The Problem Apostle

How Garry Wills rehabilitates Paul.

Paul could not help becoming the problem apostle. A couple of decades after Christ’s crucifixion, he was committing his thoughts on the meaning of the Messiah to papyrus, thus setting himself up for the later charge that he had been the first to distort the pure, orally delivered truths of the Lord. Writing in his first letter to the Corinthians, he observed that preaching “Christ crucified” was “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” Yet as Garry Wills shows in What Paul Meant—a companion volume to What Jesus Meant (2004)—it’s Paul himself who eventually became a stumbling block for generations of liberal Christians.

Enlightened rationalists like Thomas Jefferson, who took Jesus as the greatest philosopher of all time, saw Paul as a classic “mystery-mongerer,” one of a long line of churchmen who filled believers’ heads with superstitions about Jesus as a divinity. Many evangelical liberals—a thriving breed from Jefferson’s time into the mid-20th century—embraced the supernatural mysteries of the faith, including the Resurrection and the Trinity, but still faulted Paul for harping on sin, guilt, celibacy, and, more recently, for imposing a subordinate role on women. They agreed with the Jefferson-style rationalists that Paul cared more about building up the church than preserving the simple teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. They saw the vituperative Paul, often preoccupied with disputes among the mid-first-century Jewish followers of Jesus, as the opposite of their sweet-tempered Lord, who took no care for the morrow.

In What Jesus Meant, Wills took up the historic liberal quest of rescuing the unadulterated gospel message of Jesus from the corruptions of the church, and indeed from “religion”—always, in Wills’ view, a system of power that tempers or erases the radicalism of a genuine spiritual radical. Now Wills ingeniously extends the liberal rescue mission to the least likely of targets: Paul himself.

Rather than accept the premise that Paul stands for the church, or for the rules and routines of religion, Wills takes Paul as the original defender, and best explicator, of his Messiah’s authentic vision of love. If you like Jesus, says Wills, you’re going to like Paul, too. They both stand on the pre-church side of the spiritual divide. We have been misled by the evangelist “Luke,” whose Acts of the Apostles, written many decades after Paul’s death, portrays Paul as a church builder, in keeping with the pressing needs of “Luke’s” own day. Paul’s own authentic letters (seven out of the 13 attributed to him in the New Testament), written closer to time of Jesus than even the earliest of the four canonized gospels, give us a more accurate account of Paul’s vocation than “Luke’s” Acts does. Paul’s letters may even convey a truer version of some of the Messiah’s own words than the four gospels do.

Wills is not the first liberal Christian to try to rehabilitate Paul. In the mid-20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr’s liberal “realists” turned to Paul, too, seeing his emphasis on sin as a valuable antidote to the Utopian scheming and sentimental dreaming they perceived in secular and religious liberal idealists such as Norman Thomas, Harry Emerson Fosdick, or Norman Vincent Peale. The Niebuhrians liked to quip that they found “St. Paul appealing and St. Peale appalling.” In fact, they found Paul essential. To them, he underwrote a social gospel free of wishful thinking about either individual sinlessness or automatic social progress.

Like the Niebuhrians before him, Wills will be mistaken for a conservative Christian, since he admires Paul so much and since he remains devoted to the orthodox teachings of the faith—the Messiah as sacrificial lamb and risen Lord, not just Jesus as ethical exemplar. But Wills remains a liberal because he highlights the gospel of love, asserts the equality of women, distrusts institutions and hierarchies, and endorses the findings of modern biblical scholarship. He depends on that scholarship to make his case for placing Paul back in a pre-church period, a time when Jews like him—followers of Jesus the Messiah—were proclaiming their faith in heated competition with Jewish traditionalists. Both groups of Jews vied for the conversions of gentiles drawn to the zealous monotheism of the Jewish faith, an increasingly attractive alternative in a Mediterranean world whose standard polytheistic beliefs struck many as anachronistic.

As always in a work by Garry Wills, one enjoys a string of arresting insights and original formulations, magnified here, as in What Jesus Meant, by his own beautiful translations from the Greek, the language of the New Testament. What Paul Meant offers a tour-de-force revision of what we thought we knew about the apostle who helped give the Christian faith its distinctive shape. The revision starts with the term “apostle” itself. That word implies a hierarchical church structure, with leadership by designated officials. But when Paul wrote of the apostoloi he meant emissaries, ambassadors, men and women (including husband-and-wife teams) who exercised the function of messenger but held no office and were “never rulers of any gathering.”

Gathering is Wills’ choice for translating Paul’s term ekklesia, usually rendered as church. Gatherings took place in Paul’s day in the homes of a brother or sister, not in a church edifice. The sisters, meanwhile, much to the dismay of later church officials, took on positions of significant authority with Paul’s full support. Junia, an emissary praised by Paul along with her husband, Andronicus, at the end of his letter to the Romans, was airbrushed out of the Christian tradition in the early Middle Ages, declared a “nonperson,” Wills writes, in a “Soviet-style rewriting of history.”

Wills’ own Roman Catholic Church has historically relied on Paul’s preference for celibacy as one support for its policy of restricting the priesthood to unmarried men. Wills doesn’t mention current Catholic debates over the practice, but he implicitly counters that Paul only recommended celibacy and did so for women as well as men. He saw it as a practical matter for the emissaries: Better for them to stay single, in view of the demands of their life and the approaching end of history. But it was better to marry than to “burn” with a loneliness that undermined one’s work.

One wonders how receptive 21st-century liberal Christians will prove when offered a portrait of Paul as the loyal preinstitutional follower of Jesus, preaching charity for the poor and love of God and neighbor. The last two centuries of American Christian history show how concertedly many liberals have clung to images of orthodox archfoes—especially the first-century Paul and the 18th-century Jonathan Edwards—as convenient targets for dismissal. Edwards’ sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is read in isolation from his rhapsodic hymns to the love between God and believer, then trotted out to make liberals feel liberated from their pinched, judgmental forebears. The same goes for Paul’s alleged preoccupation with church rules, sin, guilt, celibacy, and the denigration of women.

If anyone can wean his fellow liberal Christians from their historic habit of denigrating Paul, it is Wills, whose translation of Chapter 13 of First Corinthians, tying Paul tightly to Jesus as a preacher of love, is characteristically fresh and gripping. The last six verses read: “Love will never go out of existence. Prophecy will fail in time, languages too, and knowledge as well. For we know things only partially, or prophesy partially, and when the totality is known, the parts will vanish. It is like what I spoke as a child, knew as a child, thought as a child, argued as a child—which, now I am grown up, I put aside. In the same way we see things in a murky reflection now, but shall see them full face when what I have known in part I know fully, just as I am known. For the present, then, three things matter—believing, hoping, and loving. But supreme is loving.”