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Who was Paul of Tarsus?

Prolific writer ... stalwart faith ... stage fright?

By David Myers
Southwest Kansas Register

(Click here for Podcasts from all three sessions.)
(Powerpoint: Session 1; Session 2; Session 3)

 

Two interesting facts came out of the opening minutes of Father Seán Charles Martin’s insightful and sometimes humorous presentation on St. Paul, held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe Nov. 5; the first was that Paul was the most prolific writer of the New Testament; and the second was that prior to his transformation, Paul violently persecuted Christians.
Father Martin, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, described with wit and vivid detail the man, his mission, and the often very violent culture in which the saint lived and died.
Readers of the Bible are first introduced to St. Paul of Tarsus in the “Acts of the Apostles,” when Paul is taking part -- and perhaps even leading -- the stoning of St. Steven, Father Martin told those gathered for the Scripture Day presentation.

“Remember, Paul was on his way to Damascus to bring people who follow ‘the way’ – early Christians -- to Jerusalem bound in chains, when he has the encounter with the Risen Lord. And it’s that encounter that transforms him. … The pre-converted Paul [has been described as] one of those nasty little self-appointed and self-anointed guardians of orthodoxy. Not a nice person....
“What do we learn from this? It means that if you meet the Risen Lord, it will change your life. And it will change your life in ways you can hardly predict.”
Paul is the only figure in the Bible for which readers are offered a primary source of historical evidence – Paul himself -- with which they can paint a vivid picture of the man.
The “best selling author” of the New Testament, St. Paul is ascribed with having written 25 percent of the New Testament, including 13 letters, over a period of nine years, beginning in AD 51. Father Martin stressed that only seven of these letters can be definitively ascribed to Paul: Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon. The others, he explained, may have been written by his students after his death.
Most of his letters are written to churches he visited, and describe how Christians should live.
Father Martin painted a picture of a man who, for all his missionary zeal,  was not fond of public speaking, as evidenced in 1 Corinthians: “…I came to you brothers and sisters not proclaiming the testimony of God in lofty words and wisdom. … I was with you in weakness and fear and trembling.”
“This was a time before public address systems,” Father Martin said. “He was simply like some of you here: He didn’t like getting up and talking in front of other human beings. Also, he may not have had a very good voice. Have any of you heard Mike Tyson speak?”
And not unlike the infamous boxer, Paul was about as tough as they came, surviving unimaginable torture – stoning, whipping, and imprisonment – the latter which Father Martin said meant abandonment and starvation unless served by well-wishing family and friends.
“He had to be enormously tough to withstand that treatment,” he said. Torture included having one’s feet hit with a wooden club as the individual is immobilized in stocks -- and this was only the arraignment process, before the individual was even tried, Father Martin said. One could be put to death even for disturbing the peace.
“It was hostile in ways we can never imagine,” Father Martin explained.  
St. Paul was not alone on his mission, as history has at times tried to paint him out to be. Besides Timothy, Titus and others, he was surrounded by a network of  individuals who would lead the local community of Christians after that community was founded by Paul.
“He was not a solitary genius,” Father Martin explained, adding that while Paul didn’t overlook his own social status – that of a Roman citizen (especially when it helped him get out of jail after appealing to Caesar “as a Roman”) – anyone, regardless of class, was prime for conversion, something nearly unheard of at the time of stringent social distinction.
Society in the time of Paul was segregated by nationality, social class and gender, Father Martin explained.
“The social class was so strict that if a slave ventured into the temple precincts, the whole place had to be re-consecrated. … What made the Pauline mission so very distinctive was the variety of people [that he converted].”
Father Martin explained, for example, that men only worship with other men, and only with those who belonged to their social class. “We have nothing like that in Christianity, because we are true sons and daughters of St. Paul in that respect. …This morning at Mass I sat next to a woman – a woman! – who, when it came time for the Lord’s Prayer, said it in Spanish!” Father Martin said, feigning surprise. “I thought, Paul would have been proud. This was what Paul was aiming at.
“While we take [such inclusively] for granted, it was, in the day, revolutionary.”
During the reign of Nero – somewhere between AD 60 and 67, Paul was arrested and put to death by decapitation, a more merciful execution than crucifixion due to his Roman status.

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