This month I’d like to start a mini-series on the apostle Paul who is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the origins of Christianity. Yet he is not universally well regarded, to say the least! Hailed as an extraordinarily important theologian, he is very often difficult to understand (do you understand all of Romans?!) and he is also considered by many as misogynistic, anti-Semitic and homophobic among other niceties such as self-righteous, stubborn, dogmatic etc… As we will see, many of these accusations are the result on misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what “The First Paul” (the title of a book by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan) really said. But before unpacking those accusations, I’ll start with some preliminary observations as they might reveal some surprises. Some of these observations might appear obvious but bear with me!
The letters of Paul were not written for us and we are in fact reading somebody else’s mail! This clearly comes under the heading of the obvious but it implies that they were not written for people like us. Paul’s letters were written not only in a foreign language very few of us understand but in a language which is not spoken any longer (New Testament Greek is as different from modern Greek as modern English is to Shakespeare English), so we must rely on translations and therefore, to a large extent, on interpretations. More importantly Paul lived in a pre-modern, agrarian, collective culture which was radically different from ours.
But it is in the field of what I would call “making sense of the world” that the gap, the chasm even, is greater between then and now. It was the leading German New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann who first pointed out the fact that all New Testament documents, including Paul’s letters, presuppose, reflect and express what he called an ancient “mythological” worldview, therefore radically different from our modern “scientific” worldview. The main difference is that for us, every effect has a natural cause. Not so for the “mythological” worldview which is quite open to the possibility and even the probability of super-natural causes. That meant that angelic visitations, possession by demons, virgin births, miraculous healings, resuscitations from the dead and the like might have been unusual, wonderful and surprising but not at all impossible or contrary to the laws of nature. In other words, most modern people do not understand the workings of the universe in the same way as the writers of the New Testament. Consequently, if we believe that Jesus’ message is still relevant to us, we must “demythologize” the New Testament and get to the real heart of the Gospels. It does not mean eliminating the mythological features of the New Testament but interpreting them. It is with this present in mind that we should read Paul’s letters.
Paul’s letters are genuine letters. Again, that sounds obvious as they are not sermons or essays or philosophical treatises and they are certainly not scripture. They became scripture but Paul’s letters are before anything else, genuine correspondence between him and first century Christ-believers, written to address specific questions, concerns, problems, opportunities that had arisen in these communities. They were “stop-gaps” composed to serve as a substitute for Paul’s physical presence, pending his arrival at some point in the future. The first important corollary of this “obvious” observation is that we have only one side of the dialogue: Paul is responding to situations and circumstances about which we know very little as we simply do not know exactly what was going on in the churches to which Paul wrote his letters, even if we often attempt to guess, deduce or even imagine! The second corollary is that these letters do not provide us with what we might call Paul’s “systematic theology” i.e. an overall view of Paul’s total assumptions and beliefs, not like Calvin’s Institutes or Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. And a third corollary is that, given that these letters were not written all at the same time but over probably a decade (from 40 to 50 A.D, therefore well before the first Gospel of Mark written around 70), it means that Paul’s views changed and developed over the years. In fact, it seems that Paul’s thought developed and was shaped in large part precisely as a response to the various circumstances, issues and problems that he and the churches faced.
We do not have all the letters that Paul wrote. In 1 Cor. 5: 9 Paul says: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral people.” So, before what we have come to call “I Corinthians”, Paul had already written to the people of Corinth. This letter has not survived and it is reasonable to assume that he had written other letters, may be many others to other communities (in Athens for example as we know from Acts) which have not survived either. We have therefore no way of knowing whether or to what extent these other letters might have changed our understanding of Paul’s thought.
Some letters attributed to Paul are almost certainly not by him. There is now a massive consensus among scholars (90% vs10%) agreeing on this observation: Seven letters are definitely “genuine”, i.e. written by Paul himself: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon. According to an almost equally strong consensus (80% vs 20%) 3 letters were not written by Paul himself: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, commonly known as the “Pastoral Letters,” probably written around the year 100. Those are “non-Pauline” because of the difference in style, vocabulary and ideas. If you are thinking that writing in somebody’s else name is dishonest and even fraudulent, it is worth remembering that it was a very common practice in the ancient world and a literary convention of the time, often to show how admired and respected the original author was. There is less consensus (60% vs 40%) on the authorship of the 3 remaining Letters i.e. Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians: they might be by Paul or they might not.
Finally, we do not have any “original” of Paul’s letters. We only have copies which were transmitted and assembled into “collections” and edited by early Christians in the second century. What this means is first, that no two copies read exactly the same and secondly that it was Christian communities who decided what to include in these collections and who almost certainly did some editing of the letters they assembled, combining fragments, adding some sentences, deleting others, etc. Again, this was common practice in the Ancient world.
After these general observations, next month we will have a look at “Paul and women”, a subject that has sparked many controversies and misrepresentations of Paul’s thought.