Bumping into St Paul

We are privileged that we will have travelling with us on our pilgrimage ‘In the steps of St Paul’, Dr Mark Vernon.  Mark is well known as a broadcaster, speaker and writer who has done a great deal in seeking to make philosophy accessible.  His books on philosophy, love and the good life have a great deal to contribute to contemporary spirituality.  During our journey Mark will be setting the Greek philosophical scene into which Paul travelled and which he encountered particularly in Athens.  Here he begins his reflections as he muses on the person in whose footsteps we will be travelling.

What would it have been like to meet Paul as he travelled around Greece? What might he have looked like? Would the encounter have been memorable? We can never know for sure, of course, but speculating is possible. And the hints and suggestions about his appearance and character are surprisingly revealing of the man we seek to follow on pilgrimage.

Luke makes several references to Paul that suggest the writer of Acts likened Paul to a Cynic philosopher. The Cynics were the shock-jocks of the ancient world. They felt that human problems arise from blindly following conventions: you can be free, said their founder Diogenes, if you live like a dog (hence their name, as “cynic” probably comes from the Greek for dog).

When you need a bed, curl up in the sun. When you need some food, nature will provide. Don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have worries enough for itself. Actually, Jesus said that, of course – though Jesus too has been likened to the Cynics by some New Testament scholarship.

If it seems a bit farfetched to think that Luke used Cynic sources to imagine Paul, consider this portrait of the ideal philosopher, recorded by his near-contemporary, Epictetus.

The ideal philosopher is unmarried, and recommends the single life, so as not to distract from the “service of God”, Epictetus said. He follows his conscience rather than political or religious authority. He is kind-hearted to the extent of taking on the troubles and physical hardships of others. He can expect to be “beaten like an ass”, though he must love those who beat him. He is an “enslaved leader”, responsible only to God, not the masses. His friends and followers will be equally dedicated to his calling. He will be free, regarding God’s will as better than his own. He will be despised and praised, desired and derided, a slave unto death.

Remind you of anyone? This is the man, Paul, whom we follow.

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If that speaks of an awkward yet compelling character, what of his actual looks? They too might have been unsettling yet alluring. The iconographic tradition suggests that Paul was thin in the face, had a dark beard, large eyes, a monobrow, bandy legs, and was strong but short of stature. In fact, the name “Paul” may be a pun on the Greek for “short”.

According to the scholar Abraham Malherbe, many of these features seem to pick up on another ancient Greek image, that of the hero, Heracles. So what might be the link between Paul and Heracles?

Well, there is a strong association between the hero and Paul’s hometown, Tarsus. It was an important place in Asia Minor: the Greek historian, Strabo, said it rivalled Alexandria and Athens in cultural significance. You might imagine that Paul, travelling through Greece, would have played up his links with Tarsus. They might impress, or at least get him a hearing. So too the link with Heracles might have stuck in the remembrance of his appearance.

But there is a deeper association with Heracles. In the myth, Heracles is remembered for his great labours. So too Paul, in Acts and in his own letters. And further, Heracles’ labours included visiting the underworld, which is to say that in some sense, Heracles was thought to have conquered death.

Here we get to the heart of Paul’s message as he travelled around Greece. His gospel is one of dying and rising, of being buried and reborn. New life, alongside the acceptance of struggle and suffering, is his driving agenda. Might this be the God-orientated man we seek to follow on pilgrimage? He’s not for the fainthearted, with his inner authority, tough kindness, arresting features, cultured background, and life-promising message. I, for one, yearn to know more.

Mark Vernon

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