St. Paul of Tarsus is a divisive figure within the church today (much as he was in his day). The challenge of St. Paul is not simply his writing, but his life lived out prior to conversion and post-conversion. This short paper will be examining a treatise on the life of St. Paul just prior to the turn of the 20th century. The challenge is that the writer of this work has expounded nothing new, or rarely anything that would not have been evident through an inductive reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles.
W.M. Ramsay with the flair of the era puts pen to paper to craft St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen. The text attempts to bridge what is historically known of the life and times of Paul, while balancing it with the written record by Paul, and his followers (ala Luke author of Acts). Ramsay leans on Paul’s writings to prove one of his theories that Christianity is not just a religion, but a system of living life as action (p.13). Through this concept a summary of the work will be prepared, followed by interpretation of some key points within the text as seen by this writer.
Ramsay set out a synopsis of the historical record typologies (p.13-14) to give the reader and understanding of where he had been. The summary itself of the work is to provide an understanding of who Saul of Tarsus was and who he became on the road to Damascus as he became Paul of Christ. Ramsay expounds on the privilege that Paul was born into as a Pharisaic Jew (p.29) to a family in Tarsus of the Roman Empire (p.27). This is the link that Paul would later use to escape some tortures as he was a citizen of Rome, as a full blooded Tarsian since his family roots most likely dated back to the refounding of the city under Antiochus IV circa 175-164 B.C. (Ramsay, p.27).
This wealthy young man was classically trained by a powerful religious sect of his time, whose family had station and prominence within Jewish circles. All this ended for Saul of Tarsus as on the Road to Damascus he heard the voice of Jesus calling him Home. As the Apostle called out to the gentiles, his wealthy family saw not an Apostle, but rather an apostate (Ramsay, p.29). This new standing Paul brought led to his disowning by his family, loss of personal wealth and safety. Yet it did not remove his Roman citizenship.
St. Paul Traveler and Roman Citizen is a work that takes the reader through a biographical outline of the life and times of St. Paul of Christ. This life though due to the age of the text can lead one to not fully comprehend the movement of academic discoveries which will be touched upon next.
As Ramsay borrows from the Biblical text that Paul had a fixed and steady gaze (p.30) it is with bemusement this writer can see the subject looking upon his biographer the same way. Luke, a fellow traveler with Paul wrote two books Luke-Acts which could have been two parts of a trilogy cut short, but it is the work of Acts of the Apostles that Ramsay uses to not only place Paul’s letters in historical context but also interpret them (p.41). Is this a proper reading of the letters?
Ramsay’s hypothesis is that this physician cum historian took his role seriously and sought out the sources to authenticate the historical premise of his writing (p.62). This does a disservice to the ancient methodology of communicating truth espoused by such theologians as John Shelby Spong and Matthew Fox, as well as historians John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. The idea of literalism and modernity’s take on historicity is not what the purpose of the writing was. Yes, there were facts but there is also a method of allegory, metaphor, and understanding of the movement of story.
For it is this drive for literalism that has Ramsay still wrestling with what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is? Could this simply be an allegorical device, much like the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John, to allow the reader entry into the story to realize we each have our own thorn to live with? Instead, Ramsay postulates that the thorn is a species of chronic malaria fever (p.59) which comes out after he writes eloquently that it is this recurring illness that leads Paul to preach to the churches of Galatia (p.58).
Through the use of needing to discern one meaning, the ability of the Holy Spirit to speak to the reader through their own life circumstance and experience of the believer when they come to the text in an open prayerful form is hindered. This is the challenge with texts written in the modern mind they tend to pigeon hole God into one way of being, while there is the challenge of the lacking of mystery within liberal spheres at least the liberal method of coming to scripture does tend to open one up to multi-layered and themed meanings.
Ramsay may be weak in some areas, but there are nuggets hidden within his text. The paralleling of the Roman education with the Christian is one of these gems. The goal of Rome, as with many empires, is the unification and education of their populations with the Empire’s ideas (Ramsay, p. 63) and that the idea of fruition for Romans was only for amusement (p.78). This was the antithesis of what was found in Pauline teachings of the Church for their concept of fruition was not only for amusement, but feeding (p.78) and this led to classes where education and work go hand in hand that created bonds for the lower classes of the Empire with this new religious sect due to relevancy within life (p.78). The unique trick is that the way this policy worked itself out did not anger the Empire at first, as it appeared Christianity was not opposing the Empire’s systems but rather supplementing them (p.79).
For the astute Biblical student the educational pedagogy of the Pauline church shows how the church used the system, subverted it to its own aims of conversion and growth within the Great Commission. Ramsay grows this idea by hypothesizing that Paul had grand dreams for a religion that spread to the corners of the Empire, being mirrored within Paul’s travels to Rome then Spain (p. 139). Obviously Paul was not content with localized evangelization or discipling, one has to ponder if this quest for expansion was driven by the loss of wealth and position at his conversion?
It is questions that begin to arise as the reader connects the life snippets that are never addressed within Ramsay’s work that leaves the reader feeling isolated and not knowing where to take their inquiry next.
But following this expansionist, wounded pride hypothesis, more evidence is laid out by Ramsay himself. Due to Paul’s raising, education, and political training he astutely understood how to leverage positioning within the Empire for expansion. For Paul planted the first fully gentile congregation outside of the synagogue system within Pisidian Antioch (p.63). It is the outreach to the gentiles that created the controversy within the early church, but if Paul had not taken the gospel out of the synagogue there is a strong possibility that when the church had been expulsed from the synagogues it would have died. This shows Paul’s forethought, and understanding of religious dynamics that this writer can only attest to his time as a Pharisee, and member of the Sanhedrin.
This astuteness was also relevant when it came to first contacts for planting churches. The example used by Ramsay is that of the city of Ephesus which was the seat of government for Asia (p.148) and as such was a hub for travel, communication and ability to affect change. This was reflected in the Asian churches later revealed in Revelations (Ramsay, p.149) where all within the spheres of influence of Ephesus.
The idea of planned and systematic growth is old hat for religious movements today, but could it be that Paul was not only a traveler but a pioneer in this style of evangelism? Historically the church would see a repeat of this with Celtic Monastics spreading out throughout the world in the Middle Ages, but then shortly after the founders of churches left the communities themselves would implode. Paul’s plants showed staying power as they were able to survive the tumultuous times of the early church.
His mystery spirituality style of Christianity overlaid James, Bishop of Jerusalem, and Judaic Christianity and overtook John’s more Gnostic style church to become the leading “brand” of the Way of Christ if you will. Ramsay’s strength is not his inductive reading of Acts and the Pauline Epistles, the strength within Ramsay is that he lays out little gems of history that when taken together can illuminate a new picture of whom Paul was. For the uninitiated reading Paul can be painful, even though his letters are the earliest texts of the New Testament. Paul’s theology has shaped the church more than any other New Testament writer, and at times it can appear as the writings and life of Paul have shaped the faith more than even the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth.
Is Paul a controversial figure within Christendom? Yes. Is he a controversial figure for those who may want to meet Christ? Yes. The challenge of any course is to be able to meet Paul, and see him through sympathetic eyes. For even with what this Apostle accomplished in taking the faith outwards, it is easy to lose sight that there is a story, a life.
That life is not like many of the other early Apostles from the working and lower classes. Paul was a child of privilege. He was the son of Roman citizens, who although the family line was Jewish, they still could claim birth rights within the Empire; they were not conquered and seen as little more than property. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, he was there when Jesus was executed, a member of the Sanhedrin, he voted to create the first martyr in Stephen, and made a career out of destroying early churches. For a family, a holy man of Paul’s emerging stature was a sign of pride.
Then this happened:
9 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
(Acts 9:1-17, New International Version).
In the life of Paul, what the believer experiences is the loss of the old life, at the time of Baptism the symbolism of dying to the old life and being born again. As Saul emerged from the water and became Paul in Christ, he went from family Holy Man to Christ’s Apostle to family apostate and lost his loved ones, his wealth and his world. Yet in the midst of this personal crisis he drew closer to God, learned a trade, and went out to live his true vocational calling.
Is Ramsay’s text on the life of Paul worth the read? When this writer first started the analysis it was going to be a resounding N-O! Instead as the words have come together, connections seen or not seen emerged it became apparent that this older take on St. Paul of Tarsus has illuminated why Paul possibly does matter to the church today. It shows someone whose life was radically changed, who used his skills from his past life to glorify Jesus and build the reign of God here on earth.
Paul’s life shows the continual discipleship model as those communities he planted or met, through his letters he continued the dialogue and ministry with. He showed astuteness for understanding his world, being engaged in the body politic, and standing firm in what he believed. He also shows the believer how to use one’s rights, but to ensure they are also upholding their own responsibility as they move forward in life to their society in being a good citizen.
Under Emperor Nero St. Paul of Tarsus’ life would face a tragic end at the end of an axe blade. Nero’s cover for his incompetence that ravaged the Empire’s capital with fire, was to blame this small religious sect of The Way for destruction. Paul as one of the most active evangelists and teachers was seized, tried and convicted, but due to the actual Roman citizenry they could not execute him in the arenas or be crucified on the highways as these methods were for the lesser than full humans (as they were inhumane) which led to his kinder martyrdom if there is such a thing.
St. Paul Traveler and Roman Citizen should be approached as one would approach any faith development. Bringing your own bias, experience, and prayers then letting the Holy Mystery illuminate why this matters to you. For this writer, the life of Paul, while never his favourite had new light shone upon it.
Ramsay, W.M. (1894). St. Paul Traveler and Roman Citizen retrieved from https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=146 13 October 2012.
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