Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
When news of Paul’s heroic death spread across the eastern Mediterranean, his own foundations were both proud and saddened. They would never see him again. There would be no more letters. Now they had to struggle on without his paternal guidance.
Other Christians, on the contrary, were delighted, and breathed a sign of ‘Good riddance!’ Paul had never been liked by those who believed that Christianity should remain firmly rooted in Judaism. His success among the Gentiles stigmatized their failure to make converts. Jewish Christian opposition to Paul was so violent that on his last visit to Jerusalem he had good reason to fear for his life.
In the second and third centuries Jewish Christian vilification of Paul became systematic. In work after work he is contrasted with the orthodox Peter, who stayed much closer to his Jewish roots. Such savage slanders, however, had little impact. They emanated from a group within the church that was being gradually marginalized.
Perhaps it was such opposition that forced the Pauline churches to realize the treasure they had in the letters they received from Paul. They had been kept for the guidance they gave on specific topics of local interest, but now believers began to value them for the universally important principles that they embodied.
Partial collections of Paul’s letters developed in Macedonia (1 & 2 Thessalonians and Philippians) and in Achaia (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and perhaps Galatians). Both had easy and frequent connections with Ephesus, where the partial collections were combined, perhaps by Onesimus, the ex-slave mentioned in the letter to Philemon. He was a native of Colossae, and subsequently became bishop of Ephesus.
The popularity of Paul’s letters in his own churches is understandable, but once they became easily available, they were taken up with enthusiasm by major heretical groups, the Marcionites and the Gnostics. This should have meant that the Pauline letters were forced out of the mainstream of Christianity. Guilt by association should have ensured that they never won a place in the Christian canon of Scripture.
Fortunately Paul had his orthodox defenders, notably the first great Christian theologian of the post-Apostolic age, Irenaeus (c. 130-200). Born in Smyrna in western Turkey, he studied in Rome, and ended his career as bishop of Lyons in France. He laid down that the test of orthodoxy was agreement with ‘the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul’ (Against All Heresies, 3.3.2). This recommendation guaranteed Paul’s reputation.
His place in the canon, however, did not mean that Paul’s message became central to the Christian faith. Those who made an effort to understand him on his own terms had to recognize his extreme idealism. He set impossible standards. He knew that they were unattainable, and did not expect perfection. But he believed that Christians should live under the challenge of the high ideal exhibited in the self-sacrificing love of Christ.
The vast majority of believers, however, want the comfort of feeling good about themselves. For them, however, success does not mean achievement. It is measured by effort, and it is easy to decide when one has done enough. Paul’s insistance on the imitation of Christ, who gave his life for others, makes such people feel uncomfortable. They cannot argue against him, so they just ignore him.
Paul also has very clear ideas as to how things work. The realism of his views threaten our cherished illusions. Christian freedom, for example, is guaranteed by the power of good example within the local church, which more than counterbalances the force of bad example coming from the world. This means that each believer must accept responsibility for inspiring, supporting, and consoling others. Were parishes to live this out, we would know what is to be free. The majority, however, dismiss this demand to be actively committed as too burdensome, and instead develop a theory of individual freedom rooted in a mysterious internal grace. This, of course, has the whiff of mystery that makes it seem profound. If one does not understand, it must be deep theology. In fact, of course, it is simply nonsense without any basis either in revelation or experience.
Paul has more to offer the twenty-first century church than any other writer of the New Testament. He has no words of comfort for those who have opted for the mediocrity of a sclerosed institution. Concretely and precisely he shows how things could be much better. His gospel, however, will appeal only to the realists and the courageous, who want to transform the idea of ‘the body of Christ’ into the physical, efficatious presence of Christ in our world.