In the book What Paul Meant by Garry Wills, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Lincoln at Gettysburg, I got an unusual interpretation of the writings of this early Apostle. At times Wills seems to go a little too far with surmises based on very little evidence. However, Paul is sometimes controdictory to a degree in his writings, so one cannot be blamed for simply making a choice between two equally valid interpretations. Throughout the work Wills shows scholarly knowledge and quite creative insight that makes this book an interesting read for anyone who has sometimes wondered what Paul was thinking, even if you may not agree with every conjecture made.
Paul has been a source of division ever since the beginning of Christianity. Early apocryphal writings of Peter and James, in the second century, would refer to Paul as a tool of Satan. Paul has been perceived down through the centuries as a prophet of doom and gloom and self-loathing. Some have even claimed he “hijacked” Christianity and that since he never met Jesus during His mortal ministry he effectively founded his own religion. They claim that Christ’s teachings only have a bare influence on Paul’s writings and philosophy. Others, of course, claim he was one of the most inspired of Jesus Christ’s disciples and worthy of all due respect and emulation.
Garry Wills makes the argument that most are not really reading Paul correctly and are not taking into account the circumstances, culture, and purpose of his writings when they make harsh judgments.
Following are insights I gleaned from this book and my thoughts upon reflection on it later. These do not necessarily reflect exactly what Garry Wills wrote or intended, but were inspired by his diligent study. On a side note: Although I know nothing of him other than from this book, Mr. Wills seems to me to be a somewhat unpleasant or at least unhappy man. As might be reflected by the book’s title, the arrogant tone and exclusionary interpretations Wills gives sounds a note of caution in taking this book as too much of an authority on what Paul really meant.
We have reason to believe Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings that we have. They predate the four Gospels and other New Testament books. If this is so, Paul’s perspective on the doctrine of Christ may be the most fresh and accurate.
Although Paul preaches that women should follow a certain decorum, a sort of subservience to their husbands, his long track record of working directly with and alongside women shows a more complex view. He honors all the women he mentions with affectionate or respectful titles such as “prophetess,” “emissaries,” “fellows in the struggle,” “protectress” or even like his mother. Women shared prison time with him. His council not to marry he applied equally to women showing that they could be independent of men in bearing witness of Christ. There were even pairs of women missionaries. He also speaks favorably of women prophesying in meetings. This would seem to run counter to his council that they should remain silent in all gatherings.
Paul’s views on marriage may be understood in the light of how desperate he saw his mission to be. He knew a revolution on a world scale was coming, though he may not have known perfectly the specifics. At it turned out, the change he was implementing was the conversion of the known world to Christianity and not the immediate second coming and the end of the world that he may have thought. But if the end were coming, marriage among the missionaries and the raising of children could be considered a distraction to the conversion effort.
Paul’s council that women should ask of their husbands in private gospel questions reflects his perceived need of a tempering influence, or stabilizing effect that many women benefit from in a marriage. Likewise, men receive equal benefits from the influence of their wives, like a better sense of compassion and commitment. Giving husbands this sort of loyalty or reverence strengthens their ego and feelings of worth that enables them, if not abused, to be better providers and protectors.
Also, mere conjecture, Paul was running the risk possibly of creating a religion primarily of only women. Evidence of this might be found in his lengthy advise about part-member couples and families. The gospel of Christ might have had more appeal to women in that time—a time and culture that may have been highly patriarchal among the pagans. His council to the women of the church of difference to men may have been an attempt to make the gospel less threatening to men in some way.
Six of the seven “most authentic” letters of Paul are directed to gatherings with specific problems. We could think of Paul as trying to implement “damage control.” We must recognize that this is not the complete Paul and that he may not be the grumpy hard-liner we perceive. We get good ideas of the more pleasant Paul through his sermon on charity and other instances.
Although Galations is Paul’s most vitriolic letter, it is important to note that we don’t have the other side. He may be fighting fire with fire. He also later regretted his harsh tone. This letter, probably like most of his, was dictated to a scribe, but he put his own hand to the end of it to write with emphasis in an effort to convey his anger at the time. This is also his only letter addressed to a whole region and not a specific city. He sent copies to several towns in the area. Again, we don’t know the specific attacks leveled at him in this dispute, but they were probably equally heated.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon he asks that Philemon’s slave, who was probably assisting Paul as scribe of this very letter, be returned to him after payment of some debt. He was probably successful in his request and the slave’s continued service probably ensured the survival of this particular letter.
It is interesting that slaves made up as much as one-third of the urban population during Paul’s time. In his preaching that slaves obey their masters Paul was probably quite practical in not wishing to stir a revolution or social upheaval of such a great scale. Additionally, slavery at that time was much different than what we are familiar with in the American South of 150 years ago. Most slaves were educated and did much of their master’s business. They acted as tutors, scribes and bureaucrats. These slaves could join and act within the church and often when a master joined the church his/her whole household, including slaves (who were considered part of the family), joined with them.
First and Second Corinthians are a jumbled mess of cobbled together letters that were probably only a few of many. Often when new letters arrived at a gathering of the church, they were simply added onto the end of the same scroll as previous letters. Then when they were copied, no notation was made to indicate where one letter ended and another began.
Paul was combating arrogance and segregation within the Corinthian gatherings into the spiritually “more gifted” and “less gifted.” Paul seems to step back from simple rebuking (may not have been working) by acknowledging spiritual gifts, but clarifies their real purpose—to bless all church members. These charismatic spiritualists (who were taking money for their services) were probably indeed more advanced in some understandings, like in the eating of meat from idols issue, but were missing the whole point of Christ’s gospel of love. Also, the “anything goes” attitude that seemed to be growing among them may have led to Paul’s rebuking of the “unlawful,” at least to the sensibilities of the time, marriage of one of their number to his late father’s second wife, who was of no blood-relation and maybe even the son’s own age. Just postulating: this may be an effort on Paul’s part to reign in the arrogant members and help them see the value and reality of the spiritual sensibilities of others, even if they are “less enlightened.”
In Romans, Paul spends most of the book showing that God still honors his commitment to the Jews. This is in reaction to the Gentiles’ dominance among the church members in the area and their persecution of the Jewish members for their continued observance of some of the Jewish dietary laws. Paul then councils all to be considerate of each other’s proclivities and stresses the dominate role love must play in these matters. One can get caught up in trivial matters at the expense of the whole point of Christ’s gospel.
Paul says that God has not repudiated the Jews, but elsewhere says those under the Law are under a curse. He is not anti-Jew but anti their observance of old and now fulfilled covenants. He did not “leave” the Jews to join an as yet unformed Christian church structure in opposition. He was really only on one side of a family quarrel. There were only Jews who did not accept Christ, Jews who did accept Him as the Messiah of the Jewish people, and Gentiles who were being “brought in” to accept Christ as the Messiah of the Jews. Paul uses only the Jewish scriptures and puts all in the context of the Jewish tradition. He was never an anti-semite. When he talks about Jews obstructing the gospel, he is often speaking about the church-member Jews who are not living up to their new commitments and trying to incorporate unnecessary aspects of the Law and impose them on their new Gentile brothers. He is not denigrating the Jews as a people.
It is interesting to note that it was the Christian Jews that betrayed Paul and Peter to their martyrdom in Rome. One can see the battle for the soul of the new religion right from the outset. The apostasy was in ful force even before the deaths of the first apostles.
A misunderstanding is also prevalent in Paul’s supposed denial of the Jewish Law. Some extrapolate from this that he is anti “works” for the sake of faith, which is the basis of most of Protestantism. Rather, Paul was only trying to reconcile Jewish traditions with those of the “new Jews” brought in from among the Gentiles. Remember, Paul did not think of himself in an “us versus them” mentality in the sense of “Christian” and Jew. All were in a continuation of the Jewish faith through the advent of the Messiah. To him this was all merely a “revolution” within Judaism that also extended the benefits of the Jewish faith to all people, becoming more inclusive, but still honoring its roots, or foundation. Some wanted to enforce all the Law upon their new-found brothers among the Gentiles and others wanted to throw off too much in the liberation they saw in the Messiah. Paul is trying to chart a path of reconciliation between these two groups. He attacks both camps (both of which he addresses as Jews) in their extremes of law observance or their abandonment of moral values.
Paul talks of “natural law” or the conscience or general knowledge of right and wrong as being akin to the “Law” given to the Jews. Having the gospel of the Messiah, previously only promised to the Jews (or so they thought), now given to the Gentiles was meant to humble them. But it was, and is, a great blessing in the end because, through them, the whole world will be blessed. The Gentiles were being more faithful to their natural law than the Jews were to their covenant law. Both laws were from God, and so both are worthy of the Messiah’s atonement. Paul is saying this is all part of God’s plan.
The new Gentile converts in Rome were not honoring the traditions of their Jewish brothers. This was the specific problem Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans. The Jews, including the ones of the “Christian” sect, had all been expelled for a short time from Rome under Emperor Claudius. After his death, they were allowed back. The Gentile converts, who had never left, were having trouble with the demands of the Jewish minority who insisted on still observing aspects of their old Law. They had been on their own for a time, still growing and benefiting from the spiritual effects of their faith and did not develop or see the need for these outer observances. Paul is trying to get them to respect the Jewish customs and give them honor for being the caretakers of the Messiah’s holy scriptures and prophecy. At the same time, he is trying to get the Jews to value the fact that the Gentiles are now “chosen” also and much of their custom is of equal worth to God.
Paul puts the blessing of the gospel to the Gentiles as a side-effect to the betrayal of trust found among the Jews. This is good doctrine used to keep the Gentiles humble, but I feel it was only used for this purpose. God never “chose” the Jews to be better than the Gentiles but to bless the Gentiles. Now the Gentiles were being set up to be a blessing to the Jews. The Gentiles should not brag about being grafted into the root at the expense of the natural branches, they are still dependent on the same root. It was mainly for this very same bragging on the part of the Jews that the natural branches were cut off.
Paul views Gentile converts as “honorary Jews.” To him, there is no shifting of God’s promise or covenant from the Jews to the Gentiles. Though man may go back on a promise or violate a covenant, God will never betray. How the non-converted Jews will still receive of the promise, Paul leaves up to God.
Jesus never founded a “new” religion, but rather fulfilled and continued the Jewish one on the track for which it was always intended. Jewish customs, to an extent, could be continued as a reminder of the path and covenants God had made to Israel and expressed also by Jesus. At the same time, these customs, not all of them, did not need to be necessarily followed by Gentile converts.
The idea of a Zion society, both geographically centered and spread throughout the world, is found in Paul’s pleading to the church gatherings to contribute to the welfare of the Jewish church members in Jerusalem. He talks of the need to help and take joy in each other within the body of Christ much like the different parts of our physical body complement each other, never taking advantage or being jealous. He is specifically adamant that Jerusalem be aided, it being seen as the headquarters of the movement and the location of prophecy for much of the last days. Aiding Jerusalem by the rest of the world could also help express gratitude for the spiritual heritage the Jewish members there are now granting to everyone. Paul also saw a danger of divisions arising among the now wide, and soon to be wider, spread gatherings. They all needed to be rooted in the source, the city and culture of the Messiah. The Jerusalem brethren also needed reassurance that as the church grew they and their contributions will not be forgotten.
When Paul takes these contributions to Jerusalem he may have caused a showdown with James and the church leaders there. They were already having trouble with the “unconvinced” Jews there and were being accused of corrupting Israel with their Gentile converts. By accepting this large contribution from the diaspora, the church would be exacerbating the situation. Paul knew this but probably underestimated the precariousness of the situation. On the other hand, he may have wanted to incite a showdown that would force a choice among the Jews. The record is silent on what happened to the contributions he brought. Whether or not it had an effect on the downfall of the church in Jerusalem we don’t know.
There seems to be continued conflict between the diaspora and the church in Jerusalem. James, the brother of Jesus, who was not supportive of Jesus during His mortal lifetime, is now the leader of the church there. Some, including Paul, may have had issues with this. Paul seems, however, to be desperately trying to reconcile the factions.
Some inconsistencies in the text of Acts and Paul’s own words lead us to suspect whether he was actually a Roman citizen. He says he was flogged on several occasions by Romans which was illegal to inflict on a citizen. Paul himself never mentions or infers his citizenship in his own writings.
It appears through other sources that Peter and Paul were betrayed by their own. Tacitus states that most Christians were discovered during Nero’s persecution through informants. Clement of Rome, writing in about 90 AD (30 years after Paul’s death), describes Peter’s and Paul’s deaths after a dissertation on the ill effects of rivelry, such as that between Cain and Abel, David and Saul, etc. Though the details of their execution may have been forgotten by this time, the reasons and the effects were probably still fresh.
Some sources hint that Paul was able to make it to Spain, which was his goal—the western-most region of the known world. He probably then went back to Rome to try to deal with the problems there. Clement says he “won through to the trophy of endurance”—indicating that he was tortured in the end and/or died an ignominious death—one that Luke may not have been able to bring himself to include in his book of Acts.
Paul is often misread, based on Luther’s take on his writings, to champion “grace” at the expense of “works.” This has led to no end of strife through the centuries. Believers in “grace” often become proud and even arrogant in their “helplessness,” feeling those preaching doing good works are controlling and even somehow evil.
Overall this work by Garry Wills was overly opinionated. I found myself saying, “What?” a little too often. The author seems to put too much value in the contrary views or at least gives “more equal” credence to what seems to be simply arbitrary interpretations. Mr. Wills seems to have some sort of agenda, though it is hard to pinpoint what it might be. I would not recommend this work for an introduction to Paul, by any means. However, I think it does have some cautionary value if you are fairly familiar with the standard Paul taught in Sunday School.
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