Will Saint Paul’s letters to the Romans play in Peoria? In an interview, Father Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. offers clues to understanding the evangelizer whose writings predate the gospels.
What was it that Saint Paul preached that attracted so many to embrace the early Christian faith? Sitting in a pew in the third millennium, it can be hard to grasp what meaning Paul loaded into such terms as flesh and spirit and the world. But, says Jesuit Father Joseph Fitzmyer, there’s power to be had in Paul’s letters of faith, proclaimed years before the Gospels were compiled.
As professor emeritus of biblical studies at Catholic University of America and author of scores of books and articles, Fitzmyer has spent a lifetime uncovering the meaning of biblical texts. With co-editors Father Roland Murphy, O. Carm. and the late Father Raymond Brown, S.S. he compiled The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (PrenticeHall, 1990). He has been a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission—a board of 20 scholars that advises the Vatican—and is renowned as one of the great biblical scholars, Catholic or otherwise, of the 20th century.
You’ve written that the meaning of Saint Paul’s letters today cannot be different from the original meaning intended by Paul for his contemporaries. Would you explain that?
Unless there’s some kind of sameness between what Paul meant and what he means to us today, then you’re not hearing Paul’s message. In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission put out a document called The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, which talks about the “actualization” of the word of God. In other words, what does the Bible say to me, to us, in the 20th century? God did not say something through inspired writers just for the people who lived 20 centuries ago.
According to that document, actualization begins with a correct interpretation of what the scripture text meant for its own time, which is followed by three steps: hearing the text from within one’s own situation, identifying the aspects of the present situation highlighted by the text, and drawing from the text the meaning in a way that advances the will of God. Actualization assumes the biblical texts have been composed in particular past circumstances and languages. To reveal the significance of these texts today, it’s necessary to apply their message to contemporary circumstances and express it in language adapted to the present.
What was Paul trying to tell us?
Paul depicts for us the effects of the Christ-event—what Jesus did for humanity. Imagine that the effects of the Christ-event are described as a 10-sided solid figure, and when Paul looks at it from one angle, he says Christ justified us. When he looks at it from another angle, he says Christ saved us. Another angle, Christ reconciled us, and so on. I can count 10 of them in Paul’s way of formulating it: justification, salvation, reconciliation, expiation, redemption, freedom, sanctification, transformation, new creation, and glorification.
Each angle comes out of either Paul’s Jewish or Hellenistic background. Justification, for example, is in the Old Testament: the idea that the Jewish people would be able to achieve the status of righteousness or uprightness in the sight of God, to stand before God as justified.
It’s a judicial concept, something that pertains to the law court. In today’s litigious society, it should be quite obvious to us what it means for somebody who’s summoned to court, stands before a judge, and hears the verdict—either guilty or not guilty. That’s the image that Paul uses: He says that Christ Jesus justified us—he brought it about that we stand before God the judge, and we hear the verdict of acquittal.
What’s the difference between justification and salvation? In reality, there’s no difference. That’s what Christ Jesus did, but Paul makes use of different images.
When writing a sketch of Paul’s theology, one has to recast what Paul says into a form that Paul himself did not use. It’s an attempt to synthesize his teaching.
What do we really know about Paul’s experience of conversion?
We have three different stories in the Acts of the Apostles of Paul’s so-called conversion: the episode on the road to Damascus in chapter 9 and in chapters 22 and 26. The first one is descriptive, the other two are speeches in which he recapitulates, but those are all Luke’s account of Paul.
The only time Paul ever talks about what happened to him is in Galatians 1. Somehow, God revealed his Son to him and called him, and that’s why a lot of people refuse to use the word conversion; they talk only about Paul’s call.
Paul knows nothing about Luke’s description of his call. Paul doesn’t even say that it was on the road to Damascus. One reason why Paul recounts his call is because he wants to insist that he is an apostle, “not from human beings nor through a human being, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1). He’s insisting that he’s an apostle just like the rest. People were denying that. Luke may even have been one of them. In the early church, it’s perfectly obvious that Paul had to battle to be recognized on the same level as the 12 apostles.
What’s the significance of Paul’s letters having been written earlier than the gospels?
Paul gave us an interpretation of Christ even before the early Christian church wrote down the story of Christ. The letters that most scholars agree were written by Paul himself—1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Philemon—were all written between 51 and 58 A.D., whereas the earliest gospel we have, Mark, might be written as early as 65. The earliest “picture,” then, we have of Jesus of Nazareth comes to us from Paul. That’s the reason Paul is the first theologian in the Christian church.
As a theologian, Paul seems to pack a lot of meaning in words like flesh and spirit. What’s he getting at?
In Romans 9:5 Paul talks about the Messiah according to the flesh. Obviously he means natural descent—Jesus was descended from David according to his natural descent—as his progeny.
Another way in which he talks about the flesh is in opposition to the spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about the Holy Spirit; I’m talking about characteristics of the human being that Paul sometimes calls flesh, other times spirit. Normally speaking, he doesn’t work with the Greek or Roman idea of body and soul. He conceives of the human being as a unit. He will talk about the human being as flesh or spirit or mind—these are different aspects of a composite that he doesn’t break down.
When he talks about the human being as flesh, what he means is humanity’s earth-oriented tendencies, whereas when he talks about the human spirit, it’s that aspect of the human being that’s open to God and God’s influence. When he talks about the human being as heart, that’s the emotive or affectionate aspect of the human being. When he talks about mind, that’s the intellectual capacity.
Didn’t Paul have a negative view of sex?
That’s the kind of thing I love to challenge. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes, “This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to the widows I say: It is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do.”
That’s one of Paul’s famous statements. The usual interpretation of that verse is that he was unmarried, and so what he means is, “Do as I do, but if you cannot exercise self-control, you should marry for it is better to marry than to be on fire.”
You can interpret that as an expression that he prefers other people be unmarried, as he is, but he sees both states as a grace of God. People think that he’s saying virginity or celibacy is more important in the eyes of God than marriage, but I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. There may have been people in Corinth who were advocating virginity or celibacy in contrast to married life. And so he expresses his own opinion about what he thinks human beings should do.
Later in the same chapter, he also writes, “I tell you, brothers, the time is running out.” Obviously he expected Christ’s return. That’s one motive for his preference for virginity and celibacy over married life, but then he goes on: “I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
You have to remember that, like Paul, the early Christians expected that somehow or other the Second Coming of Christ would soon be a reality. You can see this expectation in the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday.
What’s the core of Paul’s theology?
As he himself says, “We preach Christ crucified.” That’s his proclamation that God has not done this before in human history, that God has entered human history in a new form. God has sent his Son, and that Son died for us on the cross. That’s the story of the cross and then its consequence, the Resurrection.
The key to Paul’s theology should be formulated in terms of what Paul himself stated over and over in various ways, for example in 1 Corinthians 1: 21-24: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
The story of the cross puts Christ himself at the center of God’s new mode of salvation, and all else in Paul’s teaching has to be oriented to his Christ-centered understanding of salvation. What influence does God have on human beings that brings about their salvation? And how does God do it? God does it through Christ Jesus.
What would Paul say to the church today?
That’s always a temptation to think that problems in the 20th century can somehow be answered by something in the New Testament or in the Bible in general. When we read Paul today, we’re reading him through the lens of patristic teaching, medieval theology, and the whole dogmatic tradition of the church. Paul sometimes gives some indication of what’s pertinent, but he never gives you the full answer.
The primary aim of talking about Paul’s theology is to give a descriptive presentation of Paul’s Christian faith and, above all, determine what Paul meant when he wrote to the Christians whom he immediately addressed. But it also aims at ascertaining what his theology means for Christians today.
Paul’s theology is an exposition of the inspired biblical heritage of early Christians that has an existential meaning for the faith of people today. In this way, Paul’s theology is part of biblical theology. There are two poles in biblical theology, one descriptive—it describes; the other normative—it prescribes. Paul’s meaning for the faith of people today cannot be something totally other than the meaning he intended for his contemporaries.
What other advice do you have for anyone reading Paul?
There are two things I always like to point out. First, in 2 Corinthians 1:13, Paul says, “For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand, and I hope that you will understand completely, as you have come to understand us partially….” Now look at 2 Peter 3:15: “And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures." So even back when the early church was collecting Paul’s letters, people did not find him easy to understand.
Second, in Acts 8, when Philip is evangelizing the Ethiopian eunuch, he catches up with the eunuch, who is reading Isaiah 53. Acts 8:30-31 says: “Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading? He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone instructs me.’” You can’t just open up the Bible and expect to understand what it’s all about. The Greek text literally says, “Unless somebody guides me.”
Documents on Catholic Biblical Scholarship
Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965)
Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Scripture)
Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Afflante Spiritu (On Promoting Biblical Studies)
The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the 1994 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
This interview appeared in the January 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 65, No. 1, pages 22-25).