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paul the small things
Or, a long, factually wobbly rant about why I hate Saul of Tarsus.
We’re going with a slightly spicy one this week, so if this issue isn’t for you, no worries! Feel free to skip. I just truly hate this man with everything in my body, and I feel like I can take a couple potshots at him and Christianity as a whole will probably emerge just fine.
So buckle up, because today we’re talking about…
Saul of Tarsus, The Man I Personally Blame For Most Things That Are Wrong In The World!
Two caveats, before we get rolling.
Caveat the first: I come by my Saul of Tarsus hate honestly. My late grandfather, a devout Catholic who basically built the local church, gave the following verbatim instruction for his funeral: “Do not include any readings from Paul. I hate Paul.” (No Paul was read. Love you, grandpa.)
Caveat the second: Our story starts in the year ~5 BCE, is wildly apocryphal, and is inextricably tangled up in the metaphors of an extremely popular religion many of you may have heard of. Therefore, I’m going back to my traditional approach for telling ancient history, as explained by the sign below.
OK. I’ll still probably get yelled at for this one, but I’ve covered my bases. So let’s get into it.
Hold My Coat, Bro
Saul was born in roughly 5 BCE in the city of Tarsus, in what is now southern Turkey. He grew up in a devout Jewish family and moved to Jerusalem to study with one of the most celebrated Rabbinic teachers of the time when he was in his teens. All well and good so far.
Except then Saul entered his Persecution of the Christians Era.
Which looked like what, exactly? Well, funny you ask.
The sources we have are sorta hand-wavy about the torture and persecution Saul was committing against early Christians. Anecdotally, I’ve heard people say he fed Christians to lions, or arrested thousands of women and children, but literally the only documented thing I can find is that Saul agreed to watch people’s coats while they threw rocks at a man named Stephen.
Other than that, he seems to have been a real Inspector Javert type, stalking the countryside pursuing “criminals” who had stolen a Eucharist to feed their sister’s child or whatever. He arrested people for defying Jewish law, and what happened after that was someone else’s problem, as far as I can tell.
But then! Saul hit his head real hard, and everything changed.
Panic! at Damascus
The year: roughly 35 CE. The place: the road outside Damascus. Saul was riding into town to ambiguously persecute some Christians, presumably humming “Stars” from Les Misérables to pass the time. When who should appear but the Lord Jesus Christ. Who appeared out of the clouds in a light so bright it literally struck Saul blind, knocked him off his horse, and yelled, in essence, “Hey dickhead, stop ambiguously persecuting my people! Love, God.”
Allegedly. Saul seems to have believed this is what happened, anyway. I am an amateur historian, not an amateur theologian, so the truth of the matter is none of my business.
After calling the 35 CE equivalent of Triple A, Saul continued on to Damascus, where upon arrival he conveniently could see again. The first thing he did then was get baptized as a Christian. Which, like, more power to you, man. Live your life. The second thing was kicking down the doors of synagogues like the Kool-Aid Man declaring that Jesus was Lord and everybody should fall in line. I’m sure the Syrians trying to have a casual shabbat service really enjoyed that.
Sidebar: Most stories say that Saul of Tarsus changed his name to Paul after his conversion to Christianity to show that he had Accepted the Lord. However, I just recently learned this is bullshit: “Paul” was the name he used when talking to Romans because it sounded more Roman, so he could blend in better. It’s like a frat guy whose name is John but goes by Jay when he’s out with the boys. I will continue calling him Saul throughout this newsletter, partly because it differentiates the historical person from the Bible protagonist and partly because I think it would piss him off.
Newly converted and raring to go, Saul went on a road trip to Jerusalem, where he couch-surfed with a surprising number of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. What else he did for the next decade or two is unclear. Best guesses include: wandering in the wilderness, thinking godly thoughts, doing letter-writing exercises, telling everyone who would listen about the time he looked at the sun and fell off his horse.
All that pent-up Persecution Energy had to go somewhere, though, so Saul met up with a friend and traveled to Antioch, a place I associate completely and exclusively with the Holy Hand Grenade.
Saul, as the self-appointed Best Friend of Jesus, became the very first Christian missionary, shaking his fist and shouting at people throughout Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus that their religion was wrong. People refer to this as the “Post-Conversion” period, but I’ve gotta say, to my eyes, Saul changed literally nothing about his behavior. Still wandering around doing religious yelling, just for the other team.
The Antioch mission includes one anecdote about Saul blinding a wizard, which my sources presented without any additional context as if I wouldn’t immediately have six million questions. Any 1st-century CE historians who know about ancient wizardry please hit me up in the comments.
From Antioch, Saul continued wandering around Greece, Macedonia, and other places that only exist in the names of Bible books, like Corinth, Ephesus, and Galatia. I still remember being 20 years old sitting in my “Intro to Biblical Studies” class and realizing that Corinthians are people from Corinth and not some mystical sect of heretics from a lost religion. “Saint Paul’s Letter to the Population of Duluth, Minnesota” probably wouldn’t have caught on the same way.
All of these missions went on for decades, so I’m skimming wildly. I’m not going to get into the moral or theological aspect of Saul’s missions, except to say that people aggressively trying to convert you to their religion is a deeply unpleasant way to spend an afternoon and has led to many global bummers such as the Crusades, colonialism, and genocide. It’s also led to many uncomfortable social outings where you think you’re just being invited to play co-ed kickball with friends and then the prayers start and everyone is staring at you, but I’m not sure if that’s relevant in Galatia or just to preteens in the American Midwest with Jewish last names.
What I am going to get into, though, is an incomplete list of the batshit things that allegedly happened during Saul’s mission trips. Because what would an issue of Dirtbags Through the Ages be without a list of unsubstantiated but fucking insane anecdotes.
We’ve already discussed Operation: Blind the Wizard.
But then there’s the time Saul tried to food-shame Saint Peter for keeping kosher, except everyone in town was on Peter’s side and Saul had to leave town he was so embarrassed.
There’s also the fact that spending your whole life in the missionary position costs money, and we’re several years pre-GoFundMe. So Saul decided to pay the bills by being a…traveling tentmaker? Once again, this is presented in the sources without comment. How hard is it to make tents in the first century. Is it not just a cloak on some sticks. REI won’t be invented for another 1,900 years.
Allegedly, one of Saul’s miracles was casting a spirit of divination out of a girl in Greece—which, can I just say, would have royally pissed me off. Don’t take away my soothsaying powers, you absolute dick. I am an enslaved woman in 51 CE. How else am I going to make a living. I have no rights. I can’t start a Patreon.
Saul got chased out of Ephesus by a mob of angry silversmiths who worshipped the goddess Artemis. This is an insane sentence and I love every syllable of it.
At one point, Saul got arrested in Macedonia, presumably for being an annoying little bitch. He was sent to prison, but the prison collapsed in a freak earthquake. (God, offstage, allegedly: “You’re welcome.”) However, Saul chose not to escape even though the prison walls were in shambles, hanging out to chat theology with the jailor instead. The Socrates vibes are off the charts, and I hate them both the same way for the same reason.
Once, in the city of Lystra, Saul got the local people to believe he was literally a god and received animal sacrifices extolling his power. The Road to El Dorado of this man is unbelievable. Biblical scholars say Saul definitely tried to convince the Lystrians he wasn’t a god, but, like. Be real.
This brings us to 57 CE, when Saul came back to Jerusalem for what he imagined would be The Apostles: Reunion Tour. However, soon after his arrival, he was arrested, allegedly for “desecrating Jewish temples” but really, one assumes, for being an asshole. He convinced the Romans ruling Jerusalem to let him defend himself, which literally went like this:
Saul: please can I explain what I’m doing here before you arrest me.
Roman Centurion 1: I mean, if you think it’ll help.
Saul: good morning, Jerusalem! do you want to hear about all the non-Christians I’ve annoyed between here and Spain? I have so many anecdotes! here, let me start reading from my thirteenth letter to the Corinthians. it’s really good.
The Entire City of Jerusalem, in perfect unison: oh my god someone please kill this man before he writes another letter.
Saul: listen, I didn’t want to have to mention this, but God did blind me.
Roman Centurion 2: how many fingers am I holding up
Saul: …I got better.
40 Random Men in Jerusalem: I’m going on a hunger strike until you kill him.
Saul, hissing: just try and kill me, you heathens. no one can stop my letters.
The Governor of Jerusalem, wearily rubbing his temples: listen. if I send him to Rome. will that help.
40 Random Men in Jerusalem: it’s a start.
So Saul got sent to Rome, where he spent literally a decade under house arrest waiting for the emperor to decide whether or not to kill him.
Finally, in about 67 CE, Emperor Nero got around to it, and Saul was beheaded, and there was great rejoicing. There’s a story I particularly like about Saul’s decapitated head bouncing around Rome creating lakes everywhere it landed, but. You know. That’s not how lakes work.
Saul was buried outside the city walls, then dug up again and identified through genetic testing in 2002, which IDK is sort of neat. Hilarious to me that we can’t find Darnley’s head but we’re like “oh yeah, this first-century asshole? Right where we left him.”
But Why Do I Hate Him So Much?
Part of my problem with Saul of Tarsus is that all his letters included in the Bible are so condescending. Like, he’s just going on and on about how everything the Corinthians are doing is wrong, how like silly little children they are, blah blah blah, when Saul himself just got punched in the face by Jesus like fifteen years ago. Like, chill, man. This is not how you make friends.
But my real beef with Saul is that he truly thought he could just put his own rancid secret sauce on Christianity and no one would notice. He didn’t consider himself part of any real church or sect while he was evangelizing—it was really whatever floated his own boat that day. And most of what floated his boat was misogyny.
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
That’s Saul of Tarsus just straight freestyling in 1 Timothy. And then in 1 Romans he’s like “by the way God hates lesbians, a thing that is totally canonical to God and not just a hang-up I personally have.”
How do you know God hates women, you colossal asshole? Did Jesus say so while he was smiting you with a lightning bolt and knocking you off your stupid out-of-proportion horse? Was he like “Hi Saul, nice to meet you, I am God, also just to really underline this point women and gays are garbage, oops you’re blind now, that’s probably a woman’s fault too”?
UGH. SAUL OF TARSUS. Easily 90% of the misogyny and homophobia currently wreaking havoc on my country is your fault. Hope you’re happy about it. (Annoyingly, I’m sure he is.)
Anyway. That’s my rant. Thank you for humoring me. If you’re preparing to comment that I’m going to hell, no need, I’m very aware. We all have a good time here. I think you’re great, for what that’s worth.
Until next time, be well, and if you get an urge to write a condescending letter to the people of Duluth, Minnesota about how much you personally hate women or whatever, maybe check that impulse,