Excerpted from Paul: The Mind of the Apostle with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
For a Jew, the Scriptures make it apparent again and again
that God is a God of mercy, who forgives sins. "He does not deal with
us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities." Jesus himself, in the fragments of his teaching which survive in the Gospels, would seem to have been a completely mainstream Jew in his teaching about divine forgiveness. With the Pharisees, of whom he was probably one, he believed that anyone who turned to God in penitence and faith would be forgiven.
In Judaism, there is the idea of the yetzer
, the two impulses. Everyone has two impulses, to good or to evil. The authentic Jewish idea survives in the New Testament in the letter of James: "one is tempted by one's own desire." It is our own selfishness which creates evil. To do good, we must turn to God's will.
This is genial, even uplifting, but to the restless and almost
Nietzschean mind of Paul, it leaves unanswered and untouched the two most troubling elements in the observed universe; namely, its apparently blameless suffering and its boundless wickedness. Any metaphysic which blandly assumed that it was possible for evil to be 'forgiven' simply by the assertion that God was good could not answer the intense isolation of the human soul in the grip of sin or psychological nightmare; nor could it really correspond to the world as it was actually observed - a world as Paul would conceive it, where demonic powers were at work, filling the minds of the mad with evil nightmares and the bodies of the weak with sickness and disease, a world out of joint, a universe groaning and travailing towards some violent consummation.
Let the Pharisees and the Stoics, who apparently found the practice of virtue easy, continue to live in their moralistic isolation. Their good, even generous and abstemious, lives could shine as lights, but could not change the world; their willingness to give money to the poor, to abstain from excess, to be sober and vigilant, even their piety surreally ignored the urge towards cruelty, madness, wickedness and lust which possessed so high a proportion of the human race; ignored the `nasty, brutish and short' lives they led; ignored the fundamental questions which such evil and such suffering raised about the very `righteousness' of God himself.
Imagine the court of Caligula as described by Suetonius. Imagine, even, the atmosphere of the barrack room at the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, where soldiers played dice and swore and talked of sex and superstition. Paul would have heard them, met them, known them if he was a temple guard. How pallid the moral essays of Seneca or the Jewish Book of Wisdom would have seemed in such a mad, Dostoevskian world crying aloud for vengeance or redemption!
Into such a world, Paul, with an inspired and completely original vision of Jesus, believed that a unique figure had stepped; one who was both a Prometheus, whose own weakness defied the strength of the Allfather; whose innocent folly overcame the wisdom of his ancestors; whose lawlessness - dying the death of a criminal - overcame the law; and whose pure and unflinching agape, charity or love overshadowed the malice which all discerning people might have felt or guessed to be at the heart of the First Cause, if there were a First Cause. Both a Prometheus, then, and a Saviour to whom human beings could look for rescue and salvation; human beings who were too tired or too drunk or too weak or too stupid to be able to rise to the concept of virtue and good behaviour practised by Pharisees and Stoics.
The majority of good people in the world, and the majority of religious people, have always been Stoics or Pharisees. (The great monotheistic creeds of Judaism and Islam owe their appeal to this fact.) They believe that there is a God, who has revealed how human beings should behave. It is our function to follow the precepts of chastity, generosity towards those less fortunate to ourselves and piety. That is the whole requirement of the Torah.
But Paul, who was a religious revolutionary, really had a much more developed sense of the difficulties of this position than any Jew since the author of the Book of Job. As a Hellenist who had absorbed as much `Greek' wisdom as Jewish, he rejected the Jewish idea of yetzer, two impulses, and believed that flesh and spirit were fundamentally opposed: a completely unjewish idea. `For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want."'
The human position, once this idea has been grasped imaginatively, becomes intolerable. Paul really had thought himself into one of those extreme positions of metaphysical isolation which we would associate with the nineteenth-century spiritual exiles Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. He was Jewish enough and had enough common sense to know that a purely `spiritual' way of life was impossible for most human beings. No Pythagorean vegetarian he, no advocate of Platonist celibacy, though he was celibate himself. Human souls were, for him, self-contradictory devices imprisoned in flesh which was always, through weakness and desire, going to lead them into disaster. Nor does this simply refer to sexual desire. Good teachings, whether we call them the Holy Koran, or the Tao or the Torah, serve only to heighten the difference between the good after which we aspire and the sheer folly of our actions, the wickedness of our cruelty and dissipation as a race of humanity.
Viewed in this light, the Torah was not a blessing at all, but a curse. 'Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied.' Anyone who has attended a synagogue and observed the reverence with which the scrolls of the Torah are treated will see why Paul's ideas produced such anger, such outright rejection and fury, in the synagogues of Pisidian Antioch and Iconium. What Paul had to say, far from being in the mainstream of Judaism, struck at the very roots not just of Judaism but of `natural theology'. If there had been, in the
past, a Revealed Religion, given to Moses and through Moses to the
People of God on Mount Sinai, there was now a New Revelation
and a New Covenant. This time, the covenant had been vouchsafed
not to Moses but to Paul. As Wilfrid Knox says: "Paul's claim for immunity from criticism
was based on the possession of a divine gift of the Spirit, which was
nothing less than the mind of the Lord."