Was St Paul a Christian?

St Paul converted on the road to Damascus

I am indebted to a couple of my Twitter chums, @BibleAlsoSays and @TheDudeDiogenes for provoking some thoughts that I thought worth sharing.  Just to give a bit of background, I have got the King James Bible on my Kindle.  I never used to read the Bible much.  For a start I am an atheist.  Also, in print form the type is rather small. And the layout is a bit weird.  Why do they have to number all the paragraphs?  I suppose it makes sense for reference purposes but it does make it hard work to actually read.  And there is another drawback to reading a printed copy of the Bible.  If you read it in public, well it makes you look a bit odd.

But having it on the Kindle has meant that I have taken to dipping into it at odd moments.  There is some good prose in it.  Genesis is quite moving if you can suspend disbelief.  It isn't as good as Paradise Lost or Lord of the Rings, but it isn't bad.  The Song of Solomon is quite a nice bit of writing.  Most of it is dull of course.  Has anyone in history ever actually read the Book of Numbers?  I know from writing this blog that coming up with decent content can be a problem, but frankly how does an inventory of state assets at a particular point in time get to be incorporated into a major religion's foundational text?

Another low point is the four Gospels.  Plodding plot, unbelievable characters and frankly rather unremarkable miracles build up to a reasonably dramatic ending when the main character meets an unpleasant end.  This is spoiled for me by the way it turns out he was a god all along and so isn't really dead after all.  It is a bit like all those Star Trek films where the main characters don't ever seem to stay dead for very long.

But aside from the gospels, there are some good bits in the New Testament.   I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Saint Paul.  This is a bit surprising because I read him specifically because he was being quoted by some intolerant bigots to justify their intolerant bigotry in an online forum I was following.  It turned out that the man himself was a lot more palatable. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" is pretty much as good a rebuke to those who condemn others without showing them compassion as it is possible to frame in English.

What I hadn't noticed until my friends on Twitter pointed it out, is how rarely Paul refers to the well known stories about Jesus.  Now I haven't read everything by Paul in the Bible, so I am taking what @BibleAlsoSays on trust.  His tweet says "Question: Why doesn't Paul (or any other early epistles) mention anything in the Gospel Story, not even the empty tomb?"  This is consistent with everything by Paul I have read so I am going to assume it is true - nobody has contradicted it on Twitter as far as I can see.

Now this is an intriguing thing isn't it?  One of the leading figures in setting up Christianity, whose letters are so significant that they get included in the holy book, somehow barely mentions the resurrection explicitly?  Considering how central this supernatural event is to Christianity it is a most curious omission.  Is it possible those bits were stuck in later?

I wonder if when the Bible was being sorted out at the Council of Nicea early in the fourth century they looked at the gospels and decided they needed something to beef it up a bit. They alighted on the work of Paul which fitted the bill nicely, with no doubt a few modifications.  Like for instance, a miraculous conversion?   That would handily explain away any previous writings that might turn up that contradicted the party line.  Thinking along the same lines, what is it with that change of name business?  How many other people changed their names when they changed religion? (Actually one of the things that puts me off a sudden conversion in the style of St Paul is that I might need to change my first name.  I quite like being called Colin.   Polin sounds a bit odd.)

Of course altering one letter of a name is a great way of quickly and easily re-attributing somebody's work.  In an age where the idea of plagiarism hadn't arisen and where there was no such thing as copyright it would not be a particularly difficult thing to do to steal someone's intellectual property and use it for purposes which the author had never conceived of.  And this is hardly conspiracy theory stuff.  Biblical scholars agree that at least some of the writing attributed to Paul in the Bible was actually written by someone else. Editing in a few references to Jesus in the actual Paul material doesn't seem particularly unlikely. 

A religion is a lot more than just a book of course.  In fact The Book is not even the most important bit of it.  The organisation and the traditions are way more important, and it is the constant repetition of the rituals and the social pressure that really hold the whole thing together and keep it going.  I am sure there are plenty of Christians who never read the Bible, and those that do seem totally unfazed by the discrepancies between what is written and what is actually practised.  Protestants and Catholics don't even use the same Bible.  If the Bible seems to have been bodged together when they realised they needed to standardise the writings, well that is the way these things tend to develop.

We don't have the original documents on which the Bible is based so this all has to be pure speculation.  But I wonder if the historical Paul's beliefs were anything like those of the Christians who now use his writing as a key part of their faith.  He might well have had some very different views.  In fact, I wonder if he was in reality even a Christian?