Pope Benedict has declared June 2008 to begin a year of St Paul to mark 2000 years since the birth of this great apostle. For all of us, it gives a good incentive to reflect on the greatest missionary of the early church.
Everything was against Paul—his stubborn Hebrew Pharisaic background, his commitment to Judaism, not being an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, his awareness of the threat that Christianity represented, and his determination to stamp out the movement.
I have often wondered why God had to call Paul and not one of the 12. Perhaps they felt comfortable waiting in Jerusalem for their 12 thrones on which they were to judge the 12 tribes of Israel (Lk 22:30). Paul had that needed broad classical education; Tarsus boasted one of the great universities of the ancient world, and Paul learnt Greek rhetoric and the writing that was to be a great asset in his letter writing.
There is a wonderful description of Paul in a work called The Acts of Paul and Thecla—‘short, bald-headed, shaggy-eyebrowed, bandy-legged’.
But what ambition! Paul looked out at that Mediterranean world of his and resolved to win it to Christ. Nobody tried harder than this intrepid missionary to carry out such an ambitious task.
Paul’s sufferings as an apostle
‘Far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was shipwrecked, for a night and a day I was adrift at sea, on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, bandits, from my own people, Gentiles, danger in the city, in the wilderness, at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And beside other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.’
(2 Cor 11:23-28).
Journeys by sea and land
In 2 Cor 11:25-27 Paul describes the cost of being a disciple; it’s a marvellous passage which reflects the certainty that God never promised Paul an easy life, but gave him an exciting and perilous one!
‘Three times I was shipwrecked’ —given the sailing conditions of those days before the jib was invented, the great grain clippers bound for Rome lacked manoeuvrability or even the vision to see anyone afloat in the water, let alone effect a rescue. Paul was probably washed ashore more often than not.
‘Many sleepless nights’ can be blamed on that curse of the ancient world, the bed bug! The inns of those days were infested with them!
A delightful tale from an apocryphal gospel of John tells of the ancient apostle being given the only bed in the room of the inn in which he stayed with his disciples.
After tossing and turning until midnight the apostle was heard to order the bedbugs out and they obediently trekked over into the corner and rolled into a ball.
Come morning and because they had been so obedient, John permitted them to return to the bed and await the next traveller.
Readers may remember the maps of the journeys of St Paul from Acts of the Apostles. When Paul travelled west he walked; going east he took a boat to return to Antioch. This decision was dictated by the prevailing westerly winds.
His second journey, his first into Europe, took him 5,000 kilometres—3000 by land and 2,000 by sea. Paul paid for his travel through his trade as a leather worker (repairing leather tents was only part of his trade).
Travelling the Roman roads, one went from town to post (where the wealthy changed horses; nobody rode because the stirrup had not been invented), then onto the next town. About 25 Roman miles (a thousand military paces, right foot to right foot) was enough for daily travel.
Paul gave us one quarter of the New Testament.
It all started with a letter to a recent community he had formed in Thessalonica, the first letter to the Thessalonians being the earliest piece of the New Testament. Half of Acts is about him.
He gave us seven undisputed letters and others that were written in his name to keep his message alive for later generations (the Deutero-Pauline literature).
Understanding Paul is not easy, but he is well worth the effort, especially if we approach the letters as helping real people solve real problems.