I think I need to write about Paul

A lot of progressive Christians (which would mean most people who read this blog, I suspect) are not big on St. Paul. Marcus J. Borg has noted this in one of his books, and I think his explanation for this widespread dislike of Paul is basically correct:
A number of factors feed the negativity regarding Paul. Some people (including some historians) see Paul as the perverter of the gospel of Jesus, someone who turned Jesus of Nazareth into a divine being and distorted Jesus' message into a complex and convoluted abstract mythological-theological belief system. In the view of these particular critics, Jesus is good, Paul is bad. Certain other critics see Paul as a puritanical moralist preoccupied with sin and guilt, sacrifice and atonement. Still others are put off particularly by passages about gender and sex. The most negative statement about women in the New Testament is found in a letter attributed to Paul, and other passages commonly attributed to Paul speak about the duty of wives to submit themselves to their husbands. Paul is frequently quoted negatively about homosexuality and even about sexuality in general. Moreover, Paul's letters are often difficult and obscure, opaque rather than luminous.1
I agreed with many of these criticisms of Paul myself after taking an introductory New Testament course as an undergraduate--and I would still agree with some of them--but my mind was changed considerably the next year when I took a course specifically dealing with Paul. I became convinced that Paul can be an important ally in the push to define a progressive and authentic form of Christianity, and I believe that even more today.

One important thing I learned in that Paul course--something that has not penetrated into the mainstream Chrisitan consciousness--is that Paul has been vastly misunderstood throughout Christian history. Some people scoff at this idea, and accuse the scholars who argue this of being arrogant for questioning two thousand years of tradition, but there is a compelling explanation for why this is so: for almost all of Christian history, Paul has been read as if he was a Christian writing against Judaism, when in fact he never considered himself to be a non-Jew. Even worse, most Christians have read his writings with a defective understanding of Second Temple Judaism, which is hardly surprising given historical Christian attitudes toward Judaism. If you misidentify a person's religion, and misunderstand the religious context in which they wrote, you cannot hope to understand their theology without serious distortions.

Some important developments in the last century have changed things dramatically. Most importantly, the Holocaust forced many Christians to seriously reexamine the theological roots of the poisonous attitudes Christians have historically harboured toward Jews. Additionally, archaeological discoveries, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, have allowed us to understand Judaism (particularly in its Second Temple varieties) much better than was ever possible before. It is also the case that much-improved relationships between many Christians and Jews has resulted in greater interaction between scholars of the two religions. Improvements in methodology, advances in technology, and a whole host of other things have contributed as well.

Now, in the last couple of weeks I've been (re-)reading a number of good books about Paul, as well as carefully reading several of his letters, and it has inspired me to devote some time to writing about Paul, while connecting some of his important and frequently misunderstood insights to some of the other things I usually write about on this blog. I've already written a bunch of material. If I can wrestle it into shape, I should be able to post several times this week.


[1] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 228. In a couple of endnotes pertaining to this passage, Borg notes that many of the offensive passages are in books that are not widely considered to be authentic among scholars, and that others can be read in more than one way (258nn.1, 2). Only the most conservative scholars, usually Evangelicals, think Paul actually wrote the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. A substantial majority would add Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians to the list of epistles not written by Paul. I've written about some of the implications of this here.

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Blogger colkoch said...

Prickliest, I've been researching early Christianity, and especially the letters of Paul, for the past two weeks. This is an important topic and I'm glad to see you will be writing a series of posts.

I saw early on in my research that I was not the one to expound on the Pauline controversies or the theological developments with in the earliest writings. Your series is might be an answer to my prayer.

7:53 a.m.  
Blogger Tim said...


I find that judicious use of the historical-critical method to examine the Pauline letters eliminates about 90% of the 'problems' folks have with him.

By understanding the author, the audience and the culture in which they lived, a much more complete and balanced picture of Paul emerges.

As an aside, I wanted to thank you for your insightful commentaries.

12:21 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Should be interesting. I saw a video of Garry Wills discussing his book on Paul and he mentioned what you have, that some of the writings of his that are so disliked were probably not really by him.

When I think of Paul I guess part of my dislike isn't really rational. It has to do with how he became a Christian - I tend to doubt his vision.

3:39 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Colleen and Tim, thanks for your comments. I agree, Tim, that many problems people have with Paul are based on an uncritical interpretation of his works.

Crystal, it's interesting what you say about his vision. What is it that you "doubt" about it? I'm going to write about his experience that he understood as an encounter with the risen Christ, so I might be able to address whatever problems you have with it. If you mean that the "Christ" he encountered was not literally the risen Jesus of Nazareth, then I would agree with you.

2:37 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

"If you mean that the "Christ" he encountered was not literally the risen Jesus of Nazareth, then I would agree with you."

Yes, I think that's what I mean. Also I notice in myself a reluctance to believe in others what I want to believe for myself - that religious experience can be real - bad me :) When I think of Paul, I remember The Variety of Religious Experience's view of his vision being some kind of physiological state, which while it doesn't undo the worth of the experience, does question the source.

5:01 p.m.  
Blogger TheraP said...

Prickliest, I think Paul is very much a mystic - who at times got caught up in moralism. Somehow the latter has overwhelmed the former, baby being thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak.

I look forward to your blogs on Paul.

10:49 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I have no doubt that Paul had a profound religious experience -- probably several. As I'm going to point out in a post in the very near future, his conversion was from one extreme to another, which had to be caused by something.

But when people have visions of this or that person or deity, the "sensible" content of the vision comes from their subconscious. I've read a lot about religious experiences across cultures, and it's pretty clear that when people have visions, they have visions of figures they already believe in, or are nevertheless well acquainted with. If Paul had not known about Christianity and had had an experience of Christ, I'd be impressed. But he was quite familiar with Christianity, as he says whenever he talks about his past as a persecutor of the church. This doesn't negate the value of his experience altogether, but it does mean we have to be very careful about how we interpret what was reported of it.

1:21 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I agree that Paul was a mystic, absolutely. I think everything he taught was informed by his religious experience. But I don't think he was successful in articulating it in an entirely coherent way, particularly when it came to the status of the Law. I don't think he "threw the baby out with the bathwater"; I'd say he didn't know how to articulate what the difference was between the baby and the bathwater in a way that would be acceptable to his audiences. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but I'll explain why I think that in a future post.

1:31 a.m.  
Blogger colkoch said...

Prickliest, I think your take on Paul is correct and I look forward to your post.

On my own blog I have frequently written that religious experiences are the direct product of one's mental rolodex. There is no other basis on which to interpret these kinds of visions and experiences. If your rolodex is mostly full of unexamined 'garbage' the best message in the universe will come out as more of the same 'garbage'. It's the effect of the experience which validates it's reality. No question Paul had real experiences.

In my own experiences, since my own bent is heavy on concrete validation, I have had experiences with folks from many religious traditions who seem to validate each other's understandings. Whether elders know me or not they will 'see' Catholic imagery around me. None of us take this to mean this expresses literal truth about other realities. It expresses the truth about our own coneptualizations used to interact with, express, and interpret these other realities. There are many valid doors and rooms in that particular kingdom. Catholicism represents one of them. But then Jesus more or less said that same thing--or at least he was recorded to have said a similar thing. :)

2:19 p.m.  

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