The Elephant in the Room in Christianity
Before I published this article I conducted a small experiment. I asked Christians, and anyone else interested in Christianity, to let me know what they think is the most important line or verse in the New Testament. If you haven’t already done that, I invite you to pause now and consider what that might be.
The reasoning behind my question was this. Saint Paul (formerly Saul) is known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. In this role he has been accused by some critics of inventing Christianity, on the grounds that Jesus, having been brought up a Jew, could not have said some of the things he said, nor done some of the things he is said to have done in the gospels. Christianity, whether created by Paul or not, has also been accused of being derived from paganism, including the ancient Mystery traditions of various countries. (This was the theme specifically of my previous article, but also of a series discussing the question of the Historical Jesus and the mythicist arguments against this. For details of that, see footnote 1 in the previous article.)
Now, a second question. Please ask yourself what you think is the most significant event in the life of St. Paul. It would be very surprising if your answer were not his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, where he is said to have had a vision of the risen Jesus. This is described in Acts chapter 9, where the story is told in the third person. (In two other places, Acts 22, v 3–16 and Acts 26, v 9–18, Paul recounts the same story in the first person.) For the purposes of my argument the most relevant details are that, following the vision of the resurrected Jesus, ‘the Lord’ instructs a disciple Ananias to go to Saul to heal his blindness. He is then “filled with the Holy Spirit”, and baptised. “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’. After managing to escape from Damascus despite a plot to kill him, he went to Jerusalem and “attempted to join the disciples”. They did not believe that he had become a disciple. “But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles… (where he explained what had happened)”. Paul then preached in Jerusalem.
In the light of all this, ask yourself again: what is the most important passage or verse in the whole of the New Testament?
On the basis of everything I’ve said so far, here is my suggestion: “When God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me… I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus” (Galatians 1, v15–17) — which I think is Paul’s only reference to the possibility that his conversion vision might have taken place near there. He says that it was not until three years later that he went to Jerusalem, intending to meet Cephas (assumed to mean Peter).
He also says: “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie”, which is the equivalent of swearing an oath on the Bible before giving evidence in court; Paul is insisting absolutely on the truth of what he is saying. I trust that the complete incompatibility between the two accounts is obvious, but here are the main points: if Paul, as he claims, really did not confer with any human being, and went immediately to Arabia, then there was no Ananias, no baptism, no preaching in Damascus, and no imminent return to Jerusalem to meet the other apostles. That’s quite a list.
Nowhere in his epistles does Paul mention the road-to-Damascus incident (he merely says that he once persecuted the Jerusalem Church, but was converted following a vision), and Acts nowhere mentions Paul’s stay in Arabia. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the author of Acts (frequently assumed to be Luke) was ignoring this visit, in other words, trying to cover up and rewrite the true history. If he was merely unaware of this pivotal period in Paul’s life, then we might reasonably ask whether he had the right credentials to write Acts in the first place. Why should we trust anything he says if he is that ignorant? (For evidence of his lack of credentials, see the Appendix below.) (In his defence, there is always the possibility that the text of Acts, as we have it, has been subject to later editing by the Catholic Church.)
Why does Paul need to swear an oath with such force? Presumably because other people are telling false versions of his story which he wants to denounce. Paul’s epistles are considered by scholars to be the earliest written documents of the New Testament, therefore precede Acts by many years. We cannot therefore say with certainty that the story of the road-to-Damascus incident, and what followed, was what Paul had in mind when he swore his oath although, given the several discrepancies, it seems a strong candidate. However, in retrospect we can say with certainty that, if Paul were made aware of the account in Acts, based upon his oath, he would completely reject it.
Since Paul has been considered the creator of Christianity rather than Jesus, and his epistles are the foundation of Christian theology, I therefore suggest that Galatians 1, v11–17 should be considered the most important passage in the New Testament, and “I went away at once into Arabia” the most important sentence. (Nobody who responded to my question chose this. This was not at all surprising, as my suggestion is perhaps somewhat obscure. As I expected, everybody mentioned some aspect of the Christian message.)
Whether or not you agree with my suggestion, this passage leads to some exceedingly interesting, difficult and unsettling questions:
- Why did Paul go to Arabia?
- Where exactly did he go? And what happened there?
- Who told him to go there? How did he know that’s where he had to go?
If Paul is to be believed, then the answer to the last question is simple. If he truly did not confer with any human being, then he must have been told in his vision to go to Arabia.
This period has been described as “the most obscure… (and) the only obscure portion of the life of Paul after his conversion”¹. The first problem is that it is not clear what Paul means by Arabia. He does not feel the need to explain to the Galatians, so we can assume they knew where he meant (and perhaps why this was important). In modern times we do not know for certain, and scholars have made various suggestions, some more speculative and fanciful than others.
Paul is swearing that his account, which contradicts the three separate but related accounts in Acts, is the truth. As I suggested above, he is therefore saying that the narrative as we have it in Acts is a fiction, a lie (even if it was written down later). Many Christians, however, have been taught that the Bible is ‘divinely inspired’, and is therefore infallible. So, how do they react when confronted with such a massive contradiction as this? One solution would be to ignore the problem, and sweep it under the carpet — the Elephant in the Room of my title. It is not hard to find examples.
The late Richard Hanson, Bishop and Christian scholar, wrote: “We need not be troubled by Luke’s omission of Paul’s journey into Arabia and return to Damascus immediately after his conversion”². He obviously didn’t want to have to think too much.
The Teaching Company provides educational material on a wide range of topics, released as spoken lectures under the name of The Great Courses. In 2001 a series on The Apostle Paul was produced. The teacher was Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, who has had an impressive career, with many academic credentials and awards, as listed in the accompanying booklet. He was once a Benedictine Monk, and nothing is said to suggest that he is no longer a Christian. The course is 12 lectures long, thus approximately 6 hours of teaching. Yet nowhere does Johnson comment on or even mention the visit to Arabia, even though he must be aware of it, since he refers to the relevant passage, and the accompanying booklet does mention in its timeline of Paul’s life the ‘Time in Arabia’ as being 34 AD. Johnson obviously thinks, or wants us to believe, that this is an insignificant episode. Regarding the conversion experience and what follows he refers to the relevant passages in Acts and Galatians quoted above, yet says that they “differ in detail” (!!). Since Paul swears an oath in God’s name that the account, as it appears in Acts is untrue, this would have to be considered a significant understatement.
The BBC has a long-running programme on radio 4 called In Our Time, which discusses topics of educational interest. On 28/5/2009 the topic was St. Paul. Two of the guests were John Barclay, a Professor of Divinity, and Helen Bond, senior lecturer in New Testament studies; it is therefore reasonable to assume that they have some Christian sympathies. The third was a Professor of Philosophy — John Haldane. At no time was the visit to Arabia mentioned, even though Helen Bond was asked specifically to comment on Galatians. John Barclay did his PhD thesis on Galatians, yet did not find the Arabia issue significant enough to mention in the programme. The presenter Melvyn Bragg introduced the programme, however, with the road-to-Damascus incident as if it were a fact (although his first question to the contributors was how credible the account as described in Acts was).
When the issue is not simply ignored, Christians cannot seem to allow themselves to contemplate the possibility that the account in Acts 9 is false, and try to accommodate it into their thinking, thereby ignoring what Paul says. For example, the scholar C. W. Briggs, who is very knowledgeable, and familiar with all the relevant material, accepts unhesitatingly both that Paul went to Arabia, and that this followed on from the road-to-Damascus incident³.
A similar example would be the prolific Christian scholar N. T. Wright, who has written a lengthy article on the subject⁴. He accepts that Paul did indeed go to Arabia, and attempts hypotheses to explain this from a conventional Christian perspective. More importantly for my purpose here, on four separate occasions he describes the Damascus road incident as a real event, completely failing to notice that Paul swears that the account in Acts is false. Of the four examples, the most telling is when he says that in the Galatians passage: “he describes the events leading up to and following from his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus”.
Here is a quote from an article trying to come up with a reason why Acts omits Paul’s visit to Arabia: “As for Acts, perhaps Luke leaves this story of Paul’s trip out of his narrative, because the book of Acts is about the growth of the Church, and not the life of Paul. For Luke, Paul’s calling is a part of the Church’s growth, and Paul’s missionary travels are part of the Church’s growth. But Paul’s trip out to Sinai in Arabia for a personal experience was not about the Church’s growth, so Luke left it out”⁵. To describe what must have been a momentous life-changing period (for him and, as it turned out, civilisation in general) merely as a ‘personal experience’, does not seem to do justice to what was truly at stake.
Two other examples are:
- “We may conclude that Paul stayed sometime in Damascus after the conversion, preaching to the Jews and then went to Arabia…”⁶
- “Paul indeed began preaching immediately after his conversion”⁷
…thus accepting Acts uncritically, on the basis of no evidence, even though Paul swears an oath that this is not true.
If one feels that one cannot reasonably ignore this striking passage in Galatians, the second reaction might be to acknowledge it, but try to minimise its importance, to distort and downplay what Paul is saying. For example, trying to get round the problem that Acts tells us that Paul started preaching immediately, whereas Galatians says that he did not consult with anyone until after he had gone to Arabia, one article says: “I’m not sure this is a real problem. From the context (especially Galatians 1:11–12) it’s clear that what Paul is stressing is that he did not receive the doctrines of Christianity from any human source. So he is really saying that he did not consult with any Christian. The fact that he started preaching immediately does not contradict this; indeed, his whole point is that he was able to preach without being taught by other Christians”⁸. This suggests that Paul was capable of confidently teaching the new theology, on his own initiative, only a few days after his original vision, which seems unlikely. (The instructional, revelatory visions must have been coming through very quickly.) And if the writer interprets Paul to mean that he did not consult with any Christian, then that would mean that he never met Ananias (described in Acts as a ‘disciple’ of the Lord Jesus), and that he was not baptised. The writer does not seem to notice this contradiction.
Christians also feel uncomfortable about the reasons why Paul might have gone to Arabia. Perhaps the strangest suggestion is that he went to preach to the Gentiles, as if after one visionary experience he would have had a fully developed theology to teach. Another suggestion is that he needed a period of contemplation, and meditation. This is reasonable enough, although one would obviously ask why he could not have done this anywhere; why did he have to insist that he went specifically to Arabia?
The most obvious explanation for Paul’s journey is very simple; Arabia, wherever he meant by that, is where he needed to go to learn from scratch about his new-found religion. That is why he swears on oath that this is where he went. Putting his remark into context, he was trying to persuade the Galatians that he was the true apostle, and that they should not listen to “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1.7). His evidence that he was the true apostle was that, following his conversion he went immediately to Arabia, and did not seek to meet the Jerusalem apostles. It would be wonderful to know what the Galatians made of all this, and whether it persuaded them.
Such a suggestion makes Christians very uncomfortable. Wasn’t Jesus Jewish? Didn’t he live in Palestine, and didn’t all the events of his life take place there? Why could Paul not find what he needed there or in Jerusalem, especially with the apostles who knew Jesus? Does this suggestion undermine everything we’ve ever been taught about Christianity? Perhaps that’s why all the Christians I’ve mentioned here try to avoid the issue.
More to come on this theme in further articles.
Evidence that the author of Acts (Luke?) may not be especially familiar with the life of Paul is as follows. In 2 Corinthians Paul lists the trials and tribulations he had endured in his role as apostle. He has suffered ‘imprisonments’, five lashings at the hands of the Jews, three beatings with rods, three shipwrecks, and on one occasion “for a night and a day I was adrift at sea” (2 Cor. 11: 23–27). Of all this, as far as I can tell, unless Paul is making it all up in order to impress, Acts is aware of only one imprisonment (at Philippi, Acts 16:16–24), and one beating with rods.
Can we truly say that the author is familiar with the life of Paul?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, more on Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
2. Acts in the Revised Standard Version, OUP, 1967 reprinted 1988, p15
3. ‘The Apostle Paul in Arabia’, The Biblical World, Vol. 41, №4, April 1913, p256