Give St. Paul back to the people

St. Paul Logo Graphic

June 30, 2008

If the Year of St. Paul aims at anything, it should be to give St. Paul back to the masses.

Paul was an ordinary man, a tentmaker, who wrote letters of encouragement and correction to ordinary people in the first century.

Yet, over the millennia, those letters have become more and more the preserve of scholars. Scholars and religious ideologues have sometimes treated Paul as a systematic theologian laying the foundation of a new religion. The major Bible translations in use today present a Paul who wrote with tortured syntax that is often inaccessible to the average reader.

Yet, in recent decades, many scholars have begun to realize this fault and to campaign against it.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantamalessa, the preacher to the papal household since 1980, wrote in his commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans, "His aim was certainly not to give the Christians of Rome - and the Christians of later generations - a difficult text on which to exercise their critical acumen but rather to impart some spiritual gift to them so that they would be strengthened and mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Life in Christ, p. 1).


N.T. Wright, a leading scholar and a Church of England bishop, has retranslated Paul's letters into more readable English for his marvellous series of commentaries entitled Paul for Everyone. "My main aim has been to be sure that the words can speak not just to some people, but to everyone," Wright explained.

St. Paul is too important to be left to the theologians. His writings are foundational to our faith. Those letters are the basis not only of Christian theology, but also of Christian spirituality. Some of them are considered to be the earliest New Testament writings, closer to Jesus historically than even the Gospels.


A stained glass window depicts the conversion of St. Paul.

In a general audience talk in 2006, Pope Benedict said St. Paul "shines like a star of the brightest magnitude in the Church's history."

Our faith is not what it could be if we ignore or marginalize St. Paul's writings. Conversely, reading Paul and plumbing the depths of what he has to say will enrich our faith.

In recent times, it has sometimes been thought and occasionally said out loud that Jesus was a Jewish reformer who taught a simple way of life and preached about God's reign while Paul turned Jesus into the Son of God and started a new religion. This is a hopelessly wrong-headed understanding.


It is not at all likely that Paul thought Christianity was a new religion. He was a Jew, a faithful Jew, a member of the most strident sect of the Pharisees.

While most Jews did not accept that Jesus was the Messiah, Paul's preaching that he was did not constitute a heresy or a rupture with Judaism.

Saul of Tarsus underwent a conversion on the road to Damascus. It was a radical conversion. He went from persecuting followers of "The Way" to making Jesus the very core of his life. He understood that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, the longings of the prophets that the covenant between God and his chosen people extend to the ends of the earth would be fulfilled. The covenant would be made universal.

Paul did the logical thing. He preached the Good News to non-Jews, the Gentiles. He preached it tirelessly and with incredible perseverance. He preached the Good News of universal inclusion in God's covenant of love.


If today we are inclined to see Paul as a moralizing, paternalistic sexist who tolerated slavery, we need to remember that. Of all the early Christians, Paul was the clearest about there being no exclusive religious elite. All are equal in God's reign.

Paul told the Christians in Corinth: "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13).

The law determining relations among the followers of Jesus is not one of dominance and submission. It is one of mutual acceptance and charity.

This was a revolutionary insight, one that has led directly to the democratic, egalitarian thrust of Western societies. It is no wonder that Paul was knocked off his horse (except that it's unlikely that he had a horse). The world would change forever because of God's extension of the covenant to all.

There is much more to be said about this. So, over the next year, I will endeavour to do so with this series of articles written to help our readers through the year of St. Paul that begins June 28.

I have no special qualifications to do this. OK, the archbishop and the WCR's board of directors entrust me with the task of commenting on matters of faith and its intersection with contemporary society.

But I am not a theologian. Like you, I am one of the average Christians to whom Paul addressed his letters. Over the last few months, I have read several commentaries on St. Paul's writings to help me better understand this subject and to avoid errors in interpretation. But I do not try to present scholarly expertise in this series of articles.

My desire is that these articles will lead you to deepen your understanding of our faith by meditating on Paul's letters. I have found my own study of St. Paul to be enriching and I hope you will find the same.