In the early months of the pandemic last year, I sat down and re-read a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that I had read many times. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul boasts surprisingly about what many in his day would have considered failures: beatings, whippings, stonings, shipwrecks, and day to day anxiety. At the end of 2 Corinthians 11, however, is a strange story about how once in Damascus, Paul had to escape secretly through the wall of the city in a basket.
As it so happens, what caught my attention while I was re-reading this passage was not how shameful the act was or how much danger Paul was in to try such a desperate escape, but how on earth did he fit in a basket? My idea of a “basket” is like a laundry basket or a gift basket or something like that, and those certainly aren’t things you can lower an average person from up high without them breaking. As I contemplated the physics of this act, a question appeared before me that I had not considered before: If an average person couldn’t fit in such a basket without it breaking, what if Paul didn’t have an average body?
My answer to this question was recently published in an article in the journal Early Christianity here. In that article, I argue that the term that Paul uses for “basket” in 2 Cor 11:33 really refers to something that may not have been able to hold Paul unless he was smaller in size than the average men of his day.
It was surprising to me that this detail had been overlooked, especially since one of the earliest extra-canonical texts about Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, actually describes him as being “short” (mikros), which is a term sometimes used in ancient Greek literature to refer to little people or people of short stature (who were known by the labels “pygmies” and dwarfs in the ancient world).
This extra-canonical text is often viewed as ahistorical—that is, it is fiction and has no basis in historical reality. One of the problems with this view, however, is that nearly a century ago, the view of scholarship was precisely the opposite. The pendulum has swung too far, and while most scholars today treat Paul’s physical description in Thecla as fiction, none can agree as to whether such a portrayal was supposed to be positive or negative:
“A certain man named Onesiphorus, hearing that Paul was coming to Iconium, went out with his children, Simmias and Zenon, and his wife, Lectra, in order to meet Paul. For Titus described to him of what sort Paul is with regard to image. For he had not seen him in the flesh but only in the spirit. (3) And he traveled down the Royal Road to Lystra, and he stood anxiously and looked at those who were coming according to the information from Titus. Then he saw Paul coming, a small man with regard to height, bald on the head, curved in the legs, healthy, monobrowed, to a little degree – an aquiline nose, full of grace. Sometimes he appeared as a man, other times he had the face of an angel” (APTh 2-3, my translation)
The thing about this physical description is that none of these features are necessarily out of the ordinary. People lose their hair, their legs can curve, they can have joint eyebrows, pronounced noses, and—of course—they can be little. My article argues that it is historically plausible that Paul was a little person and this was known among some early Christian circles. Even his name, Paulus, means in Latin “short.” How could we miss such an obvious clue?
Surely, though if Paul was short statured—you might say—someone would have noted it before. Why hasn’t anyone asked this question about texts like 2 Cor 11:33 or the Acts of Paul and Thecla? Therein lies the rub. My work benefits greatly from the lives, thinking, theory, and exegesis of scholars with disabilities. Even though I am nondisabled, I am growing to be attuned to the kinds of questions often ignored by ablebodied interpretation of scriptural texts. The reason why no one has asked this question about Paul’s body is because we are taught to assume that Paul’s body was “normal” (or what people in the disabled community would call “normate,” following the pioneering work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson).
But not all bodies fit the “norm” of wider society. What if we’ve been reading 2 Cor 11:33 wrong because we’ve assumed that Paul just had a “regular” sized body and that therefore the basket would have fit him? Or what if we’ve rejected the description in the Acts of Paul and Thecla as a fiction because it’s a “deplorable image” by ancient standards and from the perspective of interpreters today? Paul couldn’t have been short, he just couldn’t have been! But why not? Why couldn’t he have been a little person? What are we assuming about Paul, ancient texts, and the kinds of bodies that we think can impact the world—not least in the name of Jesus Christ?
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