Explaining a perplexing writer, Paul 

What Paul Meant
By Garry Wills, Viking, New York, hard cover, $24.95.

There would surely be rejoicing on both sides of the pearly gates if just a few of the idiots who claim to speak for Christianity on TV and in the contemporary political sphere were to read this short, snappy study of the origin of the Christian faith and comprehend, say, 10 percent of it.

It goes a long way toward demystifying St. Paul, and it also goes a long way toward restoring him to rightful primacy among the saints. It was Paul who took infantile Christianity up from cult and gave it to an astonished world. It was Paul who took on the infernally annoying essential task of keeping the early churches together and keeping them focused. It was not Jesus who made Jesus God in the eyes of the world; it was Paul. And it’s one of the wonders of the world that he accomplished these marvels with no text and no more than what today would be considered a collection of folktales.

St. Paul might have been the most perplexing writer who ever lived but much of the perplexity wasn’t his fault. He didn’t write much of what’s attributed to him, and most of what he did write -- 99 percent of it, surely -- was lost by neglect or by later lessers presumptively trying to “improve” his original handiwork. Current consensus is that six of his 13 New Testament letters were written by others, and the seven others are composites or jumbled fragments or contain material, often a lot of it, incorporated later, sometimes by several rewrite men, so that there are Pauline epistles in the Holy Writ as fatherless as Wikipedia entries. The book of Acts, which purports to be his personal account of his conversion and early witness, was tall-tale fiction written by an imposter.

Determining What Paul Said is hard enough, but it’s nothing compared to the daunting challenge of determining What Paul Meant. It’s gotten to the point in this foolish epoch that he means pretty much what you want him to. You can quote him to bolster either side of just about any argument. Or both sides at once. With the same passage.

The authentic Paul is sooo notoriously difficult, more so because just about all the context that might have illuminated his message has been pared away, and the misinterpretations of millennia have made such a murk and mess of his work that it’ll never be untangled, but it sure is tempting to quote whole paragraphs, whole pages, whole short cogent chapters of Garry Wills’ attempt to give the greatest of the apostles his long overdue due. Just the afterword chapter, titled “Misreading Paul,” would be nearly sufficient, and it’s briefer even than most of Paul’s letters. Here’s the last graph of it:

“Religion took over the legacy of Paul as it did that of Jesus — because they both opposed it. They said that the worship of God is a matter of interior love, not based on external observances, on temples or churches, on hierarchies or priesthoods. Both were at odds with those who impose the burdens of “religion” and punish those who try to escape them. They were radical egalitarians, though in ways that delved below and soared above conventional politics. They were on the side of the poor, and saw through the rich. They saw only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of the neighbor. Both were liberators, not imprisoners — so they were imprisoned. So they were killed. Paul meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law. Paul’s message to us is not one of guilt and dark constraint. It is this: ‘Finally, Brothers, whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever making for the right, whatever loveable, whatever admirable — if there is any virtue, anything of high esteem — think on these. All you have learned, have taken from tradition, have listened to, have observed in me, act on these, and the God who brings peace will be yours.’”

Wills, a well-known political pundit in decades past, is a former professor of Greek at Johns Hopkins University and emeritus history professor at Northwestern University. He’s a Catholic writer with several books on religious history in recent years. He’ll be signing his book beginning at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Clinton Presidential Library Garden Room, an event sponsored by the University of Central Arkansas College of Fine Arts.


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