While the Gospels are highly unreliable as history, the book of the New Testament known as the Acts of the Apostles does contain a historical core, though heavily coloured by the needs of Christian propaganda. Nevertheless, when studied alongside the Qumran documents, Acts provides an interesting picture of the struggles between the leaders of the early Church and Paul, and how the backward looking ultra-orthodox Jewish sect of early Christianity gave way to the expansionist Pauline Christianity.
From the Acts we get a remarkably vivid picture of the personality of Paul -urbane, innovative, energetic and pragmatic - a propagandist of genius rather than a devout or even a religious man. Clearly, the author of the Acts - Luke, the 'beloved physician' - was a narrator of no mean ability. At the same lime it raises some serious questions about the actual role played by Paul - whether he was acting in the interests of the Roman Empire of which he was a privileged citizen, and possibly, also an agent.
The story of Paul's conversion is well known. By the time the narrative of the Acts begins, Jesus is no longer on the scene, but there is an interesting contradiction. The members of the early Church still congregate at the Temple, though the Gospels make much of the fact that Jesus was implacably opposed to the Temple and its officials; they even make him throw tantrums. At first Paul is shown as being openly hostile to the teachings of Jesus and his followers - the early Christians. It is not necessary to go into the martyrdom of Stephen - the first Christian martyr - though the passage abounds in Qumranic expressions as a comparison with the published corpus of Qumran texts shows.58
(We have already seen that according to some Biblical scholars - Robert Eisenman in particular, this actually refers to the attack on James led by Paul himself. This would of course have happened somewhat later, which the author of the Acts has located in the beginning to suit his propaganda purpose.)
Paul makes his appearance at this juncture, though his role is not entirely clear. He is described as being a fierce opponent of the early Church whose members he persecutes. The implication is that he is persecuting the Christians (and Stephen) on the orders of the High Priest of the Temple. This, we shall soon see, is part of the growing Church mythology of Jewish persecution of Christians, though, through most of history it has been the other way. There is no historical record of any Jewish persecution of Christians; it has always been an unsupported charge and a pretext used by Christians in their relentless persecution of the Jews. In any case, this is what the Bible has to say about Paul's behavior immediately after Stephen's martyrdom. At this stage, Paul is still known as Saul.
And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women and committed them to prison.
Paul, or Saul must have had a strong detachment of soldiers under him, to make a 'havoc of the church, entering into every house, and ha[u]ling men and women' and imprisoning them. This apparently had the effect of dispersing them far and wide, and the Christians 'were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.' (Acts 8.4)
Then comes the story of Paul's conversion. According to Acts 9 he is on his way to Damascus to enforce the authority of the High Priest on the Christians in that city. Again the implication is that the High Priest of Jerusalem is persecuting Christians not only in Jerusalem but also Damascus. But here, the chronicler of the Acts slips up in his zeal to assign more blame to the Jews. Damascus lies in Syria, not Palestine, which in Roman times were different provinces. The High Priest of Jerusalem had no authority to send Paul or anybody else to Syria to punish the Christians. The only conclusion I can draw from all this is that Paul was on his way to Damascus not as an agent of the Jewish High Priest, but of Imperial Rome.
Then there is something else that seems to have received little notice: Paul, though born a Jew, was a Roman citizen with contacts at the highest levels of the empire. It does not seem plausible that he would be working in a position subordinate to the High Priest of Jerusalem. In my reading of both the Acts and the Qumran texts, I have been led to conclude that he was acting as an agent of the Romans and not of the High Priest, though the two may have co-operated to help
58 It is interesting to observe how the Christian Church positively revels in martyrdom though it has probably been responsible for more violent deaths than any other institution in history. This record is discussed in more detail in Chapter VI. This feature was later borrowed by Islam.
control the turbulent Zealots - or the early Christians. To return to the conversion of Paul, on his way to Damascus, he is struck by a blinding light and faints. As the Bible tells us, in what is surely the most famous passage in the Acts. and second only to the Sermon on the Mount in the whole of the New Testament:
And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest.
And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he any of this way, whether were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven.
And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him. "Saul, Saul, why doest persecutest thou me?"
And he said, "Who art thou, Lord?" And the Lord said, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. "
And after this extraordinary experience, Paul is anointed the bearer of the message of Jesus, "for he is the chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel. " (Acts 9.15) Paul uses this story and claims to be the 'chosen vessel' of Jesus in trying to enlist people for his cause. One is struck by the vividness of the passage and its force of expression. It is possible to see that Paul must have been an eloquent and persuasive speaker in an age when oratory was a highly valued art.
As for the substance of the passage, as I already pointed out, Paul could not be going to Damascus as a minion of any High Priest of Jerusalem whose writ did not run in Syria. He could only have been acting on behalf of the authorities in Rome, trying to defuse tensions created at the instigation of the Zealots and their leaders.
As for Paul being struck by a 'light from heaven' - many explanations have been offered including epileptic seizure and sunstroke, with most scholars opting for the sunstroke. There is however a simpler explanation. Paul was struck with a brilliant idea: of how he could neutralize the spreading influence of the militant early Church by hijacking it - turning it into an expansionist ideology along the lines of the Roman Empire, but using the name of Christ or Messiah. This would be entirely natural, for the Qumranians - the early Christians that is - were themselves a messianic sect. Through this device Paul sought to subvert the threat and turn it into an agent of the Roman Empire itself. In other words, he had a brain-wave - one of the most fateful and fruitful brain-waves in history. This was the brilliant light he saw, at least as I read it.
This now fits in nicely with the rest of the Acts. Upon conceiving this plan, Paul hurriedly returns to Jerusalem to convince the Zealots of the wisdom of his new doctrine. The essence of it is the abandonment of the Law and the prophets in favour of a simple 'Faith in Jesus Christ'. This suggests that despite being born a Jew, Paul did not know too much about the religious sensibilities of his co-religionists; those who 'burned with zeal for the Law' could hardly be expected to fall in line with his undeniably pragmatic plan by abandoning their all-important Law of Moses! This is enough to make one wonder if Paul was really a Jew or only a Roman agent pretending to be one. Perhaps he was both.
But Paul is nothing if not practical. He joins the Church in Jerusalem (with James as its leader), remaining a member of the community for three years. Whether he was at Jerusalem all these three years or at Qumran is unclear; probably he spent time at both. He fails in his mission to become a member, and is sent away to
Tarsus, his hometown. The Qumran elders must have regarded Paul as a hopeless case who could not be turned into a fully-fledged Zealot. As Eusebius tells us (in a passages cited earlier), they regarded Paul .. an apostate from the Law." His banishment to Tarsus was only natural.
Paul then makes several trips including at least one to Antioch, trying to enlist the early Christians to his newly crafted doctrine. He is still working within the established Church of Jerusalem headed by James, the 'Lord's brother'. James is unhappy with Paul for teaching what he regards with justification as a heretical doctrine. Since early Christianity was a resurrection of Judaism in its most fundamentalist form, Paul with his liberalizing ideas must be regarded as the first Christian heretic. But it was the heresy of Paul that came to flourish as Christianity, while the early Christianity of the founding fathers of Qumran perished in the Jewish Wars. What Paul was propagating was in fact a heresy of an extreme hue that had nothing to do with the teachings of early Christianity. He beseeches them:
For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlely, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
So Paul accuses James and his followers of preaching a gospel of a different Jesus that he does not approve of! So we not only have different Christs, but even competing Jesuses! What are we to make of the phrase 'preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached?' Does this mean that Jesus was simply a symbolic expression used in sermons and not any historical person? This receives some support from the Qumran texts themselves. Eisenman and Wise observe:
The use of the noun Yesha or the verbal noun Yeshu'ato ('His Salvation') is fairly widespread in Qumran and much underrated. One finds expressions such as these in two important contexts in the Damascus Document: viii. 43 relating to 'God Fearers' - 'until God reveals Righteousness and Salvation to those who fear His Name' -and viii. 57 relating to 'not rejecting the Laws of Righteousness', 'listening to the voice of the Teacher of Righteousness' '"
The personification of this concept in the Gospel presentation of the Messianic events in Palestine in the first century can in this light be considered a most revolutionary development and one that has not ceased exercising its influence on mankind even now. (pp. 243-44, emphasis added.)
The same idea occurs in other Qumran texts than the Damascus Documents - in the War Scrolls and some Qumranian Hymns. One can see that Paul had ample materials to draw upon from which to create his version of Jesus. In the process he did away with the Law. The deeper we look in the Bible, and now the Scrolls, the more inconsistencies we find, and the personality of Jesus turns increasingly shadowy.
Paul was clearly gaining confidence with his new doctrine. Then there is the amazing passage:
I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service.
What are we to make of it? Does it mean thai Paul was already on his way to creating a new Gospel and a mythical Jesus - a symbol drawing upon various sources (robbing 'other churches') to support his radically new doctrine? Is this an admission of the faCI that his version of Jesus was a composite based on Qumranian sources? Thai Paul was not above fabrication to suit his purpose is clear upon even a cursory reading of his epistles. He was the man who after all gave the dictum: "I am made all things to all men." And this is what Paul himself says:
I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile.
And the Church has followed in Paul's footsteps ever since. A fact that should never be lost sight of is that where James and other members of the early Church saw themselves as preservers of the hoary traditions of Judaism, Paul was a politically ambitious man bent on expansion. His main goal was to attract a large following. For this he needed a new theology free from the rigidity of orthodox Judaism to make it easy for the Gentiles too to join his movement. Not for him the confining vision of the Jews as the 'chosen people' tied down by the Law. In all this, Paul comes out as more of a Roman politician than a Jewish religious leader.
The Acts then continues with the adventures of Paul. His teachings now have nothing to do with the beliefs of the early Church; if anything they contradict the most fundamental of its tenets. He returns to Jerusalem where the Church leaders express their displeasure at his preaching of his new doctrine that is in complete violation of the Law. Paul, though undoubtedly eloquent, was probably not moderate in speech or manner. He was after all a child of privilege. A riot soon ensues. The infuriated mob cries out for his blood.
And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, "Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live."
And as they cried out, and cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air.
But somehow, mysteriously, Roman soldiers arrive on the scene and spirit Paul away. But before leaving Paul infuriates the mob further by making a highly provocative speech. It is of little interest to us here, but what follows in the Acts is revealing, showing Paul's high standing in the Roman world. When a centurion - an officer commanding a hundred Roman soldiers - tries to interrogate him under torture, Paul pulls him up.
Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned? "
When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, "Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. " Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, "Tell me art thou a
And the chief captain answered, "With a great sum obtained I this freedom." And Paul said, "But I was free born. "
That apparently was enough for the chief captain, and from then on Paul does pretty much as he pleases showing complete familiarity with Roman law and procedures. But soon a plot is hatched for his assassination. These again are the Zealots - the early Christians, that is - implacably opposed to Paul who probably does not realize the magnitude of his offence against the Law. In their eyes he is an apostate, one who has been admitted into their community, now preaching his own heretical doctrine against the sacred Law and the prophets. It is an unforgivable sin for which the only punishment is death. But the Roman soldiers - his escort - seem to get wind of it, and Paul is packed off to Rome, presumably to explain his record. It is a measure of the importance of Paul that he is given an escort of 470 soldiers, including cavalry! He is no ordinary man - this Saul of Tarsus.
Along the way Paul suffers a shipwreck, and soon after the Acts abruptly breaks off (except for a contrived ending). Paul disappears from history and we know nothing of his later years. There are of course all sorts of tales including the one about he and Peter being crucified in Rome under Nero's orders. This is not believable. For one, Peter was a founding father of the 'early Church' of the Qumranian Zealots, unlikely to have any truck with Paul and his heresy. It is simply another expression of Christianity's insatiable appetite for martyrs.
As I indicated earlier, all these stories about Roman persecution have to be examined in their proper historical setting - in the light of the political struggles between the Zealots and Rome that erupted in the war of AD 66-74. It has little to do with Pauline Christianity. We can no longer afford to ignore this important distinction - between the early Church of Jerusalem and the later Church of Pauline Christianity. At the cost of repetition, it must be emphasized that the Church today is the successor to the Roman Empire after its subversion by Pauline Christianity, and not the early Church of Jerusalem which perished in the Jewish Wars.
Also, the urbane and resourceful Paul somehow does not strike one as the kind of person who would do something foolish enough to get himself crucified by the Romans. It is not the end of the story however; as I previously mentioned, Paul, his ally the High Priest Ananus, along with James himself, are recorded in a Qumran text known as the' Habakkuk Commentary'. In this we find a 'Teacher of Righteousness' defending the Law against the Wicked Priest and a former member of the Qumran community now turned a Liar. The Habakkuk Commentary refers to a 'Lying Spouter' who 'rejects the Law in the midst of the whole Congregation.' And the 'Community Rule', another Qumran text speaks of a 'son of Darkness' with a 'blaspheming tongue.' This, according to Eisenman. culminated in the murder of James.
Who could it be? The' Lying Spouter' is guilty of precisely the kind of things that Paul was charged with by James and other members of the early Church. (The 'Wicked Priest' was in all probability Ananus the High Priest of Jerusalem mentioned by Josephus.) So here is one more link between the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls - greatly to the consternation of the International Team.
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