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  • Writer's pictureChapman Chen

The Anti-Vegan Paul as a Roman Spy. By Thijs Voskuilen.



ABSTRACT Through examining the life and work of the man who is generally known as the Apostle Paul, I hope to challenge the idea that the founder of Christianity was a saint and replace it with the possibility that he really was an agent-provocateur working for the Roman administration in Palestine and various other parts of the Empire. Paul’s biography and his own letters, both of which were taken up in the New Testament, hold numerous clues to the effect that this former persecutor, originally named Saul of Tarsus, never left the ranks of the government, but instead went undercover after his famous ‘conversion’ en route to Damascus. The self-proclaimed successor-to-Jesus was not only treated dramatically differently from Jesus by the Romans, but they were his friends and allowed him to live and work for 20 years instead of crucifying him. Jesus’ original followers distrusted Paul, and made various attempts to kill him throughout his life. I will conclude by arguing that Paul’s claim that Jesus, this candidate-king of the Jews, was the Messiah and had been crucified as the will of God (the prime assumption upon which Christianity is based) should be read as a sadistic mockery of Jewish faith, meant to divide a Jewish resistance organisation and pacify it.

Original article: Thijs Voskuilen (2005) Operation Messiah: Did Christianity Start as a Roman Psychological Counterinsurgency Operation?, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 16:2, 192-215, DOI: 10.1080/09592310500079940 . Corr. Email: t.voskuilen@planet.nl MA in History and Journalism from the Rijksuniversiteit Groninggen, The Netherlands

To link to the original article: https://doi.org/10.1080/0959231050007994

More than one author has read the New Testament with an eye toward identifying espionage activities. In a province like Judaea that was rife with revolutionary activity between the Roman takeover in 6 CE and the actual outbreak of rebellion in 66 CE, it is not impossible to suggest that underground networks were run by both the Jews and the Romans. Those networks may have contained undercover agents who feigned loyalty to one side while serving the other.1 An agent who served the Roman side may have been Saul of Tarsus, the police officer who became known as the Apostle Paul.


A Roman born citizen, Saul of Tarsus first became a persecutor of the early Jesus movement. After Jesus’ death, he claimed to have left

Operation Messiah 193 the ranks of the government on his way to an operation in Damascus. As their new self-proclaimed ‘brother’ Paul, he consequently wrote several letters to the movement he had originally been persecuting, seven of which were ultimately taken up into the New Testament. These letters are the oldest writings in the New Testament. In them, Paul was the first person to spread the word that the Messiah, Israel’s anointed king, had died by the will of the God of Israel, thus breaking off Christianity from the Jewish religion. As far as we know, this trained law enforcement official was the first Christian with any authority to preach total submission to Roman laws.2 Even though he always claimed to speak for the late Jesus, he had never met him. Could the persecutor have been lying about his new religious convictions? In this article, I will discuss the possibility that the persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, faked his conversion to the faith in Jesus in the service of the Roman government and that he switched to the role of agent provocateur using the alias of ‘Paul’. I believe he attempted to undermine a Jewish messianist movement by introducing a radically new concept of a crucified ‘King of the Jews’, among other religious and ethical doctrines that most Jews still find highly provocative to say the least. An article of this size cannot encompass every aspect of the history of Paul and the origins of Christianity, but instead I will attempt to provide a new model through which we can study the writings of Paul and the works written about him. Our sources shall be Paul’s own letters, the book of Acts, and the most recent authoritative studies on the founder of Christianity. We really know very little about Saul of Tarsus, both before and after his alleged conversion. What we must examine is the political situation in Palestine in the first century CE, which was significantly different (read less pro-Roman) than the Palestine as it is described in the New Testament. I will also attempt to point out the many peculiarities in Paul’s life and work that hint that he had more than a merely friendly relationship with the Roman authorities. Lastly, I will briefly discuss the nature of the evidence and what it suggests. Gaps Let us first take inventory of some of the things we do not know about persecutor Saul of Tarsus: We do not know where he lived during about 95 per cent of his life, how he sustained himself during that time period, or whose company he was in.


Thijs Voskuilen We do not know what Saul’s reputation was like concerning integrity and political loyalty prior to his alleged conversion; nor do we know anything about his personal or sexual proclivities.3 We do not know whether his self-proclaimed vision of Jesus was caused by a medical condition, a true divine revelation, or whether he lied about it altogether. We do not know what he read and wrote during his lifetime. We do not know who might have recruited and trained Saul as a persecutor. We do not know for whom he worked when he was persecuting Jesus’ original messianist movement.4 We do not know his source of income after his ‘conversion’. We do not know who his friends and aides were and how they made a living. We do not know where Saul died or how he died. A Brief History of Distrust Distrust of Saul’s motives after his alleged conversion to the faith in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah was rife from the outset. The first to suspect him as a pseudo-apostle were the original followers of Jesus, among whom was Jesus’ own brother James. The most important modern scholar to have raised serious questions on Paul’s activities and his relationship with the Roman government is Robert Eisenman. Eisenman has claimed since the 1980s that Paul, albeit genuinely religious, acted as a secret agent of the Romans by informing them on the membership list of the early messianist movement.5 This distrust towards Paul’s relationship to the Romans authorities seems to be more than justified. After all, what we are basically dealing with is a persecutor, or a government agent who was recruited and trained to identify and imprison the members of a dissident movement. Therefore, it must be assumed that, prior to his alleged conversion, Saul of Tarsus was actively familiar with methods like the recruitment of informers and saboteurs, stirring up the members of a movement to provoke them into betraying themselves and/or others, and other deceptive techniques, such as taking on disguises and using aliases. In other words: Saul of Tarsus was familiar with the concept of deceiving for a living. The possibility, then, that this thoroughly-screened govern-ment agent faked his conversion, rather than having an authentic religious experience, seems to deserve more than just fleeting attention.


Operation Messiah 195 Insurgency in Palestine The political situation in Palestine under Roman occupation is not portrayed accurately in the New Testament. Direct Roman occupation in Judaea began in 6 CE and after that the atmosphere was rarely without tension. The Jewish military officer-turned-historian, Flavius Josephus, describes the history of these hostilities in his Jewish War, which he wrote while living in the imperial palace in Rome. Even though Roman legions occupied Judaea, resistance in the early 30s AD remained widespread.6 Many religious groups that fought to drive out the Romans were often identified as ‘messianist’, meaning that they longed for a Messiah to come and reinstall Jewish sovereignty over Palestine. It is important to note that the definition of Messiah as it is used here should not be confused with the Christian definition, which was constructed later. By meshiach, most Jewish people meant a political figure, appointed and installed by God. This king was to reign over Palestine in the tradition of King David, not to suffer and die for the sins of mankind or any other reason. After all, a king who had died and gone to heaven would be of little political or military use to an occupied, tyrannised, exploited and slaughtered people.7 The Roman authorities took every measure they deemed necessary to kill off Jewish resistance to their rule. The Romans recognised the danger of intra-ethnic rivalries and acted on them swiftly and decisively.8 They often used crucifixion of Jewish individuals as a means of stifling dissent. The Roman procurator Felix, for example, used indiscriminate mass crucifixions to deal with widespread Jewish resistance and guerrilla warfare.9 The Execution of Jesus In the early 30s AD, around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and Saul’s alleged conversion, the Roman government was kept extremely busy by the brewing resistance in Palestine, most particularly in Jerusalem. Intelligence historian R.M. Sheldon has dealt with the tense political and military situation in an article, in which she describes the course of events leading up to the execution of Jesus from a Roman perspective.10 Even though the sources are too scarce and unreliable to describe the actual course of events with as much certainty as we would wish, it is still possible to come to certain conclusions. The Romans, not ‘the Jews’ were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus11 The punishment for a religious crime, as Jesus is accused of in the Gospels, was stoning, not crucifixion. Crucifixion was usually reserved for political dissidents and performed only by the Romans to deter others from engaging in subversive activities.12 It can be deduced that the reason for Jesus’ execution was primarily political.13 This impression is strengthened by the title ‘King of the Jews’ which the Romans mockingly gave him during his last hours. The titulus, INRI, spelt out the charge: he was considered to be a political threat by the Romans, not a religious one.14 Yet the New Testament remains silent about Romans suspicions regarding Jesus’ political activities. These documents, written much later by men who were not eyewitnesses, place the responsibility for the crucifixion solely in Jewish hands, and portrayed the crucifixion as the result of a religious conflict between ‘the Jews’.15

After Jesus’ execution, the movement was still persecuted Jesus’ movement remained a political threat in the eyes of the Romans. There is no reason to assume that the Romans stopped viewing the movement as a threat to their rule in the midst of a highly volatile region, merely because its leader had been killed. Moreover, there are at least two members of Jesus’ group that have nicknames that point to their identity as armed rebels: Judas Iskariot and Simon the Zealot.16 These two men were not reported to have been crucified along with Jesus and therefore presumably remained at large after the execution of their leader.17 Also, in the Gospels, Jesus’ movement appeared to have been armed, since one of them cut off an ear of an officer who came to arrest Jesus.18 If the movement was indeed armed and willing to use these weapons against Roman soldiers and/or the representatives of the Jewish puppet authorities, that alone would be reason enough for the Romans to persecute it. Moreover, the movement was to make several attempts to take police officer Saul’s life after his alleged conversion, which seems to confirm the impression that it was armed and willing to use violence to destroy its opponents, after its leader had been arrested and executed. Finally, it is assumed that the remnants of the movement were destroyed when they took part in the uprising in 70 AD, which can also serve to point up their political identity. With these premises in mind, namely: (a) that Jesus’ movement was regarded as a political threat, and (b) that the movement kept on being regarded as a political threat after the execution of its leader, we have to conclude that Saul of Tarsus was the persecutor of a politically dangerous organisation – at least in Roman eyes. This radically changes the atmosphere in which his biography should be read, including his ‘conversion’ and his activities following the crucifixion. This biography, moreover, includes a remarkably good relationship with the Roman authorities – certainly compared to the crucified Jesus. The movement Saul consequently attempted to create under the name ‘Paul’, in opposition to the original movement, was not politically dangerous to


Operation Messiah 197 the Romans at all. After all, its members were supposed to be law abiding, tax paying citizens with anything but armed insurgency on their minds. Saul of Tarsus – Persecutor Who, then, was the real Saul of Tarsus? Scholars have labelled him, among other things, a ‘genius’,19 a ‘chameleon’,20 ‘creative’,21 ‘multilingual’,22 ‘sarcastic’,23 ‘a closet homosexual’,24 ‘a man of two cultures’,25 and ‘Liar’.26 In his own letters, Paul portrays himself as a weak, uncharismatic, dishonest, self-serving, unimposing interloper in the apostolic circle (2 Cor. 10:1 – 2,10).27 Even though the above character traits can be considered remarkable for a saint, they are typical, indeed ideal, for an agent provocateur. Acts Very little is known about Saul’s life prior to his employment as a persecutor and, later, his alleged conversion. According to Acts, Saul was a Jew born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus, located in present-day Turkey. Those who believe Saul of Tarsus was born a Roman citizen, assume that his father, a tentmaker, acquired his citizenship. At a later age, Saul himself became a tentmaker to the Roman legions, according to some sources.28 Somewhere along the line Saul must also have received some kind of religious training, since in his letters he appears to be very well educated in both Jewish religious thought and Greek mythology, combining the two in what was later to be known as ‘Pauline Christianity’. Even though it is unknown from whom the Romans themselves received information about the Jewish faith and customs, it is equally possible that Saul received training from the same people, or that he, being a Roman citizen and possibly a tentmaker for the legions with a Jewish religious background, was such a teacher himself, institutionally or informally. Paul’s Career In the New Testament, no information is given about the trajectory that led to Saul of Tarsus being employed by the authorities in the area of secret policing. Neither in Acts, nor in his own letters is there any mention of his recruitment, his training, the duration of his employ-ment, the nature of his work, where he worked, the range of his victims, his specific tasks, or the names of his superiors. Scholars have mainly assumed Saul was persecuting anti-Roman dissidents on behalf of the High Priest, since he himself links his persecution activities to his


Thijs Voskuilen ‘life in Judaism’, and because Acts makes this claim.29 However, in his letters he never states directly that he was working for the High Priest. In any case, Saul was working for the Romans indirectly no matter who was giving the orders, since the High Priest had been installed by the Romans to keep order, functioning as a chief of police. A second possibility is that Saul, being a Roman citizen, was an open or covert Roman representative within the High Priest’s ranks. It seems likely that the Romans would at least have loyal eyes and ears within the puppet regimes they had installed.30 A third possible scenario would be that this Roman-born citizen was working directly for the Romans, keeping a close watch on the messianist movement just after its leader was executed. It would be very unlikely that the Romans would leave the surveillance of the messianist movement entirely up to the Jewish High Priest and his men without any involvement or checks of their own. In any of these scenarios, however, Saul’s work furthered the Roman cause by keeping messianist Jews in check.31 Acts 7:58 first mentions Saul as present at the stoning of Stephen: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (Acts, 8: 1 – 3)32 Paul’s Letters In his own letters, Paul only hints at his activities as a persecutor, without going into much detail. In Galatians 1:13 he remarks: ‘You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it’. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he says: ‘For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God’. In Philippians 3:6 he recalls he was ‘a persecutor of the church’. And lastly, in Galatians 1:23 he recalls from over two decades that he was known to the messianist movement in Judea as: ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us [and] is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy’. It is important to repeat that Paul, after his alleged conversion, did not join the early movement, but rather started giving a different spin to their religion, introducing various new thoughts and concepts that were beneficial to the Roman authorities and threatening to the Jewish messianist nature of the original movement. For now it suffices to note that he did not start ‘proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy’, as he writes. Technically, he was still trying to destroy that original faith, albeit with words rather than with weapons – in other words: he was


Operation Messiah 199 a ‘theological warrior’, as Calvin Roetzel calls him, but possibly in a different way than has been previously assumed.33 The ‘Conversion’ In Paul’s own letters, there is no account of his ‘conversion’, which is described only in chapter nine of Acts, written by ‘Luke’: Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there that belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (9:1 – 3) It has been doubted whether this journey ever took place, because the High Priest in Jerusalem had no jurisdiction in Damascus. The city was, at that time, not even under Roman jurisdiction. It had been ceded by Caligula (37 CE) and belonged to the independent Arab Kingdom of Nabatea under the rule of King Aretas IV (9 BCE – 40 CE). So if Saul really went there to capture dissidents, he must have done so as part of a covert operation, under direct orders from the Roman authorities, or not at all.34 In the simplified version in Acts: As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ [. . .] The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul was blinded, and his fellow travellers took him to Damascus. According to Acts 9, this unknown number of anonymous fellow travellers ceased their persecuting activities along with Saul, even though they did not convert. Next, they did not take Saul to a regular doctor, but left him to the care of Ananias, a ‘man of God’ whom they had originally come to persecute. Ananias allegedly cured Saul of his ‘blindness’, and told him that he would be the Lord’s instrument to ‘carry his name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel’. So far, the behaviour of the team of Saul’s fellow persecutors in Acts can be called remarkable to say the least. Even though this organised group of agents had travelled all the way to Damascus with specific orders to persecute messianists, apparently they did not even contemplate apprehending the first member of the enemy movement they encountered. Acts does not mention an interrogation of Ananias to obtain names and addresses of other members, nor another kind of effort made by the persecutors to find out who belonged to the movement. Moreover, the team of government agents did not attempt to interrogate


Thijs Voskuilen their colleague Saul about his sudden desire to join the subversives, nor did they try to keep him from joining. Of course, it would have been perfectly possible for them to let Saul enjoy his newfound spiritual insights in jail, in order to prevent an increase of the number of dissidents in the streets. Instead, they simply let him walk, allowing him to take highly sensitive information with him, such as government strategy, the identities of his fellow persecutors, and the identities of possible traitors within the movement, both in Damascus and Jerusalem. Contemporary Distrust Acts then goes on to say: Paul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’ Yet Paul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. (9:19 – 22)35 Acts gives us no information about the activities that Saul’s fellow persecutors undertook during the ‘several days’ that deserter Saul spent ‘baffling the Jews’ (22) in Damascus. Judging by Acts, they were not in the least bit concerned that he might reveal persecution tactics, the names of informers, or other secrets to the persecuted movement, even though Saul was the agent who had been given the operational instructions by their superior officer in Jerusalem – from which it can be deduced that, up to that point, Saul had not given his superiors any cause for concern about his mental stability, loyalty or dedication. And, indeed, it turned out that his fellow persecutors had no reason to worry: neither Acts nor Paul’s own letters ever mention his sharing any government secrets with the persecuted movement he had supposedly joined. We must therefore assume that he never shared any with them. This was a very odd state of mind for a deserted persecutor who had the survival of his persecuted friends at heart, but it does fit the profile of an agent who kept on undermining his original victims. Not surprisingly, the Jews were deeply distrustful of the ‘changed’ persecutor: After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, but Paul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall. (9:23 – 25)36


Judging by this account, for ‘many’ more days, then, Saul’s fellow persecutors continued to keep their distance, while, in the synagogues,


Operation Messiah 201 their colleague was spreading his own version of a messianist message, causing havoc among the very same Jews he had come to persecute, even to the point where they tried to kill him. This passage gives us a possible indication that Saul’s fellow agents might not have been totally ignorant of the events as they unfolded. After all, from this passage it can be deduced that these anonymous ‘followers’ who came to his rescue were non-Jews, since Acts puts them in contrast to ‘the Jews’. Sometimes god-fearing non-Jews were allowed inside the synagogues, so it would indeed have been possible for Paul to acquire some non-Jewish followers during the previous days.37 Nevertheless, for various reasons it seems more likely that these rescuers were Paul’s old ‘followers’, namely his fellow agents, who intervened to bring their provocateur to safety in the face of Jewish assassination attempts. Acts states that ‘day and night [the Jews in Damascus] kept close watch on the city gates’ in an operation that was designed to kill Paul. This implies a sizeable and organised clandestine assassination effort by a group of highly motivated people. If these assassins were Jewish messianists, who by that time had survived a certain degree of persecution, it seems reasonable to assume that they had gained some experience in clandestine activities. Government agents would have been trained and prepared to carry out a rescue operation in the face of such an enemy operation. A hastily organised group of untrained and inexperienced civilians, on the other hand, would not. To begin with, rescuing Paul would require a trained eye to identify a possible surveillance and the non-uniformed assassins who were watching out for him in the hustle near the city gates. The rest of the operation would involve advanced clandestine strategy as well, such as getting Paul past these assassins unnoticed and preparing a clean getaway for the rescuers themselves. Also, if these followers were indeed random non-Jews whom Paul had encountered during their quest for spiritual guidance in synagogues or other meeting places for Jews, it seems reasonable to assume that these people were not hardline anti-Jewish. It is then difficult to believe that they had all suddenly and simultaneously developed anti-Jewish convictions that were strong enough for them to put their lives on the line to save a total stranger, a rather suspicious persecutor-gone-preacher with whom their familiar Jewish spiritual instructors had a conflict. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that Saul’s fellow agents would have been sufficiently anti-Jewish, organised, focused and loyal – both to Saul and to each other – to jump to their colleague’s rescue in his conflict with ‘the Jews’.38 Moreover, an intervention by the persecutors at that point would explain their remarkably passive behaviour up to that point: they had


Thijs Voskuilen simply been waiting for the most aggressive and dangerous messianists to be flushed out, provoked into doing so by their own provocateur-apostle ‘Paul’. A deception operation involving Saul as a provocateur and the rest of the team functioning as bodyguards on standby seems to be the only plausible rational explanation for the passive behaviour of the team of fellow agents until that time. Moreover, the non-Jewish identity of these agents would be in line with the assumption that the Romans, not the High Priest, had sent these persecutors to Damascus.39 From a psychological viewpoint, this seems to be a somewhat more realistic scenario than one in which an experienced government agent suddenly tossed aside all of his previous loyalties, including the ones he had sworn to, and then changed his complex set of convictions to the other side of the political and the spiritual spectra – with his entire team of trained persecutors assisting him in contacting the enemy and then standing by idly while he deserted right under their noses. This would involve an incredible degree of irrational, if not outright dim-witted behaviour on behalf of these professional persecutors. From a strategic viewpoint, moreover, a deception operation-gone-violent, involving Saul as a provocateur, seems more likely a scenario than one in which both the original team of persecutors and their fellow agent Saul had developed unrelated, yet fully-fledged armed conflicts with the same messianist Jews in Damascus, only days after they had taken an extraordinarily long journey under specific orders to fight these very same Jews together. Paul’s own letters tell us another reason why he had to steal away from Damascus secretly. The Police Chief of King Aretas was seeking to arrest him. This is in contrast to Acts (the later source) which says that the Jews objected to Paul’s advocacy of the Messiahship of Jesus. If King Aretas was looking for him, he must have been guilty of some political crime. He may have discovered that Paul himself was a police agent of the High Priest in Jerusalem and that he was in Damascus on a mission that infringed on Nabataean sovereignty. Had Saul been questioned by the authorities and claimed he gave up his ‘mission’ because of his ‘conversion’, they would have assumed this was a front for an undercover agent. Paul had to get out of town fast. He escaped down the walls of Damascus in a basket.40 Lastly, Acts gives away another strong clue that Saul might have faked his alleged ‘conversion’, which is of course a religious term for what the government would have called a ‘desertion’. Despite what standard police procedures would have dictated, from the moment Saul went over to the enemy, judging by Acts and his own letters, the authorities: (a) never once accused Saul of desertion; (b) never went


Operation Messiah 203 through any trouble to snatch him back from the messianist movement; never tried to stop him from leaking sensitive information to the enemy; and (d) never tried to talk their former agent into giving them inside information on the persecuted movement he had allegedly joined. However, during the following years, Paul was to be in frequent contact with the Roman authorities, namely when Roman soldiers protected him against unremitting Jewish assassination attempts. These Jews supposedly tried to kill him for reasons of ‘blasphemy’, but not because he had betrayed the High Priest. Had persecutor Saul really deserted, it seems likely that either the Roman or the Jewish authorities would have at least accused him of desertion. Suspicions in Jerusalem Acts then tells us that Paul, instead of letting himself be killed like his alleged example Jesus, returned from Damascus to Jerusalem, the city out of which the movement was persecuted.41 Paul appeared to have nothing to fear from the authorities, however, since he ‘moved freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord’. (Acts, 9:28) The original messianist movement, on the other hand, again distrusted him deeply. Acts explicitly states that: when he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing he really was a disciple [i.e. believing he was still a persecutor, probably involved in some kind of deception operation]. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of the Lord. [. . .] He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. (9:26 – 27; 29 – 30) Here the book of Acts starts giving us a distorted view of the relationship between the original movement and post-conversion Paul. After all, what was to follow in the next 20 years was a vehement correspondence between the newborn ‘apostle’ and the (mostly Jewish) original members. Paul’s letters in the New Testament are his contribution to this polemic debate. In this debate, Paul preached an extremely pacifist and pro-Roman set of doctrines in which the original members of the movement – among whom was Jesus’ brother James – did not believe. Therefore, it is hard to believe that Barnabas was able to convince the disciples of Paul’s sincerity by pointing out how the Lord had spoken to him, especially since, according to this passage, they kept on plotting to kill him.


Thijs Voskuilen Roman Espionage For a proper understanding of the historical context of these events it is necessary to return briefly to the relationship between the Jewish people and their Roman occupiers. Jesus had by no means been the only possible Messiah during those times. From the lengthy succession of different candidate Messiahs, it can be deduced that the killing of a single candidate Messiah could never kill the idea of a Jewish Messiah, which survives to this very day. This idea, of course, was the most threatening part of a messianist movement, namely the deeply rooted belief in the coming of a Messiah and the implied illegality and temporary character of Roman rule. Messianism was the primary source of inspiration and cohesive element of these Jewish groups.42 How, then, to fight such an idea? Ancient answer: by introducing another idea. For example, Roman citizen and government agent Saul of Tarsus could have said: ‘How about the idea that: (a) the long-awaited Messiah has come and gone (after all, in Roman eyes, what better king of the Jews than a dead king of the Jews?); (b) that the late Messiah now wants the Roman occupation forces (an equally absurd thought to contemporary Jewish messianist movements); (c) that the originally Jewish movement has to let its guard down and open itself up to non-Jews (i.e., Romans); and (d) that the crucified Messiah will return some unknown day (a highly provocative scenario that had never been prophesized in the Jewish Scriptures)’.43 In point of fact, these are all elements that Saul of Tarsus introduced to the movement using the name ‘Paul’. It was police officer Paul who introduced a kind of Messiah-theory and a set of moral guidelines that hardly had any foundation in Jewish Scriptures, but which was rather an ad hoc amalgam of pro-Roman political theory, Jewish religion, and Greek mythology.44 Therefore, it can be concluded that everything the Roman citizen and persecutor did after his alleged conversion remained structurally beneficial to the Roman authorities and dangerous for messianist Jews. My assumption is that had persecutor Saul decided to lie about his ‘conversion’ while working for the Romans, he would have done and said exactly what he ended up doing and saying, changing tactics rather than loyalties and his name rather than his true identity, in order to disrupt the movement and provoke Jewish possible messianist insurgents into speaking and/or acting up. The question is, therefore, whether the Romans were intelligent and strategically advanced enough to undertake such a clandestine operation.


Operation Messiah 205 Roman Psychological Warfare Espionage was a vital characteristic of Roman foreign policy.45 Among their wide array of unconventional warfare and espionage techniques, were the concepts of: Psychological warfare. The Romans were known to use pamphlets, which were shot by arrow over city walls, to demoralise the enemy.46 Agent provocateurs. Pontius Pilate, the province’s proconsul, employed this kind of agent to provoke riots, which he could then brutally suppress.47 Divide-and-conquer tactics which they applied to political parties.48 Propaganda.49 Plants. The Romans occasionally took a member of an occupied society to Rome, where they influenced him with Roman ideology. This foreigner was then sent back to his mother country to fulfil a leadership position. At that point he had sometimes become unacceptable to his own people.50 Paul and the Romans – Post-Conversion Of the 20 years Saul of Tarsus acted as the Apostle Paul, we know nothing of his whereabouts, company, activities, or sources of income during 17 of those years. Since the remainder of his biography is so questionable regarding its veracity, I will focus on those parts in Acts that deal with the last years he spent in Palestine, and then the remainder of his life, which he spent in Rome. These passages contain information that is not contradicted by his own letters.51 Temple Riot After several journeys abroad as an apostle, Paul eventually returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. Here he was accused of bringing non-Jews into the Temple complex. This admission of non-Jews was a highly controversial subject under the Roman occupation, and an inherently political subject at that, since the extent of Jewish autonomy was at stake. Was the (former) persecutor and Roman citizen disrupting a meeting place for anti-Roman elements in the strictly Jewish area? Whatever his direct intentions were, he was not received very kindly. A riot erupted: While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. (Acts 21: 31,32)


Thijs Voskuilen After the events surrounding his ‘conversion’ in Damascus and the assassination attempts upon his return to Jerusalem, this was the third time that Paul was rescued from a group of Jews who tried to kill him. Paul was taken to the Roman military barracks (Acts 21:37), where he asked permission to speak to the rowdy crowd, a permission he received. The question is, of course, why the Romans would ‘arrest’ him with the intent of stopping a riot only to allow him to address the rioters a little later, protected by Roman soldiers. Apparently, their main intent was not to stop the riot, but to protect Paul from getting hurt or killed. Had they wanted to calm things down, after all, they would not have run the risk of further inflaming the populace by having Paul speak to them once again. It seems to make more sense to assume that they used their former persecutor as a provocateur to inflame the mood, as Pilate had already done once before, to flush out their most aggressive opponents. Caesarea After this speech, Paul was taken to the coastal city and provincial capital of Caesarea, guarded by ‘two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen’. This was an operation that had been organised by two centurions after a personal request by the commander of the barracks in Jerusalem. (Acts 23:23) This is an astonishing number of soldiers if the Romans merely considered him to be a lowly Jewish preacher. After all, the only time Jesus ever had guards was when he stumbled towards Golgotha. If the Romans valued Paul as a strategic asset, however, this effort to protect him would make sense.52 What followed in Paul’s case was not a crucifixion but two years of ‘custody’ in king Herod’s palace in Caesarea, during which he was allowed to receive friends. (Acts, 23:35; 24:23)53 Acts does not mention the name, background or profession of these ‘friends’. The cost of guarding and sustaining this prisoner for all this time must have been tremendous and stands in stark contrast to the efforts (or lack thereof) the Romans made to protect Jesus in the face of Jewish grievances. In other words, Paul was not executed but allowed to live in relative freedom and receive ‘friends’, and thus in all likelihood to spread his ‘dangerous’ message for which Jesus had supposedly been executed.54 The conclusion seems inevitable that Paul’s message was different and better suited to the needs of the Romans than that of Jesus had been. After all, it is difficult to believe that his Roman citizenship could have been sufficient counterweight to the spreading of a politically dangerous message during wartime – which Paul had been doing for about 19 years by that time, since his ‘conversion’ around 36 CE.55 On balance, the reign of emperor Caligula (37 – 41 CE), during which Paul would


Operation Messiah 207 have developed his ‘ministry’, is not known for its tolerance of political dissent. Known as a vicious tyrant, Caligula banished or murdered most of his relatives, had people tortured and killed when he dined, and made his favorite horse a consul. The odds would not have been good for a deserted police officer who, in a highly volatile region of the empire, started spreading a messianist message for which the Roman military had already executed its alleged founder.56 The same holds true for the reign of Nero (54 – 68 AD), during which these episodes in Jerusalem and Caesarea (55 – 58) are estimated to have taken place. As shall be discussed next, it was during Nero’s reign that Paul was to spend the last years of his life, boasting his ‘messianist’ message while guarded by the Roman military, living in Rome, within walking distance of emperor Nero’s palace. Paul to Rome When, after two years in Caesarea, ‘the Jews’ wanted the governor Festus and King Agrippa to hand over Paul so that they could convict him themselves, Paul insisted that he be sent to Rome for a trial. Even though king Agrippa did not think another court case was necessary – he was willing to release Paul there and then said: ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar’. (Acts 26:32) – Paul’s request was honoured and the suspect was taken to Rome, again accompanied by a costly military escort. It seems rather strange that a suspect who is about to be released asks for another court case, simply because he insists on being released to someone else. From Paul’s perspective it makes perfect sense that he does not want to be released in the midst of Jewish enemies who are clamouring for his head, but what motives could the Romans have had to release him to Rome? Why spend more time and money on the prisoner? It seems that the only reason for this would be that he had already served their strategic interests. Otherwise they could have simply released him in Caesarea and told him to charter his own ship to Rome and pay for his own journey to a destination of his own choosing. Instead, Paul was taken to Rome with a costly military escort, supposedly to be tried there, even though it had already been established that a trial was no longer necessary. Paul in Rome On board the ship Paul developed a friendship with another high-ranking Roman, a centurion named Julius, who some believe arranged for Paul’s accommodation upon his arrival in Rome.57 In any event,


Thijs Voskuilen the regime ‘subversive Paul’ lived under in Rome turned out to be incredibly lax. Once the Romans had transported him from the other side of the world to Rome to be tried, after two years of imprisonment supposedly awaiting a trial, and after they had spent a fortune on feeding, guarding, clothing, and sheltering him, he never got a court case. Instead, he was allowed to live by himself, with only one soldier to guard him (Acts, 28:16). Since, judging by Romans 13:1 – 7, Paul considered the Roman government and its laws the highest worldly authority, established by God, it is difficult to believe that this guard was there to prevent Paul’s possible fleeing from Roman justice, and therefore from God’s will. Moreover, Paul had requested the court case himself, so there seems to have been little chance of his trying to escape. Perhaps most remarkably, the ‘prisoner’ still had not said or done anything anti-Roman that could explain why he should fear a court case, or why the Romans would want to imprison him. It seems likely, therefore, that the Roman military was again protecting him from possible Jewish assassination attempts, rather than imprisoning him. While ‘in custody’ in Rome, the (former) police officer set forth on his preaching mission, all the while remaining under guard, ‘from morning to evening’, proclaiming, ‘I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!’58 For two years Paul stayed in the capital of the empire, in his own rented house, and received visitors. ‘Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ’. In other words, Jesus was executed without delay for being a political threat to the Romans; deserted police officer Paul was allowed to spread his ‘messianist’ message in the capital of the empire without hindrance. This was a message that included: (a) an extremely pacifist Spirit Messiah instead of a living militaristic Jewish king; and (b) total submission to the Roman authorities. And that is where the story of Acts ends. There is no reason to believe he could not have returned to Palestine after his ‘appeal to Caesar,’ but he would have had to have done so with the permission of the Romans, or whilst still in their employ which is why Acts may be so silent about his fate.59 We do not know what happened next. Some have suggested Paul may have gone on to Spain as he had said he wanted to.60 However, there is no reliable information on his ultimate fate. We do not know when or how he died.61 The conclusion seems to be justified, however, that there is no reason to assume the Romans stopped protecting him, as they had been doing for years by that time. He had practically become a personal investment to them. Moreover, they would have to have been utterly blind not to see that Saul of Tarsus was furthering their goals by his actions, speeches and writings under the name of ‘Paul’. Therefore, it


Operation Messiah 209 seems unlikely that they would suddenly decide to martyr him, as Christian mythology has insisted. After all, why would the Romans kill one of their own citizens, a (former) member of the secret police in Jerusalem, who: (a) said that God’s salvation had come upon them; (b) that ‘the Jews’ were bad; and (c) that everyone had to pay their taxes to the Roman authorities, be a good citizen and refrain from resisting persecutions? It is possible that they had already trained a Jew to say all that, and that man may have been Saul, using the alias of Paul. Pro-Roman ‘Theology’ In his seven letters, Paul often contradicts himself, which makes it difficult to extrapolate the nucleus of his theology. However, he never contradicts himself on some core issues: A call for total adherence to Roman law, such as expressed in Romans 13:1 – 7:62 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.63 The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.64 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. Paul wrote this passage to the movement in Rome, referring to the local authorities. Since this passage is part of the same letter in which the director of public works in Corinth sent his greetings (Romans, 16:24), it can be concluded that Paul remained on rather intimate terms with the Roman authorities. To Paul, then, the Roman government can hardly have been merely a theoretical, distant concept that had to be passively respected and taken for granted, as some scholars have suggested.65 Instead, it was a government for which he had not only worked as a police officer himself, directly or indirectly, but of which he probably knew some high-ranking officials better than his own followers. This impression is strengthened by his sending greetings on behalf of ‘members of Caesar’s household’ in Philippians 4:22. He was allowed to write this letter and Philemon while ‘in prison’ for his ‘subversive message’.


Thijs Voskuilen Paul kept making a strong case for the admission of non-Jews into the originally Jewish body of messianists. One of Paul’s most important fields of endeavor was to argue that circumcision was no longer required for new members. Thus, the (former) persecutor facilitated the entrance of non-Jews, for example Romans, into that persecuted movement. Paul introduced the death of the Messiah, the king of the Jews, as the will of God. Some argue that he might have copied this standpoint from other, earlier ‘Christians’, as he claims himself, but any proof thereof in the form of documents, quotes or names of these ‘earlier Christians’ is lacking. Again, the original movement around Jesus – among whom was Jesus’ own brother James – disagreed with this vital aspect of Paul’s ‘theology’. It seems that they would have less of a motive to lie about Jesus’ heritage than a persecutor would. Paul often borders on the anti-Semitic. He repeatedly says that ‘the Jews’ are sinful and have to be punished, whereas he does not utter one anti-Roman remark in all of his letters, even though the Romans supposedly put him in jail several times for being rebellious against their authority. Paul wrote that a true follower of his had to enjoy being persecuted and insulted: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9,10) [. . .] I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. (Rom. 12:1) These passages may very well have been an over-confident agent’s sadistic mockery of his messianist audience, in line with the mockery the Romans and the on-looking crowd had instigated just before the crucifixion of Jesus.66 Coming from a persecutor who had inflicted a certain amount of pain on the movement before, these passages, like the rest of his letters, can certainly very easily be interpreted as derisive and sadistic. The Nature of Proof How much smoke is allowed before one should suspect that there is a fire blazing somewhere? Some might say that if Saul faked his conversion, the Romans failed horribly in their mission, since most Jews were not converted. However, it probably did not matter that not everyone believed this radical new idea of a dead pacifist Messiah. This was to be expected. But at least the authorities had divided the original


Operation Messiah 211 group of (potential) insurgents, stirred up their ranks, established a line of communication with them under the guise of a religious discussion, and maybe actually altered the minds of some. If it worked, they could work with it. If not, they could try something else. In between total success and failure there would still be a grey area in which the target audience could get talked into a state of paralysing doubt about the desirability of resistance against the Roman authorities. This would equal pacification. Moreover, the authorities had sowed seeds of distrust of traditional messianist Jews, which was sure to result in division of the movement. Lastly, persecutor Paul’s pro-Gentile letters could function as a Trojan horse for fellow agents. The ultimate question is, then, who needs to prove what exactly? Does it have to be proven that persecutor Saul faked his conversion? Or does it rather have to be proven that an agent was sincere when he joined the movement he had recently been fighting in the name of the government? In the author’s opinion, it has to be proven that a persecutor is sincere about his joining a persecuted organisation. Saul had the means, motive and opportunity to lie about a change of mind. In addition, his actions validate the possibility of treachery both in biographical detail and literary content. Therefore, until it can be proven that Saul of Tarsus was sincere about his shift in loyalties, the possibility that he acted as an agent-provocateur under the name of ‘Paul’ must prevail, until contradicted by credible evidence. Acknowledgements For their help and support during my work on this thesis I would like to thank the following people. In alphabetical order, at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in The Netherlands: Professor Frank Ankersmit, professor Jan Bremmer and Dr Valerie Robillard. In the United States of America: Professor Robert Eisenman of California State University at San Diego, and Professor Rose Mary Sheldon of the Virginia Military Institute for editing this article and helping me to find sources at various times. All errors in fact, reference or interpretation remain my own. All translations from the New Testament are from the NIV unless otherwise indicated. NOTES On revolutionary activities in Judaea, see R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus, The Security Risk: Intelligence and Security in First-Century Palestine’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol.9, No.2 (Autumn, 1998) pp.1 – 37; S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1967 ). H. Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance (New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1973). Jesus’ command, as rendered in the Gospels, to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21) was written later than Paul’s letters. Moreover, this quote is possibly an edited version of the original quote: ‘Give to God what is God’s, give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to me what is mine’, as described in the Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi library, found in Egypt in the mid-1940s. Parts of the Gospel of Thomas


Thijs Voskuilen are estimated as being older than the Gospel of Mark, which is estimated as being the oldest Gospel in the New Testament. In The Gospel of Thomas, no context is given that could prove that Jesus actually said these words meaning that he wanted his audience to submit itself to the Romans or pay taxes to them. Moreover, considering Jesus’ ultimate execution by Roman soldiers for political reasons, it is doubtful whether he ever really preached submission to the Roman authorities at all. On the dating of Gospel of Thomas and its contents, see H. Koester, ‘The Gospel of Thomas’, in: J.M. Robinson (ed.) The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988) pp.124 – 26. C. Roetzel, Paul. The Man and The Myth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) p.1 says Paul prayed repeatedly for the removal of a ‘thorn in his flesh’. Inspired guesses have suggested that the thorn might be anything from epilepsy to migraine headaches, impotence or sexual abuse in childhood. Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) p.117. C. Roetzel, Paul p.10. H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker; Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper&Row, 1986) p.15. In a private communication, Robert Eisenman wrote to the author that he thinks Paul was mentally ‘sick’. His thesis that Paul was an informer to the Roman authorities is described at length in James the Brother of Jesus (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) p.551. Josephus, BJ 4.157. R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus, as Security Risk: Insurgency in First Century Palestine?’, Small Wars And Insurgencies 5, 1 (1994) p.1. See also R.A. Horsley and J. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs. Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, New York: Winston Press, 1985; M. Hengel, The Zealots. Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 AD (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989); R.A. Horsley, ‘Ancient Jewish Banditry and the Revolt Against Rome, AD 66 – 70’, CBQ 43 (1981) pp.409– 32. B.D. Ehrman, The New Testament. A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p.61. C. Roetzel, Paul p.40. N. Elliot, ‘The Anti-Imperial Message of the Cross’, in: R.A. Horsley, Paul and Empire. Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA, Trinity Press International, 1997) p.168. R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus, as Security Risk: Insurgency in First Century Palestine’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 9, 2 (1998) pp.1– 37. Paul appears totally uninterested in tracking down and identifying the villains responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, nor does he offer any historical reasons why they did it. He simply blames ‘the Jews’. See 1 Thess. 2: 15 – 16 (thought to be an interpolation) and 1 Cor. 2:8. R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus, As Security Risk’ p.22. The Romans, in their Wet Operations, sometimes killed pretenders to a foreign throne to prevent a succession. In R.M. Sheldon, ‘The Ancient Imperative’, Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 10, 3 (1997) p.311. Of course, in traditional Judaism, there is no clear distinction between a religious cause and a political one. The urge for religious autonomy automatically meant a threat to the political status quo, since a religious autonomy defined by the Roman occupation forces is inherently not real religious autonomy at all. Neil Elliott has called the crucifixion of Jesus ‘one of the most unequivocally political events recorded in the New Testament’. See ‘The Anti-Imperial Message of the Cross’, in Paul and Empire p.167. The authors of the Gospels chose to remain anonymous. The names Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were added to the texts later. B.D. Ehrman, The New Testament. A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p.8. See also: Sheldon, ‘Jesus, as Security Risk’ p.23, and the introduction by M.A. Wes to Flavius Josephus, De Joodse Oorlog&Uit Mijn Leven (Baarn, Ambo, 1992). The fact that the term ‘zealot’ will be applied to James and the majority of the Jerusalem church in Acts 21:50 shows that this was a political charge even as used by Paul. On the name Iscariot, see: See A. Ehrman, ‘Judas Iscariot and Abba Saqqara’, JBL 97 (1978) pp.572– 3; and Y. Arbeitman, ‘The Suffix of Iscariot’, JBL 99 (1980) pp.122 – 14. R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus as Security Risk’ p.20. We do not know which members of the movement were persecuted and which were not. However, there is no evidence that these two members were arrested along with Jesus. They could have evaded the Romans at this point and been arrested at a later date, or not at all.


Operation Messiah 213 John, 18:10; Matthew 26:54. E.P. Sanders, Paulus, trans. Henrie¨tte Havelaar (Kampen, Kok, 2000) p.159. Den Heyer, Paulus (Zoetermeer, Meinema, 1998) p.169. Den Heyer, Paulus p.275. Den Heyer, Paulus p.32. Den Heyer, Paulus p.158. J.S. Spong, Rescuing the Bible p.119. Den Heyer, Paulus p.186. ‘[. . .] Paul [was] a man of two worlds, who worked tirelessly to reconcile and unite those two worlds’. (Translated by TV.) Uniting Judaea with the rest of the Roman Empire was, of course, Roman government policy as well. For Paul’s defensiveness on this charge, see Gal. 1.20; 2 Cor. 11.31; Rom. 9.1. R.H. Eisenman, James, The Brother of Jesus (New York: Viking, 1997) p.52. Phrasing by Roetzel, Paul p.9. On Paul’s defensiveness on being called a liar, see Gal. 1:30; Cor. 11.31; Romans 9:1. E.P. Sanders, Paulus p.32. A.N. Wilson also assumes Saul picked up his father’s trade. If Saul did indeed make tents for the Roman military, it can serve as evidence that the Roman military trusted Saul enough for them to employ him, and that Saul was indeed willing to further Roman strategic objectives. Acts 9:2. In Galatians 1:13, Paul himself links his persecuting activities to his ‘life in Judaism’. On pages 38 and 39 of his Paul, Roetzel gives an overview of the different scholarly theories on his employment as a persecutor, all of which assume he was working for the Jewish authorities, not for the Romans. Of course, it was perfectly possible to live a ‘life in Judaism’ and work for the Romans at the same time. After all, technically this was exactly what the High Priest himself was doing, since the Romans had installed him. R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus, As Security Risk’ p.25. H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker; Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper&Row, 1986) p.86 points out that the High Priest was able to send his officers into synagogues to arrest people whose activities he disapproved of as chief of police, not as a religious figure. He did this not because he disagreed with their theology but because they were a menace to the Roman occupation. All translations come from the NIV. The Holy Bible. New International Version. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984). C. Roetzel, Paul p.8. H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker; Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper&Row, 1986) p.86 believes that Paul was on a clandestine mission sent by the High Priest to kidnap certain leading Nazarenes and bring them back to Judaea for imprisonment or for handing over to the Romans. He was sent with a band of mercenaries to wipe out a nest of activists in Damascus. An echo of this charge possibly survives in later Christian literature. In the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (1.70ff) we are told that Saul travelled to Damascus with the intention of arresting none other than St. Paul himself who had fled there after a persecution involving the near-murder of James. Eisenman rejects the historicity of this claim. To begin with, it is hard to believe there were synagogues (plural) in Damascus. It was not a particularly Jewish city at the time, and there may not have been any synagogues at all. R. Eisenman, James, The Brother of Jesus p.151. This passage is paralleled in 2 Corinthians 11:32, the only difference being that there it is not the Jews who wish to arrest Paul, but rather the ‘ethnarch’ (i.e., King Aretas). Acts always inverts the accusations against the Romans or Herodian officials. See R. Eisenman, James, The Brother of Jesus p.152. C. Roetzel, Paul p.40. Since this is a biblical story, it is tempting to go along with an explanation of these events in terms of ‘the will of God’, or ‘miracle’, since this is what the author of Acts implicitly stated when he wrote about these events. However, a historian, searching for rational explanations of historical events, is not allowed to use the terms ‘God’ or ‘miracle’. ‘God’ as a historical explanation explains everything, and therefore it explains nothing at all. (See F. Ankersmit, Denken Over Geschiedenis, Groningen, 1986.) As a result, in the case of the account of Saul’s conversion in Acts, a historian has to look for other explanations than supernatural ones, for example when it comes to the unlikely ‘blunders’ made by the entire team of persecutors, the extraordinary feat of the anonymous men who rescued Paul in Damascus, and the number of


Thijs Voskuilen times in Acts when Paul was released from jail miraculously quickly (by ‘angels’ and ‘earthquakes’) instead of being crucified or otherwise hindered. There would be no Jews in Damascus who would sympathise with the pro-Roman collaborating views of Saul, for there was no pro-Roman party among the Jews living in a city that had been removed from Roman rule. H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker, p.88. Acts 9:24. See also, H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker p.88. This is an example of where Acts and Paul’s own letters diverge (see note 51). In Galatians 1:17 he says that he did not go back to Jerusalem after his conversion, but went straight to Arabia and later returned to Damascus, before returning to Jerusalem. The alleged conversion does seem to have taken place in Damascus, then. For some reason, the writer of Acts chose to omit Paul’s stay in Arabia and his second visit to Damascus completely, if he was aware of them at all. Since the Jewish assassination efforts are included in Acts, it seems likely that they took place during this first visit, not the second. Bagoas (Josephus, Ant. 17.2.4), Judas the Galilean (Josephus, Ant. 17.10.5; BJ 2.4.1, Acts 5.37; Origen, Celsus, 1.57), Simon (Josephus, Ant. 17.10.6; BJ 2.4.2); Athrongeus (Josephus, Ant. 17.10.7; BJ 17.10.7; BJ 2.4.3); and the Perean Insurgents (Josephus, BJ 2.4.2) all from the time of Archelaus. Barabbas (Mark 15.7.11, 15; Matt. 27.16ff, 20 – 22, 26; Luke 23.18ff, 25; John 18.40), and possibly John the Baptist in the time of Pilate (Mark 6; Matt. 14; Luke 3.19ff, 9.7– 9, Josephus, Ant. 18.5.2). After the death of Agrippa I comes the Samaritan imposter (Josephus, Ant. 18.4.1); Theudas (Josephus, Ant. 20.5.1; Acts 5.36; Origen, Celsus 1.57.6.11; Eusebius, HE 2.2), Eleazar b. Dinai (Josephus, Ant. 20.1.1; 8.5; BJ 2.12.4), Amram (Josephus, Ant. 20.1.1), Hanibas (Josephus, Ant. 20.1.1), Jacob and Simon, sons of Judas the Galilean (Josephus, Ant. 20.5.2), the Egyptian Jew (Josephus, Ant. 20.8.6; BJ 2.13.5; Acts 21.38); the wilderness imposter (Josephus, Ant. 20.8.10), Costobarus (Josephus, Ant. 20.9.4,) Salus (Josephus, Ant 20.9.4), Menachem, (Josephus, BJ 2.17.8), and John of Gischala (Josephus, BJ 2.21; 4.3.13ff; 7.1; 7.8.1) See E.E. Jensen, ‘The First Century Controversy Over Jesus as a Revolutionary Figure’, JBL 60 (1941) pp.261– 72. See M. Hengel, The Zealots (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989) pp.229– 36 on false prophets. The prediction of Jesus’ imminent return has been proven to be false, since technically it was valid for the generation in which it was written only. Sanders describes how, when Jesus’ second coming did not occur during Paul’s lifetime, Paul gradually changed this prophecy and put it in the background of his message. According to Sanders, the author of Acts then probably rewrote Peter’s speech about this subject to suit his own purposes. E.P. Sanders, Paulus p.35. B.D. Ehrman, The New Testament. A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p.61. See also: T. Freke and P. Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries. Was the ‘Original Jesus’ A Pagan God? (London: Thorsons, 1999) p.60. The Pauline portrait of Jesus in the Gospels resembles that of a typical mythical Hellenistic god-man who had died for the sins of mankind, for example in the cult around Herakles in Saul’s hometown of Tarsus. R.M. Sheldon, ‘The Ancient Imperative’, International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-intelligence p.313. R.M. Sheldon, ‘The Ancient Imperative’ p.303. In this case, it was Labienus, a Roman ambassador fighting on the side of the Parthians, who shot these pamphlets into the Roman camp at the city of Apamea in Syria in 40 BC. R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus as Security Risk’ p.22. R.M. Sheldon, ‘The Ancient Imperative’ p.309. R.M. Sheldon, ‘The Ancient Imperative’, p.310. R.M. Sheldon, ‘The Ancient Imperative’ p.309. It is important to note that Acts, written much later by Luke, sketches a different portrait of Paul’s post-conversion life than Paul himself, especially when it comes to his travels. Some scholars therefore think the book of Acts should not be taken seriously as historiography at all, since Paul’s own memory would be more reliable than the memory or hearsay that Luke based himself upon – assuming he did not wilfully imagine certain events. However, since Acts has had such a tremendous impact on the way people have come to look at the apostle Paul, it is well worth pointing out the way it can also be read as a cover story, covering up Paul’s strikingly good relationship with various Roman government and military officials. This remarkably good relationship did not escape the attention of his contemporaries, after all, since






Operation Messiah 215


they plotted to kill him on various occasions. Besides, his letters explicitly mention a good relationship with the Roman government several times.


It is doubtful to begin with whether 470 soldiers would be necessary to prevent one man’s escape. This large deployment of troops rather seems to point to another task, namely to shield Paul against a sizeable outside threat.


On his length of stay in Caesarea, see Den Heyer, Paulus p.61.


Since Paul was allowed to write at least two letters ‘in prison’, it can safely be assumed that this particular ‘imprisonment’ in Caesarea did not put a stop to his preaching activities either. Moreover, a little later he was again allowed to spread his message, this time while living under Roman military guard in Rome.


Estimate of date in: E.P. Sanders, Paulus p.16. F.F. Bruce estimates the date as 33 CE, G. Luedeman as 30 CE, and C. Roetzel at 34 CE (all listed in C. Roetzel, Paul p.181).


The Romans in general were not awed by Jewish religion, as the New Testament wants the reader to believe, but had developed a tolerance for it that only stopped short at outright subversion, or refusal to pay respect to Roman gods, which could also be interpreted as subversion. (B.D. Ehrman, The New Testament p.28.).


Fik Meijer, Paulus’ Zeereis Naar Rome (Amsterdam: Athenaeum – Polak&Van Gennep, 2000) p.191.

Acts 28:28.


R. Eisenman, James, The Brother of Jesus pp.524– 29 who even connects Paul to the ‘Saulus’ mentioned by Josephus, Antiquities who provided Nero with a final intelligence report on the events in Palestine before the outbreak of the Great Jewish War.


Acts 15: 24 – 28.


Acts ends on 62 CE with Paul under house arrest in Rome 28: 30 – 31. It mentions nothing about Paul’s death. Early Christian sources re-write the ending. Some say he was beheaded, probably by Nero. See The Epistle of Clement To the Corinthians 5 (attributed to Clement of Rome); Tertullian, Haer. 36, and Eusebius, History of the Church 2.25.5 and 3.1.2.


It should be noted that Romans 13 is a much discussed passage and has presented many exegetical problems. Some scholars reject the passage as a non-Pauline interpolation into the letter. For a discussion of the state of the question, see N. Elliott, ‘Romans 13:1 – 7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda’, in: Paul and Empire pp.184– 204.


Except for Jewish authority, to which Paul refused to submit himself.


There are authors who believe Paul’s theology had a very critical and concrete objections to the dominant political ideology of the Principate. See D. Georgi (ed.), in Paul and Empire. Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997) pp.148– 57, esp. p.148.


J.D.G Dunn, The Theology Of Paul The Apostle (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) p.679.

R.M. Sheldon, ‘Jesus, as Security Risk’ p.23.

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