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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Caravaggio, "Conversion of St Paul", 1600

St Paul in his letters vs. in the book of Acts

Over the Eastertide, we take our 1st readings from the book of Acts instead of the OT; and so today, we got the conversion of St Paul – one of the most well-known episodes in the bible, notwithstanding the lack of a skewbald, unsaddled horse that Caravaggio firmly planted in our collective unconscious 400 years ago. We know about who St Paul was based on two sources of information: the primary one is his letters, and the secondary is the latter half of the book Acts, written 40+ years later. Luke-Acts is in fact a unified two volume work that spans the first 6 decades of the Christian movement in 52 chapters. The gospel traces the work of the Spirit from the era of the prophets to Jesus and the church, and Acts picks up the story and first continues to focus on the disciples, aside from Paul’s conversion in ch 7, likely 2-3 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

What’s interesting is that Paul himself never writes in any detail about his conversion, aside from the fact that it happened – perhaps, surprisingly so, given how powerful and distressing the experience must have been. While it’s not medically implausible to suffer transient blindness, it is likely that Luke embellished the story to make it fit with the major theme of sight and blindness expressed throughout his work, just as he used other literary features to unify it (e.g., parallel events, geographical movements to and from Jerusalem, similar openings featuring the Holy Spirit, endings involving major trials, etc.). What Paul and Luke say in unison, however, is that meeting the risen Lord results in transformation. As for the loss and gain of sight and control, and being at the mercy of others in between, these are universal experiences we share with Paul.

For example, as a Greek-speaking Diaspora Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul was born in modern day Turkey; but, he studied under a renowned Rabbinical teacher Gamaliel in Jerusalem – 600 KM to the south and across the Mediterranean Sea. What it’s like to travel far, possibly alone and as young as age 10, in the pre-Facetime era, is something that a few of you know first-hand. Some scholars also believe that Paul had once been married; in which case he then knew the loss of a spouse, as some of you do. Like many of us, he faced hostility and competition on every side, before and after conversion. Post-conversion, he visited Jerusalem about 5 times, but he lost the home he had as a scholar and leader in his prime. His subsequent life was filled with threats and perils, and manual labor in the presence of infirmity. Maybe, that proverbial thorn in his side was emotional (say, regretting the suffering he inflicted on believers in Christ at first); still, he knew the kind of chronic pain and/or guilt with which many of us live. He wanted to go as far as Spain, but also knew the frustration of plans and loss of freedom. These details we know mainly from the letters Paul wrote in the 50s to the communities in Greece and Asia Minor (7 NT letters are agreed to be genuinely Pauline), while his execution in Rome under Nero in the mid 60s isn’t biblical, but is considered likely. As for Luke, aside from the details of conversion that Paul omits, he does give him the center stage of the latter part of his narrative, while the disciples disappear after they meet Paul in Jerusalem; but, Luke and Paul have entirely different perspectives on some of the events and themes about which they both write.

Namely, Paul describes – in the language of the OT prophets! – how God set him apart, called him, and sent him (apostolos) exclusively to the Gentiles. As an apocalyptic eschatological Jew, he might have even thought that the salvation of the Jews would be on hold until all the gentiles destined to come under the Law got there. So, in his letters, Paul refers to the disciples as his equals, while Luke, with all his respect for Paul, just doesn’t see him as such. For Luke, Peter and the 11 were fully in charge, Jerusalem was their headquarters, and Paul came to the meeting with them regarding the inclusion of the gentiles (perhaps, in 48 AD) – only to report and consult. So it was they who commissioned Paul, rather than God sending him directly. In Acts, it is Peter who advocates for leaving the gentiles uncircumcised, and James declares the decision, while in the epistles, Paul lamented that only he was willing to eat with the gentiles, and reports their falling out over this. Contrast this with the gospel of Mark, Luke’s primary source: it has such a negative view of the disciples that historians suspect that it was written by an admirer of Paul! Whereas Luke builds up the disciples’ credibility, doing something similar to John’s gospel, where the Beloved Disciple, the leader of the Johannine community, can do no wrong, and Peter is fully redeemed in today’s reading. While Luke creates an idealized image of early church leadership with few conflicts, it’s clear that the very motivation for Paul’s writing was that, some 17 years after he began to preach, numerous missionaries not only failed to coordinate and collaborate, but competed and opposed him and each other. The reality was probably in the middle of the two perspectives, as Paul was understandably biased, yet Luke wasn’t there.

We don’t have to work too hard to reconcile these differences, and instead might appreciate the distinctive voices of each author, their perspectives and contexts. The combined image of the early church that emerges from various parts of the canon ends up being very human, for which I’m thankful because it means I can be part of it, too. As for Paul, my empathy for him has definitely grown considerably over the years, once I learned that his view of the role of women in the church is much more empowering than that of the evangelists, and the arrogance of his tone comes from taking the position of defense. And apart from the realities of living in Antiquity, when slavery was part of social order, relationships were governed by rigid paterns, and imprisonment and execution could befall almost anyone, our life struggles are similar to his: betrayal and conflict, alienation and loss, depression and illness, material and relational difficulties. Like we do, he sometimes responded to these with a mix of anger and grief; but, with God’s help, he admitted that, “if I do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Let this still be our guiding principle for life in the church today. Amen.

St Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1482