Just an essay I wrote for class, supposed to be some minor research on questions raise about Paul the Apostle. If you’re interested in Christianity and relating what happened to Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus, this might interest you.
Questions About Paul: What Were the Marks of Jesus He Bore?
Paul bore the stigmata of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth. Is this an outrageous claim? I believe it is a plausible one. I think considering the possibility answers several questions raised about Paul by other scholars. The purpose of this essay is to outline the possibility and create an outline for additional research.
First, what does Paul tell us about his own bodily markings? There is no direct reference to any such physical penetrations in his autobiographical description of his conversion event. Rather, Paul reveals he was given a mission. “But when God… called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles” (Gal 1:15, 16). However, in his concluding remarks he writes “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal 6:17). Ephesians being considered deuteron-Pauline, it may not be as strong a source. Yet, written in the first person as Paul, the author writes while speaking of righteousness through God, “…to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death” (Eph 3:10). If Paul, this sounds like an admission. If not Paul but a student of his, is sounds like witness. I, however, am limited to reading the English. What do the expert exegetics state?
St. Jerome, our premier exegete in the Church comments on Gal 6:17. “Through these words Paul reveals what he himself was suffering, how much he shared with Christ and what we also ought to suffer if we wish to live in Christ” (Jerome, Commentarius in Epistolam S. Pauli ad Ephesios). Did he write ‘stigmata’? No, he does not, though the concept we understand as the five wounds of Christ were not well developed before St. Francis and the eleventh century. There is an implication that early on the idea of Paul bearing Christ’s wounds was considered. Father Frank Matera wrote a commentary for the Sacra Pagina commentary series. Fr. Matera explains the Greek as “Stigmata” denotes a mark, such as a tattoo or a brand” (Matera, Galatians para 17). Certainly, holes in one’s hands and feet and a wound in the side would look like a brand, and a terrible one at that. However, Matera goes on to explain the Greek usage shows Paul using a metaphor for his sufferings and persecution. Richard Longenecker takes the explanation even further. “The term (Greek work/no characters) was common in the ancient world for the marks of religious tattooing or slave branding… More likely, however, what Paul had in mind by his use of (same Greek) here were the scars and disfigurements left on his body as the effects of his sufferings as an apostle” (Longenecker, Galatians, p. 299). So, I could ‘read in’ what I want here but the experts translating the Greek are telling me different. Still, I’ll hold to the theme for I think it answers some other questions.
The stigmata we understand is bleeding and pain from the hands, feet, and side of the mystic struck with it along with the pain and agony suffered by the instruments of such wounds. For some the wounds bled constantly. Others experienced it weekly from Thursday nights through Friday late afternoons. Some would suffer publically. Saint Padre Pio heard confessions through his periods of agony. Others were in spiritual ecstasy through the event. All were weakened by the constant blood loss and therefore sick from other maladies attacking their bodies. So what questions might this answer for us about Paul and his life after his conversion vision with God?
Let’s start with Ananias in Damascus. God tells him to go and see Saul, a man he knows has come to Damascus to arrest believers in The Way and drag them back to the Temple in Jerusalem. He is frightened, probably to near death. I can imagine how all his fear would be taken away upon seeing a man presenting the wounds of crucifixion, the wounds he may have seen Jesus bear, and still be walking around living. There would be no hesitation of baptizing this man, despite his reputation, and no problem believing his story of his vision of God.
Saul is a Pharisee. He works out of or in conjunction with the Temple and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. If he is bleeding, why would he not go back to the city to seek medical help from the experts of his day? Instead, “he stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus” (Acts 9:19). Bearing the marks of a crucified man would make him ‘unclean’ in Jewish law. He could not enter the Temple. And, those same marks would make him a criminal. Possibly he feared to return for this reason.
Jeremiah seems to be a favorite prophet of Saul’s. “Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there? Why grow not new flesh over the wound of the daughter of my people?” (Jer 8:22) Most certainly, there is a balm in Gilead used for healing. Martha Grieve detailed in her book A Modern Herbal how the balsam trees of the desert east of the Jordan River were used to create a healing oil by breaking down the bark of the tree. Since Saul, now Paul, cannot go to Jerusalem to find help, he could have gone to Gilead to seek healing. Jeremiah writes of growing new flesh over the wound. A hole in one’s extremities is a strong enticement to seek any help. After all, Paul writes “…rather, I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus” (Gal 1:17). Paul went to Arabia seeking healing.
Imagine the effect on Peter and James, and then John, seeing their persecutor with the same marks probed by Thomas a week after the resurrection. This would have been a powerful incentive, and by the time Paul went to see them they would certainly have heard from Ananias about this marvel. “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to confer with Kephas and remained with him for fifteen days” (Gal 1:18). Fifteen days is a long time. I can see the wonder on Peter’s face as the fear melts away, and even imagine him probing Paul’s wounds as Thomas had probed Jesus’s own wounds. What a powerful statement it makes to walk into the ‘Rock’ of the Church a known persecutor of it, and hold up one’s hands and show one’s feet bearing the same marks as the Lord. It would take little convincing beyond this to bring one to believe in the conversion vision story and approve the vision’s mission assignment.
Paul bearing the stigmata makes sense in the hindsight of two-thousand years of the Church’s history, and it makes even more sense in view of a thousand years of mystical saints bearing the same marks. I find the question an intriguing one that answers several other questions posed, in spite of the commentaries on the Greek. Does it matter, though, to our faith today? I think not. Whether Paul did or did not bear the pain of the stigmata, physically, mentally, and emotionally, the spiritual strength he was gifted with is strongly evident in the effect his mission had of shaping the Church of Jesus Christ on earth and his letters continue to speak to us today about living a Christian life. Have you read Paul lately?
And, if you’re interested in the background, here’s the bibliography.
Bacchus, Francis Joseph. St. Philastrius. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 17 Nov. 2014 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11797a.htm>.
Grieve, M. Balsam of Gilead. “A Modern Herbal”. 1931. On-line at Botanical.com – A Modern Herbal; copy write 1995 – 2014. Downloaded 12-2-14.
Jerome. Commentarius in Epistolam S. Pauli ad Ephesios. Sancti Evsebii Hieronymi Opera Omnia. Patrologieae Cursus Completus; Siries Latina, vol 26. Edited by J.P. Migne. Paris: Migne, 1845. Print.1
Longernecker, Richard N. Galatians. Word Biblical Commentary, Gordon J. Wenham Ed. Vol. 41. Dallas: Word Books, (*) 2. Print.
Matera, Frank J. Galatians. Sacra Pagina Series Vol. 9 Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. Ed. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, (*)3. Print.
Senior, D. GenEd. The Catholic Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.