St Paul is revered by some and reviled by others. Depending on your theological position, he was responsible for opening up the true message of the gospel for both Jew and gentile or the man who made the single biggest contribution to masking or watering down the true essence of the teaching of Christ and replacing it with rules and requirements. I have to say that I find Paul an enigma, and it is not heard to see why Garry Willis opens his afterword in his interesting book- What Paul Meant with a quote from Bernard Shaw who “thought the world would have been better off if Paul had not lived”. Willis argues that it is Paul’s writings written roughly two decades after the death of Jesus, and not the gospels, which stand closer to Jesus than any of the other words in the New Testament and that Paul meant was not something other than or contrary to what Jesus meant, but that we can best find out the latter by studying the former. The Gospels, coming later, try to make sense of a history that already contained the conflicts Paul reveals to us. Willis’s book challenges our thoughts on Paul and if you read it you must be ready to have all sorts of cherished preconceptions exhilaratingly stripped away in his descriptions of how the early Jesus movement emerged. Willis suggests that for too many Paul has come down the ages as bad news because; “Religion took over the legacy of Paul as it did that of Jesus- because they both opposed it. They said that the worship of God is a matter of interior love, not based on external observances, on temples or churches, or hierarchies or priesthoods…they were radical egalitarians, though in ways that delved below and soared above conventional politics. They were on the side of the poor and saw through the rich. They saw only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of the neighbour. Both were liberators, not imprisoners so they were imprisoned. So they were killed. Paul meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law. Paul’s message to us is not one of guilt and dark constraint. It is this: Whatever things are true, whatever honourable, whatever making for the right, whatever lovable, whatever admirable- if there is any virtue, any thing of high esteem- think on these. All you have learned, have taken from tradition, have listened to, have observed in me, act on these, and the God who brings peace will be yours (Phil4:8-9).”
Now that’s something we could all do with isn’t it?