Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Paul and Slavery

John Dominic Crossan in his latest book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now demonstrates that there were at least three "Pauls" in the New Testament, four if you count the Paul of Acts. This is from the fourth chapter of Crossan's book, "Paul and the Justice of Equality."

Of the 13 letters attributed to Paul, seven are authentic by scholarly consensus. Three are disputed, probably not Paul. Three are certainly not Paul. Crossan labels them in order, radical, liberal, conservative (reactionary):

The seven authentic, certainly Paul letters (Radical)
I Corinthians (except I Corinthians 14:33b-36)
II Corinthians
I Thessalonians

The three disputed letters, probably not Paul (liberal):
II Thessalonians

The three certainly not Paul, even anti-Paul (conservative/reactionary):
I Timothy
II Timothy

To illustrate, here is a passage from the authentic Paul (Galatians 3:28)

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul's letter to Philemon, the slave-holder of Onesimus, is another authentic letter. Paul exhorts Philemon to take back his slave as a free person. For Paul, the authentic Paul that is, slavery is an anathema to oneness in Christ. For Paul, to be a Christian is to have no slaves. That is the radical Paul.

When we move to the disputed letters (probably not) of Paul, we have a different take on slavery. We are moving from the radical egalitarian message of Paul (no slavery in Christ) to a compromise with culture (in which slavery was an accepted part of Roman culture). Here are the texts, first from Ephesians:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. 9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

And from Colossians:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. 25For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. 41Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:22-4:1)

This is the liberal Paul, or the authentic Paul liberalized by the culture. This is not Paul, but people writing in his name. Here "Paul" accepts slavery but there is mutuality. There are responsibilities for slaves and masters. "Paul" does not do away with slavery, however, or suggest that you cannot be a Christian and own slaves. He suggests that there are responsibilities for both slaves and masters.

Finally, the conservative or reactionary Paul. This is from Titus:

9 Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, 10not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:9-10)

This is not Paul either, but an imposter writing in his name. There is certainly no condemnation of slavery, nor is there even mutuality (own slaves but treat them with respect). In Titus, the admonition is to slaves alone with no admonition to the masters.

Crossan concludes:

Finally, the historical Paul of the authentic letter to Philemon is not speaking about general slavery outside the Christian community. He is not speaking about pagan owners with pagan slaves. He is not talking about Christian owners with pagan slaves, or about pagan masters with Christian slaves. In that last case, he advises Christian slaves (in I Corinthians 7:21) that, if liberation is forthcoming, they should use their newfound freedom for Christ's advantage. Nevertheleess, despite Paul's very specific focus on Christian owners and Christian slaves, his belief that all people should be Christian would inevitably have included the belief that all should be free and equal. (p. 165)

In other words, to be Christian is to call slavery an anathema. You cannot own slaves if you are Christian. The radical historical Paul within the texts of the New Testament itself, by works attributed to him over time, is distorted and his message of radical egalitarianism eventually leads to compliance with the oppression and culture of Empire.

This is one reason why the historical/critical method of interpreting scripture is important. Paul and women next time...


  1. I think this illustrates an important point. It is clear from reading the Bible that, in the years after Jesus died, the religion of his followers showed a process of evolution away from his radical teachings, and instead became co-opted by the very values that Jesus opposed. The later the biblical writings, the farther removed from Jesus you get--not just chronologically, but theologically and politically as well.

    The process continued in the post-Biblical writings, right up to the point where the Christian movement completely sold out to the Roman Empire--the very Empire that executed Jesus--and allowed its leadership to be feted by Constantine in Nicea. This ultimate sell out was just the culmination of a process that was beginning to take place during the time period when the New Testament works were being written. And this coincided directly with the evolving Christology, the evolving development of power structures within the church, and the evolving reversal of Jesus's inclusion into a theology of gatekeeping.

    Getting back to the radical message of Jesus, of his radical inclusion, of his nonviolent opposition to Empire, of his message of the Kingdom of God, seems to me what progressive Christianity should really be about.

  2. Isn't this a bit overly simplistic? Romans 13 has Paul telling believers to be in submission to authorities (even those that would oppress or persecute). It's not at all unlike the material found in Titus - it's simply more circumspect. That's precisely what we would expect in a letter written to a group of Christians he'd never met, as opposed to personal correspondence with a pastor he installed and was personally acquainted with in terms of personality and ministry setting).

    Also, I think for fairness sake, you might want to mention why some scholars (though by no means "all" or even "most") parse the letters out in the way you have, following Crossan. Most scholars do so based on ambiguous data concerning vocabulary and syntax. Since it's well known that Paul made use of a secretary (amanuensis) and that it's unlikely his 20 year missionary career would be served by the same amanuensis, it seems more reasonable to account for those differences in terms of: a) a different amanuensis; b) the nature of the subject matter; c) Paul's personal relationship with the intended audience; and d) the natural changes that come over a lifetime of ministry.

    For instance, Crossan started out as a rather pious and devoted Roman Catholic Priest. Now he's a cynical, skeptical, crotchety fellow. I'm no discourse analyst, but I'm willing to bet his writing style has changed in the 40+ years of his intellectual life. You can already notice lexical and syntactic variations between his work on parables in the 1970s, his work on historical Jesus stuff in the late 1990s, and this popular-level resource. Three different authors? Nonsense! It's one and the same Crossan.

    It's just as reasonable to argue that Paul is the author of each text attributed to him by name. This is the testimony of the letters themselves, the early church, and all commentators until the 19th c. There are plenty of well-respected scholars who hold to authentic Pauline authorship today.

  3. **The process continued in the post-Biblical writings, right up to the point where the Christian movement completely sold out to the Roman Empire--the very Empire that executed Jesus--and allowed its leadership to be feted by Constantine in Nicea. **

    This comment is a very interesting perspective, and one that's never 'hit' me before. But it's correct. If I'm remembering correctly, Rome used the cross to kill what it considered to be political troublemakers. And yet 300 years after the crucifixion, Christians are becoming allies with the very same Empire that played a role in killing Jesus.

  4. John,

    Thanks for unpacking Crossan's wonderful book for us. I found it to be extremely valuable. I heard him speak in person for the first time a few months ago and he touched on this information about Paul. I was intrigued. I've been reading his book "In Search of Paul" where he really dives into more detail about the gradual development (or dissolving) of Pauls teachings.

    One of the points he makes there that I don't think he describes in "God and Empire" is the gradual shift from Paul as anti-Roman to being anti-Jew. That has been further developed by the church and we know where that has lead.

    For example, exactly who was trying to capture Paul in Damascus when he had to escape through a window? In Paul's own letter (2 Chorinthians), he says it is King Aretas (a Roman ruler of syria) that sets a trap for him. However if you read the same account in the Gospel of Luke this later author tells us that it was the Jews who were out to kill Paul. (Acts 9:23)

    It seems clear that the Acts account has developed a much different view of exactly who was after Paul which means they misrepresented what he was saying and who he was pissing off.

  5. **One of the points he makes there that I don't think he describes in "God and Empire" is the gradual shift from Paul as anti-Roman to being anti-Jew. **

    I recently read a book that pointed out that Romans 11 had Paul greatly looking forward to the Jews being converted. It was something along the lines of the Jews 'hard hearts' were a boon to the Gentiles, because it created room for them to be grafted in. Then Paul goes on to mention how much more beneficial it would be once all of Israel realized the truth.

  6. Thanks Seeker, Heather, and Mike!

    I appreciate your input. JD Crossan really gets to the heart of the matter. Gender, sex, and empire coming up!

  7. Chris,

    You make a reasonable point. Crossan probably does overstate his argument by claiming that he can know for certain which letters are genuinely Pauline and which not. Nothing in biblical scholarship is that certain.

    However, I think you also overstate your case by making it seem like those that dispute Pauline authorship of all of the epistles in the New Testament credited to him are marginal in the scholarship of the last 150 years. That's not at all the case. In fact, there really is a pretty broad consensus that SOME of the epistles are not Pauline and it's for more reasons than just vocabulary. Also taken into account is syntax, grammar, subject matter, the format of the letter, names, places and dates mentioned. Combine all of these details with the fact that it was popular at the time to write documents pseudepigraphically and it seems extremely probable that a few of the epistles were not Paul's own.

    We can never know for certain without a time machine, but you're not pitting yourself against a few marginal scholars here. You're pitting yourself against a great majority of academia for the last 150 years.

  8. We can never know for certain without a time machine, but you're not pitting yourself against a few marginal scholars here. You're pitting yourself against a great majority of academia for the last 150 years.

    Aric, I think he prides himself in defying the scientific and academic consensus. After he, this is a person who thinks that the world was created 6000 years ago. There are so many windmills for him to tilt, I imagine it would be hard to know where to start.

    Regarding your point as to whether Crossan is overstating his case or not, given that the scholarly consensus is that the pastoral epistles were not written by Paul, and Crossan agrees with that, I think he is on firm ground at least on that question. But he also, as I recall from the book, agrees at least in principle with the consensus about the uncertain authorship of the three uncertain epistles (the "liberal" Paul), although he clearly leans towards the view that says that these three dubious epistles were not written by him either. He offers reasons why he leans on the side of disagreeing with the notion that they were written by Paul--but given that their authorship is in dispute, a contrarian view seems to be within the range of scholarly possibilities--and I think it is worth considering, as John has highlighted, the theological distinctions between the radical, the liberal, and the reactionary Pauls that Crossan has highlighted. Perhaps Paul became less radical in his later writings, but either way, the point I think Crossan is making is that he sees two different theological perspectives being expressed, so there is an evolution away from the early radical vision. Even if this is the same person writing the radical and the liberal epistles, the theological differences would still be worth noting. To me, it makes more sense to see those three "liberal" epistles as having come from a different author. But that's just me. I think it is possible to stand tentatively behind the notion that Paul didn't write those three works, without being absolutely certain about it. (I also think it would be unfortunate to think that Paul modified his message during his lifetime towards something more palatable to the authoritarian forces of his time.)

  9. Aric,

    Your point is well taken. One thing I would like to bring up is that you're looking for a time machine that "gets us back there." In the absence of that, we use texts from that time and archaeological evidence to get back there. It's important to notice that the voice of the ancient church affirms Pauline authorship of the Pastoral epistles. Clement, Irenaeus, Polycarp, etc. all bear witness to the genuineness of the letters. (While I recommend Lock's extended treatment in the ICC, a good summary is found here.) This can't be easily dismissed because these were personal letters - not general briefs. For them to have gotten to the ancient witnesses, they would have had to come by a personal messenger who would have received it from a community where these letters had either been copied because the local presbyters knew Timothy and Titus or because Timothy or Titus had been there themselves. We're talking less than 30 years in the case of Clement!

    In fact, the only person who didn't accept their authenticity was Marcion, and his heresies would have necessitated rejecting such plain teaching. (Similarly, the heavy OT overtones in the books and the consistent use of the very Jewish title "Christ Jesus" - instead of merely Jesus or Christ - mitigate against his accepting them.)

    Marcion didn't accept them because he didn't like the content. If they're honest, most critics of Pauline authorship will also admit to the same core reason.

    Mystical...Bless your heart. I do try to put the mental in fundamentalist!