Paul’s First Stop in Europe: Philippi

Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Sometime during the summer of AD 48 Paul sailed from Troas. This would have been his first journey by sea. Like all his contemporaries he would have faced it with trepidation. This time, however, he was lucky. They made the crossing to Neapolis, the port of Philippi, in two days, having overnighted on the island of Samothrace. On other occasions it was a different story. Paul tells us laconically, “Three times I have been shipwrecked; once I spent a night and a day adrift at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:25).

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Paul’s First Independent Mission

Posted by on May 20, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

After they returned to Antioch-on-the-Orontes Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement, after which they went their separate ways. It cannot have been a major issue, because several years later they worked harmoniously together.

Paul recruited Silas (or Silvanus), and set off for Antioch-in-Pisidia. Clearly he intended to use it as a springboard to the west, as Barnabas and he had planned on the first expedition. This first independent journey took Paul into Greece. Only at the very end do we get a fixed date. He met the proconsul Gallio in Corinth in August AD 51. From it we work backwards, trying to fit everything in by guesswork. The beginning of this journey cannot be later than the spring of AD 46 when the snow had melted from the Cilician Gates and the high country beyond.

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Paul’s Apprenticeship

Posted by on May 13, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Paul’s intense fortnight’s reflection on the historical Jesus with Peter in Jerusalem must have filled him with fervour to tell the story of this extraordinary man. We should have expected Paul to rush into an intense missionary campaign. If so, it took place in Syria and Cilicia, but it has left no trace, and Paul effectively disappears for three years. We pick up his story again around AD 40 when Barnabas recruited him to work in Antioch-on-the-Orontes.

The infant church there had suffered persecution. The mother church in Jerusalem responded by sending a Jewish Cypriot convert called Joseph, to stabilize the demoralized community. His nickname Barnabas (meaning ‘son of consolation’) might explain why he was chosen for the task, or reflect the memory of what he achieved at Antioch.

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Jesus the Dead Messiah

Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Peter must have been deeply touched by Paul’s insatiable curiosity about Jesus. It is likely that Paul’s detailed inquiries brought to the surface of his mind incidents and impressions that he had fogotten. To this extent they delighted in a common quest. There was one important issue, however, on which they might have differed.

The stress that Paul laid on the crucifixion of Jesus set him apart from other preachers among the first Christians. The others mentioned the death of Jesus, and underlined its sacrificial dimension by saying that ‘he died for our sins’. They did not spell out exactly how it had happened. This attitude is perfectly understandable. It was difficult enough to preach a Saviour who had died without apparently achieving anything. It was immensely more difficult to preach a Saviour who had been executed as low class criminal.

Why, then, did Paul make the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he had heard as a Pharisee, the centerpiece of his preaching, when none of his contemporaries did? Just as Paul the Pharisee had seen to the heart of the fundamental opposition between Christianity and Judaism, while Christians did not, so too here Paul’s penetrating intelligence detected a problem that others did not perceive. If Jesus was the Messiah, he should not have died!

All Jews accepted that the Messiah would be the purifying leader of a holy people. He could not possibly be a sinner. His absolute righteousness was taken completely for granted. The Jewish Scriptures, however, taught that death was punishment for sin. It was not integral to human nature. The Book of Wisdom can serve as the representative of a series of texts reaching back to Genesis and forward to the second century AD, “God created humanity in a state of incorruptibility. In the image of his own eternity he made it. But through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2: 23-24). If the Messiah was not a sinner, then death had no claim on him.

While Jewish scholars, such as Paul, would have been conscious of the force of this argument, the vast majority of Jews would have associated the Messiah with the last great victory of good over evil. The advent of the Messiah was seen as the glorious climax to history beyond which no one thought to venture. Inevitably the Messiah was thought of in terms of eternity. Why should he die?

Paul’s dilemma should now be clear. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but he also knew that Jesus had died. Both points were certain. The absolute streak in Paul’s character meant that he could not live with this contradiction. There had to be a resolution, but not by the calculated ambiguity of compartmentalization, nor by the abandonment one or other fact.

Eventually Paul realized that only one solution was possible. If someone on whom death had no claim actually died, then that person must have chosen to die. All other human beings can only accept death, It will take them whether they like it or not. For Paul, Jesus did not suffer that restriction. His death was the result of a personal decision. Thus Paul repeatedly emphasizes that his death was self-sacrifice.

Once Paul had accepted that the death of Jesus was an act of self-sacrifice, a dead sinless Messiah ceased to be a problem. Its modality then became the central issue: why did Jesus choose the most horrible way to die, the agonizing suffering of crucifixion? It goes withoug saying that in posing such a question Paul was working backwards. Jesus did not have to die. But if he did in fact die, and in this particular way, then he must have chosen that form of death. Why?

The standard teaching that Paul inherited insisted that the death of Jesus had benefited humanity. Paul turned this the other way round. Jesus, he believed, intended his death to bring good to others. In Paul’s eyes such altruism could only be explained as an act of love. “He loved me, that is he gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This insight so overwhelmed Paul that henceforward he could not mention the death of Jesus without wanting others to appreciate the extraordinary depth and power of the love it revealed. In practice this meant forcing his hearers and readers to confront the ugly reality of the crucifixion. Hence his vow, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2: 2).

For Paul Jesus’ death became the key to the meaning of his life. It revealed to Paul that what makes a person genuinely human is the self-sacrificing love shown by Christ. This, above all, is what he wanted his readers to take to heart.

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With Peter in Jerusalem

Posted by on Apr 29, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


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).

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Three Years in Damascus

Posted by on Apr 22, 2011 in Bible Blog, Scripture Blogs |


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

When Paul rushed off to Arabia immediately after his conversion, he did not know what he was getting into. He acted impulsively without doing his homework on the situation there. A few questions in Damascus would have alerted him to a serious problem. Just at this moment the Nabataeans had very good reason to detest Jews.

The Jewish king of Galilee had repudiated his Nabataean wife. In response her father went to war and defeated the Galileans. They in turn screamed to Rome that the Nabataeans had disturbed the peace of the eastern frontier. The latter were now waiting anxiously for Rome to send its legions from Syria to devastate their country. Naturally they blamed the Jews for their misery.

I would be greatly surprised if Paul lasted a week in Arabia. The minute he opened his mouth he would have been known for what he was. No Jew would have been welcome.

No doubt somewhat chastened Paul returned to Damascus. It was beginning to sink in that to be an apostle of Jesus Christ was perhaps a little more complicated than he had anticipated. Pagans to whom he could preach would not have been a problem in Damascus. Merchants of many nations had trading bases there. Financial support was another matter.

As a student in Jerusalem Paul had lived on charity. Any supplement from his family would have been at risk as soon as he became a Christian. How was he to live? The church in Damascus could not afford to support its new converts, or even to give the impression that it was buying recruits.

Very much against the grain of his upbringing as a member of the leisured class, Paul quickly realized that he needed a marketable skill that would give him mobility. He would have to learn a trade. No doubt he thought long and carefully, and established a careful set of criteria.

It had to be a skill that was needed throughout the Roman empire, in great cities and small villages, on the road, and on the sea. It had to bring him into contact with all sectors of the population. The tools had to be small and easily carried. The job had to be quiet and sedentary so that he could preach as he worked. Finally his choice fell on the trade of tentmaker.

This might seem a curious choice to us, but in fact it was very clever. The essential skill is to join together pieces of canvas or leather in neat turned over seams. There were only six standard stitches. Travellers wore leather cloaks, belts, and sandals, and carried leather gourds. The wagons of the wealthy had canvas tops and leather tack. Paul could repair them all. He could thus pay his way on the great roads of the Greco-Roman world.

Experienced sea travellers knew that cargo ships had no cabins. So they brought small tents that they set up on deck to protect themselves from sun and spray. The tents also provided shelter when the ship docked at night. Paul could earn his passage by patching sails.

More importantly every town and village had its festival, and had to provide tented accomodation for visitors and traders. Corinth, for example, hosted the Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. Every second year in the spring a hugh tent city blossomed at Isthmia (9 km from the city) to cater for the 50,000 or so visitors from all over the Greek world. Their needs were met by merchants from Corinth who lived in their booths for the week. To meet its obligations the municipality of Corinth employed tentmakers all the year round. It was there that Paul first worked with Prisca and Aquila, who had been converted in Rome, and were to become his advance party first in Ephesus and later in Rome.

The need to earn his way would often have slowed Paul’s departure from an inn in the morning. He could not afford to refuse work. But that might mean that he would not cover the 25 Roman miles to the next inn by nightfall. He tells us that he often had “sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, cold and badly dressed” (2 Corinthians 11:27). He had been caught in the open. He might have been desperately tired when he tramped into a strange town, but first he had to find food, a place to live, and above all a job. In the slums there was little charity. Paul needed extraordinary courage and stamina to struggle on day after day, “on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in danger at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:26).

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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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