Paul the Apostle
From: THE JERUSALEM BIBLE New York: Doubleday, 1989
ISBN # 0-385-24833-4

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2006

CAUTION -- Disclaimer: This is not a reading by a member of the faith community which regards these texts as divinely inspired ones. Rather, I am an atheist, very respectful of Paul the Apostle as sincere in his work as evangelist and in his letter writing. I take him quite seriously, but anyone expecting comments more typical of religious treatment will be sorely disappointed.

In case you would be interested in what brought me BACK to read Paul’s letter, please see the independent file which talks about that issue.


Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. He was both a Roman citizen and a Jew, and while he deeply respected his Jewish faith and fellow Jews, things were now different. Jesus had come. He was the promised savior, the law of Judaism was now to be supplanted by faith in the word of Jesus. Further, no longer was there a “chosen people” for the future, rather this Christianized faith would be a world faith for both Jews and non-Jews. Paul would and did in fact preach his version of the gospel to the Jews, but in the main his own vision of his work, and what he in fact did, made him worthy of his self-proclaimed title as apostle to the Gentiles.

I was especially interested in the question of the relationship of faith and actions. I had been led to think that Paul somehow had a view that one had to BELIEVE and that the right belief, Paul’s version of the belief at least, was what would earn one eternal life. However, I think such a view is a gross misreading of Paul.

Paul’s enemy was the Jewish law. He saw the law as a set of human laws, geared to help people live a good life, but when rigidified as they had become into ritual acts, they led people astray from goodness, not toward it.

Jesus had come in significant measure to replace the law with his new message, or at least his new way to go about the upright life.

Paul seems consistent throughout the epistles that it is critical (and this especially for the Jews) to embrace the new faith with vehemence and unwaveringly -- at least Paul’s version of it (I’ll come to that later.) The law was misleading people and giving them a false sense of moral righteousness. Paul’s enemy here is reason itself. What Paul sees is an exaggerated confidence in human reason – all that the Jews or anyone else had before Jesus’ coming. Once Jesus came and preached the notion of the good life, the upright life, then one should trust in Jesus’ version of it and not let reason dissuade one from this new truth.

However, Paul is crystal clear that faith alone is not what saves one, not what gives one eternal life, but it is the living of the upright life (actions) which earns one this eternal life. Faith in the word and path of Jesus, however, is the best and most reliable way to know what the upright life is.

Perhaps this is most bluntly declared in the Epistle to The Romans:

“… anyone who is upright through faith will live.”

Note that it is one who is upright who will live. That uprightness is best achieved, on Paul’s view, by faith. But it isn’t through faith one lives (eternally) but by being upright.

Now, in the Epistles Paul is very quiet on exactly what this “upright” life is. But, the point that one will live in eternal joy if and only if one lives this “upright” life is clear as is the view that the only really sure way to the upright life is “through faith.”

In that same Epistle to The Romans Paul makes this very clear when he argues that even those who do not believe in God, but see in “natural law” the concept of good, and thus live an “upright” life, will also be saved.

This is a fascinating position and in later Christian saints one can see these positions played out so differently in St. Thomas Aquinas, who in his Summa Contra Gentiles, attempted to demonstrate this upright life in the light of reason alone, much the way Emmanuel Kant did in his work, Religion Within The Bounds of Reason Alone.

However, the saint who seems so close to Paul on this point would be St. Francis of Assisi, who wasn’t interested in, nor did he need the careful work of theologians and philosophers. Rather, he rather lived profoundly in faith.

Paul at least recognized that, while faith was the easiest way to salvation and the good life, it wasn’t impossible to do so with the help of reason to discern “the natural law” of morality.

What he does never cease railing against is that the LAW of Judaism is that natural law. Rather, on Paul’s view, that traditional Jewish law had been so perverted by habit, custom and ritual that is had little to do with the upright life.

In that battle with the Jews who have not converted to the faith in Jesus, Paul’s most notorious battle is over circumcision. He was obsessed with this as a paradigm case of where the law misled. As he saw it circumcision was an act done TO a person, since it was done to the child, and had nothing to do with signifying a person who lived “an upright life.” It was, on Paul’s view, madness to get caught up in such ritual. That was perhaps necessary in the past since the world didn’t have a trustworthy source of knowing the good, and Paul was deeply suspicious of reason being able to do this. Thus the law served a necessary purpose once. But no longer. Jesus had come, son of God, died, was resurrected and left the message of the gospels for the good life. Thus, on Paul’s view, one must give up these less than satisfactory tools of history and embrace the faith in Jesus Christ.

The huge disappointment for me was that Paul spends almost no time telling his followers what that message of Jesus was. That’s not quite so. He gives the general lines of it, but it is so vague and general that it doesn’t help answer the difficult questions which moral theology and moral philosophy deal with when serious and caring people genuinely differ. Paul offers almost nothing that would deal with such issues.

Rather, he seems (but never says this) that the words of Jesus would be clear to the believers. And so Paul is extremely concerned with dissent within the communities he serves.

Each epistle has two main themes:

  1. Live the upright life through faith. Normally this message is accompanied by
    1. Some examples in very general terms
    2. Some attack on the Jewish law
    3. Some attack on reason

  2. The faithful must stop the dissention. It is there in every community, differences of view on what the message is, on what the upright life is, on what the faith is.

    But, Paul insists he has brought them the true word and they must not heed any of those in their community who are preaching and claiming any contrary views.

    It sounds like Paul would have utterly hated what later developed as theology, a rational analysis of sacred texts, traditions of the church and so-called natural law to try to settle the difference among serious people on what the message IS. These differences have been with Christianity (and every other religion or philosophical or scientific belief) since the beginning and will likely be there until the end. But Paul wanted no part of such complexity. He, Paul, had the right version of the faith in the word of Jesus and the issue was just to shut up and kick out any who had any disagreements with Paul.

    He seems not to have recognized he had set himself up as the new law.

Along the way I was able to pick up a good deal about Paul’s life. His epistles seem to have been written from about 50 A.D. to about 59 A.D. Paul himself made three long trips in that period. He left the Jewish homeland and journeyed to Greece setting up important communities in at Corinth and Thessalonica, visiting many other areas and having at least one unsatisfactory trip to Athens where he was laughed at by the philosophers.

He made mainly over-land trips from Thessalonica down through west-costal modern day Turkey and that was when he came to Ephesus (seemingly only one visit) and many other key cities in that area. He visited Jerusalem and was imprisoned there, as he was in Rome.

Paul seems to have had many enemies, was constantly being attacked and charged, mainly by Jews, of false teaching. He spent considerable time in various prisons.

Even in the later documents, the Pastoral Letters, letters directed not to the people, but to the leaders he left in those places to advance the faith, he indicates he is at the end of his life, tired, unable to travel for reasons of both health and just not up to going to jail any longer. Oh me, I can understand that feeling very well. I haven’t been back to Haiti in three years, just no longer up to running the risks that such a trip entails.

Below I do offer a few more notes on relatively minor issues, just things that struck me as particularly interesting for some reason or other as I read along with Paul.
  1. Paul makes an interesting argument for the need of faith. He argues that if one lives by natural inclination, then one will fall into sin since natural inclinations are geared toward life on earth. But with the redemption of Jesus, people living in this spirit (he calls it The Spirit) will be aiming at life eternal.

    This argument seems to me to have certain power and certain weaknesses.

    The strength is that a “higher motivation” – the Spirit – may well motivate many to serious spirituality.

    However, I see at least four weaknesses in this argument as well:

    1. First is a consistency argument within Paul himself. He has allowed that even non-converted Gentiles can be living an “upright life” (which will earn them salvation from God) without Paul’s “faith.”

    2. In the same vein it seems Paul comes close to denying what later Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas argued, namely there is a “natural law” of morality which can be reached by reason alone.

    3. I myself am one who denies this so-called “natural law” of morality, nonetheless, I am sympathetic that some humans, and I hope I am one of them, have (on my view) “created” values which are quite like Paul’s notion of an upright life. The motivation of those in # 1 and #2 is not “eternal life,” but living a decent life on earth in conjunction with others, and as productive members of society.

    4. Lastly, with the advantages of 2000 years of history, we can see that this morality as played out in so much later Christian theology, aimed at individual salvation, has created and ethics of “me and God,” where the individual may well close the circle of the moral life quite narrowly to one’s own actions as they effect the tiny ripple of family, friends and local communities.

      A larger frame (one also advocated by some Christian theologians, especially the Liberation Theologians in our own time) would argue that an upright person must take political responsibility as a moral obligation and bear communal responsibility for justice and compassion and peace in a global world. The key relationship to achieve an upright life in this world view, would be to be in struggle against harm and injustice globally toward ANY and ALL persons, toward animals and the planet and cosmos themselves. The primary battles are against social institutions themselves which create these social evils.

      Paul’s argument seem to put SELF above global decency as the central point of the upright life.

  2. Some of Paul particular beliefs are rather strange

    1. One is that the way you deal with people who don’t live up to the faith is to just kick them out of the community. A rather startling example of this was in Corinth where someone was practicing incest.

      Paul’s advice on what to do about it: “You must banish this evil-doer from among you.” But why kick the sinner out?

      The principle Paul appeals to is the example of yeast for dough. Throw out the bad yeast, it will spoil all the bread. Start with new and better yeast.

      This view seems so contrary to the great spirit of forgiveness and inclusion in the life of Jesus.

    2. Paul also buys 100% into the place of woman as subject to the man and this is because Eve brought sin into the world and thus messed up human life. Pretty strong stuff. Doesn’t seem very consistent with the mercy Jesus seems to have shown to so many (including Paul).

    3. In giving the people instruction on how to hold services he sounds much more like he is describing a modern day Quaker meeting that a more typical Christian service.

    4. Ah, in one area Paul is mainstream to the max: “Take up the collection”!!!

    5. Some recent theological work and Biblical exegesis has led to arguments that in the early church women had special roles of authority. This may well be, but if it occurred in Paul’s realm he wasn’t supportive:

      Paul’s clear in 1st Timothy. “I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” Sin came from Eve and only child-bearing and goodness can save women!
Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett