As I finish up my discussion of the Bible, I figure I should probably dip into the New Testament. There are many discussions to be had, but I have decided to use this opportunity to touch on a character who was rather new to me on this read-through—a character who doesn’t even have a book named after him: Jesus. Just kidding. I’m going to talk about Paul.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Paul, formerly named Saul, used to hate the Christians. Then he got struck off his horse by lightning, lost his sight, was cured by God, and became a devout Christian. After this, Paul became instrumental in spreading Christianity throughout the world, and the second half of the New Testament is mostly a record of his letters to various groups of potential believers.
On one hand, Paul had many positive traits. I found a good bit of wisdom throughout his letters. He was also a straight baller when it came to spreading the word of Christ, so if you find that to have been a positive route for our society, then he certainly deserves props for that.
On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced that Paul is a trustworthy character. Of course, this is all coming from a place of having read through his letters once, with very little context, so it’s mostly spitballing. Regardless, I thought it would be interesting to use this last essay to take apart some of the manipulative tactics Paul used to essentially come across as “Jesus Jr.”
Paul generally begins his letters with words of thanks, giving compliments to those he is writing to. This immediately gives the recipient a favorable view of Paul as an ally, hopefully causing them to let their guard down. For example, Paul starts Philippians by saying, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now’ (Philippians 1:3-5). Paul never hesitates to butter up his epistle partners with lines like this. I imagine it’s an excellent tactic for opening them up to the real point of the letter.
After the initial round of compliments, Paul generally moves on to further establish his authority. His tactics here are the source of a nickname given him by a pastor I know: ‘The King of the Humble Brag’. First, Paul disparages himself and highlights his shortcomings. For example, he writes to the Corinthians, ‘When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God’ (1 Corinthians 1). Additionally, Paul will often talk about his wickedness as a Pharisee before divine intervention caused him to change his ways. Rather than make him sound untrustworthy, admitting his faults does just the opposite; the recipients let their guard down even further because of his blunt ‘honesty’.
Paul’s last step in his process is to assure the recipients that he is not speaking from himself and his impure heart—instead, he speaks as a representative of the Lord. He tells the Corinthians, for instance, that he has been successful ‘relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace’ (2 Corinthians 1:12). He tells the Galatians, ‘I did not receive [the gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 1:12). Through claiming his message is from God rather than himself, he is able to speak with authority while still appearing humble in the eyes of whom he is speaking with. After getting his audience to let their guard down by complimenting them and being ‘honest’ about his shortcomings, the ground is sufficiently prepared for Paul to move forward.
After setting this foundation, Paul moves on to the real meat of the letters. I’m not sure if he’s just offering advice in these letters, or whether he has been asked specific questions—it may be a mixture of both—but he is definitely telling the recipients what to do, and how to live. And, considering the expansion of Christianity, including many of Paul’s letters, it would seem that it worked. Paul goes on to be one of the most didactic characters in the whole book.
From an outside perspective, however, should we trust Paul’s rules? Did they truly come from God himself? After all, it would seem we only have Paul’s word for it. Did he truly care about Jesus Christ, or was he tempted to insert his own views as he increasingly felt the power that comes with spreading religion?
I’m not altogether sure. As I mentioned, some rules seem to have a great message behind them. Some, however, don’t make much sense to me. If he were the son of God, as Jesus is often thought to be, it would be easy to give him a pass. Instead, however, we are just meant to believe that he speaks for God. In that case, could he have gone down the road of a false prophet? Could some of Paul’s rules have become dangerous through his self-propelled Biblical Clout? I think it’s possible. As it stands, however, I am far too ignorant to give a solid opinion. Just some food for thought! And I’m not about to claim I speak for God—yet.