Nothing is known of his youth, except a few spurious anecdotes recorded in the Talmud.
Today we continue Christianity Appears
with a selection from The Origin of Christianity, and a Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles by Isaac M. Wise published in 1868. The selections are presented in a series of installments for 5 minute daily reading.
Previously in Christianity Appears.
But who was Paul himself? Notwithstanding all the attempts of the author of the Acts to mystify him into as mythical a character as the Gospels made of Jesus, Paul is an open book in history. We have his genuine epistles, in which he gives considerable account of himself and his exploits. We have one portion of the Acts in which, contrary to the rest of that book, the author narrates in the first person plural, “we,” which appears to be taken from the notes of one of Paul’s companions — Luke, Timothy, Silas, or any other. Then we have the Talmud, with its numerous anecdotes about Acher, as the rabbis called Paul, which are of inestimable value to the historian. These sources enable us to form a conception of the man. A few remarks on his life will be found interesting.
Paul is not a proper name. It signifies “the little one.” The author of the Acts states that his name was Saul. But, it appears, he knew no more about it than we do, and changed the P of Paul into an S, to make of it the Hebrew name Saul. In his epistles he invariably calls himself Paul, and not Saul. So the author of the “we” portion of the Acts always calls him Paul. Passing under an assumed name, the rabbis called him Acher, “another,” i.e., one who passes under another or assumed name. They maintain that his name was Elisha ben Abujah. But this name must be fictitious, because it is a direct and express reference to Paul’s theology. It signifies “the saving deity, son of the father god,” and Paul was the author of the “Son of God” doctrine. The fact is, he was known to the world under his assumed name only.
Nothing is known of his youth, except a few spurious anecdotes recorded in the Talmud. When quite young he studied the law and some Grecian literature at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem, among the thousand students who listened to the wisdom of that master. He states that he was a very zealous Pharisee, who persecuted the Christians. But all of a sudden he embraced the cause of the persecuted, and became one of its most zealous apostles. We can easily imagine the nature of that persecution, although the Stephen story, like the Damascus story and the vision on the way, as narrated in the Acts, is spurious, because Paul never alludes to it, and the Jews of Jerusalem had no jurisdiction in Damascus over anybody. But what caused his remarkable transition from one extreme to the other? First a Pharisee, with law and nothing but law, and then the author of the epistles, which reject and abrogate the entire law. Transitions of this nature require time, and are wrought by violent agencies only.
A number of stories narrated in the Talmud, together with those of the Acts, point to the fact that the youthful Paul, with his vivid imagination, witnessed many an act of barbarous violence and outrageous injustice. Occurrences of this nature were not rare under the military despotism of Rome in Judea. The soil was saturated with innocent blood. The world was governed by the sword, and Rome groaned under the unnatural crimes of her Caesars. There was universal depravity among the governing class, and endless misery among the governed. The rabbis give us to understand that this state of affairs misled Paul into the belief that there was no justice in heaven or earth, no hope for Israel, no reward and no punishment, that the balance of justice was destroyed. It is quite natural that under such circumstances such a skepticism should overpower young and sensitive reasoners.
King Saul, in a state of despair, receiving no reply from the prophets, none from the Urim and Thumim, deeply fallen as he was, went in disguise to the Witch of Endor. Goethe’s Faust, in imitation thereof, receiving no answer to his questions addressed to heaven and eternity, no answer through his knowledge of nature’s laws and nature’s forces, no answer from the philosophy of his century and the theology of his priests, throws himself into the embrace of Mephistopheles. That is human nature. Exactly the same thing was done in the days of Paul, and exactly the same thing he himself did. There was the indescribable misery of the age, and there were the knowledge and theories of that overburdened century, and no answer, no reply to the questions addressed to heaven and eternity; and they went to the fountains of mysticism and secret knowledge to quench the thirst of the soul. There sprung up the visionary Gnostics among the Gentiles, and the Cabalistic Mystics among the Jews. History notices the same rotation continually — idealism, sensualism, skepticism, and finally mysticism.
The mystic art among the Hebrews then was of two different kinds, either to attract an evil spirit or to be transported alive into paradise or heaven. An evil spirit was attracted by fasting and remaining for days and nights alone in burial-grounds, till the brain was maddened and infatuated, when the artificial demoniac prophesied and performed sundry miracles. The transportation to heaven or paradise was more difficult. The candidate for a tour into heaven would retire to some isolated spot, fast until the brain was maddened with delirium and the nerves excited to second sight by the loss of sleep. Then, in that state of trance, he would sit down on the ground, draw up his knees, bend down his head between them, and murmur magic spells, until, through the reversed circulation of the blood, the maddened brain, and the unstrung nerves, he would imagine that he saw the heaven opening to his inspection, palace after palace thrown widely open to his gaze, hosts of angels passing within view, until finally he imagined himself entirely removed from the earth, transported aloft into those diamond palaces on high, or, as Paul calls it, “caught up into paradise,” where he heard “unspeakable words, which it is not possible for a man to utter,” and the throne of God, with all the seraphim and cherubim, archangels and angels, became visible and their conversation intelligible to the enraptured and transported mystic, in a fit of hallucination, when the bewildered imagination sees objectively its own subjective phantasma, and hears from without, in supposed articulate sounds, its own silent thoughts. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to form a correct idea of the mystic eccentricities to which this awful practice must have led those who frequently indulged in it.
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