Paul was a contemporary of Jesus who emerged as by far the most influential figure in the early development of Christian theology. His personal name was actually Saul or Shaul, and he came from the town of Tarsos in Asia Minor. His writing shows that he had received a Jewish rabbinical education, and Acts claims (no doubt correctly) that he had at one point studied under the great Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem.
Paul as imagined by Rembrandt
He became a member of the zealously religious Jewish sect known as the Perushim or Pharisees. At first a fierce opponent of the new Christian movement, he became its most energetic promoter after suffering a shattering experience on the road to Damascus: he claimed that the resurrected Christ had appeared to him.
Seven of Paul’s letters, dating mainly from the 50s, are preserved in the New Testament. Though Paul writes little about the historical Jesus - not surprisingly, since he was not personally acquainted with him - his reflections on the Christ of faith have played an enormously significant role in the development of Christian theology, and of Protestant theology in particular.
A major concern for Paul was the status of the Jewish religion and its relationship to Christianity. He grappled with this problem with some flair in his letter to the Romans, and ended up adopting a complex and ambivalent solution. Judaism and the Law of Moses, he said, were undoubtedly of God, but they were nonetheless imperfect and problematic. Whereas the historical Jesus had exalted the Law, Paul believed that it had been superseded by the new covenant of Christ. To retain an attachment to it was misguided, if not positively dangerous.
Paul’s view of Jesus is more exalted than that of some other New Testament writers, but less so than that of orthodox historical Christianity. Paul repeatedly refers to God and Jesus Christ as separate beings, and regards Christ, ‘the Lord’, as being subordinate to God, ‘the Father’. He places enormous emphasis on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The Holy Spirit has an important place in his theology, but he (or rather it) does not yet appear as a personal entity: rather, it is given by God and by Christ to believers, and bestows spiritual gifts upon them. (God is also at work within believers, and Christ dwells among them.)
Paul’s writings are strongly dualistic. He repeatedly makes oppositions between God and idols, the spirit and the flesh, light and darkness, salvation and death, and so on. One of his most important oppositions is between Judaism (‘Israel of the flesh’) and the new religion of Christianity (‘Israel of the spirit’) - though he does recognise that Christianity was split into Jewish and Gentile wings, and regards himself as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (the leaders of the Jewish Christians being Peter, James and John).
Paul is deeply concerned with the issue of salvation - he repeatedly speaks of ‘the saved’ and ‘the perishing’, and teaches that the former should avoid the company of the latter. He also refers to believers as ‘the holy ones’, who have been ‘chosen’ by God. Salvation comes through grace rather than through the Law, and is accessed by means of faith in Jesus Christ. His preaching on this subject provided the inspiration for the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, salvation by faith alone, but there are several indications that he saw a person’s salvation as being in some way contingent on their works (though this is admittedly not the main emphasis of his preaching).
Paul emphasised the themes of love and virtue. Christians, he preached, should live together in harmony. He repeatedly refers to his fellow believers as ‘brothers’, though he also regards himself as their ‘father’. He condemned, amongst other things, sexual sins. He regarded marriage as a necessary evil, and saw celibacy as a means of freeing the individual to concentrate on the things of God. This fits with the more general flesh/spirit dichotomy found in his writings.
Paul says several times that the end of the world - ‘the day of Jesus Christ’ - is coming soon. On that day, Jesus would come down from heaven with his deceased ‘holy ones’, the dead would be raised, and living believers would be caught up into the air. Thereafter, the elect would receive glorious resurrected bodies and inherit the kingdom of God. God or Christ would judge all humankind. The reality of the resurrection of the just was stressed by Paul: it was one of the distinctive beliefs that he took with him from Pharasaism to Christianity. Paul suggested that the last judgement would involve fire, and he seems to have believed in a kind of purgatorial doctrine, implying that some believers would have to be cleansed through fire before entering paradise. At one point, Paul avers that Christians will judge the rest of humanity, and even angels.
The historical Paul: a summary
• Paul had not known Jesus, but claimed to have seen him supernaturally.
• He claimed that he continued to receive divine revelations after his conversion.
• He was celibate.
• His literary style characteristically contains wordplay and verbal oppositions (e.g. the spirit v the flesh).
• In Paul's writings, God is "Father", Jesus is "Lord", and other Christians are "brothers".
• The second coming of Christ and the last judgement are imminent. They will include divine wrath and fire.
• The themes of Paul's letters include love and the notion of being "saved".
• Satan exists, along with other demons and worldly spirits.
• Justification before God comes through faith.
• Church activities included prophesying and speaking in tongues.
• The rite of baptism was performed, as were healings and miracles.
• Paul opposed those in the church who remained attached to Jewish observances, including circumcision.
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