St. Paul is given more prominence in the Bible than any other disciple of Jesus. Not only are thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament attributed to him but the Acts of the Apostles features his life as well—and he even wins mention in 2 Peter 3:15.
And it's no wonder! Paul is at the same time theologically brilliant and yet warmly practical; passionately certain and yet patient; a stern leader and yet a faithful friend. He is constantly concerned about what people think of his preaching, even as he remains committed to nothing other than the gospel he preaches. We know more of Paul's thinking and his personality than anyone else in the Bible, with the exception of Jesus himself. What's more, while we know Jesus mostly through the eyes of others, we know Paul mostly through his own words!
Because we do know so much about Paul, it is easy to either like him or dislike him. Many books have been written that are critical of Paul, unhappy over his attitudes toward women, slaves, and authority; offended by his overbearing attitude; or angered by his strong language against his fellow Jews. But these books tend to focus on only one aspect of the man while overlooking the larger context of his thoughts and convictions. If we try to grasp this bigger picture, we will probably find Paul much more attractive.
My experience is that the most important source for understanding and respecting, and yes, even liking St. Paul is his letters. It is here, in these words dictated from his heart, that Paul's deepest convictions come out. Some of them, such as the Letter to the Galatians, seem almost breathless in the way he pours out his heart. He certainly thought out others carefully—like the Letter to the Romans. But in all of them, Paul revealed much about himself and what meant the most to him.
Epic Stories—and the Epic of the Scriptures. My fascination with St. Paul began with a lifelong love of epic movies about the Roman Empire. Ever since I was a kid, I have been drawn to the depictions of the glory of Rome and its armies marching over the world in movies like The Robe, Quo Vadis, Spartacus, Ben Hur, and Gladiator. I have often imagined myself wearing the bronze armor and crested helmet of a centurion or hiding with the first Christians in the catacombs to escape Nero's soldiers or watching in horror as the Christian martyrs were attacked by lions in the Coliseum or meeting Peter and Paul in chains at the Mamertine prison. Even after a lifetime of studying Roman history, I can still hardly wait for the next epic to arrive in the local theater.
My second source of fascination with Paul is far less fanciful: a lifetime of teaching the Old Testament to seminarians and college students. Many people who read Paul think of him as a radical convert to Christianity who rejected his Jewish heritage in favor of preaching Christ. They see him as a super-Christian who simply found another outlet for his over-the-top passions.
But I see Paul as a man who was deeply in love with the message of the Bible that he had studied for years. According to Acts 8:1-3 and 9:1-2, he began as a zealot, enforcing every detail of the Law. But somehow he also drank in the much deeper spiritual vision of the Old Testament centered on the God who created everything as good; who spoke words of promise to Israel's ancestors; who remained faithful to them even when they turned away; and who promised to dwell with them forever.
When Paul speaks of Abraham or the exodus or King David, he sees the spiritual meaning of these stories for his own time. For Paul, God was always a living God, as active in the life of Jesus and the preaching of his gospel as he was in ancient Israel. Paul could endure all the difficulties and obstacles he faced in his ministry because he was convinced that everything he said about Jesus was already present in the words of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
As a Christian teacher of Scripture, I have always loved the tremendous breadth of the Old Testament, a breadth that sees everything from creation to the end of the world as part of God's grand plan of salvation. This is how Paul saw the Hebrew Scriptures as well, and that has made him a great companion in my study, my teaching, and my prayer. I take great comfort in knowing that everything Paul preached, he preached because he was convinced it was faithful to the Bible.
A Personal, Yet Clear Teacher.I have also come to love Paul for the way his letters present such a dramatic and coherent picture of the Christian life. No matter how personal his letters get, no matter how hard he has to work to defend himself against false accusations, Paul continues to bring everything back to Jesus and to God's loving plans.
Paul comes alive for me when I realize that he was giving his thoughts as direct answers to questions and complaints brought to him from people he knew well. These are no abstract treatises on truth or beauty but practical and deeply felt reactions to troublesome problems that his new converts are facing. Paul doesn't have all the answers, so he tries to answer their needs as he goes along, sometimes offering several different responses as they come into his mind. They are so spontaneous, and yet when you put them all together, you can see how clear—and how passionate—Paul is about the gospel he has given his life to serve.
Many biblical scholars, especially in Protestant circles, reject some of the letters that have Paul's name. Their tradition—stemming from the Reformation—has emphasized that the key to Paul is his teaching on justification by faith. As a result, some of them doubt that Paul actually wrote letters such as Colossians and Ephesians or the pastoral letters of Timothy and Titus, because they don't mention this point as much and because they overemphasize later "Catholic" points like church structure and leadership.
But when I read these thirteen letters together, I am impressed not so much by the references to justification but by the constant emphasis on God's plan of salvation that is fulfilled in Christ. In letter after letter, I see Jesus presented as both the Jewish Messiah promised by the prophets and as the Savior sent to bring salvation to everyone who has faith. This theme is present in virtually all of the letters that bear Paul's name, and it is a central element in the way Paul appears in the Acts of the Apostles.
Many who doubt the authenticity of some of Paul's letters point to ancient Jewish documents that bear the names of famous Old Testament heroes to make them more authoritative, even though they were written centuries later. Documents like The Testament of Isaiah and The Apocalypse of Moses were very popular around Paul's time, and some scholars believe that letters like Colossians and Titus are like these. But none of these other documents is written in the form of a letter addressing real people and their real problems. There is nothing in any of them like Paul's request that Timothy bring him his cloak and the books he left behind (2 Timothy 4:13). No, every letter in the New Testament list breathes for me the impassioned and completely genuine feelings of a single person whom I have come to know and admire.
A Humble, Dedicated Servant. Finally, I have come to love Paul for his personal humility. Paul didn't have to be perfect to give his life in service of the gospel, and that gives me a superb model to follow in my life as a priest and teacher. Recent church scandals have given us all graphic proof of how imperfect the church's clergy and teachers can be. No one could be more dedicated to Jesus than Paul was. He can hardly utter a sentence without mentioning Jesus' name, and he was more aware than anyone that his effectiveness as an apostle did not come from his talent or ability, but from the grace of God.
2 Corinthians 10:1-18 gives us a touching picture of Paul, defending his role as an apostle despite his poor speaking abilities. He knows that he doesn't succeed because of his eloquence but because of the power of Christ behind his words. In 2 Corinthians 11:30, he humbly adds, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." A little later, in 13:9, he adds, "We rejoice when we are weak but you are strong!"
Through Paul I have come to realize that I am most effective in reaching the people I teach when it is clear that Jesus' love and power have affected me personally—not necessarily when I give my best-prepared lecture. Just as Paul was most effective when his love for Jesus shone through even his faults and weaknesses, so it is my prayer to be a "vessel for lofty use, dedicated, beneficial to the master of the house, ready for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:21).