Three Years in Damascus
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
W hen Paul rushed off to Arabia immediately after his conversion, he did not know what he was getting into. He acted impulsively without doing his homework on the situation there. A few questions in Damascus would have alerted him to a serious problem. Just at this moment the Nabataeans had very good reason to detest Jews.
The Jewish king of Galilee had repudiated his Nabataean wife. In response her father went to war and defeated the Galileans. They in turn screamed to Rome that the Nabataeans had disturbed the peace of the eastern frontier. The latter were now waiting anxiously for Rome to send its legions from Syria to devastate their country. Naturally they blamed the Jews for their misery.
I would be greatly surprised if Paul lasted a week in Arabia. The minute he opened his mouth he would have been known for what he was. No Jew would have been welcome.
No doubt somewhat chastened Paul returned to Damascus. It was beginning to sink in that to be an apostle of Jesus Christ was perhaps a little more complicated than he had anticipated. Pagans to whom he could preach would not have been a problem in Damascus. Merchants of many nations had trading bases there. Financial support was another matter.
As a student in Jerusalem Paul had lived on charity. Any supplement from his family would have been at risk as soon as he became a Christian. How was he to live? The church in Damascus could not afford to support its new converts, or even to give the impression that it was buying recruits.
Very much against the grain of his upbringing as a member of the leisured class, Paul quickly realized that he needed a marketable skill that would give him mobility. He would have to learn a trade. No doubt he thought long and carefully, and established a careful set of criteria.
It had to be a skill that was needed throughout the Roman Empire, in great cities and small villages, on the road, and on the sea. It had to bring him into contact with all sectors of the population. The tools had to be small and easily carried. The job had to be quiet and sedentary so that he could preach as he worked. Finally his choice fell on the trade of tentmaker.
This might seem a curious choice to us, but in fact it was very clever. The essential skill is to join together pieces of canvas or leather in neat turned over seams. There were only six standard stitches. Travellers wore leather cloaks, belts, and sandals, and carried leather gourds. The wagons of the wealthy had canvas tops and leather tack. Paul could repair them all. He could thus pay his way on the great roads of the Greco-Roman world.
Experienced sea travellers knew that cargo ships had no cabins. So they brought small tents that they set up on deck to protect themselves from sun and spray. The tents also provided shelter when the ship docked at night. Paul could earn his passage by patching sails.
More importantly every town and village had its festival, and had to provide tented accomodation for visitors and traders. Corinth, for example, hosted the Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. Every second year in the spring a huge tent city blossomed at Isthmia (9 km from the city) to cater for the 50,000 or so visitors from all over the Greek world. Their needs were met by merchants from Corinth who lived in their booths for the week. To meet its obligations the municipality of Corinth employed tentmakers all the year round. It was there that Paul first worked with Prisca and Aquila, who had been converted in Rome, and were to become his advance party first in Ephesus and later in Rome.
The need to earn his way would often have slowed Paul’s departure from an inn in the morning. He could not afford to refuse work. But that might mean that he would not cover the 25 Roman miles to the next inn by nightfall. He tells us that he often had “sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, cold and badly dressed” (2 Corinthians 11:27). He had been caught in the open. He might have been desperately tired when he tramped into a strange town, but first he had to find food, a place to live, and above all a job. In the slums there was little charity. Paul needed extraordinary courage and stamina to struggle on day after day, “on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in danger at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:26).
With Peter in Jerusalem
Paul’s departure from Damascus involved both high drama and farce. Probably in the autumn of AD 37 the Roman emperor Gaius (Caligula) gave Damascus to the Nabataeans as part of his reorganization of the eastern frontier of the empire. For some reason Paul felt that this put him at risk. Perhaps he though that they were still after him for his foray into Arabia some three years earlier. In any case he was not prepared to take chances, and prepared to escape. He was afraid to slip out in disguise because the gates of the city were guarded. Instead he had himself lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall. Was Paul incapable of sliding down a rope? Why did he have to be treated like a baby?
One might have expected Paul to head immediately for a new mission in pagan territory. Instead, he tells us, he went to visit Peter in Jerusalem. This decision took some courage because he would have been remembered as a persecutor by Jerusalem Christians. Understandably he kept a very low profile. He saw only Peter and James the brother of Jesus, and stayed for barely two weeks.
We can hardly imagine that Peter and Paul spent their brief time together discussing the illnesses of their mothers-in-law or the pleasures of fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Paul however, could well have asked him, “How did you get the curious name, Rocky?” because the Aramaic form ‘Kephas’ (= Petros = Rock), is invariably the name that appears in Paul’s letters. This would have brought them into the middle of the gospel story, and that is what Paul was so desperately interested in.
Peter had lived with Jesus since they were both disciples of John the Baptist. He had now been preaching for seven years, and had certainly developed a comprehensive story about Jesus, highlighting the words and deeds that he thought most important. He was in fact proclaiming a gospel such as was written down by Mark much later. Peter, in other words, was the perfect eyewitness to satisfy Paul’s devouring curiosity about the historical Jesus.
In his letters Paul provides a few ‘facts’ about Jesus. He was a Jew of Davidic descent, who had several married brothers who were missionaries, and who on the night when he was arrested celebrated a final meal with his disciples. These, however, are but the tip of the iceberg. Paul would have told the story of Jesus orally in much greater detail when he founded churches, and there was no need to repeat it. Nonetheless, in his letters we do catch glimpses of what he said.
Paul quotes words of Jesus twice: (1) there should be no divorce, and (2) pastors should accept financial support. In each case, however, Paul does exactly the opposite. He permits divorce, and insists on working for his living rather than demand subsidies. Obviously there is problem here and I shall return to it in a later essay.
We might have wished for more explicit citations of words of Jesus, but Paul contents himself with allusions. He had so deeply inculcated the teaching of Jesus that he could be sure that a word or two would be sufficient to evoke in their minds the desired quotation. Thus, by saying “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16), Paul expected his converts to recall, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words . . . so the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes” (Mark 8:38).
Paul’s converts would have been proud that he trusted them to remember words of Jesus. They would have felt stronger and more united. Allusions are insider language. Only members of the group can grasp the hidden connection. Allusions, in consequence, have a bonding effect that builds community. In such subtle ways Paul demonstrated his leadership skills.
Paul’s letters also contain incidental references to the behaviour of Jesus. If we put them together it becomes clear that Paul was particularly impressed by two aspects of the personality of Jesus. In his very first letter he singled out the ‘steadfastness’ of Jesus. Later he mentions the ‘fidelity’ of Jesus. Despite hostility and suffering Jesus never wavered. His life was ‘an enduring Yes’, not a mixture of Yes and No as our lives are.
In these passages Paul intends to evoke Jesus’ total dedication to his mission. We all know people who are so single-minded in pursuit of a cause that they become cold and distant to others. What Paul saw in Jesus was the exact opposite. He speaks of Jesus’ ‘affection/compassion’, of his ‘meekness and gentleness’, of his ‘love’ and his ‘poverty’. Clearly the Jesus that Paul knew was the Jesus of the miracles, who did everything possible to alleviate pain and misery, while preaching a high ideal of love.
Paul knew that he had a lot to live up to when he said, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
The Icons are from the Dominican Monastery, Siena, Drogheda