Paul: A Biography
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Read between August 25 - September 01, 2019
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As a young man, Saul of Tarsus had become a leading light in this movement, the aim of whose members was to urge their fellow Jews into more radical obedience to the ancient codes and to discourage them from any deviations by all means possible, up to and including violence.
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History is always a matter of trying to think into the minds of people who think differently from ourselves. And ancient history in particular introduces us to some ways of thinking very different from those of the sixteenth or the twentieth century.
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I assumed without question, until at least my thirties, that the whole point of Christianity was for people to “go to heaven when they died.”
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For Paul and all the other early Christians, what mattered was not “saved souls” being rescued from the world and taken to a distant “heaven,” but the coming together of heaven and earth themselves in a great act of cosmic renewal in which human bodies were likewise being renewed to take their place within that new world.
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In the ancient world there was virtually no such thing as private life.
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Israel was called to be different, summoned to worship the One God, but Israel had failed drastically and had been exiled to Babylon as a result. A covenantal separation had therefore taken place. Prophet after prophet said so. The One God had abandoned the Jerusalem Temple to its fate at the hands of foreigners.
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they believed that the exile—in its theological and political meaning—was not yet over. Deuteronomy speaks of a great coming restoration.8 Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all echo this theme: the words of comfort in Isaiah 40–55, the promise of covenant renewal in Jeremiah 31, the assurance of cleansing and restoration in Ezekiel 36–37. Yes, some Jews (by no means all) had returned from Babylon. Yes, the Temple had been rebuilt. But this was not, it could not be, the restoration promised by the prophets and by Deuteronomy itself.
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Saul of Tarsus was brought up to believe that it would happen, perhaps very soon. Israel’s God would indeed return in glory to establish his kingdom in visible global power.
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(A distinction was made between religio, official and authorized observance, and superstitio, unauthorized and perhaps subversive practice.)
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At every stage of Israel’s history, after all, the people of the One God had been tempted to compromise. The pressure was on to go with the wider world and to forget the covenant. Saul was brought up to resist this pressure. And that meant “zeal.”
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the book later generations would know as Exodus, the “coming out” book.
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Violence would be necessary to root out wickedness from Israel.
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Phinehas, one of Aaron’s sons, took a spear, followed the man into the tent, found the pair already in the act, and killed them both with a single thrust. That was the defining moment of “zeal.” It had immediate results: the plague stopped; the rebellion was over. And Phinehas, the hero of “zeal” from then on, received the remarkable promise of a perpetual personal covenant. His family would be priests forever.
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Zeal was the outward badge of the unbreakable relationship.
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When Paul the Apostle refers to his earlier “zeal,” we catch the echoes of Elijah as well as of Phinehas. And, as we shall see, the Elijah story has its own darker side as well.
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It meant Ioudaïsmos: as we saw, not a “religion” called “Judaism” in the modern Western sense, a system of piety and morality, but the active propagation of the ancestral way of life, defending it against external attacks and internal corruption and urging the traditions of the Torah upon other Jews, especially when they seemed to be compromising.
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Gamaliel, at least as portrayed in Acts, advocated the policy of “live and let live.” If people wanted to follow this man Jesus, they could do so.9 If this new movement was from God, it would prosper; if not, it would fall by its own weight. If the Romans wanted to run the world, so be it. Jews would study and practice the Torah by themselves. This, broadly speaking, had been the teaching of Hillel, a leading rabbi of the previous generation.
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Some saw it at the time, and many have seen it since, as one narrative replacing another. The word “conversion” itself has often, perhaps usually, been taken that way. But Saul—Paul the Apostle—saw it as the same narrative, now demanding to be understood in a radical, but justifiable, new way. The narrative in question was the hope of Israel.
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Upward again, from the chest to the face. He raises his eyes to see the one he has worshipped and served all his life . . . And he comes face-to-face with Jesus of Nazareth.
Chad
I like this painting of it wow.
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This moment shattered Saul’s wildest dreams and, at the same split second, fulfilled them. This was—he saw it in that instant—the fulfillment of Israel’s ancient scriptures, but also the utter denial of the way he had been reading them up to that point.
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His lifelong loyalty was utterly right, but utterly misdirected.
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So when Christian tradition speaks of the “conversion” of Saul, we need to pause. In our world, as we saw earlier, we normally apply that term to someone who “converts” from one “religion” to another. That was not the point. Not for one second did Saul cease to believe in the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was just that . . . well, what had happened was . . . how could he put it? Twenty years or so later he would write of glimpsing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah.”14 That was one way of putting it. There would be other ways too. This wasn’t about “religion,” ...more
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Neither Paul nor his communities were engaged in “comparative religion.” They were not saying, “We’ve tried one way of being religious, and now we think we have a better one.” Nobody thought like that in the first century, certainly no Jew. They were focused on what we might call messianic eschatology: the belief that the One God had acted climactically and decisively in, and even as, Israel’s Messiah. A shocking, blinding reality. The reality that would change the world.
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when something has to be done, it will be done through an obedient, but quite likely nervous and worried disciple.
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“Brother Saul,”
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This was a public announcement, like a medieval herald or town crier walking through the streets with a bell, calling people to attention and declaring that a new king had been placed on the throne.
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He wasn’t offering advice on how to lead a more holy life. He certainly wasn’t telling people how to go to heaven when they died. He was making the all-time one-off announcement: Israel’s hope has been fulfilled!
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He has apparently been accused of getting his “gospel” secondhand from the Jerusalem apostles. His opponents are therefore going over his head and appealing to Peter, James, and the rest, like someone objecting to the way a band was playing a cover from an old Beatles song and phoning up Paul McCartney himself to check on how it should really be played.
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Sinai was where Saul of Tarsus went—for the same reason.
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The parallel with Elijah—the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them—indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified.
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Whether on foot or by donkey, one does not go for several days into a desert just to find a quiet spot to pray. Saul wanted to be clear that the shocking new thing that had been revealed to him really was the fulfillment, the surprising but ultimately satisfying goal, of the ancient purposes of the One God, purposes that had been set out particularly in the law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. He wanted to stay loyal. Saul was starting to come to terms with the possibility that, if the divine purposes had been completed in Jesus, it might mean that a whole new phase of the divine plan, hitherto ...more
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Elijah was to anoint a couple of new kings and a prophet as well. Saul of Tarsus was to go back and get on with the prophetic task of announcing that Jesus of Nazareth was the true anointed king, the Messiah, the world’s rightful sovereign.
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Paul, in other words, is not only making it clear in Galatians 1–2 that his “gospel” was given to him directly, not acquired secondhand through the Jerusalem leaders. He is also making it clear that his call and commissioning have placed him in the ancient prophetic tradition, whether of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Elijah himself. His opponents are trying to go over his head in their appeal to Jerusalem, but he is going over everybody else’s head by appealing to Jesus himself and to the scriptures as foreshadowing not only the gospel, but the prophetic ministry that he, Paul, has now received.
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Jesus was Israel personified; but he was also Israel’s God in person.
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If you had asked Saul of Tarsus, before the meeting on the road to Damascus, where Israel’s story and God’s story came together, the two natural answers would have been Temple (the place at the heart of the promised land where God had promised to live) and Torah (the word of God spoken into, and determinative of, Israel’s national life).
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For Saul, with the vision of Genesis, the Psalms, and Isaiah close to his heart, there would be no question of retreat from the world. If the Stoics had a big integrated vision of a united world, so did he. If the Roman Empire was hoping to create a single society in which everyone would give allegiance to a single Lord, so was he. Paul believed that this had already been accomplished through Israel’s Messiah. If the Platonists were speaking of possible commerce between “heaven” and “earth,” so was he—though his vision was of heaven coming to earth, not of souls escaping earth and going to ...more
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And traditional societies do not welcome revolution.
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if they compromised with the pagan world around them, however “compromise” might have been defined in any particular city or household, they would be giving up their heritage—and their hope.
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On a good day, many Jews would think of the One God bringing peace and justice to the whole world. On a bad day, some might think of the One God finally giving the Gentiles what they deserved, rescuing and vindicating his ancient people Israel in the process.
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One obvious Greek term for “loyalty” is one of Paul’s favorite words, pistis, regularly translated “faith,” but often carrying the overtones of “faithfulness,” “reliability,” and, yes, “loyalty.” The word pistis could mean “faith” in the sense of “belief”—what was believed as well as the fact of believing, or indeed the act of believing, which already seems quite enough meaning for one small word.
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in the ancient Near East the idea of a single community across the traditional boundaries of culture, gender, and ethnic and social groupings was unheard of.
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The vibrant and excited group of Jesus-followers in Antioch was doing something radically countercultural. Nobody else in the ancient world was trying to live in a house where the old walls were being taken down. Nobody else was experimenting with a whole new way of being human.
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Barnabas and Saul would sing from the same sheet . . . until someone tried to add a new verse to the song.
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Paul, the greatest theoretician of the new movement, was never merely a theoretician. Pretty much every idea he later articulated had been road-tested in the narrow, crowded streets of Antioch.
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Both of these look as if the word was a nickname used by outsiders, quite likely in contempt (“Messiah freaks!”), rather than a word the Jesus-followers used for themselves.
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Jewish followers of Jesus, at least, would not have to compromise their own purity, would be able to carry on without straining their consciences.
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Was Paul really a loyal member of God’s ancient people? Was he rebuilding the house or pulling it down about his own ears?
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As I said earlier, I assumed for many years, and many readers will still assume, that the only real point of it all was to get people to “believe” in this Jesus so that they would be “saved” and “go to heaven when they died.” But this was not the concern that drove Paul and Barnabas. I have labored this point elsewhere, but it still needs saying as we watch Paul set off on his complex crisscrossing travels. The early Christians did not focus much attention on the question of what happened to people immediately after they died. If that question came up, their answer might be that they would be ...more
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People who believe that their ruler is in some sense “son of a god” are less likely to rise in revolt than people who see their rulers merely as ordinary muddled human beings.
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Connecting the dots of Paul’s journeys, actual and planned, is like mapping a royal procession through Caesar’s heartlands.
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