Road Scholar: St. Paul May Be Known as the "Apostle to the Gentiles," but His High Ideals Make Him an Apostle for Believers Today, Too: An Interview with Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor, O.P

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When you ask Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor why he studies St. Paul, you get a simple, down-to-earth answer: "He gave me my start, and that got me my job." The start was a doctoral thesis on Paul's approach to preaching, which eventually landed Murphy-O'Connor a position at Jerusalem's prestigious Ecole Biblique, where he has taught New Testament for the past 40 years while lecturing on every corner of globe as well.

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But if Paul got Murphy-O'Connor in the door, the Dominican priest has repaid the apostle in spades, writing a dozen books about Paul for both scholars and general readers.

Though he refers to Paul as "the theologian in the New Testament most relevant to the church today," Murphy-O'Connor also appreciates Paul's weaknesses: "I think Paul's personality was a difficult one," he says. "He could be very self-absorbed, but he saw that as total dedication to his mission."

You don't have to be a Bible scholar to get something out of Paul, argues Murphy-O'Connor. "People only need an expert like me for historical details or colorful background," he says. "Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they're perfectly capable of discerning religious truth themselves."

Despite Paul's importance, few know much about his life. What do we know about Paul?

We have two sources for Paul's biography: the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters. The first two chapters of Galatians tell us that Paul was a convert, spent three years in Damascus, had an important encounter with Peter, and then went off on his own missionary way.

Scholars call him Paul "of Tarsus," in modern Turkey. Was he really from there?

I don't think so. There's an important text by St. Jerome that says Paul was actually born in a small village in northern Galilee called Gischala. His family was swept up by the Romans after a rebellion following the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. Romans sold prisoners as slaves to cover the costs of war. Paul's family would have been sold to slave dealers, who would have taken their catch up and down the Mediterranean coast. Paul's family happened to be sold in Tarsus.

So Paul was a slave?

Yes, but how long that lasted we don't know. Slaves were not usually kept into old age. At around 35 or 40 they were released, because they would be eating more than they were producing. We don't know how old Paul was when he and his parents were freed, though he was probably a young man.

Paul's writing shows a lot of education. How could a slave have gotten so much schooling?

Slaves were often educated because that made them more valuable. It was cheaper and more secure to have your own slave manage your estate.

Modern readers associate slavery in the first century with slavery in the American South. There is absolutely no comparison. Slaves in the South were considered simple laborers, whereas in the ancient world, slaves could become very rich. Slaves could have their own slaves.

How did Paul end up in Jerusalem?

As a Jew Paul really didn't have much chance of progressing up the social ladder in Tarsus, so after he finished his education at about age 20, he might have done what many American Jews do today: go to Jerusalem to seek his roots.

In Jerusalem Paul had to make a choice between the different Jewish sects. There wasn't much political ferment at that time, about 15 A.D. The Zealots, who fought Roman occupation, didn't exist yet. The Sadducees, the priestly party, looked for wealthy conservative people and would have had no interest in Paul. The ascetic Essenes, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, avoided Jerusalem and lived in Qumran and in towns and villages.

That left the Pharisees, and Paul tells us explicitly that he became one. He would have lived in Jerusalem as a Pharisee until his conversion about 33 A.D., so he spent the best part of 15 years there. …