St. Paul is, to put it mildly, a controversial figure. Among Jews, Paul tends to grate on sensibilities even more than does Jesus. Actually, as to Jesus, one can detect a rapprochement, however wary, on the part of several Jewish scholars. This development is largely the result of New Testament scholarship in the past century, which has consistently shown how Jewish Jesus was, how much he conducted his earthly ministry inside the presuppositions of intertestamental Jewish apocalypticism, and how much his ethical teaching drew from common pre-rabbinic themes. But Paul still remains the sticking point.
Edward Stourton, author of this new biography, Paul of Tarsus: A Visionary Life, is by no means an expert in the field of Pauline scholarship. Until recently he was a journalist for the BBC whose beat included the Middle East. But his experience as a journalist in the cauldron of today’s theological politics has given him a unique perspective, and a considerable part of his biography—the most interesting part, in fact—recounts the reactions of contemporary non-Christians (and even some Christians) to the Apostle Paul.
Those reactions are uniformly harsh. Part of the problem is that Paul’s thought is so volatile, expressing a theological worldview that is bound to strike the untrained reader as maddeningly baffling. Take, for example, this line: “I was once alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be the death of me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Romans 7:9-11). If, as Paul said two chapters earlier, sin and death had already entered the totality of the human race with Adam, how can he claim to have ever been alive apart from the law? And if we are justified by faith and not by works, how can he seem to claim the opposite in this passage: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Romans 2:12-13)?
Stourton not so much help in guiding the reader through these famous Pauline conundrums, but he quotes from them often enough to make the reader aware of what a disturbing influence this man from Tarsus has been—and to Christians, too. In fact, the first great heresy in the Church, Marcionism, was merely an exaggeration of Paul. For Marcion (a second-century priest) was convinced that Paul was the only apostle who really understood Christ’s meaning in history, and saw Judaism—centuries before Nietzsche or Hitler—as the bane of the human race, the representative religion of the counter-god of vengeance and resentment in eternal rivalry with the Supreme God of mercy and goodness, the God of Jesus.
This heresy was condemned and eventually died out, but the bubbling, churning volatility of Paul’s letters was still percolating through the Church. No surprise, then, that when corruption in the late-medieval Church reached intolerable levels, Paul was there as the dynamite to blow up the edifice of medieval Christendom, to such an extent that even today ecumenical discussions between Catholics and Protestants inevitably grind down to round-and-round exercises in the exegesis of Paul’s letters.
One lesson that comes through Stourton’s book is that, at least for Paul, biographies do not get us very far. What is most missing from this biography is any insight into the rabbinic logic that animates Paul’s worldview, the kind of insight available in W.D. Davies’ Paul and Rabbinic Judaism or E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. New Testament scholarship over the past sixty years has been stressing Paul’s Jewish background just as much as it has been focusing on Jesus’ Jewish background, although one gets little sense of that research in Stourton’s book. Absent that sense, all that Stourton can provide, in true journalistic manner, is a set of vignettes, which, though fascinating in themselves, tell us more about contemporary impasses to interreligious dialogue than they do about Paul.
Early on, for example, Stourton quotes Daniel Schwartz, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who accuses Paul of setting Jesus over against Moses in a way never intended by Jesus himself.
According to another Israeli, Rabbi David Rosen, most Jews “don’t have the emotional or psychological capacity to look with objectivity” at Paul. Finally, Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist for the newsmagazine Jerusalem Report, accuses Paul of the same unfairness that the world press exploits when reporting on events in Israel: “Outsiders will eavesdrop on our own, internal debate, extract the criticism by Israelis, and present that as a judgment against the State of Israel. . . . [Similarly] Paul is the one who takes this internal conflict [in first-century Judaism] and allows the rest of the world to eavesdrop on it.”
The Muslim doctrine of revelation, which treats both Old and New Testaments as provisional and now completely superseded by the Koran, has meant that for most of Islamic history very few Muslims bothered with the issues raised by biblical scholarship. But multiculturalism has prompted at least some Muslims to take up the challenge of arguing (and not just asserting) their doctrine of revelation. According to the Qur’an, Christians distorted Jesus’ identity as one of God’s prophets by altering the text of the revealed Word that God had given them. For those Muslims who want to argue the point, the complaints about Paul are, so to speak, a godsend. For have not Christian scholars themselves shown that Paul was the one who “turned Jesus into a god”? Do not Paul’s letters predate the Gospels, which themselves must have been written with Paul’s theology in mind? No wonder, then, that Zaki Badawi of the Muslim College in London describes Paul as “the principal obstacle to greater harmony between Christians and Muslims.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, too, could not abide Paul—though obviously not because Paul undermined the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam, but because he made Jewish morality universal. It was the Jews, Nietzsche wrote, “who, with awe-inspiring consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy) and to hang on to this ‘inversion’ with all their strength.” If not for Paul, Nietzsche claims, this inversion would have remained the ethic of a few isolated and resentment-filled tribes in the Levant, with no effect on the happy Hellenes. But Paul introduced Jewish slave-morality into the Gentile world, thereby undermining the aristocratic Romans from within and infecting all of Europe with Jewish decadence.
And how did he manage this? By distorting Jesus’ real message (and here Nietzsche oddly agrees with all those Jews and Muslims, and some liberal Christians, who hold that Paul distorted the meaning of Jesus’ ministry); as he says with his characteristic ferocity in The Anti-Christ: “In Paul we encounter the antithesis of the ‘bringer of glad tidings’: the genius of hatred, of the inexorable logic of hatred. What did this dysangelist not sacrifice to his hatred! The Redeemer above all; Paul nailed him to his cross. The life, the example, the teaching, the death, the meaning, and the right of the entire gospel—nothing was left once this hate-obsessed false-coiner had grasped what alone he could make use of.”
If readers suspect that such hatred belongs more to Paul’s critics than to Paul himself, their suspicions will be amply confirmed by perhaps the most disturbing passage of all in Stourton’s biography, where he quotes from Hitler’s table talk: “Hitler is a prominent name on the long list of those who believe that Paul distorted the purity of the original Jesus message, although his particular angle on this idea is more eccentric than most. ‘It is certain,’ he told his inner circle of admirers one lunchtime in October 1941, ‘that Jesus was not a Jew.’ Hitler bizarrely suggests that he was the son of a Roman legionnaire who became ‘a popular leader who took up his position against Jewry.’ Paul, by contrast, Hitler saw as very much a Jew with a Jewish agenda, someone who exploited Jesus’ authority and corrupted his teaching for his own purposes.”
In Stourton’s reading of these deeply stupid views, it almost seems as if Hitler’s mad foray into Russia in the summer of 1941 was the result of his grotesque interpretation of Paul: “In another of the conversations recorded in Table Talk Hitler declares that the coming of Christianity was the ‘heaviest blow that had ever struck humanity.’ That remark was made on the night of July 11, 1941, just after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union: ‘Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew,’ he added for good measure. So Paul is really responsible for pretty much everything that Hitler believed was wrong with twentieth-century Europe . . . and he even labeled [Paul’s] beliefs ‘crypto-Marxist.’”
One cannot help but notice how all these objections share one common formal feature—the claim that Paul distorted Jesus. But in their practical import, they are so wildly contradictory that one must wonder just what it is that sets people off so when they come to read the letters of this zealous missionary to the Roman world. Might not accusations of Paul’s fanaticism come from the fanaticism of his accusers?
Nor have I yet mentioned another theme of this biography: the way Paul grates on the prejudices and convictions of the typical secular liberal, who usually regards this far-traveling Odysseus of the Christian gospel as a curmudgeonly scold, the patriarchal rabbi who condemns homosexuality, insists that women wear veils (how Islamic!), and once returned a slave to his master without so much as a nod to slavery’s injustice.
In other words, what Paul has become—for non-Christians especially, but also for too many Christians—is a kind of Rorschach test that tells us more about the reactor than it does about the configuration of the inkblot. Admittedly, it takes extremely dedicated work to understand the complexities of his thought, but without that effort all we get is little more than a chronicle (and a much disputed one at that, given the controversy over the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles).
Or, in Stourton’s case, all we get is a survey of contemporary heated reactions to this controversial rabbi turned Christian. But at least he leaves the reader wondering if accusations against Paul stem from the unexamined prejudices of his opponents.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.