St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle by Karen Armstrong, book review

Karen Armstrong reveals her admiration for a man who refused to turn the other cheek

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In her first book on Paul, written over 30 years ago, Karen Armstrong revealed her admiration for a man who – to her relief – could “get angry instead of piously and inevitably turning the other cheek”. Clearly the years have not dimmed her enthusiasm for this grumpiest of Christian saints and her concise book deals smartly with the familiar criticisms.

There are plenty of those. Paul has had a bad rap for centuries. Mainly because Martin Luther justified his assault on Catholic doctrine by trawling through Paul's letters, the world's biggest Christian Church has not been much of a fan for the last 500 years. More recently, liberal Protestants have gone off Paul, too, for quite different reasons. They accuse him of both inventing and perverting Christianity at the same time – of replacing the original, free-spirited Jesus cult with something darker, more pessimistic and misogynistic. There are those incriminating quotes: women should shut up in church, slaves should obey their masters and people should only marry if they absolutely must.

Armstrong's defence of her man is two-fold. Like many scholars, she suspects that some of the more conservative statements in Paul's letters are later insertions, Pauline rather than coming from Paul himself, mainly because they jar so obviously with other things that he wrote. Her other point is that Paul's letters were not “timeless invocations” designed to apply universally down the centuries. They were not designed to be read out in a sonorous voice in church. They were on-the-spot answers to tricky local problems written by a man in a gigantic hurry; Paul was convinced that the world was about to end any second.

Her book is good at reminding us how wacky and disputatious those first churches were. In some, people were putting it about that spiritually, rebirth meant you could have sex with anyone. In others, conservative Jews were insisting that only Jews could join the new faith and everyone had to follow the Torah. If Paul seems to be blowing his top half the time, it was because these restless congregations seemed to fall for every wheeze that came along.

Armstrong also reminds us what a huge job Paul undertook in trying to bring these far-flung communities together. He must have been someone of tremendous energy, tacking back and forth between churches strung out like beads on a long necklace that looped from Jerusalem to Rome and back. The churches of Asia Minor were more closely clustered together, but they did not have much in common, either. Some were Jewish in tone, others Hellenic.

The strange thing about Paul is that after knocking all these communities together into something that looked vaguely coherent, he just disappeared. The Bible is silent about his death, which may have been in Rome but might possibly have been in Spain. Armstrong suspects he perished in Nero's jails.

So, is Paul to blame for the great crisis afflicting Western Christianity? The suspicion has certainly taken root that Paul dragged the teachings of Jesus far from their original moorings in the wrong direction – and that if the Church is in a giant funk in the modern world over sex, sin, women and a lot more, we have Paul to thank for it. Armstrong defends his corner robustly, and, after reading her book, the case looks overstated. Still, I doubt even her able defence can quite lift the cloud that now hovers over him.