Dr IAN ELMER…
Ian Elmer today takes us back before St Paul's conversion on he road to Damascus to explore the nature of his conversion not just from the point of view of scholarly or historical interest. The trasnformation in the outlook of St Paul has sharp lessons for the Church of today.
Paucity of information about the early Paul...
Paul tells us very little about his faith journey prior to his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He does not even tell us the place of his birth. The tradition that he was born in Tarsus, a town in the district of Cilicia in Asia Minor, derives from the Lukan Acts of the Apostles (9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3). We have no reason, however, to doubt this information, just as Luke would have no reason to invent the data that Paul was a Diaspora Judean. Indeed, Paul himself speaks of going to the "districts of Syria and Cilicia" (Gal 1:21) soon after his initial visit with Peter in Jerusalem (c. 36 CE), which might suggest a return home after his first tentative missionary work in Arabia (Gal 1:17).
Despite the fact that, after his encounter with the Risen Lord, Paul joined the Law-free mission of the Hellenists, Paul was proud of Judean heritage. After facing down attacks from Christian-Jewish opponents in Galatia and Corinth, Paul boasts of being a better Judean than his opponents. Amidst these battles he wrote to the Philippians (3:4-5; cf. 2 Cor 11:22) of his credentials as an "Israelite, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee". Earlier in Galatians (1:13-14), he answered the slander of his opponents (1:10, 13; cf. 5:11) by putting the record straight about his "former life in Judaism", when he claims that he had been "extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers" (1:14; cf. Phil 3:6).
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (1996: 32) observes that Paul's retailing of his Judean credentials suggests Paul was the child of an expatriate family, Diaspora Judeans. Like the descendants of modern-day Irish immigrants in the US or Australia who are often described as being "more Irish than the Irish", so Diaspora Judeans of Paul's time were always vocal in defense of their Judean ethnicity — "Hebrews born of Hebrews" (cf. Phil 3:5). While this might partially support Luke's contention that Paul was from Tarsus, it explicitly confirms that Paul was once an ardent advocate of Law-observance, even to the point of zealotry (Gal 1:14; Phil 3:6). In Philippians, he claims to have never broken the Law (Phil 3:6).
Paul's Christian-Jewish opponents at Galatia and Corinth seem to have made much of Paul's former legalistic zeal, pointing out how he once preached circumcision (Gal 5:11) and persecuted Christians as apostates (Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 15:9). Paul is hard-pressed to defend his conversion to Law-free Christianity; it was, after all, a remarkable redirection in his faith journey, a complete change of mind (metanoia). Just to demonstrate how far Paul had travelled since his early Law-observant days is evident in his comment to the Philippians (3:8) that he now considered his former legalism as "skubalon", a Greek vulgarity that is best translated as "dung", or better, "crap" (as it is translated in the recent Scholars Version of the New Testament).
Live by "the Spirit" not "the letter of the Law"…
Calvin Roetzel (1999: 45) argues that "Paul's allusion to his considerable achievements in law observance as 'dung' (Phil 3:8) was less a repudiation of Jewish observance than a revelation of it in the light of Christ". It is not that Paul ceased to be proud of his Judean heritage and his former zealous Law-observance, but that his conversion rendered such legalism null-and-void. In Galatians (3:24) he speaks of the purpose of the Law as a "disciplinarian" or "child-minder" that guides our first faltering steps in living a life of faith; but "now that faith [in Christ] has come we are no longer subject to the disciplinarian" (3:25). If we truly want to embrace the Christ life, Paul argues, we must live by the "Spirit" and not the letter of the Law, for legalism and the mature spiritual life are incompatible (Gal 5:18).
Legalism has always been the greatest temptation in the history of Christianity. The Pauline letters in particular testify to Paul's problems with such legalists. By the standards of his fellow Judeans, Paul's conversion to Law-free Christianity meant that he became apostate. He placed himself beyond the boundary fence marking "good" Jew from "bad" Jew; or, more accurately in Paul's case, the boundary between "ethnic" Jew and "uncircumcised" Gentile. In a very real sense the whole of the New Testament grew out of this struggle to justify the "criminal" actions of those founders of Christianity, like Paul and the Hellenists, who chose to depart from the legalistic faith of their childhood.
It is almost ironic that many in today's church want to side with the original enemies of Paul, the legalists and Law-keepers who put the "letter" of the Law before charity, love and justice. But that is probably understandable. There is something comforting and reassuring about being a "letter of the law" type. There is no challenge to grow up and be liberated from the "disciplinarian" of youth. One does not have to think for oneself; and one can easily shrug off responsibilities for one's own actions by claiming to be "only following the law". There is even a perverse joy in being able to sit in judgment of others and their perceived "law-breaking".
Far greater is the challenge of embracing the maturity that Paul called us to: to take responsibility for our own lives by living by the "Spirit" rather than hiding behind the "letter" of the Law.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Ian Elmer