Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

In honor of the great saint, here is a fascinating discussion between historian Tom Holland and New Testament scholar NT Wright on the impact of Paul. From a secular perspective, I think Holland is simply right that Paul’s letters are the most profoundly revolutionary and important documents from antiquity.

As a believer, I have gained a new appreciation in recent years of the sheer greatness of Paul, not least because of his willingness to abdicate himself completely to Jesus, but also because of his staggering genius as both a reader of the Old Testament and his astounding ability to communicate to a huge variety of people.

There’s a lot here and I don’t have time to go into all of it, but one small thing that sticks out for me (having heard endless discussions in various corners about the supposed “process” by which Jesus allegedly “became” God in the early Church) is that Holland, not a believer at all and simply a normal person reading Paul as a normal person does, clearly understands that for Paul there was no process, nor was there for his audience. Paul does not try to argue that Jesus is God to his audience. He simply takes for granted from the get-go that Jesus is God and so does everybody he is writing to. Paul is not writing to evangelize those outside the household of faith with the news that Jesus is God. He is writing to those inside the household of faith with the implications of that news which they have already accepted. Paul has not worked out clearly how that can be (something Holland expresses reasonably well by his speaking of Jesus being, in some way, part of God). But that doesn’t really slow Paul down at all. He takes absolutely for granted the deity of Jesus and so does his audience.

“Ah!” some reply. “Sure–for Pauline Christians. But he never knew the earthly Jesus so he instantly mythologized the dead rabbi.”

Nope. For all disciples of all of the Twelve. The New Testament takes the deity of Jesus for granted through and through. And Paul sees absolutely no distinction between his gospel and that of the Twelve. That is why he reports that he went Jerusalem to vet his teaching with Peter, James and John and why he only goes on his mission when commissioned to do so by the Church at Antioch. And it is why he can write to the Church at Rome that he has never met and be confident they will not call him a lunatic when he teaches–as he always teaches everywhere–that Jesus is the divine Son of God.

So I think it rubbish to talk about some decades-or-centuries-long multi-generational process by which a merely human rabbi was gradually transformed into God. It is clear that Paul accepts as the standing tradition of the Twelve that Jesus is God and the Father raised him, the divine Son, from the dead. In short, not only does Paul take the deity of Jesus for granted, he takes it for granted that the Twelve take it for granted, and that is why everybody in his audience takes it for granted too. The deity of Jesus is not a glitch: it is the very source code of the Church. And it is the source code of the Church, not because the Twelve and Paul all went crazy in exactly the same way, but because Jesus taught them to believe it and then rose from the dead to confirm it.

That is why Holland is, again, simply right to say that there is no accounting for Paul apart from the fact that he is absolutely convinced that he has seen the Risen Christ. As a historian, Holland cannot, of course, say whether or not Paul’s experience reflects an objective reality or not. I obviously think it does and that this is why he makes common cause with the Twelve (and 500 others known to Paul) who have had an identical experience. But whether you think so or not, there is no denying that Paul certainly thinks so and that the revolution it wrought in his own soul and guts has reverberated throughout history right down to our own time. We are what we are as a civilization because of St. Paul and that is true even of those who detest St. Paul. Indeed, as Holland points out, most of those who detest St. Paul deeply rely on assumptions they borrow from St. Paul in order to attack him. That is the mark of a truly successful revolutionary: when even his enemies not only must rely on him in order to fault him but are wholly unconscious of the fact that they do so.

St. Paul, pray for us!

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2 Responses

  1. Holland is an author well worth reading, though the one book I’ve read by him, so far, was about early Islam, not Christianity.

    To contrast, I read the Eyewitness book Mr. Shea blogged about recently too, and though I thought the ideas in the book were quite intelligent, the author’s prose style was tedious for me to plough through. Holland was a pleasure to read, as well as being knowledgeable and intelligent, and interested in getting it right.

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