Putting Paul in His Place: Reimagining the Work of the Controversial Apostle
A Brief Sketch
To call Paul the Apostle a controversial figure isn’t that, well, controversial. In their brilliant book, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus J. Borg ask this question: Is Paul an appealing or appalling figure? I completely understand why so many people feel compelled to choose the latter over the former. Writings attributed to Paul have been used as proof-texts for all kinds of bigoted, misogynist, racist, and homophobic beliefs. My contention, however, is that the vast majority of us have never met the real Paul of history. We’ve instead met the Paul of the Reformation, whose work was interpreted and applied in ways that he wouldn’t recognize. We’ve also met the Christian Paul whose goal was to evangelize people by taking them down the Roman Road and getting them “saved.” I don’t think the way we’ve understood that reflects the actual Paul. So, in this series I want to share how I have come to understand Paul, his work, and how it might be reimagined, reframed, and reclaimed through a different lens.
Today I’ll begin with a brief sketch of who I now understand the Paul of history to have been. These are not in a particular order necessarily, and definitely not exhaustive. I’m just trying to show my cards and offer the lens that I’ll be engaging as I write future posts.
Paul was a human being. He wasn’t perfect, above mistakes, or always correct in every opinion. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.”Paul, just like us, was a person in process. This means he learned, grew, and changed over time. This doesn’t diminish who he was or his contribution. Or ours.
Paul was Jewish, not Christian. Christianity, in my estimation, did not exist during Paul’s lifetime. What became Christianity emerged from a split between the synagogue communities and those members who followed Jesus in the late first century, but really didn’t become the religion we recognize until probably around the fourth century. Paul didn’t change religions. He didn’t stop being Jewish or thinking and interpreting the world through that lens. This is where we often go off the rails and completely misunderstand Paul.
Paul wasn’t doing something different than Jesus was doing. He saw himself as continuing that work. In a later post I will argue that, for Jesus and Paul, this work was not primarily religious in the way we understand the term, but political. Jesus began a community of non-violent resistance against Roman occupation and rule in the first century in the territory of Judaea. I believe Paul was doing similar work, but also dealing with the inclusions of Gentiles in those communities. Speaking of…
Most of Paul’s writing is about finding ways to hold together communities of people who have deep differences. Jewish and Gentile members came from vastly different worlds and perspectives. Paul wrote letters to address this and to attempt to bridge those divides by uniting people around their shared work and dreams for the world. And speaking of Paul’s writing…
There are thirteen books attributed to Paul in the New Testament. The consensus of scholars across the board is that Hebrews was not Pauline in origin. Most scholars further agree that out of those thirteen, the historical Paul actual is responsible for only seven: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philemon, 1 + 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians. There are three that *might* be connected to Paul (or students of his) but scholars think are unlikely to be (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians). Finally, there are three, the Pastorals, that scholars say could not be from Paul, based on their content (Titus, 1 + 2 Timothy). There are good reasons for all of this, and I’ll discuss it more in a post.
We don’t know what Paul knew about the life of Jesus, because his inclusion of those details are very scant in his letters. I don’t think that means Paul was unaware of any stories about Jesus, or that he didn’t care about the historical person of Jesus. Paul’s letters are all occasional, written most often to address issues that the recipient communities were sorting through. As a result, they focus on that kind of content.
Paul’s experience of the Jesus was transformative for him. It literally altered the course of his life. The book of Acts offers three accounts of what is often called his “conversion,” the details of which don’t agree. Since Acts is a later text, written between twenty-some to as many as almost fifty years after his death, I will not engage those stories. We will explore his experience in his own words, and seek to understand it from his writings.
Paul talked a lot about salvation, but he didn’t primarily mean “going to heaven when you die.” He clearly expected to be united with Jesus upon his death, but his understanding of salvation also embraced the Exodus narrative and challenged Roman Imperial theology.
Finally, for now anyway, Paul’s letters weren’t written to us. They are someone else’s mail. They can still be helpful, sure. But for that to be the case we must enter into their original context, as best we can, and only then discover through careful engagement how we might transport their meaning into our lives and communities today.
Okay, that’s all for now. Next week we will take a look at Paul’s Jesus experience in his own words. Are there things you are curious about or questioning in relationship to Paul and his work that I didn’t mention above? The list isn’t exhaustive, but please comment or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ensure I don’t miss something. Thanks for reading, and if you find this interesting or helpful, subscribe if you haven’t (it’s free!) and share.
All Scripture is Common English Bible unless otherwise noted.