St. Paul: portrait of a sick genius 26

This essay follows A man named Jesus or something like that (September 23, 2011), The invention of Christianity (October 28, 2011), and Tread on me: the making of Christian morality (December 22, 2011) in our series outlining the early history of the Christian religion.


What is known or can be discovered about the man known to us as St. Paul, the author of Christianity whose imagination shaped human affairs from his time to our own?

Is it known what he looked like?

In the Epistle of Paul and Thecla, written by no one knows whom in the second century CE, probably within 100 years of Paul’s death, there is a description of him that may have come down from people who actually saw and heard him. According to this document, Paul was of “middle height” but sturdily built, with meeting eyebrows, bald head, bow legs, hollow eyes, and a large crooked nose, and he had a weak voice.

How short was “middle height” in those days? The Emperor Augustus is reckoned to have been just over five foot five inches and was considered average; so Paul was perhaps five foot three or four – short by our standards. A short man then, of somewhat simian appearance. Having a weak voice, he may have found it hard to command attention when he became, as he did, an itinerant preacher, or traveling salesman of his own newly confected religion.

Where did he come from, what sort of person was he, what did he do for a living?

Every piece of personal information he wrote about himself has to be taken with a pinch of salt, for reasons we’ll come to. But apart from what he means to say in his letters [1], they inevitably reveal much about him: his character and mentality, his preoccupations, aims and talents. What they tell us, in sum, is that he was passionate, ambitious, creative, pertinacious, and a highly proficient fund-raiser: or to put it less kindly, fanatical, vain, mendacious, obsessive, and a subtly ruthless extortionist. [2] He was also a genius.

It is said that he came from Tarsus, [3] which was then a Greek-speaking city in the Roman Empire, the capital of Cilicia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. He claimed to be a Jew by birth, [4] but there are reasons to doubt this, at least one of them very strong, which we‘ll come to later.

He said his name was Saul. But if he was not born a Jew, he was unlikely to have been named Saul by his parents, in which case it was a name he chose for himself. (Later he chose the name Paul in honor of, or to flatter, a Roman patron.) Saul was the name of a king who had been head of the tribe of Benjamin, and as if to prove that he had an ancestral right to the name, he explained in a letter that that was the tribe he belonged to.[5] In his time, however, there was no distinguishable tribe of Benjamin; a fact that the gentile converts he was writing to could probably be counted on not to know. It is one of innumerable examples of Paul’s elaborating too much on a story, so that some detail, instead of lending it verisimilitude, achieves the opposite – a strong whiff of fabrication.

He had wanted to become a Pharisee, and he boasts that he’d achieved his aim. [6] But this is one of many instances where there’s reason to doubt his word. The Pharisees were learned rabbis who taught scripture and commentary, yet Paul took none of his scriptural quotations directly from the Hebrew sources, never translated any in his own words, but copied them from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish bible.[7] This could have been because those were the words his Greek audiences might be expected to recognize – or it could have been because he didn’t know Hebrew. He wrote a demotic Greek called koine, which would have been his native tongue as a Cilician; and he must have been fluent in Aramaic, the commonly spoken language of the Judeans, to do the job he is said to have had (which we’re about to come to); but Hebrew was the language of Judaism and there is no proof that he could read or write it. [8]

A stronger reason to doubt that he ever became a Pharisee is that the job he had (if the tendentious Book of Acts is to be believed at all) was a most unlikely one for a Pharisee to seek or get, working as a law-enforcer for the priesthood. [9] The High Priest, in addition to his sacerdotal function, had the responsibilities of a chief secular authority under the Romans. Members of the priestly caste were Sadducees, and they stood in fierce political opposition to the Pharisees because it was in their interest to be obedient to Rome, while the Pharisees were nationalists who yearned for the coming of the Messiah to liberate the nation from Roman rule. There were also strong religious differences between the two sects. The Pharisees, like most Israelites, believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead; the Sadducees did not. So it was not likely that a Pharisee would be employed as an enforcer by the Sadducee administration, and either Paul was lying about his being a Pharisee or the story of his working for the High Priest is untrue.

The Idea that Paul conceived which profoundly affected history concerned, as all the world knows, a certain Jew who had been executed in Jerusalem by the Romans, as the leader of a rebel group, some quarter of a century earlier. We don’t know what the man’s name was, only that Paul brought him to the world’s attention with the Greek name Jesus. Paul had never encountered Jesus, whose pious, nationalist followers believed he had risen bodily from the dead and would soon return to lead the Jewish nation to freedom from Roman rule, so fulfilling the role of Messiah.

The fishy story has it that Paul was going, on his own conscientious initiative but in the line of duty as a police officer for the High Priest, to arrest followers of this Jesus in Damascus (although their belief was in no way a transgression of the Law, and although the High Priest’s writ did not run in a foreign country), when the Idea came to him out of a mystical audio-communication he received from Jesus himself.[10]

The Idea was complicated and wildly illogical: Jesus was a divine being, the Son of the one God of the Jews, so the one God was two gods while yet remaining only one. He was indeed the prophesied Messiah – “Christ” in Greek – but an immortal divinity. His mission was nothing so piffling as to save the Jews from political oppression; it was to save all mankind from sin by sacrificing himself as a blood-offering. When he returned to the world in the near future it would be to judge the living and the dead. He would raise some to dwell with him and his Father, condemn the rest to eternal separation from them, and so put an end to history. The story of the human race would then be over.

Even without being a learned Pharisee, Paul knew that his Idea that Jesus was a divine being would be shocking, if also ludicrous, to Jews; to all Jews – as much to those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, as to the those who didn’t. To all of them the notion, taken seriously, would be the worst possible blasphemy.

And this is the strongest reason for doubting that Paul was born and raised a Jew (though it doesn’t exclude the possibility that he was a convert): the extreme unlikelihood of a Jew thinking – being able to think – that God had been incarnate for a while as a man, died a mortal’s death, and lives on eternally as Lord of the universe. If, however, Paul had not been raised as a Jew, it would not have seemed outrageous or ridiculous to him that a man could be a god or a god could be a man. There were many Greek and Roman human figures both in legend and history who were thought of as divine or were “made into gods”, and many divinities were said to have appeared as men and women. (The religious beliefs alien to Judaism that could have contributed to Paul’s idea will be the subject of another essay.)

The tremendous audacity of the Idea must have been at once thrilling and frightening. Excited though he probably was by it, urgently as he surely felt the desire to tell it – even longing perhaps (human nature being what it is) to fling it in the faces of those who would be most outraged by it – he restrained himself, took time to lay his plans for spreading his news as widely as he could, knowing he must proceed with caution. But his ambition soared. He meant to win the acceptance of the Idea by not just one nation among the many, the one which had long prophesied the coming of a Messiah and into which his executed man-god had been born, but by the whole world. After all, the Jews believed that their God was the God of all creation. He reigned over the whole human race, and Paul’s message was that with him reigned his Son, the risen Christ. All mankind must know it, and he, Paul – a man who was not honored among the Pharisees, not powerful among the Sadducees – would be the messenger, the apostle of the new revelation that had come to him and him only. He would be as great as Abraham, through whom had come the knowledge of the One God; as great as Moses, through whom had come the Law; greater than them, because through him came knowledge of the redemption of all mankind.

What did Paul mean by “redemption”? Redemption from what? The answer is, from sin. He felt himself to be appallingly stained with sin.

Yet almost in the same breath with which he confesses it, he protests that it wasn’t his fault that he had sinned. No, it was the sin’s fault. [11] It had worked in him. That’s the trouble with the flesh, with the body; it’s bad; “nothing good dwells in it”.[12] In any case, he argues, the Law made him guilty. It was when he learnt the commandment not to sin that he did, or knew that he did – which sounds very much like the statement of a convert to the religion of the Law.[13] It also raises the question whether he had really been on a mission for the High Priest when he was traveling to Damascus, or was escaping from him and his justice.

Paul’s sin was sexual. “Sin wrought in me all manner of concupiscence”, he wrote. [14] What, according to the Law, was sexual sin? Not mere copulation: unmarried men and women were not forbidden to copulate. The prohibited sexual acts were: adultery [15]; incest[16]; homosexuality[17]; rape if committed in the country, but not in town [18]; masturbation [19]; bestiality[20].

Which of these was Paul’s offense? One, some, all?

Adultery? Although in his letters he shows scant regard for women (he thought they should be dominated by their husbands and silent in church), he still may have lusted after them, he could have committed adultery or rape. Incest? He had (according to Acts) a sister in Jerusalem with a son who might have been his child (though that’s nowhere hinted at)[21]. Homosexuality? Although, or because, he preaches emphatically against it and calls it shameful [22], it could have been the very thing he was ashamed of.

The punishment prescribed by the Law for adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality was death. Unless Paul had been very lucky in not being found out, his living on to write about his concupiscence suggests he hadn’t succumbed to any of those allurements – or not often, anyway. If, however, he had merely raped, nothing much would have happened to him; and if he’d done it only in the countryside, he’d have gotten away with it. But is this something a man with an urge could make a habit of? Lingering about in the wilderness on the offchance of encountering a rape-able victim is surely too chancy, demanding too much patience from a hot-blooded lecher. But perhaps he took her along with him for a nice brisk hike, and perhaps he did it only a time or two. But that would not amount to “all manner of concupiscence.”

Masturbation? With that he could rock, so to speak. It was forbidden, but it was not punished. It was considered impure, disgusting, very shameful, and those who stooped so low as to go in for it were ordered to keep away from the Temple for a week, and then, after some ritual washing, to bring a couple of birds to be killed and burnt by a priest.

So perhaps that was Paul’s most frequent libidinous indulgence. It hardly fits the description of “all manner of concupiscence”. But add a rape or two at a picnic, some memorable moments with a bored housewife – for example – and the guilt could have built up.

Or was Paul lying about being concupiscent? No; it’s believable that he really was a libertine who became a celibate puritan because he confesses it, and a confession is generally easier to believe than a boast. But the very important reason to believe it is that it plausibly explains his Idea as a solution to his own desperate need. His “Son of God” brought him the relief from shame that he craved.

Let’s conjecture along lines that fit with the thoughts expressed in his letters. He needed forgiveness, but the Law would not forgive him. The Law taught him that he was a sinner by teaching him what sin was. The Law could punish him, but not cleanse him, not save him. Nothing he did or could ever do would wash the sin away. The God of the Jews was just; he required atonement and punishment. But Paul, sick with guilt and shame, felt that no matter how many spotless beasts and birds he  might bring to the altar to be sacrificed, he would not be forgiven. The Law gave only what was deserved, what was earned; and as he himself said, “the wages of sin is death”.[23] He believed that death meant eternal separation from God – to him the most terrible of all possible punishments. He would have to be saved from so dreadful a fate without deserving to be saved. Divine mercy would have to overrule divine justice. There was no sacrifice he could make to elicit such forgiveness, but if God’s own son had made a blood sacrifice of himself for mankind, then he, Paul, was saved.

In other words, Christ the Redeemer came into existence because Paul personally felt a need to be freed from sin, a hunger for forgiveness and cleansing, a longing to be saved from the wrath of God; and for that purpose Paul invented a new forgiving God who would take his sin upon himself and atone for it by self-sacrifice.

He did not banish the old, sternly just God. He did not even dethrone him. He just had him take a son into partnership with him, to whom all future enquiries should preferably be addressed.

Paul wanted his new religion to supersede Judaism. For this to happen the Jews would have to accept that the Law was now redundant. It had done well enough to teach mankind how to be righteous until the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. More than likely he tried to persuade some Jews of the truth of his vision and failed – a failure of which he himself , not surprisingly, made no (known) deliberate record. The obvious place for him to start was with the surviving followers of Jesus. But he needed their goodwill, couldn’t risk alienating them – and preaching blasphemy to them would have done that for sure. The recorded stories of his encounters with “the saints in Jerusalem”, as he calls them, are transparently spun to present a picture of amity. But try as they might, neither Paul himself nor his shill, the author of Acts, managed to conceal the disagreement, opposition, indignation, accusation, rivalry, and finally violent anger that arose between Paul and the Jews who were for Jesus in Jerusalem. [24] The Jewish followers of Jesus – called the “first Christians” by Christians – went on believing in one God only and that the Law of Moses was for ever. [25]

Paul must have despaired quite early on of converting Jews in large numbers (though he did convert some who lived outside Judea). He concentrated his efforts on gentiles. He found ready convert-material in the small crowds of Greeks who associated themselves with the synagogues in the eastern Empire. Called “God-fearers” by the Jews, and given a set of only seven laws easy to obey [26], they were attracted to Judaism, but hesitant or unwilling to take the prescribed steps to become Jews – perhaps because, for men, the process of conversion involved circumcision. [27] Paul told them they need not be circumcised (initiation would be by water), need not refrain from eating foods they liked which the Jews called unclean, and need not obey the Law, but only have faith in Christ.

He succeeded in winning some tens or hundreds or even perhaps thousands of gentiles – how many is not known – but they often lapsed from the new faith. Paul’s letters show his anger and disappointment when he learned that after he’d moved on from an apparently convinced congregation to conquer more hearts and minds, some other missionary (or “apostle”) had arrived among his converts or at their synagogue and preached something different about Jesus: perhaps a “saint” from Jerusalem who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, but was the Messiah who would overthrow Roman rule, and that to be ready for that day the congregants must scrupulously obey the Law.

No, no!, only have faith in Christ, Paul repeated in his letters to them.

But why should gentiles want to be saved from sin if they were not subject to the Jewish Law, disobedience to which was the very definition of sin? Those who did not know the Law could not know that they sinned, Paul says in his confession.

This problem of his own making Paul overcame with a stroke of pure genius. He decreed that all human beings are sinful, not because of anything each of them has done or failed to do, but by moral inheritance. He invented “original sin”. Because the first man and first woman had sinned by disobeying God (in the myth of Eden and the temptation), all their descendants, Paul decided, were guilty of sin and every one of them had to suffer the punishment, which was death.

But then, after many an age, Christ had come, the Son of God born as a man, to save mankind from his terrible fate by his own suffering and death. “Since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead.” [28] And, with Paul’s typical illogicality: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses [who gave the Law] … For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” [29]

Thus the gentiles learnt from Paul that they all needed to be saved from sin by the Christ Jesus. Being saved from sin meant being saved from death, and an eternal afterlife of bliss was on offer as a free gift to those whom Christ chooses to save. Those whom Christ does not choose to save will be dead forever. [30]

That uncertain hope of eternal bliss, and Original Sin, and a theology of one God who is two gods, and a rite of symbolically devouring God, and a prescription for a life of austerity and toil are what this randy, bandy, burly, cunning little man with an ape-like brow and a reedy voice gave the world as “Christianity”. And the world caught it like a terrible disease from which it has not yet fully recovered.


Jillian Becker   January 7, 2012


[1] the 7 letters scholars believe to have been written by Paul out of the 13 attributed to him in the NT are: Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon

[2] for Paul’s fund-raising see 2 Cor 8:1-7 & 9:5-13, 1 Cor 16:1-3

[3] in the Book of Acts, putatively written by a companion of Paul, a doctor named Luke. Not all the information given there about Paul accords with what Paul says of himself in his letters (some of it. such as how many years he waited before confronting the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, actually contradicting him), though Luke’s information must have come mostly from Paul himself. Presumably Paul told Luke that he came from Tarsus. It’s hard to see why he or Luke might want to make this up, so it’s more than likely true.

[4] Gal 2:15

[5] Rom 11:12

[6] Phili 3:5

[7] Hyam Maccoby, The Myth Maker, London 1986, page 71

[8] in the Book of Acts (26:14) Jesus is said to have spoken to Paul, in his vision “on the road to Damascus”, in Hebrew. Why does the author state this? The living Jesus would certainly have known enough Hebrew to read scripture, but his everyday speech would have been Aramaic. If Jesus was God, as Paul concluded he was after his visionary conversation with him, he could have “spoken” to Paul in any language, so why Hebrew? It would seem to be one of those touches that a story-teller puts in to make his tale seem more believable. Luke, the gentile author of Acts, assumed that the God of the Jews would normally speak the language of Judaism.

[9] Acts 9: 1-2

[10] Acts 3-5

[11] Rom 7:17

[12] Rom 7:18, 7:20

[13] Rom 7:9, 7:23

[14] Rom 7:8 KJV

[15] forbidden by the seventh commandment

[16] defined in Lev 8

[17] forbidden by Lev 18:22 and 20:13, Genesis 19:5-8 and the whole story of Sodom, and the similar, weirder, gruesome story in Judges 19:22-29

[18] rape according to Deut 22:25 was against the Law if committed in the country because it is too sparsely populated for a victim’s cries for help to be heard: but if committed in town it’s her fault for not crying for help.

[19] the sin of Onan, Gen 38:9-10

[20] Lev 8:23

[21] Acts 23:16

[22] Rom 1:26-27

[23] Rom 6:23

[24] Acts 21: 17-36

[25] The Jewish followers of Jesus were known as the Nazarenes, possibly because Jesus came from Nazareth. (To this day the Arabic word for “Christian” is “Nazarene”.) They were also known as the Ebionites, meaning “the poor”. Their refusal to accept the divinity of Paul’s “Jesus Christ” seriously hampered his efforts to spread his new religion, and might have utterly defeated the movement he started, had not civil war and war with the Romans ended in the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE – a total Roman victory – after which the Jews were dispersed from Jerusalem.

[26] the 7 Noahide laws: 6 prohibitions, against idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, eating a live animal; and 1 injunction, establish a legal system (to enforce the prohibitions).

[27] Edward Gibbon, in the famous chapter 15 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, expresses the view that one of the reasons for the spread of Christianity (other, he says with skeptical irony, than “the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself”) was baptism by water replacing baptism by blood. “The painful and even dangerous rite of circumcision was alone capable of repelling a willing proselyte from the door of the synagogue,” he writes.

[28] 1 Cor 15:21

[29] Rom 5:12- 19 KJV where Paul tries but fails to resolve a contradiction of his own making: that the Law created sin, and between Adam and Moses the Law had not existed, yet everyone who lived in that long age was tainted by sin. It’s a clumsy, fumbling, bad piece of writing because it’s a clumsy, fumbling, bad piece of thinking, as illogical as his theology.

[30] Paul did not preach Hell. Converts to Paul’s Christianity, the gospel writers, added the doctrines of Hell, the Triune Godhead, and the Virgin Birth.