OK. It’s been a while. I’ve had so many ideas but never got round to getting it down. Here’s a few thoughts from Tom Wright, otherwise known as N.T. Wright. He was Bishop of Durham for a while, but is best known as an academic whose whole adult life has been spent studying the life and writings of St Paul.
He wrote a book about the life of St Paul that came out three years ago. I haven’t read it, but heard him talk about it on the Nomad Podacst.
To start with, his name is originally Saul. He comes from a conservative tradition in Judaism, and as the book of Acts describes, will do anything to protect Judaism from what he sees as unhealthy, misguided influences. One of those ‘way out’ movements is of course, what he would see as the cult of Jesus. Saul is basically a fundamentalist, and will track down followers of Jesus, and condone killing them for the cause of religious purity. Hence the stoning of Stephen, one of the prominent members of what we would call the early church. Saul is at this point a violent man, determined to put a stop to this abberation of the faith that he treasures.
But to call it the early church is slightly misleading – at this early point in the evolution of the Jesus movement, we’re talking about a community that is mostly made up of Jews before the word Christian has even been uttered. When we read the word ‘church’ in our English translations, the original Greek word is better translated by ‘gathering,’ ‘assembly, ‘ or ‘company.’
Tom Wright reminds us how important it is to understand the first century context of the words that we read. Another example of where we might have been reading this wrongly is to do with what we might have called the ‘conversion’ of Saul. Growing up, I had the impression that on the road to Damascus, when Saul has his experience of Jesus, it is at that point that he ‘becomes a Christian.’
(You can read the account in Acts chapter 9)
But at that point in time, there was no such thing as a Christian. There was no separate religion called Christianity. Saul was a Jew who had such a profound and mystical experience of the risen Christ, that he suddenly sees that he has been mistaken, and that Jesus is in fact, the Messiah of God. He doesn’t stop being a faithful Jew, and would in all likelihood continue in exactly the same way as he had done before regarding his religious observance, but now seeing that the promised Messiah has in fact come – in the person of Jesus Christ.
After this life changing encounter, at some point early on, Saul disappears off to Arabia for three years. It’s not clear exactly where he went or what he did during these three years, but Tom Wright has a theory … first a bit of background:
Back in the First Testament, * the prophet Elijah is at a turning point in his life. He had just defeated the 400 prophets of Baal, and was on the run from king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. At this time of great stress in his life, where does he go ? To mount Horeb. Mount Horeb is essentially the same as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. So Elijah is going back to the place where it all started. The place where God made it clear that the children of Israel were a ‘set apart people.’ They had a call to be God’s people for the nations. At Mount Horeb, God meets with Elijah and he gets the commissioning and strength that he needs for the next phase in his ministry. God tells Elijah that he is to ‘Go back the way you came, to Damascus.’ Once there, he was to anoint Jehu as the new king of Israel.
Tom Wright’s theory is that Arabia was the region that included Mount Sinai. Where would Saul go to think through the experience that he had on the road to Damascus ? Maybe back to where it all started – to Mount Sinai. Saul’s roots are in the ancient story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery; the journeying through the wilderness; the call to live as the people of God. So Saul goes to Sinai, to learn what this new call to follow Jesus will mean. And at the end of those three years, where does he go ? Back the way he came, to Damascus. And once there he will share the news that a new king has been anointed – Jesus. And that this good news of Jesus is for all people, both Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free. And that this new community will be different from any community previously known, because it will not be according to your ethnic group, or whether you were a man or a woman, or a slave or a free person. This new community will break all the rules and be for all.
I feel like I should read the book !
And, as I was pondering on this alternative, radical new community that we see in the book of Acts, it made me think about my own experience of the church, and to what extent the churches I have been a part of have been ethnically diverse, with men and women both accepted fully, with class, background, education and social status not being an issue. Sadly, it seems that churches by default become fairly monocultural, not at all the vision that Paul had … 2000 years later it’s still a work in progress. Additionally, there are movements within the church that see the growth of the church being most effective when this mono approach is used – because like attracts like. This is in sharp contrast to the kingdom vision of a diverse community, which although it is often a more challenging environment, has within it the possibility of fully enacting the principles of love. Such a Christian community is truly a thing of great beauty.
* Christians have generally called the first part of the Bible ‘The Old Testament.’ But there are dangers in that. It might lead us to think that we can leave all of that behind. Now we have the New, we don’t need the Old. The New Testament gives us everything we need. In a sense that is true, but we are greatly impoverished in our undertanding of Jesus if we do not understand his roots, which lie in the work of God through Israel. If we only know the New Testament, we don’t know the New Testament! There is so much richness in the books of Moses, the history books, the wisdom and the prophets that we need to attend to. There has been a move to call these writings ‘The Hebrew Bible,’ but others are more inclined to use the phrase ‘First Testament,’ which gives those writings a more exalted place than ‘Old Testament,’ and unlike the phrase Hebrew Bible gives them their righful place within the whole revelation of God’s love and purposes.
Grace and Peace