The Narrative of Paul: Politics of Memory and the Subversion of Gospel Story

by Nestor Ravilas

paulI was in a classroom and challenged.  The teacher stood feisty waiting for more responses.  I was in a retreat mode; even John 1:1 was already offered to prove the divinity of Jesus, but to no avail.  Most of the first chapter of the Gospel of John is not part of the gospel story, the teacher insisted.  It was the author’s introduction of the gospel story which technically started in verse 19.  Thus it was alien to the sacred story which was entrusted and eventually become the guiding light of the emerging community inspired by the incessant retelling of this story.

If we are allowed to keep one meta-story that is probably that of Jesus’.  It is the story that started on his birth and his return to where he allegedly came from, or you might feel to step back a little to include his conception as part of this story.  Other than this, I may say, is alien to it and might be considered as mere commentary of the gospel story like, as mentioned above, the introduction of John. A notion of meta-narrative, however, might be a violation of story that resists reduction in one meta-single history. The four versions we have are reflection of varied renditions the memory of Jesus has gone in forms of oral tradition that served different longings,yearnings, and struggles of various communities that kept and treasured the memory.  It is to politicize the communal memory in an attempt to render it into one single version that serves one specific goal.  The memory recorded into many versions is an incessant resistance to this game the powerful and the strong love to play.

Another story, however, looms big in the horizon of Christian history.  This was not an attempt to reconcile the memory of Jesus into one big-single-story as the metaphysician tends to do.  But it is a narrative of another hero; a hero whose origin is as obscure as the Galilean.  Unlike the Galilean teacher, however, who was stuck in Palestinian region, he roamed the entire Mediterranean area preaching certain message he himself identified as gospel.  As he admitted however, his source was not the compilation of the memory of the Galilean teacher which was kept as sacred memory by the inspired communities.  His gospel has a divine source and not of human’s, he prided among the Galatians.  He did not inquire with those trusted with the memory of the great teacher who walked the earth, had a direct revelation rather from the risen hero.

He was not actually lying. His failure to mention any single event in the life of the teacher he revered later as Lord reveals his innocence of the memory of the story of the teacher.  The death of this Galilean teacher was the only vivid memory he kept; probably the only content of what he claimed as divine revelation.  And it was in that event he built his entire teaching he himself called – Gospel.  Other than that, he was completely an outsider from those who shared the memory; people who preserved and retold it over and over again to relive its spirit and power.  And to this incessant retelling, nowhere you will find the incident he claimed in the road to Damascus as part of the gospel story.  In his own rewriting of the story in 1st Corinthian 15 enumerating the incidents of apparition of the risen Jesus to particular people, he politicized it by including his alleged encounter with the risen Lord as naturally part of the gospel story – by doing so, making his claim legitimate and his message authoritative.

The guardians of the sacred memory were not gullible people who have just taken a ride of Paul’s story. The defensive tone of the Letter to the Galatians suggests that such claim was not easily accepted without facing resistance.  Paul was not one of those entrusted with the memory of the Galilean Lord; not even among those who were blessed to see the resurrected Lord before he was finally caught up in the air.  Paul’s story is far outside the sacred memory; it was not part of the sacred tradition.

Thus, came up the predestination story to make him not just a Johnny-come-lately guy who just appeared somewhere claiming things to himself.  So Paul was telling a great narrative;greater even than the memory of the Galilean teacher.  Its design, his supposed “setting aside,”occurred prior to the birth of the messiah, and its culmination manifested in the Macedonian road came far after the time of the messiah’s life here on earth.  The narrative of the new emerging hero surpasses that of the Galilean; its timeline supersedes the time span of the mission of the messiah from his birth until his ascension.  Something especial happened outside the gospel story.  Something was planned outside of supposedly sacred story.  And seemingly Jesus has no knowledge of this plan…until he was forcibly dragged into it.

Indeed in the politics of memory, the powerful takes the dominant version.  The narrative of Paul politicizes the memory of the Galilean hero, and eventually subverts it.  But the ongoing retelling of the memory relentlessly puts HISTORY in question – until it serves the yearning, longing,and struggle of those who maintain the memory in non-reflective form.

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