As someone who loves the writings of Paul, I’ve been surprised by the resistance I’ve encountered when teaching Paul to adult Catholics. “He seems passive-aggressive,” said one student. “He’s rude!” said another. “I like what he says, but not how he says it,” chimed a third.
True, Paul may come on a little strong at times (Galatians and Second Corinthians offer plenty of examples), but let’s not forget his circumstances. Paul’s missionary life followed a pattern: Go to a new place. Preach the gospel. Establish a community. Move on to the next place. Paul kept strong ties with his communities, but he couldn’t be with them all the time. In his absence, their brand-new faith was regularly tested, often by other missionaries—some preaching what Paul called “another Jesus” and “a different gospel.
In response to such competitors (those he sarcastically called “superapostles”), Paul had only the power of the pen. Only through words could he convince his communities that the gospel he preached was true, that the death and resurrection of Jesus really were enough to change everything.
The “power of the pen” in the first-century Roman Empire meant the deft use of all kinds of flourishes and devices, and Paul was a pro at all of them. A master of diatribe and metaphor, he also knew his way around insults and flattery. He asked questions to which he wanted no answer. He delivered truth with mind-bending paradox.
As contemporary readers, we may sometimes be surprised by “how he says it.” But let’s hear it as Paul’s indomitable passion for the gospel, a bit of first-century tough love.