Discovering St. Paul's World

Interview With Author Joseph Callewaert

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By Kathleen Naab

GULF BREEZE, Florida, MARCH 8, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Paul is arguably the favorite saint of the Christian world, yet the average Catholic probably finds his writings difficult to understand.

Joseph Callewaert was one of those who struggled to make sense of Paul, but this only added to his interest in the Apostle, and eventually, it bore fruit in "The World of Saint Paul," just released from Ignatius Press.

In this interview with ZENIT, Callewaert recounts the beginning of his fascination with the Apostle to the Gentiles, and how Paul became for him "a friendly presence, a man you want to walk with in his missionary journeys throughout the Greco-Roman world."

ZENIT: You explain in the introduction your inspiration for writing this book. Can you share that with our readers?

Callewaert: First. Paul has always intrigued me. I read about him, of course, in the Acts of the Apostles and then went on to the Epistles. And there I hit a wall.

I had a hard time following his argumentation with his peremptory affirmations and abrupt "diatribes." The succession of his arguments is not always clear in its logic and pertinence. Furthermore, to add to the confusion, Paul 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" and consulting commentaries, until I could decipher this rabbi, this amazing man of God, a religious genius, whose influence has not waned over all these centuries.

Second. It is 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.

James is busy taking care of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

And what happens? It is Saul of Tarsus, who had not known Christ before the Ascension, that the same Jesus moves forward, making him, the enemy, the "Apostle of the Nations."

He is immediately involved in controversy. You can see the hatred Paul arouses among his enemies and the tensions and misunderstanding among his coworkers and friends, up to the end.

Third. Paul is the favorite saint of the Christian world.

Catholics celebrate him three times a year: his "conversion," metanoia, on Jan. 25, his feast with St. Peter on June 29, and the Dedication of the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura on Nov. 18, together with that of of the Basilica of St. Peter.

As to the Protestants, and for their own purposes, St. Paul is definitely the one and only saint worth celebrating. They find in his Letters, especially Romans and Galatians, all the ammunition needed for personal justification by grace, without the need of a Church.

Yet, if I confine myself to the Catholics -- the mainstream ones, the ones in the pews -- I find that they know very little about him. They are rebuked by the heavy treatises written for specialists and not adapted to their needs. When they try on their own, they find the Letters dense and difficult to understand, as was also my experience. Finally, they go back to their pews, a little more resigned, and wait for the preacher or for a book that could help.

And so, standing in the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, pondering these thoughts and realizing that few books offer a style and format accessible to them, I decided to write just such a book.

ZENIT: So this is a biographical novel or a textbook? Or something in between?

Callewaert: This is a book about St. Paul and certainly not a "novel" in the sense that it would be a "fictitious tale." But it reads like a novel!

In fact, it is a well-researched book about St. Paul with emphasis on the Hellenistic world of the first century A.D., in which he lived. It is addressed, as I mention in the preface, to a mainstream audience of Catholics and Christians. The goal is to introduce them to the life and times and works of this great Apostle and, through him, to the Bible and to our Lord Jesus Christ.

The book is easy to read and understand, concise in its 200 pages. It can be read and discussed, chapter by chapter, at Bible classes and would certainly make an excellent textbook. The detailed maps of Paul's journeys and the towns he visited should be a great visual help.

ZENIT: Your book paints scene after scene of Paul’s environment -- almost like a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Judging from your experience, how important is it to approach St. Paul with greater knowledge of his world?

Callewaert: No person in this world is born in a vacuum. From day one he is part of a family and greatly influenced by it. He then grows in surroundings influenced by a local or broader culture. This environment, in great part, will slowly mold his mind, his character, his preferences, his prejudices -- not totally, of course, because any human being will in the end grow into a personality totally unlike any other since the beginning of the human race.

In the case of Paul, it is necessary for anyone who wants to know him to learn as much as possible about him. He was a Jew born in Tarsus, in eastern Anatolia -- now Turkey, a town steeped in Hellenistic culture. He was from a family of devout Pharisees. He was immersed in the Jewish religion but also had close contact with representatives of Greek wisdom. He wields the Greek language as someone who absorbed it from his earliest youth. This explains why later he could be, at the same time, deeply faithful to his Jewish faith and a most dynamic "Apostle to the Nations."

Paul was also born in a time when the "Pax Romana" reigned over the Empire extending from the British Isles to the Euphrates. The roads he walked were relatively secure. His Letters sent by messenger could arrive without much delay; they were almost always written by a scribe on papyrus or parchment. Paul, with his rough tentmaker's hands, probably could not hold a scratchy pen. In season, a good network of shipping lanes was available and he used it frequently. The boats were small, slow and rather fragile -- four shipwrecks! -- but they did the job. At every destination, Paul could count on the Jewish community or business acquaintances to find help and a place to start his missionary activities. The Empire was an oikoumenè.

Troops were shuttled from the Rhine to the Danube to the Orontes and back; merchants traveled it from end to end and, in their wake, dedicated people such as Paul were spreading Christianity.

We could go on and on... Suffice it to say that all these pieces of information placed together offer a broad picture in which Saul/Paul suddenly becomes a friendly presence, a man you want to walk with in his missionary journeys throughout the Greco-Roman world.

ZENIT: You express some distrust for present-day scholarship on St. Paul. Can you explain in what ways you find “biblical criticism” to have gone awry?

Callewaert: Biblical criticism is the scientific study and analysis of the human elements that have entered into the composition and interpretation of the Scriptures.

[Regarding] Catholic biblical criticism: This study has been encouraged and fostered by the Catholic Church. The two outstanding papal documents urging Catholic scholars to engage in a scientific study of the Bible are Pope Leo XIII's "Provendissimus Deus" (1893), and Pope Pius XII's "Divini Afflante Spiritu" (1943) and now, Pope Benedict's "Verbum Domini." In all biblical criticism, the Catholic Church insists on her scholars' recognizing that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and consequently may not be treated as merely a human piece of writing. Moreover the Church is the divinely authorized custodian and interpreter of sacred Scripture. Catholic scholars must therefore recognize that the Church's magisterium has the final word on the conclusions reached by critical criticism.

Against this we have a secular biblical criticism. Its proponents treat the biblical texts as natural rather than supernatural artifacts. It grew out of the rationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. It held sway for more than 200 years, in mostly Protestant circles but also with some fallen away Catholics. They were proposing "scientific" methods which, over the years, time and time again, were proven wrong and replaced with other theories based on other false and artificial standards. They flickered for a time like shooting stars and then volatilized in ethereal oblivion.

Today this biblical criticism is moribund. It is somewhat replaced by "postmodernism," which, left to itself, devolves into relativism, fragmentation, subjectivism, a trajectory that challenges the historic Christian understanding of language as a reliable medium of truth. Yet postmodernism unmasks the pretensions of an exaggerated confidence in reason that has shaped the historical-critical method of studying the Bible. A person cannot presume to possess authoritative and fail-safe methods to deliver impersonal truths. In this sense, postmodernism calls for us to recognize our limitations, our finitude.

ZENIT: The Pope’s most recent major document, "Verbum Domini," is a call to study the Word of God. Do you consider your book a contribution to this?

Callewaert: In my own humble way, I would say: Yes! And my readers might echo this affirmation by making this work a great success and a meaningful contribution to the study of the Word of the Lord!

I offer this reflection from St. John Chrysostom (347-407), father of the Church: "As I keep hearing the epistles of the blessed Paul, and that twice every week, and often three or four times, I get roused and warmed with a desire at recognizing the voice so dear to me and seem to fancy him all but present in my sight and behold him conversing with me. But I grieve and am pained that all people do not know this man as they ought to know him."