Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PAUL.

§ I.
Questions Concerning Paul.

Was Paul a Roman citizen, as he boasted? If he was a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, Tarsus was not a Roman colony until a hundred years after his death; upon this point all antiquaries are agreed. If he belonged to the little town or village of Gescala, as St. Jerome believed, this town was in Galilee, and certainly the Galileans were not Roman citizens.

Is it true, that St. Paul entered into the rising society of Christians, who at that time were demi-Jews, only because Gamaliel, whose disciple he was, refused him his daughter in marriage? It appears that this accusation is to be found exclusively in the Acts of the Apostles, which are received by the Ebionites, and refuted by the Bishop Epiphanius in his thirtieth chapter.

Is it true, that St. Thecla sought St. Paul in the disguise of a man, and are the acts of St. Thecla admissible? Tertullian, in the thirteenth chapter of his book on “Baptism,” maintains that this history was composed by a priest attached to Paul. Jerome and Cyprian, in refuting the story of the lion baptized by St. Thecla, affirm the genuineness of these acts, in which we find that singular portrait of St. Paul, which we have already recorded. “He was fat, short, and broad shouldered; his dark eyebrows united across his aquiline nose; his legs were crooked, his head bald, and he was full of the grace of the Lord.” This is pretty nearly his portrait in the “Philopatris” of Lucian, with the exception of “the grace of God,” with which Lucian unfortunately had no acquaintance.

Is Paul to be reprehended for his reproof of the Judaizing of St. Peter, who himself Judaized for eight days together in the temple of Jerusalem? When Paul was traduced before the governor of Judæa for having introduced strangers into the temple, was it proper for him to say to the governor, that he was prosecuted on account of his teaching the resurrection of the dead, whilst of the resurrection of the dead nothing was said at all.

Did Paul do right in circumcising his disciple Timothy, after having written to the Galatians, that if they were circumcised Jesus would not profit them? Was it well to write to the Corinthians, chap. ix.: “Have we not power to eat and drink at your expense? Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife?” etc. Was it proper to write in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, that he will pardon none of them, neither those who have sinned nor others? What should we think at present of a man who pretended to live at our expense, himself, and his wife; and to judge and to punish us, confounding the innocent with the guilty? What are we to understand by the ascension of Paul into the third heaven? — what is the third heaven? Which is the most probable — humanly speaking? Did St. Paul become a Christian in consequence of being thrown from a horse by the appearance of a great light at noon day, from which a celestial voice exclaimed: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” or was it in consequence of being irritated against the Pharisees, either by the refusal of Gamaliel to give him his daughter, or by some other cause?

In all other history, the refusal of Gamaliel would appear more probable than the celestial voice; especially if, moreover, we were not obliged to believe in this miracle. I only ask these questions in order to be instructed; and I request all those who are willing to instruct me to speak reasonably.

§ II.

The Epistles of St. Paul are so sublime, it is often difficult to understand them. Many young bachelors demand the precise signification of the following words: “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.” What does he mean by the words: “I have learned from the Lord, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread?”

How could he learn anything from that Jesus Christ to Whom he had never spoken, and to Whom he had been a most cruel enemy, without ever having seen Him? Was it by inspiration, or by the recital of the apostles? or did he learn it when the celestial light caused him to fall from his horse? He does not inform us on this point.

The following again: “The woman shall be saved in child-bearing.” This is certainly to encourage population: it appears not that St. Paul founded convents. He speaks of seducing spirits and doctrines of devils; of those whose consciences are seared up with a red-hot iron, who forbid to marry, and command to abstain from meats. This is very strong. It appears that he abjured monks, nuns, and fast-days. Explain this contradiction; deliver me from this cruel embarrassment.

What is to be said of the passage in which he recommends the bishops to have one wife? — “Unius uxoris virum.” This is positive. He permits the bishops to have but one wife, whilst the Jewish pontiffs might have several. He says unequivocally, that the last judgment will happen during his own time, that Jesus will descend from on high, as described by St. Luke, and that St. Paul and the righteous inhabitants of Thessalonica will be caught up to Him in the air, etc.

Has this occurred? or is it an allegory, a figure? Did he actually believe that he should make this journey, or that he had been caught up into the third heaven? Which is the third heaven? How will he ascend into the air? Has he been there? “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom.” Is this acknowledging Jesus to be the same God as the Father? He has manifested His power over Jesus “when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand.” Does this constitute the divinity of Jesus?

“Thou madest him (Jesus) a little lower than angels; thou crownedst him with glory.” If He is inferior to angels — is He God?

“For if by one man’s offence death reigneth, much more they who receive of the abundance of grace, and of the gift of righteousness, shall reign in life by one Jesus Christ.” Almost man and never God, except in a single passage contested by Erasmus, Grotius, Le Clerc, etc.

“Children of God, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.” Is not this constantly regarding Jesus as one of us, although superior by the grace of God? “To God, alone wise, honor and glory, through Jesus Christ.” How are we to understand these passages literally, without fearing to offend Jesus Christ; or, in a more extended sense, without the risk of offending God the Father?

There are many more passages of this kind, which exercise the sagacity of the learned. The commentators differ, and we pretend not to possess any light which can remove the obscurity. We submit with heart and mouth to the decision of the Church. We have also taken some trouble to penetrate into the meaning of the following passages:

“For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keepest the law; but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.” “Now we know, that whatever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore, by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified; for by the law is the knowledge of sin. . . . . Seeing that it is one God which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law, through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law.” “For if Abraham was justified by his works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.”

We fear that even the ingenuous and profound Dom Calmet himself gives us not, upon these somewhat obscure passages, a light which dissipates all our darkness. It is without doubt our own fault that we do not understand the commentators, and are deprived of that complete conception of the text, which is given only to privileged souls. As soon, however, as an explanation shall come from the chair of truth, we shall comprehend the whole perfectly.

§ III.

Let us add this little supplement to the article “Paul.” It is better to edify ourselves with the Epistles of this apostle, than to weaken our piety by calumniating the times and persons for which they were written. The learned search in vain for the year and the day in which St. Paul assisted to stone St. Stephen, and to guard the mantles of his executioners.

They dispute on the year in which he was thrown from his horse by a miraculous light at noonday, and on the epoch of his being borne away into the third heaven. They can agree neither upon the year in which he was conducted to Rome, nor that in which he died. They are unacquainted with the date of any of his letters. St. Jerome, in his commentary on the “Epistle to Philemon” says that Paul might signify the embouchure of a flute.

The letters of St. Paul to Seneca, and from Seneca to St. Paul, were accounted as authentic in the primitive ages of the Church, as all the rest of the Christian writings. St. Jerome asserts their authenticity, and quotes passages from these letters in his catalogue. St. Augustine doubts them not in his 153d letter to Macedonius. We have thirty letters of these two great men, Paul and Seneca, who, it is pretended, were linked together by a strict friendship in the court of Nero. The seventh letter from Paul to Seneca is very curious. He tells him that the Jews and the Christians were often burned as incendiaries at Rome:

Christiani et Judæi tanquam machinatores incendii supplicio affici solent.” It is in fact probable, that the Jews and the Christians, whose mutual enmity was extremely violent, reciprocally accused each other of setting the city on fire; and that the scorn and horror felt towards the Jews, with whom the Christians were usually confounded, rendered them equally the objects of public suspicion and vengeance.

We are obliged to acknowledge, that the epistolary correspondence of Seneca and Paul is in a ridiculous and barbarous Latin; that the subjects of these letters are as inconsistent as the style; and that at present they are regarded as forgeries. But, then, may we venture to contradict the testimony of St. Jerome and St. Augustine? If writings, attested by them, are nothing but vile impostures, how shall we be certain of the authenticity of others more respectable? Such is the important objection of many learned persons. If we are unworthily deceived, say they, in relation to the letters of Paul and Seneca on the Apostolical Institutes, and the Acts of St. Peter, why may we not be equally imposed upon by the Acts of the Apostles? The decision of the Church and faith are unequivocal answers to all these researches of science and suggestions of the understanding.

It is not known upon what foundation Abdias, first bishop of Babylon, says, in his “History of the Apostles,” that St. Paul caused St. James the Less to be stoned by the people. Before he was converted, however, he might as readily persecute St. James as St. Stephen. He was certainly very violent, because it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, that he “breathed threatenings and slaughter.” Abdias has also taken care to observe, that the mover of the sedition in which St. James was so cruelly treated, was the same Paul whom God had since called to the apostleship.

This book, attributed to Abdias, is not admitted into the canon; but Julius Africanus, who has translated it into Latin, believes it to be authentic. Since, however, the church has not admitted it, we must not admit it. Let us content ourselves with adoring Providence, and wishing that all persecutors were transformed into charitable and compassionate apostles.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25