Friday, August 1, 2008

Saint Paul as a Person

We celebrate the Year of Saint Paul. Let me share with you one of my essays about Saint Paul's personality and relationships.

There are many books written about Saint Paul’s theology, world, life, his Judaism and missionary trips. Saint Paul was examined from all possible angles, aspects and perspectives. But exegetes seem to be hesitant to write about Saint Paul as a person, which may be understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the sources that may be used in writing about Saint Paul as a person are very limited. Michael J. Gorman gathers four kinds of sources that are used in exploring Saint Paul’s life: seven undisputable letters, six disputable letters, the book of Acts and other documents such as inscriptions, archeological evidence, etc (Gorman 41). More liberal exegetes however, (e.g. E.P Sanders, R. Bultmann), limit these sources to seven undisputable letters and tend to devaluate the information from Acts and other letters. Even though I am far from neglecting the historical value of Acts, considering the length and scope of this essay, I will focus specifically on data included in the seven undisputable letters, since almost all exegetes agree that these letters have Paul’s authorship. I will also use other letters since there is no doubt that they contain some historical data. Secondly, the information about Paul as a person is considered by some to be of no use in exploring his theology, life or Christian communities established by him. Although I would agree with this position to some extent, I think that to know Saint Paul as a person can certainly help to understand and explore some aspects of his letters, some aspects of his theology and the way he dealt with others.
In this essay, I will focus on few aspects. Firstly, I will try to gather some information about the external image of Saint Paul and try to answer the question of how he might have looked like. I will also mention the probable disease of Saint Paul. Secondly, I will examine some of Saint Paul’s ways of treating others and his relationships. As a final remark, I have to confess, that it was Joachim Gnilka’s book, Paulus von Tarsus, that inspired me to examine the subject. Keeping the above plan in mind, I will now explore the issue.
There is no way that we can possibly know how Saint Paul looked like. In the same way, we do not possess this kind of information about any other ancient figure, including Jesus. We do not have a picture of Saint Paul and there is no text that may contain information about his external image. Our desire to see Paul is somehow similar to the desire of Christians from Colossae and Laodicea, who “have never seen him face to face” (Col 2:1). Joachim Gnilka mentions Acta Pauli et Theclae that enclose information about the external image of Paul as a bold, short man and crooked legs (Gnilka 404). Many exegetes doubt any historical value of this text. I will leave the judgment to the reader. I would think, however, that the information about the height and posture of Saint Paul may be historical, considering his inclinations to diseases, as mentioned for instance in his letter to the Galatians.
The scholars have disputed the nature of Saint Paul’s disease. Maybe it was some kind of disease related to his eyes (Gal 4:15), as NJBC may suggest? We will never know that for sure. In 2 Cor 12:7, Paul mentions “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to better make and prevent me from getting above myself”. Speaking about “being co-crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19), Saint Paul referred to Christian baptism, but might have as well spoke about his own sufferings. He “carries branded on his body the marks of Christ” (Gal 6:17). Is he talking about the stigmata here? Joseph A. Fitzmayer suggests that the Greek word stigmata did not mean what this word often means in English today (NJBC 790). Regardless of the nature of the causes of his sufferings, I am amazed that Paul, in facing so many difficulties, was still able to accomplish so much. The weakness of his body was strengthened by the power of his spirit and by his deep faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ. The lesson for us today is that even though we may suffer and not have enough bodily strength, the power of Christ in us can do amazing things. Saint Paul is thus a wonderful example of how to handle suffering and pain.
The second problem I would like to explore is the way in which Saint Paul related to other individual persons and entire communities. Almost all scholars today agree that the typical picture of Saint Paul as a kind of “lone ranger” and “lone missionary” is not supported by historical data. Saint Paul is always surrounded by other people who helped him in his mission. Marion L. Soards says that “the usual image of Paul is of a shrewd, energetic, tenacious, individual preacher, but one should recognize that Paul’s missionary activity was a team work” (Soards 28). Wayne A. Meeks in his book The First Urban Christians, which is an excellent description of the social world of the Apostle Paul, proves that Saint Paul’s communities were very united and interpersonal.
What interests us is how Saint Paul related to Christian communities. Saint Paul’s adversaries from the community of Corinth accused him of being so humble when facing others, but full of boldness at a distance (2 Cor 10:1). This is a very interesting statement, in my opinion, which tells us a lot about Saint Paul. We know from the other letters, especially First Thessalonians, that Saint Paul had a deep affection and love for this community. He was like a mother and father for them (2:1-12). Does that mean that he was weak and afraid to challenge others face to face as 2 Cor 10:1 may suggest? I do not think so. Saint Paul was able to challenge others, when the truth of the law-free Gospel was at stake, not only in his letters, but also in person. His passion for the truth and inner strength allowed him to challenge Saint Peter “who was manifesting in the wrong” (Gal 2:11). He was therefore very passionate about his faith and not afraid to challenge even the first of the Apostles.
Paul is not afraid to express his feelings and emotions. We can see it in many of his letters when he challenges, begs, asks, greets, thanks, praises etc. There is no letter in which his feelings and personal involvement in the particular community are not present. As an example, I would like to recall one of his most personal letters, the Letter to Philemon, one of my favorite letters of Saint Paul because it shows the Apostles heart. Paul writes to Philemon asking him to accept his slave Onesimus back as he would welcome Paul himself (Gorman 458). The language that he uses is very warm, gentle and informs us about his deep relationship with Onesimus. “I am sending him back to you – that is to say, sending you my own heart” (Philemon 12). In short, the letter shows us the gentle heart of the Apostle, his heroic love of neighbor rooted in the love of Christ, his generosity, goodness and delicacy. What a wonderful example for every pastor of how to deal with brothers and sisters!
It is definitely impossible to describe Saint Paul’s rich personality on the four pages of the essay. Scholars and exegetes mostly focus on Saint Paul’s theological ideas and the influence that he had on theology. I agree that to explore the theology of the Apostle is a fascinating theological enterprise; nonetheless, I believe that to explore Saint Paul’s personality may help one to explore his theology. His theology is deeply rooted in his most personal experience of Jesus Christ, his experience of faith. The danger is, in my opinion, that in focusing on the theology of the Apostle, one may completely forget that this theology flows from the experiences, personality and spirituality of the particular person, Saint Paul himself. His theology is most visible in his life, his experiences, and relationships with others, his sufferings and his struggles. Saint Paul’s theology is ultimately about Jesus Christ, whom he experienced in his life and whom he loved to the end. Saint Paul is an example for every Christian of what the grace of Christ is able to do in one’s heart if we only let the grace work. Saint Paul was a great missionary, great preacher and great theologian. For me, Saint Paul is first and foremost a saint, a person who devoted his entire life for Christ and loved his Savior with heroic love. As long as I keep it in mind, I will not get lost in studying his letters.
If you are interested in reading something interesting about Saint Paul, check out these sources. Paul: A Critical Life by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor is a classic.

Brown, Raymond E. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cousar, Charles B. The Letters of Paul. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Ellis, Peter F. Seven Pauline Letters. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982.

Gnilka, Joachim. Paweł z Tarsu: Apostoł i świadek. Kraków: Wydawnictwo M, 2001.

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Jelonek, Tomasz. Wprowadzenie do listów świetego Pawła. Kraków: Wydawnictwo WAM, 1998.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Soards, Marion L. The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to His Writings and Teaching. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1987.

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