Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Paul’s departure from Damascus involved both high drama and farce. Probably in the autumn of AD 37 the Roman emperor Gaius (Caligula) gave Damascus to the Nabataeans as part of his reoganization of the eastern frontier of the empire. For some reason Paul felt that this put him at risk. Perhaps he though that they were still after him for his foray into Arabia some three years earlier. In any case he was not prepared to take chances, and prepared to escape. He was afraid to slip out in disguise because the gates of the city were guarded.  Instead he had himself lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall. Was Paul incapable of sliding down a rope? Why did he have to be treated like a baby?

One might have expected Paul to head immediately for a new mission in pagan territory. Instead, he tells us, he went to visit Peter in Jerusalem. This decision took some courage because he would have been remembered as a persecutor by Jerusalem Christians. Understandably he kept a very low profile. He saw only Peter and James the brother of Jesus, and stayed for barely two weeks.

We can hardly imagine that Peter and Paul spent their brief time together discussing the illnesses of their mothers-in-law or the pleasures of fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Paul however, could well have asked him, “How did you get the curious name, Rocky?” because the Aramaic form ‘Kephas’ ( = Petros = Rock), is invariably the name that appears in Paul’s letters. This would have brought them into the middle of the gospel story, and that is what Paul was so desperately interested in.

Peter had lived with Jesus since they were both disciples of John the Baptist. He had now been preaching for seven years, and had certainly developed a comprehensive story about Jesus, highlighting the words and deeds that he thought most important. He was in fact proclaiming a gospel such as was written down by Mark much later. Peter, in other words, was the perfect eyewitness to satisfy Paul’s devouring curiosity about the historical Jesus.

In his letters Paul provides a few ‘facts’ about Jesus. He was a Jew of Davidic descent, who had several married brothers who were missionaries, and who on the night when he was arrested celebrated a final meal with his disciples. These, however, are but the tip of the iceberg. Paul would have told the story of Jesus orally in much greater detail when he founded churches, and there was no need to repeat it. Nonetheless, in his letters we do catch glimpses of what he said.

Paul quotes words of Jesus twice: (1) there should be no divorce, and (2) pastors should accept financial support. In each case, however, Paul does exactly the opposite. He permits divorce, and insists on working for his living rather than demand subsidies. Obviously there is problem here and I shall return to in a later essay.

We might have wished for more explicit citations of words of Jesus, but Paul contents himself with allusions. He had so deeply inculcated the teaching of Jesus that he could be sure that a word or two would be sufficient to evoke in their minds the desired quotation. Thus, by saying “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16), Paul expected his converts to recall, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words . . . so the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes” (Mark 8:38).

Paul’s converts would have been proud that he trusted them to remember words of Jesus. They would have felt stronger and more united. Allusions are insider language. Only members of the group can grasp the hidden connection. Allusions, in consequence, have a bonding effect that builds community. In such subtle ways Paul demonstrated his leadership skills.

Paul’s letters also contain incidental references to the behaviour of Jesus. If we put them together it becomes clear that Paul was particularly impressed by two aspects of the personality of Jesus. In his very first letter he singled out the ‘steadfastness’ of Jesus. Later he mentions the ‘fidelity’ of Jesus. Despite hostiliy and suffering Jesus never wavered. His life was ‘an enduring Yes’, not a mixture of Yes and No as our lives are.

In these passages Paul intends to evoke Jesus’ total dedication to his mission. We all know people who are so single-minded in pursuit of a cause that they become cold and distant to others. What Paul saw in Jesus was the exact opposite. He speaks of Jesus’ ‘affection/compassion’, of his ‘meekness and gentleness’, of his ‘love’ and his ‘poverty’. Clearly the Jesus that Paul knew was the Jesus of the miracles, who did everything possible to alleviate pain and misery, while preaching a high ideal of love.

Paul knew that he had a lot to live up to when he said, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).