Of the 27 texts that make up the New Testament, 13 (all letters) are attributed to St Paul. Nine of these are addressed to particular local communities, four to individuals. Current mainstream biblical scholarship, however, claims that only seven out of the 13 letters were actually written by St Paul himself, the remaining six having been penned by some of his disciples. During Mass, we usually hear a brief snippet from a Pauline letter, but wrenched from its particular context and rarely the subject of the homily, which usually focuses on the gospel reading; yet apparently, more people know the story of the ‘conversion’ of Saul, his falling off his horse, than know the details of the life of Jesus. By those outside the Church, St Paul is often dismissed as a misogynist anti-feminist, or regarded as an abstract philosopher or an organisational schemer, building up a ‘church’ in contrast to Jesus the preacher and healer’s original mission. The idea of St Paul as the master builder of a structured Church, supposedly moving Christianity away from its inspirational root, was echoed recently in Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Kieran O’Mahony’s study, Do We Still Need St Paul?, is a superb collection of brief essays that re-roots any approach to and understanding of St Paul in his personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It is an accessible antidote to anyone who might be dissuaded from approaching the apostle by those who claim he is too abstractly philosophical, misogynist, or obsessed with Church organisation and structures. O’Mahony starts with a basic premise – that ‘morality is not at the centre of the Christian proclamation. It is Christ who is the centre and we behave in distinctive ways as a response to Christ’ (p. 16) – and for him what characterises St Paul above all else is ‘his own experience of being transformed by Christ’. St Paul’s own conversion experience of the risen Christ awakened in him the deep awareness that it is ‘Christ who loves me and gave himself for me’, as St Paul states in his letter to the Galatians, frequently cited by O'Mahony. It is St Paul’s own personal encounter with Christ that drives him and dominates his consciousness as he declares simply: ‘for to me, living is Christ’ (Phil.1:21). St Paul says that he saw ‘the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6) and this personal encounter remains with him for the rest of his life. As he wrote to the Philippians (3:10-11), ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead’.
It is this deep spirituality of St Paul, rooted in his faith in the person of the risen Christ, which is so often neglected in discussions of his attitude to women (usually misrepresented) and to relations between Christians, Jews and Gentiles. Pope John Paul II described St Paul as ‘the Jewish Rabbi who has been evangelised himself by the revelation of the love of God in Jesus Christ’; Fr Michael Hayes has commented (in an editorial in the Pastoral Review, May 2009, p. 3) that ‘to know Paul is to know the mind and purpose of Christ. Paul becomes for us a conduit into the life of Christ and source for the individual Christian in his or her relationship with the Risen Jesus.’ But interestingly, it is the Jewish Biblical scholar, Edward Kessler, who puts it best: ‘In all this he remained a faithful Jew. But he did believe that the coming of Christ had resulted in a fundamental reorientation of faith into a belief system rooted in the experience of Christ, for Paul the experience of the resurrected Christ was personally transforming.’ (‘Paul the Jew’, Pastoral Review, May 2009)
O’Mahony’s collection of essays and reflections addresses: ‘St Paul the Letter writer’, ‘the Laity, the Church and St Paul’, ‘The Cross in Paul’s vision of Faith’, ‘St Paul at Prayer’, ‘Paul as Pastor’, ‘Women in the Pauline Assemblies’, and ‘Paul and Inclusion – Racism Today’, all of which centre on St Paul’s efforts to enable Christ ‘to live in him’. But notably this is not an introverted private spirituality. O’Mahony introduces potent yet underdeveloped themes of ‘social spirituality’, especially an understanding of ‘the social body of Christ’ (p. 113, emphasis in original); he also addresses Paul’s insistence on a ‘theology of solidarity’, and the Resurrection understood as commitment to ‘comprehensive justice’, underpinning Paul’s vision of a ‘unified humanity’.
Pope Benedict XVI declared June 08-June 09 to be the ‘Year of St Paul’, and as such a valuable body of work on the apostle was produced during that year. Some of the works mentioned in this review are now available as part of the published collection of the Pastoral Review’sseries of scholarly articles, In Praise of Paul, edited by Michael A Hayes. But the real place to start is with Do We Still Need St Paul?, with its affirmative answer to the question posed by the title and its insistence on a personal faith in the risen Christ with its social potential.
The reviewer, John Battle, was the Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds West from 1987-2010.