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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Persecutor of Christians

Posted by on Apr 8, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Paul arrived in Jerusalem about AD 15. His conversion can be dated to AD 33. Since Pharisees ventured outside Jerusalem for only brief periods, we can safely assume that Paul spent these 18 years in the Holy City. This means Paul and Jesus were in Jerusalem at the same time. Jesus had made several visits before being crucified there on 7 April AD 30. Did they ever meet? Paul would certainly have told us if the answer was ‘Yes’.

His silence confirms two insights. First, Paul refused all and every distraction from his studies. Just as the Ultra Orthodox yeshiva students were not aware of the presence of Anwar Sadat in Jerusalem in mid-November 1977, he would not have wasted his time listening to a Galilean labourer who had no rabbinic qualifictions. Second, Jesus made little or no impact on Jerusalem. With the possible exception of Nicodemus, we know of no converts in the Holy City.

Paul became conscious of the figure of Jesus only after the passion, resurrection and Pentecost, when his followers began to make inroads into the Jewish population. The proslytising mission of the first Christians was very low-key. There was nothing brutal or disruptive. They believed that their new faith was the full flowering of Judaism. Thus they continued to live as Jews who cherished all the traditional values and customs. They differed from other Jews only in what they added. They celebrated the Eucharist in their homes, and they proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. They won over people, not by propaganda, but by the quality of their lives.

The Jewish authorities found the appearance of a new group disturbing. In the light of what they foresaw as a major struggle against Rome, any further fragmentation of Judaism could only be construed as a danger to the survival of the people. Thus it is not suprising that the first Christians were persecuted by the High Priest and the Sadducees. The only one to speak out in their defense was Gamaliel, the leader of the Pharisees. He argued that if the Jesus movement was not from God, it would eventually wither away and disappear, but that if it was from God, those who opposed it would be offending God. He did not believe that it was time for action. The authorities should wait and see.

Alone among Gamaliel’s followers Paul refused to follow the party line, and struck out against the Christians. He was temperamentally incapable of the temporizing attitude of his leader. Moreover, he saw clearly that the situation was ‘either-or’, not ‘both-and’ as the Christians believed. Their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah had implications for Judaism that they had failed to recognize.

Like all Jews of the period Paul believed that the Messiah would come one day. The present was the ‘Time of the Law’ in which the Mosaic code dictated behaviour. At some unspecified time in the future the Messiah would arrive to inaugurate the ‘Time of the Messiah’. The most specific characteristic of the ‘Time of the Messiah’ was that all Jews would be righteous. There would be no sinners among them.

With his usual clarity of vision Paul saw that this meant that there would be no need for the Law in the ‘Time of the Messiah’.  Not all Jews were so perceptive. The Law had become so central that they could not conceive life without it. Thus they said that in the ‘Time of the Messiah’ the Law would be written on the hearts of all. For Paul’s black or white mentality this was just playing with words. When the Messiah arrived what they all knew as the Law would no longer exist.

As far as Paul was concerned, by proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Christians were in effect saying that the Law no longer had any place in the lives of Jews. This could not possibly be correct. Jesus had not done any of the things that the Pharisees expected of the Messiah. Therefore, he was a fake and his followers had been led astray.

Paul’s commitment to the Law was so absolute that his conscience obliged him to attempt to bring Christians back to the way of truth. He himself tells us that his persecution of the church was the proof of his ‘zeal’. Contrary to what Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, he had no authority to arrest, imprison or execute.         He could only make the lives of Christians a misery by repeated challenges and vociferous argument.

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A Pharisee in Jerusalem

Posted by on Apr 1, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

As a teenager in Tarsus Paul was pulled in two directions. On one hand there were all the attractions of a Roman provincial capital, which, moreover, lay on one of the great trade-routes of antiquity linking Syria and points east with Asia Minor and the Aegean. Paul’s secular studies gave him access to this cosmopolitan world, but his Jewish studies imposed restrictions. The dietary laws were designed to make association with pagans difficult, if not impossible. For example, Paul could have a drink with friends only if he brought the bottle. Jews were forbidden to drink non-kosher wine.

At about the age of twenty, in an effort to dominate this tension, Paul decided to live for a while in a completely Jewish world. Presumably with the financial support of his parents he travelled to Jerusalem. Once there he was immediately conscious of the difference. The city shone with the new stone of Herod the Great’s rebuilding program of palaces and houses. The temple he built was not only stunningly beautiful, but was the largest religious complex in the Greco-Roman world. All these were Jewish achievements, and Paul’s heart swelled with pride. No longer was he merely tolerated as one of a minority in the Diaspora, he belonged. He realized in some indefinable way that he was home. But what was he to do? How was he to insert himself into the life of the city?

He did not have much of a choice. The Sadducees would not have welcomed him because he had neither priestly blood or a large bank account. The Essenes would have been glad of a new convert, but Paul gave them scant consideration. They were a fringe group and he had no desire to be again a member of a minority, even though this time it was within Judaism. The Pharisees were the only group that offered any hope of fulfiling Paul’s ambition to get to the roots of his Jewishness. They had made it their goal to forge a new social and religious identity for Jews in a developing and changing world. To this end they did everything possible to clarify the demands of the Mosaic Law in matters of daily domestic life. Over two-thirds of their surviving teachings concern the dietary laws, ritual purity for meals, and the quality and tithing of agricultural produce.

Pharisees tended to congregate in groups. Observance of the dietary laws was greatly facilitated if all were committed to the same high standards in the selection and preparation of food. Moreover, the Pharisees had realized that the best way to work out exactly what the Law meant was by vigorous debate which thoroughly explored all possible options. They also devised a way of continuously moving ahead. Solutions that had been generally accepted became part of the Oral Law, the body of interpretation that grew up around the Written Law of the Bible, and which was equally authoritative.

The hothouse intensity of this way of life appealed greatly to Paul’s idealism. It was a challenge that he could not refuse. Nonetheless commitment took courage. He would have been well formed in the Written Law by his education at Tarsus, but a Pharisee had also to know the Oral Law. Paul had a lot to catch up. He had to learn hundreds, if not thousands, of legal opinions on a vast array of topics, if he was to be able to argue convincingly. None of his classmades had wasted time studying pagan rhetoric. This gave them a head start of ten or even fifteen years.

Undaunted, Paul plunged in with the whole-hearted commitment that was one of his salient characteristics. Much later, when he looked back on a way of life that he had long since abandoned, he could not hide a note of smug complacency in his success, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). He could not claim to be the best absolutely. It was enough to be top of his age group.

This success tells us two things. He was a full-time student, who lived on charity (there would have been no time to earn a living), and he was married. Since God commanded all to marry (Genesis 1:28), celibacy was not an option. Paul could not have been the success he claimed had he remained unmarried into his twenties. As an outsider who wanted to be accepted he had to conform.

Why does he never mention his wife and children? I can only think that they died in an accident so traumatic that he sealed off their memory for ever. It was too painful to be revisited, and too sacred to be disclosed to others. In any case, Paul never remarried.

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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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The purpose of the person and life of Jesus

Posted by on Sep 3, 2010 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |

Jesus was not about himself but about the Kingdom of God/Reign of God.  What is this Reign of God that was the meaning of the life of Jesus and for that matter the whole meaning of the Synoptics?  Some would say that this theme is the central one for the whole New Testament or Christian Scriptures.

Jesus never defined what he meant by the Kingdom of God. He talked in parables and similes (Mt. 13; Mk. 4) and in concepts like life, glory, joy and light. Theologians also are not so sure what Jesus meant.  The best biblical description we can find and which might even be considered a definition is given by Paul:

“After all, the Kingdom of God is not a matter of whether you get what you like to eat or drink, but the Kingdom of God is a matter of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rm 14:17)

Albert Schweitzer regarded the above quote from Romans as “A Creed For All Times.” Note that in this quote from Romans, the definition of the Kingdom, does not refer to the future, but to the present, the Now.

The concluding words of this Roman quote “in the Holy Spirit” are to be attached to all three words – justice, peace and joy. Justice, Peace and Joy are for Paul the content of the Kingdom of God. And Paul sees these to be already present in the community of faith, who follow the Way of the Rabbi Jesus.

The Kingdom defined in a brief formula, is nothing other than justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. These are not just feelings or sentiments but realities in this world. This Pauline phrase can, therefore, correctly by regarded as a “Creed for all times” for, after all, wherever Christians try to achieve justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, there the Kingdom makes itself present. However it is necessary to know what these words mean for us in these our times.  And that is the task of the reader visiting this blog.

From another perspective, when one takes the Christian scriptures in hand and meditates on their meaning, one notes that the “sin” of the Scriptures – both Jewish and Christian – is idolatry. It is a direct reminder from the first of the Ten Commandments. Yet how many of us ever confess or consider ourselves living a life of idolatry? Most of us are not biblical people. We are at best people of the Catechism. We are not of the Spirit but of the Law. John has much to say about this:

“The hour is coming and is in fact now here when you will neither worship on the mountain nor in the temple but in Spirit and Truth.” (John 4)

What does this mean for us today? Another task for our reader to discern. Idolatry and the Kingdom of God are the central thematic of the Scriptures. They must give us food for thought when we reflect on our lives today in terms of Christian discipleship. Many of the values operative in our lives today are not of the Way of the Jesus nor at the heart of the Reign of God.

We are called to be disciples of the Reign of God. We are called to become followers of The Way. We are to live those attitudes of being known as the Beatitudes. Justice, Peace and Joy in the Spirit are the heart of that Way.

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I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me

Posted by on Sep 3, 2010 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |

I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me

Much of the centuries-old debate on “faith versus good works” is based on the writings of St. Paul, such as that found in Galatians: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). However, scripture scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson point out that Paul frequently uses this expression pistis christou to refer to the human response of the man Jesus to God. Thus, it is “the faith of Jesus Christ” – his faithful obedience to the Father in his life and death – that enables us, his followers, to “have faith” and “to be made righteous by faith.” In other words, our faith does not originate within ourselves, but is the faith of Jesus given to us as gift.

This change of preposition makes a profound difference in understanding the source of our salvation! It is not our confession of faith that saves us (gives justification) but the loving, obedient faith of Jesus bestowed upon those who accept the gospel. Thus, Galatians 2:20 should be understood as: “I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me”.  And it is the faith of Jesus active in us through the gift of his Spirit, that enables us, his followers, to serve one another in self-sacrificing love (“do good works”). So much for the “faith versus good works” debate. It is groundless!

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