St. Paul the Murderer

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St. Paul was a murderer. This is the most salient fact about his personal history up until the moment he met Christ. He was so “zealous” for God and for the law that he persecuted those he thought were God’s enemies. Scripture says he was “exceedingly enraged” against them, followed them to foreign cities, dragged off men and women to prison, forced them to blaspheme, and put them to death.  

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Why would St. Paul have been so keen to kill Christians? An older generation of scholars once read Paul through the lens of Protestant and Catholic debates about salvation. The key question was how Paul understood the relationship of works to faith in the process of justification. According to that interpretation, Judaism was understood to be the religion of “law” and Christianity the religion of “grace.” Paul was thought to have labored under the heavy burden of legalism, and to have received the Gospel of Christ as a liberation from “works.”

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In the last fifty years, scholarly research on early Judaism has greatly enhanced our understanding of Paul’s milieu and his mindset. The Lutheran/Catholic paradigm no longer defines the scholarly consensus. New discoveries have revealed early Judaism to have been anything but a religion of “law” in that sense. And consideration of Paul’s letters show that the young Saul did not suffer from a particularly scrupulous conscience.

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Paul belonged to the Shammai Pharisees, the group he described as Judaism’s “the strictest sect.” The Shammai Pharisees revered the example of Phinehas, an Israelite priest we meet in the Book of Numbers. In that text, God’s wrath burned against Israel because men and women had adopted the idolatrous practices of the surrounding nations. When an Israelite man took a Moabite woman into his tent, Phinehas became indignant. He grabbed a spear, followed the lovers into the tent, and ran both of them through.

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Phinehas exemplified the kind of “zeal” that Paul revered. The young Saul was deeply frustrated by the Roman occupation Judea, by the divided state of contemporary Judaism, and by God’s apparent delay in saving his people. By attacking the enemies of the faith, Paul hoped to force God’s hand, as it were. He thought God would vindicate his people if the people would do their part to stamp out idolatry. Paul wanted Israel to triumph over the nations; Christianity looked to him like another attempt to accommodate gentile idolatry.

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Paul was not a scrupulous man trying neurotically to cleanse his soul. Paul was a self-righteous man trying zealously to cleanse his nation. His transformation came when Christ corrected his understanding of God’s plan. Prior to Christ, Paul saw the law of Moses as a way to mark off Israel from her idolatrous neighbors. Afterwards, Paul saw the law as a tutor to lead Israel to Christ. But after Christ comes, he destroys the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, that is, the law with its ordinances and commands.

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Martin Luther made the mistake of reading his own spiritual struggles into Paul’s message. Luther was a man with a scrupulous conscience. He turned to Christ for relief from religious anxiety. But that is not how Paul saw the law. Paul considered himself “faultless” in obedience to the Law. (Philippians 3:6) His problem was different. He had failed to understand how God planned to save the Gentiles as well.

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After his conversion to Christ, Paul became a minister of reconciliation. He no longer divided the world into Jew and Gentile, slave and free, or male and female. These divisions were “worldly.” But now, Paul writes:

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We regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5: 16)

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Our nation today is not entirely unlike first-century Judea. We are divided from one another racially, politically, and religiously. But we are also alike in breathing out murderous threats, self-righteous in our certainty that we can bring justice and peace by destroying our ideological enemies. Each of us needs our “road to Damascus,” when we realize that God really does love the people on the other side of the fence.

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We can learn two more things from the conversion of St. Paul. The first is that after his conversion, Paul spent more energy serving and suffering for Gentile Christians than he had once spent trying to kill them. He “poured out his life as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of their faith.” But in spite of his sufferings, he was glad “and rejoiced with all of them.”

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The other important lesson is that God and Paul’s victims both forgave him. He was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance. J.R.R. Tolkien captures this sentiment well in Gandalf’s immortal words to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

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