Getting to Know the Real Paul

I am somewhat intuitive when I read the Bible. When I read about the heroes, the prophets, or those who followed Jesus, my human self wants to put myself in their shoes. This even happens as I think about those who wrote the words themselves. “Why did this person tell the story this way? Why did they include this seemingly insignificant detail?”

Sometimes I read the work of scholars and it turns out that what I intuited turns out to be closer to the truth than I thought. This is what happened this morning as I read about Paul in John Shelby Spong’s book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. I knew that Paul was a zealot, not of the political party the Zealots, but rather he was extremely zealous about his Judaism. He said as much in his own words (Gal. 1:14). I’d say he was “over- the- top” zealous mixed in with an ego that would not stop. And indeed, it did not stop after his conversion…this is what my intuition told me. Paul changed his theology but he brought his old self into his new situation. He was just as ruthless as a Christian as he was as a practicing Jews.

This is the message of Spong this morning. He had a great insight which he could only have if one were willing to reshape their understanding of scripture by what scholars have found. “There was in Jewish folklore a tradition that if one Jewish male could keep the entire Jewish Law for one twenty-four-hour period, the Kingdom of God would come. Paul was so constituted that it would occur to him to think that he might be the one.” Can you imagine the perfectionism that this belief would foster?

Spong goes on to talk about the persecution of Christians in which Paul participated. He says this about those who persecute others:

“One does not persecute something that does not scare, and it cannot scare unless it has appeal. Conversion in such a person is always dramatic. Earlier convictions, passionately held, cannot be passionately abandoned without a volcanic internal crisis.”

What does this say about persecution in our own time? And what does this say about today’s zealots and their resistance to changing their beliefs? It reminds  me of the saying  “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Spong promised in the early pages of this work that while he may tear down a literal view of the Bible, he will show that when we do that, the gems that left are deeper and more life-changing than any literal interpretation can offer. This new way of looking at Paul changes the way one reads Paul and it should help one begin the process of separating out Paul’s biases from what the spirit of God has there for all those who read his words even 2000 years later.