Monday, June 3, 2013

Paul the Apostle: Birth to Conversion (AD 1-32)

A definitive biography of Paul the Apostle is impossible to write. We lack sufficient documentation from his times. In interpreting what documentation we do have, scholars give different dates for his birth, missionary tours, and death, and debate which letters he wrote and when.

We have enough information, however, to write a plausible biography of Paul. By doing so, we may organize what information we do know about Paul into a story that makes his life easier to remember and celebrate.

Within any biography of Paul, we must include some interpretation of early Church history. We do well to remember that early Christian leaders violently disagreed with Paul’s interpretation of Jesus and the movement started by Jesus. This violence witnessed poorly to the peace of Jesus. It also almost silenced the truth spoken by Paul. Ironically, it was the truth spoken by Paul, and not the falsehood spoken by his more important opponents, that eventually became part of the New Testament witness to Jesus. We certainly wouldn’t want to repeat the mistakes of violent opposition and the silencing of truth today.

Paul was born in the port city of Tarsus in Anatolia. At the time of his birth and for decades he was known as Saul. He was born in AD 1, the same year as Jesus. Later Jesus would weave Saul’s life together with his in the most surprising ways.

Saul went to Jerusalem in AD 27 to study with a wise teacher named Gamaliel. At that time, Gamaliel was the intellectual leader of the Pharisees: the most popular and progressive movement within Judaism. Saul dedicated himself to learning, from the best teacher at that time, how one might best live as a witness to God.

That was also the time when Pontius Pilate ruled as procurator, or local Roman leader, in Jerusalem (years 26-36). The most notorious act of Pontius as leader in Jerusalem was his crucifixion of Jesus in AD 30. Pontius, of course, lived as an unthinking witness to Jupiter the very conventional god of politics.

In 30, within two months of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the 120 or so people participating in his movement started to organize themselves. Peter, one of the twelve men who had been closest to Jesus, was the first leader of the movement after Jesus.

At this early stage, only Jews participated in the movement. Jesus had been a Jew, the twelve men closest to him were Jews, all the people they preached to were Jews. The movement of Jesus was one of transformation within Judaism. We may distinguish between Jews inspired by Gamaliel and those inspired by Jesus by calling the first group Pharisaic Jews and the second group Christian Jews (and not, inaccurately, Jewish Christians). Both groups, Pharisaic Jews and Christian Jews, were committed to living as witnesses to God.

At this time, however, Pharisaic Jews had much more power than Christian Jews. It is Olympianity, of course, which is the religion of power. Power means control over meanings, means, and members. Having greater power, leaders of the Pharisaic Jews had compromised with Jupiter god of politics more than leaders of the Christian Jews had at that time. Rightly understanding Christian Jews to be a challenge to their power, they wrongly chose to kill a Christian Jewish leader named Stephen. They had him stoned to death in the first year (31) of the new movement. Saul was happy to see this happen.

Being the enthusiastic if confused person that he was, Saul was even happier purging Jerusalem of the new movement by dragging its participants to prison. Saul, certain that his way was God’s way, even asked for and received permission to attack Christian Jews in Damascus.

Jesus, however, was not happy with Saul confusing him with Jupiter. In AD 32, while Saul was on the road to Damascus, Jesus did the unexpected (as he likes to do): he confronted Saul personally. With a blinding light he knocked Saul off his horse and asked him directly, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul wisely lost enthusiasm for his work. Jesus told him to get up, go into the city, and await instructions. Saul tried to do so with dignity.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.