After Jesus himself, St Paul was probably the most formative person for the development of Christianity. In his book, Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World (2021), Greg Sheridan provocatively refers to Paul as a kind of Lenin figure – not because he was morally comparable to such a contemptible political leader but because his influence was nothing less than revolutionary.

There are a couple of problems, however, in feeling this reality. One is that the New Testament is a series of ancient texts. It communicates a thought-world and culture far removed from our own, making it difficult or intimidating to engage with. There is also the opposite problem of familiarity: we become so accustomed to hearing it in church that we lose touch with the revolutionary fervour of the texts; we don’t experience the energy and excitement that makes up much of the New Testament.

A brief look at Paul, his story and his letters might help us get back in touch with the revolution at the heart of Christianity.

Paul’s violent “zeal”

We know little of Paul in terms of biography. We do know that he was born in Tarsus, grew up learning the craft of tent-making (Acts 18:3), and was well-versed in the culture and philosophies of his day. We also know that when he moved to Jerusalem he became a member of the Jewish sect that Jesus reserved some of his strongest words for: The Pharisees. In fact, there is a defining feature of his Judaism that comes out strongly in the New Testament, one that’s worth exploring a bit.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul opens by discussing the shame of his past as a persecutor of the Christian church:

how merciless I was in persecuting the Church of God, how much damage I did to it … how enthusiastic I was for the traditions of my ancestors’ (1:13-14).

This word, enthusiastic, is more appropriately translated as zealous and it provides a big clue as to the nature of Paul’s Judaism. Zeal was much more than hotheaded enthusiasm: it was a reference to the tradition of violence that was sometimes considered necessary in order to preserve Israel’s holiness against a culture that was threatening to erode their identity as God’s chosen people.

In the Old Testament we see various iterations of this: Phinehas, who in his zeal for the Lord killed an Israelite sleeping with his mistress (Numbers 25:11); Elijah, who mercilessly slaughtered the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40); and the Maccabees, the leader of which ‘burned with zeal’ as he killed those Israelites attempting to offer pagan sacrifice (1 Macc. 2:24). There are a number of ideas reflected in this word zeal: holiness, purity, violence, separateness, and hatred of pagan worship.

Paul was, by our standards, an extremist: a violent zealot who believed God was on his side, sponsoring and permitting his violence against the Church. Even the Acts of the Apostles tells us this: ‘Saul was still breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples’ (9:1).

When he encounters the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, his whole worldview was tipped on its head. In the very same letter to the Galatians, Paul tells them that he didn’t do anything about this experience for three years. He disappeared into Arabia somewhere. What he did there was anyone’s guess, although Pauline scholar N.T. Wright suggests he was probably digesting the whole experience. He was probably spending time sitting with it, thinking through its implications for his life as a Jew. He was probably trying to piece everything together in a way that made sense.

What we do know is that when he did emerge from Arabia, finally going to meet the apostles in Jerusalem, the ancient world would never be the same.

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The Gospel according to Paul

N.T. Wright and Michael Bird, in their brilliant text The New Testament in its World (2019), suggest that when it comes to understanding Paul’s Damascus experience, we shouldn’t think about him converting to a new religion. The ancient world wasn’t like ours: they didn’t have these discrete systems of belief called “religions”. That’s a very modern understanding of the concept. The word religio in the ancient world referred more to cultic rituals and duties that bound deities and people together (duties like sacrifice).

Paul’s experience was more a process of rethinking. It was a matter of rethinking God and who he was; the people of Israel and their destiny; and rethinking the future that awaited God’s creation. It was about finally coming to see Jesus as the fulfilment of the promises God made to Israel.

When we try to articulate what “the Gospel” means today, we usually do so independently of the story of Israel in the Old Testament. For Paul, however, the “good news” (the euangelion in Greek) only made sense within the context of Israel’s particular story. We see this throughout his letters.

Paul begins his letter to the Romans explaining what the Good News is:

Paul … specially chosen to preach the Good News that God promised long ago through his prophets in the Scriptures’ (1:1-2).

The people of Israel had a history; they had a story of God’s interaction with them and the promises he made. Part of this promise was of an everlasting kingdom ruled by a descendent of David that would bring peace to the nations (2 Samuel 7:13). In fact, this was originally part of God’s promise to Abraham, too – that as a result of him there would be worldwide blessing. Israel was not supposed to remain locked up in its own elitism and separatism. Israel was supposed to be the means by which the nations of the world would gather around the Lord in freedom from sin and death.

Paul goes on:

This news [the Good News] is about the Son of God who, according to the human nature he took, was a descendent of David’ (Romans 1:3).

Jesus was the one who established that kingdom, who through his death and resurrection inaugurated a new era and a new creation where that freedom was possible. Allegiance to Jesus (part of what Paul means by faith) was to be the defining mark of the Christian going forward. It wasn’t about shedding their Jewish identity but about seeing it fulfilled in Christ. For Paul, the Good News was that God had been faithful to his promises and had brought about a victory for his people – but they were to see this in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, prompting them to rethink their expectations of what that victory and fulfilled promise looked like.

This was why Paul was so angry at Peter for compromising and eating separately to Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). Part of what the Gospel means is that the old law has been done away with; all people can gather around Christ, no matter who they are or what they eat or whether they’ve been circumcised.

A huge reversal – a revolution – had taken place in Paul’s own thought. Now he saw clearly that only love fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8-10). Following in the footsteps of Jesus himself, their calling was to live a life of radical love, even to the point of loving their enemies instead of dealing zealous violence upon them (Romans 12:14-21). The way of love was everything because God had revealed himself to be love (1 Corinthians 13). Love was the source and meaning of everything.

Similarities and Differences

In one sense, Paul is a relevant figure for us today because, unlike the apostles, he never met Jesus personally. His only route to encountering Jesus was “spiritual” (and that’s an inadequate word, although the exact nature of Paul’s experience with Jesus is left obscure).

One of the differences we might feel between his time and ours is that we don’t really have a coherent story by which Jesus makes any sense. The Jewish people had a story and a history that shaped their identity and their expectations. Jesus fulfilled that story and those expectations. In the West, we have a deeply ingrained suspicion towards the overarching stories that shape us. We have an academic industry dedicated to “deconstructing” those stories. This is useful to an extent but it presents us with an interesting problem: how does Jesus make sense when our lives are not shaped by meaningful stories? By a meaningful history? This is, perhaps, a big challenge to our sharing of the Good News today.

Here is one stark similarity, though: we are asking many of the same questions today as the ancient Jews were asking back then. Questions like: what does it mean to be a Christian? Shouldn’t Christianity look and feel different from the surrounding culture? How do we get back to our roots, back to the ancient faith, in order to breathe life back into a wandering and aimless Christianity? How do we stand apart?

These were Paul’s questions, too. These were the questions that formed the tradition of zeal. They were God’s chosen people, after all, and they had to stand apart; they had to remain faithful to the traditions handed down to them; they had to observe the worship God wanted them to observe. For Christians, these questions become pertinent in the face of objective, statistical decline in Christian belief across the West.

Maybe a good start to answering them is revisiting the astonishing figure of Paul and coming to see, with fresh eyes, the revolution at the heart of the Christian faith.