Shuck and Jive

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Redeeming Paul

Paul the Apostle. Not a cuddly character, really. Had weird ideas about women. Wrote that slaves ought to obey their masters. A bit opaque. A curmudgeon.

Well, maybe not.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have written a new book,
The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon.

Paul is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the birth of Christianity, and yet he continues to be controversial, even among Christians. How could the letters of Paul be used both to inspire radical grace and to endorse systems of oppression—condoning slavery, subordinating women, condemning homosexual behavior?

Borg and Crossan use the best of biblical and historical scholarship to explain the reasons for Paul's mixed reputation and reveal to us what scholars have known for decades: that the later letters of Paul were created by the early church to dilute Paul's egalitarian message and transform him into something more "acceptable."

They argue there are actually "Three Pauls" in the New Testament:
  1. "The Radical Paul" (of the seven genuine letters),
  2. "The Conservative Paul" (of the three disputed epistles), and
  3. "The Reactionary Paul" (of the three inauthentic letters).
By closely examining this progression of Paul's letters—from the authentic to the inauthentic—the authors show how the apostle was slowly but steadily "deradicalized" to fit Roman social norms in regards to slavery, patriarchy, and patronage. In truth, Paul was an appealing apostle of Jesus whose vision of life "in Christ"—one of his favored phrases—is remarkably faithful to the message of Jesus himself.
Beginning Thursday, April 30th, we will check out this Paul in our Thursdays with Jesus study group. We meet from 10:30 until noon and if you are near our mountain, come join us!


  1. John

    Is this from the back cover? I don't think you can divide Paul so simply. After all Romans and Paul are considered authentic letters yet both have what might be considered controversial passages particularly in 1 Cor. about women.

    I am interested in how they link Paul to Jesus in the authentic letters. Jewish scholars see a distinct difference between the Paul of Romans and Galatians and Jesus.

  2. Oh how I wish I could be there. I will read this book this summer when I am off from school.

    Paul - my love/hate guy. So wise! So pedantic!

    So... Paul.

    And often so misused by the right.

  3. Yes, that is a product description from the cover flap. I'll offer my own summary later. Which passage in I Corinthians are you thinking about?

    Enjoy, Fran! The real interesting thing to me is how Paul was "spun" by the later works attributed to him that were not anything close to his authentic letters.

    It is an interesting development of how quickly and ruthlessly the reactionary elements distorted Paul's message.

  4. Bob, Borg and Crossan address the controversial passages in question in the book. I think they argue that the passage in 1 Cor. about women being silent is inconsistent with what he says earlier in the letter and what he writes elsewhere, and that it makes more sense to see that single passage as a later interpolation. This is true especially given his reference to female apostles. Otherwise Paul would have been talking out of both sides of his mouth.

  5. I used to be a bookseller. Always take the "blurb" (that description on the cover/dust jacket of a book) with a grain of salt. Sometimes it's written by the book's editor, but often it's some grunt in the marketing department who has read little or nothing of the book. That's why you'll often encounter a situation where the book you read is nothing like the blurb. If you want to know about a book before you buy it check out some actual reviews and even preview a few pages via online sellers or your local library.

  6. Mystical

    Hmm . . . There are those who argue that 1st and 2nd Cor. are actually 3 letters, all written by Paul.

    Traditional higher criticism asked questions about authorship in the following manner:

    1. Do the sections of books and different books use the same vocabulary;
    2. Do they use the same phrases and grammatical styles.

    Questions about themes and statements are secondary, while important.

    Thus if one compares Romans, 1 and 2 Cor., Gal., and 1 and 2 Thess. with 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus one finds different vocabulary and grammatical style. Yes the themes are different and seem to reflect a later age. But I think we have to start with the vocab. and the grammar.

    And yes, when Paul says that women should be silent in worship after having said that women can pray and prophesy in worship with their hair covered, (please note the use of rabbinic argument there in chpt. 11), he could be disagreeing with himself. He might also be addressing a particular situation in Corinth we know nothing about.

    But if one begins with themes and issues we have more danger of bringing viewpoints from our own time into questions of authorship than if we start with vocab. and grammar.

    My opinion.

  7. Bob, I understand what you are saying, and I am not a biblical scholar, and not an expert on the works of Paul, so I can't really address these textual issues.

    A question that he they bring up and which I also think is--would someone who speaks approvingly of female apostles, and who also thinks that in Christ there is neither male nor female, turn around and believe that women should not speak in church?

    Anyway, probably the best way to understand what Borg and Crossan are saying would be to read their book, rather than listen to me try to paraphrase it. :) I think that Crossan talks about many of these same issues, somewhat less fleshed out, in "God and Empire". At least that is where I first encountered his division of Paul into the "radical," "conservative", and "reactionary" Pauls.

  8. Mystical

    2 things:

    1. While certainly God and Empire is an important theme in Paul it is not the only theme. Having not read the book I can only speculate but I would guess that the Paul who speaks of grace through faith is the radical Paul. I don't know how Crossan would fit that into a theme of God and Empire unless he does so by making the Lordship and Sonship of Christ the primary theme in Romans, a questionable act, in my opinion.

    2. My point about literary criticism is an imitator would have to be very, very good to match the words and the grammatical style of another writer. It can be done but it is very difficult. This is why Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians are considered questionable letters of Paul. The style and words are similar but not the same.

    So if the style and the words ARE the same traditional literary criticism tends to say that the same person has written the same documents.

    As to Paul's calling a woman his fellow apostle, etc., but also telling women to be silent there are several ways to deal with this. My way is to say that the theme of equality between men and women is broad in Paul's letters, even in the questionable letters. So when it comes to the passage about being silent in worship I either guess about what the situation may have been at Corinth that prompted such a response or say that there is not enough information to tell us why Paul said it. It doesn't read like a universal response.

    All I'm saying is that deciding that something is written by Paul and something else is not written by Paul solely on the grounds that the two passages contradict one another is shaky scholarship. After all we humans contradict ourselves all the time.

  9. Bob, I think Crossan and Borg would probably agree with you that people do contradict themselves, including Paul. They suggest, for example, that some of what Paul was not at his best when he wrote some of the unfortunately passages in Romans, but they also suggest that if you take what Paul wrote in context it is not as bad as it seems. I don't have the book in front of me--seem to have misplaced it, actually--so I can't specifically describe what they have to say about the passages in Romans that seem to support imperial authority.

    Overall, though, Crossan points out that the mere act of calling Jesus the Lord and the Son of God was an act of high treason against Roman imperial theology, so in a sense an anti-imperial theme necessarily permeates Paul's theology (and the theology of early Christianity). Richard Horsley wrote a book that precedes Crossan's by a few years and he offers excellent research into the oppressive nature of the Roman Empire in Judea and Galilee, and how Jesus's own theology was necessarily anti-imperical; this may have influenced Crossan (not sure that this is true--this is pure speculation on my part). The point is that early Christianity was a subversive religion--Jesus was was executed in the manner of political criminals by a Roman authority that economically and politically brutalized the subject peoples in Palestine. And Paul was also jailed by Roman authority during his life and was probably executed by the Romans. For many people of the time, the way to rebel against oppressive imperial authority was through violence, something that both Jesus and Paul eschewed. Jesus, as Crossan argues, offered an alternative to Caesar's "peace through military victory", and Paul seemed to embrace Jesus's subversive vision of the route to peace. Further, Paul presumably recognized the value of an organized society, even if he saw the specific Roman implementation of this form of "civilization" as oppressive.

    An analogy of this might be that Jesus and Jeremiah saw the value of a temple in Jerusalem, but both in their time hated the way it was operated. One can then both support the Temple in principle while attacking it. The same can be said of the relationship with Rome. Paul understood that roads and other signs of a developed and organized society were good; but the specific imperial Roman model of establishing this "order" through violence and conquest, supported by an imperial theology that called Caesar the Lord and Song of God, was what was failed.

    To my knowledge, it was in "God and Empire" that Crossan first introduced his idea of the three Pauls in his book. In "The First Paul" he and Borg start out by going into Philemon and showing how this was a clearly an anti-slavery letter (again, I think this rehashes some of what what Crossan said in his earlier book). What Borg and Crossan do in much detail in "The First Paul" is spend a huge amount of time doing exegesis of Romans. They devote an entire section of the book just to Romans alone. When I read that part of the book, I specifically did not follow their advice by referring back to the original text in Romans while I read their book. Maybe I should find the book and reread that section with a copy of the Bible open to Romans.

    Scholars are aware that some parts of the Bible are later interpolations that were added to serve later theological purposes. Examples include a tacked on ending to Mark and the Johannine comma; I believe there are others in the NT as well. There may be more to Borg and Crossan's contention that the reference to women keeping silent being a later interpolation than just the fact it is not consistent with other things that Paul said. Without the book in front of me, I can't quote from it or cite the full argument. However, I am under the impression that abrupt textual inconsistency or an interruption of the flow of the text are considered legitimate arguments for an interpolation. Again, I am at a disadvantage in reporting Borg and Crossan's argument because the book isn't in front of me.