Usually Paul was regarded as a theologian a person developing a coherent and systematic ideology about religion and God. But people are used to looking at Paul through Christian filters, i.e., two thousand years of developing Christian theology, most of which is based upon his ideas. But Paul was not a Christian for that to be true, Christianity would have had to have been in place before Paul, and that was certainly not the case.
Ashton focuses on Pauls religious experiences, explaining how his mysticism sheds insight upon otherwise difficult issues:
- But he starts out as a religious thinker in the more primitive sense: the subject matter of his reflections, above all the experience of his conversion, belongs not to theology but to religion.
Paul certainly seems to have undergone a spiritual crisis, culminating in the harsh experience on the road to Damascus when a spirit (Jesus) visits him and begins to set him upon a new path in life. This is a violent encounter during which he is blinded, not to regain his eyesight until days later. Thereafter, it was not unusual for Paul to speak in a language very much like that of spirit possession with Christ being in him, leading him in what he was to do and allowing him to perform wonders like speaking in tongues and exorcisms.
A primary reason for Ashtons book is to try and help explain things which have otherwise been difficult for historians. One of them is how Christianity managed to spread among Jews and pagans. For Ashton, Pauls power over the spirit world is one of the keys: a person working miracles on a street corner would even today attract interest and attention. In the Roman Empire of the first century, it was also bound to attract converts.
New Testament literature makes it clear that peoples problems are due to the control of malevolent spirits, and it is just as clear that the authorized representatives of Christianity the apostles, among whom Paul numbered himself had power over those spirits through the power of greater spirits, namely Jesus. This certainly had an effect on people.
Ashton, an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and former lecturer in New Testament Studies, is certainly not orthodox or conservative believer and scholar, a fact made evident in comments such as when he declares as an impossibility the story of an actual physical resurrection [of Jesus], in any of its versions. But he is also certainly no harsh critic of Christian beliefs he is sympathetic and interested in learning more about how they have developed.
Because of this, he has produced a very engrossing and unique exploration of early Christianity which will certainly be useful to anyone interested in comparative religions. So why hasnt this material been addressed before and by more people? That is a good question perhaps treating Paul as a mystic makes people uncomfortable. Hopefully, though, Ashtons book will provoke others to tackle similar topics.