The Catholic Church yesterday celebrated his conversion to Christianity. He takes centre-stage in a controversial new play at the National Theatre. Yet some condemn him as a homophobic, anti-Semitic misogynist. Paul Vallely reports on a man who has been stirring up trouble for 2,000 years
Here are two men you would have thought had nothing in common: the right-wing Pope Benedict XVI and the leftist secularist playwright Howard Brenton. What unites them is the figure of St Paul. The pontiff yesterday celebrated Mass in Rome to mark Paul’s conversion to Christianity. The dramatist currently has placed the faith of the greatest missionary centre-stage at the National Theatre.
Of course, their takes on the man who was – love him or loathe him – one of a handful of truly great figures who have shaped the history of the world, are not exactly the same. But there is more in common than you might imagine.
Howard Brenton’s play, Paul, suggests the apostle’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus was a con-trick perpetrated by Jesus who had not died on the cross after all. Even so, he concedes: “Paul’s ideas, in his letters, are the bedrock of Western culture.”
Whether the Pope would quite put it that way is unlikely. But Edward Stourton, the Catholic broadcaster and writer, who recently made a radio series entitled In the Footsteps of St Paul, says something very similar from an overtly religious perspective: “He is the intellectual forebear of anyone who was brought up in the framework of once Christian Europe. He is one of a handful of towering figures who formed our way of thinking.”
All of which is the more remarkable since the charges laid against St Paul – that he hated women, was homophobic and, according to some Jewish writers, the “father of anti-semitism” – are such cardinal sins in our contemporary culture. A man of excessive passion and irascible moral certainty, St Paul stirred up trouble wherever he went in life, and continues to do so nearly 2,000 years on.
The conventional explanation for this is that in many ways Paul actually played a greater role in shaping Christianity than Jesus did. Without Paul, the early church would probably have remained nothing more than another Jewish sect. To quote Thomas Hardy, the “New Testament was less a Christiad than a Pauliad”.
What was central to his teachings, as far as the shaping of Western culture is concerned, was Paul’s rejection of the idea that a set of religious rituals and rules offered the path to salvation. “The idea that religion lies in your head and in your heart and not in a set of regulations is so familiar to us that we seldom pause to reflect on it,” says Stourton, “but it was perhaps Paul’s greatest contribution to the history of thought.”
It is a truth, says the atheist Brenton, which was “profoundly wrong but also mysteriously right”. It shifted the world towards an individualism which was, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to create the foundations of our modern way of viewing the world.
The man whom Catholics and Orthodox Christians call St Paul, and Protestants the Apostle Paul, was a Jew. He was born and given the name of Saul in the city of Tarsus, now in Turkey, but then a highly Hellenised part of the Roman Empire. The combination of Jewish faith and a Greek cultural world-view were what were to form his unique perspective on life.
A tent maker by trade, he was also a zealous religious student under the senior Pharisee teacher in Jerusalem. His vision, according to Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, and one of the world’s leading Pauline scholars, was to cleanse Israel of Gentiles as well as Jews who had lax attitudes toward the Torah. A modern parallel, the bishop suggests, would be the zealous Torah-loyal Jew who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for exchanging Israeli land for peace. The young Saul was a hit-man bent on executing the Jewish followers of Christ, whom he saw as heretics.
The story of Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, in which he saw a blinding vision of the recently crucified Christ, is the most commonly known fact about the man who became St Paul. It turned him into the new faith’s most zealous missionary. In the decades that followed he travelled tens of thousands of mile around the Mediterranean spreading the word – surviving shipwrecks, riots, imprisonment, jailbreaks, floggings and stonings in the religious equivalent of a Boys’ Own adventure. The letters he wrote to the infant Christian communities in the region are the earliest Christian documents in existence.
What we know of him is recorded in them – 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament – and in another, the Acts of the Apostles, of which he’s the central figure. It was written some time after Paul’s death, probably by the author of St Luke’s Gospel, who claims he knew Paul and accompanied him on many of his journeys. The contents of the one do not always confirm the other. The story of the Damascene conversion, which scientists have recently suggested could have been triggered by an epileptic fit, is never mentioned in Paul’s own writings. Nor does he confirm that he was a Roman citizen, as the Acts claim and which some scholars dispute.
This is significant because it has led some commentators to suggest that the Gospels, which were written between 20 and 50 years later, may actually have been constructed from the little biographical detail Paul gives about Jesus. As the writer A N Wilson, a Christian-turned-atheist, put it: “The shadow of the cross and its glory (to use a very Pauline word) dominate and animate the pages of all four gospels, revealing them to belong to the world which Paul has imaginatively transformed.” Which would make Paul even more the author of Christianity than had previously been thought.
For all that, Paul was very much a man of his time. He thought the end of the world, and the Second Coming of Christ, would happen in his lifetime. The resurrection he believed in was not the vision which Christians later developed, of “going to heaven when they died”. It was that God would raise them all to share in the life of the promised renewed Israel and renewed world.
Paul didn’t think he was writing for posterity but rather penned his letters to deal with specific problems cropping up in individual churches. He would almost certainly have been amazed at the elaborate theological edifices that have been constructed by the Church on odd phrases or paragraphs in his epistles. “He would have thought most forms of institutionalised Christianity were diabolical, basically,” says A N Wilson. Which is why Paul was the great hero of Luther, Calvin and the other movers of the Reformation who set him in opposition to Jesus’s first disciple, St Peter, founder of what they characterised as the Church of Rome.
Paul would have been bemused. It was true he had his differences with Peter, over whether new Christians had to sign up to Jewish laws on diet and circumcision, for example. But he saw such differences as superficial. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as he saw it, was a central turning point in history which abolished the kind of cultural and theological distinctions the Reformation later created.
One of the many paradoxes about Paul was that, for a man who founded a theology, he did not write like a theologian. His style is like that of a modern philosopher, thriving on debate, challenging the status quo almost as a matter of reflex. To use Edward Stourton’s phrase, he was a restless thinker, “constantly agonizing and driving his ideas up experimental alleyways which sometimes turn out to lead nowhere”.
He seldom quotes Jesus directly and he does not refer much to what he said or did; his concern is what Christ’s life, death and resurrection meant. His voice is that of a prophet – divinely inspired, rather than the carrier of someone else’s message. There is, about his style, says Stourton, a lapidary quality, a drama and a finality about his phrasing which makes everything he says “sound like declarations of absolute truth”.
But he was a man of his time in other ways too. He complains about men who wear their hair too long, tells women to keep silent and condemns homosexual acts. His words have been used to justify, , among other things, slavery, homophobia, the subjugation of women (although many modern scholars argue that he championed the cause of women church leaders) and oddly – considering he was Jewish – anti-semitism.
Yet in the midst of all that is a vision which appeals even to a secular rationalist like Howard Brenton who rejects Christ’s divinity or the miraculous content of Christianity. The playwright agonises over this, stuck as he is on the horns of the modern dilemma that religion must either be true or false. Jesus must have been Mad, Bad, or God, as C S Lewis put it in those oft-quoted Alpha leaflets – a form of reductionism which ignores the possibility that religious truths exist in a third realm of spiritual insight.
But Brenton has a poet’s itch. When his Paul is confronted by a group of glum Corinthians wrangling about sex and diet he delivers one of the most famous passages in literature:
“If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have no love, I am nothing. Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs… love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up… and its faith, hope and patience never ends.”
Brenton wants his audience to be as moved as he clearly is. “Paul invented and defined the concept of love,” the dramatist says. “He was a moral genius.”
In such a fashion, each generation reinvents Paul to meet its needs.
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