Paul - Handout 1

Handout 1

Introduction – The Apostle Paul

By Professor Luke Timothy  Johnson

 One of the most fascinating - some would say repelling – figures in the religious history of the West, Paul the Apostle, continues to find champions and detractors, sometimes in surprising places.  Because his letters became part of the Christian Bible, Paul had the misfortune of becoming memorialized as Scripture.  His writings have been endlessly scoured as sources for Christian doctrine and morals.  His personality has been just as endlessly analyzed as one of the great converters (or turncoats, depending on one’s perspective) in history.  His views on women, slaves, and homosexuals continue to be contentious.




What is most surprising in all the controversy Paul creates is how little attention is actually paid to the things with which he was most concerned: the stability and integrity of the tiny Christian communities to which he wrote letters.  The scope of this course focuses attention precisely to these letters to learn something about Paul in the context of early Christianity.  What were the problems with which his readers had to deal?  What were the ways in which Paul characteristically dealt with his communities?  How did his letters themselves sometimes create as many problems as they solved?  Why was Paul a figure at once highly defined, yet strangely ambiguous?  By reading his letters as individual compositions, we begin to hear Paul’s voice fresh, speaking to real-life situations and genuine community crises.  We read Paul not as Holy Scripture and not as systematic theology but as the catch-as-catch-can moral instruction of new commandments by their founder and pastor.

Such reading yields a picture of Paul that is far more complex than the positive or negative stereotypes, because the picture is drawn from life, rather than Holy Writ.  We find a Paul who struggles to establish the authority to teach even in a community that he has founded ( 1 Corinthians, then finds its allegiance slipping away just as he is engaged in the greatest act of his career (2 Corinthians).  We discover a Paul who writes to relieve a community’s mind (1 Thessalonians) only to find that he has enflamed its imagination (2 Thessalonians).  We appreciate a Paul who seeks to realize an egalitarian ideal, and succeeds on some fronts (Galatians), but has only ambiguous results (Philemon) and undoubtedly fails (1 Timothy) on others.  We see a Paul who sets out to raise money for a future trip and ends up creating a theological masterwork (Romans), who finds himself captive in Roman prisons, yet able to reach into ever greater extensions of his mission (Colossians, Ephesians).  Perhaps most remarkably, we learn the heart of a Paul who became known as the Apostle of the Gentiles, yet to the end of his days, yearned for the saving of his own Jewish people.

The only requirement for the course is the willingness to work with Paul as he thinks his way through the problems he faces.  The payoff is learning why Paul had such an enormous influence through these letters and remains a vital force in the religious life of millions.