Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1
Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.
We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.
But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.
When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ,” did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.
Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today (Brandon Gaille.com). Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2
Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?
Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?
Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?
We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.
The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.
But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.
That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.
There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.
He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.
There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.
In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”
Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”
He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”
This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.