Garry Wills on Paul the Persecutor

The standard story is that Paul was commissioned by the high priest to destroy the Christians. He went door-to-door in Judea to root them out, and then was sent to destroy Christians in Damascus. Wills rejects all of this.

Many others have questioned Paul’s initial focus on Jerusalem, since he himself said no one there would recognize him. Similarly, many have questioned Paul’s putative relation with the high priest. But as far as I can tell, no one has doubted that Paul violently persecuted Christians somewhere. It’s not that Wills doubts Paul. He just denies that Paul was violent.

In What Paul Meant, Wills explains how Paul persecuted the Christians: “by using the weapons we shall see him employ against opponents in the letters that have come down to us—fierce argument, fine distinctions of scriptural interpretation, sardonic humor, and enunciation” (p. 41). Wills believes that Paul tried to destroy the movement from Damascus, rather than its headquarters in Jerusalem. Wills claims, “He would refute the intruders, ridicule them, drive them out, deprive them of a base in Damascus.” Nothing as crass as violence.

Wills knows that Paul told the Galatians, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (1:13-14). Paul also told the Galatians that the churches in Judea said, “The one who was formerly persecuting us in now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy” (1:23). Wills also knows that Paul told the Philippians that when he was a Pharisee, he demonstrated his zeal as “a persecutor of the church” (3.6). Wills also knows that he told the Corinthians, “I am … unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15.9).

Somehow Garry Wills came to believe that Paul’s profession of violence was a metaphor, and that he himself felt guilty over his “sardonic humor,” “ridicule,” and “fierce arguments” against the Christian movement. But Paul was hardly so delicate a creature. He wished that Judaizers who wished to circumcise Gentiles would slice off their own penises; he threatened to hand over some of his church members to Satan; and he threatened to beat some with a rod. In 2000 years, only Garry Wills thought that when Paul spoke of violently persecuting Christians, he had a tongue lashing in mind.

Pauline scholars and defenders regularly commit howlers. They are forced to in trying to protect Paul from his own damaging statements. But these repeated claims by Garry Wills are “unforced errors.” Paul created the myth of his being a persecutor to enhance his reputation. It makes his conversion seem all the more miraculous, and enhances his masculinity as well. That’s why the myth became a key element in his story, and why virtually everyone loves it. But Wills goes out of his way to reject it, leaving his reason far behind. His denial is based solely on fantasy. It is pathological.

This may be the most extreme example of Wills’ pathology, but it is evident throughout his books on Paul and Jesus. Yet no one criticized it. These books became best sellers, and are still stocked in most libraries. No one criticizes even the most outrageous claims made on Paul’s behalf. But critics of Paul, like Hyam Maccoby, are subject to the vilest attacks, if they are not simply suppressed. These pious folk insist that the emperor’s new clothes are simply divine, and are willing to go to Holy War over it.