conflict was between the rigid legalism of his youth and his later liberated sense of Jesus redeeming the world from sin. In this sense the quarrel between Jesus and the Pharisees makes sense. It was Paul’s most important aspect of his religious experience, as it appears in his Letter to the Romans also known as the “Gospel according to Paul”. Luke thought that the Pharisees were hypocrites, empty vessels, men who pretend to be virtuous, but in reality wicked. Paul knew that the Pharisees were among the most virtuous men to have ever lived, petty sometimes in their application of Moses’ Law, but respectful of it, as it came directly from God. They did not love the law for its own sake but because they thought that, if it was followed, the Messiah would come for the glory of the Jewish people.
Paul, the Hellenised Jew from Tarsus, reader of Greek literature and well versed in non-Jewish culture, went to Jerusalem where he became the disciple of a famous Pharisee, Gamaliel, who taught him, among other thing, to be cautious with the Sanhedrin. Gamaliel was sympathetic to all the Galilean “Hasidin” including Jesus; this Pharisee was against religious persecution. There is a contradiction here between Paul, fearing the universalism and breadth of Hellenised Judaism in Tarsus, and the man who, after escaping to the spiritual heaven of Jerusalem where he finds himself at home with a religious-observant group, the Pharisees. In the Gospel the Pharisees seem petty and conservative but, in their habitat, they were in fact radical. The Sadducees were conservative and regarded the Law as the final truth. On the opposite the Pharisees seemed more modern, trying to interpret and adapt the old Scriptural regulations to the contemporary life, and this must have been welcomed by the Hellenised Paul. The Pharisees believed that the will of God could be seen in every aspect of everyday life and this justified, in their eyes, the search for a new interpretation of old beliefs. This opened Paul’s eyes on further possibilities that he analysed, not as a philosopher, but as a mystic and that led him to a deep crisis. He was afraid that this would be a thread more dangerous to Judaism that anything done by the Greek philosopher of Tarsus. He soon asked himself if sin matters much if God forgives them anyway. He also wandered, as a consequence, if God loved righteous men more than sinners. Is there a higher probability to find God in the Torah or within a repentant sinner? This part of Jesus’ teaching led him, a young Pharisee, to near madness. We can also wonder, even if he never mentioned it, if he did hear Jesus speaks, being at the same time horrified by what he heard but also fascinated. A sentence in 2 Corinthians 5:16 could suggest that he listened to Jesus’ preaching. He was more interested by the mystic Christ that by the historical Jesus. Paul is better recorded for his teaching of the notion of Grace, his theological invention, as long as it is not proved that Jesus did it. In short it means that God’s forgiveness is not dependant on human virtue, but on a free outpouring of divine love for man regardless of their moral rectitude or turpitude. To the Galatians he said that he did not hear the Gospel from any of Jesus’ friends, but directly from Jesus himself, and that the Lord’s grace is not reserved to the Chosen Race, but is available to all mankind. Up to a point Paul identifies himself with Jesus from whom he received also the stigmata of his crucifixion. The picture Paul gives us from Jesus, and his significance for all of us, is always changing in his writings. Sometimes he describes Him as the traditional Promised Messiah who will come back on earth to lead his followers to glory. Later on, Paul suggests that Jesus was divine, even before his birth, and that he had a part in the creation of the universe. However he never went so far as saying that Jesus was God. Paul always reminds us that he was a Pharisee who believed that God’s will was in the Torah, the Jewish Law. He believed that Jesus was the man who came closer to realise God’s will, even if he did not like Jesus laxity in relation to the Law, and in particular in relation with its ritual observance, as when he said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Such a man, according to Paul, could not be the Messiah. The Pharisees must have thought that he was a false Messiah and must have been pleased to see him put to death by crucifixion by the Romans. A true prophet would never have been crucified.
Paul was never a very stable and firm man. It cannot be proved that he was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified but probably he was. He perhaps was a minor servant of the High Priest and was involved, in some way, in Jesus’ arrest and his handling to the Roman Authorities. This would explain why he was so preoccupied with the cross to the point that he went on to say that he too was crucified with Jesus. Paul said that he did not know any of the early Christians of Jerusalem at the time of his conversion. The “Acts of the Apostles” tells us on the opposite that he was responsible for the prosecution and stoning to death for blasphemy of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This, however, is very unlikely, in the same way that it is not credible that he participated in Jesus’ condemnation and still became a Christian leader later on. According to the New Testament Saul, as Paul was known then, was converted on the road to Damascus after hearing Jesus talking to him. After a rest in Damascus Paul, as he was now known, went to Arabia where he remained three years. He then fell ready to go to Jerusalem where he met Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’ brother, James. Their meeting was not too cordial as Paul’s faith was not of the Galileans’ liking. For His close friends, Jesus was the last great Jewish prophet, misunderstood as all his predecessors, but speaking within the main body of Judaism. It was Paul who arrived to the conclusion that Judaism had to be overturned, but the full realisation of this took a long time to mature in his mind. As Paul continued to believe that Jesus would come back on earth he never thought of creating a new religion but, rather, to adapt Jesus’ teaching to his own larger vision. This explains why Jesus remains the central point in his teaching. He was certainly convinced that he was telling the truth about Jesus, that he had discovered the real meaning that was invisible to the other Christians, even to those who had known him.
Paul was a man torn by internal conflicts: conflicts between the Law and Grace, between God’s righteousness and Man’s fallen nature. No one knows how Christianity arrived in Rome. It was certainly not through Peter, who was still the leader of the Christian Church in Antioch, and who probably never went to Rome. Claudius banned the Jews from Rome at the instigation of Chrestus because they were creating disorders. This could suggest that many of these Jews had been converted in Jerusalem to the new cult, and that they then attracted many Romans to their beliefs. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans confirms that many people of this city could understand his message, that they understood the Jewish concept of the Law and that they were acquainted with the Scriptures, even if he knew that some of them were not Jews. The number of converts was very small. Even in the time of Iranaeus (c.130-200 AD) their number was less than two hundred.
In relation with Jesus’ death there are three phases in Paul’s life. First of all he is on the side of those Jews who persecuted Jesus. This is followed by a period of guilt that led to his conversion. Finally he seems to have absorbed his guilt and he started preaching in His name, even if in a different less Jewish and more universal way. Jesus said in the Gospels that morality was not enough and, perhaps, that it was not that important. What matters is the reconciliation between God and man. Just following the rules cannot bridge the gap between God and Man. The arrival of Jesus on earth gave Man some hope to be saved by the Grace of God and rendered possible the communion with God.
Paul understood that the Gospel of Christ was not a religion, but Religion itself in its deepest and universal significance. The first three Gospels in the New Testament have been written by men who looked at things, and at Jesus, in Paul’s way and, as we know, Paul saw Jesus as a person in whom God Himself was at work. In a way the words Jesus and Love are synonymous. (18)