Apostle Paul spent his last years in prison, years that saw the rejection of his collection, dismissal by his brethren, his standing trial and beheading by Rome. He was transported by cavalry and kept under Roman guard to be protected from assassins, the High Priest and even the brethren he deemed “False.” His message was largely in dispute or rejected outright, and he was not accepted as a legitimate Apostle. Yet his Church legacy would later read as nothing short of miraculous and heroic. Should we be suspicious?
Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem sometime in the late 50s, 1st Century, as documented in his Letters and in the Book of Acts, was to deliver a collection to his fellow Apostles, including the leader of the church, James the brother of Jesus. Scholars estimate that the collection took five to seven years and cost him a lot of grief. Once Paul and his Gentile followers arrived in Jerusalem, James, rather than embrace and accept the collection, asked him to take the money to the Temple. Once there as Acts relates, Paul was falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the Jewish section of the Temple, grabbed by a mobbed and almost killed until he was rescued by a Roman Tribune and hundreds of armed men. He was momentarily taken to a jail nearby, but because of fear for his life, he was whisked away under the dark of night. No support came from the other Apostles. Over forty assassins took a vow not to eat until Paul was dead, and they followed his route down to Caesarea, more than 75 miles away. There, after trials in the Roman courts, he was finally able to appeal to Caesar. And that in Acts is where the story ends.
For the average churchgoer, the Paul you encounter on the cathedral steps or stained glass windows is quite a triumphant figure. But for historians and biblical scholars alike there’s a reason to question that view. John Barclay says “You think, “well, maybe that collection didn’t succeed in its job.” If it had, Luke had good reason to say so, so maybe the collection was not accepted, as Paul feared it would not be accepted.” For a historian, that sows the seed of suspicion.” Why would a supposed agreed upon good-will offering be rejected by fellow Apostles? Why would Paul who began with such promise end in such despair? And what happened to his former relationships in the Church? Or his message? Luke Timothy Johnson in his The Acts of the Apostles suggests, “The scene [Acts 21] between Paul and Jerusalem leaders (especially James) is even on its own terms somewhat odd. But when we read it against the backdrop of the information provided in Paul’s Letters concerning his planned trip to Jerusalem, puzzlement deepens. Was he, possibly, even set up?” The Jewish establishment wanted him dead and the Romans thought he was enough of a menace to be kept behind bars.
There are no definitive answers but there are usually two types of responses to this mystery. It depends on one’s view of the reliability of the Bible, namely the Book of Acts, as history. Some will dismiss all of it as nonhistory and think what they want. Believers in the inerrancy of the Bible will seek a new spiritual meaning. Yet from Paul’s Letters themselves it is clear that Paul is in conflict for most of his ministry and his legitimacy constantly challenged. The very purpose of his Letters was to fend off competing Apostles bent on misleading his flock. We know from Paul’s own words that he rebuked Peter and spoke mockingly of James and John. He accused them at times of diluting his inclusive gospel message. We know that the collection was agreed to in part to resolve a dispute with the mother Church at the Temple. New testament scholar Raymond Brown adds, “thus the collection may have played a spiritual, ecclesiological, and diplomatic function in Paul’s ministry—a sampling of the complicated roles that raising money has played in churches ever since.”
So, why the lack of Paul’s ending in Acts? Paula Fredriksen, a Pauline scholar. points out that we see history in reverse, not in the way it is lived. And the Bible is played out in a series of progressive phases. Paul’s life and writings happened at a much earlier point in Church history than the Book of Acts (and even later, the Gospels). And in Paul’s own words, his encounter with Christ and radical new gospel was something he reluctantly brought to the other Apostles. He was not embraced, and after some time their reasons to hold together his Gentile mission with the core Jewish believers in Jerusalem came apart. The collection, which began as an offering to keep the two factions in the same movement, was to be symbolic of that unity. Paul would show honor in his support of Jerusalem and, in return, the Jewish Apostles would embrace Paul’s Gentile converts. In his book of Romans, written before his final trip to Jerusalem, he is fearful of what he will find when he returns
Back to our story. Paul arrives with the collection and instead of acceptance he finds himself accused and thrown into prison. The trial was to determine his guilt or was it? What was the public disturbance of which he was accused? What was the nature of the collection? And why was Paul saved at all? He was saved because Paul was a Roman citizen. He would not have survived this ordeal otherwise. It was only Roman protection that allowed him to escape the mob, be protected in prison and to be given a trial. The high priest in Jerusalem, Ananias pleaded for Paul to be returned and tried amongst the awaiting assassins. So, it appears Paul had a case to make. Romans did not care about theological matters, though they enacted Jewish laws when it came to the Temple. They did not think he was guilty and pondered how they would reach a verdict.
While we cannot know all of the intricate details, we can conclude that Paul was not accepted by the early Church. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, who was professor at École Bibliotiche in Jerusalem, opined about his time in prison: “Paul must have lived in fear that he would be handed back to the Jewish authorities. This was incentive for him not to push too hard for a decision. At the same time he must have hoped desperately for some news from the outside, and in particular concerning the fate of the collection. And what had happened to his companions? Had his and James’ plan been carried through after the situation in Jerusalem quieted down? Paul got no answers, and the weary days dragged on interminably under Porcius Felix.”
At that time, two major political factors were in play: the pressure applied by Rome on the Jewish people in Jerusalem that forced less integration and more solidarity, and the Jewish War in 70 AD, which destroyed the city, sending Jews, now without a Temple home, into the diaspora.
Paul when he wrote before the war aimed at a largely Jewish milieu, Luke wrote postwar and to a Roman patron, trying to make sense of the Christian conflicts without also exposing the severe ethnic strife or putting the blame on Roman corruption. The promotion of his faith would not seem legitimate if the main proponent was rejected by the first followers, or if the early movement was defined by a schism. Ironically, it is Paul’s Letters outside Jerusalem in the Gentile community that survived and would be bundled and circulated and serve as the core content that would later become the canon of the New Testament.
As to Paul’s truest identity, we look dimly into the past, but we do know he was leading not following the early development of Christian thinking, and for that he suffered. We also know that Paul was a Roman citizen treated with all the rights that came with that status. In that sense, he was a syncretic thinker and prime mover of the Messianic message from Jerusalem out to the Western World. His genius was in his modern, transformative message that embraced all humanity, “Jew and Greek.” In the end, perhaps his trial, like that of Socrates before him, was symbolic of his very appeal for a new vision, an understanding of Messiah that included the belief in a new kingdom for all, without pain or suffering. And it was that wishful kingdom that was on trial and is still on trial today.