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Getting to Know St. Paul

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 29, 2011

From his complicity in the martyrdom of St. Stephen to his own martyrdom in Rome thirty years later, Paul of Tarsus was a figure to be reckoned with in the growth of the early Church. He was also the most prolific writer in the New Testament and without doubt the most impressive of inspired theologians, though John outstrips him in contemplative depth.

Those who wish to get to know St. Paul more thoroughly can take one of the three approaches. The first approach would be to undertake the intense labor of unpacking his letters, mining his theology and explicating his profound insights. This itself is the work of a lifetime and, were I to proceed down this path, I would begin with The Thought of St. Paul: A Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, pulled together by Fr. William Most after fifty years of study, and published by Christendom Press in 1994. (For more on Fr. Most, see the Most Collection in our Resource Center.)

The second approach would be to essay something of a psychological study of this great and forceful personality, who was transformed by a vision from the foremost opponent to the foremost defender of Christian conversion. Here is a man who seems by turns gentle and angry, humble and arrogant, forgiving and implacable, long-suffering and ecstatic, and who drove himself through more fantastic experiences and severe trials than lukewarm Christians would even want to know about. At any given moment, we might conclude this or that about the rough edges of Paul’s overpowering character, and yet we must seek to understand him as a whole.

And the third approach would be to attempt to reconstruct the world in which St. Paul labored, to figure out what he was up against in the history, beliefs and passions of the people among whom he worked. These people encompassed both Jews and pagans, representing cultures and settings as diverse as the opulence of Asia (Ephesus), the brilliance of Greece (Athens), the monotheism of Israel (Jerusalem) and the pride of the world (Rome). Paul endured not only physical hardships but every conceivable cultural obstacle in preaching the Gospel throughout the known world.

This third way is taken by Joseph Callewaert in his new book The World of Saint Paul, published by Ignatius Press. Callewaert has chosen to provide a very readable account of the world St. Paul inhabited in order to put him in context and give us an idea of the truly revolutionary nature of his unique apostolic mission.

The book is a strong and salutary reminder of the scope, sweep and history of the pagan world into which Christianity exploded in the fullness of time. We too easily forget the stunning accomplishments of this world, its grand history and traditions, the heights of its human achievements, the depths of its perversity, its great cities, evocative mythologies, and sybaritic cults, its pride and ultimate despair. Consider just one brief vignette from the description of St. Paul’s entry into Ephesus, where he ran afoul of the silversmiths, who feared he would reduce their traffic in idols of the goddess Diana (Artemis):

From each of the four sides, a stairway of fourteen steps led to the courtyard of the temple [of Diana], which was enormous in size: 328 feet by 151 feet by 59 feet, topped with an immense roof made of cedar. Thirty-six of its columns were sculpted…. It contained the masterpiece of Calliphon of Samos, “Patrocles Putting on the Armor of Achilles”, as well as the great fresco of the famous Apelles depicting “Alexander the Great Hurling Thunder”…. Behind a richly embroidered curtain of purple was the “Great Diana of the Ephesians”, fallen from the sky and venerated by the entire world….
The idol was crowned with a tower, its torso was covered with breasts or perhaps with bull testicles, a symbol of generation, and from the waist to the feet she was swathed like a mummy. The whole statue was covered with magical inscriptions called “the Ephesian writings”, which were copied out as charms. Around it stood other statues that purportedly shed real tears. All day long the air was freshened by Oriental perfumes. The walls multiplied the spectacle by means of concave mirrors, and fountains projected bursts of light like a dew of diamonds.

When we glimpse such things we begin to understand why it took the iron-willed determination of a Paul to get the attention necessary to preach the Gospel.

In just this way, Callewaert begins in Tarsus where Paul was born, proceeds to Jerusalem where he received his higher education, and covers all of the regions and cities of St. Paul’s great missionary journeys, before proceeding to Caesarea for his arrest and to Rome for his imprisonment and death. At every turn we find the glory and grandeur of the old pagan world, seemingly secure and strong in its accomplishments and power, yet repeatedly thrown into an uproar by Paul and his astonishing message of new life in Christ. Again and again we see Paul carve out a beachhead for the Faith, or strengthen and enlarge upon the work of others, until he is known throughout the world—by Christians as a father, by Jews as a troublemaker, and by pagans as either a threat or a marvel.

This is not a scholarly study; it is a fast-paced account of the life and work of the Apostle to the Gentiles in the context of his time and place, so that we may better understand where Paul is, what he is doing, and why he is doing it in this particular way. The narrative serves not only as a biography in its own right, but as a revealing background for deeper studies of Paul’s psychology or Paul’s theology, which must be rooted of course in the Epistles themselves.

Finally, when we see what Paul was up against, and compare it with the remarkable achievements and equally prodigious vanities of our own time and place, we necessarily gain a better appreciation for what it takes to be a disciple. We begin to see, with uncomfortable clarity, how challenging it is to convey good news, news that really means something, news that matters.

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