Portrait of St Paul
by Philip Trower
To paint a completely faithful word portrait of St Paul would require the gifts of a literary Titian or Rembrandt. I can therefore only give you a pencil sketch. But I have called it a portrait so as to match the Portrait of St Peter which The Wanderer published some months ago. Because history and divine providence have linked the two princes of the apostles so closely I can’t help feeling that any representations of them ought to be in the form of a diptych.
I first began to appreciate the greatness and gifts of St Paul and the unique nature of his vocation in a way I never had before about two years ago when I started putting together an anthology to be called Christian Belief and Life in the Epistles of St Paul.
The more you study his life and letters the more you are tempted to feel that without him the other apostles would have taken much longer to get the Church off the ground, which is presumably why God called him into his service. It is a bit like a university graduate being sent to the rescue of six-formers. St John would seem to have been the only exception. He would seem to have been on the same level spiritually and intellectually. But he doesn’t appear to have had St Paul’s drive or organising abilities.
If, for instance, God had left the original twelve on their own, how long would it have taken them before they could make the necessary break with Judaism, circumcision and the ritual law and carry the Gospel to the Gentiles? This, surely, is why, to use St Paul’s own words, God sent them ‘one born out of due time.’
St Paul was also much better equipped educationally to deal with all the quasi philosophical and quasi religious ideas like Gnosticism sloshing about in the Mediterranean world of the time which could be rivals to the Gospel or start trying to compete with it.
Marvellous too is the way God’s providence brings St Paul and St Peter together in Rome at the end of their lives and lets them be martyred there at the same time. Had they died in different places, it would have been much easier for later trouble-makers to set up St Paul as a rival head of the Church.
Another thing which struck me while making my selection of texts is how much our saint insists on the fact that he did not receive his knowledge of the faith or what he was to teach from the other apostles but through direct personal revelations to him from Our Lord himself. This even applies to the Last Supper. When Our Lord appeared or spoke to him on the road to Damascus and he fell off his horse, this was only the first of many much longer and more detailed revelations. Many passages in both his letters and Acts either state or imply this.
No doubt the apostles filled him in on the details of Our Lord’s time on earth as they had experienced it with him, but it is possible that Our Lord showed St Paul all this too. What there can be no doubt about is that how he was to understand what he heard, either directly from Our Lord or from others, came from Our Lord personally. He insists on this.
Here, in his own words are what he tells the Galatians. “I want you to know, brethren, that the Gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:11-12)
And later in the same letter he writes: “When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” (Gal 1: 15-17)
In the light of these texts one is tempted to describe the epistles, coupled with relevant passages from the Acts as ‘The Gospel according to St Paul’ and St Paul himself as a fifth evangelist.
This being the case, how do most of us respond to our fifth evangelist and thirteenth apostle? When writing about St Peter, I said the adjective which best described my feelings or first sprang to mind when thinking about him was ‘endearing.’ This, I think most people would agree, hardly seems to fit St Paul. It sounds too cosy. Great, heroic, intrepid, formidable? Unquestionably. And what about loveable?
Here I think not a few people would hesitate. They are intimidated by the many passages in the epistles where our saint has to haul his neophytes over the coals, or take issue with unauthorised or self-appointed rivals. They picture themselves as having been at the butt end of his rebukes as well. Or they find the many doctrinal mazes he is exploring, defining or expounding for the first time too mentally taxing. But there is so much more to the epistles than that. I would say the better you come to know St Paul the more you will want to apply the adjective loveable to him, which is hardly surprising when we remember that he is the author of the great paean in praise of love in 1 Corinthians? The epistles also reveal how deeply he was loved by his converts as well as how passionately he cared about them. There is often an almost motherly tenderness about they way he speaks of them and to them.
Let us now turn to his life
After Our Lord appeared to him on the way to Damascus, his life falls into roughly three parts: what we can call a preparatory period (36-45 A.D): the thirteen years of his three missionary journeys (45-58): and a final ‘Roman period’(58-67) after his arrest and appeal to Caesar.
The preparatory period is a period of working out his relationship with God, and establishing his position within the still only recently founded Christian community which up to then he has been persecuting. It begins in Damascus and ends when he sets out from Antioch on his first missionary journey.
Damascus is his first head-quarters. From here, to use a modern expression, he ‘goes on retreat’ for a period of unknown length in what he calls ‘Arabia’, which would certainly not have been Saudi Arabia and was probably a desert area somewhere in western Iraq. Then after a further period in Damascus he visits St Peter in Jerusalem. From there, on the advice of the local Christians and to avoid being arrested by the Jews he withdraws to Tarsus, his birth place.
He spends four years in Tarsus (39-43 A.D.) about which Scripture tells us nothing. However we can be sure of one thing; that he spent the greater part of his time preaching the Gospel to his fellow citizens. Then at the end of four years Barnabus comes to find him and take him to join the newly-established Christian community in Antioch.
The thirteen years of the three missionary journeys starts shortly afterwards and it is then that his tremendous natural powers begin to display themselves in a fashion now transformed by grace. His incredible toughness and determination are no longer at the service of national prejudice or religious animosity. They are driven by a passionate all-consuming love of Our Lord and, an equally passionate determination to tell as many people as possible about him while at the same time bringing them to his Master in tribute.
A famous passage 2 Corinthians tells us about the cost.
“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, in danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the Churches.” (2 Cor: 24-29)
To this we can add the fact that when not travelling, preaching, teaching, and organising his new communities, or trying to pacify or stimulate them, he spent a large part of each day earning his living by his tent-making, so that no one could accuse him of spreading his new religion to make money. If you met him, one of the first things you would have noticed about him would have been how rough his hands were.
Then there were all the nights when by what we should find a less than adequate oil lamp he would be writing his epistles or dictating them to a copyist.
About his final years, after his arrest in Jerusalem, appeal to Caesar, and arrival in Rome, we would know next to nothing if we depended on Acts alone, except that up to the time of his first trial he lived in private lodgings at his own expense with a single soldier to guard him and relative freedom of movement. Taking advantage of this, he immediately starting preaching the faith to whomever he came in contact with --- Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freemen, soldiers and senators. There was no diminution in his energy and activity.
However, scripture scholars, working on the later epistles and drawing inferences from statements made there have managed to give us quite a detailed picture of the final years which only those who have read a good biography of our saint will be aware of.
After his first trial and acquittal he had three years of complete freedom during which he embarked on what could be called a fourth missionary journey. First came a trip of unknown length to preach the Gospel in Spain. This would seem to have been followed by a year or more in Rome. Finally he set out on another trip revisiting the communities he had founded around the eastern Mediterranean and founding some new ones. Crete for example. But by this time the Neronian persecution was under way, the imperial police were on his tracks and he was soon back in Rome, strictly imprisoned this time, awaiting his second trial.
Meanwhile, to complement the scholarly reconstructions of these final years we have the traditions associated with different sites in Rome. Some of these, like the Mamertine prison and the catacombs, are the same as those I mentioned in my Portrait of St Peter. This is not the place to go into the authenticity or reliability of each of these traditions. But taken together they give a trustworthy picture, I believe, of the kind of life he would certainly been leading during his years in Rome in addition to touching our hearts and kindling our imaginations. The late 19th , early 20th century Roman historian and archaeologist, Rodolfo Lanciani, a citizen of Rome and an excellent writer is one of the best guides I know.
Among other things he provides archaeological and other evidence both about our saint’s appearance and about his relationship with the philosopher Seneca.
About his appearance he writes: “There is no doubt that the likenesses of SS. Peter and Paul have been carefully preserved in Rome ever since their life time, and that they were familiar to everyone even to school children. These portraits have come down to us by scores.” We find them not only in paintings in the catacombs but also on innumerable metal and pottery ‘souvenirs’, as we would call them, dating from early Christian times. ‘St Peter’s face is full and strong, with short curly hair and beard, while St Paul appears more wiry and thin, slightly bald with a long pointed beard. The antiquity and genuineness of both types cannot be doubted.’ Elsewhere he speaks of ‘the sympathy and charm’ inspired and conveyed by the representations of St Paul. ‘The expression of the face,” he writes, “ is calm and benevolent with a gentle touch of sadness.”
We should remember that, given the then state of Roman civilisation, it is more than likely that the apostles’ richer converts would have had their portraits painted or engraved the way we have photographs of our friends and families.
About our saint’s relationship with Seneca, Lanciani reminds us in the first place that when the apostle was arrested and tried in Corinth it was by Seneca’s brother, the proconsul Marcus Annius Gallio.” (Acts 18 : 12-16) He then goes on to explain that when St Paul arrived in Rome, he was handed over to Afranius Burro, prefect of the praetorium, an intimate friend of Seneca and that Seneca himself, who was consul suffectus at the time, would have been responsible for St Paul’s case. In addition he cites archaeological evidence demonstrating close contacts between both SS.Peter and Paul and the Annius family of which Seneca was a member. ‘We also know,’ he continues, that ‘the presence of the prisoner and his wonderful eloquence in preaching the new faith, created a profound sensation among the members of the praetorium and the imperial household” to which he could have added the Roman ruling class generally.
None of this need surprise us. Anyone who once met St Paul is unlikely ever to have forgotten the experience, leaving aside all the miracles he worked.
The end came in a field on a hill above the Via Ostiensis, today called Tre Fontane. a few miles beyond St Paul’s without the Walls, the great apostle’s last resting place
As a Roman citizen St Paul was executed rather than crucified and something said by Pope St Clement I (St Peter’s immediate successor) suggests that Nero was present. If so we can see it as the one wise thing that model of imperial infamy did in his life. It is impossible to believe that, as he went to his death, the great apostle did not pray for the salvation of his persecutor or that, given the circumstances, the prayers could have gone unanswered.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2016
Version: 29th January 2016