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from issue no. 05 - 2008

Saint Paul a Jew in Christ

An interview with Romano Penna on the relevance of some concerns of the Apostle to the Gentiles: justification, conversion, the mission

Interview with Romano Penna by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Mosaics from the Palatine Chapel (12th century), Palermo; St. Paul, detail

Mosaics from the Palatine Chapel (12th century), Palermo; St. Paul, detail

Don Romano Penna needs no introduction. Neo-testamentarist (i.e. scholar of the New Testament, in particular of the Corpus paolinum, and the origins of Christianity) of international fame, he has just become professor emeritus, having taught for 25 years at the Pontifical Lateran University. His latest effort is a new commentary on the Epistle to the Romans of which the first two volumes have come out (and already had a first reprint) and the third is soon to be published.
We met in the run-up to the Pauline Year that Pope Benedict XVI will solemnly open on the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on 29 June.

It has been controversially written that the true inventor of Christianity is not Jesus, but St. Paul.
ROMANO PENNA: It’s a polemical paradox, but the reasons that have led some scholars to describe Paul in this way are still interesting. The first is that between the earthly Jesus and Paul there is the Easter event, which influenced the message, the evangelical wording of the first Christian community. In his life Jesus did not talk much about his death and Resurrection. Jesus preached the Kingdom of Heaven. After Easter, however, the fate and personal story of Jesus entered to become part of the core of the announcement of his disciples. His disciples refer to him not only as teacher, prophet, reducible possibly to the Hebrew framework of the time (as is done by our Jewish brethren who are pleased to say that Paul is the inventor of Christianity), but also put the figure of Jesus in this historico-salvific framework now mature, so to speak, whereby the figure of Jesus becomes that of the Crucified Risen with a certain destination: for others. Between Jesus and Paul then there is the Church, the early Christian community. Already the first Christian community described Jesus as the one who “died for our sins.” Paul did not invent anything, he was above all witness to the Tradition. He was doing no more than taking up a pre-Pauline tradition, for example, when he says to the Corinthians: “I handed on to you, first of all, what I also received: that is, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures… “(1Cor 15, 3ff). The other reason that comes into account to explain the description of Paul is the actual originality and, let us even say, the genius of Paul in his hermeneutics of the Gospel.
What, if you could express it in one word, is the genius of Paul?
PENNA: Paul essentially distinguished himself within early Christianity by the message of justification on the basis of faith. Mankind becomes righteous before God, is seen by God as righteous and, let us say, even holy (remember that when Paul speaks of the faithful, he calls them saints for as many as twenty-five times within his epistles) not by an autonomous contribution to its own holiness, but for the humble and also joyful welcoming of an intervention ab extra, the intervention of God in Jesus Christ. This is what makes mankind righteous, namely the acceptance through faith of what God has done for me. That, at the level of early Christian origins, was not unchallenged. Faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and also as the Son of God was unchallenged. But above all the so-called Judeo-Christian strand made faith in Jesus Christ coexist with a personal contribution. In the Epistle of James (James is the spokesman of this current) it is clearly said that man is not justified by faith alone. And the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham is given as example, but reversing the order of the Biblical pages. The sacrifice of Isaac is found in chapter 22 of Genesis, after already in chapter 16 it says that Abraham believed, that he was justified by faith, something that Paul mentions in chapter 4 of the Epistle to the Romans. This justification therefore is not conditional on the actual exercise of that obedience which is then told of in chapter 22 of Genesis. The Judeo-Christian point of view consists at bottom of that reversal.
The baptism of St. Paul

The baptism of St. Paul

About the relationship with the Judeo-Christians: St. Paul is challenged by them like no one else, yet he is the one who most proclaimed his Jewish origin and his passionate love for his race.
PENNA: Going by the texts, Paul did not know the word “Christian”, which, moreover, still did not exist in his time. We know from Luke that the disciples were called Christians in Antioch, but Acts 11, 26 is anachronistic, it sets the thing forward to the 30s. In fact, Paul did not know the word. He believed himself a Jew, he was a Jew in Christ. This is why he never uses the terminology of conversion. Paul was not a convert. The Jew does not convert. There is a famous phrase of the Rome Rabbi Eugenio Zolli, christened after the Second World War: ‘I am not a convert, I am one who has arrived’. Because the converted is one who turns his back on his past, whereas the Jew does not turn his back, he only goes forward. Of course, Paul underwent a transition. He shows it in Philippians 3, 7: “But what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses.” In what would the asset have consisted? In Pharisaic (in the non-vulgar sense) adherence to the Law, or in total, complete adherence to the Law, to the point of considering it as condition of his being righteous before God. Paul had gone beyond that. But Israel remains the reference point. It’s enough to look again at chapters 9-11 of the Epistle to the Romans: the Gentiles are grafted on to Israel, the plant is holy if the root is holy (cf. Rom 11, 16ff). We live in a derived holiness; not primary but secondary, and precisely from the historico-salvific point of view. I always say that Christianity is simply a variant of Judaism, and I feel sorry for those who dispute with Israel or who, even, as we read in the press, make gestures of vandalism: they have not understood anything of what it means to be Christians.
I have always been struck by passage in the Epistle to the Ephesians 3, 6-7 in which “the mystery revealed” seems to consist in the fact “that the Gentiles now have the same inheritance and form the same Body and enjoy the same promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” of which “I have been made the servant”. It would seem almost that the content of the entire Christian mystery is the participation of the Gentiles in that inheritance promised to the Jews.
PENNA: You mentioned the Epistle to the Ephesians that according to many, and also in my opinion, is not by the historical Paul. But the issue is typical and central in the Epistles of the so-called authentic Paul. Already we find it in Galatians 2, where the so-called Council of Jerusalem is mentioned. There a clear distinction occurred: as Peter, John and others address the circumcised, I – Paul says – and Barnabas address the Gentiles. Paul is characterized precisely by this. He gave his life for this. He suffered misunderstandings essentially because of this. He was opposed – that same letter speaks of opponents – by the Judeo-Christians, not so much by the Jews, for this openness of his. “We are the children not of the slave girl but of the freewoman,” says Paul in this epistle (cf. 4, 31), referring to the two women of Abraham, and the Christians to whom he writes, the Galatians, are pagans, not Jews. The great thing Paul does is not to disconnect the Gospel from Israel, but to open to all people outside Israel the characteristics that belong to Israel itself, to be, that is, God’s people, the people of the Covenant (he says precisely people). So much so that in Romans 9, 25 Paul cites a polemical text of the prophet Hosea (“I ed to be so far off have been brought close”. The distant, the others, those who for Israel are the other, different, the non-people, gentes (it was traditional in Israel to distinguish “the people” from the “nations”), Paul dedicated himself to them: that was his great operation. One might go so far as to say that, in the eyes of Paul, Jesus Christ represents nothing more than the elimination of the distance between the Gentiles and the Jews. St. Paul has much to say about all the fences that get put up.
It’s strange, however, that St. Paul has not preserved any word of Jesus on the missionary mandate, although in the proto-Christian tradition there are many statements of the kind.
PENNA: The beginning of missionary consciousness of the Church is a complex problem, primarily because one may wonder whether the historical Jesus ever set out a missionary mandate, while the opposite is very clear: “‘Do not make your way to gentile territory… go instead to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’” says Jesus (cf. Mt 10, 6 and 15, 24). And Jesus himself, in his life, always kept within the borders of Israel, he never did as Jonah, who went to Nineveh. Jesus went neither to Nineveh nor Athens nor Rome, nor to Alexandria, though it was near. Therefore one has to explain why the Church after Easter, instead, felt invested with the message to the Gentiles (not immediately, it must be said, because in Acts 10 Peter has a problem when he has to go to baptize the centurion Cornelius: it evidently wasn’t part of the early apostolic consciousness). It’s not for nothing that we read the words at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “‘Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them’” (cf. Mt 28, 19f), are of the risen Jesus, not of the earthly Jesus. There is therefore the hypothesis that they are editorial words, words of the Evangelist or his Church, a Judeo-Christian Church that has gone through an ordeal to then achieve the openness of the Antioch Church, which in effect found that way through. Paul could not therefore cite the words of the earthly Jesus about the need for the mission. But, according to chapter 9 of the Acts, the first account of the encounter on the road to Damascus, Jesus tells him: “‘You will be my witness before the kings, before the powerful of the earth….’” His is a personal vocation, shared by Barnabas and the series of collaborators who surround him: Timothy, Silas, Apollos, Titus and all those mentioned in chapter 16 of the Epistle to the Romans, “those who have toiled in the Lord”, those who have dedicated themselves to the Gospel, the missionary life. But, in short, what does missionary life mean? It means taking seriously the faith in the Risen One, because it is the Risen One who has broken the banks, it is Easter that has broken the banks and performed an… exploit, has driven…
St. Paul in Damascus

St. Paul in Damascus

It would almost seem, from what you say, that the missionary mandate can’t, let’s say, be extended in generic fashion, as a “service order,” to the whole Church, but that it is as if bound to a personal vocation and to the deepening of a personal consciousness…
PENNA: That’s true. Those who most perceive the eruptive value of Easter feel it most. This is. Paul tells nothing of the earthly Jesus, only of the Crucified Risen. Paul’s Christology is all centered on the Easter event, the double face of Easter, the Cross and the Resurrection, where he has perceived this eruptive thing, I was saying, which goes beyond the confines of Israel. On the other hand, the consciousness that Jesus came to abolish sacrifices then became traditional even for non-Pauline Judeo-Christian writings. If he came to abolish sacrifices, it means that his identity goes beyond the temple liturgies, is something that lies outside the category of the sacred, is open to the profane – let’s use that category – and the profane is everywhere, profane is above all what is outside Israel as holy people (what the “others” are not). But it was precisely for those “others” that Paul perceived the destination of Easter.
What, in conclusion, is the most relevant thing about the figure and message of Paul which, in your view, this Pauline Year must bring to the fore?
PENNA: A message of essentiality, the reduction of Christianity to what is essential: personal adherence to Jesus Christ. Nothing other, and in that “other” put everything and everyone, from the angels downward. The space between man and God is filled by Christ and by no-one else. Because to be in Christ (this is Pauline language: “Being in Christ”, or “in the Lord”) means being in God. A reduction to the essential, therefore. Which involves reducing various things, at least in the sense of the value judgment to make. Saying Paul means saying Jesus Christ. Also at the ecclesial, institutional, level. Of course, in Paul’s time the Church was a most nimble institution because there was not the load brought by succeeding centuries. But the thing was very light above all because the ecclesial identity of Christianity was understood as being all brothers (a term that occurs 112 times in the Corpus paolinum!), all on an equal footing. And maybe those who are dedicated to the service should be lower. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians Paul says: “What is Apollos and what is Paul? The servants… everything belongs to you, whether it is Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, the world, life … but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (cf. 1Cor 3, 5ff). There isn’t a line going from top to bottom, but from bottom to top. “Everything belongs to you”… You are above the ministers, in the sense that ministers are part of the community. Of course, the Christian community is not a mollusc, it has a backbone, but the important thing in the Church are not ministers, but the baptized, and ministers are important insofar as they, too, are baptized. I don’t want to be misunderstood. That the existence of ministers is very important, if not essential, is a given that Paul knows well. It’s enough to remember when he speaks of the Church as a structured body (cf. 1Cor 12, 12ff).

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