A Reflection on Paul’s Character

Written by:  Robert D Brinsmead

As I reflect on Paul’s character, the thought comes to me that the so-called Damascus Road conversion did not change the essential zealot character of the man.  First he was fighting against the Jesus movement with tremendous energy and determination, hauling off some of the people to all kinds of dire persecution.  He summed it up by his blunt confession, “I persecuted the church.”  Then he received his gospel commission direct from heaven via his visionary experiences quite independently of the apostles who had been with the historical Jesus.  He was so sure and dogmatic about his version of the gospel that he now turned the zealous energies with which he had once persecuted the church, to bitterly denounce and struggle against Jewish Christians who did not accept his interpretation of Jesus.  He accused them of preaching “another Jesus”, which might be fair enough expression of his viewpoint, but he pressed the case to argue that these “super apostles” (whom a lot of scholars now think refers to James, Peter, John etc) whom many were saying were real apostles whereas Paul was not, were emissaries of Satan himself – well just read for yourself where Paul hisses out his denunciations of these Jewish Christians.  He makes some play on the great Hebrew word Wisdom.  It seems that his opponents were preaching the sayings of the Sapient Jesus of the Q.  Paul dismisses their “wisdom” sayings of the historical Jesus.  He says he is not interested in any “Christ of the flesh” because his focus is on the heavenly Christ of faith, and the only wisdom he wants is the wisdom of the crucified Christ, etc.  Research over recent decades has bit by bit unearthed how bitter the struggle was between Paul and the Jewish Christians.  Way back when I did my introduction to the Scandal of Joshua ben Adam series I indicated where I agreed with Paul and where I agreed with his Jewish Christian opponents.  But the whole story gets clearer and even more exciting.  If you take the line of Paul, you end up with the Apostles Creed that says Jesus was born and that he died, and say nothing about what he actually taught and nothing about the gospel he preached – for Jesus was the one who first coined the expression, remember.  The whole focus of the Creeds follows Paul in that is all about the expiatory death and exultation of the risen Christ. As if you don’t need to know anything else but this.

It is almost amusing how that in Romans 12 Paul comes around to almost citing Jesus word for word (as if he is quoting the words from the Sermon on the Mount), even throwing in the Jesus bit about non-retaliation against wrongs (“Never pay back evil for evil…do not seek revenge”)  At this point I am on my feet cheering Paul with all those Jewish Christians devoted to the “Sayings Gospel of the Q.”  But then an almost ludicrous thing happens as Paul proceeds to butcher the gospel preached by Jesus (and even shows how incompatible it is to the teaching of Jesus) when he adds, “…leave a place for divine retribution, for there is a text which reads, ‘Vengence is mine, I will repay.””  But when you go back to the gospel of Jesus, he says that we should love without retaliation because that is what God is like.  There is his gospel in just five words – that’s what God is like!  Do not retaliate because God does not retaliate!  It is all there in Matthew 5:38-48.  The words of Jesus are clear and pure.  But Paul preaches a God who retiates.  His doctrine of the cross is all about God’s retaliating wrath propitiated by the bloody sacrifice – and if you don’t accept that gospel, then his Christ comes “in flaming fire to take vengeance of them…that obey not [my] gospel.”  1 Thess.

So I get back to my point about Paul’s Damascus road turn-around.  The same aggressive stance that he exhibited toward the Jesus movement, he displayed toward the differing others within the Jesus movement.

He fell out with Barnabas apparently over his partner’s more conciliatory attitude toward the Jerusalem church, he fell out with Mark and vented curses and damnation on those within the Jesus’ movement who  did not exactly preach his version on the Gospel.