The Man in Black

(Alternative title: Third and Final Very Long Musing on the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Paul, and Love.) 

In my last two posts, I’ve been chasing the irony of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” etc. In particular, I’ve been trying to make sense of the paradoxical statement that comes and goes, bewilderingly, at the end of that poem’s second line: “love is not love.” 

This has led me, first, to Plato’s Symposium, in the fourth century BC; and then to St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 (1. Cor. 13), in the first century AD. Thereafter, I’ve discussed the paradox that Paul himself embodies. The leader of the new faith, Christianity, was in the first place the defender of the old: Judaism. At the same time, Saul is supposed to have been “really” Paul all along, his true or inner being merely getting revealed in the famous moment of his conversion. Ultimately, Saul is Paul; and yet Paul is not Saul. This doubled person, this redoubled paradox, gives us 1. Cor. 13: one of the greatest love-poems in all literature. 

And that, too, is paradoxical. For Paul, generally speaking, is no love-poet. 

He famously advises that “it is better to marry than to burn” (1. Cor. 7: 9)—by which he seems to mean “in desire,” but seemingly also “in Hell,” for the sin of fornication. Paul himself is proudly celibate, and lays much of the theological foundation for the later Catholic demonization of sexuality. In the book of Acts, while he zips around the eastern Mediterranean organizing the early church, Paul has many followers and co-workers; but none we would really call a friend. He has no children of his own (obviously), but we never meet any Pauline parents or siblings, either. (We will come back to this.) The representation of this powerful man in art, which reaches back to very early times, makes him consistently vinegary: tall and gaunt, trim dark beard, widow’s peak. St. Peter, with whom our man is frequently depicted, is hale and hearty. He looks like he could give you a nice bear hug. But St. Paul? A curt handshake, and an icy stare. His apostolic symbol is a drawn sword. 

In the stories of Acts, Paul is dedicated, indefatigable—and ruthless. At Acts 21, for example, he causes an uproar in Jerusalem by preaching Christianity in the Jewish Temple. Seized by an enraged crowd, Paul is saved from lynching by the city’s Roman garrison—only to rile the mob up even more, with a gleefully incendiary oration (in 22). Brought before the Temple authorities, the apostle perceives that they are divided between Sadduccees and Pharisees—competing sects of Jewish fundamentalists at this time. Having himself been raised a Pharisee, he cries out shrewdly: “Of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question!” (Acts 23: 6) As the scripture patiently explains (23: 8), this was one of the main doctrinal points dividing the two sects. And so there arises “a great cry,” and “a great dissension” (23: 9-10), as the opponents of the new faith fall upon each other. Paul is litigator, tactician, logistician, gaslighter. But lover? 

To be sure, when he calls upon “faith, hope and love”—and says that “of these, the greatest is love” (1. Cor. 13: 13)—Paul is talking about heavenly or spiritual or “higher” love: agapē in Greek, caritas in Latin (as indicated by the translation “charity” in the King James Version). But presumably, higher love is still love. Not not-love. 

All of which is to say that when Paul tells the Corinthians that all they need is love, somebody might well object: What the heck do you know about it?

Now, as I was saying last time, Paul is the only person by that name in the entirety of the Bible (if we discount the “Sergius Paulus” who appears in Acts 13, seemingly just to introduce the name itself). This matters, because the scriptures re-use names very carefully. It is not by accident, to cite the most obvious example, that Jesus (or Yeshua), who is supposed to lead humanity into the Promised Land of eternal life, bears the same name as the Old Testament figure who led the Israelites into their promised land of Canaan: Joshua. Neither is it by accident that Jesus’s earthly Dad, Joseph, is advised in a dream to find refuge for his family in Egypt; just as his Old Testament namesake, he of the technicolour dreamcoat, found refuge there for his. Name-games of this kind are one aspect of an extremely rich system of analogies, binding together the two great parts of the Bible, that scholars call typology. Old Testament originals find New Testament reiterations that are supposed to constitute their explanation and fulfillment. The almost comical reycycling of names in Acts, which I discussed last time, is like a New Testament mini-golf version of this procedure.

Against all of that typological background, “Paul” stands alone. But not “Saul.” There is another very important person by that name, in the Old Testament; and he, like the one in the New, is a champion of the Jewish (or Hebrew) people. Old Testament Saul, like his New Testament avatar, undergoes an ecstatic conversion—into himself. The two Sauls, we are carefully told, are even from the same part of the overall Hebrew family: both are members of the tribe of Benjamin, descendants of the youngest son of Jacob/Israel (see Phillipians 3.5). The mirroring of Saul and Saul is no mystical effect, but a brilliantly and carefully literary—typological—one. In other words, the author of Acts (by tradition St. Luke) knows exactly what he is doing. I want to suggest now that if we turn the New Testament image of Paul back toward its Old Testament countenance, we gain an interpretative advantage on 1. Cor. 13.

We meet the Old Testament Saul in the First Book of Samuel. This describes the end of an historical period during which the Hebrew people were led by a series of warrior-prophets, called Judges. The eponymous Samuel, in a sense, is the last of these—but purely as a spiritual, rather than military, leader. Which leads into our story: because the Hebrew tribes are clamoring for a King. A proper, powerful, right royal commander-in-chief, to lead them into battle against the non-Hebrew peoples that surround and beset them. God, for a long time, declines their request. (He seems to think that He is the only King they need.) Until sending them Saul.

He looks the part. As we are repeatedly told, Saul is physically imposing, standing head and shoulders above everybody else. In other ways, though, Saul is an unikely candidate for the purple. His tribe, the Benjaminites, is the smallest of the 12 tribes that make up the Hebrews. Among the Benjaminites, Saul’s is no great family. And Saul himself is just a young nobody. We first see him on a long and frustrating search for his father’s “asses” (donkeys), which have gone on a self-guided tour of the Holy Land. “And he passed through mount Ephraim, and passed through the land of Shalisha, but they found them not: then they passed through the land of Shalim, and there they were not: and he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they found them not.” Eventually, in a kind of folkloric desperation, Saul and his companions decide to ask the prophet, or “seer”—Samuel, the great Judge of Israel himself—about the wayfaring quadrupeds. 

Coming to the town where Samuel is lodging, Saul asks directions to his house. The very person he asks turns out to be the seer himself. Who tells him that the donkeys have been found. And takes Saul and his fellow-seekers home. And gives them a big dinner. And beds for the night. And sees them on their way in the morning. “And as they were going down to the end of the city, Samuel said to Saul … stand thou still a while, that I may shew thee the word of God” (1.Sam. 9:27):

Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the LORD hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?

When thou art departed from me to day, then thou shalt find two men by Rachel’s sepulchre in the border of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say unto thee, The asses which thou wentest to seek are found: and, lo, thy father hath left the care of the asses, and sorroweth for you, saying, What shall I do for my son?

Then shalt thou go on forward from thence, and thou shalt come to the plain of Tabor, and there shall meet thee three men going up to God to Bethel, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine:

And they will salute thee, and give thee two loaves of bread; which thou shalt receive of their hands.

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy:

And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.

… And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart: and all those signs came to pass that day. (1 Sam 10: 1-9.)

It is spine-tingling. Flat on his back, out of his mind on YHWH, the kid becomes the king. Saul, Saul. Just as his later namesake, Paul.

Turns out Saul’s pretty good at being his new Him. Especially the fighting-our-enemies part. In between sessions of smiting, Saul acquires a wife, “Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz” (1. Sam. 14:50). They have three sons: “Jonathan, and Ishui, and Melchishua.” And two daughters, “the name of the firstborn Merab, and the name of the younger Michal” (1. Sam. 14:49). 

Unfortunately, Saul displeases God. (He fails, after a specific conquest, to annihilate every single living thing down to the children and livestock. It is one of those indigestible moments of the Old Testament.) And so God directs Samuel to find a new, replacement King, among the sons of a man called Jesse:

And it came to pass, when they were come, that [Samuel] looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him.

But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth …

Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Then Jesse made Shammah to pass by. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Again, Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these.

And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.

And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he. (1 Sam. 16: 6-12)


Little by little, Saul loses his kingdom to the upstart. And not his kingdom only. Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son, loves David “as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18: 4). So does Michal, Saul’s younger daughter. David himself, at first, is like an adoptive son to the King: living in the royal household, accompanying Saul into battle, playing music (in a famous and beautiful story) that brings the old man peace. When David first challenges the Philistine giant Goliath, Saul dresses the boy in his own armour: “an helmet of brass upon his head,” and “a coat of mail” on his back. But young David “cannot go [walk]” with them; so he goes without them (1 Sam. 17: 38-39). It is a perfect little episode of quasi-paternal doting. 

But then—through anger, envy, paranoia, drink—Saul alienates his symbolic heir. David wages a guerilla campaign against his erstwhile King, his second father. He marries Michal, even though Saul tries to take her away from him. Eventually, both Saul and Jonathan die at the hands of the Philistines. David goes on to become the great King of Israel that Saul—it seems—was never truly meant to be.

And David has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And the King favours some of them, rejects others. Fasts for a week, praying on the ground, while one of his babies lies ill. Gets up and washes and eats when the kid dies; because, as he brusquely tells his servants, he can’t do anything more for him now. With the gorgeous Bath-sheba—whom David stole from his loyal and virtuous general Uriah, causing him to be killed, for exactly this purpose—David has another son right away: Solomon. And he becomes King. And has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And it goes on like that.

What runs through this long story, from its origins to its aftermath? From Saul’s Dad pining for his son, in the First Book of Samuel; to Solomon worrying over his, in the First Book of the Kings?

It seems to me the answer is obvious. These are stories of love. Not so much eros, although there is certainly some of that. Nor, exactly, agapē—although God himself certainly showers his love down very capriciously, redirecting it from Saul (who scarcely deserves this treatment) to David (who scarcely deserves this treatment). And that’s a clue, I think. God behaves in this part of the Bible like a father who plays favourites. Saul is like the older son who can’t do anything right; David, the younger one who can’t do anything wrong. Learning from Him, the fathers in this part of the Bible play favourites, too. With everything that results from that sad yet organic tendency. The love that dominates the Saul-David-Solomon stories, shapes them and makes them, isn’t primarily erotic, or heavenly, but something else. Unlike eros and agapē, Greek doesn’t give us a tidy term for this other kind of love (there are philia and storge, but neither of them really captures it). But we know what we are talking about: it’s love filial, and parental. The love of family.

For most of us, obviously, this is the first love we ever know; recalled in adulthood, if we can do that, like drops from a precious vial. As for those tragic people who never get to drink—well, they will struggle to love, anybody or in any way, throughout their lives. If erotic love makes us, as infants, family love re-makes us, as children. And if we don’t get re-made in that way, we can never be made right. 

Saul, in the Old Testament, mirrors Paul in the New. Saul’s story is full of love, and lovers; Paul’s, not so much. And yet he is the Saul who sings a hymn to love. Paul may be unfamiliar with the erotic kind; he may not be able to explain the heavenly. But Paul knows family love, if he knows any love at all. This is what the story of Saul, Paul’s Old Testament Other, reminds us.

And yet: where is Paul’s family?

Look how carefully, in the books of Samuel and Kings, the members of Saul’s and David’s and Solomon’s families are introduced and named: Ahinoam, Jonathan, Ishui, Melchishua, Merab, Michal, Eliab, Abinadab, Jesse, Bath-Sheba—and many, many more. The contrast with Acts—with Saul-Paul’s family background—is stark. We are told that he’s from Tarsus. That he’s a Roman citizen by birth. A tent-maker by trade. But that’s about all we are told. No siblings, parents, or even surrogates are so much as mentioned in his story.

With one exception. 

In Acts 22, as I have mentioned, Paul makes a speech to his own would-be lynch mob. He is being led into detention by the Roman soldiers who have just saved him from being torn apart. Requesting and receiving permission to address his tormentors, Paul pauses “on the stairs” of the citadel and beckons to them (Acts 21: 40). It is a moment of astonishing drama. “And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,”

Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you. …

I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.

As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.

And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there,

Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight.

And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. …

And [the listening crowd] gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. (Acts 22: 1-22).

Paul’s “defense” is the best offense. Not an apology for, but a reiteration of, the very faith he has been preaching; and centred on the story of his own conversion. This we have read before, in Acts 9. Here, let us note, Paul tropes his Damascus experience very much as a choice of loved ones. He turns his face toward the Christian Ananias, who speaks for “our fathers,” and welcomes Saul-Paul as “brother.” He turns his back on the Jewish “elders” and “brethren,” on whose behalf he has formerly breathed such fire. And among them—the only figure of Saul’s entire family of origin, broadly construed, to be named in Acts—is the man who brought him up: Gamaliel.

The name, as Johnny Cash notes in his rollicking gospel rendition of this story (“The Man in White”), means “the beauty of the Lord.” And that certainly is very beautiful. But more important, I think, is the kind of person who bears this name—or rather, whose name Paul bears, so casually and yet so purposefully, into his speech on the steps of the castle. Gamaliel was Saul’s master and teacher, his father in the faith. We are reminded here that Saul was not just any Jew, but a Pharisee: a passionate fundamentalist, “taught according to the perfect manner of the law.” In contemporary Jewish terms, we can perhaps think of him as ultra-orthodox. Indeed, Saul of Tarsus, as we have seen, was a virtuoso, a superstar student of Pharisiacal fundamentalism, leading the charge to stamp out the Nazarene heresy. In that sense, he had already made the free choice to re-affirm the family into which he had been born. How he must have made old Gamaliel’s heart swell with pride and joy! Until he made it burst, with pain and despair. When he came out, so to speak, as himself.

Paul is a rebel. A runaway. A traitor. He makes a mockery of the family, and the love, that made him what he is; erasing them almost totally, retaining and displaying only the token of his old teacher’s name, like a sign of his destruction. Paul claims to be doing this, of course, on behalf of a higher and newer love; which, moreover, he claims to be the true expression of the lower, older kind. Saul becomes Paul, Judaism Christianity. Love, love. But the meaning at the end differs radically from the beginning. 

How, then are we to understand 1. Cor. 13?

It seems to me the text still stands out. Sticks out, even, and more than it did before, as a result of the analysis we have attempted. Paul’s transition from Judaism to Christianity, from his old self to his new, is experienced and understood by him as a movement out of love: the only love he will ever know, the love of his family, whom he has erased, save for that single name of Gamaliel, carried in his pocket like a tired souvenir. A remembrancer. And indeed, in 1. Cor. 13, Paul remembers. As all runaways do, from time to time. If only to reconfirm, over and over again, the glory of their flight. From the other side, having reached Damascus, Saul-Paul looks back. And asks: 

Can’t I be both there and here?

Aren’t you patient enough?

Kind enough? Forbearing enough? 

Long-suffering enough?

Isn’t love just love?

The answer, I guess, is “no.” And this I think is what Shakespeare is teaching us, in sonnet 116. Love is not-love. Because love is always of the not. Whether it alters “when it alteration finds.” “Bends with the remover”—that flash bastard—“to remove.” Comes in reach of Time’s bending sickle. And that doesn’t only cut down rosy lips and cheeks. At the very core of our experience of love–and I think we learn this from Paul, and from Shakespeare, and from Plato– is an absence, a lack, that cannot not be there. As we reach to give the hug. Bend to kiss on the head. Ponder the words that will make our beloved, we hope, love us back. Paul, precisely because he is outside love, knows love, now. It is what he has lost, in between Gamaliel and Ananias.

But the gap is what he gains: Freedom.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in the intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). Philosophically, for me, these issues are subsumed in hermeneutics.

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