John Lilburne's journal about Saint Paul acting as a soldier in his arrests and persecutions.

 

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2253 L Fri 25 Jan 2002

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, who had another name "Saul". One of the readings that can be used at Mass begins:

Saul was still breathing threats to slaughter the Lord's disciples. He had gone to the high priest and asked for letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, that would authorise him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way, men or women, that he could find. (Acts 9:1-2)

But this view is deliberately contradicted in the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. In an entry on Paul by Thomas H. Tobin, he presents this the following about Paul's persecutions:

Contary to Acts 9:1-2, this probably involved only subjecting them to the normal punishments of the synagogue, including flogging and exclusion from the Jewish community, rather than either imprisonment or capital punishment.

I find this remarkable given the account of the capital punishment of Stephen, which concludes:

Saul entirely approved of the killing. (Acts 8:1).

Given what the Bible says, why would someone suggest Paul did otherwise? The difficulty, I think, is how someone working for the synagogue could have had so much authority. When the Jews bring Jesus to Pilate, in John 18:31, they explain: "We are not allowed to put a man to death". But somehow Stephen was. An explanation that occurs to me is that Paul was a Roman soldier. If not, at least it seems to me that the Romans gave him a lot of power.

Just after Saul's conversion Acts 10 describes the conversion of the centurion Cornelius, so the conversion of a Roman soldier is entirely plausible.

Paul says he is a Roman citizen in Acts 22:27. Roman soldiers rescue Paul from a crowd in Acts 21:32. Then they allow him to address the crowd! It is true that he is imprisoned by the Romans, but he seems to receive generous hearings and protection from them.

It seems remarkable to me that when he says "I appeal to Caesar." The response is "You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go." The Bible makes no mention of him being killed in Rome. It is from tradition that he is believed to have been martyred there, during the persecutions of Nero, being beheaded at Tre Fontane (according to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints).

The main flaw with my suggestion is that the Bible does not say he was a Roman soldier. But I think more consideration should be given to the possibility that he was a soldier.

0947 L Sat 26 Jan 2002

I have been thinking about a possible explanation for why Paul may have a been a Roman soldier, but for the Bible not to say this.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes of being imprisoned:

My chains, in Christ, have become famous not only all over the Praetorium but everywhere, and most of the brothers have taken courage in the Lord from these chains of mine and are getting more and more daring in announcing the Message without any fear. (Phil 1:13-14).

Why is he arrested? For being a Christian? This seems possible, based for example on Acts 8:3:

Saul then worked for the total destruction of the Church: he went from house to house arresting both men and women and sending them to prison.

For being a leading Christian? This seems possible, based on Acts 12:1-3:

It was about this time that King Herod started persecuting certain members of the Church. He beheaded James the brother of John, and when he saw that this pleased the Jews he decided to arrest Peter as well. ...

But another possibility is that the conversion of Paul to Christianity was seen as a betrayal of other responsibilities. If he were a Roman soldier he could be charged with desertion. So if it were true, he would be reluctant to say this or write about it.

Just a possibility. Perhaps this would be a clearer statement of Paul's conversion: he went from following the Jewish high priest to being opposed to his policies.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 25 January 2002. Last updated 26 January 2002. Bible extracts from the Jerusalem Bible.