The Catholic Thing
“Saint Paul,” Saint “Paul,” and “Saint” Paul Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 26 September 2013

Twenty years ago, I published a book of poems, some in rhyme, others in unrhymed iambic or accentual pentameter.  Some were stanzaic, some weren’t.  Some were dramatic monologues, in the manner of Tennyson or Browning.  I’d also written two long poems, unpublished, alternating blank verse narrative passages with rhymed lyrics and blank verse monologues.  It never occurred to me that if I committed myself to one, I was disqualified from the other.

Since then I’ve written a lot – articles on Renaissance literature for scholarly journals; articles on the Christian life for journals with a general readership; translations and editions of three epic poets, one ancient, one medieval, and one Renaissance; books on literature, western civilization, the Church, and the Christian life.  Sometimes I’m colloquial and easy-going; sometimes the writing is philosophical and prickly. That’s just the way of it for anybody writing a variety of things, in a variety of circumstances, for a variety of audiences. 

Nobody would suspect, if we didn’t know better, that one man wrote the charming and prosy and insignificant comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, just when he was writing the shattering tragedy, King Lear.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales utterly different, in form and tone, from his next greatest work, Troilus and Criseyde.  If we didn’t have one name to help us see the connections, we’d hardly suppose that the author of the episodic romp, The Pickwick Papers, also wrote the somber historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, and the half zany, half biographical David Copperfield. 

This brings me to the letters of Saint Paul.  I’ve read them in English and in Greek.  I’ve read many superficially plausible arguments brought forward to show – for some ulterior and unstated purpose – that Paul did not write some of them.  He couldn’t have written the letter to the Ephesians, it’s said, because he would have mentioned some of the Ephesians by name. 

We know that for certain?  He could have sent a more personal message that we’ve lost; he might have done so by word of mouth.  He could have intended the letter to be read generally in several churches, in which case to mention Ephesian friends would have been inconsiderate.  We have no way of knowing. 

It’s clear from the texts that the man who wrote Ephesians had the letter to the Colossians in his possession, or vice versa, but there’s no reason to suspect that Paul isn’t the same man.  How many of us, even with word processors, use a letter we’ve already written as the basis for a more expanded or a more concise letter?

      Saint Paul by Andrei Rubelv, c. 1415

We’re told that Ephesians could not have been by Paul, because his scandalous advice on the relations of husbands and wives is too conservative for the man who wrote that in Christ there is neither male nor female.  But that same Paul, in a letter of undisputed authorship, 1 Corinthians, forbade women to teach in the assembly, and enjoined them to cover their heads.  Was he a bigot?  Couldn’t understand the import of his preaching?

I advise my students that when they believe they have caught a great poet or thinker in a contradiction, to look again, because nine times out of ten there is no contradiction, and the author intends for us to reconcile two apparent opposites, so that we can come to a fuller knowledge of the matter in question. 

Poets do this all the time.  Spenser’s Knight of Justice, in the first half of one canto, destroys a nobleman who squeezes the poor by bribe-taking and monopolistic extortion; and in the second half of the same canto, he destroys the Egalitarian Giant who proposes to bring justice to the poor by leveling the mountains and filling in the valleys.  Spenser’s point is not that we should only help the poor a little bit, but that the nobleman and the giant are both sinners against the poor.

Don’t we see the same affirmation of apparent contradictories in the teachings of Jesus?  He says we are to take no care for the morrow; sufficient to the day are the troubles thereof.  But we are also to stay awake, to read the signs of the times, to look forward to the day when the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night.  He commands us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but He also casts a cold eye upon the Caesars of the world, saying that they lord it over the people and are called “benefactors” into the bargain. 

He condemns the Pharisees for neglecting their aged parents, but He also says that He has come to divide father against son and son against father.  He comes not to bring peace but a sword; and says that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.

There’s no reducing Jesus to formula and platitude.  Nor can we do that to His most energetic apostle.  That’s long led me to suspect that scholars play up the supposed inconsistencies in Paul in order to divide one message from another, so that we will not engage in thoughtful analysis and reconciliation of the messages.  Instead we’ll demote one message, let’s say the “conservative” message about obedience and hierarchy, to the status of deutero-canonical, less important, subordinate, not to be taken entirely seriously.

Thus we end up with “Saint Paul,” the putative apostle who says what we like; Saint “Paul,” the unknown fellow who didn’t understand “Saint Paul” and so wrote some pretty good mystical and lyrical stuff, but was stodgy about matters that tread upon our corns; and “Saint” Paul, the writer who we admit was Paul, but wasn’t writing like “Saint Paul,” because he didn’t remember what he had written even one minute before, and because his grouchiness or touchiness or that mysterious “thorn in the flesh” got the better of him.

Divide and conquer.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (18)Add Comment
written by Grump, September 26, 2013
Does "Pauline Christianity" clash with the teachings of Jesus? Christ's emphasis on His Kingdom vs. Paul's "justification by faith" has been grist for theologians for centuries.

Consider two contradictory passages from the New Testament:

Paul: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

Jesus: "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."

How do we reconcile the two? Old men such as myself often yearn to be kids again. Youngsters want to "grow up" and become adults.

Paul goes on to say: "Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults."

Jesus countered with: "Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

Jesus has the better of it. The innocence and wisdom of youth trump the cynicism and folly of old age.

written by Rich in MN, September 26, 2013
I think the identification of Ephesians as "deutero-Pauline" rests on both thematic and vocabulary analyses but I could not cite you the specific arguments. However, we do have some modern analogies. You have already alluded to the fact that it has been definitively proven that there are several Anthony Esolens. We also know with certainty that there are at least four different GK Chestertons and that Chesterton (who never went to college) could not possibly have been any of them. I'm currently working on a theory that the long-dead Earl of Oxford wrote much of Chesterton's material. (For you literalists out there, I'm being facetious.)

Be that as it may, you raise a very important point about how uncritically we can sometimes accept "scholarship." We will (hopefully) be fairly suspicious about "eis-egesis" when we see NARAL thanking Pope Francis for saying "abortion is no big deal," but we might not even think to be skeptical if someone whose name is bracketed by "Rev." and "S.J." claims that Jesus did not do this, or Paul did not write that. "Dei Verbum" gives a certain "agnostic" latitude to these questions so that the Catholic scholar can speak freely, but we should be careful not to assume a mathematical certainty to any and all of their conclusions.
written by Chris in Maryland, September 26, 2013

Are you saying you are incapable of accepting Tony E's point here, that you can only see things as "either/or?"

"Either/or" admits no unity - only division and reduction. God is not limited by our poor ability to process paradox.
written by Bill Hocter, September 26, 2013
Excellent thought provoking article that shows the importance of context and reflection. I can remember being 17 and wondering how I could not let my left hand know what my right was doing without hiding my light under a bushel basket!
I think being a parent has helped me to sort things out with Scriptural puzzles. I tend to give different urgings to my scholarly introverted kids ("why don't you go out tonight?") than to my less diligent extroverts ("Stay home and study for that test!"). In the unlikely event that one of my kids had taken down a list of my sayings without explaining context in excruciating detail, it would look as if I were contradicting myself, rather than giving appropriate instruction at the appropriate time.
More articles like this please!
written by pgk, September 26, 2013
Grump, I think this might have something to do with being "as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves."
written by Bill Hocter, September 26, 2013
Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I think this article gives a gentle, indirect corrective to recent controversies over the sayings and writings of Pope Francis.
written by X Contra, September 26, 2013
MAN! I have been saying this for years, about bearing with different styles of writing from one person. Another frequent target is Blessed John.

More recent example: Abraham Lincoln. Just consider the solemn Gettysburg Address against the Second Inaugural and then against any of his letters. Then compare all of that to Lincoln's spoken words, all those corny, homely tales and jests.
written by MTDave, September 26, 2013
Since this article obviously draws on a longer article in a past issue of Touchstone, this piece is obviously a reworking by a later Esolenite trying to recast the vision of the original work into a more contextual piece more relevant to our postmodern setting.
written by debby, September 26, 2013
There are NO Contradictions in Scripture or in the Life of Christ. Only Seeming Contradictions. Isn't this why the so called battle-cry of so many Protestants, Sola Scriptura!, does not fly in the real battle of life under the weight of sin?!
So therefore Grump -
your post is an exact example why without proper study and The ONLY interpretative voice (i.e., The Church, 2000 years of lived faith and teaching) to lend understanding, the Bible can be completely misunderstood and twisted to "my own understanding".
As a LAY Person (not a theologian by any means) let me bite at your baited line....
Almost without exception the general public interprets Jesus' admonishment to "become as a child" incorrectly.
ALWAYS, and that means every single time, in order to begin to understand we need the context. Who was Jesus addressing? His crowd were Jewish people. What was Jewish tradition at the time of Christ? When was it permitted for a man to read the Scriptures and/or Teach in the Synagogue? A man (and only a man) had to be 30 years old before being considered mature enough to read aloud and teach the Scriptures in a public place. Children had no voice, no place of standing. (Otherwise as is clear in the Gospel of Luke, chpt 2, at 12 Jesus already had enough wisdom to surprise the Temple teachers; He could have begun teaching then.) In other words, because of their age, children were inconsequential, as if "unseen". (This does not mean they had no value.) They were not counted in census, they were not addressed in public, asked for their opinion, given a vote. When Jesus brings a child into their midst and declares "you must become as a child" He is clearly (clear to His audience - not so clear to us on the surface) telling all these adult men that they must lower themselves, humble themselves, in their own hearts see themselves as having no opinion, no vote, resigning their wills (those very strong things!), abandoning their fates in trust to the Father, dependent rather than independent. And children are not innocent. We are all born in sin. Children ARE precious. So is every single human being - every sinner is precious to the Savior Who only asks us to Trust Him the way a child trusts in Mommy or Papa, without fear, without conditions, without resistance. "Blessed are the Poor in Spirit", "A Rich Man going through the Eye of the Needle", the parable of the prayer of the Pharisee and the Publican, all the same exact teaching. He invites us to the Divine Life the same way He embrace the Human Life: HUMILITY. That is where "innocence and wisdom" are found.

and a p.s. on the Pauline verses you quoted: When St. Paul says, "when I was a child....I put away childish things" he is summarizing his oft quoted Spiritual gifts (chapter 12) and Supreme Virtue teaching (chapter 13). If one reads from the beginning of chapter 12 through the end of 13 it is clear that he is telling us that growing up in the life of grace is to become "less of me, more of Him". All these gifts of position and ministry (chp 12) are good and for the benefit of the Body of Christ, but "let me show you A STILL MORE EXCELLENT WAY" (end of chapter 12 going right into chapter 13 - don't look at the heading divisions! it is a continued teaching, one thought!)
What is this More Excellent Way? The only eternal virtue, thing, possession which we cannot possess but yet must live, move and have our being in: LOVE. Not Grump's love or (God-forbid!) Debby's love, or Pope Francis' love. His love. The word AGAPE is not something any one of human beings can generate; it does not come from within us. We can however, becoming conformed to His image, grow in His Agape, His Divine Love can flow through us. The only way this can happen is for us to co-operate with His grace. And we can only co-operate with His Grace when we "put away childish things..."; the 2 year old, teenaged, and rebellious older person's defiance that says, "ME, ME, ME!" There are coping mechanisms and tools He gives us to use until we are at the place of being able to lay them down before Him and go His way. I believe that is what is meant by growing in grace, precept on precept, line upon line, day by day, working it out, running the race.

Again, I am no theologian. This is my understanding after 32 years of studying this Holy Catholic Faith with Pope Benedict, Erasmo Levia-Merikakis, Families of Nazareth publications, the Holy Saints of whom I am deeply indebted, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, Bl. Cardnial Newman, St. Therese, etc., and the unspeakable guidance and direction of holy priests. There is no contradiction, only undirected reading.
written by Grump, September 26, 2013
debby...that was a pretty good retort and almost explains the "paradox" that Chris alludes to. Nuance, study, context all come into play when discerning the Word. I did not mean to imply that Paul and Jesus were at odds but rather that interpretations can vary. Thanks, debby, for that analysis.

Mr. Esolen's essay addresses some of these paradoxical points well. If I am not mistaken, translations often fail to grasp the original intended meaning. For example, when Jesus said he came "to bring a sword..." some translations render "sword" as "conflict" or "division," which can result in a different impression. I suppose knowing Greek would be an advantage in understanding the NT better.

Thanks, Tony, for a thought-provoking piece.
written by Manfred, September 26, 2013
Dr. Esolen: When I saw the heading of your column I was hoping I would read of Paul's rebuke of Peter, who at that point was our first Pope,for his conceding to the Jewish Chritians that Gentiles would have to live as Jews, i.e., they would have to be circumcised. As Jesus had never ordered this, Paul spoke out "to your face". Obviously, our present Peter sorely needs a Paul to correct him about his bizarre statements as they surely can't continue. The first Jesuit pope gives an interview to the Jesuit magazine AMERICA at the nadir of Jesuitical history, and his ingrained Jesuit liberalism causes a furor.
Thank you for your column.
written by Tom, September 26, 2013
Mr. Esolen,

Thank you for another excellent essay. TCT has become an important part of my faith-life and I always look forward to your contributions. I had a brief question, however, and was hoping that you could point me in the direction of a book or article that might provide an answer...

When you write "there's no reducing Jesus to formula or platitude" -- well, I understand what you're driving at, I think, but my difficulty is this: I'm having terrible difficulty coming up with/creating/finding an image of Christ sufficiently coherent to serve as the basis for a prayer life. Put simply: there isn't one guy there. And, because I'm not able to hear a single, unified voice, it's difficult to trust and almost impossible to love.

I don't normally -- ever -- post in com boxes, but this particular topic has been a source of real pain for me lately. I can't see past the contradictions to a Whole. Were these four communities even talking about the same man? If the Johanine community is engaged in prophecy (and not relating the words of the earthly Jesus) when it records "My peace I leave you," can I trust this statement -- especially in light of the idea that Jesus definitely said something along the lines of "I haven't come to bring peace, people." And then what of "Blessed be the peacemakers"? Redactional activity? If so, how should I understand the concept of scripture?

These may seem like basic issues, and maybe I've missed you treating them in a previous essay -- if so, I apologize. But I would very, very much appreciate you (or anyone else) pointing me in the direction of a book/article that helps to resolve/reframe the (seemingly?) contradictory teachings in the NT in a way that would help me to develop a unified image/picture/sense of man, who's clear enough to be my teacher -- or, even, my friend.

Many thanks,
written by Tony, September 26, 2013
Dear Grump: I've spent all my adult life teaching (among other things) Renaissance and medieval poetry, which works by a brave and gleeful indulgence in paradox, in order to help us delve more and more deeply into the truth of things, and not to be deceived by mere words or appearances. We just looked at a flagrant example of it today. Right in the center (actually, one of the centers) of his Amoretti / Epithalamion, Edmund Spenser ends one sonnet with these words: "Why then do ye, proud fair, misdeem so far / That to yourself ye most assured are?" And that is a clear warning; but the very next sonnet begins, "Thrice happy she that most assured is / Unto herself." What's going on? We are to reconcile the two truths by understanding the difference between one kind of assurance and another.

So I don't see contradictions between what Paul says and what Jesus says, since the context makes it clear that Paul is talking about an immaturity in faith -- parallel to the immature "pride" some of the Corinthians seem to have taken in their spiritual gifts -- and not about complete and loving openness to the person of Jesus and the grace of God. The Paul who said, "It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me," is one who has welcomed the Kingdom of God as a child.

Tom -- I'd advise against reading too much into the unhelpful suppositions of a Johannine school over here and a Petrine school over there, or whatever. Pope Benedict has been careful to show that the theology of John and of Paul is the same. John is writing after years of meditation upon the person of Jesus, but what does he tell us? The man inspired to write, "In the beginning was the Word," might as easily have begun his Gospel with the word "genesis," which is what Matthew did! The John who is preoccupied with time and eternity might well have ended his gospel with the words, "Behold, I am with you until the ages of ages," as Matthew did! There is one Jesus, yet we shouldn't be surprised that we can't "grasp" him in the way that we grasp ordinary historical characters. There is always more to Jesus -- not two or three of Him, but One, yet One that ever exceeds our understanding. For example, can we ever really come to an end of understanding a single one of his great parables? We don't need four gospels to feel overwhelmed by the man -- any one of them will be sufficient for that.

Don't then expect a unified picture; any human being is more than a unified picture in any case; for a picture is only a fiction after all. Expect the God/Man. Maybe that is part of what it means to accept the Kingdom as a child. The child does not understand Jesus. Nor did Peter, or any of the apostles; not if we mean that they comprehended all that He was about. It suffices for us that we want to be with Him. The light will come.
written by Tom, September 26, 2013
God bless you!
written by Chris in Maryland, September 27, 2013
Dear Tom:

In support of the beautiful response provided by Tony Esolen, I encourage you to read Pope Benedict's wondrous work "Jesus of Nazareth." There are 3 books...when you will wish that it would go on forever! It is at once a readily accessible, deeply penetrating, and unifying grasp of the Gospel accounts. You will be blessed to listen to the teaching voice, mind and heart of the gentle intellectual giant, Jospeph Ratizinger.

God bless you and keep you - and remember - Jesus has promised you that because you are seeking..."ye shall find."
written by Randall, September 27, 2013
Dear Tom,

I second what Chris in Maryland wrote. Those 3 volumes by Pope Benedict on Jesus of Nazareth are worth gold. I've read them 3 times through and beginning this Christmas season I'm going to read them again.

And, seconding Chris again, as Jesus tells us, "Seek, and ye shall find; Knock, and the door shall be open to you."
written by Tony, September 27, 2013
Dear Tom,

My gosh yes, Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth is a life-changer!

Dear Grump,

I just checked out the Greek text for Paul's "child" and Jesus' "child". English is a tremendously rich language, but even ours sometimes fails us, and in this case it does. The most common word for "child" in the NT, the one that Luke uses to describe the Christ child, is "pais" (cf. pedagogue, a teacher of children). It is affectionate, too; it is the word that the centurion uses to describe his dying servant whom he loves. The next most common is "teknon," meaning "little child," and is even more affectionate; it is how Mary refers to Jesus when she finds Him in the temple, and it is how John often addresses the believers to whom he writes his great letter. But Paul doesn't use either of those words in 1 Cor 13. There the word is "nepios," meaning "infant," that is, somebody who cannot speak yet; its secondary meaning is "childish," "senseless," "without forethought" -- and I believe it is the word that Homer uses to describe Odysseus' men, who cannot bear their hunger and who eat the oxen of the sun god. So it's a different "child" entirely ...
written by Chris in Maryland, September 28, 2013
Tony E:

Wow - that is eye-opening. It reminds me of a comment made by Cardinal Dulles in one of his essays - I think in First Things - years ago - when he cautioned that so much understanding of the scripture was lost to current day theologians - when the old requirements to study the ancient languages were dispensed, and modern schools of theology thought that the vernacular was sufficient.

Thank you for your is a blessing for me and my family.

In Christus Veritas

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