Beginning to Understand St. Paul

Meeting St. Paul

Much has been written about the great preacher, St.  Paul of Tarsus: that he was the true founder of Christianity who ultimately distorted the simple, loving teachings of Jesus and laid the groundwork for creating the “oppressive monstrosity” that became the Catholic Church; he was a fire-brand preacher and that he was a misogynist…among other things. Whew! But is this an accurate portrayal of who he was? Let’s look in the Bible and see whether we can discover him anew.

First, his name. He was given the name of Shaul (Saul) at the time of his circumcision on the eighth day. One “documentary” that I viewed recently said that “at the time of Paul’s conversion he was baptized and took the name of Paul”. First of all, Paul is not a convert in the sense that most of think of when we hear the term. Paul did not switch religions at all but his “conversion” was, rather, an interior one in the way he thought out his Jewish faith and the great covenant in the light of Jesus Christ and the gospel. Paul/Paulus is simply the Roman translation of Saul because, being born in Tarsus he was a Roman citizen. No-one who was baptized in the early years of Christianity ever took a name at their baptism. There was literally no such thing…no context for it…so this is obviously an historical inaccuracy.

True Founder of Christianity

Was St. Paul the “true founder of Christianity”? The short answer is “no”.  The timeframe of the years A.D. 49-52 finds St. Paul on his second missionary journey with Silas, through Asia Minor and Greece; he had settled in Corinth and wrote his letters to the Thessalonians; he was a tent-maker by day and preached for several hours in the evenings. At the same time, the apostle Thomas was arriving in India. The apostle James went to Spain, Thaddeus and Bartholomew brought the Faith to Armenia, Mark to Egypt and, well…you get the idea. The spread of Christianity was not brought about by just Paul.

Paul was indeed set aside by God himself (Acts 13:2) to travel and preach to the Gentiles — but not necessarily to “pagans”, so to speak. Paul always preached in synagogues because he very much wanted to reach his fellow Jews about the good news of Jesus as the Moshiach/Messiah). When Jews rejected his message he turned elsewhere. There is a term in both the Old and New Testaments called “God-fearing” Gentiles/Greeks. These were Greeks who lauded the Jewish faith and its worship but would not enter into the covenant because of circumcision and dietary restrictions. The Greeks held that the body is striking in both its form and function and thus could not consent to removing even a small part of it such as the foreskin of the penis in circumcision — nor would they shun any aspect of food in the animal kingdom (including fish)…keeping Kosher as Jews call it. Even so, they would gather at the doors of the synagogues and the great temple to praise God as best they could from there. They highly esteemed the Jewish liturgy but would not commit to becoming “full” Jews.  Synagogues were divided between men’s sides and women’s. The “God-fearers” were toward the back. At the great Temple in Jerusalem, the Greeks (Gentiles) had their own courtyard and that was as far as they could go. This is important because the heretical sect called the Judaizers insisted that the Greeks first had to become Jews and live like Jews for some time before becoming Christian. This was debated by the apostles and other Church leaders in around A.D. 53 in Jerusalem (Read the entire 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles) where, after some time, it was decided to drop the requirement for circumcision, kosher food laws and unlawful marriage for these “God-fearers” and thus enabled Gentiles to become Christians. With the requirements for coming into the Church greatly amended the Catholic Church simply exploded with new growth.

However, this was neither an arbitrary nor populist decision made simply in order to grow the new group. Nor was it the decision of either Paul or Peter. Luke tells of the following in the Acts of the Apostles:

“While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word. The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” (Acts 10: 44-47)

Thus, at the Council of Jerusalem a letter was sent forth from the Church leaders to the “God-fearers” stating that “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit (italics mine) and of us…” (Acts 15:28). It was the Holy Spirit who made that determination…plus that of the Council in union with Peter. It is for this reason (plus the Pentecost event and a few others) that the Acts of the Apostles is frequently referred to as the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, there were issues within the various churches that Paul had founded…people wrote to Paul and Paul wrote back. His various letters were kept and exchanged among the communities. These are the letters that ultimately made it into the New Testament. Because so many Gentiles were in fact coming into the Church, there would necessarily be more issues at the outset because they did not come from a Jewish background and so Paul had to respond to several concerns. Peter apparently had no need to write such voluminous letters.

It was Peter who was the head of the new Christian Church…it was to Peter whom Jesus said in Mt. 16:18 — “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. Peter was chosen directly by Jesus. When Jesus was testing Peter’s love for him after the resurrection and Jesus had asked Peter three times, “Peter do you love me?” and Peter had replied, “Lord you know that I love you” — twice Jesus had said to him, “feed my sheep” (bosko) (Jn 21:15, 17), but in verse 16 Jesus’ reply to Peter was, “Shepherd *(poimaino) my sheep”. In Greek there is a big difference between the verbs “Bosko” and “Poimaino”. Jesus further tells Peter “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). No-one else among Jesus’ hand-picked apostles received so great a commission.

What Paul did was to bring the gospel message much further into the land of the Gentiles of the Middle East. It seems he was made for it. He was born a Jew; he had Roman citizenship and he spoke Greek. But again, his main concern was to preach to the Jews of the Diaspora that Jesus was the Messiah.

Let’s also clear up this misconception, too: Many believe that St. James was actually the head of the Church; but while he was the head of the local church in Jerusalem, Peter was the head over all: Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, etc.

Another “proof text” that Paul did not start the Church is that after three years of preaching, Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet with St. Peter to ensure that his teachings were correct (cf. Gal. 1:18). In other words, while he insisted that he was “in no way inferior to these ‘super-apostles'” (2 Cor. 12:5) he deferred to Peter.

Here are still more “proof texts”:

  • Acts 9:17-18 — He was baptized into an existing Christian movement
  • 1 Cor. 11:23-26; and 15:1-8 — He passes on tradition
  • Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20 — He quotes hymns already in use by the Christian community
  • 1 Cor. 15:3-5 — He passes on creedal statements
  • 1 Cor. 7:10-11; 11:23-26 — He quotes Jesus

Did Paul Distort the Teachings of Jesus?

Some make the claim that Paul distorted the “the simple, loving teachings of Jesus” – not at all! First of all they are not just “simple and loving”. I find them to be challenging and life-giving; I greatly love this Catholic Faith of ours. Directives to love our enemies, do good to those who hate you, forgive seventy times seven times and to take up one’s cross in order to follow him are not categorized as “simple” little sayings. That being said, as difficult as many of Jesus’ (or Paul’s) teachings may be, the Church simply is not an “oppressive monstrosity” as some claim. In the past seven years I have been terribly hurt by several in the local Church — all in the ranks of Church leadership. But the Church is large enough in that it is precisely in this glorious Church that I have found my comfort and solace. If the Church has a lot of rules, so does the very strict regimen of my Diabetes. These, too, are literally “life-giving”. I am as healthy as the level of effort I put into my own self-care. All of this for a body that will one day perish. I put more self-care into my Faith in order to prepare myself — not just for eternity — but also for the increasing amount of powers and principalities in today’s world. With Sacraments, the Eucharist, Confession, Adoration, etc. I feel that I am very well “inoculated”, so to speak — are you?

Was St. Paul a Misogynist? 

I must admit that I greatly love St. Paul and his treatment of women. He is far from being a “misogynist”. Most people have a difficult time with his prohibition of women not speaking in Church: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim 2:12) and “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (1 Cor. 14:34).

First, one has to realize that having women in the group at all was stunning. At the time of Jesus there were many factions within Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots to name the four major ones. None of them allowed women to join. But this new sect (Christianity was just another sect within Judaism even at the time of Paul) allowed women to join! Breath-taking!!! As I always say, Baptism is the great equalizer for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

In his article entitled “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis” noted author (and Anglican Bishop) N.T. Wright makes the same point: “…imagine the thrill of equality brought about by baptism, the identical rite for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female”. That is, they are all equal in dignity.

Bishop Wright goes even further and suggests that

“…it is this passage far and away above all others which has been the sheet-anchor for those who want to deny women a place in the ordained ministry of the church, with full responsibilities for preaching, presiding at the Eucharist, and exercising leadership within congregations and indeed dioceses”.

It is here that I part company with Bishop Wright and I now refer to my favorite author and apologist, Dr. Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. In his book, Catholic Christianity, Dr. Kreeft says this about women priests:

“…a religion with priestesses would be a different religion (italics his) and would implicitly signify a different God…It is…a fact that Jews alone of ancient peoples had no priestesses. For priestesses represent goddesses and priests represent gods” (Pg. 367).

In the above referenced letter to the Corinthians and in 1 Timothy, Paul is speaking to particular issues in particular churches. N.T. Wright alludes to the fact that women in churches, although equal in dignity in baptism, still had to likely sit separate from the men according to local custom and culture. Likely, too, the women were not fluent in Aramaic but spoke only a local dialect or patois (because until that time, they were largely uneducated) and so would have been disruptive by their asking their husbands what was going on. Paul felt that the women could easily ask their questions at home. This, of course, was church discipline — never doctrine. And it was a local issue. It is NOT a directive for all women for all time.

What we do know for sure is that Paul does accept and allow for women to pray and to prophesy out loud in churches — he simply does not wish for them to do so with uncovered heads in the city of Corinth where the prostitutes would wear their hair cropped short and uncovered:  “every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved” (1 Cor. 11:5). He even addresses the men first on head-coverings at prayer: “Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head (v.4). As much as Paul was all about bringing the Gospel message to the people, he was at the same time all about avoiding scandal. (We note here as an aside that Paul considered the gift of prophecy, which apparently some women did have, as higher than that of teacher! See 1 Cor. 12:28). So much for Paul’s reputation as a misogynist in some circles!

But what about some of those “prickly” passages — about wives being “subordinate to their husbands” (Eph. 5:22)? It is impossible to answer this concern properly without first pointing out the verse that immediately precedes it (v. 21):  “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ”. Why do so many people (both men and women) miss this verse??? Paul is not picking on women…in fact he and St. Peter are harder on men!

Women must be subordinate to their husbands and, according to St. Paul in this same letter to his beloved Ephesians, he exhorts husbands — “Love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (v. 25). We already know about Christ’s love of the Church — he not only laid down his life for his bride unto a most shameful death but endured great, unspeakable agony in doing so. His life, it seemed to many — even to some of his own disciples — was a folly…he was mocked and scourged but he endured it for love of his holy bride. One could ask today’s men what they are willing to endure for love of their bride…

St. Peter comments (in 1 Pet. 3:6) that “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him ‘lord'” and at the same time he insists that men must treat their wives with great dignity “that their prayers might not be hindered” (v. 7). In other words…mistreat your wife and God will not hear your prayers!

In terms of marriage, St. Paul insists on the mutuality of self-giving: “The husband should fulfill his conjugal duty toward his wife, and likewise the wife toward her husband. A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband, and similarly a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather his wife. Do not deprive each other…” (1 Cor. 7:3-4).

For more on this topic of women in the Church, kindly refer to my article here: church-part-viii-the-role-of-women-in-the-church.html


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Cynthia Trainque is an author who is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM) for the Laity at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA. She has served the church for several years as a worker, writer, and volunteer and is presently an active member of Our Lady of Lourdes in Worcester, MA. Cynthia is available to come to speak as a guest speaker/teacher on the beauty of the Catholic faith.  She gives talks and also creates/uses PowerPoint presentations. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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