(Editor's note: the following feature continues The Catholic Advocate's coverage of the "Year of Saint Paul," as proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI. Previous articles on Saint Paul have appeared in the July 16, June 18 and May 7 editions.)
When Saint Paul dictated his letters, could he have imagined that they would be proclaimed throughout the world in a great variety of translations? Could he have dreamed that commentaries on his writings would fill libraries and spark major conflicts over the centuries?
For some Christian communities the Pauline Epistles are favorite New Testament "books," considered important because they are the earliest records of the Christian faith, even though the Gospels contain reminiscences that go back to the public ministry of Jesus and the eyewitness testimony of His passion and manifestations as risen Lord.
These letters appeal to philosophers and theologians in a way that Gospel parables do not. For them, Paul is more in tune with Western modes of thought, but careful study reveals that Hebrew idioms lie behind many of his Greek phrases.
The Church exhorts the faithful to know the entire Scriptures and to esteem all parts of the revealed Word in relation to the Word-made-flesh. This is the ideal, especially for educators, but we can savor only portions of this vast library (the Bible) at any given time. For the coming year, Pope Benedict challenges us to know Saul of Tarsus—Saint Paul the Apostle—more intimately through prayerful study of his letters.
Saul of Tarsus
As his two names suggest, this boy came from an observant Jewish home in the southern part of Asia Minor (now Turkey). At circumcision he was called Saul, appropriate for a member of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5), but among his Greek-speaking friends he was called Paul. He was bilingual and educated in the Pharisee tradition: "as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the Law, blameless" (Phil 3:6; Gal 1:13).
Always convinced that he was serving God, Saul's commitment was refocused "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:12) and he recognized that God had revealed His Son "so that I might proclaim Him among the Gentiles" (Gal 1:16). He took three years to integrate his thorough education in the Scriptures and their application to worship and the moral order into a synthesis that was centered on Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and Son of God. No doubt this "retreat" was experienced in a small community of faithful Christians, with whom he would pray and test his insights into God's Word. "Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him 15 days..." (Gal 1:18).
He acknowledged the unique place of Peter in the Church and their complementary mission: Peter to the circumcised and Paul to the Gentiles (Gal 2:7-8). Knowing that circumcision was a major stumbling block for Greek and Roman men, Paul argued that Baptism into the Christian faith was the only requirement for membership in the Church and that imitation of Christ expressed obedience to God's Law for them (Gal 6:2).
Through Baptism people take on a new identity; clothed in Christ, they are united in such a profound way that distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave or free, male or female become relatively insignificant. Most important is their unity in Christ as children of God and descendants of Abraham, the man of faith (Gal 3:26- 29).
Paul and Jews
How did Paul regard those Jews who did not accept his message that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God? Did he at times assess his approach, review the contents of his message? He told the Corinthian community that he had founded: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Indeed, he wanted to reach everyone, whether in the local synagogue on the Sabbath or in the tent factory where he earned his livelihood, but he would not tamper with the Gospel to be popular.
Paul warned Christians that they could expect misunderstanding and persecution; they were to become imitators of Jesus in His Passion, "imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews..." (1 Thess 2:14). Logically, this last word might be rendered "the Judeans," since Paul was referring to the mother Church in Jerusalem and other places in Judea. However, the passage continues with a two-fold indictment: "They killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out; they displease God and oppose all men..." (2:15).
First, Paul indicated that all the prophets died as martyrs at the hands of their own people (see Mt 23:29-36; Heb 11:35-38, drawing on Jewish traditions); then he added an accusation of the Romans who interpreted Jewish avoidance of "civil religion" in patriotic celebrations and social restrictions because of the dietary laws to be evidence of misanthropy. In his protective concern for his converts, Paul lashed out with a zeal that seemed reminiscent of his earlier days. How could he lambaste his fellow Jews with hateful bigotry? Similar self-incriminating words are found in some contemporary rap lyrics, so anger can take strange forms.
The Letter to the Romans
A few years later Paul composed his longest letter, to a Christian community of Jews and Gentiles that he hoped to visit. The Epistle to the Romans presented his theological synthesis in a calm and orderly fashion. We might read the text prayerfully over a period of weeks to see the context of the readings we hear on Sundays in the first year of the threeyear cycle.
In Romans chapters 9-11 Paul has made a most significant contribution to the important question of the Church's relation to the Jewish people. The Second Vatican Council, held during the 1960s, drew upon this synthesis in the Declaration on the Church's bond with the Jews (Nostra Aetate).
Paul's zeal and passion are evident as he acknowledged that his preaching of the Gospel to Jewish groups was not very successful. He listed seven prerogatives with which Jews are blessed: "They are Israelites and to them belong the filiation, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ..." A brief reflection on these titles should remind us of their implications.
Israel was the name given to the patriarch Jacob after he wrestled with God (Gn 32:23-31); probably it means "one who struggles with God." This became the special designation for the Twelve Tribes that descended from Jacob and his wives, emphasizing their privilege of serving God.
Three tribes (Judah, Benjamin and Levi) survived into the Second Temple period, yet the prophets' hope for restoration of all Twelve Tribes prevailed among the people. Thus, Jesus chose twelve from among his disciples to be the foundations of the community he founded. He wanted to stress the continuity of the Father's plan, rooted in the call of Abraham and Sarah.
(Father Lawrence Frizzell is the director of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, South Orange, and a longtime columnist for The Catholic Advocate. Part two of this article will appear in the Oct. 8 edition.)