“Saint Paul,” Saint “Paul,” and “Saint” Paul

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  I’d also written two long poems, unpublished, alternating blank verse narrative passages with rhymed lyrics and blank verse monologues.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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.