The Conversion of St. Paul

Posted by on Apr 15, 2011 in Bible Blog, News, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

We do not know how long Paul’s persecution of Christians lasted. We can be sure, however, that in the process he must have learned something about the founder of the movement.

We know from contemporary non-Christian sources something of what the Pharisees knew about Jeus. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that he was a teacher to whom the credulous ascribed wonders. Moreover, he had been crucified by the Romans on charges laid against him by the Jewish authorities.

It is unlikely that Paul or any other Pharisee would have been content with such bare bones. They would have been particularly sensitive to the fact that Jesus had disciples whom he taught, because the Pharisees wanted a monopoly on religious thinking. Through infiltration, or less dramatically through chatting up an enthusiastic Christian, it would have been easy for the Pharisees to discover what Jesus thought about the Law of Moses. He gave it much less importance than his person. He, and no longer the Law, was the touchstone of salvation. “It was said to those of old [in the Law] . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21). A curious Pharisee could only conclude that Jesus thought of himself as superior to the Law, and empowered to decide its meaning definitively. In other words, he was so misguided as to think of himself as the Messiah, the final agent of God in history.

One final point is also certain. The insistance of Christians that Jesus had been raised from the dead would have rankled in the minds of Pharisees. In opposition to all other Jews they alone believed that resurrection of the body was the modality of survival after death. The Sadducees did not believe in any form of afterlife, and the majority of Jews were convinced that the soul alone survived. The emphasis on the body was distinctively Pharisaic.

These were the ideas that circulated in the mind of Paul as he set out from Jerusalem on his journey to Damascus. He did not believe for a minute that they contained a scintilla of truth. Jesus had deceived himself and led astray others stupid enough to believe him.

We do not know why Paul broke off his persecution of Christians to go to Damascus. Luke tells us that he was commissioned by the High Priest to arrest Jews who had become Christians and to bring them in chains to Jerusalem. This is a neat explanation, but it cannot be correct historically. The authority of the High Priest was limited to Jerusalem and its immediate environs.

Thus Paul must have acted on his own initiative. Were he to have been taken by an urge to visit his parents in Tarsus, the safest way would have been to join a caravan to Damascus, and in that great commercial cross-roads to pick up another one going out to the west. The parable of the Good Samaritan underlines the inadvisability of travelling alone. There were no police forces to keep the roads clear of bandits.

Despite all the great paintings Paul did not ride a horse on the road to Damascus. Stirrups were first invented in China in the fourth century AD, and it would have been extremely uncomfortable for a sedentary scholar such as Paul to ride bareback for any length of time. Like others who could not afford a carriage he walked.

Paul is very reticent about his conversion experience. He tells us only that it was comparable to the encounters with the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday. The lack of details has given rise to all sorts of speculation. The most famous, of course, are the three versions furnished by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. His concern to provide responses to all the unanswered questions greatly diminishes the historical value of his reconstruction.

The important thing as far as Paul was concerned was that Jesus arrested him with irresistable force and turned his life in a completely new direction. Hence his fundamental conviction that Jesus was ‘Lord’, from which it followed that he was also ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’.

Paul’s persecution of Christians had set his mind in an either Messiah or Law dichotomy. Thus he was mentally prepared to abandon the Law the minute he was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. The conditions for salvation that it laid down were no longer valid. Not surprisingly, given his impulsive personality, Paul’s first action was to rush off to preach Jesus as Saviour to the nearest gentiles, the Nabataeans of Arabia, who lived south of Damascus in the modern kingdom of Jordan.

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St. Paul’s Years in Tarsus

Posted by on Mar 25, 2011 in Bible Blog, News, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Saint Paul just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Herod the Great died in the Spring of 4 BC. He had been king of the Jews for 33 years, and his rule had been severe and oppressive. His secret police were everywhere, and reported on even the most harmless meeting of friends. The release from pressure at his death was explosive, and inevitably got out of hand. Celebrations turned into riots, which gradually melded into a full-scale rebellion. Rome felt it had to intervene, and Varus arrived in Galilee with two legions from Syria.

After a campaign, if a Roman legion had a financial deficit, it sent out patrols to capture healthy men and women of the vanquished population. These were then sold as slaves to provide the revenue needed to balance the books.

At this point Paul was still a small child and lived with his parents in Gischala (modern Jish), a village in the mountains of Upper Galilee that was famous for its olive oil. It was unlucky to be visited by one of the legion patrols, and Paul and his parents were dragged from their little home. They were driven across country to Ptolemais (modern Akko) where the slave ships awaited. If it is degrading to be offered for sale, how much more to be rejected? Paul’s parents much have suffered several refusals as the ships moved north up the coasts of what are today Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Only when they reached Tarsus in south-eastern Turkey did they find a buyer.

We do not know who their master was, but a number of assumptions can be made. First he was a Roman citizen. This is the simplest explanation of Paul’s Roman citizenship, which he inherited from his parents. They would automatically have acquired the citizenship of their owner when he sent them free. This would have taken place probably when they were in their forties. Everyone knew that it was uneconomical to keep slaves beyond a point where they were eating more than they produced.

Second their owner was interested in education. We know this because Paul had a first class tertiary education. His letters reveal a fully professional mastery of all the techniques of rhetoric. He was a trained speaker and writer in Greek. Clearly he had followed the courses on offer at what we would call the University of Tarsus, which ranked beside Athens and Alexandria as one of the great graduate schools of antiquity. To reach this level, however, he would have had to have had a solid primary and secondary education. He must have been free to study from a very early age. He did not have to do the multiple chores that usually ate up the day of a child slave. A hint of Paul’s privileged upbringing emerges much later in life when he accidentally betrays a very snobbish leisured class attitude towards manual labour. It was ‘slavish’ and ‘demeaning’.

The University of Tarsus was famous as a bastion of Stoicism. It is unlikely that Paul studied this pagan philosophical system, but it was so much in the air that he could not fail to take in elements of it. Traces surface, perhaps unconsciously, in his letters. The basic tenets were very simple. Wisdom is the acceptance of the fact that whatever happens does so in accordance with divine reason. Virtue consists in striving to live in harmony with divine reason. The sensible, therefore, simply acquiesce in whatever happens to them, believing all external circumstances to be indifferent and irrelevant. In consequence, it is a lack of virtue to protest against pain, poverty, injustice, or death. Nonetheless, human action is rooted in freedom, and one is responsible for one’s deeds. Since everyone possesses a spark of the divine reason, distinctions between Greek and barbarian, master and slave are meaningless. All belong to a universal brotherhood.

Even with the idealism of youth Paul could not subscribe wholeheartedly to such generous ideas. He was a Jew, and Jews did not accept that all were equal. They believed that they were a unique people, set apart from all others. This would have been drummed into Paul every Saturday in the syagogue, which provided the other dimension of his ongoing education. This is where he learned the Jewish Scriptures, which he quotes over 90 times. Even though Paul subsequently abandoned the Law of Moses as a rule of life, he never lost the sense of the Scriptures as God’s communication with his people. For him it was ever a voice, not of the past, but of the present.

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Cardinal Ouellet Warns Against Bible Crisis

Posted by on Mar 7, 2011 in News |

Cardinal OuelletDecries Threats From Inside and Outside Church

(From: )

MADRID, Spain, FEB. 8, 2011 ( The relativization of the Bible, which denies the value of Word of God, constitutes a genuine crisis that is both external and internal to the Church, says Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who served as relator of the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, stated this Monday in the opening address of a congress on “Sacred Scripture in the Church.”

The congress, which closes Wednesday, has gathered 800 people in Madrid.

“In the last decades, a profound crisis is shaking the foundations of European culture,” said the cardinal.

He continued: “A new raison d’etat imposes its law and tries to relegate the Christian roots of Europe to a secondary plane.

“It would seem that, in the name of secularism, the Bible must be relativized, to be dissolved in a religious pluralism and disappear as a normative cultural reference.”

However, the prelate affirmed, “the crisis has also penetrated the interior of the Church, given that a certain rationalist exegesis has seized the Bible to dissect the different stages and forms of its human composition, eliminating the prodigies and miracles, multiplying the theories and, not infrequently, sowing confusion among the faithful.”

Thus, he explained, disturbing questions arise: Is Sacred Scripture no more than a human word? Isn’t it true that the results of the historical sciences invalidate the biblical testimony and, hence, the credibility of the Church? How can we continue to believe? And, finally, whom should we listen to?

Prayerful meditation

The 2008 Synod of Bishops was held “to confirm the Church’s answer to these questions,” clarified its relator.

Cardinal Ouellet recalled that “in the bishops’ interventions was heard the urgency to reflect further on the way to address the biblical text.”

He continued, “In addition to the historical-critical method, the merits and limitations of which were recognized, the synodal fathers strongly recommended lectio divina, prayerful meditation of the Word of God, and they called for the development of the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, in the line of the great patristic tradition.”

The cardinal noted that in “a parallel way to this reflection of the universal Church, the Spanish Episcopal Conference was perfecting an official version of the Bible, adapted to present-day culture, with all the guarantees of scientific rigor and ecclesial communion.”

“I hope that Spain will benefit from this initiative and that it will be able to show Europe, today as in other periods, a renewed way for the proclamation of the Gospel,” he said.

The prelate spoke about the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini,” in which Benedict XVI brings together the conclusions of the synod and gives impetus to the new evangelization, “inviting pastors, faithful and experts on the Bible to find the Divine Word again in the human words of the sacred text.”

Cardinal Ouellet stated, “In face of the secularization of the Christian West and of Christianity’s identity crisis in pluralist environments, the Church responds with a new proclamation of the living Word of God in Jesus Christ, which invites us to a renewed act of faith in the Sacred Scriptures.”

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Pope’s Homily for Midnight Mass 2010

Posted by on Dec 24, 2010 in News |



Saint Peter’s Basilica
Friday, 24 December 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

“You are my son, this day I have begotten you” – with this passage from Psalm 2 the Church begins the liturgy of this holy night. She knows that this passage originally formed part of the coronation rite of the kings of Israel. The king, who in himself is a man like others, becomes the “Son of God” through being called and installed in his office. It is a kind of adoption by God, a decisive act by which he grants a new existence to this man, drawing him into his own being. The reading from the prophet Isaiah that we have just heard presents the same process even more clearly in a situation of hardship and danger for Israel: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given. The government will be upon his shoulder” (Is 9:6). Installation in the office of king is like a second birth. As one newly born through God’s personal choice, as a child born of God, the king embodies hope. On his shoulders the future rests. He is the bearer of the promise of peace. On that night in Bethlehem this prophetic saying came true in a way that would still have been unimaginable at the time of Isaiah. Yes indeed, now it really is a child on whose shoulders government is laid. In him the new kingship appears that God establishes in the world. This child is truly born of God. It is God’s eternal Word that unites humanity with divinity. To this child belong those titles of honour which Isaiah’s coronation song attributes to him: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). Yes, this king does not need counsellors drawn from the wise of this world. He bears in himself God’s wisdom and God’s counsel. In the weakness of infancy, he is the mighty God and he shows us God’s own might in contrast to the self-asserting powers of this world.

Truly, the words of Israel’s coronation rite were only ever rites of hope which looked ahead to a distant future that God would bestow. None of the kings who were greeted in this way lived up to the sublime content of these words. In all of them, those words about divine sonship, about installation into the heritage of the peoples, about making the ends of the earth their possession (Ps 2:8) were only pointers towards what was to come – as it were signposts of hope indicating a future that at that moment was still beyond comprehension. Thus the fulfilment of the prophecy, which began that night in Bethlehem, is both infinitely greater and in worldly terms smaller than the prophecy itself might lead one to imagine. It is greater in the sense that this child is truly the Son of God, truly “God from God, light from light, begotten not made, of one being with the Father”. The infinite distance between God and man is overcome. God has not only bent down, as we read in the Psalms; he has truly “come down”, he has come into the world, he has become one of us, in order to draw all of us to himself. This child is truly Emmanuel – God-with-us. His kingdom truly stretches to the ends of the earth. He has truly built islands of peace in the world-encompassing breadth of the holy Eucharist. Wherever it is celebrated, an island of peace arises, of God’s own peace. This child has ignited the light of goodness in men and has given them strength to overcome the tyranny of might. This child builds his kingdom in every generation from within, from the heart. But at the same time it is true that the “rod of his oppressor” is not yet broken, the boots of warriors continue to tramp and the “garment rolled in blood” (Is 9:4f) still remains. So part of this night is simply joy at God’s closeness. We are grateful that God gives himself into our hands as a child, begging as it were for our love, implanting his peace in our hearts. But this joy is also a prayer: Lord, make your promise come fully true. Break the rods of the oppressors. Burn the tramping boots. Let the time of the garments rolled in blood come to an end. Fulfil the prophecy that “of peace there will be no end” (Is 9:7). We thank you for your goodness, but we also ask you to show forth your power. Establish the dominion of your truth and your love in the world – the “kingdom of righteousness, love and peace”.

“Mary gave birth to her first-born son” (Lk 2:7). In this sentence Saint Luke recounts quite soberly the great event to which the prophecies from Israel’s history had pointed. Luke calls the child the “first-born”. In the language which developed within the sacred Scripture of the Old Covenant, “first-born” does not mean the first of a series of children. The word “first-born” is a title of honour, quite independently of whether other brothers and sisters follow or not. So Israel is designated by God in the Book of Exodus (4:22) as “my first-born Son”, and this expresses Israel’s election, its singular dignity, the particular love of God the Father. The early Church knew that in Jesus this saying had acquired a new depth, that the promises made to Israel were summed up in him. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus “the first-born”, simply in order to designate him as the Son sent into the world by God (cf. 1:5-7) after the ground had been prepared by Old Testament prophecy. The first-born belongs to God in a special way – and therefore he had to be handed over to God in a special way – as in many religions – and he had to be ransomed through a vicarious sacrifice, as Saint Luke recounts in the episode of the Presentation in the Temple. The first-born belongs to God in a special way, and is as it were destined for sacrifice. In Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross this destiny of the first-born is fulfilled in a unique way. In his person he brings humanity before God and unites man with God in such a way that God becomes all in all. Saint Paul amplified and deepened the idea of Jesus as first-born in the Letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians: Jesus, we read in these letters, is the first-born of all creation – the true prototype of man, according to which God formed the human creature. Man can be the image of God because Jesus is both God and man, the true image of God and of man. Furthermore, as these letters tell us, he is the first-born from the dead. In the resurrection he has broken down the wall of death for all of us. He has opened up to man the dimension of eternal life in fellowship with God. Finally, it is said to us that he is the first-born of many brothers. Yes indeed, now he really is the first of a series of brothers and sisters: the first, that is, who opens up for us the possibility of communing with God. He creates true brotherhood – not the kind defiled by sin as in the case of Cain and Abel, or Romulus and Remus, but the new brotherhood in which we are God’s own family. This new family of God begins at the moment when Mary wraps her first-born in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. Let us pray to him: Lord Jesus, who wanted to be born as the first of many brothers and sisters, grant us the grace of true brotherhood. Help us to become like you. Help us to recognize your face in others who need our assistance, in those who are suffering or forsaken, in all people, and help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters, so as to become one family, your family.

At the end of the Christmas Gospel, we are told that a great heavenly host of angels praised God and said: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14). The Church, in the Gloria, has extended this song of praise, which the angels sang in response to the event of the holy night, into a hymn of joy at God’s glory – “we praise you for your glory”. We praise you for the beauty, for the greatness, for your goodness, which becomes visible to us this night. The appearing of beauty, of the beautiful, makes us happy without our having to ask what use it can serve. God’s glory, from which all beauty derives, causes us to break out in astonishment and joy. Anyone who catches a glimpse of God experiences joy, and on this night we see something of his light. But the angels’ message on that holy night also spoke of men: “Peace among men with whom he is pleased”. The Latin translation of the angels’ song that we use in the liturgy, taken from Saint Jerome, is slightly different: “peace to men of good will”. The expression “men of good will” has become an important part of the Church’s vocabulary in recent decades. But which is the correct translation? We must read both texts together; only in this way do we truly understand the angels’ song. It would be a false interpretation to see this exclusively as the action of God, as if he had not called man to a free response of love. But it would be equally mistaken to adopt a moralizing interpretation as if man were so to speak able to redeem himself by his good will. Both elements belong together: grace and freedom, God’s prior love for us, without which we could not love him, and the response that he awaits from us, the response that he asks for so palpably through the birth of his son. We cannot divide up into independent entities the interplay of grace and freedom, or the interplay of call and response. The two are inseparably woven together. So this part of the angels’ message is both promise and call at the same time. God has anticipated us with the gift of his Son. God anticipates us again and again in unexpected ways. He does not cease to search for us, to raise us up as often as we might need. He does not abandon the lost sheep in the wilderness into which it had strayed. God does not allow himself to be confounded by our sin. Again and again he begins afresh with us. But he is still waiting for us to join him in love. He loves us, so that we too may become people who love, so that there may be peace on earth.

Saint Luke does not say that the angels sang. He states quite soberly: the heavenly host praised God and said: “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:13f.). But men have always known that the speech of angels is different from human speech, and that above all on this night of joyful proclamation it was in song that they extolled God’s heavenly glory. So this angelic song has been recognized from the earliest days as music proceeding from God, indeed, as an invitation to join in the singing with hearts filled with joy at the fact that we are loved by God. Cantare amantis est, says Saint Augustine: singing belongs to one who loves. Thus, down the centuries, the angels’ song has again and again become a song of love and joy, a song of those who love. At this hour, full of thankfulness, we join in the singing of all the centuries, singing that unites heaven and earth, angels and men. Yes, indeed, we praise you for your glory. We praise you for your love. Grant that we may join with you in love more and more and thus become people of peace. Amen.

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