Thursday, October 16, 2014


I'm just getting started on What Paul Meant, a 2006 book by Garry Wills. A friend gave it to me after his wedding in 2007, but it took me this long to get past how bothered (small) I was by the title. Anyway, here's some stuff from pages 13, 14 and 15 that I think is just rock-'em/sock-'em great:

... When Paul address the ekklesiai, the "gatherings of Jesus," he is writing to those who met in the homes of particular men or women, in the same town or in several towns. He addresses himself to the whole gathering, in each case, not to some leader or leaders. Some towns had more than one such home-gathering. There was no hierarchy among the gatherings, one having more authority over another. The housekeepers, whether male or female or both, were the informal leaders of the gatherings. Emissaries ... moved from gathering to gathering, normally in teams, often husband-and-wife teams (Rom 16.6-15), like the team of Peter and his wife, or of the Lord's brothers and their wives (1 Cor 9.5). Paul usually had several partners in his team--most of his letters are written with cosenders, and he often refers to coworkers, women as well as men.

New gatherings were hived off from pre-existing ones, sometimes by the work of emissaries like Paul's team, sometimes by the gathering's own natural reach outward toward friends or relatives or associates, either in the same town or in other ones. The proliferation of these gatherings was astonishingly rapid. They had grown out from Palestine even before Paul came to believe in Jesus. They were already present in the country where he was living (Syria). He began his work as a junior partner (with Barnabas) in an emissary team operating from a pre-existing gathering at Antioch. The story of Paul is never that of an individual, some religious genius hatching his own religion out of his own head. We find in his letters hymns that communities had formed and sung before he set them down in an epistle. He constantly appeals to traditions handed on to him, to be handed on to others. It is as a testimony to the vital explosion of belief in Jesus all across the Diaspora that Paul assumes his importance.

He takes us closer in time to Jesus than does any other person or group or body of writings. The best way to find out what Jesus meant to his early followers is to see what Paul meant to his fellow believers, many of whom had seen Jesus in his earthly lifetime or after his Resurrection, without having written their stories down for us. Paul did write. But he was writing about a shared experience, not a single and idiosyncratic one. If Paul was such a foe and underminer of Jesus, why was he accepted so soon and broadly by those who knew Jesus? The answer is that Paul was not a counterforce to Jesus but one of the early believers who together bore witness to him. The Jesus gatherings in the Diaspora proved more fertile and lasting than those in Judaea itself, not because of any one man's brilliance, energy, or deceptions, but because they were more vitally expressive of what Jesus meant. Paul was part of this explosion of belief. His letters are dispatches from that hurricane of activity.


  1. WOW! Thanks for adding the little picture of the book, Mystery Illustrator! That's very cool.

  2. Thanks again for the book, Todd. I've now paused my reading of it again to go back and reread the letters that Gary Wills identifies as authentically Paul's. I'm on 1 Thessalonians.

  3. From pages 19 and 20:

    The most important event of Paul's life, that which determined everything else, was his encounter with the risen Jesus. He puts this in a social context, as part of the Resurrection experience that other followers of Jesus shared. His own account of this epochal occurrence does not accord with the most famous story of Paul's 'conversion,' that given in the Acts of the Apostles (9.1-9). But that story, told by one "Luke," was written half a century after what it purports to describe, and we shall find that it has many holes in it. Here are Paul's own words, close to the event …

    Paul puts his own experience in context of the Gospel revelation, of the tradition passed on to him, which it is his urgent concern to pass on to others, in company with the other emissaries, his superiors.

    The principal thing to notice here is that Jesus
    appeared to Paul--opththe, "he was seen." In Luke's account of Paul's encounter with Jesus, Paul sees nothing--a sudden flash of light proves literally blinding, so that he merely hears a voice. This is technically not an apparition but a photism (a light flash) accompanied by an audition ( a disembodied voice). In the Gospel stories of meetings with the risen Jesus, genuine apparitions occur--the Lord not only appears to men and women but converses with those who see him, he gives instructions, he answers questions. Paul, putting his own record along with theirs, implies that his experience was like theirs--that he spoke with Jesus. That is the credential he offers to others who also possess it. He asks to be tested by all those he has identified as his fellow witnesses to the risen Lord. "Am I not an emissary? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Cor 9.1)