Paul’s Reverse Res Gestae

It’s hard to look at websites like Linked-In the same way after reading 2 Corinthians in light of the Roman “RES GESTAE” i.e. a listing of honours, officers and achievements boasted of by every Roman emperor, consul, proconsul — it was their “CV”, so to speak.

The photos below show the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (a translation of the accolades is available at bit.ly/3kCsrmz) which have been placed in various locations around the Roman empire, this particular one in Ancyra (a former capital in Galatia, or modern-day Turkey).

But what St. Paul does in 2 Cor 11 is striking: the dude uses irony to offer a “REVERSE res-gestae” listing. So instead of all his achievements, he mentions all those examples which showed his failures, pain, humiliations, etc.

“I’ve worked harder, been in prison more often, been beaten more times than I can count, and I’ve often been close to death. Five times I’ve had the Jewish beating, forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; I was adrift in the sea for a night and a day. I’ve been constantly travelling, facing dangers from rivers, dangers from brigands, dangers from my own people, dangers from foreigners, dangers in the town, dangers in the countryside, dangers at sea, dangers from false believers. I’ve toiled and labored, I’ve burnt the candle at both ends, I’ve been hungry and thirsty, I’ve often gone without food altogether, I’ve been cold and naked… If I must boast, I will boast of my weaknesses…in Damascus, King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus so that he could capture me, but I was let down in a basket through a window and over the wall, and I escaped his clutches. (see note 1)” (2 Cor 11:23–33)

Long and short — in contrast to the instinctive self-worship strewn all over the world (modern and ancient) — Paul boasts of exactly the wrong things to the Corinthian Christians who wanted “proven, high-quality and recognized talent” in a leader. Such bragging about serious losses and weaknesses as the basis for why one should be valued in one’s vocation is something you’ll never see a Roman VIP do.

Obviously, it’s something modern-day corporate folks avoid, too. I confess I’m afraid to even try.

If I did, something like “In 2018 I thought I was so great trying to impress a few hundred school-kids, only to have them publicly humiliate me on social media until I almost lost my job” or, “Between 2015 and 2016, I foolishly argued with some top directors in AIA. It never occurred to me then that winning an argument isn’t the main variable in corporate life” would have to be included, but only very painfully (see note 2).

This is why, for me at least, reading about early Christianity is so rewarding. There was something these communities (and folks like Paul) experienced and encountered, so contrary to our world but yet so special that — to wax MJ — it rocked theirs.

Note 1: Ben Witherington III explains that Paul included this tale of him being lowered down a wall in a basket to bring to mind the Roman military honor called the CORONA MURALIS (or “wall crown.”) which was, “one of the highest military awards and was given to the soldier who was first to scale the wall into an enemy city. It was still being awarded in Paul’s day, though to no one under the rank of centurion. Paul is saying that while the typical Roman hero is first up the wall, he is first down the wall!” (see his Conflict & Community in Corinth, 1995 on 2 Cor 11)

Note 2: Of course, neither a Roman politician or a Head of Department today have any reason to play up their personal weaknesses and imperfections; the “gods” or “forces” or “systems” involved would not welcome it (and I’m not suggesting that Christians should tear up their CVs’ and apply for a job with their failures instead; I’m sure even Paul had to convince his tent-buyers that his work was up to par…).