The most successful interpreters of Paul’s letters have, for the most part, been thinkers and writers, theologians and scholars. That Paul should appear to us primarily as a man of deep and profound thought is therefore unsurprising.
According to Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry, however, neither letter-writing nor theological exposition were central to the Apostle’s career. The Lukan Paul, as a matter of fact, is not much of a thinker at all. Rather, he is primarily a doer: a wonderworker, a messenger, and a seer. These seemingly forgotten modes of Paul’s ministry, I would maintain, in large part defined the Apostle’s character long before his letters were collected and meticulously scrutinized by churchmen and academics alike. While these letters are undoubtedly the product of a powerful mind, their theological reflection represent a mere snapshot of the Apostle’s output. The Paul of history, unlike the Paul of the church and the academy, was, in the first place, a man of startling deeds, a man with a message from God, and a man guided by ecstatic encounters with the divine.
Paul the wonderworker
If the Lukan Paul is anything he is a spirit-possessed healer and exorcist. Like his master, the Paul of Acts rouses the lame (14:8-10), restores the dead (20:11-2), rehabilitates the fevered (28:8), and cures various other ailments (19:11-12, 28:9). He proves himself a capable dealer of both healing-signs and of plague-signs, as when he blinds his prophetic opponent, Elymas the magician (13:4-12).
Luke also illustrates his protagonist’s mastery over spirits by 1) preserving two dramatic accounts of exorcism (16:16-18, 19:13-20), and 2) noting that many demoniacs attained relief by merely touching items that had come into contact with Paul (19:12).1 Furthermore, Luke recounts that some noble-born Jewish exorcists attempted to overpower unclean spirits in the name of “Jesus whom Paul proclaims,” implying that Paul was a well-known and well-respected manipulator of spirits (19:13).2
Paul’s letters reveal much the same about his wonder-working prowess. Though Paul is generally reluctant to exalt in his own spiritual gifts, he does remind the Corinthians that he secured their conversion “not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power… the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). In a number of other places Paul enumerates his church-founding deeds as “signs,” “wonders,” and “powers,” all of which lent credibility to his message (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:12, Romans 15:18-19, 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Based on these comments in Paul’s letters and the evidence contained in Acts, the Pauline churches were established upon the miraculous experiences delivered through Paul’s hands. Such acts of healing and exorcism formed a major, if not the major, component of Paul’s work as an apostle of Jesus.
Paul the apostle to the synagogues
If the Lukan Paul is in the first place a wonderworker, he is in the second place a messenger. That is, he is a preacher with a singular message, a message attested by signs and wonders: the Messiah has come, God’s judgement is near.4 Paul the apostle travels far and wide to share this good news and report this word from above.
In his duties as God’s messenger, the Lukan Paul is sent specifically to the synagogues of the Roman world. When Paul is first converted, for example, he immediately enters the synagogues in order to report that Jesus is “God’s son” (Acts 9:20). This regular engagement in the synagogues prevails throughout Paul’s career, becoming what Luke calls his “custom” (Acts 17:2). Everywhere Paul goes, so it seems in Luke’s account, he goes first to the synagogue, not the idolatrous temples nor the pagan forums. There, in the synagogues, he finds receptive ears among Jews and God-fearing gentiles (Acts 13:5-14, 14:1, 16:13-14, 17:2-17, 18:19, 19:8).
Every Sabbath Paul reasoned5 in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks alike.Acts 18:14
Luke’s portrayal of Paul as an apostle to the synagogues stands in sharp tension with Paul’s own presumption that he is the apostle “to the nations” and “to the uncircumcised.” How can this be reconciled? Should it be reconciled?
Paul’s apparent focus on gentiles in, say, the letter to the church in Rome may, on the one hand, represent a later development in Paul’s priorities, one engendered by negative encounters with Jews (cf. Acts 13:46, 18:6, 28:25-28, 1 Thess 2:15-16). On the other hand, the notion that Paul concerned himself only with gentiles is without warrant. For all the emphasis Paul puts on his mission to bring “the nations” into obedience to God, he was painfully concerned with Jewish reception of his gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23, 9:20, Romans 1:16, 2:9). Paul’s confessions that his mission among the Greeks is designed with the eventual redemption of Israel in mind are instructive in this regard (Romans 9-11).
More to the point, since Paul’s ultimate goal was for the nations to submit to God in concrete socio-political ways, the Apostle might have assumed that this awesome outcome would include and, in fact, require, that Jewish communities across the Mediterranean renew their covenant with their ancestral deity through Jesus the Messiah. Paul may have believed his prioritization of the synagogues—themselves members of τὰ ἔθνη—played an essential role in his ministry as the apostle to the nations. Once we step away from the individualized ways Paul is usually understood (e.g. as apostle to gentiles as individuals), Luke’s depiction of Paul as a travelling synagogue-preacher works in conjunction with Paul’s apostleship to the nations because, in Paul’s mind, the submission of the Greco-Roman synagogue to Jesus constituted a preliminary political foothold from which the Roman political apparatus might be influenced and overthrown. The conversion of the nations meant in part the conversion of the synagogues among the nations.
Paul the visionary
Lastly, we gleam from Luke’s account that Paul regularly received visions of practical significance. Besides his encounter with the heavenly Jesus on the road to Damascus, the Lukan Paul also “sees” the Lord once in the Temple (22:17-21) and twice in nightmares (18:9-11, 23:11, cf. 26:16). These, like his other visions—the Macedonian man (16:9-10) and the nocturnal angel (27:23-24)—affirm the Apostle’s mission and instruct him regarding his itinerary.
Paul’s letters, of course, corroborate this picture. Paul claims to have “seen the Lord” (1 Cor 9:1) and discloses that he was once “snatched up” into the heavenly paradise (2 Cor 12:4). It is apparent, further, that Paul sometimes communicated with Jesus audibly (2 Cor 12:8-9, cf. 1 Cor 11:23).
It is probably the case then that much of Paul’s thought and decision-making was driven by visionary encounters with Jesus and other messengers from God. Paul was undoubtedly a seer before he was a systematic theologian. He functioned more as a prophet than as a man of reason.
Paul the forgotten
Paul’s theological insight, particularly as manifested in the letter to the Romans, has come to define our perception of the Apostle. In a culture which has long prized thinkers, Paul has, unsurprisingly, become the great thinker of the church. He has become the eminent theologian, the doctor of the faith.
In this light Luke’s effort to preserve the Paul of action, that is, the Paul of history, has for the most part failed. The mainstream church has peered this Paul—the wonderworker, the visionary, the synagogue-preacher—and found him inadequate. Such components of the Apostle’s life have, for now, been safely relegated to the footnotes.
1—As was the case with Jesus, some of Paul’s powerful deeds were unintentional. Spirit radiated out of his body and clothes.
2—Luke attributes the words “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”3 to the evil spirit. Even those suffering from possession seem to have been aware of the exorcistic abilities Paul maintained through his familiar spirit, the spirit of Jesus (cf. Acts 16:16-17).
3—By claiming to “know” Jesus and Paul, the spirit acknowledges its submission to these figures. News of this admission apparently spreads across the region, bolstering the reputation of Jesus and Paul among spiritists and magicians (Acts 19:17-20).
4—To Jews and God-fearers Paul “announces,” “proclaims” and “brings goods news” that Jesus is the Messiah, agent of the eschaton (Acts 9:20-22, 13:33, 17:3). To pagans Paul discloses that God will soon judge the idolatrous world (Acts 17:22-31, 19:26).
5—When Paul “reasons” with Jews he engages in theological exposition only in a marginal sense. His aims are strictly limited: to convince his kinsmen that their scriptures foretold of a suffering-but-vindicated Messiah.