Dr IAN ELMER…
Easter bears down on us. For many it is looked forward to as a break — a time for rest and recreation, a time to enjoy "the good life" our work has secured for us. Dr Ian Elmer's commentary today on St Paul is in part triggered by the recent discussion in the forum on the good life, the pleasant life, and the meaningful life. What are we here to live? We have a choice. In choosing to follow Christ though we often have to put up with much. It can be a life in chains. Do we choose to follow Christ in order to become mannacled or in order to secure a freedom that breaks all the chains that bind us? Perhaps that might be our collective reflection this Easter and use Dr Elmer's reflection on St Paul as the starting point...
How much does Paul model what it means to follow Christ?
One of Paul's proudest boasts was that he had worked harder, travelled further and suffered a great deal more than any of the other apostles (1 Cor 15:9-10). In 2 Corinthians (6:3-13; 11:23-33) he catalogues the trials and tribulations he had experienced for the sake of his "children" (6:13), which included "far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death" (11:23).
What made this even more remarkable is Paul's age. As we noted in an earlier commentary (Elmer, 2008), Paul would have been close to sixty years of age in the early fifties when he was evangelising the cities of the Aegean Basin.
Paul's career was anything but a "cake walk". He stands as a clear example of an issue that we were discussing last week in the forum concerning the difference between the "good life" and "pleasant life" (Coyne, 2009). Paul pursued the "good life", but it was far from pleasant.
As testament to "many" imprisonments Paul experienced, we find that four of his letters are explicitly written from prison — Philippians, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians. Although these four letters are traditionally ascribed to Paul in his Roman captivity, the authors say nothing beyond the words "prisoner in Jesus Christ". Rome is nowhere mentioned in any of the so-called "prison letters". The only possible Roman reference is to "Caesar's household" in Philippians (4.22), and a curious use of "praetorium" in Philippians 1.13:
"My imprisonment has become well-known in Christ throughout the whole praetorium, and in all other places".
Does this suggest that at least Philippians was written from Rome? While such a claim would seem unlikely — as we shall see — Philippians does give us an insight into the kind of trials and tribulations Paul did experience for the sake of his "children".
The opening salutation of Philippians (1:7, 13-14, 16) makes it clear that Paul was in prison when he penned this epistle. In the past commentators had generally accepted that this must refer to either Paul's imprisonment in Rome, or at Caesarea prior to his transfer to Rome and, accordingly, date Philippians in the early 60s (Martin, 1994: 20-28). More recently there has been a shift towards Ephesus as the place of composition, with dates ranging around 52-54 C.E. (Murphy-O'Connor, 1996; Jewett, 1979).
This line of argument posits a hypothetical imprisonment for Paul during his extended stay there. Acts makes no mention of Paul being incarcerated at Ephesus, but it does place Paul in Ephesus for a long period of time (19:8, 10), perhaps some two and half years (c. 52-55 C.E.).
Paul tells us that his Ephesian sojourn was marked out not only by great opportunity for effective missionary work, but also by a great deal of opposition to that work (1 Cor 16:8-9).
In 2 Corinthians (6:5; 11:23) Paul speaks of the trials that accompanied his ministry, including "frequent" imprisonments. Moreover, he specifically alludes to the hardships he and his companions suffered in Asia (2 Cor 1:8-11), when they were in deadly peril (1:10) and felt the sentence of death (1:9); which must be equated to his earlier statement about fighting wild beasts in Ephesus (1 Cor 15:32).
If such comments are not mere hyperbole on Paul's part, it could be that he is referring literally to a situation in Ephesus where he was imprisoned awaiting a trial that would result in a sentence of death ad bestias in the arena.
It is important to note, as F. Watson (1986: 73) observes, that 1 Corinthians 15:32 functions as part of a larger argument for the resurrection of the dead. In effect Paul is arguing, "If the dead are not raised, what human hope would I have had if I had fought wild animals in the arena at Ephesus?"
Even should we accept a more metaphorical interpretation of this statement, it seems that Paul did suffer real physical danger at Ephesus, which he perceived as constituting a genuine threat upon his life. And one of the simplest ways of explaining this is to posit an Ephesian imprisonment, which Paul genuinely felt might result in his execution.
St Paul in Chains…
The image of "Paul in chains" is one of those great enduring icons of Christianity. The image was one that Paul, and his later disciples who wrote Colossians (4:3, 18) and Ephesians (6:10), exploited to good effect. In Romans (16:7), for example, Paul greets Andronicus and Junia as family and as apostles because they had once shared a prison cell with him — again, possibly, at Ephesus (Murphy-O'Connor, 1996).
Earlier, in Philippians (1:3-26), Paul alludes to his troubles as a way of questioning the motives of his opponents — most likely, the so-called "false apostles" at Corinth of whom we have been speaking in recent weeks. Paul suggests that these rival missionaries have been emboldened by his imprisonment (1:14), and that they preached Christ out of envy and strife (1:17).
There is here, however, a clear absence of the bitterness that pervades Paul's attack on the false apostles in 2 Corinthians, or even earlier on the troublemakers at Galatia. Paul is willing to concede that his opponents preach Christ (1:14), criticising them not on the basis of doctrine, but only on the basis of their motives.
Paul is even willing to suggest that his many trials and tribulations, including his present imprisonment (1:7, 13-14) and his difficulties with rival missionaries, have only served to advance the gospel (cf. 1:12-18) by providing what we today might call "free publicity". As the modern advertisers' adage goes, "any press is good press".
Similarly, in his short letter to Philemon — one of the leaders and patrons of the church in Colossae (Phlm1, 7) — Paul appeals to his chains (and his advanced age) to ensure that Philemon's runaway slave, Onesimus, will be received as a "brother" and, perhaps even, returned to Paul so that he might continue to "serve" Paul in prison of behalf of Philemon.
The later author of Colossians draws heavily on Philemon, mentioning Onesimus (Col 4:9), and reminding the readers to "remember [Paul's] chains" (Col 4:18). The latter phrase was copied and transformed by the author of Ephesians so as to present Paul as an "ambassador in chains" (6:20) — but, despite its pseudonymous authorship, this view was completely Pauline.
Paul consistently revisited, revised and retold the catalogue of his trials, imprisonments and sufferings several times (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 6:4-5; 11:23-29; 12:10; Rom 8:35) precisely because they emphasised the way the apostolate mirrored the sufferings and death of Christ (Roetzel, 1999: 170).
The Imitation of Christ…
Although Paul believed that the sufferings he bore were a sine qua non of the life of an apostle, it was more than a private experience unique to him.
The beatings, imprisonments, mob attacks, stoning, shipwreck, danger from bandits, danger from hostile Jews, danger from angry Gentiles, and painful betrayal by "false brothers and sisters" (2 Cor 11:26) all presented physical associations with the passion of Jesus.
Similarly, the onerous toil, sleepless nights, inadequate clothing, cold, hunger, insult, discouragement and anxiety were the lot of every Christian called to the cruciform life. Indeed, the very scars Paul bore on his body from the physical blows and the depravation he experienced constituted a stigmata akin to the marks upon the crucified body of Christ (Gal 6:17).
Paul would be the first to suggest that his Christian career was a "good life" in that it forged an intimacy both with Christ and with the communities for whom Paul had worked so hard (1 Cor 9:2; 2 Cor :3-13; 11:23-33; cf. 1 Thess 1:6).
As we approach the Easter triduum, Paul's example provides excellent matter for contemplation. Few in the early Church saw as clearly as Paul the redemptive power of a spirituality focused upon the cross of Christ. We could do no better this Easter than to reflect on his magisterial passage on what for Paul constituted the "good life" in 2 Corinthians 4:5-12:
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
And from me, I wish you all a happy and holy Pasch! May it bring you renewed strength and encouragement to embrace the cruciform life anew.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
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©2009 Ian Elmer