An image that Vatican archaeologists believe is the oldest one of St Paul the Apostle, dating from the late fourth century, is seen on the walls of a catacomb beneath Rome. (OSSERVATORE ROMANO/REUTERS)

Paul Baumann is editor of Commonweal.

Despite being clearly written and a mere 143 pages long, “St. Paul” is an often dense and exasperating book. Karen Armstrong, a popular and prolific authority on religion (“A History of God,” “The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” and, most recently, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence”), wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders. Paul, in this reading, evolved from a fervent proselytizer for the risen Christ into an “intrepid opponent of empire” whose religious convictions were “less about doctrine than a social imperative.”

Among other things, Paul is known for being knocked off his horse while on the road to Damascus by the appearance of the resurrected Jesus. Having commanded his attention, Jesus demanded to know why Paul, a punctilious observer of Jewish law, was “persecuting” his fellow Jews who belonged to the nascent Jesus movement. This extraordinary mystical experience turned Paul from a dedicated enemy into the foremost evangelizer for the struggling sect. His missionary work brought him to predominantly gentile areas of the Roman Empire, such as Antioch, Corinth, Athens, Galatia and finally to Rome (although Armstrong has fashionable doubts that he ever made it there). The most pressing question Paul faced in preaching the gospel to the gentiles was whether disciples of Christ had to undergo male circumcision and adhere to other Jewish ritual practices. Initially, the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem insisted that was so. After all, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. The Bible promised salvation to observant Jews, not pagans. Why should gentiles now get a pass from the Jewish God?

Paul’s experience of the faith of gentile converts convinced him otherwise. Jesus’s spiritual presence among gentile Christians was manifest in the miracles, healings and love of one another abundantly evident in their communities. In a series of confrontations with elders in the new faith, Paul’s views eventually won the day. At least that is the canonical story. Armstrong argues that Paul’s efforts at reconciling his gentile communities with the Jerusalem church ended in failure. With the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple and the expulsion of Jews from Palestine in A.D. 70, the Jesus movement in Jerusalem disappeared. Gentile Christianity won by default but soon betrayed Paul’s teachings by making peace with Rome and replacing an egalitarian community ethos with a patriarchal and hierarchical one.

In making her case, Armstrong resorts to some dubious assertions. This is a book filled with “maybes.” She writes that the gospels “introduced a fiery, apocalyptic element . . . that may not have been present in Jesus’s original teachings.” By any measure, that is a minority opinion. Saint Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, which tell us much of what we know about Paul, is accused of wanting to dissociate the Jesus movement from Judaism. But like Paul, Luke wanted to connect the Christian sect to Israel. Nor, as Armstrong contends, does Luke think of Paul’s experience of Jesus’s resurrection as qualitatively different from the experience of the 12 apostles. Paul never had much interest in the historical Jesus, Armstrong writes. Yet a few pages later, she notes that Paul’s faith was “rooted in historical events,” such as Jesus’s crucifixion. Her account of the crucifixion and Paul’s death, which argues that neither received much attention, is entirely speculative. Elsewhere, she refers anachronistically to the Roman Empire as a “free market economy.” Armstrong also likes to describe Paul’s views as “liberal,” and those opposed to him as “conservative,” misleading characterizations, to say the least, of first-century debates about religious observance or social structures.

Armstrong takes great pains to assure readers that Paul’s demands that women be silent and cover their heads in church are nefarious later interpolations. But scholarly support for that supposition is at best mixed. As Armstrong acknowledges, Paul’s writings provide plenty of evidence of his respect for established political authority and inherited social roles. Isn’t it more likely that his conflicted views regarding women reflect a struggle to reconcile the gospel’s egalitarian imperatives with the Roman and Jewish traditions in which he was steeped? There is no resolution of that tension in Paul’s New Testament writings. For as Armstrong also allows, Paul was not a systematic thinker but a pastor responding to discrete conflicts in particular churches. Nor is Armstrong convincing when she argues that Paul came to see “his congregations had to be brought down to earth” to prevent them from “wafting off on airy spiritual adventures.” Yes, he wanted his communities to be orderly and anchored to sound biblical morality. But, contrary to Armstrong’s assertion, the “first principles of the Jesus movement” were not “concentrated on building mutually supportive communities as an alternative to the oppressive imperial order.” The first principles of the Jesus movement were, in fact, not “down to earth” at all. For as Paul wrote to those very followers in Corinth who were “wafting off,” if “Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are in your sins.”

The final chapter of “St. Paul” is sardonically or ironically titled “Afterlife.” But the resurrected life Paul so passionately believed in is absent. Instead, we are firmly brought back down to Earth. Armstrong is convinced that the usurpers of Paul’s legacy, the popes and their henchmen, insisted on presenting Christ as “vanquishing cosmic rather than earthly powers.” Earlier in the book, Armstrong noted that Paul thought in precisely these cosmic terms. Indeed, in Paul’s view, Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross had reconciled a sinful humankind to its forgiving creator. Which is to say, Paul was a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still. Paul was convinced that the world would shortly come to an end and that Christ would return in glory to judge the living and the dead. Two thousand years later, a remarkable number of people believe that scenario is still in the cards — or long to believe it. Much of the credit for sustaining that improbable but tenacious faith belongs to one of history’s most famously inept equestrians.

ST. PAUL
The Apostle We Love to Hate

By Karen Armstrong

New Harvest. 143 pp. $20