After 2000 years we gladly take Paul’s “hymns” for granted. Philippians 2 or Colossians 1 are comfortably familiar now, but were shocking when they first appeared. To cry out “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” was horrifying to Jewish monotheism, while at the same time a political affront to the supreme power of Rome. The words are not only a triumphant affirmation of Christian faith but knowingly provocative to the establishment.
With such offensive songs it’s tempting to cast Paul as one of the punks of his era. He frequently spoke of Christianity as a “scandal” – “foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.” He was energised by up-front preaching in public, which more than once led to riots. Yet while Paul was quite happy to be obnoxious, he wasn’t interested in shocking for the sake of it.
Maybe we should think of him as “post-punk”. Post punk were also conscious of being outside the system but their songs were much more sophisticated. Reading Colossians 1 there’s an incredible
richness of language as Paul describes the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus. The writer of this song must have known how repellent it was to non-Christian Jews, yet it was also wonderfully visionary. It makes me wonder what the tunes were like!
But did Paul actually write these songs or did he skilfully adapt the work of others? His general ability to soar into the lyrical stratosphere suggests ability as a composer, but close analysis suggests that in Philippians 2 he was taking over an existing song, modifying it, and cleverly incorporating it into his own writing. Perhaps this early use of “sampling” makes Paul a precursor of Dub or Hip Hop rather than Punk. Either way, he was a cutting edge creative artist.
This article first appeared in Live The Word, Redemptorist Publications