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Pax Romana

Karen Armstrong’s St Paul: An Epistolary Review

March 17, 2017

Last Thanksgiving a friend got me a book called St. Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate by historian Karen Armstrong. On December 30th I emailed a response, which is pasted below, typos and all (and pictures added), as an “epistolary” review of the book.


Hope your Christmas was fun. On the plane-ride to Italy I finished Karen Armstrong’s St. Paul. It was an enjoyable read with many insightful perspectives. I found it a convincing and informative biography with relatively little to quibble with. I’ll give a brief synopsis of my reaction to it, so you can have some Cliff Notes if you don’t have time to read it yourself…better call them Klug Notes!

1. I enjoyed, in fact loved, her characterization of the “Jesus Movement,” as inseparable from the political context in which it was birthed. She cites John the Baptist and Jesus himself in the opening chapter, describing their vision as one in which people were called to shoulder the burden of the economically oppressed, to give and receive freely, as Luke describes the believers in Acts having “all things in common.” This in contradistinction to the Roman empire which taxed laborers at extreme rates, and locked them up if they could not shoulder the burden–up to 66% of yield, she says. She quotes one historian who says that the common person under Roman patronage had two daily concerns, “shall I eat today?” and “shall I fall ill and be unable to pay my taxes?” (Think of the significance of Christ’s healing in this context!) This in conjunction with the use of crucifixion to scare subjugated peoples into obedience meant that the political system, despite it’s pretense as ushering a Pax Romana, was systematically cruel and unjust. Meanwhile, the elite in Judea, she says, were in cahoots with Rome, making matters worse.

The Roman Empire circa 100 CE

Before reading this book I remember reflecting on how Christ said, “come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”–how it cannot have been originally understood otherwise than as addressing peoples’ economic plight. And the beatitudes…blessed are the poor for they shall inherit, etc….he foretells a world order in which political injustice is abolished. This is what the prophets in the bible have always cared about. It’s a refreshing thought, especially when many in the church have made the essence of biblical tradition into a “love letter from God,” and so on.

That Jesus’ message was given to people who were faced with the reality of political/economic oppression is implicit in the Gospels, and KA’s succinct articulation of it is beautiful and worthy of remembrance. Paul, she narrates, responded to this message with his conversion, and (along w the other Apostles) carried the torch passed by J the B and Jesus before him. It was a torch she describes as “utopian” and “egalitarian.”

The conversion of St. Paul, Michelangelo, 1542-45

2. She says the consensus among historians today is that Paul did not actually write a number of the letters attributed to him in the NT, including Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thess., 1 & 2 Tim, Titus. I’m skeptical about this…I was curious and double-checked the salutations in some of these. In 2 Thess. he signs “I Paul, sign this with my own hand as I sign all my letters…” but then KA says “these were not forgeries in our sense.” Here I’ll quibble. Anyone who writes in the name of an admired sage and then signs that way is committing a forgery. I would have liked a footnote with some explanation on this point…but it was convenient to her argument that 1 & 2 Tim should not be Paul’s. Those are letter that have some of the most offensive talk about women being subject to men, etc. The biography is something of a rehabilitation of Paul…people hate him bc, for example, he is blamed for the long tradition of misogyny in the church, for condoning slavery, unconditional obedience to the government. By eliminating the letters to Timothy, KA’s job of rehabilitation is easier. But then she has to deal w I Corinthians.

3. She argues that the rule against women speaking in the assembly in 1 Cor. was probably an add-on, not by Paul himself. She argues the same for one of his exhortations to obey the ruling authorities. For me, this is possible but seems like a stretch. It reminds me of those who deny Thomas Jefferson’s involvement w Sally Hemmings…it doesn’t fit their conception of who this great man is supposed to be. They don’t want to believe it, so they go to whatever lengths necessary to come up with a reason they don’t have to believe in it. It seems like KA may be doing something similar with Paul. Indeed, I’d much rather Paul be innocent of those things, but it looks to me like agnosticism is the best stance available. KA argues that the misogynist passage is at odds with Paul’s statement in Galatians, “no more Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male female, but all are one in Christ…” that it would contradict his egalitarian ideals. I answer: indeed…people contradict themselves. My assessment of Paul, before reading this, was that he was extraordinarily progressive in many important respects (Gentiles don’t have to become circumcised, mutual racism between Jews and Gentiles should be transcended, pride in “works” of religious law is useless), but that he couldn’t let go of *all* that he had been raised to believe. And how can we expect so much of him? It’s hard to turn your back on *that* much of what you’ve been taught.

Saint Paul, by Rembrandt, 1657

4. KA argues against the idea that Paul was authoritarian. One of my personal problems with Paul as a teenager was Romans 9, where his response to the injustice of double predestination essentially amounts to “because God says so.” That, and other passages in the NT epistles, troubled me deeply, and I was ready to give up the faith (only the Gospels stayed my hand). In any case, KA doesn’t mention this Romans 9 bit, but for me it is at variance with her portrait of Paul as a de-centralist egalitarian.

5. Among the many eye-widening points she makes in the book was her comment that the specific language used to describe the Caesars in the first century was the same as that which the early Christians used to describe Christ–“savior,” “son of God,” “visible image of God.” This puts into perspective how early Christians viewed Jesus, and (I believe) how Jesus viewed himself–he is the true ruler of the world. Rulers at this time were considered divine. She says that back then the gulf between human and divine was not a big deal–gods became men and men became gods, in myth and legend. I recall in Acts someone from a crowd calls out when Herod Antipas is speaking, “it is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” This is one of several examples that put into historical context the language of scripture. It also reinforces the idea that the early Jesus followers were indeed concerned political rulership, as was the entire history of Israel in the OT.

6. I loved her emphasis of Kenosis–self-emptying love embodied by Christ’s sacrifice–and how Paul followed this example by working as an artisan after his conversion even though he was born into privilege and didn’t have to do so to make a living. He worked long and hard, and did so for others’ benefit. It’s a powerful testament to the humble character of this man, and it justifies the title of “Saint.”

Medieval Portrait of St. Paul

7. Paul’s story ends with imprisonment and unknown cause of death, and the delay of the hoped-for Parousia (second coming). KA wonders whether he died in despair. For me, his silent and uneventful passing underscores the idea that, while we hope for political salvation–world peace basically–in this world, the ultimate destination is after this life. Even if Parousia, and the concomitant deposition of unjust power, doesn’t happen in this life, the example of a self-emptying leader such as Paul does much to encourage others after him to not despair, but to, like he said, “press forward toward the mark” and “run the race set for me” so as to win.

I’ll stop here. Thanks again for sending the book over!

Hoping you’re well and that the New Year brings great things!