Karen Armstrong is among my favorite writers on the topic of religion, and this book only adds to my admiration. Armstrong is not a Biblical scholar nor an academic student of religion, but she’s someone who’s dived deeply into religious traditions and who brings her findings and observations back to the rest of us through thoughtful, carefully researched, and considered books. This book only adds to my admiration for her work.
Armstrong is no stranger to challenging topics: the monotheistic tradition from its Judaic origins to the present (A History of God), Buddha, Mohammed, the Bible, the Axial Age, and religion and violence. But still, St. Paul can present a unique challenge. As Armstrong reports at the beginning of this book, she’d tackled the subject of St. Paul early in her career as a journalist and student of religion. She began that project, undertaken in the late 1970s, with the assumption that Paul took Christianity in a wrong direction, away from the legacy of Jesus. But as she learned more about this enigmatic and fascinating man (although in some ways we know little about him), she changed her opinion. Thus in 1983, she published The First Christian about Paul, whom she initially thought of as the source of misogyny, authoritarianism, and anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition. She reports that she changed her perception in the course of producing that book (and accompanying television series). This work, published in 2015, updates her quest to come to grips with this “misunderstood apostle.”
No one can doubt Paul’s influence. Indeed, I remember some years ago seeing a poll of scholars about the most influential persons in the Western tradition. In that poll, to my surprise at the time, some of the respondents rated Paul’s influence as greater than that of Jesus. I was shocked, but the explanation provided was that without Paul, the nascent tradition surrounding Jesus would have remained within the existing tent of Judaism. Paul, the Pharisee turned apostle after his vision on the road to Damascus, brought the “Good News” to the Gentiles. Paul's ministry caused chagrin to the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus, who intended to remain within the Judaic tradition, or who at least would have required Gentile converts to adhere to Jewish law and custom.
Another intriguing aspect of Paul’s story is the fact that his letters are the oldest documents to be included in the New Testament canon. (Aand I do mean his letters because some letters were later attributed to him by tradition.) Armstrong undertakes a vital project for her readers, in working to separate out what are certainly authentic Pauline letters and words from those later (inaccurately) attributed to him. Also, his authentic letters, epistles, were scrambled in what came to be the official versions, sometimes mixing letters and dates and subjects. Also, later editors would occasionally interject their own words. The Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, comes after Paul’s letters and provides a different (and not especially accurate) account of Paul’s mission. In fact, some of the most controversial (by contemporary standards) passages in Paul’s letters are later interpolations, such as the injunction for wives to be submissive to their husbands, or (maybe) his injunction to defer to the political authorities. (However, Paul, like Jesus and other earlier followers, believed the end times were imminent, and therefore any injunctions were for a transitory period.) Armstrong notes that Paul’s real value was in his proclamation of the Good News to those outside of the Judaic tradition (although Paul was very much a part of that tradition and was never anti-Jewish). Paul's injunctions about love, justice, and equality became fundamental (if all too often ignored) aspects of the Jesus Movement and then Christianity.
Even misreadings of Paul, such as those of St. Augustine and Martin Luther, have shaped the course of Christianity. How Christians understand, appreciate, and use the legacy of St. Paul remains as vital as ever to the Christian tradition, and Karen Armstrong provides a trustworthy guide to continuing that quest.