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Is the Apostle Paul Relevant in the 21st Century?

“Famously, Nietzsche despised Paul for distorting Jesus’ original message and bringing forth an obsession with sin. The result, in Nietzsche’s view, is Christianity’s unhealthy emphasis on guilt and renunciation.”

Michael Hart’s The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History places Muhammad at the top and Jesus in third place. Given the ascendancy and tremendous influence of Islam in the last few decades, perhaps Hart is right. But I would dispute Hart’s placing of Paul of Tarsus in the sixth place. In my list, he would be above Jesus. For, were it not for Paul, Jesus’ movement would have simply disappeared. Jesus’ earliest followers—immediately after his death—kept worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple and observed all prescriptions of Jewish Law. By the year 70 AD, this Temple no longer existed, and it would have been foreseeable that this Jewish sect would have become extinct, as so many others did during those turbulent times. It only managed to survive because one man, Paul, expanded it beyond Israel, and in the process, modified it. The Christianity that we experience today is essentially Paul’s artifice.

Jesus did not intend to establish a new religion. For that matter, neither did Paul. But that has not stopped countless critics from accusing Paul of betraying Jesus’ original movement and modifying it into a corrupt form. As Karen Armstrong nicely summarizes it in the title of one of her books, Paul has become the apostle that, “we love to hate.” According to this view, ultimately, modern forms of antisemitism, misogyny, and obsession with guilt, all go back to Paul. 

He deserves some defense. Paul is better appreciated when one considers what his original vision on the road to Damascus was like. Western tradition has added great drama to this scene (Acts says a light blinded him; Caravaggio has him falling from a horse), but the truth is that, perhaps it was not as extraordinary as it may seem. I myself have bullied other people at some point in my life, and insofar I still have an unconscious moral sense, sometimes these people show up in my dreams asking me why I behaving as I was. Granted, a vision is not exactly the same as a dream (though, in the Bible, sometimes divine communication happens via dreams), but the guilt that we all feel at some point in life for bullying others, must have given occasion to Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus.

If a voice spoke to me, I would certainly go to a psychiatrist or a neurologist. I would not be trying to decipher who that voice is; I would probably reason that something with my brain is wrong, and I would hope that a medical pill would silence that voice for good. But, in a world lacking fMRI or antipsychotics, and replete with demons, angels, and other figments of the imagination, I suppose it would have been normal for someone like Paul to try to make sense of what he experienced, by appealing to his own religious heuristic. And make sense he did.

I would laugh at those who take this doctrine seriously today (unfortunately, that includes more than a billion Christians), but I would not laugh at a 1st Century guy who is trying to figure out how a man executed on a piece of wood, resurrected, and appeared to him.

If Jesus appeared saying “Saul, why do you persecute me?,” then that must have meant that, just as his followers claimed, Jesus was alive and had resurrected. But then, why did he resurrect? Paul found an answer: the end times had begun. Jesus’ resurrection was the “first fruit” of what was to come. His resurrection marked the beginning of the final phase of History. He would soon return to establish the Kingdom that he had promised while he was alive, a Kingdom that had somehow failed to come as everyone was expecting it.

But, why would Jesus be the one to carry out this task? After all, he died on a piece of wood, and according to the Torah, those who die on trees are cursed. How could God choose such a cursed man? Paul reasoned that God’s Kingdom would not be about defeating concrete political oppressors as such (say, the Roman Empire), but rather, sin itself, because we are all cursed by sin. And, a way to liberate us from sin would be by propitiating the death of a cursed man, so that we are liberated from the curse of sin itself. One man, Adam, brought sin to the world; another man, Christ, liberated us from it.

This atonement doctrine is indeed strange. In later centuries, it took even stranger (and repugnant) twists, such as in St. Anselm’s idea that God was offended by our sins, and, therefore, his honor had to restituted with a brutal sacrifice. I would laugh at those who take this doctrine seriously today (unfortunately, that includes more than a billion Christians), but I would not laugh at a 1st Century guy who is trying to figure out how a man executed on a piece of wood, resurrected, and appeared to him.

Famously, Nietzsche despised Paul for distorting Jesus’ original message and bringing forth an obsession with sin. The result, in Nietzsche’s view, is Christianity’s unhealthy emphasis on guilt and renunciation. Although Jesus did appear to be a glutton and did not seem to be as obsessed with sin and guilt, my guess is that, in a world dominated by an apocalyptic worldview, everyone was concerned with repentance because, very soon, some mysterious divine or semi-divine figure would be coming on the clouds, and everyone would be judged. So, regarding sin and guilt, I do not think Paul diverged greatly from Jesus. But, at any rate, again, Paul’s obsession with sin is understandable as a way to make sense of the resurrection of a man cursed on a tree: he died this way, because it was a way to liberate us from sin itself. Hence the centrality of sin in Paul’s ideas.

As a learned Jew, Paul knew very well that if he was living amid the end times, then that meant that—just as prophets such as Isaiah and Zachariah had foretold—Gentiles would join Israel in worshipping the one true God. Therefore, Jesus’ resurrection signaled that the invitation to Gentiles had already begun, and, therefore, it was not necessary for them to become Jews. In fact, if they became Jews, this would be a failure in carrying out the necessary steps for the end to come. In his usual sophisticated (or perhaps overly complicated?) way, Paul tried to explain why Gentiles were not under the power of the Law (i.e., the 613 commandments established in the Torah). In fact, Gentiles would be justified (i.e., put in a right relation with God) via faith, not via meeting the requirements of the Law. Eventually, both opponents (the author of the Epistle of James in the Bible) and supporters (Martin Luther) essentially misinterpreted Paul by claiming that according to his religious ideas, works are unnecessary for salvation. Paul did not claim as much. He only claimed that the ritual aspects of the Jewish Law (circumcision, and so on) are unnecessary for salvation, but good works (in the ethical sense) are nevertheless relevant. And, a further caveat is of extreme importance: given the apocalyptic expectation, Paul basically claimed that, insofar as Jesus’ return is imminent, there is really no time to change one’s identity. So, Gentiles must persist being Gentiles, but crucially, Jews must persist being Jews, and therefore, continue to honor the Law. The charge of antisemitism is perhaps the most unfair of all. Paul never ceased being a Jew; he was proud of it, and in expectation of the arrival of Jesus, he wanted Jews to continue to be as they were, i.e., honoring the Law.

There is not much of a point in undoing traditional power relations and making the commitment to marriage, if the end is just around the corner.

This idea of preserving things as they are, in expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, also explains some of Paul’s more unfortunate remarks. Yes, he told slaves to obey their masters (although the passage where the author most clearly says that comes from Ephesians, an epistle that Paul probably did not write). Yes, he held unfortunate views on women, though again, these passages either come from Ephesians and I Timothy, letters that Paul most likely did not write—or from I Corinthians, a letter that Paul did write, but in which the misogynistic passage is probably a posterior interpolation. Yes, he was not especially thrilled with sex and marriage, and he wished everyone was chaste like him. One can understand Nietzsche’s dislike of the Apostle. But again, I would interpret all this nastiness under the lens of apocalyptic expectation. There is not much of a point in undoing traditional power relations and making the commitment to marriage, if the end is just around the corner.

However, in the same manner that Paul deserves a defense given his context, he also loses much relevance today, given that we live in a very different context. Take, for example, his universalism. Surely, someone who enthusiastically says that there are no longer Jews and Gentiles, deserves great praise as a proponent of universalism—and as an antidote to the harmful nationalism that is making a comeback in North America and Europe. But, was Paul a true universalist? Hardly. He continued to think as an ethnocentric Jew: Gentiles would come to worship Israel’s God. And, even if his universalism were indeed stronger than what I am prepared to admit, it only made sense for him in the apocalyptic context. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, only because he thought this was part of the divine plan for the end of History. If we remove that apocalyptic foundation, it is likely that Paul’s universalism would collapse.

In fact, both Jesus and Paul’s religious ideas were so embedded in 1st Century apocalyptic expectations, that once one comes to terms with the hard truth that the world did not end, their ideas lose much relevance. Albert Schweitzer long claimed that the only way to turn the other cheek is by believing that the world is about to end. Twenty-one centuries later, it is impossible to keep turning the other cheek—for all sorts of practical reasons. We can (and should) still believe that ethnicity is not that important. But should we really look up to Paul as inspiration for this universalism? I wouldn’t say so, given that this man’s universalism relied, among other things, on the premise that, just as he told the Thessalonians, we would be raptured to the heavens in order to meet Jesus.

Ironically, by belittling Paul (taking into consideration his apocalyptic context), we can defend him from an additional charge that is frequently leveled against him: that he corrupted Jesus’ original message and thus brought much shame to the world. For sure, Paul did incorporate many things that Jesus never ever talked about: original sin, the crucifixion as atonement, the Eucharist (perhaps in this case he brought in some influence from Mystery religions, although we can’t say for sure). But, let’s face it: Jesus was as apocalyptic as Paul and, therefore, as irrelevant for us today. And, had Paul never appeared on the scene, Jesus’ movement would have continued as a little sect obsessed with the end of the world and with neurotically keeping hundreds of ritual commandments, for as Jesus so rigidly say, not one iota of the Jewish Law would pass.  

In fact, in those aspects that are relevant for the 21st Century, Jesus was not a very nice guy, whereas Paul had a far more positive record. I am thinking again of universalism. Sure, Paul’s universalism only came as a result of his apocalyptic ideas. But Jesus, who was also an apocalypticist, did not even embrace universalism. He proudly said that he only came to preach to the lost sheep of Israel, and he told Gentiles they were like dogs (surely upon hearing his ethnicity being compared to a dog, today a college student would have to go to a safe space in campus and cry all day!). The narrative of good Jesus vs. bad Paul simply does not hold. They were both men of their times, with some whacky apocalyptic ideas, but also with some nice words of love and affection. Paul brought in the urbanite cosmopolitanism that was lacking in Jesus’ provincial rurality. In a globalized world, Paul speaks to us much more than Jesus. But, though Paul may have paved the way for the universalism that we so much rely on from Beijing to Rio de Janeiro, it is time to move beyond him and frame our universalism in a more rational way. Paul certainly deserves a higher position among the most influential people of History (not just sixth, as in Hart’s list), but he ought to be merely of historical interest, because frankly speaking, no apocalypticist (in the religious sense) can be relevant in our modern times.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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