This is a church named after the apostle Paul, whose name is attached to 14 books in the New Testament for which he never received a single royalty. He didn’t actually write all fourteen letters, though. Some of them are what scholars call pseudepigrapha, i.e., false writings.) It happened without any penalty back in the first and second centuries. Those who wrote in his name had a “remembered Paul” in mind, who in those letters was speaking to their own times.
It used to be that wherever you found Paul in the New Testament that was Paul. But how account for the inconsistencies? Three of the letters are called the Pastoral Epistles, and they were written maybe 60 years after Paul died. Three other letters (Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Corinthians) sound like Paul in places, but not all scholars think Paul was their author. It’s long been recognized that Paul never wrote Hebrews.
Paul also appears in the Acts of the Apostles. He is the last standing hero of the early church in that account. There we find his “Damascus Road Conversion” story—told three times. In that account he’s a great public speaker, a Roman citizen, frequent visitor to Jerusalem, doing miracles like Jesus, and at the end in house arrest in Rome. And he never wrote any letters according to its author. None of those descriptive things line up with what we find in the seven letters most scholars agree that Paul wrote.
As we clarify Paul’s identity we must also ask, “What will this Paul be asking of the members of a church community named after him?”
First of all, the seven letters are Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
What you will discover about Paul in these seven letters includes his own story of how he met Jesus Messiah. (Remember: Paul was a Pharisee, grounded in the Hebraic story of God, which included expectations of God’s “Messiah.” Christ, is the Greek word for Messiah—the one God will send to make all things new again.) Paul said he had an apocalyptic experience of the Risen Lord (Gal. 1:15), and it wasn’t on the road to Damascus. He had first opposed this sect of Jews saying Jesus had risen from the dead, and then he had a mystical encounter with Jesus. What did he do? He went off to Arabia. Then he returned to Damascus. After a three-year period he made the first of three trips to Jerusalem. He met Peter and James and stayed just 15 days. We actually have an idea that he was visiting them in 36 or 37 CE. It may have been within three or four years of the crucifixion of Jesus. He became the traveling apostle.
Toward the end of his extensive travels, as he must have been nearing 60 years of age, he intended to come to Rome, but not to start a church there. Somewhere around 55-58 CE (under the early days of Emperor Nero) he wrote to the early assemblies of Jesus Messiah people in Rome asking for their help with his next missionary adventure. He wanted to go to Spain and preach the Gospel. All of the faith communities he started were in a region of 300,000 square miles stretching from Jerusalem, to the Adriatic Sea. When crossing it he would arrive in Rome, but then continue Westwardly to Spain.
One of the misconceptions regarding Paul concerns women. Some passages both in his seven letters can be misread. The more troubling of passages regarding women come from the letters he did not write. Paul was not a misogynist. He did not believe women should be second class citizens in a Christian assembly. He did not think that the main role of women was to bear children. He did not believe women should be subservient to their husbands. Yes, many of those things are implied or written and mostly in letters he did not write.
Paul called women his co-workers in the Lord. He said that Junia and her husband were apostles before he was. The letter to be delivered to the Romans was to be entrusted to Phoebe who he said was a Deacon. Writing to the Corinthians he said a wife and husband needed equal paralleled responsibilities to each other. In that same letter he discussed the role of women in worship. And when some men wrote to him saying they thought women should be silent in church, he replied with anger and this sardonic question: “What, did the word of God originate with you?”
Paul also called himself a slave of Messiah Jesus. He went so far as to ask the owner of the slave Onesimus, Philemon by name, to receive him back into this household, but as a follower of Messiah Jesus not as a slave, but as a brother! Wow!
Most importantly for any church bearing Paul’s name it is critical to know what his name meant. It is highly possible that he had another name, a Jewish name, maybe even Saul as it says in Acts, but that upon believing in Jesus Messiah he changed his name. His name in Latin meant “small” and there is evidence that some gave their slaves that name. Paul himself lived with and for the least and the most marginalized, disinherited in his world. He had little to say for those who puffed themselves up with privilege and arrogance. He called for Jesus-people to practice humility, kindness, and generosity. Caring for one-another, and putting away divisions was at the heart of his ministry. These goals and commitments can be the siren call for any church calling itself with his name. It would mean and we hope you can discover is that at this St. Paul’s we to want to reflect Paul’s vision of ministry that includes everyone. And for all to be marked by love!
Note on the author of this description of Paul. It comes from George Martin, author of the forthcoming book Paul Found in His Letters (Claremont Press). He is a retired Episcopal priest who has become a Pauline Scholar.