The Mysterious Paul of Tarsus. Reading time: About 5 minutes
This is the first of a four-part series I’m entitling the “Real Christian” Tetralogy. In this first segment. I’ll ask many questions because of my vast confusion with Paul of Tarsus. Some of these questions may be readily answerable and others may not be. I’ll also be doing a lot of speculating here and if you read too fast, you may lose the opportunity to speculate along with me. I most certainly welcome other interpretations of the subjects I discuss.
This is not what you’d hear from the pulpit, but I’m trying to follow the intent of the New Testament writers.
The way the story is told in church
First, my ministers had tried to turn Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, into one composite gospel. Then they wove that Gospel seamlessly into the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles, and the other epistles of the New Testament. It became one coherent tapestry. It told the story the way my pastors wanted to tell it, leaving out controversy and trimming rough edges. Personally, I’ve never been able to harmonize those books. To me, they often contradict each another and seem to sometimes skim through complicated and important history. But those books are basically all we have to understand the events in the life of Jesus. Church leaders gathered and arranged those books in the early centuries of Christianity to tell the story the way they wanted to.
Introducing Saul of Tarsus, aka Paul
Ever since I heard of Saul’s conversion to Christianity, I’ve been very skeptical about the way it happened. To me, there was always something wrong with that story, but I never took the time to pinpoint what it was. Like most people, I didn’t have the time or motivation to dissect the messages I heard in church.
From what the Bible tells us, Saul was a Jew from Tarsus, a town in Anatolia. He came to Jerusalem as a youngster to study religion and later became a Pharisee. Pharisees were a sect characterized by their strict observance of Jewish law. They seem to have been extremely judgmental and maybe the inspiration for later Christian heresy-hunters—those who identified and destroyed heretical sects.
According to the book of Acts, in Saul’s time the Pharisees were apparently focusing on the sect that worshipped Jesus of Nazareth. And, they felt authorized and justified in persecuting them. Saul’s allies executed a follower of Jesus named Stephen. Acts didn’t accuse Saul of any personal responsibility for throwing the stones. It just said he stood by and approved of the stoning. After Stephen’s martyrdom, other followers of Jesus were thought to have dispersed, and with good reason. Some were said to have gone east to Jordan, and others north to Antioch, in Syria.
About two years after standing by and watching Stephen’s execution, Saul was reported to have had an otherworldly encounter with the spiritual Jesus Christ—an apparition that either spoke to him or sent him telepathic messages. This is where my problems begin.
First, I’m not convinced that apparitions really occur. They seem to be a state of mind that could have various causes, and they add much interest to a story. I could be wrong, but if the apparition was truly a miracle, I’d also have to witness the miracle to believe in it. No different than Doubting Thomas, I imagine.
At the time the New Testament books were being written, resurrections, ascensions to Heaven, gods becoming humans, humans becoming gods, gods communicating with humans, and signs in the sky were not unusual stories. In those times, people also believed that dreams and omens could predict the future. Supernaturalism was omnipresent at that time and to a lesser extent, still is. That was part of the ancient human experience because so little of the physical world was understandable.
Interpretation of the apparition
If Saul, later Paul, thought he saw that apparition of Jesus, and if apparitions don’t occur, then what was his motivation in claiming he to see it? Did he really see it, lie about seeing it, or was the story invented by some future writer? That seemed to be the situation in my last post with Constantine’s vision before his battle at the Milvian bridge in Rome.
Bible scholars know that no original scriptural writings have been found and aren’t likely to be. All that present-day scholars possess are copies of scripture written in the second or third centuries. Any copier in that long chain could have changed the original writings up until that time and no one in the future would ever know. That also was not unusual. If a scribe copied a scripture in Corinth and another copied it in Damascus, we wouldn’t expect them to be exactly the same. There was almost no way in those days to compare them and ensure quality control.
The book of Acts has Paul’s life pivoting on that one mystical event, and that’s very understandable, if it’s true. Before the encounter Paul was a passionate persecutor and accomplice in the murder of Jesus’s followers. Then, shortly after the encounter with Christ he became Christianity’s leading proponent.
If Paul made the story up to support some personal agenda, then I have to wonder what motivated him to do that. Of all people to make an about-turn, you wouldn’t expect such a legalistic, Pharasitic type of person.
And if apparitions are only imagined, then someone either made this all up or completely misunderstood what was happening. Maybe he had a concussion from falling off his horse. That’s just my inner Doubting Thomas speculating again. Maybe Paul told the story to earn the respect of Jesus’s actual disciples, to gain their respect and let them know he was one of them.
Disappearing from the radar
After his encounter with Christ and his conversion, Paul reportedly went off to Arabia for about three years. Then he then found his way back to Tarsus via Damascus. Paul explained that during the thirteen year interlude between his traumatic encounter and his first missionary journey he made no contact with any actual disciples of Jesus. Why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t he want to know everything he could about the god-man he was devoting the rest of his life to serving? His reason was that he didn’t need them because he spoke to Jesus Christ himself.
The author of the book of Acts portrayed Saul as an obsessive-compulsive persecutor of Christians. Supposedly, after the apparition his personality didn’t change, only his theology, and he became an equally obsessed and seemingly masochistic, missionary for Christ. The man seemed to be very passionate about whatever he thought was important.
Paul wrote that he learned everything he needed to know from the mystical “Christ.” Was Paul’s Christ the same being as the resurrected human Jesus of the Gospels? We assume it was.
Did these instructional sessions with Christ occur in Arabia, Damascus, Tarsus, or were they ongoing? Wouldn’t it be bizarre if Paul’s version of Christianity, which later became the orthodox version, and the religion of Islam, both originated in Arabia?
The Gospels tell us that the risen Jesus spoke to his disciples before his ascension. I also wonder if the resurrected Jesus spoke to his disciples after his ascension to Heaven, or only to Saul, a persecutor of his people. Things somehow just don’t add up for me.
Take it on faith
I know that undoubting Christians will say that Jesus had his reasons for who he communicated with, but if that is so, I still have to wonder, why Saul? Please bear with me as I work through this. If Jesus is all-knowing, he’d know that Saul of Tarsus would later plant a form of Christianity in Europe that didn’t emphasize Jesus’s teachings from the Gospels. Paul almost never mentioned the human Jesus or anything about his teachings in his epistles. So, why would the Jesus of the biblical Gospels want him to spread a different version of the religion to the gentiles in Europe?
The timeframe of scripture
Paul was definitely well aware of the mystical Christ that he said appeared and spoke to him. The same with the author of Acts, who told the story. And, if Paul later interacted with the original disciples of Jesus, as the New Testament said he did, he was also aware of the human Jesus they knew. Paul did not know of the Gospel Jesus because the Gospels hadn’t been written yet. The Gospel-writers most likely didn’t write them until after Paul died. Does that mean that there were at least three different forms of Christology in the first century—the first-hand accounts of the disciples in the AD 30s, Paul’s mystical Jesus Christ of the 50s and 60s epistles, and the Jesus of the Gospels, written around 70-100?
The sequencing of books
The bishops who sequenced the books of the New Testament arranged it so the Gospels came first. Then came Acts and then Paul’s epistles. That’s the chronology that becomes ingrained in us during our Christian indoctrination. But, it gives the wrong idea. Paul wrote his epistles well before others wrote the biblical Gospels. Therefore, his epistles may give a better indication of the true Jesus than the Gospels. Or, if Paul’s epistles were way off base in their portrayal of Jesus, maybe later Christians wrote the Gospels to correct Paul and teach the Jesus of earlier oral history. Those who initiated that oral history were the ones Paul seemed to pride himself in not talking to. It’s all very confusing, and led to multiple ways of viewing Jesus Christ.
If Paul of Tarsus invented his conversion story, he also may have been spreading a version of Christianity that he invented. No one may ever know. There are so many ways that Saul’s conversion story could have come down to us—legend, lies, copying errors, intentional editing, rumor, brain trauma from falling off a horse, hallucination, or even truth. In studying history, you just have to go with the best probabilities.
Wrestling with uncertainty
I’ll just have accept the uncertainty I find in so much of the Bible. It’s always intriguing, but seemingly never conclusive. You either buy it or you don’t, and I don’t think God judges anyone for using their brains to think through what confuses them. I think he would be disappointed if they didn’t.