Book Review: St. Paul: The Apostle We Love To Hate

My copy of the book.

I find it deeply interesting to continue to probe Christianity, partly because of its predominance in the world, partly because of my own sense of wanting to get it, as it were, and mostly, because I find religion interesting as a source of learning on its own terms. To that end, I read Karen Armstrong’s brief (only 125 pages) 2015 book, St. Paul: The Apostle We Love To Hate. Admittedly, I don’t offhand know much about Paul, but I am familiar with the passages Armstrong references as proof positive from critics of Paul that he is a misogynist. In his letters, Paul says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says,” and I think there is something about, if she has a question, she should ask her husband.

Armstrong has written scores of religious books, including one I plan on getting to soon, A History of God, but she also wrote about Paul at the beginning of her career in 1983, The First Christian, initially doing so with the expressed intent to show how Paul had “damaged Christianity and ruined the original, loving teaching of Jesus.” Along with misogynism, Paul has been castigated as a purveyor of virulent authoritarianism and being “bitterly hostile” to Jews and Judaism.

This book, however, is a reappraisal of Paul and Armstrong’s own, earlier beliefs about him. She states in the introduction, “When I started to study his writings in a first-century context, however, it did not take me long to realize that this was an untenable view.” Her primary “defense,” as it were, of Paul is that some of the worst letters that paint the aforementioned picture of him weren’t actually written by him at all. Instead, they were retrofitted to better fit and accommodate the Greco-Roman political culture of the day (since Jesus wasn’t actually going to come back in Paul’s lifetime, as previously thought).

And instead of being an authoritarian, Paul was a staunch anti-imperialist because of the milieu he was operating within: The Roman Empire, and pointedly, with the expressed belief that Jesus’s return to vanquish such false idols was imminent, i.e., within his lifetime. I think the latter is an important context, too, to his words and who he was directing his words to. That is, not generations in the future, as Armstrong argues, but to the people right here and now.

As for Paul’s supposed issues with Jews and Judaism, Armstrong argues that Paul saw Jesus’s brutal death and resurrection as setting anew God’s relationship to the world. In a sense, the Old Testament had become “old hat” and thus, superseded by the crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, Torah law would have seen it as blasphemous to bring Jesus, who had died on the cross and presumably had been left there for a number of days as was customary to feed predators, to a seat next to God. But that is Paul’s argument precisely: By so doing, God upended everything that was previously thought about God and his relationship to humans.

God, as Paul testifies to, saw strength in weakness, and it is that message that Paul takes throughout the world in his time, trying to tell Jews and gentiles alike the message of Jesus. That Jesus was a liberator, freeing those from the bondage of the imperial system they lived within, and into the liberty of the glory of the sons of God (to paraphrase Romans 8:21).

This is a radical religion! Jesus, a peasant, was killed as criminal by the Romans, and yet, God still saw fit to bring him into the heavenly space by his side, as the right hand of God. And for Paul to continue to proselytize about this religion against the Roman establishment, and even the Judaea establishment, was radical. Arguably, and I don’t think I’m overstating or misstating Armstrong’s thesis of a sort, without Paul, far from damaging Christianity, Christianity would have probably remained a small sect of Judaism without him endeavoring to spread the message.

I also think it is interesting — and excuse my ignorance, as I’m sure those more well-versed in Christianity would scoff at an obvious point — that Paul upended the view of the cross in which Jesus died upon. Instead of it being the warning the Romans used to scare others, Paul seized upon the cross as an image of salvation.

I’m just moved, for lack of a better word, by two things here: 1.) How radical Paul, and the followers of Jesus were, in opposing and upending the status quo of their time (and I think that is something that I’ve missed, and perhaps others, too, from the Bible, is how much of it is concerned and reacting to the events of their day) and the ways in which that radicalism expressed itself in terms of caring for the meek, the foreigner, the poor, and a general ethos of egalitarianism; and 2.) How a religion starts, promulgates, and sustains; why this religion and why for this long? This brief books answers that question, in part, by saying that Paul was offering something new to the peasants of the time as an alternative to Roman imperialism.

This book also made me want to learn more about Roman history, which admittedly, I know scant about.

If you also have an interest in religion, why it spreads, and what the followers of the religion believe, I feel like Armstrong’s book on Paul is as good as any place to start.

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