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Paul’s Achilles Heel


Paul of Tarsus was not only a malleable instrument in the hands of God, but was most admirable because of the richness of his personality. On the one hand, he was a well educated member of both the Hebrew and the Hellenistic cultures. He was able to build cogent arguments and to analyze what others argue with critical acumen (2 Cor. 3: 4 – 18); Gal. 3: 15; 4: 21 – 31; Rom. 5: 10, 15, 17). He trusted the intelligence of his audience and their capacity to evaluate what he said or wrote. On numerous occasions he invited his readers to judge what he was saying and make their own evaluations of the merits of his presentations (1 Cor. 10: 14; 14: 20; 2 Cor. 13: 5; Gal 3: 1; Rom. 13: 3). All these characteristics mark him as an intellectual in the best sense of the word.

It is common for those with inferior intellects to impose their point of view and to think that their audiences are to be protected rather than challenged. Those who are confident of what they say and of the limits of their understanding tend rather to allow their audiences to decide for themselves what they are going to believe or do. As a true intellectual Paul respects the reasoning capacities of his audience. In the case of the Thessalonians, for instance, he values the way in which they listened to what he had to say, evaluated it for themselves, and concluded that they had not heard the words of a man, but the words of God (I Thess. 2: 13).

On the other hand, Paul is also admirable for the way in which he identifies himself emotionally with his converts. They are to him children to whom he gave birth, with all the accompanying labor pains. He is their mother, it would seem. He also describes himself as their wet nurse who nourished them (1 Thess. 2: 7). He treats them the way a father treats his children (1 Thess. 2: 11). He reminds the Thessalonians he did not just share with them the gospel, but his very self. That demonstrates how dear they have become to him (1 Thess. 2: 8).

Having departed Thessalonica and now in Athens, Paul has learned that other Christian apostles have come to Thessalonica and have been telling his converts that Paul is not a legitimate Christian apostle, as his apologia in 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 9 makes plain. Paul has also learned that the Thessalonians are being harassed by their “own countrymen” (1 Thess. 2: 14). These developments are causing Paul great anxiety about their ability to stand firm. Knowing he must do something for them, Paul has made several attempts to return to Thessalonica to encourage them, but “Satan hindered” him from accomplishing what he planned (1 Thess. 2:  18). Whether the actual situation was poor health, lack of money, or some other reason, we do not learn.

As a last resort, Paul sent Timothy to take care of the crisis. Now Timothy has returned with good news, and Paul feels like life has returned to his body (1 Thess. 3: 8). Timothy informs him that the Thessalonian Christians stand firm in faith and love (1 Thess. 3: 6, 8). Besides, they think well of Paul, and they are as anxious to see him as he has been to see them (1 Thess. 3: 6). In other words, those who had spoken against Paul had not been successful in severing the ties that united Paul and his converts.

Paul ends his remarks about the deep anxiety he had experienced knowing that they were being tested, with a prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you” (1 Thess. 3: 12). Paul is the apostle of faith, but even more profoundly Paul is the apostle of love (1 Cor. 14: 1).

That the Thessalonians had gone through this trial, Paul tells them, has not been a surprise to him, and should not have been a surprise to them either. As he writes, “You yourselves know that this is to be our lot. For when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction: just as it has come to pass, and as you know” (1 Thess. 3; 3b-4). Paul says that the Thessalonians were afflicted by their “own countrymen”, just as the Christians in “the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea” were treated badly by their own countrymen, the Jews (1 Thess. 2: 14).

This parallelism between Judean Christians suffering afflictions at the hands of Jews with Thessalonian Christians suffering afflictions brought about by Thessalonians somehow sparked an emotional outburst in Paul, an outburst that was uncalled for and is painful to read. So much is this the case that many commentators consider verses 15 and 16 of chapter 2 to be a non-Pauline interpolation in a Pauline letter. As is well known, these verses were used in later Christian history to bring about untold suffering to innocent Jews, who were charged with being the killers of Christ who utterly deserved the fullness of God’s wrath. Many Christians through the centuries have felt called upon to be the agents of this unmerciful wrath.

A first impulse is to feel sorry for the tragic history of Jewish pogroms and to sweep these verses under the rug. That, however, would not be responsible reading of the Bible. If we wish to take these verses seriously we must reflect on Paul’s life story. What could have provoked him to write these words? When we consider Paul’s experience we soon find that he was a pariah within early Christianity. The “Holy Apostle Paul” of Christian tradition did not write the letters we now read. In fact, he was unknown during his lifetime. Even today, there are many Christians who mostly ignore or denigrate Paul for various reasons.

During his life, Paul was not a member of the inner circle of Christian leaders. He had to work far from the centers of Christian power, first Jerusalem and then Antioch. Wherever he went, other Christian apostles followed him with letters of recommendation from the leaders in Jerusalem, attempting to make sure that his converts became “real” Christians who followed the law and lived “as Jews” (Gal. 2: 14).

Today it is understood that on the road to Damascus Paul did not change religion from Judaism to Christianity. He changed his mission and the source of power for it. His mission had been to apply the discipline of the synagogue to those members who said that the crucified Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, the Christ. That mission was empowered by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. On the road to Damascus Paul abandoned that mission and took up the proclamation that indeed the Crucified was the Risen Christ, whom he had now seen. His new mission was empowered by the Holy Spirit that made his preaching effective and produced Christians who now lived the new life shared by all those who joined Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection.

This meant that for Paul, God had acted decisively in the resurrection of Christ. With it the law had reached its goal (Rom 10: 4). It had been the disciplinarian in charge of raising children to maturity (Gal. 3: 24). This way of understanding what God had done in Christ was considered by most Christians as apostasy from Judaism. Paul understood it as God’s new role for Judaism. The Christian community that gave us the gospel According to John shared Paul’s view of the matter, but it was also marginalized by mainstream Christianity.

Paul was neither anti-Judaic nor anti-Semitic, but he had little patience for those who used underhanded or violent methods to prevent the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that faith in Yahveh would become universal. He understood his opponents because he had once shared their zeal to keep the synagogues the way they were. He had been given, however, a new vision of God’s workings in history, and had re-thought the concept of election accordingly.

The remarkable thing about Paul’s outburst against those who persecute Jews like himself is that he gives two reasons for their deserved punishment. On the one hand, they killed the Messiah. On the other, they continually try to prevent the success of his mission. It is somewhat confusing that Paul puts together something that Jews did before the preaching about the Risen Christ had begun with what is being done to prevent him from accomplishing his mission. The “Jews” who “killed the Lord Jesus” certainly were not Christians, but the “Jews” who obstruct his mission with letters of recommendation from the Jerusalem apostles certainly were. It seems, then, that Paul is conflating the Jewish Christians who wish to keep Christianity a Jewish sect with the Jews who rejected the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. In his view, God has given Judaism a new mission and these “Jews” refuse to understand.

The emotional outburst against those who refuse to see Jesus as the instrument used by God to create a new humanity is to be seen in connection with the very combative letter To the Galatians, where Paul also wrote something that we would rather sweep under the rug. Unhappy about those who insist on circumcising Gentiles who become Christians, Paul tells them that instead of cutting the foreskins of others they should do a thorough job on themselves and cut their penises off (Gal. 5: 12). Certainly when he wrote that, like when he wrote 1 Thess. 2: 15 -16, Paul was heatedly upset. His forbearance was being tested to the limit, and he gave in to his strong feelings.

I must confess that I consider myself a Christian in the Pauline tradition. I find Paul a most appealing model as a totally committed, reasonable, caring and obviously human apostle who desperately tried to make Judaism a religion for all humanity. That he did flash out in impulsive outbursts against those who undermined his mission, when it was based, as he says, on revelation, is another feature of his rich personality that I find endearing. It demonstrates that God’s instruments don’t need to cease being human. Taking into account someone’s Achilles heel should not prevent us from admiring and loving him/her, be it in our mother, our father or the apostle Paul. I would much rather have a very human angry Paul than a very human sanctimonious moralizer who worries about what others may say.

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