Address of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Classical Association of Ireland Summer School, Sligo

Saul of Tarsus – Death and the Hereafter

A.) Saul of Tarsus 

  1. Tarsus

Like many people, I imagine, I became aware of Tarsus in one context, namely that it was the home town of St. Paul, who wrote many of the letters (or epistles) of the New Testament. Over the years I have, understandably, paid more attention to Paul than I have to Tarsus. But Tarsus itself is not by any means irrelevant to the theme that I will be addressing for the next few minutes.

Tarsus is in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. It is 900km from Jerusalem. According to Google maps, that is just over seven days walk, assuming that you walk four kilometres an hour, twenty-four hours a day. By Camino standards, which would be more like my pace, it would be more realistic to suggest four weeks walking. In global terms that is close enough to explain why Tarsus was a centre of the Hebrew diaspora and Paul’s family seems to have been part of that that community.

Cilicia, where Tarsus is situated, was a province of the Roman Empire in the first century AD, which would explain Paul’s claim to be a citizen of Rome. But Tarsus was also a Hellenised city, a centre of culture and learning. It was only 1,200km, or a little over five weeks walk from Athens. Paul, therefore, grew up in an environment where the Hebrew culture and the Greco-Roman culture existed side by side. That almost certainly explains the relative ease with which Paul, as a missionary, engaged with the people of Athens and Rome.

Writing in his encyclical letter on “Faith and Reason”, Pope John Paul suggested that

one of the major concerns of classical philosophy was to purify human notions of God of mythological elements. ….As they broadened their view to include universal principles, they no longer rested content with the ancient myths, but wanted to provide a rational foundation for their belief in the divinity”. [1]

We know that, some five hundred years before Paul was born, Socrates and Plato were teaching and writing in Athens. In the Republic, Plato identifies with that task of promoting reason over myth. There, and in the Phaedo in particular, he sets out to apply reason to the important question of death and immortality. We know that Paul could write well in Greek. Given the unique cultural situation of Tarsus, it would not seem unreasonable that he was also exposed, directly or indirectly, to the philosophy of Greece as he grew up in Tarsus.

  1. What’s in a Name?

People tend to think that the name “Paul” dates from the time of the conversion at Damascus, but it seems more likely that he was known by both names, depending on whether he was operating in a Hebrew environment or a Greco-Roman environment (cf. Acts 13). Immigrants have to adapt and blend in, in order to survive. Some of the overseas priests in our Diocese have names which do not easily roll off the tongue, but most of them use anglicised variants, which is certainly helpful for parishioners. Most of us are also familiar with how Irish family names take on new forms in faraway places such as the United States of America

When we first meet Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, he is known as “Saul”, a Hebrew name associated with one of the great kings of Israel. This seems to fit in well with the fact, while he was still relatively young, he went from Tarsus to Jerusalem for his education. According to himself, he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3).

From what is known of Rabbi Gamaliel I, this would suggest that the young Saul was training to be a Rabbi. He describes himself as one who “lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest party of our religion” (Acts 26.5). The two principal theological parties in the Hebrew religion at the time of Jesus were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. One of essential differences between them, as we read in the New Testament, is that the Pharisees believed in the Resurrection and the after-life, whereas the Saducees did not.

Faith in some form of resurrection from the dead was already beginning to gain some credence in Jewish circles before the time of Jesus and the most explicit reference to it is in the Second Book of the Maccabbes. The interesting question for us and I certainly don’t have an answer to it, is whether Paul brought his faith in the after-life with him from Tarsus or whether it was something that he learnt from Gamaliel.

When Saul makes his appearance in the Acts, it seems that he is already not only a Pharisee, but probably a full member of the Sanhedrin, since he appears to have had the authority to participate in making legal decisions and had been entrusted with the authority of prosecuting Christians, not only in Jerusalem, but as far afield as Damascus.

Here again, I am fascinated by two questions in particular. There is no evidence that Paul ever met Jesus during his earthly life. Everything in Paul’s own writings suggests that he didn’t. On the other hand, we know that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin by the time of his conversion, (probably in 36 AD) and the Gospels tells us that Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin at the time of his arrest (probably in 33 AD). It would be fascinating to know if Paul was present in there, even in some minor role.

As a Pharisee, Paul believed in the Resurrection, but he persecuted those who proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus. Why was he out to get the Christians? He certainly wasn’t opposed to the idea of Resurrection, but he was probably conditioned to thinking of Jesus as a blasphemer and a breaker of the Law. I find myself asking, how sudden was his conversion, or was he already in some way conflicted about the evidence that Jesus was alive? 

  1. Paul and the Hebrew Tradition

It may be helpful for us to look in greater detail at the Hebrew tradition around life and death and to understand how this gradually developed in the direction of faith in some kind of resurrection from the dead. In Jewish thought we don’t have the same kind of dualism that we find among the Greeks, so there is no particular focus on a radical separation of body and spirit. Faced with the reality of bodily death, the Hebrews, in common with many other cultures, did not easily accept the idea of total annihilation. As we browse through the Psalms, we find constant references to “Sheol” as the place where the dead continue to live in some very limited way. In Sheol there is “no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). It is a land of “gloom and deep darkness” (Job 10:21) which, in some ways, seems even worse than annihilation. 

The older tradition of the Bible suggests that God deals fairly with his people by rewarding the just and punishing the evil in this life, but all of this seems to come tumbling down in the face of suffering and death. The classic image of this is the just man, Job, who is blessed in his family and in all his business undertakings, but who loses everything, almost overnight and ends up sitting in ashes, scratching at his sores with pieces of broken pottery. His friends try to convince him that he must have done something to deserve it, and he should really just admit it. Job still has his life, but he is only a shadow of his former self and he cries out: “If I look for Sheol as my house, if I spread my couch in darkness ….Where then is my hope? Who will see my hope?” (Job 17:13)

If there is any justice at all, or any meaning to human existence, it seems that there must be some more reliable or lasting reward for goodness. Belief in some kind of blessed afterlife begins to take shape in the Old Testament and it is closely connected with the conviction that God is good and that his creation is not without meaning. So, already in the Psalms, we have the statement that, while the just are “like a tree, planted near streams of water” the wicked “are like chaff driven by the wind” and “will not arise at the judgment”. Psalm 139 would suggest that, even in Sheol, a person is not beyond the (life-giving) reach of God:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139:7-9) 

In Isaiah, the promise of eternal life is symbolised by the banquet, prepared by God on his holy mountain, where there is the best of food and wine and when “every tear will be wiped away”. (Is 25:6-8)

In the Old Testament, the clearest profession of faith in the after-life is made by the youngest of seven brothers, just before his martyrdom at the hands of the pagan King Antiochus Epiphanes. He says: “Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance” (2 Mac 7:36). This is the tradition out of which Paul the Pharisee comes. What I hope to explore now is how the teaching of Paul the Disciple, while building on that Hebrew tradition, transcends it and how, in some ways, it is quite different and quite new.

Paul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus is not just a dramatic experience. It changes everything. Before Damascus Paul looked on Jesus as a blasphemer who claimed to be the Son of God and who led people astray by his attitude to the Law of Moses. But if Jesus was raised from the dead, as his disciples were saying and as Paul now experienced for himself, then Paul could no longer deny that “Jesus is Lord” and likewise, as a consequence, he had to acknowledge that it is not the Law that gives life, but the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

In the Republic, Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to describe the passing from ignorance to wisdom and from opinion to truth. In the Allegory, as you probably know, Plato presents us with the image of people who have spent their lives chained up in the darkness of a cave, knowing no other reality, and who are led by stages up into the world outside. Initially they are blinded by the light.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun itself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.[2]

In much the same way, Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, but his blindness, far from being a set-back, marked the beginning of his new vision.

B.) “Life” and “Death” in the Thought of Paul

The Dominican biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor identifies three quite different ways in which Paul discusses “life” and “death”.

  1. Life and Death in common usage

In some passages, as you might imagine, Paul speaks of “life” and “death” in the way that we all do, in everyday language. It is interesting, however, that when he speaks of physical or “natural” death he often uses the expression “fallen asleep”. He talks about the historical death of Jesus. He responds to the concerns of the people of Thessalonika, who are worried about what will happen to those have “fallen asleep” before the Parousia (the Second Coming).  Speaking about the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, he talks about those who have encountered the risen Jesus, “many of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep”. In all of these contexts, Paul is speaking of the physical realities of life and death.

  1. Resurrection as a form of “After-life”

On another level of meaning altogether, Paul talks about the Resurrection of Jesus and how, as a consequence of this, death has been destroyed and the promise of eternal life is held out to all who believe in Jesus. In the first letter to the Corinthians, he explores this hope of life after death in significant detail. He begins by giving a brief summary of the Gospel that he preaches, namely “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve”, going on to give a list of others, ending with himself. (1 Cor 15)  Then, in a very logical way, Paul goes on to outline the implications of the fact that Jesus is risen.

In the first place, if Jesus is risen “how can you say that there is no Resurrection from the dead”? (1 Cor 15:12) Here of course Paul is in his comfort zone, because he is speaking both from his perspective as a Pharisee who always believed in resurrection and from his perspective as a disciple, because he has now seen it with his own eyes. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. …If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied”. (1 Cor 15:17). I think we could say that, for St. Paul, the hope of resurrection is what makes the essential difference between people who greatly admire Jesus and people who actually believe in him.

One feature which is common to many of the accounts of the appearances of Jesus after his Resurrection, is the initial failure of the disciples to recognise him. Mary Magdalene, for example, thought he was the gardener, until he addressed her by name. The disciples on the road to Emmaus only recognised him eventually in the “breaking of bread”. This tells us something about the nature of the Resurrection. There is clearly a bodily dimension, because someone without a body cannot have a recognisable voice, or sit at table and break bread. Equally, however, it is clear that something has changed. It was not a matter of returning to life in the old way, like Lazarus. If we go back to Paul’s proclamation of faith, part of that proclamation is the fact that Jesus really died and was buried.

Writing about this, Pope Benedict XVI comments when St Paul speaks about the appearances of Jesus, he doesn’t say that Jesus was seen, but rather than he showed himself (ωφςη). This, he suggests, indicates that, after the Resurrection, Jesus belonged to a mode of being which would normally be hidden from sight. He could only be seen by those to whom he chose to show himself.[3]

On visiting a cemetery, you might occasionally hear people say something like “there’s going to be great fun in here on the last day”. In human terms, we are given to speculating about what will happen to people who in life had lost a limb, or had some form of disability. How is God going to sort out all of that? What will we look like? How will we feel? Will I be whole? Will my arthritis be gone? These are the kind of questions being raised by the people of Corinth, for whom resurrection is a very new idea. Understandably, with a purely physical focus, faith in resurrection from the dead presents significant challenges for us. Paul says:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15: 35ff)

The other question Paul addresses is, when will it happen? Will it be soon? Paul, like Jesus himself, is not going to be drawn into naming dates. He limits himself to implying that the day of the Lord will come suddenly and that some of us will still be alive and going about our daily business. 

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor 15:51ff)

One of the oldest of the Letters of St. Paul is the First letter to the people of Thessalonika. I have briefly referred to it already. The Christians at Thessalonika were worried about their friends who died in advance of the Parousia. Would they miss out on the Resurrection?

Paul replies:

“this we declare to you, by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep, For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangels call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thess 4:15)

I think we can summarise what I have said so far by saying that there are three essential planks to the Christian hope of resurrection in the thought of St. Paul.

  1. The first is the anthropological plank. There is something in our humanity that rejects the absurdity of death and annihilation. We find this in many cultures, including both the philosophy of ancient Greece and as a strong underlying theme in the Hebrew Scriptures
  2. The second plank is a unique feature of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely faith in a personal God who is rich in mercy and compassion; a God who acts with justice
  • The final plank, which is unique to Christianity, is the fact that Jesus is risen. It is the encounter with the risen Jesus, for Paul, that brings to fruition the hope that otherwise lies unfulfilled in the human heart.
  1. Life “In Christ”

Alongside the two modes which I have already discussed, in which Paul uses the terms “life” and “death”, there is a third way which has to do with the state of humanity before Christ (which in Pauline anthropology is a kind of death), and the state of humanity “in Christ” (which is about being fully alive as God originally intended). There is a sense then in which being “in Christ” is a kind of after-life; not after physical death, but after the death and Resurrection of Jesus. 

The English Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright says:

We have for too long allowed ourselves to be boxed-in, in our reading of Paul, by the end-of-the-world agenda. It is time to see Paul as he understood himself: as someone already living in the beginning of God’s new age, the age which began on Easter morning [4]

a. The Original Intention

In order to understand this distinction, we really need to go back to the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis. The author of Genesis describes the state of happiness and communion with God that was enjoyed by the first people in the Garden of Eden. In a gathering such as this, I don’t need to explain that the creation account is not intended to be historical. It is technically in the form of Wisdom Literature and it expresses in story form the faith of the Hebrew people, which is shared by Christians. This can be summarised by saying that everything is created by God and that everything that God created is good and that, in the beginning, people enjoyed what we might now call the beatific vision. This state of beatitude is lost, according to Genesis, because of an act or an attitude of wilful disobedience on the part of the first people, as a result of which all those who come after them are no longer fully alive. People before Christ are no longer fully what God intended them to be.

b. The Law and Faith

While “natural law” tends to be associated with Christian philosophy, the concept is significantly older than Christianity. As a Hebrew who grew up in a mixed cultural environment, Paul has some understanding of the Gentiles. Unlike the Hebrews, he says, they do not have the Law of Moses to guide them. But “what the law requires is inscribed on their hearts” (Rom 2:15). Like the Hebrews, therefore, they do have the possibility of choosing and doing what is good. He points out, however, that the Gentiles tend to rely on sacrifices offered to gods made by human hands, gods which cannot give life. He goes on then to express his disappointment that so many Hebrews, while living under the law, have not internalised it. This is because – as a result of the fall – nobody, Jew or Gentile is fully capable of living up to the demands of the Law. (cf. Rom 2:17ff; Gal 3:21ff).

The Paradox, as Paul sees it, is that “while the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek Wisdom”, life comes through Christ crucified, who is “a stumbling block for the Hebrews and folly to the gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23). Paul is not just talking about eternal life after earthly death, he is talking about Christians as people living in an eschatological age (an “end-time”) for whom the life of the Resurrection has already begun, because they are “in Christ”. So, how does this happen?

For Paul, new life in Christ comes through faith, which is not simply giving ones assent to various doctrines or creedal formulae. It is a gift of God (cf. Eph 2:8).  Joseph Fitzmeyer explains that, for Paul, faith is “a vital, personal commitment engaging the whole man to Christ in all his relations with God, with other men and with the world”. [5]

c. Baptism

Faith is ritually expressed in Baptism, which has a radically new meaning in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew tradition, Baptism was a ritual washing of repentance. In the theology of Paul, however, it is Baptism “into Christ”. It is in Paul’s theology of Baptism that we see most clearly how he understands the life of the Christian as a kind of “after-life” here on earth, as a direct consequence of the participation of the Christian in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The ritual of Baptism by immersion following the proclamation of faith was seen by Paul as an effective symbol of dying and rising “with Christ”. The person who came up out of the water was not the same as the person who was immersed. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6: 4-5) And again “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

Those of you who have an interest in classical art and architecture may be familiar with the fact that in many of the old Christian Churches and Cathedrals around Europe, the Baptistery was designed for Baptism by immersion, giving added weight to the symbolism of dying and rising. In some Churches,  for example St. Peter’s in Rome, the connection between Baptism and the Death & Resurrection of Jesus is symbolised by the use of a sarcophagus as the Baptismal Font.

d. More than a Ritual Moment

Being “in Christ”, of course, is not limited to the ritual moment. As some of you will probably be aware, this is one of the major challenges for any Christian community; that people would see the connection between Baptism and actually living “in Christ”.

The expression “in Christ” is used 165 times in the Letters of Paul. “The most common use of the phrase is to express the close union of Christ and the Christian and inclusion or incorporation that connotes a symbiosis of the two”.[6] One example of this kind of statement is “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Cor 5:17).

Murphy-O’Connor explains, however, that being “in Christ” is not simply about the spiritual relationship of an individual with Jesus Christ.[7] The visible sign of Christ is the community. Through Baptism the individual is initiated in the life of the community and this life is nourished through participation in the Eucharist, by which, as the Second Vatican Council says: ”we are taken up into communion with Christ and with one another[8] .

Paul expresses this communion in the language of the body which has many parts. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink….Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-14, 27 ).

This explains the energy and attractiveness of the Christian community in Jerusalem in the years following the Resurrection, as described in Acts.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35 and see also Acts 2:42-47)

The Christian community offered to each individual member a context in which he or she could imitate the death of Christ and, by doing so, begin already to live a new life. (Rom. 6:3-9).  Understood in this way, Christian morality is not to be understood as a re-framing of the Law, it is about being “in Christ” and living out of a radically new energy.  


[1]              Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998. #36

[2]              Plato. The Republic, Book VII

[3]              Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger). Paolo, I Suoi Collaboratori e le Sue Communita. Rome: San Paolo, 2009, p 72

[4]              Wright, N.T. What St. Paul Really Said. Oxford: Lion Publications, 1997, p. 142

[5]              Joseph A. Fitzmeyer SJ. “Pauline Anthropology” in Jerome Biblical Commentary. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968, # 125

[6]              Ibid # 138

[7]              Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Becoming Human Together: The Pastoral Anthropology of St. Paul. Dublin: Veritas, 1982. P.183

[8]              Second Vatican Council. Lumen Gentium, # 7


Address of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Summer School of the Classical Association of Ireland, Saturday 17th August 2019, Sligo