Sunday, January 25, 2015

St Paul the Reformer

Today is the day when churches all over the world remember the conversion of St Paul and what better church to go to on this day than St Paul's Cathedral? But I'm always very uneasy on this day with the readings in church. The first reading is usually from the familiar passage in Acts 9 about St Paul's conversion to Christianity which would have been fine if the church stops there. But the second reading, as always, is from Galatians. Anyone who is familiar with the Bible must know that you're placing two contradictory passages before parishioners when you have the Acts 9 reading immediately before Galatians 1. But the church is no fool. The reading stops at Galatians 1:16a and for a very good reason too. I will come to that soon.

You see, most historians (except those who are led by their personal religious beliefs to go against the historical evidence) are of the view that St Paul started a new religion that was very much in contradiction with the teachings of the real apostles, particularly, St Peter and St James. The epistles of St Paul are full of grievances against the real apostles who did not accept him as one of them. In 2 Corinthians 11:5, St Paul claims that he is not inferior to those "super-apostles". But it's in the Epistle to the Galatians that St Paul uses the strongest words against the real apostles. He refers to them as "accursed" and "cursed". He warns his readers not to listen to or be influenced by these Judaizing apostles. Elsewhere in other epistles, St Paul is extremely firm against these Judaizers. He preaches a non-Jewish version of Christianity and he will allow nothing to stand in his way.

Nowhere in St Paul's epistles is there any indication that the rift with the real apostles is healed at any point in time. It's only in the book of Acts that we read of the real apostles agreeing with St Paul and are willing to accept Gentile Christians who do not convert to Judaism as long as they abstain from blood and idolatry. We also read in Acts that St Peter, because of a mere dream, is willing to turn non-kosher overnight. That's of course hilarious and no serious historian can accept that. 

Just how reliable is the book of Acts? The writer tries a little too hard to make the relationship between St Paul and the real apostles seem more hunky-dory than it really is. The reading in Acts tells us of St Paul after his conversion and while he's still in Damascus spending several days with the apostles. What we see is a picture of close fellowship between the real apostles and St Paul.

But if one were to continue reading after Galatians 1:16a (which is where the reading in church ends), St Paul's tells a very different story. See Galatians 1:16b to 20: " immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie."

St Paul is eager to assure his readers that he is not telling a lie. I believe him. I believe it's the book of Acts that has altered the facts to make St Paul appear to be in the good books of the real apostles. Now, you can see why the church stops the reading of Galatians at 1:16a. To continue reading just a few verses more and any parishioner who is not yet asleep in church will surely spot the contradiction with Acts 9.

St Paul may have betrayed Jesus and subverted his true teachings and the teachings of his real apostles but we can look upon St Paul more as a reformer than a traitor to the faith. Don't forget Jesus' real attitude to Gentiles as can be seen in St Matthew's gospel where he calls Gentiles "dogs". St Paul has merely reformed Jesus' teachings and turned another parochial Jewish sect into a whole new religion fit for not just wealthy Greek merchants but the Roman Emperor himself. If Christianity had remained true to its original teachings as a Jewish sect, it would have died the way the real apostles' religion died off in the first century itself. History tells us that the Ebionites were the most faithful to Jesus' original teachings and their religion fizzled out after the first hundred years or so only to be superseded by the Pauline version of Christianity, which is the Christianity of today and it doesn't matter if you're Protestant, Orthodox or Roman Catholic.

As the church ponders on the conversion of St Paul today, let's not forget his role in the formation of Christianity as we know it today. Without St Paul, there'd be no Christian religion and what a sad world this would be.

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