Sense and Nonsense: A Saint’s Freedom

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In the little town of Iowa where I was born, there were two Catholic churches—Sacred Heart and Saints Peter and Paul. From my very youth, these two apostles, Peter and Paul, were visibly associated; and I have always liked the very ring of the words “Saints Peter and Paul” when spoken aloud. The Church celebrates the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29, but it has a separate Feast-day for Saint Paul on January 25th.

We used to say that Saint Paul wrote a good number of the epistles of the New Testament; for instance, that he wrote Hebrews. Today, we read “as the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews said … “—no Paul. A good trivia question among literate Christians is “which Letters of Saint Paul did he not write?” The extremes range from none to all. All of which gets into the good fun of Scripture authorship, scholarship, tradition, interpretation, and what it all means for us.

In a Sermon he gave to Catholic undergraduates at Oxford in 1941, Ronald Knox wondered about the linking of these two saints, Peter and Paul. Except for one famous occasion, he noted, they seemed to get along pretty well together, but at various times they are thought to be rather antagonistic. The Reformation in particular tended to emphasize Paul at the expense of Peter. The great Protestant cathedral in London is Saint Paul’s. “Protestantism, in revolt against the Petrine claims, and basing its most characteristic theology on a false reading of Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans,” Knox remarked, “could hardly fail to draw invidious comparisons, in which Saint Paul came out best.”

Certain “learned and untrustworthy men,” Knox told the undergraduates, as if to warn them to be alert in their classes, saw the Acts of the Apostles as a kind of competition for honor and glory between Paul and Peter. “If Peter is rescued from prison at Jerusalem, Paul must be rescued at Philippi; if Paul raises Eutychus to life, Peter must do as much for Dorcas; and so on throughout.” How are we to evaluate this approach? Knox’s own view is clear: “Most of us will find it difficult to believe in this sort of thing.”


The fact is that Saint Paul is a pretty interesting character. I am in the habit of saying that we know more about the insides of Saint Augustine than of any other ancient man. The only rivals, I think, are Cicero and Saint Paul. And obviously, there is a lot of both Cicero and Saint Paul in Saint Augustine.

Saint Paul was born in Tarsus and so had Roman citizenship by birth; he did not hesitate to use his citizenship when he had need of it. I have always liked that about him. When he suspected that he might be treated improperly by Jewish courts, he chose a Roman court where he thought he would be tried more fairly (Acts c. 25). Paul made his appeal to Festus, the local Roman governor in Caesarea. Festus wanted to appease the Jews and send him to Jerusalem, but Paul would have none of it. “I am standing before the tribunal of Caesar and this is where I should be tried,” Paul admonished Festus. “I have done the Jews no wrong, as you very well know. If I am guilty of committing any capital crime, I do not ask to be spared the death penalty. But if there is no substance to the accusation against me, no one has a right to surrender me to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

Festus, for his part, seemed only too glad to get Paul out of his jurisdiction. “You appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go.” Festus obviously knew that he had a very tough man on his hands. Paul, however, did not just tell Festus that he was innocent, he went on to explain the principles of law to him. Paul in effect said to Festus, “Look, if I am guilty, kill me. But follow the law, your law. Show the accusation. You, Festus, have no right to violate your own rules of procedure. I don’t trust you. Send me to the Roman courts.”

A couple of days later, King Agrippa and his wife Bernice came to Caesarea. Festus told Agrippa about the problem with Paul. After listening to Festus recount Paul’s situation,

Agrippa wanted to hear the story from Paul himself. Festus arranged a meeting with Paul for the following day. At this point, Festus admits to Agrippa that he does not know exactly what it is that he should tell the Roman court that Paul has done. “It seems to me pointless to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.” By his own law, Festus should have released Paul.

Paul does not help Festus to formulate an accusation against him. Rather he takes the opportunity to explain his life to Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus. Agrippa knew more than Festus about Jewish and Christian issues. Paul explains how he is a Pharisee and a strict one. But he also makes precise that he is on trial for his “hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors.” Paul already associates his work with Jewish revelation and its completion. Festus is obviously wondering what all of this means.

Paul proceeds to recount to Agrippa that in his earlier days, he as Saul, opposed “the name of Jesus the Nazarene.” He even condemned many Christians to prison and tried to make them renounce their faith. This Saul, as he was earlier called, was a rather formidable character. So, here we have Paul giving an account of his life to a local monarch and to a local Roman governor. Paul then tells them of the scene on the road to Damascus: he is on his way to continue persecuting Christians; he is knocked off his horse; he hears someone calling to him in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Naturally, Paul tries to find out what is going on—he thought he was doing Yahweh’s business. He learns that the voice belongs to Jesus, and that Jesus has special plans for him. He is to go to the pagans, and “through faith in me [Jesus], [to obtain] forgiveness of their sins.” Paul immediately begins to follow his new commission: he goes first to the folks in Damascus, and then to those in Jerusalem, and finally to the Temple where he is arrested and placed in the present predicament.

Paul concludes his account, “I was blessed with God’s help, and so I have stood firm to this day, testifying to great and small alike, saying nothing more than what the prophets and Moses himself said would happen: that the Christ was to suffer and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he was to proclaim that light now shone for our people and for the pagans, too.” Clearly, this is pretty heady stuff.

Meanwhile, Festus is trying to figure out what all this has to do with the Jerusalem efforts to “get rid” of Paul. Festus, who was no fool, can see no sense in all of Paul’s theo-logical jargon. He shouts, “Paul, you are out of your mind; all that learning of yours is driving you mad.” We can imagine the situation. Here a pretty sober and decent Roman governor gets this Paul dropped in his lap. Festus hates to deal with what seems like a “no-win” case for him, but he knows that Paul has managed to tie his hands legally. Although Festus seems to like Paul and to recognize his intelligence, all that silliness about being knocked off a horse, and especially rising from the dead, seems outlandish to him.

Paul understands Festus’s problem. He calmly tells the governor, “I am not mad; I am speaking nothing but the sober truth.” It is not Paul’s fault that he found himself involved in all these things. He did not make up what he said happened. Paul knew, however, that Agrippa grasped some of these things; he knew that Agrippa believed in the Hebrew prophets. He even admits to Paul, “A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me.” And Paul adds, “Little or more, I wish before God that not only you but all who have heard me today would come to be as I am—except for these chains.” Paul does not like imprisonment any more than anyone else.

At this point, Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus rise and go out. They talk together for a while about this extraordinary man and what he had told them. They agree that Paul had done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment. Finally, Agrippa adds to Festus, “The man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” There is something ironical, of course, in this latter remark. Paul had appealed to Caesar so he could be set free—no more chains. He had appealed to Caesar, moreover, because he was worried about Festus’s willingness to judge his case on its merits. Festus did not need to send Paul to Caesar in Rome if Paul was not guilty. One wonders what sort of accusation Festus did send, since before Paul’s speech he did not know how to charge him, and apparently knew even less so after.

When Paul does get to Rome, after his stormy trip, he looks up the leading Jewish authorities to explain his situation. He states his case again: how he was accused, arrested, turned over to Caesar. He told them that he himself did not have “any accusation against his own nation,” which is why he wanted to talk to them. Surprisingly, the Roman Jews had heard nothing about Paul’s case from Judea. They knew he belonged to a new “sect” and wanted to hear his own account of it. However, they had heard that of Paul’s sect “opinion had everywhere condemned it.”

What seems ironical is that after all of Paul’s efforts to “appeal to Caesar,” no one had heard much about him in Rome. He did, however, make it to the capital of the pagans, to the heart of Empire, to where he had been directed while on the road to Damascus. Festus, the Roman Governor in Caesarea, thought his great learning drove Paul mad, but Paul stuck to his position wherever he went. He was indeed eloquent and persuasive, as Agrippa acknowledged. He held that Jesus Christ was God, that freedom mattered, that life is a gift, that truth is to be acknowledged in liberty. Without these positions, Paul’s theology does collapse, and with it Christianity. However difficult it is “to believe this sort of thing,” as Festus, and perhaps the Oxford undergraduates might acknowledge, still when we read Saint Paul’s account of his life, we know even today his wish remains that “before God not only you but all who have heard me would come to be as I am—except for the chains.”

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).