The Apostle of Love
If indeed, as the previous chapter suggested, love wasn’t a big part of Jesus’s actual message, who made it a major Christian theme? Lots of people, but the seminal role was probably played by the apostle Paul.
In the modern world, Paul’s views on love are best known through the famous piece of scripture read at so many weddings: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful.…” But this passage from a letter to the Corinthians is just a small sample of Paul’s work on the subject. Whereas Jesus utters the word “love” only twice in the entire Gospel of Mark, Paul uses it more than ten times in a single epistle, his letter to the Romans. Sometimes he is talking about God’s love for man, sometimes about the need for man to love God, and about half the time he is talking about the need for people to love one another—the need for, as he sometimes puts it, “brotherly love.” Indeed, Paul is the author of the New Testament’s pithy extension of brotherhood across bounds of ethnicity, class, even (notwithstanding the term “brotherhood”) gender. It was his letter to the Galatians that was quoted in the previous chapter: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The “apostle Paul” was not one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. Quite the opposite: after the Crucifixion he seems to have persecuted followers of Jesus. According to the book of Acts, he “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” But then, while on his way to treat some Syrian followers of Jesus in this fashion, he underwent his “road to Damascus” conversion. He was blinded by the light and heard the voice of Jesus. This changed his perspective. He eventually decided that Jesus had died in atonement for humanity’s sins.
Paul devoted the rest of his life to spreading this message, and he was very good at it. As much as Jesus himself, some scholars say, Paul was vital to the eventual success of the religious movement that came to be called Christianity. And, more than Jesus, apparently, Paul was responsible for injecting that religion with the notion of interethnic brotherly love.
Why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no ethnic bounds? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be “accursed”—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering. The scholar John Gager has described Paul as a “feisty preacher-organizer, bitterly attacked and hated by other apostles within the Jesus movement.”
No, the origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindess, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. This doctrine doesn’t flow naturally from his core beliefs about Jesus, either. Paul’s gospel message can be broken down into four parts: Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ; the Messiah had died as a kind of payment for the sins of humanity; humans who believed this—who acknowledged the redemption Christ had realized on their behalf—could have eternal life; but they’d better evince this faith quickly, for Judgment Day was coming.
This message may suggest a loving God, but it says nothing directly about the importance of people loving one another, much less about the importance of extending that love across ethnic bounds. So where did the doctrine that some people now think of as “Christian love” come from? It emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and their social environment. In the end as much credit should go to the Roman Empire as to Paul.
Lacking in Love
In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin. The classicist E. R. Dodds has written of the “rootless inhabitants of the great cities” in the empire: “the urbanised tribesman, the peasant come to town in search of work, the demobilised soldier, the rentier ruined by inflation, and the manumitted slave.”
It was somewhat like the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, when industrialization drew Americans into turbulent cities, away from their extended families. Back then, as the social scientist Robert Putnam has observed, rootless urbanites found grounding in up-and-coming social organizations, such as the Elks Club and the Rotary Club. You might expect comparable conditions in the early Roman Empire to spawn comparable organizations. Indeed, Roman cities saw a growth in voluntary associations. Some were vocational guilds, some more like clubs, and some were religious cults (“cults” in the ancient sense of groups devoted to the worship of one or more gods, not in the modern sense of wacky fringe groups). But whatever their form, they often amounted to what one scholar has called fictive families for people whose real families were off in some distant village or town.
The familial services offered by these groups ranged from the material, like burying the dead, to the psychological, like giving people a sense that other people cared about them. On both counts, early Christian churches met the needs of the day. As for the material: The church, Dodds wrote, provided “the essentials of social security,” caring for “widows and orphans, the old, the unemployed, and the disabled; it provided a burial fund for the poor and a nursing service in time of plague.” As for the psychological: In Paul’s writing, “brothers” is a synonym for “followers of Jesus.” A church was one big family.…