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What Paul meant: Scholars rethink interpretations of apostle’s letters Mary Jacobs, Oct 23, 2009
IMAGE COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA
Scholars are taking another look at the impact of Paul, depicted here in Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s 1744 oil on canvas, “Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins.”
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Scientific tests recently confirmed that the bones housed in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome are indeed those of the apostle Paul himself. Pope Benedict’s announcement in June about the authenticity of the bones came at the end of a yearlong celebration in honor of what Catholics consider to be the 2,000th anniversary of Paul’s birth.
Carbon dating may have allowed scholars to pinpoint the age of the remains, which Christian tradition long held belonged to Paul. But honing in on the original intent of what Paul had to say in his letters is a more complicated matter. What Paul really meant—on justification by faith, sexuality, the role of women and Judaism—remains a wide-ranging and ongoing debate.
In the past 30 years—relatively recently in the sweep of Christianity’s two millennia—scholars such as British Methodist James D.G. Dunn and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright have been rethinking Paul, attempting to tease out a more accurate take on Paul’s teachings.
Among the latest books for lay audiences are The First Paul (HarperCollins) by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Paul was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (HarperCollins) by Pamela Eisenbaum.
“We’re seeing a more widespread, popular lay interest in Paul,” says the Rev. Victor Paul Furnish, an eminent Pauline scholar and emeritus professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Indeed, next to Jesus, many consider the apostle Paul the second most important figure in Christianity.
“The Pauline letters are the earliest Christian documents that have survived of any kind,” said Dr. Furnish. “We know more about Paul than any other New Testament author.”
Some 13 epistles in the New Testament are traditionally attributed to Paul, but most scholars recognize only seven as the “undisputed” writings of Paul: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon. And within those seven letters, many scholars believe portions were added later.
Paul has also emerged among the most divisive characters in Christian history. Conservatives cite his writings for specific biblical guidance on sexuality and the role of women. Progressives, who don’t like what Paul had to say, call him a sexist and a homophobe—and the source, they believe, of many of the church’s errors.
However, the “New Perspective on Paul”—a term coined by Dr. Dunn—may offer a deeper understanding of Paul that will inform newly minted United Methodist pastors emerging from seminaries.
“I think it has complex but important implications about how we preach about Paul,” said the Rev. Richard Hays, professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.
The old story
As the popular version of the story goes, Saul of Tarsus was a Roman citizen and a Jew who delighted in persecuting followers of Jesus. But on the road to Damascus, Saul encountered Jesus in a vision. He converted to Christianity, changed his name to Paul, went on to preach a gospel of salvation through grace alone and condemned Jewish notions of “works righteousness.”
That’s the story that scholars are rethinking.
For starters, Paul never considered himself a Christian, says Ms. Eisenbaum. “He proclaims Jesus, of course, but there are no Christian institutions, no leaders uniformly recognized as Christian leaders, at that time.”
Ms. Eisenbaum, a practicing Jew who teaches at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, admits the point may amount to semantics, “but it shakes people up to recognize Paul’s Jewish identity, which I think has been neglected.”
“Paul did not intend to start a new religion,” write Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Paul. “Paul, like Jesus, was a Jew who saw himself working within Judaism.”
Among the most important contributions of recent scholarship, according to Dr. Furnish, is calling attention “to the way in which the interpretation of Paul’s writings has often involved a caricaturing of Judaism in Paul’s day and therefore in our own.”
This reconsideration, however, creates implications well beyond Christian-Jewish relations. The notion that Jewish teaching advocated salvation solely through works, ignoring God’s grace, isn’t accurate, said Dr. Furnish. Both the Old Testament and Jewish tradition speak of the grace and love of God, he adds, “and neither is a peculiarly Christian invention.”
Paul is concerned about salvation, but he’s looking at it through Jewish eyes, Ms. Eisenbaum said. “Paul thinks the end of the world is imminent. As he sees it, Jews are already in a covenant with God. The question becomes, ‘How is God going to relate to everybody else? Is God going to condemn everybody who is not a Jew? Jesus becomes, from Paul’s perspective, the way that God can reconcile non-Jews to God.”
Given all that, Paul’s problem with “works of the law” bears re-examining, according to Bishop Wright.
“The Romantic movement highlighted inner feeling over against outer, physical reality,” he said in a 2003 lecture. “Many have thence supposed that this was what Paul, and Luther and Calvin, were really saying.”
“The older view of Paul tended to emphasize that individuals had to make decisions of faith for or against Jesus,” said Dr. Hays. The newer understanding “shifts the emphasis from ‘my response to faith’ to what God has done. It’s more about God and less about me.”
Paul’s problematic passages
When Paul argued against “works of the law,” many scholars now believe, he was not criticizing comprehensive obedience to the Torah so much as practices that distinguished Jews from Gentiles: observing the Sabbath, eating kosher, circumcising male babies.
When you understand that, Bishop Wright says, this new perspective explains why Paul is very tolerant of differences on some points (food, drink and holy days) and “completely intolerant” on others (sexual ethics).
“The boundary lines he insists on blurring are precisely those between different ethnic communities, particularly Jew and Gentile,” he said. “The boundary lines he draws the more firmly are those between the holy lifestyle required of those who have died and been raised with the Messiah and the unholy lifestyle of those who behave as if they had not, but were still living ‘in the flesh’.”
Still, Paul’s teachings in specific verses should be understood as counsel to Gentiles, Dr. Hays says, rather than general directives. For one thing, Paul seems to contradict his own counsel. His insistence on keeping women silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34)—which some scholars think was added later by another scribe—must be weighed along with Romans 16, where Paul greets female church leaders such as Phoebe, “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,” Prisca and Junia.
Dr. Hays believes Paul clearly proscribes same-sex relations between males, but cautions that condemning homosexuality was not Paul’s central aim. “Paul regards it as a pagan vice, but he’s not going around the Greco-Roman world railing against homosexuality,” he said.
Both Dr. Hays and Dr. Furnish—who have argued, based on Paul’s writings, on different sides of debates relating to homosexuality—agree that Paul’s specific teachings must be taken with a grain of contextual salt.
“We have to recognize that there is a cultural as well as chronological gap between the ancient world and our day,” said Dr. Furnish. “None can simply be applied willy-nilly to issues that we confront today.”
“When we read Paul, we are reading somebody’s else’s mail,” argue Mr. Borg and Mr. Crossan. “Unless we know the situation being addressed, his letters can be quite opaque.”
John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience—his personal conversion that marked the beginnings of his mission to reform the Church of England—took place as Wesley listened to a reading of Martin Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Haunted by his inability to “measure up,” Luther found liberation in Paul’s teachings on justification by faith. Yet that doctrine created an assumption that everything stands or falls on individual belief, which Dr. Hays says Paul never intended.
Paul uses a phrase typically translated in most English versions as “through faith in Jesus Christ.” Dr. Hays argues that the phrase is more accurately translated “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” That emphasis on the primacy of God’s grace, Dr. Hays asserts, makes Paul’s theology even more affirming of Wesley’s notion of prevenient grace.
“Wesley spoke about grace that precedes our response to the proclaimed word,” he said. “I believe Wesley would find the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ very congenial.”
“The new readings of Paul open the door for a major conversation around the theology of John Wesley and that of the apostle Paul,” says the Rev. Tex Sample, a professor emeritus of church and society at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.
“We as United Methodists have tended to read Paul through Wesley. What we need to do now is read Wesley in terms of Paul.”