"God Created Saint Paul and Then Broke the Mold": An Interview with Joseph M. Callewaert, author of The World of Saint Paul | Ignatius Insight
Ignatius Insight: What inspired you to write a book about St. Paul?
Callewaert: First, Paul has always intrigued me. I read about him, of course, in the Acts of the Apostles—fascinating reading—which prompted me to go on to his Epistles. I tried to read them in French, English, Latin and Greek. And here I hit a wall.
I had a hard time following his argumentation, in my own French cartesian mind, with his peremptory affirmations and abrupt "diatribes". The succession of his arguments is not always clear in its logic and pertinence. For example why does his first Letter to the Corinthians presents us, besides great thoughts about the Cross and the Resurrection, exhortations on celibacy, marriage, pagan courts and food? Furthermore, to add to the confusion, he supports his affirmations with obscure quotations from the Old Testament taken from the Greek Septuagint and probably badly translated in English.
And so, for years, I struggled with my St. Paul, reading books about him and his "world", mostly in French but also in English, in German,consulting commentaries, improving my knowledge of Greek, until I could decipher this pharisian, a rock as hard as a precious stone, which the grace (kharis) of Christ has sculpted, respecting his nature, to create an amazing man of God, a religious genius, whose influence has not waned over all these centuries.
Second. It is really the world upside down.
Here we have this sect of followers of Jesus who insist he is the Messiah resuscitated and gone to heaven. Their leaders are Peter, the rock, who is starting to effectively occupy the central role and there is also John and James. John, the favorite disciple, could have occupied the second position but he is left discreetly in the shadow.
And what happens? It is Paul of Tarsus, who had not known Christ before the Ascension, that the same Jesus moves forward, presenting him as the "Apostle to the Nations".
He is immediately involved in controversy. You can see the hatred Paul arouses among his enemies, and tensions and misunderstandings he brings about among his co-workers and friends. The Apostle James (the son of Alpheus) or at least his entourage are concerned, for doctrinal reasons, about Paul's missionary activities. A serious disagreement with Barnabas breaks open on the subject of John-Mark and they separate forever, just before the second missionary journey. And there is the confrontation with Peter about the future of the mission to the Gentiles.
But if there was controversy, there were also many good friends whose friendship never wavered, mentioned by St. Paul in his Epistles (92 of them: 76 men and 16 women) and whose names are inscribed in the "Book of Life".
Third. Saint Paul is the favorite Saint of the Christian world.
Catholics celebrate him three times a year: his "conversion" (metanoia), on January 25, his feast with St. Peter on June 29 and the Dedication of the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, on November 18, together with that of the Basilica of St Peter.
As for many Protestants, St. Paul is definitely the one and only saint worth celebrating. They try to find in his Letters, especially Romans and Galatians, all the ammunition needed to personal justification by grace and faith alone, without the need of a Church.
Yet, if I confine myself to the Catholics only— the Catholics in the pews—I find that they know very little about St. Paul. They are left cold by the heavy treatises written for specialists that are not adapted to their needs. If they try on their own and read the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 15 to 28, which are interesting and easy enough), they hit a brick wall when they turn to the letters. They find them dense, difficult to understand, and as I mention above, a challenging mixture of high exhortations and practical admonitions.
So, they go back to their pews, a little more resigned, and wait for the preacher or for a book which can help.And so, as I say in the Preface of The World of Saint Paul, standing in the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura and pondering these thoughts and realizing that few books offer a style and format accessible to them, I decided to write just such a book.
Ignatius Insight: How long have you been studying the life of St. Paul? What sort of reading, travel, and study has that involved?
Callewaert: Reading: One day, a long time ago, when I was preparing an essay, one of my teachers told me: "When you write about an important subject, you should read everything that has been written about it." Well, in the matter of St. Paul, I couldn't follow his advice. There are simply too many books, doctorate dissertations, learned articles, brochures, pamphlets that have published on the subject.
But I tried mightily. I perused great works about him in French, Italian, German, Dutch, and of course English.
In French: There is quite a collection, the most important are mentioned in the "Bibliography" you will find at the end of the book.
In Italian, the great work of Giuseppe Ricciotti, San Paolo, Apostolo, which, I found out later, has been translated in English.
In German, quite a few ponderous studies, very gründlich und wissenschaftlich. Some of them outstanding like the five books Adolf von.Harnack has written about the Acts of the Apostles in which he proves after a minutious study of the language and the literary form, that the Acts were written by the same author, Luke, and that the works are of a historical value of the first order. I like Harnack, a Protestant, because, to this day, despite many attempts, his arguments have never been disproved. I wish also to mention Joseph Holzner's Paulus von Tarsus.
In Dutch: Th. van Tichelen, Paulus, de grootste Apostel, and F.J. de Waele, Uit de Geschiedenis van Korinthos. (I am fluent in Dutch.)
In English: One should not forget that The World of Saint Paul was written in French [Editor's note: titled L'Univers de l'Apôstre Paul, translated for Ignatius Press by Michael J. Miller]. However, quite a few works in the English language were consulted, among them: Bevan, The Legacy of Israel; Finley, Aspects of Antiquity; Freely, The Western Shores of Turkey; Landels: Engineering in the Ancient World; Peters, The Harvest of Hellenism; Rose, The Mediterranean in the Ancient World.
Travel. Although I have traveled all over the world, I never had the right opportunity to visit the Holy Land and other places visited by St. Paul andI regret it. But I consulted detailed maps, read the books of Ramsey, Morton, Freely in English and André and Baslez. Metzger, Pomey Reynier and Vasco in French.
I also viewed all documentariesabout the Holy Land, Syria, Anatolia (Turkey) Greece and, of course Rome which I know very well.
I am also an avid map reader and I spent hours on them,in the steps of Saint Paul.
Study. Most of my study was done in Paris, over several years. I was in contact with three Catholic groups.
Editions du Cerf. Publishers of the very good series "Lectio Divina" and center of an influential Catholic biblical and theological research center, as well as a Christian library. They also publish the collection Lire la Bible. They strongly influence sound Catholic thought in France.
Centre Sèvres. This Center groups the Philosophy and Theology Departments of the Jesuits in France. It is open to all other members of the clergy and religious orders as well as lay people with the proper credentials. They had to do so because vocations in the Jesuit Province are few and far between.
TheCenterhas a mixed reputation as far as Catholic orthodoxy is concerned.Some of the professors and academics have been sanctioned by Rome but the Center has avoided any confrontation with the Holy See.
The Center is intellectually very active and a force to reckon with. I had contacts with Chantal Reynier, professor Biblical Exegesis at the Center, who is very good and very orthodox.
Institut Catholique. A full-fledged University in the center of Paris, with 15,500 students, about 500 faculty professors and 11 associated schools with another 8,500 students. The Institut is very active in the departments of theology, philosophy and biblical languages. Biblical exegesis is not strong but this is compensated by a great "Bibliothèque d'Etudes Bibliques" with 45,000 books and 460 periodicals (260 active). Access to this library is easy and friendly. I had long, whispered conversations with frustrated exegetes who suppressed long yawns brought about, I surmise, by long hours of study, way into the night.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the more surprising things you've learned about St. Paul?
Callewaert: What surprised me in my work is that Paul kept true to his Jewish roots to the end. As he proclaimed incessantly: the advent of Christ is the fulfillment and not the overthrow of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.
Paul, to me, is the greatest religious genius the world has ever seen: God created him and then broke the mold. The Catholic Church knows this and in her liturgical year, as I mentioned, has set aside three feasts in his honor (Peter has two).
I am convinced that Paul is not the "inventor" of Christianity, for the following reasons:
His doctrine comes straight from the Old Testament and Judaism.
His Christology has its roots in the primitive Church of Jerusalem (see Acts 2 and 3).
The title Lord (Kyrios), encountered so frequently in his Letters, is of Palestino-Syriac origin.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit expressed by St. Paul has deep biblical roots.
The doctrine of justification developed in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians has its origin in Palestinian Judaism.
Another encouraging surprise: within the past thirty years the dominance of the historical-critical paradigm has been challenged from two different sources. One is the growing appreciation for the history of exegesis and the theological appreciation of the Bible understood as the book of the Church. The other is the "postmodern" interpretation of man, his language and philosophy, although coming from asecular point of view, calls into question many assumptions of critical exegesis and suggests sympathy with the themes of the "pre-modern" Christian tradition.
Together these developments have created a new openness for a new engagementwith the exegetical writings ofthe Church Fathers, Scholastics, and even reformers.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the most popular misunderstandings or misrepresentations of St. Paul's life and thought?
Callewaert: Here are the most notable misrepresentations:
As mentioned earlier: "Paul is the "Inventor" or Founder of Christianity.
Paul is misogynistic.
Paul is intolerant.
He isthe source of anti-semitism.
He is a dualist, with his theory of flesh opposed to the Spirit.
Paul is an authoritarian imposing his own ideas on the Christian communities, not only in questions of faith but horresco referens in matters of morals!
Ignatius Insight: Do you have a favorite work or passage by the Apostle Paul?
Callewaert: My favorite reading is the Letter to the Philippians, in the beautiful Latin translation of St. Jerome. The Epistle is serene, full of joy. The Philippians have never been a source of anxiety for Paul, they have supported him financially and have always been ready to help.
I love the Maranatha, God is at hand (Phil. 4:4-5) which St. Jerome in his admirable style translates: Gaudete in Domino semper. Iterun dico: Gaudete. Modestia vestrasit nota ab omnibus hominibus. Dominus prope. [Marana tha]. Or in the original Greek: "Khairete en kyrioi pantote, palin erô, khairete. To epieeikès umôn gnôsthô pasin anthôpois. Okyrios eggus."
Also see: "In These Last Days" | Joseph M. Callewaert | The opening chapter of The World of Saint Paul.
The World of Saint Paul
by Joseph M. Callewaert
The World of Saint Paul -- Electronic Book Download
Joseph Callewaert's engaging work on St. Paul reads like a novel. With inviting, even dramatic, prose, it recounts the story of the great Apostle to the Nations. This is no dry tome or ponderous biography. Nor is its subject a "safe" historical figure, irrelevant to the issues of today: St. Paul remains controversial.
Some scholars claim he "invented" Christianity. They believe his message radically departed from what Jesus taught. The Christian faith, so the claim runs, is the creation of Paul's religious experience, not the doctrine of Jesus. Callewaert rejects this theory, as do many other scholars. His interpretation rests on the Bible and the abiding tradition of the ages, rather than tendentious theories or ideologically-motivated revisions.
Yet Callewaert's work is no anti-scholarly screed. The World of Saint Paul provides a popular, yet expert account of the Apostle and his age. For those who know little about St. Paul--which includes many Christians--it is a superb introduction.
"In my presentation of St. Paul, I have tried to absorb the spirit of his epoch as far as I could, and put less trust in the present-day judgments than in the abiding traditions of the ages. If I have perhaps evoked a little too much history and pursued rather too long a road in regions so rich with a past, I have always made sure to trace a path which brings us back to this intrepid and tenacious Jew who will steadily appear in stark relief." -- From the Preface
Joseph M. Callewaert, Knight Commander of the French Order of Merit, was born in Belgium and educated in France. Now a U.S. citizen, he lives in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where he enjoys life as an ardent historian of St. Paul the Apostle. He has written delightful travelogues about undiscovered France as well as Lights out for Freedom, a retelling of his youthful experiences of living in Belgium during 52 months of Nazi occupation.
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