10 Things Christians Don’t Know About the Apostle Paul

For Bible scholars, he’s not the guy you hear about in church

When I was growing up in church, he was the very voice of God—wagging his finger, going on and on about how bad we were. The great apostle Paul hated sex, and women. He was only happy when straight guys were in charge, and gays were—well, somewhere else.

When I started reading Bible scholarship, I was shocked?

1. He starts out as a sort of a terrorist

I sat through a lot of sermons about him, but never really got his story. He’s a Jewish guy named Saul from a big town north of Jerusalem. He never says anything about his parents. Maybe that means something? When we first see him, he’s out killing Christians.

I didn’t hear in church, though, that this was illegal. As N.T. Wright notes, “under Roman rule only the Romans could carry out the death penalty.” He was sort of a religious extremist, and really, a terrorist.

“I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities,” he says in Acts 26:11. Or that’s how Christianity translates it. The actual language is: “exceedingly maddened.”

2. Jesus likes the crazy?

Thinking about Saul’s story, I realized his ferocity is why Jesus likes him. The only thing is—Saul needs to get it directed to something else.

In a 2019 paper, “Better Call Paul ‘Saul’: Literary Models and a Lukan Innovation,” Michael Kochenash details how Saul, in Acts, turns into a “god-fighter.” It’s a role the disciples of Jesus had threatened to become (cf. Acts 5:39). When they didn’t, Jesus went looking for someone who would.

Jesus wants an apostle to go into the pagan world, and contend with rival deities. Christianity didn’t realize, as David Bentley Hart notes, that Paul’s main mission is “the overthrow of bad angels.” He rushes at them with his relentless, manic energy.

3. Paul goes on a sexual journey

Brittany E. Wilson notes the scene of Paul’s blinding has feminine suggestion. He’s being de-masculinized. She notes the name he’s leaving—’Saul’—has a weird underside. In Greek, it’s the term for a very effeminate man. But as Wilson notes, the name he starts using, Paul, isn’t that masculine. It’s the word ‘little’. His chosen name is Little.

We appear to have the story of a man who goes on a sexual journey and ends up sort of ‘queer’. Paul does call himself a woman in labor (Gal 4:19), and a breastfeeding woman (1 Thess 2:7; 1 Cor 3:2). Brigitte Kahl notes “this striking ‘transgendering’…has been ignored.”

But this is just Paul learning divine character. From Genesis 1:27, God is “male and female” as well.

4. Paul isn’t a “tentmaker”

There’s so much tradition around the few references to Paul’s life story that it’s startling to be reminded—there’s fewer facts. Christians like to say Paul makes tents for a living. But he refers to his profession only once, as the Greek word, skenopoios. As H. Szesnat notes in a study, the word is “obscure” and its meaning isn’t really known.

The reference seems to be to the making of a structure without solid walls. For Christianity, that meant a ‘tent’. But the possibilities, Szesnat notes, include other things, like “the production of theater scenery.”

For background on theater of the time, try Jeff Jay’s “The Problem of the Theater in Early Judaism” and Miriam Kammer’s “Romanization, Rebellion and the Theatre of Ancient Palestine.”

5. Paul is VERY theatrical

In 1 Corinthians 4:9, he writes that “we have become a theater for the cosmos, for angels and for humans.” He seems to view humans as like actors on a theater set, with deities looking on.

And so Paul sets to work—writing theater. He knows a lot about Greek and Roman theater, and details from many ‘pagan’ plays are woven throughout the New Testament narratives. Euripides’ play the Bacchae is used (and quoted) in Acts. There’s Agamemnon by Aeschylus in Acts 9:5.

In Romans 7:7, Paul calls himself “wretched man that I am!” As Stanley K. Stowers notes, this quotes a Medea by Seneca in which the great tragic heroine wails: “What, wretched woman, have I done?” In 1 Corinthians 15:33, Paul quotes Menander’s Thais. This is a play about a witty prostitute.

But Medea is Paul’s favorite diva. In Romans 7:15 (cf. v.19), he writes: “The good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not do, that I do.” The famous words are a quote from Euripides’ Hippolytus — spoken by Medea right before she slaughters her kids.

Michael Benjamin Coves traces how another play by Menander, The Woman from Samos, seems to be Paul’s reference in the sex problem in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5. This is usually thought to be a man marrying his father’s wife. It’s actually a son with his dad’s concubine.

Paul’s phrase “endures all things” is from this play, Cover notes. Christians know that love “endures all things” — without knowing a concubine says it.

6. Paul’s “letters” are mini-plays

Christians tend to read Paul’s letters silently, but they were performed. “Reading in antiquity was not experienced as a silently scanning, mainly mental activity,” notes Pieter JJ. Botha. “It was a performative, vocal, oral-aural happening.”

To study the ‘letters’ line by line, the hunks of text that Christians pretend to understand, might be to find dialogue. Denny Burk notes the “back-and-forth conversation” happening in 1 Corinthians 6:18. It’s translated: “Shun immorality. Every sin which a man may commit is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.”

This, Burk thinks, might make better sense:

PAUL: Shun immorality.
CORINTHIANS: Every sin which a man may commit is outside the body.
PAUL: On the contrary, the immoral man sins against his own body.

Back in church, I had no idea the 1 Corinthians letter — the typical source of sex moralizing — had phrases like ‘With regards to’. It seems Paul is asked questions, and writes in reply (cf. 7:1; 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; 16:12).

It’s not easy to figure out which part is the question, and which part is the answer. And it seems like Paul also quotes from questions, like in 1 Corinthians 14:34: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”

This is typically called Paul’s own speech. But he’d only just said “all prophesy,” and “brothers and sisters” will speak (14:31 & 39). And what is this “law”? The Bible has no ban on female speech. There is one in the Talmud, owing to menstruation purity codes.

The better reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34 is that Paul was facing down a questioner. The reply starts in v.36: “What?”

7. The “letters” might really be musicals

Paul and Silas are singing in prison in Acts 16:25. This isn’t at all unusual, as the Bible has lots of songs in it, and many major characters have solos. Jesus often sings (Mt 26:30, etc.).

And it’s a clue, perhaps, to all the music we seem to find in his letters. Scholars think that 1 Corinthians 13 and Philippians 2:1–11 are songs, and many passages seem to have bits of music (1 Tim 3:16; Col 1:15–20; Heb 1:3–4; Jn 1:3–4; 1 Pet 1:19–21, 2:21–25, 3:18–22).

Paul could care less about sex lives. He wants to get the people of the world tuned up to join the heavenly choir! (cf. Rev 14:3, etc.)

8. Sexual verses have been badly mistranslated

Christians don’t realize the translations of many passages have been openly rebuked by scholars — and it doesn’t seem to matter! That porneia (“immorality”) has been questioned as a sexual term is ignored. (It’s a common Old Testament reference to idolatry.)

Then take 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” That’s the line that Christian men use to prevent Christian women from speaking.

There’s no evidence that Paul’s Greek word, authenteō, used just once in all the Bible, means ‘authority’. The whole verse has been badly misread. And when the tradition learns about it, they don’t much care.

Jamin A Hübner, who has written a lot on authenteō, concludes: “What is remarkable is how far theological constituencies are willing to go in order to protect tradition, enforce patriarchy, and retain control in the Christian community.”

9. Paul loved the LGBT crowd

That Paul loves people regardless of imagined ‘sins’ maybe isn’t a surprise. He writes in Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

As the apostle to the Gentiles, he bumps into ordinary LGBT-type stuff often. Christian tradition has mangled the references. In “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual Use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” Joseph A. Marchal notes the Philemon letter seems to concern a young male slave being used for sex. Paul’s advice: try loving him.

I love that maybe lesbian couple, Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4: 2–3. They “co-contested” with Paul. These are powerful ladies. A reading is possible, Mary Rose D’Angelo notes, in which they’re together romantically.

10. Paul’s story continues after the gospels!

If Paul’s adventures were supposed to end with his letters, early Christians didn’t get the memo! Later on, his usual co-star, like the Acts of Paul and Theca, was a young woman who’s very inspired by Paul and follows him, even when it means having to dress up like a guy.

I spent an evening learning about a cave in Ephesus found in 1906. It’s closed to the public, but archaeologists found paintings of Paul and Theca dated to the 6th century. But Thecla’s eyes were scratched out, and her hand—upraised in the same ‘teaching’ position as Paul’s—was erased.

It leaves a woman, a scholar notes, “blinded and silenced.”

A perfect image of Christian tradition?

Sacred Grotto of St. Paul, Ephesus, Turkey

Header graphic: Saint Paul at the Lateran Basilica, Rome

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