Sunday, December 27, 2015

Traveling troublemaker

Historian of religions Karen Armstrong's catalog of books is prodigious: twenty-four so far, and counting. As might be expected of such a wide ranging collection, some are better, and some are more challenging, than others. I appreciated her latest rather small effort: St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate.

Less than many, especially women, I've never been a Paul-hater. As an organizer who tries to think about liberation at scale, I have found that what we know of this apparently effectual individual fascinates me. He is credited with somehow carrying the Jesus movement out of Palestine and across the Roman world, a very improbable trajectory for a little Jewish heresy.

Paul probably gets more and less credit than he deserves. All we have of his exploits are seven likely-genuine letters preserved in the Christian part of the Bible, other Biblical accounts that seem to have been constructed to advance intramural squabbles, and a further collection of letters that imitators with their own agendas wrote using Paul's apparently authoritative name.

What Armstrong does in this little book is put the apostle in his historical context. I'm going to excerpt at some length here as a sample of both her method and content. After early missionary efforts in cities such as Damascus and Antioch where there were many Jews, Paul apparently decided to carry his "good news" to the "land of Japheth" -- peoples in Asian Minor including Greeks, Macedonians, Phrygians, and Anatolians. And there he found exotic peoples, but also fertile ground.

This was alien territory indeed; unlike Cilicia and Syria, it had few Jewish communities and Jews rarely traveled so far into this wild part of Asia Minor... Communication was difficult because Paul was now speaking to people with entirely different cultural presuppositions and expectations ...

[The Galatians] were an Indo-European people, Aryan Gauls whose native language had been akin to Welsh or Gaelic; in the early third century BCE, they had migrated from Europe and settled in what is now north-central Turkey. An itinerant warrior people, they hired themselves out as mercenaries, before finally adopting a sedentary lifestyle, living in farming communities ruled by elected assemblies and celebrating the feats of their ancient heroes in rowdy banquets similar to those described in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. They worshipped their Mother Goddess, a fierce deity who enforced justice and was often identified with a mountain that towered above their village; at her major cult centers, young men would sometimes castrate themselves in her orgiastic rituals. What on earth could these savage Celts have in common with Jesus and his Jewish followers?

Yet Paul soon realized that like the Judeans and Galileans, the Galatians had been conquered by Rome relatively recently and were still struggling with imperial rule. ...An intrepid race of heroes now existed for the sole purpose of providing a continuous flow of crops in tax revenue to the imperial capital. ... from the letter [Paul] wrote later to the Galatians, we can deduce that he urged them to cast off servile habits of dependence and submission together with the Greco-Roman religion of their masters that supported the imperial order: "Stand firm, therefore, refuse to submit ... to the yoke of slavery."

... as they watched the Romanization of their society, some of the Galatians may have been attracted by the prospect of affiliation with Israel, an ethnic group that had won acceptance in the empire, which would enable them to retain some distance from Rome. They [may] not have understood that Paul was insisting on something more radical. He would later remind them in his letter that with the cross [execution of Jesus] the old ethnic, social, and cultural divisions that characterized the present evil age had been obliterated: "Baptized into union with him, you have all put on Christ like a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male or female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus."

... the Galatians had to liberate themselves from habits of servility and ethnic prejudice by creating an alternative community characterized by equality.

Of course I've listened to frequent readings of Paul's famous injunctions to the Galatians, but this becomes much richer in the context which Armstrong provides.

Paul's life presents us a miracle very much like the miracle presented by the stories of Jesus: the true improbability is that we've ever heard of these obscure agitators at all. The Roman Empire was full of traveling troublemakers; it was also good at disposing of them. All we know (as attested history rather than legend) is that Paul led a delegation of non-Jewish Christians to the mother-congregation of Jesus followers in Jerusalem; neither the local congregation nor the Roman rulers were welcoming. Paul was seized by the Romans.

Nobody seems to know how or when Paul died. ... Once in Roman custody, Paul could also have simply disappeared. In our own time, we have seen how easily a powerful regime can dispose of small-fry subversives who stand in its way. The fact that there are [several] variant views of his death indicate that once he was taken into Roman custody, he simply vanished, dispatched like Jesus with "casual brutality.

Yet the ideas of Paul -- and idea of Paul -- permeated much of the world that had known Rome and beyond.

This is a thought provoking little book.

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