By Father Justin Blanc
Who is Paul of Tarsus? Nearly every Sunday we listen to one of his epistles proclaimed at Mass. His words burst with urgency and continue to form us nearly two thousand years after he wrote them. Paul is undoubtedly one of the most influential Christians in human history, but he’s also one of the most controversial.
It may come as a surprise to hear that Paul of Tarsus presents something of a problem within Christianity, and he always has. He’s not a problem in a harmful or unwelcome sense; rather, the problem of Paul is one that stretches us to understand better both the origins and the future of our faith.
Colleen Rowan Photo
St. Paul of Tarsus is depicted in this mural at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Wheeling.
Many have attempted to define Paul and his role in the Church, arriving at a wide variety of conclusions. The man whose story we know well and whom we reverently call the Apostle to the Gentiles has also been read under a radically divisive light and labeled an antichrist, a dis-evangelist, or a mere propagandist who hijacked the Christian message originally proclaimed by the Rabbi from Nazareth.
From the very earliest days of Christianity, wherever there has been controversy, Paul has often found himself in the middle of it. Martin Luther, a devotee of the Apostle from Tarsus, affirmed that nothing more audacious than the preaching of Paul has ever entered the world.
Paul’s preaching is certainly audacious, and countless books have been written on him and his theology. The present reflection, however, aims simply to provoke a renewed curiosity and dialogue around this most important saint of the Church.
At least a quarter of the New Testament is either written by Paul or attributed to Paul. This is particularly striking when we remember that Paul, unlike the other apostles, never met Jesus of Nazareth in person. The man who was to become the principal and arguably most formative influence of the early Church never physically sat at the foot of the Master as he preached, never raised his hand to ask a question about a parable, and never shared a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach with Jesus early in the morning.
This space between Jesus and Paul is filled by an important question: Is the gospel of Paul the same thing as the gospel of Jesus? Is Paul’s preaching symphonic with that of Jesus?
Paul seems to think so. Looking at his writings, we notice a unique characteristic that is often overlooked: the use of the pronoun “I”. No other writing in the New Testament is so personalized. No one else dares to say “I” as much as Paul. Despite never having met Jesus historically, he speaks of his self, his story, and his vocation with confidence, practically identifying his message, even his very body, with that of Jesus. Clearly, Paul believes he is preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that his life is an extension of the life of Christ.
Then why is this harmony between the two not completely obvious to everyone?
The problem springs from the fact that, reading the four Gospels and the letters of Paul side by side, significant differences come to the surface. There is a perceivable discontinuity in vocabulary, literary style, theological and pastoral emphasis, and historical consciousness. Since, unfortunately, there is not space in this article to spell out and weigh the specific differences (a task that has been done well in a number of studies), the reader is invited to attentively read these texts and place them in dialogue with one another.
Differences are not lacking. However, saying that Paul is different from Jesus is not to say that Paul is unfaithful to Jesus, much less a “dis-evangelist.”
So how can we understand Paul’s faithfulness in light of his difference from Jesus? The answer perhaps has to do with the way in which we differ from the historical Jesus and yet are called to be faithful to his Gospel.
It’s true that Paul, while completely identifying himself with Jesus, does not simply emulate the style and repeat the sayings of Jesus. Paul was not interested in merely crystallizing the past or embalming the message of Jesus to be put on display behind the glass of the local museum. He was concerned with bringing others into a life-giving relationship with the living God. In the short time between Jesus and Paul, much had changed in the world: Jesus had risen from the dead, the Church had come into existence, and the Christian message was now spreading from a Palestinian to a Greek context.
Different historical and cultural contexts call for different methods of evangelization. Theology must be the bridge between the changeless truth of Jesus Christ and the ever-changing circumstances in the world. Paul grasped this reality. He was able to appreciate the Jewish tradition that he had inherited, the situation of the world around him, and the novelty that Christ brought to both. Placing the three in dialogue with one another, he faithfully, passionately, and effectively communicated the Gospel.
Paul had the rare ability to grasp and concentrate on the essential: the salvific power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He focused on this event and the possibilities it opens up for humanity. He didn’t repeat the parables of Jesus, but he applied the essential truth of the Gospel to the real-life context of Christian communities. His theology is not worked out in the clouds; rather, it is rooted in the faith of the community and elaborated in response to real pastoral needs.
So yes, Paul is faithful to the original message of Jesus, and he is also faithfully attentive to the world around him. We still have much room to grow in our understanding of St. Paul and the implications of his thought, and for this we can be grateful. The theologian Albert Schweitzer once affirmed that Paul has assured for Christians for all time the right to think. We Christians would do well to continue to exercise that right, following the example of St. Paul and finding ways to communicate the reality of Jesus Christ in this particular moment of history in which God has chosen to place us.