Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Saul of Tarsus

Reading N°9 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen
Juan de Juanes (1523-1579)
Those who stoned Stephen laid down their garments at the feet of a young man whose name was Saul, and who "was consenting to his death."[1] While Philip was evangelizing Samaria, "Saul, as yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked of him letters to Damascus, to the synagogues; that if he found any men and women of this way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem."[2]

He whom the Scripture here calls a young man may have been thirty years old.[3] The world has, perhaps, never known a more ardent soul. His incredible zeal had led him to defend, with unwearied animosity and perseverance, the purest Pharisaic traditions. He was born in a Hellenist center, Tarsus of Cilicia, of a father who was a Roman citizen. Yet he had been but slightly influenced by Greece and Rome. He was a Hebrew, the son of Hebrews; "a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees."[4] He himself said: "According to the most sure sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee."[5] Wholehearted as he was, he could not do things by halves. He accepted the whole system of minute prescriptions and complicated traditions which made the Pharisee's life a veritable slavery. Anyone who he thought was trying to harm that network or attenuate those traditions, he looked upon as a foe to be fought. It was probably in the synagogue of the Cilicians that he first heard the teachings of Christ and defended the cause of the Temple and the Law with that subtle argumentation which he owed to his teacher Gamaliel, in that vivacious, abrupt, impelling, incorrect, but remarkably forceful style which he seems to have acquired from life rather than from books or study, from his own soul rather than from the influence of a school or from the atmosphere of any country.[6]

Stephen's trial and execution, which Saul witnessed, unleashed his fury. In consequence of circumstances which we cannot precisely detail, but which the most elementary logic compels us to admit, Saul had not seen any of the wonderful things that occurred on Calvary, at the Resurrection, and on Pentecost. To his biased mind, the accounts which he heard of those events no doubt struck him as absurd fables and hateful inventions. In his eyes, Stephen was an impostor or a fool. At any rate, the Christians were foes of the Pharisaic tradition and therefore must be exterminated at all cost. In his own later description of his religious fury, he compares himself to a wild beast on a rampage.[7] He is no longer satisfied merely to look on at the execution of a victim, but enters private houses and drags out the people living there, men and women, to cast them into prison. But soon, for want of victims, the persecution at Jerusalem died out. Therefore, Saul requested the high priest Caiphas[8] to commission him officially to seek out the Christians of Damascus and put them in chains. There God's grace was waiting for the ferocious persecutor.
As he went on his journey, it came to pass that he drew nigh to Damascus. And suddenly a light from heaven shined round about him. And falling on the ground, he heard a voice saying to him: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" Who said: "Who art Thou, Lord?" And He: "I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the goad." And he, trembling and astonished, said: "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" And the Lord said to him: "Arise, and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do."
The Conversion of St. Paul
Benvenuto Tisi (1481-1559)

Saul rose up, blind. He was led to Damascus, where the head of the Christian community there, Ananias, cured him, baptized him, and presented him to the asserrlbled brethren.

Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul
Jaen II Restout (1692-1768)

Such was the historically undeniable event which not only gave St. Paul to the Church, but exercised a considerable influence on the great Apostle's theology, and thereby on all Catholic theology.[9] Jesus, the crucified of Jerusalem, manifests Himself to Saul as a Being ever-living, and blames Saul for persecuting His Church: "Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" These two ideas - Christ ever-living and Christ identifying Himself with His Church - remained as two master thoughts in the Apostle's teaching and, through him, were transmitted into the teaching of the entire Church.[10]


[1] Acts 7:59.
[2] Acts 9:1 f.
[3] According to the ancients, one was spoken of as a "young man" until he reached thirty years of age. Old age began at 60. Between 30 and 60 was the ripe age. Cicero speaks of Antonius as a young man (adulescens) when the latter was thirty years old. (Second Philippic, 21.)
[4] Acts 23:6.
[5] Acts 26:5.
[6] "The smiling and majestic panorama of Tarsus seems to have left no trace in Paul's imagination. [...] Inanimate nature he views only in its relations to man. His realm is psychology." (Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 19 f.)
[7] Acts 8:3.
[8] Caiphas was not deposed until the year 36 by Vitellius, the governor of Syria. St. Paul's conversion must have taken place in 33. This date can be inferred from his Epistle to the Galatians, wherein we are told that he made his second journey to Jerusalem fourteen years after his conversion; but this journey must coincide with the famine that occurred about 47. In general, the chronology of the Apostolic age - from Christ's Passion to the fall of Jerusalem - has been a subject of countless studies. A summary of those investigations may be found in an article by Prat, "La Chronologie de l'age apostolique," published in the Recherches de science religieuse, 1912, p. 372. Brassac, on the basis of a recent discovery, published an article entitled, "Une inscription de Delphes et la chronologie de saint Paul," in the Revue biblique for January and April, 1923.
[9] "It is a well-known fact that Augustine's theology, and through Augustine that of St. Thomas, and through St. Thomas all Scholasticism, are derived by direct descent from the doctrine of St. Paul." (Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 17.)
[10] Prat, op. cit. pp. 50-62.


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