ON READING SAINT
As the Acts of the Apostles tell us very little about
the personality of Paul, we are only able to know him
from his letters. How different he was in real life from
the letter-writer, we cannot tell. Probably not very
2 Corinthians 10:10 he quotes the criticism that some
make that 'his letters are weighty and strong, but his
bodily presence is weak and his speech is contemptible.'
Perhaps he quotes this criticism tongue in cheek because
he knows that they are well aware how untrue and unfair
it is. A person without natural, physical and
personality attraction, or ability to speak in public,
would surely not have been able to bring to the Lord the
vast numbers of pagans that Paul was able by God's grace
to harvest unto the Lord.
Paul is primarily a pastor, writing pastoral letters to
communities which he had in many cases founded, because
he was concerned for their spiritual welfare. He is
certainly a theologian, but a practical theologian,
whose theology is constructed on the cusp of practical,
pastoral needs. In Romans 1 - 8 he tries to lay things
out systematically, but in general Paul does not attempt
to present a systematic theology like the later work of,
for example, St Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It is a
mistake to treat Paul's writings as a compendium of
All of Paul's letters are dictated, not handwritten by
himself. This has several practical consequences. When
you dictate, you don't labour over words, racking your
brain until you hit upon the exact right word. You don't
keep rereading what you have written, and strike out
words or sentences you are not happy with.
When Paul dictates, it sounds sometimes as if he is
thinking aloud. He will appear to contradict himself
sometimes. At times he is conversing aloud with his
reader, actively involving you in the mental process,
arguing with you, convincing you of the correctness of
the position he is putting forward. He even states aloud
for you objections or questions that you might have on
what he has been saying:
'are we to sin, so that grace may abound the more?'
'can we sin as we like, since we are no longer under the
'is the Law sin, if it causes sin?'
'is God unjust for choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau?'
When Paul warms to a subject, he can have so many
thoughts in his mind, and such a lot of conviction to
share, that he just gushes on in a torrent of words. His
scribes would have needed to be very patient! At the end
of Romans (16:22), a certain Tertius identifies himself
as the scribe of the letter, and sends his greetings.
The other scribes he uses are not identified, and it is
possible that his co-authors did the writing for
him: Sosthenes for
1 Corinthians; Timothy for 2 Corinthians and
Philippians; Silvanus and Timothy for 1 and 2
Chester Beatty Papyrus
(P46) c. AD 200 - Letter to the Romans
Earliest manuscript containing St Paul's letters
Words and their
A problem with the understanding of St Paul is that he
is not a precise writer in the use of words. In this he
contrasts with the Fourth Evangelist, who frequently
uses the same word with the same meaning or set of
meanings, so that one is able to establish its
theological meaning. But Paul, to the confusion of his
readers, will use the same word with quite different
meanings, even sometimes within the same paragraph.
'To make righteous' or 'to justify' is a key term in
Romans and Galatians. It is the same word in Greek,
though we use various words in English translation.
Often Paul uses the term in its theological sense, of
the human's new status before God - 'justified', 'made
righteous' by grace on God's side, and the response of
faith on man's side, and certainly not by 'works', by
anything that man has done (Romans 3:21-26; 5:1,9).
At other times, Paul uses 'justification' in the
forensic sense, of man as acquitted before God's court,
pronounced innocent, not guilty by the judge, freed from
condemnation, acquitted (Romans 5:16; 8:33-34). At other
times he uses these terms to denote moral righteousness,
human moral behaviour (Romans 5:18, 21; 6:13). There are
thus three distinct meanings of 'righteousness' and
'justification' in Paul, and he can switch from one to
another quite quickly.
This is another term which Paul uses in different ways.
Often by 'law' he refers to the Torah, the Old Testament
written law. At other times, the 'law of God' means the
general moral law, which all humans can perceive, which
we might call 'the natural law'. At other times, 'law'
refers to what generally happens, what happens 'as a
rule' (eg Romans 7:20).
Even where Paul is clearly talking about 'the law' as
the Old Testament law, he can appear to contradict
himself. He states that the law was responsible for
multiplying transgressions, since, before the law came,
in the period from Adam to Moses, humans did not know what
sin was. But when the law came, it was clear to man what
sin was, since it was now codified, catalogued. The law
therefore appears to be the instrument of sin. And yet
St Paul strongly asserts that the law is by no means
sin; on the contrary, it is 'holy and just and good'
(Romans 7:12). It can all appear to be very
contradictory, and Paul unfortunately does not supply
his readers with a glossary of his theological terms and
their possible meanings.
This is another example of a word with different
meanings in Paul. Often 'flesh' has negative
connotations. For example, about God sending his Son in
the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3); living and
thinking according to the flesh instead of according to
the Spirit (Romans 8:5-6); having minds set on things of
the flesh - immorality, impurity, licentiousness,
idolatry etc (Galatians 5:16-21). At other times there
is nothing negative in his use of the term 'flesh'. Paul
lives 'in the flesh' (Galatians 2:20) i.e. in the body;
and is given by God 'a thorn in the flesh' (2
Corinthians 12:7); he preaches Jesus as descended from
David 'according to the flesh' (Romans 1:3).
Paul makes a number of statements that are imprecise
theologically, because they were never meant to be
pressed theologically; they are expressing conviction
rather than theology. For example, his statement in
Romans 8:3 that God sent his Son 'in the likeness of
sinful flesh'. Presumably he does not mean that Christ
was himself sinful just because he came in the flesh.
But then if you avoid that error by emphasizing the word
'likeness', they you are wandering into the heresy that
would later be called Docetism: the false teaching that
the Incarnation and the human body of Christ were not
real, but only a likeness, an appearance, an image.
It is especially when Paul is drawing out contrasts, or
developing parallelisms, some of which are just
rhetorical parallelism, that he can be very loose
theologically, and confusing to his reader. For example,
2 Corinthians 5:21 he states that God made 'into sin'
the one 'who knew no sin, so that in him we might become
the righteousness of God.' It would seem to be
unfortunate and unhelpful to say that God made Christ
into sin, and it has come about because Paul is making
contrasts between 'sin' and 'no sin'.
In Romans 5:18 he states that 'just as one man's
trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act
of righteousness leads to justification and life for
all'. He surely does not mean that all people are
automatically saved by Christ's act, without any
response or action on their part. Elsewhere he
emphasizes that salvation is possible only through
belief in and obedience and submission to God. In Romans
5:18 he is talking loosely because he is developing the
parallelism between Adam and Christ, both of whom
performed actions that had far-reaching consequences for
Some verses back, at Romans 5:10 he says 'if while we
were still enemies, we were reconciled to God through
the death of his Son, much more surely, having been
reconciled, will we be saved by his life.' If you try to
make that statement mean that Christ's death achieves
one thing (our reconciliation), and his life another
thing (our salvation), then you have an artificial,
unhelpful and incomprehensible contrast. This is again
Paul the orator employing rhetorical parallelism, rather
than Paul the theologian.
Once giving a talk of the relevance of the New Testament
writers to our situation today, it was not very long
before one of the audience piped up, 'I don't like that
Paul guy. He was so anti-women.' It is not a very fair
or just statement. In Paul's genuine letters there are
only two passages, both in
1 Corinthians, that can be taken as anti-woman.
At 11:2-16 he states that a man should pray with his
head uncovered, while 'a woman who prays or prophesies
with her head unveiled disgraces her head' (v.5). It is
interesting, in view of the later passage in 1
Corinthians, that Paul is here quite clear that women
prayed and prophesied in the meetings of the church. The
arguments he brings forward are rather quaint and
time-conditioned and probably meaningless to most people
today: that a man's head is uncovered, 'since he is the
image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection
of man' (v.8); and that 'neither was man created for the
sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this
reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on
her head ...'. But at least a woman can pray and
prophesy in the church, even if current convention
dictated her head-dress.
In view of what is allowed to women in Paul's churches,
the statement of 14:34-36 is surprising and unexpected:
'As in all the churches of the saints, women should be
silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to
speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask
their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman
to speak in church ...'.
While there is no manuscript proof, many scholars
suspect that 14:34-36 is someone else's addition into an
early copy of the text of 1 Corinthians. Besides the
contradiction with 11:5, the passage lifts easily out of
its present position, with 14:32 and 37 both on the
subject of prophesy. In addition, according to Acts
21:9, on their journey to Jerusalem, Paul and his
companions stayed at Caesarea with Philip the evangelist
and his four daughters who were prophets.
There is a clear put-down of woman in 1 Timothy 2:11-13:
'Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I
permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a
man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first,
then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was
deceived and became a transgressor ...'. In the view of
the majority of scholars, the Letters to Timothy and
Titus are 'deutero-Pauline'; not from the genuine Paul,
but from a later writer from the Pauline churches.
Get the context!
It is sometimes commented by people that it is the
readings from St Paul that they find the most difficult
to understand in the Sunday Liturgy of the Word. One
reason for this is that Paul never intended or designed
his letters to be read in small chunks, as well as in
different life-contexts to that for which he intended
them. His letters would usually have been read either as
one piece, or in large chunks.
If a particular Sunday reading from St Paul is
difficult, or not very comprehensible, one can make a
lot more sense of it by reading the preceding chapter or