Paul: An Assessment

In the last post, we took a deep look at Romans 9, and I was quite critical of what Paul had to say. However, in many ways, I actually feel sorry for Paul. Let me start by saying I’m no scholar, so my assessment of Paul and his motivations is likely way off. But I definitely get a particular impression of him when I read his writings, and I felt like sharing it.

First of all, I think that Paul really meant well. Just look at how he starts off Romans chapter 9:

I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

Paul knows that many of his fellow Jews did not follow after Jesus, so he worries about their souls. But he says that if he had the power, he would accept damnation on their behalf, if it would save them. That’s admirable.

I see Paul as a very educated and devout Jew who was struggling with the world in which he found himself. Imagine growing up and believing that you’re part of God’s chosen race, and that he has promised to one day send a Messiah who will save your people and lead them to glory. But in Paul’s time, it would be easy to wonder why this hadn’t happened. The Israelites had lived through captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. For centuries, they had been passed back and forth among the various world powers, and there was no end in sight.

In addition to the difficulties that came with the idea of a Jewish world power, Paul’s immersion in Greek culture probably made him quite sympathetic to the Greek way of life. Why would God only pursue a relationship with one group of people, when Paul could see that people were largely the same, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity?

In Jesus, Paul could reconcile both of those problems. Instead of viewing the Messiah as a physical ruler that would lead the Jewish nation to power, what if the Messiah was meant to bring spiritual deliverance? That would explain why God had left the Jews under foreign rule, and it opened up the possibility of a relationship with God for all people. As he thought about the Jewish scriptures, he felt that some passages seemed to allude to this very idea.

Of course, this did bring a problem as well. Many Jews had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and this made Paul worry about his countrymen. But in Romans 11, he wrote that there was still hope for the Jews — the door was always open for them to accept Jesus and gain their rightful place with God’s people.

There also seems to be some concern with the Problem of Evil. Why did good things happen to bad people? Why did bad things happen to good people? Why were there bad people at all? Why was there so much corruption in the Jewish leaders of his time? I think this is part of what he’s exploring in Romans 9. He’s trying to explain that bad people factor into God’s plan, by giving him opportunity to show his power and magnificence. And by comparison, they make God’s mercy seem even more amazing and extravagant. It’s a distasteful notion to most of us today, but in Paul’s time, a god that operates via “might makes right” probably seemed rather natural.

In a lot of ways, I can see how Paul came to view Christianity as a solution to the inconsistencies he was experiencing from the combination of his Greek culture and Jewish faith. It probably seemed like a convenient way to tie everything together into something more optimistic than the narrow definition of “God’s people” that Paul had grown up with. At least in Paul’s Christianity, there was an opportunity for all people to be saved, regardless of ethnicity.

As I said, I’m no scholar, so my ideas of Paul and his motivations are worth very little. They’re likely a good bit off the mark. But when I read his epistles, this is the impression of him I often get. I’d be interested to hear what you guys think…

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22 thoughts on “Paul: An Assessment”

  1. I find it quite easy to see Paul’s writing as a man inventing his own religion/faith even if that meant contradicting what Jesus was reported as teaching. To allow the Greeks and Romans into heaven takes a bit of twisting. Just the same, the idea of adapting religion to meet the needs of the people was hardly a new idea even in Paul’s time. If you look at what Jesus did to the Jewish faith Paul was just keeping up the tradition. Rome followed that lead and has been doing it ever since but without the convenience of a prophet to sanctify the changes in law. The Pope as prophet never really worked out well after the Nicene council.

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  2. In Jesus, Paul could reconcile both of those problems. Instead of viewing the Messiah as a physical ruler that would lead the Jewish nation to power, what if the Messiah was meant to bring spiritual deliverance?

    An easy out for Paul, IMO.

    I don’t like Paul to start with. As Arch has commented, he hijacked Yeshua and made him the “Christ” for the Gentiles.

    But beyond that, I find your analysis very thought-provoking … as are all your posts. 🙂

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  3. I really don’t have a great deal of light to shed on Paul, except to say how far he was from mainstream Jewish thinking, which was that the Messiah they were expecting, was to have been a warrior king, on the order of David, who would liberate them from their oppressors.

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  4. I have listed a few comments attributed to Paul. If someone where to write these today, we would automatically discount him as a Qwack not a “Man of God”

    Romans 3:7
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    7 “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?”
    Romans 7:17
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
    Romans 11:32
    New International Version (NIV)
    32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
    Romans 11:33
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    33 Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!
    1 Corinthians 1:21
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.
    1 Corinthians 11:1
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    11 1 And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.
    2 Corinthians 1:15
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    15 Since I was so sure of your understanding and trust, I wanted to give you a double blessing by visiting you twice—
    Ephesians 3:3
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    3 As I briefly wrote earlier, God himself revealed his mysterious plan to me.
    Ephesians 3:5
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    5 God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit he has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets.
    Ephesians 3:9
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    9 I was chosen to explain to everyone[a] this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning.
    Ephesians 3:13
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    13 So please don’t lose heart because of my trials here. I am suffering for you, so you should feel honored.
    Ephesians 6:5
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.
    Philippians 3:17
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    17 Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.
    Colossians 1:23
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    23 But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. The Good News has been preached all over the world, and I, Paul, have been appointed as God’s servant to proclaim it.
    Philemon 1:19
    New Living Translation (NLT)
    19 I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL!

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  5. And yet many Christians don’t know these scriptures exist . Why ? Because ministers don’t address them from the pulpit and they usually aren’t covered in bible studies.

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  6. That’s pretty much the core of my book — that Christians really don’t know the real story because it isn’t addressed from the pulpit. Not just Paul, but most of the primary doctrines.

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  7. Nan and kcchief, if the pastors and priests addressed these matters on the altars maybe we would have fewer believers and that wouldn’t be good for business

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  8. I was one of those believers makagutu. I look back today and wonder why it took me so long to question this stuff. One reason might be that Pastors also tend to use the same “Controlling Language” that Paul used 2,000 yrs ago. It seems to have worked pretty well but there are cracks in the foundation .

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  9. “…we would automatically discount him as a Qwack…”

    Or a US President,

    3. “As I briefly wrote earlier, God himself revealed his mysterious plan to me.”
    Ephesians 3:5

    or both

    “I trust god speaks through me.”
    ~ George W. Bush ~

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  10. Okay, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate.
    I rather side with Humphries belief that dear uncle Paul was made up.
    Many of the accounts in Acts are so implausible as to be nonsensical.

    And as for the ‘letters”.
    Well,now, I wrote a lot of letters once upon a time and I realise it is hard to believe but those I wrote to actually wrote back , which does not seem to be the case with those Paul wrote to.
    What, nobody had the teeniest query about Jesus?

    Dear Paul,
    My grandson has asked for a piece of the Genuine Cross, the bloodthirsty little bugger. Can you help?
    Yours In Jesus
    Bishop of Tarsus

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  11. “My grandson has asked for a piece of the Genuine Cross, the bloodthirsty little bugger.”

    If all the Catholic Churches possessed a piece of the Genuine Cross who claim to, there would be enough wood to build an entire village ! 🙂

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  12. Late to the party, but I have to agree with your other commentators. I haven’t read any of Paul’s writing in a very long time, but from what you just quoted and from your assessment, I don’t see someone with an open heart. Not at all. I see someone trying to twist words to control people. He’s looking at the Jews and saying, “Oh, you poor stupid Jews (or insert any other religion/belief/non-belief), I know what’s best for you because surely you don’t.” It’s rather arrogant and condescending (like most religions).

    I suppose, we could give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure he did feel anguish about the whole thing, but I don’t think it was because he feared for the Jews’ souls, but rather his own. However, I doubt he even knew that.

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  13. If Paul really existed… if Paul wasn’t just an invention of the early Catholic Church cobbling together a bunch of oral stories, writing them down and ordering them into “books”, if any of the “New Testament” is valid at all, Paul had huge problems to solve.

    He was (if he existed) guilty of not just killing off the early Christians, but making them deny their faith. What does anyone who has done such evil navigate life where he has supposedly been made to be an “Apostle” sent forth to minister to such people?

    Along with this horrible past, there is also the hubris of being taught by Gamaliel and personally by Jesus himself. Paul (if he existed and these are really his ‘epistles’) seemed to have spent quite a lot of real estate in his letters establishing his superiority — even over the other apostles.

    This would be a fascinating venture into the world of abnormal psychology defined by the DSM-5 if I could bring myself to the place where I actually interested in pursuing it.

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  14. Mikey, I don’t know you, so before I begin responding to your comment, as many here DO know, there isn’t a theistic bone in my body – I say this, because I’m about to defend the existence of Paul. BTW, so MANY of the Biblical characters never existed, that rather than having to type “(if he existed)” each time, I’ve developed a shorthand – IHEE (If He Ever Existed), which, to follow my topic, my reader must learn.

    Paul was simply too complex a character, not to have ever existed. Jesus, on the other hand, though he may have cursed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit out of season, and whipped a few money-changers, was a one-dimensional good guy. In the early Western movies of the last century, Roy Rogers was a similar character – handsome, well-proportioned, straight-arrow – he fought the bad guys, he always won, and his hat could never be knocked off in a fist fight. Later, the movie’s characters evolved, as the tastes of the better-educated public became more sophisticated, demanding more of their heroes. In The Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood is a former gunfighter, as in the Fistful of Dollars genre, but with a character twist – in his own words, “I don’t do that no more” – he’s a widowed pig-farmer, raising two children alone, in the middle of a prairie, and has even lost the ability to shoot straight – he’s an extremely flawed, convoluted character, which makes him far more interesting than Roy ever was. Paul is a lot like that.

    One of the best analyses of Paul I’ve yet to read, comes from Dale B. Martin’s book, The Corinthian Body, where he explains that in Grecian times – and by the time the Romans came along the Levant had been under Greek influence, language and thought (the entire NT was written in Greek) for over 250 years, longer than the US has been an independent nation – much like early Western movies, the good, the noble, the forthright, the “superior” class of people could easily be distinguished from their less good, noble, and forthright “inferior” classes by their grace and beauty, the ugly, the mal-formed, the too-fat, the too-skinny, were simply less favored by the gods, and it showed in their appearance. Even renowned orators, who, through years had perfected their craft, were encouraged to decline from future orations as they aged and became less attractive, on the belief that their words, though likely far more eloquent than in their earlier years, would carry less weight because of their appearance.

    As a writer, Paul was highly skilled in the Greek rhetorical arts – note how he begins nearly every letter with self-deprecation, deliberately designed to win the empathy of his audience. There are many other markers, far too numerous to go into here.

    But Martin infers, from some of Paul”s own remarks, that Paul may have had one or more physical blemishes or disfigurements, which in person, would have prevented him from being an effective speaker, according to prevailing Greek thought. In Galatians, 4:13-14, he admits he has preached to the Galatians, “in weakness (or disease) of the flesh,” that in Martin’s words, “speaking of his personal appearance in terms of such shame that it is clear that he regarded it as an an embarrassment and a hindrance to rhetorical success.” Martin also points out the “thorn in the flesh” Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12:7, where again, he seems to be referring to some bodily disfigurement.

    Further, in 2 Corinthians 10:10, he seems to be referring to a quotation that someone has said about him, “His letters, they say, are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech despicable.” Again, paraphrasing Martin, Paul’s letters, his opponents admit, are rhetorically powerful, but his personal presence lacks the same power. He concludes, “In person, when actually speaking in Corinth, Paul appears weak, vacillating, and of low class.”

    In the time when Grecian thought prevailed, an invented character would have appeared far more heroic, less flawed. Jesus was Roy, Paul, Clint, but the concept of the Grecian ideal hadn’t had that much time to evolve.

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  15. Really not trying to gainsay you, Mikey, but you further stated what has been reputed, that he studied under Gamaliel, to which you added:

    “He was (if he existed) guilty of not just killing off the early Christians, but making them deny their faith. What does anyone who has done such evil navigate life where he has supposedly been made to be an “Apostle” sent forth to minister to such people?

    Although I agree that he was purported to have studied under the renowned Jewish Sanhedrin interpreter of Mosaic law, Gamaliel (“Reward of god”), I doubt that that was ever actually the case, and I base that on your own statement, above. While I agree with you, that Paul was reputed to have persecuted Christians unmercifully, Gamaliel, on the other hand, was of a different inclination.

    When Peter and the other apostles are described as being prosecuted before the Sanhedrin and senate (or elders) for continuing to preach the gospel, despite the Jewish authorities having previously prohibited it, the passage in Acts 5:38-39 describes Gamaliel as presenting an argument against killing the apostles, reminding them about the previous revolts of Theudas and Judas of Galilee which had collapsed quickly after the deaths of those individuals. Gamaliel’s advice was accepted after his concluding argument:

    “And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”

    Makes you wonder where he was in Jesus’ day, doesn’t it? But then the NT would have been short of a story, and we’d be off somewhere, doing something far more productive, as would be far more of the Western world.

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