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Saul of Tarsus: one of the most important Jews in history

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An artist's rendition of Saul of Tarsus preaching in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus.

When historians speak of the Inquisition, they refer to the lengthy campaign of religious persecution directed by the Catholic Church. But there was a time when Jews ran their own inquisitions. One famed Jewish heretic whose travails are catalogued in 2 Corinthians, for instance, recounts that “of the Jews, five times received I 40 (lashes) save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned.” The heretic’s name was Saul of Tarsus. But to Christians, he is better known as Paul the Apostle.

As Bart Ehrman explains in his new book, The Triumph Of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Paul was one of the most important Jews in history. Until Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Jesus had been known to Roman civilization (if at all) as an obscure Jewish street preacher who’d been executed for creating a ruckus in Jerusalem. It was Paul who created a wide network of religious communities dedicated to Jesus’ teachings (as Paul himself radically reinterpreted them).

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High school history teachers typically divide the Pauline world into pagan, Jewish and Christian spheres. But Ehrman shows that these categories blurred. While Constantine’s conversion is presented as a binary switch from pagan polytheism to Christian monotheism, the emperor himself would have seen things differently. Even many pagans were henotheists who believed in a single great god that lorded over all others – Sol Invictus, or Unconquered Sun. Ehrman believes that Constantine recognized Sol Invictus as being the same god that Christians worshipped. And so Constantine saw Christianity as an enlightened extrapolation of his early paganism – much as Paul believed Jesus’ message fulfilled, but did not replace, Jewish prophecies.

Ehrman argues that Christianity likely would have prevailed in Europe even if Constantine hadn’t had his epiphany at Milvian Bridge (and elsewhere – Constantine apparently had religious dreams all the time). Unlike Judaism or paganism, Paul’s creed was aggressively evangelical. Moreover, it delivered a message people wanted to hear – that they were loved by the one true God, and that their belief would protect them from horrors soon to envelop the world.

An artist’s rendition of Constantine the Great at the Milvian Bridge.

Pagans were cosmic nihilists. (On Roman graves, Ehrman notes, a common marking was n.f. f. n.s. n.c., representing non fui; fui; non sum; non curo – “I was not; I was; I am not; I care not.”) It’s easy to understand why life in heaven sounded like a better deal. And crucially, Paul decided that followers of Jesus weren’t bound by the difficult parts of Jewish life, which many Romans regarded as creepy and clannish – such as circumcision, and complicated dietary laws. Jesus’ personal followers had all been Jews who took it for granted that being a Jew was a prerequisite for embracing Jesus’ teachings. Paul believed otherwise.

It’s a sign of Paul’s fervour that he embraced Jesus despite knowing what lay in store for him. By his own account, Paul was expert and doctrinaire in his personal Jewish faith, and travelled from town to town, acting as a professional enforcer of Jewish doctrine. He understood the horrors that awaited him once he was on the other side of the lash.

The expected saviour was a divine king who arrived in a blaze of glory and justice – not some itinerant wretch cast up on a crucifix.

Yet for all his insider knowledge of Judaism, Paul had little success converting fellow Jews. As Ehrman notes, almost all of his converts were pagan. One big reason would have been the problem of eschatological (end times) expectations. Yes, the Jews of Paul’s time awaited a messiah. (We still wait.) But the expected saviour was a divine king who arrived in a blaze of glory and justice – not some itinerant wretch cast up on a crucifix.

That part of the story never made sense to Jews – except to heretics such as Paul, who was able to shoehorn Jesus’ piteous circumstances into his own apocalyptic Pharisaic beliefs. Two millenniums later, Jews will say that it still makes no sense – even if, as a matter of global demographics, Paul clearly won the argument.