The second in a series of articles about St. Paul for the Pauline Year announced by Pope Benedict XVI in June.
At home his name was Saul. On the street it was Paul. His father was a Jew of the Tribe of Benjamin, an exponent of the Pharisee Party, and a tent-maker by trade. At the age of 6 Saul was enrolled in a Jewish elementary school where he learned to read and love the Hebrew Scriptures or, as we would say today, the Books of the Old Testament.
There is some division among authors about his “high school” education. Some suggest he had none of a formal kind. Others maintain he was blessed with excellent secondary-school training in an institution that introduced him to the best of Greco-Roman culture. Given the ease with which he quoted such classic poets and philosophers as Aratus, Epimenides and Menander in sermons and writings, most are inclined to favor the second opinion.
Whatever of this, at the age of 16 or 17, Saul was sent to Jerusalem for what was the “Ivy League” education of a Jew in the Middle East at the time. It was directed by a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel; and like “Ivy League” alumni of all eras, Paul, who was undoubtedly known as Saul in his student days, did not hesitate to remind his followers what a splendid intellectual formation he had had. (“I was a pupil of Gamaliel and instructed according to a strict acceptation of the Law of our fathers.” Acts 22:3)
Having completed his studies under the tutelage of Gamaliel at around the age of 20, Saul returned to his hometown of Tarsus in the Roman Province of Cilicia. Tarsus was then considered one of the most important commercial and cultural centers of the world, ranking behind only Athens and Alexandria. Today it is an impoverished village a few miles north of the south-central coast of Turkey.
Here in his father’s establishment, Saul plied the tent-making trade along with what appears to have been a good number of employees, turning hemp into canvas and canvas into tents and sails. Here too he enjoyed the dignity and privileges of Roman citizenship thanks, it would seem, to an enterprising grandfather, who had either won it for special services to the government or purchased it, as many well-to-do businessmen did in that era of the Roman Empire.
At the age of 30 Saul returned to Jerusalem to work with the Jewish leadership to put an end to a movement that preached what was then called “The Way” and what we would today identify as the Gospel. Like many other devout Jews, he was outraged by the claim of the movement that the eagerly awaited Messiah had actually come and ended his life as a criminal on a cross. For Saul this was a blasphemy of the most egregious kind. Accordingly, with the endorsement of local authorities, he searched out all involved in the movement with the intention of having them arrested and, if they refused to mend their ways, imprisoned and even executed. Years later, he confessed that he had willingly engaged in all of this and was even an enthusiastic observer as St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death for preaching the Gospel of the crucified Messiah. (“When the blood of Stephen, [the Lord’s] witness, was shed, I was standing by and approved it, taking charge of the garments of those who killed him.” Acts 22:20)
While in Jerusalem, however, Saul learned that “The Way” had spread to the capital city of Syria, Damascus, and was attracting large numbers of converts from Judaism. Thus, with new letters of authorization, he traveled to Damascus along with several companions. The journey lasted at least eight days, one of them being a Sabbath on which the pious Jew from Tarsus undoubtedly rested.
A short distance from the city gates, Saul was enveloped in a brilliant light and, falling to the ground, heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” To the voice he replied, “Who are You, Lord?” And the answer came back loud and clear: “I am Jesus Whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goad.”
All of this is quite clear and familiar except for the last remark, which perhaps requires a bit of commentary. In the Middle East at the time of St. Paul, fields were prepared for seeding by means of heavy wooden plows which were pulled by oxen that were kept moving forward with the help of a goad, a sharp-pointed stick against which the animals would regularly kick, even though it dug painfully into their legs. Is it possible that Saul was already having second thoughts about what he was doing to the followers of “The Way”? Might he have started not only to admire their courage and commitment but also to wonder about the validity of their beliefs? Most commentators whose works I have studied would suggest that such was very likely the case, and I do not hesitate to agree.
I any event, we move on to note that, “trembling and amazed,” Saul was heard to cry out, “Lord, what would You have me do?” And again the answer came back loud and clear: “Arise and go into the City. There you will be told what to do.” Accordingly, having lost his sight in the blast of light that had engulfed him, a deeply shaken Saul was led by the hand into Damascus by those who had accompanied him on his journey.
Gravely concerned about their friend’s condition, his companions brought him to the home of a certain Judas, who lived on the main thoroughfare of the city, a street called “Straight.” Three days later Saul, who during this period “neither ate nor drank,” was visited by a follower of “The Way,” who laid his hands on him, cured him of his blindness, and baptized him as well. The tale ends rather undramatically: “After taking some food, he regained his strength.”
Somewhat less than 2,000 years later, I was in Damascus with a group of classmates from the North American College in Rome. We were coming to the end of a month-long tour of “The Lands of the Bible” and were seated on ancient stone benches that lined the street called “Straight” listening to a priest read the account of the conversion of St. Paul in Chapter 22 of St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.
When the priest, who was also a distinguished New Testament scholar, came to the statement about “kicking against the goad,” one of our number asked what it meant. The priest offered essentially the same interpretation that was suggested above. However, he immediately added, as a kind of sidebar, that one of the most celebrated anti-Christian historians of the late 19th century, Ernest Renan, had spent several years of his life “kicking against the goad” about the entire story.
“He ‘earnestly’ wanted to discredit it,” the priest declared with a twinkle in his eye, “but found this very hard to do. For the story, which is recounted by St. Luke in Chapter 9 of Acts, is reported in Chapter 22 to have been told by Paul to an angry crowd gathered before the Temple of Jerusalem, and in Chapter 26, to have been told again by Paul to King Agrippa and a Roman procurator with the name of Porcius Festus.”
“And all of this was written down and widely disseminated throughout the Middle East within 30 years,” the priest continued. “If it were an invention, it would have been quickly and easily ‘debunked’ by countless individuals and groups who would have felt that disproving it would be very much in their interest.”
‘So what did our celebrated historian do?” the priest asked. “Faced by inconvenient facts, he abandoned the basic rules of the science of history and came up with what follows in a book titled “Les ApÃ´tres.” Paul was extremely tired as he approached Damascus. The sun was beating down on him, and he was being tormented within by self-hatred because of his involvement in the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The tiredness, the sun and the torment suddenly came together to overpower him; and he began to hallucinate. There was no light surrounding him. There was no voice to which he re sponded. The event was nothing more than an episode of what we today would call a ‘psychotic seizure’.”
“This,” the priest announced, fixing his eyes on each of us, “is ‘kicking against the goad’ in style. But don’t laugh. It is something we are all at least tempted to do at various times in our lives. We understand exactly what the Lord has revealed and exactly what he expects of us as a result. Nonetheless, we play around with concocting all sorts of half-baked suppositions that maybe we have mistaken His meaning or His demands in the hope of somehow eluding them. In short, we ‘kick against goad,’ as Paul was very likely doing before his conversion, as Renan clearly did in his account of that conversion, and lest we forget as dumb oxen always do when pulling the plow.”
“In his Second Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul proclaims that ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching,'” the priest concluded. “And this is one of the lessons those four little words, ‘kicking against the goad,’ were meant to teach. Keep them in mind, and throughout your lives have the courage to face head-on the reality of what God has told us and the reality of what He requires of us. This is not only psychologically healthy; it is also a key to holiness.”
Years ago, as a seminarian, I purchased an unbound copy of Renan’s “Les ApÃ´tres,” in a second-hand bookstore, but unfortunately lost it in the course of many transfers as a priest from assignment to assignment. Last week I borrowed a copy from our Seminary library and one night sat down and read the chapter about the conversion of St. Paul not once, but three times. As I closed the book, I asked the Apostle of the Gentiles to speak with the Lord about keeping me from “goad-kicking.” Somehow I felt that he would be happy to do so.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York