The historian in question was Tom Holland a prize-winning author who has specialised in classical history. His controversial point was that far from being an authoritarian oppressor, he was actually the archetypal liberator. "Look to the make the world fairer today" Holland explained in a tantalising introduction "and you owe a debt of gratitude to Paul". It was a point repeated as the programme began to draw to a close. It is Paul who has been most influential on western thinking not Darwin, Marx or Freud.
The problem is that aside from this introduction and conclusion, the middle of the programme struggles to flesh out Holland's point. He makes passing reference in his opening statement to how the ancient Romans and Greeks saw inequality as a virtue, but didn't really demonstrate the point any further. This comes, I think, from the "all things to all men" nature of programmes such as these. Before it could get onto subtler issues like this, the programme needed to explain who Paul was where he came from etc.. It was the right choice, but it did leave Holland's key point a little a little lacking in weight.
That said, Holland did explore two of the areas where Paul's reputation is blackest - his comments on women and homosexuals. Personally I find the criticism Paul gets in these areas distinctly lacking in context. Ancient thinkers will always be from a different culture than our own, and thus when their values are held under such scrutiny hundreds or thousands of years later we are, of course, not going to agree with every word. But I agree with Holland that such statements as "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one" (Gal 3:28) were utterly revolutionary, and to criticise Paul for failing to see the full extent to which his line of thinking goes is to be gravely uninformed.
Holland does go on to tackle those two issues in particular, finding himself in a gay bar to explore Paul's attitude to homosexuality, before talking to a female New Testament lecturer about Paul's attitude to women.
Holland approaches these two issues differently. In the first case he argues that while Paul, like his culture, prohibited homosexuality, he was always very "flexible" in his thinking. He was always challenging his own prejudices, and this too is something he has passed onto the western world. "His aim is always to push against the limits of preconceptions in the name of equality and love" Holland explains. In other words, had he had the time to work these thoughts through, or had he been born into our culture, he probably would not have spoken out against homosexuality as he did.
In honesty, whilst it may be a fair point, it also overlooks a lot of key evidence. Far from being disapproved of in classical culture, sex between males was rife, though only in certain contexts, few, if any, of which bear any similarity to what we think of today when we talk about homosexuality. Secondly, quite what Paul is speaking against is never that clear - at least not once you get into the original Greek. Again, I guess this was a time issue, but it would have been nice to see a little more explanation of this point, given Channel 4's typical audience.
What's interesting is that the programme took a very different angle on the question of women's rights. Rather than re-applying the same arguments, which would not have been inappropriate, he talks to Paula Gooder who explains that some of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul were probably not written by him, including 1 Timothy with it's rules telling women to learn in silence, and forbidding them to teach. It's the perspective I came around to a number of years ago. These statements seem just too greatly opposed to Paul's words (as above) and his actions, working with women teachers, greeting women apostles and so on. Personally I think both issues hang on the translation of hapax legomenon which seem to weigh against the thrust of Paul's words, actions and lines of thinking, but I digress.
Having explored Paul's conversion and his ideas about taking the gospel to the gentiles earlier in the programme, it ends by looking at his death, taking the view that Paul was killed in the Neronian persecution of the early 60s AD. There was no mention of alternative theories, but again this is probably because of time constraints. That said Holland did refer to a legend in which Paul's freshly severed head bounces three times forming a spring of water in each place it hit the ground.
It's hard to sum up my feeling about this episode. In many ways it was one of my favourites. I agreed with almost everything it said, which always leaves one well disposed towards something, and particularly appreciated Holland's attempt to rehabilitate Paul, by explaining his cultural context and the impact his thought has had on 21st century thought. At the same time there were a few extraneous moments (like the footage from Holland's visit to speaker's corner) which should have been cut in favour of fleshing out some of the more important arguments.
Next week, it's the final episode of the series when Robert Beckford takes a look at Revelation. Given Beckford's track record, not to mention his personal history, I have high expectations.