St. Paul’s Autographs

St. Paul’s Autographs . . . I’ll bet you didn’t think the Apostle to the Gentiles gave out autographs, did you?

Let me explain. If you’re familiar with St. Paul’s letters, you know that many of them end with some variation of: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (1 Cor 16:21).  Many people don’t pay much attention to these little passages, as they don’t seem to add to the theological content of the letters. They appear to have served a purpose similar to that of a signature on a modern letter, a form of authentication.

   Most likely, a clerk or scribe wrote out most of the letter from Paul’s dictation. Then, the Apostle himself put down the closing in his own hand. This hand-written “autograph” would be familiar, we may presume, to the recipients.   Paul makes explicit reference to this authenticating purpose in Second Thessalonians: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (2 Thess 3:17).

“Most likely, a clerk or scribe wrote out most of the letter from Paul’s dictation . . .”


Meet Paul of Tarsus

As I said, many people just pass over these “signatures”.  I suppose they’re included in the Bible, in large part, simply because they were preserved with the rest of the contents of the letters when they were formally added to the Canon of Sacred Scripture.  And yet I’ve always had a special fondness for them.

     I had a powerful, life-changing conversion of my own on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (although I didn’t realize the significance of the date until some time after the fact).  One of the first things I did in the first flush of revert fervor was to resolve to read the whole Bible, starting with the New Testament (a good place to start, as it turns out).

  I didn’t quite make it through the entire Bible that time, but I got to a lot of it, and I found all sorts of surprises.  I had been raised in a Catholic family (not devout, really, but more or less observant) and sent to Catholic schools, so some of the surprises were things I had seen many times, but now truly understood for the first time (“So that’s what Sister meant when she said . . . “).  Those were exciting.  But there were also things I never expected, and at the top of that list was meeting Paul of Tarsus.

Something More

     There were things in Paul’s story with which I could identify. We were both heading the wrong way, for instance, (granted, in different ways) until an unlooked-for meeting with Christ turned us 180 degrees in the other direction.  But there was something more. There are other letters in the New Testament, and we can certainly get some sense of the personalities of Peter, John and James, but none of them seemed so real to me as Paul did.  His are the only books in the Bible where the human author’s voice is so strong and distinct that I felt, after reading them, that I really knew him.  Sometimes he seems just a little irascible, as in the ironic, almost sarcastic, remarks addressed to the Corinthians (my bold):

I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.  When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.  For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk.  What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.   (1 Cor 11:18-22)


Or the entire letter to the Galatians, St. Paul’s most emotional epistle, where the Apostle has scarcely finished his greeting when he expresses his amazement that they were “so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). He later calls them “foolish”, (anoetoi, literally “mindless”) for listening to the Judaizers who insisted that ritual circumcision was necessary for salvation (Gal 3:1).  Finally, in his frustration, his expresses the wish that the Judaizers would, as the RSV translation puts it, “mutilate themselves” (Gal 5:12).  Paul uses the Greek word apokopsontai, from the verb apokopto, which means “lop off”. In other words, if they’re so fond of circumcision, why don’t they just take everything off?

“Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne, 1618-1620

“Wretched man that I am!”

   We can see in these outbursts, which form a relatively small proportion of St. Paul’s writing, that his very human frustration springs from his great love for his spiritual children.  They are also more than offset by expressions of great joy, such as we find in this passage from his letter to the Romans:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death
. (Rom 7:24-8:2)

Or by passages of radiant beauty, such as his great and much-quoted hymn to Love (agape) in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing . . . (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Sacramental Imagination    

A big part of Catholicism is what we call the Sacramental Imagination, the sense that God is always trying to reach us through his creation. Jesus Christ himself is the supreme manifestation, of course: The Eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnating as a creature. In a lesser way the sacraments, sacramentals, the mission of the Apostles, the lives of the Saints . . . all of these are examples as well: “The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God!” (Psalm 19.1).  I can even see a sacramental element in St. Paul’s autographs (you didn’t think I forgot about those, did you?), because they are a tangible reminder  that his Letters, in addition to being the Inspired Word of God, were once also ordinary letters composed by a flesh and blood man, and written down in ink on papyrus or parchment.  Consider this from the Letter to Philemon (my bold):

If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account – I, Paul, write this with my own hand –  I will repay it, to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. (Phil 18-19)

In his eagerness to assure Philemon that he, Paul, is really offering to pay Onesimus’ debts, he doesn’t wait for the closing, but takes over from his scribe in the middle of a sentence to insert his signature.  That’s the messiness of real life.     

St. Paul’s Autographs: Large Letters

My favorite of St. Paul’s autographs, however, is this one: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand!” (Gal 6:11).  Here, at the end of the Letter to the Galatians, after he has mounted an impassioned defense of his authority as Apostle, told his correspondents they were fools, and expressed the wish that the Judaizers geld themselves, we see St. Paul pause to take delight in the sight of his handwritten letters looping across the page.  How can you not love this man?

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