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The Fair Haven, a non-fiction book by Samuel Butler

The Fair Haven - Chapter 3. The Character And Conversion Of St. Paul

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Setting aside for the present the story of St. Paul's conversion as given in the Acts of the Apostles--for I am bound to admit that there are circumstances in connection with that account which throw doubt upon its historical accuracy--and looking at the broad facts only, we are struck at once with the following obvious reflection, namely, that Paul was an able man, a cultivated man, and a bitter opponent of Christianity; but that in spite of the strength of his original prejudices, he came to see what he thought convincing reasons for going over to the camp of his enemies. He went over, and with the result we are all familiar.

Now even supposing that the miraculous account of Paul's conversion is entirely devoid of foundation, or again, as I believe myself, that the story given in the Acts is not correctly placed, but refers to the vision alluded to by Paul himself (I. Cor. xv.), and to events which happened, not coincidently with his conversion, but some years after it--does not the importance of the conversion itself rather gain than lose in consequence? A charge of unimportant inaccuracy may be thus sustained against one who wrote in a most inaccurate age; but what is this in comparison with the testimony borne to the strength of the Christian evidences by the supposition that OF THEIR OWN WEIGHT ALONE, AND WITHOUT MIRACULOUS ASSISTANCE, THEY SUCCEEDED IN CONVINCING THE MOST BITTER, AND AT THE SAME TIME THE ABLEST, OF THEIR OPPONENTS? This is very pregnant. No man likes to abandon the side which he has once taken. The spectacle of a man committing himself deeply to his original party, changing without rhyme or reason, and then remaining for the rest of his life the most devoted and courageous adherent of all that he had opposed, without a single human inducement to make him do so, is one which has never been witnessed since man was man. When men who have been committed deeply and spontaneously to one cause, leave it for another, they do so either because facts have come to their knowledge which are new to them and which they cannot resist, or because their temporal interests urge them, or from caprice: but if they change from caprice in important matters and after many pledges given, they will change from caprice again: they will not remain for twenty-five or thirty years without changing a jot of their capriciously formed opinions. We are therefore warranted in assuming that St. Paul's conversion to Christianity was not dictated by caprice: it was not dictated by self-interest: it must therefore have sprung from the weight of certain new facts which overbore all the resistance which he could make to them.

What then could these facts have been?

Paul's conduct as a Jew was logical and consistent: he did what any seriously-minded man who had been strictly brought up would have done in his situation. Instead of half believing what he had been taught, he believed it wholly. Christianity was cutting at the root of what was in his day accepted as fundamental: it was therefore perfectly natural that he should set himself to attack it. There is nothing against him in this beyond the fact of his having done it, as far as we can see, with much cruelty. Yet though cruel, he was cruel from the best of motives--the stamping out of an error which was harmful to the service of God; and cruelty was not then what it is now: the age was not sensitive and the lot of all was harder. From the first he proved himself to be a man of great strength of character, and like many such, deeply convinced of the soundness of his opinions, and deeply impressed with the belief that nothing could be good which did not also commend itself as good to him. He tested the truth of his earlier convictions not by external standards, but by the internal standard of their own strength and purity--a fearful error which but for God's mercy towards him would have made him no less wicked than well-intentioned.

Even after having been convinced by a weight of evidence which no prejudice could resist, and after thus attaining to a higher conception of right and truth and goodness than was possible to him as a Jew, there remained not a few traces of the old character. Opposition beyond certain limits was a thing which to the end of his life he could not brook. It is not too much to say that he regarded the other Apostles--and was regarded by them--with suspicion and dislike; even if an angel from Heaven had preached any other doctrine than what Paul preached, the angel was to be accursed (Gal. i., 8), and it is not probable that he regarded his fellow Apostles as teaching the same doctrine as himself, or that he would have allowed them greater licence than an angel. It is plain from his undoubted Epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians that the other Apostles, no less than his converts, exceedingly well knew that he was not a man to be trifled with. If the arm of the law had been as much on his side after his conversion as before it, it would have gone hardly with dissenters; they would have been treated with politic tenderness the moment that they yielded, but woe betide them if they presumed on having any very decided opinions of their own.

On the other hand, his sagacity is beyond dispute; it is certain that his perception of what the Gentile converts could and could not bear was the main proximate cause of the spread of Christianity. He prevented it from becoming a mere Jewish sect, and it has been well said that but for him the Jews would now be Christians, and the Gentiles unbelievers. Who can doubt his tact and forbearance, where matters not essential were concerned? His strength in not yielding a fraction upon vital points was matched only by his suppleness and conciliatory bearing upon all others. To use his own words, he did indeed become "all things to all men" if by any means he could gain some, and the probability is that he pushed this principle to its extreme (see Acts xxi., 20-26).

Now when we see a man so strong and yet so yielding--the writer moreover of letters which shew an intellect at once very vigorous and very subtle (not to say more of them), and when we know that there was no amount of hardship, pain, and indignity, which he did not bear and count as gain in the service of Jesus Christ; when we also remember that he continued thus for all the known years of his life after his conversion, can we think that that conversion could have been the result of anything even approaching to caprice? Or again, is it likely that it could have been due to contact with the hallucinations of his despised and hated enemies? Paul the Christian appears to be the same sort of man in most respects as Paul the Jew, yet can we imagine Paul the Christian as being converted from Christianity to some other creed, by the infection of hallucinations? On the contrary, no man would more quickly have come to the bottom of them, and assigned them to diabolical agency. What then can that thing have been, which wrenched the strong and able man from all that had the greatest hold upon him, and fixed him for the rest of his life as the most self-sacrificing champion of Christianity? In answer to this question we might say, that it is of no great importance how the change was made, inasmuch as the fact of its having been made at all is sufficiently pregnant. Nevertheless it will be interesting to follow Strauss in his remarks upon the account given in the Acts, and I am bound to add that I think he has made out his case. Strange! that he should have failed to see that the evidences in support of the Resurrection are incalculably strengthened by his having done so. How short-sighted is mere ingenuity! And how weak and cowardly are they who shut their eyes to facts because they happen to come from an opponent!

Strauss, however, writes as follows:- "That we are not bound to the individual features of the account in the Acts is shewn by comparing it with the substance of the statement twice repeated in the language of Paul himself: for there we find that the author's own account is not accurate, and that he attributed no importance to a few variations more or less. Not only is it said on one occasion that the attendants stood dumb-foundered: on another that they fell with Paul to the ground; on one occasion that they heard the voice but saw no one; on another that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of him who spoke with Paul: but also the speech of Jesus himself, in the third repetition, gets the well known addition about "kicking against the pricks," to say nothing of the fact that the appointment to the Apostleship of the Gentiles, which according to the two earlier accounts was made partly by Ananias, partly on the occasion of a subsequent vision in the Temple at Jerusalem, is in this last account incorporated in the speech of Jesus. There is no occasion to derive the three accounts of this occurrence in the Acts from different sources, and even in this case one must suppose that the author of the Acts must have remarked and reconciled the discrepancies; that he did not do so, or rather that without following his own earlier narrative he repeated it in an arbitrary form, proves to us how careless the New Testament writers are about details of this kind, important as they are to one who strives after strict historical accuracy.

"But even if the author of the Acts had gone more accurately to work, still he was not an eye witness, scarcely even a writer who took the history from the narrative of an eye witness. Even if we consider the person who in different places comprehends himself and the Apostle Paul under the word 'we' or 'us' to have been the composer of the whole work, that person was not on the occasion of the occurrence before Damascus as yet in the company of the Apostle. Into this he did not enter until much later, in the Troad, on the Apostle's second missionary journey (Acts xvi., 10). But that hypothesis with regard to the author of the Acts of the Apostles is, moreover, as we have seen above, erroneous. He only worked up into different passages of his composition the memoranda of a temporary companion of the Apostle about the journeys performed in his company, and we are therefore not justified in considering the narrator to have been an eye witness in those passages and sections in which the 'we' is wanting. Now among these is found the very section in which appear the two accounts of his conversion which Paul gives, first, to the Jewish people in Jerusalem, secondly, to Agrippa and Festus in Caesarea. The last occasion on which the 'we' was found was xxi., 18, that of the visit of Paul to James, and it does not appear again until xxvii., 1, when the subject is the Apostle's embarkation for Italy. Nothing therefore compels us to assume that we have in the reports of these speeches the account of any one who had been a party to the hearing of them, and, in them, Paul's own narrative of the occurrences that took place on his conversion."

The belief in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures having been long given up by all who have considered the awful consequences which it entails, the Bible records have been opened to modern criticism:- the result has been that their general accuracy is amply proved, while at the same time the writers must be admitted to have fallen in with the feelings and customs of their own times, and must accordingly be allowed to have been occasionally guilty of what would in our own age be called inaccuracies. There is no dependence to be placed on the verbal, or indeed the substantial, accuracy of any ancient speeches, except those which we know to have been reported verbatim, they were (as with the Herodotean and Thucydidean speeches) in most cases the invention of the historian himself, as being what seemed most appropriate to be said by one in the position of the speaker. Reporting was a rare art among the ancients, and was confined to a few great centres of intellectual activity; accuracy, moreover, was not held to be of the same importance as at the present day. Yet without accurate reporting a speech perishes as soon as it is uttered, except in so far as it lives in the actions of those who hear it. Even a hundred years ago the invention of speeches was considered a matter of course, as in the well-known case of Dr. Johnson, than whom none could be more conscientious, and--according to his lights--accurate. I may perhaps be pardoned for quoting the passage in full from Boswell, who gives it on the authority of Mr. John Nichols; the italics are mine. "He said that the Parliamentary debates were the only part of his writings which then gave him any compunction: BUT THAT AT THE TIME HE WROTE THEM HE HAD NO CONCEPTION THAT HE WAS IMPOSING UPON THE WORLD, THOUGH THEY WERE FREQUENTLY WRITTEN FROM VERY SLENDER MATERIALS, AND OFTEN FROM NONE AT ALL--THE MERE COINAGE OF HIS OWN IMAGINATION. HE never wrote any part of his works with equal velocity. (Boswell's Life of Johnson, chap. lxxxii.)

This is an extreme case, yet there can be no question about its truth. It is only one among the very many examples which could be adduced in order to shew that the appreciation of the value of accuracy is a thing of modern date only--a thing which we owe mainly to the chemical and mechanical sciences, wherein the inestimable difference between precision and inaccuracy became most speedily apparent. If the reader will pardon an apparent digression, I would remark that that sort of care is wanted on behalf of Christianity with which a cashier in a bank counts out the money that he tenders-- counting it and recounting it as though he could never be sure enough before he allowed it to leave his hands. This caution would have saved the wasting of many lives, and the breaking of many hearts.

We, on the other hand, however reckless we may be ourselves, are in the habit of assuming that any historian whom we may have occasion to consult, and on whose testimony we would fain rely, must have himself weighed and re-weighed his words as the cashier his money; an error which arises from want of that sympathy which should make us bear constantly in mind what lights men had, under what influences they wrote, and what we should ourselves have done had we been so placed as they. But if any will maintain that though the general run of ancient speeches were, as those supposed to have been reported by Johnson, pure invention, yet that it is not likely that one reporting the words of Almighty God should have failed to feel the awful responsibility of his position, we can only answer that the writer of the Acts did most indisputably so fail, as is shewn by the various reports of those words which he has himself given: if he could in the innocency of his heart do this, and at one time report the Almighty as saying this, and at another that, as though, more or less, this or that were a matter of no moment, what certainty can we have concerning such a man that inaccuracy shall not elsewhere be found in him? None. He is a warped mirror which will distort every object that it reflects.

It follows, then, that from the Acts of the Apostles we have no data for arriving at any conclusion as to the manner of Paul's change of faith, nor the circumstances connected with it. To us the accounts there given should be simply non-existent; but this is not easy, for we have heard them too often and from too early an age to be able to escape their influence; yet we must assuredly ignore them if we are anxious to arrive at truth. We cannot let the story told in the Acts enter into any judgement which we may form concerning Paul's character. The desire to represent him as having been converted by miracle was very natural. He himself tells us that he saw visions, and received his apostleship by revelation--not necessarily at the time of, or immediately after, his conversion, but still at some period or other in his life; it would be the most natural thing in the world for the writer of the Acts to connect some version of one of these visions with the conversion itself: the dramatic effect would be heightened by making the change, while the change itself would be utterly unimportant in the eyes of such a writer; be this however as it may, we are only now concerned with the fact that we know nothing about Paul's conversion from the Acts of the Apostles, which should make us believe that that conversion was wrought in him by any other means, than by such an irresistible pressure of evidence as no sane person could withstand.

From the Apostle's own writings we can glean nothing about his conversion which would point in the direction of its having been sudden or miraculous. It is true that in the Epistle to the Galatians he says, "After it had pleased God to reveal his Son in me," but this expression does not preclude the supposition that his conversion may have been led up to by a gradual process, the culmination of which (if that) he alone regarded as miraculous. Thus we are forced to admit that we know nothing from any source concerning the manner and circumstances of St. Paul's change from Judaism to Christianity, and we can only conclude therefore that he changed because he found the weight of the evidence to be greater than he could resist. And this, as we have seen, is an exceedingly telling fact. The probability is, that coming much into contact with Christians through his persecution of them, and submitting them to the severest questioning, he found that they were in all respects sober plainspoken men, that their conviction was intense, their story coherent, and the doctrines which they had received simple and ennobling; that these results of many inquisitions were so unvarying that he found conviction stealing gradually upon him against his will; common honesty compelled him to inquire further; the answers pointed invariably in one direction only; until at length he found himself utterly unable to resist the weight of evidence which he had collected, and resolved, perhaps at the last suddenly, to yield himself a convert to Christianity.

Strauss says that, "in the presence of the believers in Jesus," the conviction that he was a false teacher--an impostor--"must have become every day more doubtful to him. They considered it not only publicly honourable to be as convinced of his Resurrection as they were of their own life--but they shewed also a state of mind, a quiet peace, a tranquil cheerfulness, even under suffering, which put to shame the restless and joyless zeal of their persecutor. Could HE have been a false teacher who had adherents such as these? Could that have been a false pretence which gave such rest and security? on the one hand, he saw the new sect, in spite of all persecutions, nay, in consequence of them, extending their influence wider and wider round them; on the other, as their persecutor, he felt that inward tranquillity growing less and less which he could observe in so many ways in the persecuted. We cannot therefore be surprised if in hours of inward despondency and unhappiness he put to himself the question, 'Who after all is right, thou, or the crucified Galilean about whom these men are so enthusiastic?' And when he had got as far as this, the result, with his bodily and mental characteristics, naturally followed in an ecstasy in which the very same Christ whom up to this time he had so passionately persecuted, appeared to him in all the glory of which his adherents spoke so much, shewed him the perversity and folly of his conduct, and called him to come over to his service."

The above comes simply to this, that Paul in his constant contact with Christians found that they had more to say for themselves than he could answer, and should, one would have thought, have suggested to Strauss what he supposes to have occurred to Paul, namely, that it was not likely that these men had made a mistake in thinking that they had seen Christ alive after his Crucifixion. There can be no doubt about Strauss's being right as to the Christian intensity of conviction, strenuousness of assertion, and readiness to suffer for the sake of their faith in Christ; and these are the main points with which we are concerned. We arrive therefore at the conclusion that the first Christians were sufficiently unanimous, coherent and undaunted to convince the foremost of their enemies. They were not so BEFORE the Crucifixion; they could not certainly have been made so by the Crucifixion alone; something beyond the Crucifixion must have occurred to give them such a moral ascendancy as should suffice to generate a revulsion of feeling in the mind of the persecuting Saul. Strauss asks us to believe that this missing something is to be found in the hallucinations of two or three men whose names have not been recorded and who have left no mark of their own. Is there any occasion for answer?

It is inconceivable that he who could write the Epistle to the Romans should not also have been as able as any man who ever lived to question the early believers as to their converse with Christ, and to report faithfully the substance of what they told him. That he knew the other Apostles, that he went up to Jerusalem to hold conferences with them, that he abode fifteen days with St. Peter--as he tells us, in order "to question him"--these things are certain. The Greek word ?st???sa? is a very suggestive one. It is so easy to make too much out of anything that I hardly dare to say how strongly the use of the verb ?st??e?? suggests to me "getting at the facts of the case," "questioning as to how things happened," yet such would be the most obvious meaning of the word from which our own "history" and "story" are derived. Fifteen days was time enough to give Paul the means of coming to an understanding with Peter as to what the value of Peter's story was, nor can we believe that Paul should not both receive and transmit perfectly all that he was then told. In fact, without supposing these men to be so utterly visionary that nothing durable could come out of them, there is no escape from holding that Peter was justified in firmly believing that he had seen Christ alive within a very few days of the Crucifixion, that he succeeded also in satisfying Paul that this belief was well-founded, and that in the account of Christ's reappearances, as given I. Cor. xv., we have a virtually verbatim report of what Paul heard from Peter and the other Apostles. Of course the possibility remains that Paul may have been too easily satisfied, and not have cross-examined Peter as closely as he might have done. But then Paul was converted BEFORE this interview; and this implies that he had already found a general consent among the Christians whom he had met with, that the story which he afterwards heard from Peter (or one to the same effect) was true. Whence then the unanimity of this belief? Strauss answers as before--from the hallucinations of an originally small minority. We can only again reply that for the reasons already given we find it quite impossible to agree with him.

[The quotation from Strauss given in this chapter will be found pp. 414, 415, 420, of the first volume of the English translation, published by Williams and Norgate, 1865. I believe that my brother intended to make a fresh translation from the original passages, but he never carried out his intention, and in his MS. the page of the English translation with the first and last words of each passage are alone given. I could hardly venture to undertake the responsibility of making a fresh translation myself, and have therefore adhered almost word for word to the published English translation--here and there, however, a trifling alteration was really irresistible on the scores alike of euphony and clearness.--W. B. O.] _

Read next: The Fair Haven: Chapter 4. Paul's Testimony Considered

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