Paul: the Persecutor

Have you seen some of these recut movie trailers floating around on the Internet? They take a familiar story but recut it in a way to make it a totally different story altogether.

Take the child’s Christmas fantasy Elf for instance. Will Ferrell plays the joyous man-child “Buddy,” who was left by hist father many years ago and finds himself working for Santa Claus at the North Pole. Eventually Buddy decides it is time to go on a long journey and find his father, who is a succeful, powerful man in New York City. Along the way Buddy discovers brings joy and finds a friend. Songs are sung and maple syrup is poured on every meal, it seems. It’s a fun, light-hearted but meaningful movie to watch with family or friends around the holidays.

But there’s a recut of Elf floating around on the Internet that uses the same film but changes the tone through “studio magic.” What emerges is a totally different story altogether, with a deranged man who believes he is an Elf who hunts down and terrorizes his father. It’s stunning (and pretty funny) to see a delightful children’s Christmas story turn into an adult thriller.

That's how some of us might have received stories from the Bible - we’ve received a bad edit, or recut, that has the same story script but an awful interpretation. 

Many of us might have harsh feelings about the Apostle Paul, for instance. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m into Jesus, but can do without Paul.” That’s often because Paul is seen as a harsh character that follows Jesus loving embrace with awful ideas about women, slaves & homosexuality. 

But that’s not the full, even real, story about Paul.

Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna (1482)

So, who was Paul? And what was he about?

Our Christian Bibles (in the New Testament) list thirteen books attributed to Paul - and they are lined up one after the other from Romans to Philemon.

Reading them through that way one might get the impression that they are the complete, systematic thoughts of one of the first Christians. 

If read in that way, a stern, exclusionary Paul can emerge with harsh things to say about women (1 Timothy 2:11) and archaic, conservative viewpoints on slavery (Titus 2:9). When read alongside what seems like a call to radical equity and inclusion (Galatians 3) and a progressive plea to release slaves (Philemon) the Apostle Paul becomes a fickle, irrational person.

In actuality, scholars are realizing that Paul probably only wrote seven of those letters for sure, and not in the order found in our Christian scriptures. 

1 Thessalonians (52 CE)

1 Corinthians (53)

2 Corinthians (54-57)

Galatians (c. 55)

Philippians (56)

Philemon (56)

Romans (57-58)

Based on grammar and rhetorical style, many scholars across religious traditions aren’t sure if Paul wrote Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians, while a majority of scholars are fairly certain Paul did not write 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Disputing the authorship of these Scriptures doesn’t mean we need to start tearing out pages from our Bibles - it just means we might be able to better understand the mind behind the actions of real people who helped compile what has become an ancient library of Books (that’s literally what “the Bible” means, after all)

If we don’t separate Paul from the other “Paul’s” in our Scriptures, we might actually inadvertently allow Paul to continue persecuting us to this day - a life that Paul was eager to name and repent in his later and final years, living for Jesus amidst Empire.

Paul was born Saul, in a town in modern day Turkey called Tarsus probably a few years after Jesus was born, in 5-8 CE. If you were to find yourself in Tarsus today, you could theoretically drive five hours to Aleppo, Syria - where so much terror and human suffering has occurred and the roots of a modern-day refugee crisis was born.


Tarsus was on the frontier of the Roman empire - a crossroads for trade between Europe and Asia and a place where ideas were freely exchanged as well. Paul (Saul is just the Hebrew version of the Greek/Romanized version of his name) was raised in the Jewish tradition and saw himself as a strict inheritor of a pure, supreme way within the tradition.


In one of his early letters to the Christian community in Philippi, Paul reflected on his religious upbringing and identity: “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3:5, 6)

In the years of Jesus life and teaching there were many watys to respond the oppression of Roman Empire and occupation. You see these diverse ways gathered even in the persons that Jesus assembled as his disciples. The reason that Jesus got into so many debates and had so much conflict with the Pharisees, was because they were closest to his own tradition. 

The Pharisees were simply trying to live a life of resistance to the ways of Roman incursion and occupation by returning back to their ancient traditions, and specificlaly, their Bible (the Torah).  The Pharisees tried to deliver a way of being Jewish in everyday life by returning to the Scriptures, prayer and a way of life, including “table manners.” But the Pharisaic way of approaching everyday life was very strict and exclusionary - there were more people “out” than “included” in the circle of community. In many ways, this was a natural way of responding to so much violence, destruction and shame at the hands of the foreign, invading and occupying Roman legion throughout Israel, Paelstine and the Jewish world that young men like Paul grew up in. Some Pharisees even became Zealots in their approach to life, taking up arms and committing acts of violence to resist the Roman way of life. One can imagine why violence might be a response if your holiest of sites, the Temple, was occupied and “defiled” by heathen Romans.

Paul was one of these zealot Pharisees, and he was part of an even smaller band of Pharisees that would not only resist the Romans but round up wayward Jews and Godfearers, arresting them and even having them tortured and killed in the name of God. The book of Acts, which is the second part of Luke’s Gospel, tells the story in which the first marty of the early church, Stephen, was authorized by Paul himself. This early identity became one of the major regrets of Paul’s life - something he would mourn the rest of his days, reflecting on how utterly convicted he was in his ideas about God, but in the end, so wrong.

He reflected on his earlier ways in another letter: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Galatians 1:13, 14)

In the end, Paul was a repentant “Jewish Christ Mystic” who was radically active & inclusive 

in building the first communities of The Way and we’ll be spending an entire series this Fall on the life of this early leader and follower.


Go Deeper:

NT Wright, "What Paul Really Said"

Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, "The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon"