Be­sides be­ing a gifted evan­ge­list, was Saint Paul a misog­y­nist?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Paul Bau­mann is editor of Com­mon­weal. RE­VIEW BY PAUL BAU­MANN

De­spite be­ing clearly writ­ten and a mere 143 pages long, “St. Paul” is an of­ten dense and ex­as­per­at­ing book. Karen Arm­strong, a pop­u­lar and pro­lific author­ity on re­li­gion (“A His­tory of God,” “The Bat­tle for God: Fun­da­men­tal­ism in Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam” and, most re­cently, “Fields of Blood: Re­li­gion and the His­tory of Vi­o­lence”), wants to res­cue Saint Paul from the rep­u­ta­tion he has ac­quired as an au­thor­i­tar­ian and misog­y­nist. Ac­cord­ing to her, such ac­cu­sa­tions are the re­sult of mis­read­ings or tam­per­ing by later, less egal­i­tar­ian-minded ed­i­tors with Paul’s “au­then­tic” New Tes­ta­ment writ­ings. In­stead of the of­ten oblique and even in­scrutable Paul we find in scrip­ture, Arm­strong’s apos­tle is a kind of glo­ried com­mu­nity ac­tivist, or a first-cen­tury Bernie San­ders. Paul, in this read­ing, evolved from a fer­vent pros­e­ly­tizer for the risen Christ into an “in­trepid op­po­nent of em­pire” whose reli­gious con­vic­tions were “less about doc­trine than a so­cial im­per­a­tive.”

Among other things, Paul is known for be­ing knocked off his horse while on the road to Da­m­as­cus by the ap­pear­ance of the res­ur­rected Je­sus. Hav­ing com­manded his at­ten­tion, Je­sus de­manded to know why Paul, a punc­til­ious ob­server of Jewish law, was “per­se­cut­ing” his fel­low Jews who be­longed to the nascent Je­sus move­ment. This ex­tra­or­di­nary mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence turned Paul from a ded­i­cated en­emy into the fore­most evan­ge­lizer for the strug­gling sect. His mis­sion­ary work brought him to pre­dom­i­nantly gen­tile ar­eas of the Ro­man Em­pire, such as An­ti­och, Corinth, Athens, Gala­tia and fi­nally to Rome (al­though Arm­strong has fash­ion­able doubts that he ever made it there). The most press­ing ques­tion Paul faced in preach­ing the gospel to the gen­tiles was whether dis­ci­ples of Christ had to un­dergo male cir­cum­ci­sion and ad­here to other Jewish rit­ual prac­tices. Ini­tially, the lead­ers of the Je­sus move­ment in Jerusalem in­sisted that was so. Af­ter all, Je­sus was the Jewish Mes­siah. The Bi­ble promised sal­va­tion to ob­ser­vant Jews, not pa­gans. Why should gen­tiles now get a pass from the Jewish God?

Paul’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the faith of gen­tile con­verts con­vinced him oth­er­wise. Je­sus’s spir­i­tual pres­ence among gen­tile Chris­tians was man­i­fest in the mir­a­cles, heal­ings and love of one an­other abun­dantly ev­i­dent in their com­mu­ni­ties. In a se­ries of con­fronta­tions with elders in the new faith, Paul’s views even­tu­ally won the day. At least that is the canon­i­cal story. Arm­strong ar­gues that Paul’s ef­forts at rec­on­cil­ing his gen­tile com­mu­ni­ties with the Jerusalem church ended in fail­ure. With the Ro­man de­struc­tion of the Jewish tem­ple and the ex­pul­sion of Jews from Pales­tine in A.D. 70, the Je­sus move­ment in Jerusalem dis­ap­peared. Gen­tile Chris­tian­ity won by de­fault but soon be­trayed Paul’s teach­ings by mak­ing peace with Rome and re­plac­ing an egal­i­tar­ian com­mu­nity ethos with a pa­tri­ar­chal and hi­er­ar­chi­cal one.

In mak­ing her case, Arm­strong re­sorts to some du­bi­ous as­ser­tions. This is a book filled with “maybes.” She writes that the gospels “in­tro­duced a fiery, apoc­a­lyp­tic el­e­ment . . . that may not have been present in Je­sus’s orig­i­nal teach­ings.” By any mea­sure, that is a mi­nor­ity opin­ion. Saint Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apos­tles, which tell us much of what we know about Paul, is ac­cused of want­ing to dis­so­ci­ate the Je­sus move­ment from Ju­daism. But like Paul, Luke wanted to con­nect the Chris­tian sect to Is­rael. Nor, as Arm­strong con­tends, does Luke think of Paul’s ex­pe­ri­ence of Je­sus’s res­ur­rec­tion as qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from the ex­pe­ri­ence of the 12 apos­tles. Paul never had much in­ter­est in the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus, Arm­strong writes. Yet a few pages later, she notes that Paul’s faith was “rooted in his­tor­i­cal events,” such as Je­sus’s cru­ci­fix­ion. Her ac­count of the cru­ci­fix­ion and Paul’s death, which ar­gues that nei­ther re­ceived much at­ten­tion, is en­tirely spec­u­la­tive. Else­where, she refers anachro­nis­ti­cally to the Ro­man Em­pire as a “free mar­ket econ­omy.” Arm­strong also likes to de­scribe Paul’s views as “lib­eral,” and those op­posed to him as “con­ser­va­tive,” mis­lead­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, to say the least, of first-cen­tury de­bates about reli­gious ob­ser­vance or so­cial struc­tures.

Arm­strong takes great pains to as­sure read­ers that Paul’s de­mands that women be silent and cover their heads in church are ne­far­i­ous later in­ter­po­la­tions. But schol­arly sup­port for that sup­po­si­tion is at best mixed. As Arm­strong ac­knowl­edges, Paul’s writ­ings pro­vide plenty of ev­i­dence of his re­spect for es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal author­ity and in­her­ited so­cial roles. Isn’t it more likely that his con­flicted views re­gard­ing women re­flect a strug­gle to rec­on­cile the gospel’s egal­i­tar­ian im­per­a­tives with the Ro­man and Jewish tra­di­tions in which he was steeped? There is no res­o­lu­tion of that ten­sion in Paul’s New Tes­ta­ment writ­ings. For as Arm­strong also al­lows, Paul was not a sys­tem­atic thinker but a pas­tor re­spond­ing to dis­crete con­flicts in par­tic­u­lar churches. Nor is Arm­strong con­vinc­ing when she ar­gues that Paul came to see “his con­gre­ga­tions had to be brought down to earth” to pre­vent them from “waft­ing off on airy spir­i­tual ad­ven­tures.” Yes, he wanted his com­mu­ni­ties to be or­derly and an­chored to sound bi­b­li­cal moral­ity. But, con­trary to Arm­strong’s as­ser­tion, the “first prin­ci­ples of the Je­sus move­ment” were not “con­cen­trated on build­ing mu­tu­ally sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ties as an al­ter­na­tive to the op­pres­sive im­pe­rial or­der.” The first prin­ci­ples of the Je­sus move­ment were, in fact, not “down to earth” at all. For as Paul wrote to those very fol­low­ers in Corinth who were “waft­ing off,” if “Christ has not been raised, your faith is fu­tile and you are in your sins.”

The fi­nal chap­ter of “St. Paul” is sar­don­ically or iron­i­cally ti­tled “Afterlife.” But the res­ur­rected life Paul so pas­sion­ately be­lieved in is ab­sent. In­stead, we are firmly brought back down to Earth. Arm­strong is con­vinced that the usurpers of Paul’s legacy, the popes and their hench­men, in­sisted on pre­sent­ing Christ as “van­quish­ing cos­mic rather than earthly pow­ers.” Ear­lier in the book, Arm­strong noted that Paul thought in pre­cisely th­ese cos­mic terms. In­deed, in Paul’s view, Je­sus’s sac­ri­fice on the cross had rec­on­ciled a sin­ful hu­mankind to its for­giv­ing creator. Which is to say, Paul was a far stranger and more elu­sive char­ac­ter than Arm­strong imag­ines, and his legacy more para­dox­i­cal still. Paul was con­vinced that the world would shortly come to an end and that Christ would re­turn in glory to judge the liv­ing and the dead. Two thou­sand years later, a re­mark­able num­ber of peo­ple be­lieve that sce­nario is still in the cards — or long to be­lieve it. Much of the credit for sus­tain­ing that im­prob­a­ble but tena­cious faith be­longs to one of his­tory’s most fa­mously in­ept eques­tri­ans.


Saint Paul the Apos­tle on the walls of a cat­a­comb be­neath Rome in a fourth­cen­tury de­pic­tion that Vat­i­can archaeologists think is the old­est im­age of him.

By Karen Arm­strong New Har­vest. 143 pp. $20 ST. PAUL The Apos­tle We Love to Hate

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