Several readers of my two biblical novels, Second Born and Acts of the Women, have put the same question to me in a variety of forms. The politest version is, “Why are you so mean to St. Paul?” Others posed the question in earthier tones, with a sprinkling of Germanic verbs and even a few questions about the legitimacy and very species of my lineage. (It’s always amusing when believers who profess to follow the Prince of Peace most closely are the quickest to anger, condemning anyone who doesn’t toe their line.)
But back to the question: In the first book I portray Saul of Tarsus as a self-important young man of the Jewish Diaspora whose very wealthy parents have sent him to Jerusalem to study under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel. When James, Jesus’ older brother who is historically known as James the Just, is held up by Gamaliel as his greatest protégé and is appointed to provide tutoring to other bright students, Saul only begrudgingly accepts James as his superior. The second book might seem downright hostile to Saul, who now calls himself by the Roman name Paul. He proclaims that he knows more about Jesus than James and all the others who lived and worked with Jesus, and Paul seems to view himself as the Savior.
So where did that come from?
First, Paul himself acknowledges that he persecuted the early church and that he was not well liked. We have the famous story about his revelation in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus, followed almost immediately by his return to Jerusalem to work with the Apostles there. That’s the story as it was told in Acts of the Apostles, believed to have been written by the same author who wrote the Gospel According to Luke. Many scholars agree that Luke was written sometime between the years 85 and 95 CE, so Acts was probably written more than half a century after Paul’s conversion.
But we have another account of his conversion experience told at a time much closer to the event and written by Paul himself in his letter to the Galatians in about 49 or 50 CE. Rather than a blinding flash, Paul (not one to shy away from the dramatic) says only that God chose to reveal his son to him. And rather than going immediately to Jerusalem to consult with the others, he swears that he went away to Arabia for three years and received revelations directly from God, not from any humans. Elsewhere he states that he was taken right up to heaven where he was told things for his ears only, that other humans cannot hear. Biblical scholar James D. Tabor speculates that during these three years Paul may have gone to Mt. Sinai, also known as Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the prophet Elijah went to consult directly with God.
Seeing that Paul tells his readers that he was singled out by God before birth to carry salvation to all the nations, it’s clear that he considered himself at least the equal of Moses and Elijah, if not their superior.
So, did Paul perhaps suffer from an “inflated ego”? We could easily find many who would describe him in earthier tones and sprinkle in a few harsh words. But to put it politely, yes. Inflated ego would capture the essence of it.
More on Paul in future blogs.