St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle, by Karen Armstrong: coming to St Paul’s rescue
The saint has been harshly criticised but he may have been misjudged
St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle
Few figures in the New Testament have a more contested legacy than St Paul. He is revered as the Jewish Pharisee who, having undergone a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, brought the message of what would later become Christianity across Asia Minor and Europe.
On the other hand he has often been accused of transforming the original egalitarian message of the Jesus movement into a misogynistic and authoritarian one.
Different views of his role and impact have been a feature of Christianity for many centuries, and have been driven by a variety of theological and ideological positions, much of it either in support of, or in opposition to, Martin Luther’s reading of Paul in the 16th century.
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The contemporary debate about Paul tends to be determined by different views of the authenticity of Paul’s authorship of what have traditionally been called the Letters of St Paul, and in particular whether he is in fact the personal author of these biblical texts.
Karen Armstrong’s St Paul The Misunderstood Apostle enters confidently into this contested terrain and develops a compelling interpretation of the importance of this most prominent of early Christian figures. It is a difficult task however because although Paul played a seminal role in the early and remarkable expansion of the Jesus movement beyond Judea, and although his interactions with some of the most important early communities is reported both in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Letters, nonetheless relatively little is known about the personal life of the man.
What one can do however, and indeed what scholars have attempted to do over the centuries, is to piece together from the multiple but fragmentary Jewish, early Christian, Greek and Roman sources, an account of Paul’s mission and theology and to situate it in its immediate historical, cultural and religious context. In attempting to construct an historically reliable account of the man and his mission Armstrong prioritises seven of Paul’s letters, namely First Thessalonians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans. These are the letters that most scholars believe to have been actually written by Paul, and so reflect his main concerns and reveal his emerging theology. They are important too because they are among the earliest of the New Testament writings, likely to have been composed through the 50s CE, two decades before the first of the gospels (Mark) is likely to have been written. So they provide an invaluable window into the questions, concerns and dramas of these diverse, fragile and turbulent communities.
Arguably the most significant and contentious issue in understanding Paul’s legacy is his relationship to his Jewish heritage. This has been an age-old concern, the modern incarnation of which can be traced to the mid-19th century to the Tübingen School. Although there were subtleties among these scholars, the standard view for more than a century was one that set Paul in strong opposition to his Jewish heritage and positioned Christianity in radical discontinuity with its Jewish roots.
A “new perspective” on Paul emerged in the 1960s challenging this discontinuity narrative and seeking to reposition Paul in continuity with his original Jewish context.
Armstrong too is deeply concerned with this issue of how to position Paul within his Jewish context. She is especially interested in how Paul’s missionary activity among the gentiles , and his response to the practical questions raised by these predominantly gentile communities, shaped his evolving relationship with his Jewish background and identity.
In this regard she attempts to create a nuanced reading of Paul where, on the one hand she recognises that in many of his writings Paul told these communities that they need not observe the Sabbath, or adhere to Jewish dietary laws or become circumcised, and on that basis it might seem like Paul was repudiating Judaism. However on the other hand she does not endorse the earlier interpretations that set Paul apart from, and in opposition to, his Jewish religious context. Rather she is clear that Paul remained a Jew through his life and did not see himself as creating a new movement.
Armstrong captures very well how diverse, contested and fragile these early communities were, and she highlights how the character of these predominantly gentile communities became a point of serious contention for some of the Jewish followers of Jesus. Armstrong creates a vivid account of the debates about whether gentiles needed to become Jewish first in order to participate in these new communities. However she is insistent that in each case Paul was addressing a specific problem in a particular congregation and that “he was not writing for Everyman and never intended to make a general rule applicable to everybody”, nor was he “legislating for future generations of Christians” since he was expecting the Parousia (or second coming) in his lifetime.
Related important themes, including Paul’s views on what we would today call issues of equality, particularly the equality of women and men, slaves and free, are also discussed by Armstrong. Here the authenticity of particular letters of Paul form an important part of the argument. Armstrong supports the majority contemporary scholarly view that certain letters traditionally ascribed to Paul are not his, but rather written after his death, some as late as the second century. Moreover it is in the letters that are no longer regarded as having come from Paul’s hand that we see much of the misogyny, and this stands in contrast to the egalitarian statements in letters that can be reliably attributed to him.
Here again Armstrong is entering into contested terrain, but with a clarity of purpose and a persuasive argument. To be sure there are aspects of Armstrong’s interpretation that are likely to be disputed, particularly her unambiguous positioning of Paul as one who, through all his life, “struggled to transcend the barriers of ethnicity, class and gender”. However such disagreements about interpretation are inevitable in such a disputed field.
With St Paul The Misunderstood Apostle Armstrong attempts something quite difficult, that is, to place Paul in his historical context and in so doing to communicate to a general audience the intricacies of centuries of scholarship about his legacy.
In this she has succeeded admirably, and has written an absorbing and informative work.
Linda Hogan is the Vice-Provost/Chief Academic Officer and Professor of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. Her new book is Keeping Faith with Human Rights.