Paul, the first Jew for Jesus
The apostle Paul has gotten a bad rap. He is supposedly anti-Semitic, anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-sex. This reputation is undeserved. In some ways he was more socially revolutionary that Jesus. Not more revolutionary than Christ in terms of thought, the Word and deed, but more concerned with social revolution as the beginning of a new age. Contrary to his reputation, Paul does not want people to stay in their places, or at least it’s a lot more complex than that.
The main reason for this misunderstanding is that almost half of Paul’s letters are now considered forgeries of varying quality.
Real letters: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans.
Forged letters: Colossians, Ephesians, Titus, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians.
Several legitimate letters are probably composites of additional Pauline letters. Furthermore, later scribes seemed to have felt free to make additions, especially concerning Paul’s attitude toward women (Wright, pp. 80-81, 424-425; Wills, pp 89-104). Finding the real Paul is a task in itself.
Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament is composed of letters attributed to Paul. I am not counting Acts, as it is about just what it says: the acts of Paul and others, not the content of Paul’s teaching and thought.
Closer to Christ
Paul’s letters stand closer to Jesus than do any other words in the New Testament. They were the first to be written, the first to be saved. The Gospels, beginning with Mark, were written from a quarter to a half century later. Often Christians talk and write as if the Gospels were the primary source. Paul is primary. Born only a few years after Jesus, Paul could have spoken with those who had directly encountered Jesus.
Paul does not tell many good stories, with the exception of his own conversion, and Luke Acts has a better (if not more accurate) version. Overall, I agree with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who argue that Paul most accurately captures the message of Jesus (p 19). His letters are not a fascinating read: no parables, no stories, just teachings, anger, and love. Lots of love. His first letter to the Thessalonians starts off almost like a love letter.
Almost all of Paul’s fear and hatred of women is in the fake letters. One notable exception is his statement that while in church women should shut-up and listen to their husbands if they have questions (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35). The problem is that in many manuscripts these two verses come at the very end of 1 Corinthians, a sure sign that they were added by an over-enthusiastic (and misogynistic) scribe, for they lack context.
The only other place in 1 Corinthians where Paul mentions women is where he says that women who want to speak or prophesy in church should keep their heads covered (1: 2-16). Evidently Paul considered it usual for women to speak in church; the only question is how they are to be dressed.
Before going further, I should mention that the term “church” is misleading. There were no churches, just as there were no Christians in Paul’s time. “Church” was held in the homes of leading members of the community. Many of these were women, such as Lydia of Philippi.
The household basis of the church made it especially attractive to older, wealthy women who were given positions of status in the church in return for making their homes available (Fiorenza). Paul took advantage of this from the beginning, including not just women but married couples, such as Priscilla and Aquila among his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 16:3)
Gary Wills says that the early church was the most egalitarian group of the day. “There would be a concerted effort, over centuries, to hide or diminish this fact.” (Wills, p 89)
The first Jew for Jesus
The most important thing to understand about Paul is that he was a Jew first, last, and always. Christianity didn’t exist yet, and so he could hardly have converted to Christianity. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and Paul follows Christ (John 4:22) in holding that salvation comes from the Jews. As Paul put it,
It is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16)
Almost all Paul’s anti-Semitism comes from the fake letters. In one genuine letter Paul complains about the Jews, referring to Jewish leaders angry at his missionary work among the Gentiles who attended their synagogues, a common practice. Paul was poaching Gentiles for his new churches (1 Thessalonians 2: 14-16).
The risen body
As I mentioned in a previous post, I find the Christian doctrine of the risen body somewhat weird, as though we were to become revivified corpses (John 5:25-29). Paul has the sensible idea that the risen body will be different, more akin to Christ’s body.
He will transfigure our body’s lowliness into the pattern of his dazzling body. (Philippians 3:21)
All the objections one might have against risen corpses are addressed in this response. The body raised is not a human body, but a heavenly one.
Critique of domination
As a tamed academic radical from another era, it is Paul’s critique of domination, as we called it then, that is most impressive. As Paul puts it,
Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
Borg and Crossan put it best.
“This world,” to which we are not to be conformed, is not the divinely created world of nature. That world is good. . . .“This world” is the world organized in accord with the “wisdom of this world”—the humanly created world of imperial normalcy with its conventions of domination, injustice, division, and violence. (p 139)
When Paul says “renew your mind,” he is not just talking about our intellect, but about how we see the present world. We should see it, then and now, as a world opposed to everything Christ stood for.
In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky imagines that Christ returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Christ, we learn, must die, for he offers a freedom that is unbearable to the mass of men, who want only to be led. Were Christ to return today, reminding us that the way we treat the sick and the poor is a measure of our love for Christ (Matthew 25:31-46), he would likely be subject to rendition, never to be heard of again.
Getting Paul out of the Protestant Reformation
Many discussions of Paul seem to assume that he wrote about things with which the Reformation was concerned, primarily with the priority of faith over works. Not only does this get Martin Luther wrong, but it misunderstands the Roman context of Paul. Paul wrote about the transformation of ourselves and of life in this world. He wrote about a broken world, in which injustice was enforced by violence. Faith in itself is good. Far better is to heal the world through faith. In the space of just a few verses Paul uses the word for reconciliation (strepho in Greek, which means to turn back to God) five times. (2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)
All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Messiah and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Messiah, not counting people’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18–19)
It is with the work of reconciliation that Paul is most concerned.
Religion is communal for Paul
Religion was always a communal matter for Paul. His passion was to create communities that embodied an alternative to the “wisdom of this world,” the wisdom of domination. Paul’s interest in the communal church was not primarily political. With the resurrection of Christ, God’s plan for the new world had already begun, and the communal churches were part of a “new creation” of the world as it was meant to be (Borg and Crossan, pp. 186-188). The new church was proleptic; it anticipated the eschaton, Christ’s return to earth.
An aspect of this new world is that the new churches were “share communities.” Not communism, but the simple assumption that help could be expected from others in troubled times.
For Paul, love had (for want of a better word) a social meaning as well. The social form of love for Paul was distributive justice and nonviolence, bread and peace. (Borg and Crossan, p. 204)
Love was a critique of empire, as well as church communities like Corinth, reluctant to share their wealth with the poor churches in Jerusalem.
Love many others
Paul’s poetic praise of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 is well known. It begins
Were I to speak the languages of all men and all angels, without having love, I were as a resonating gong or jangling cymbal. Were I to prophesy and know all secrets and every truth, were I to have faith strong enough to move mountains, without having love, I were as nothing. Were I to give away all my possessions, or give my body to be burned, without having love, it would avail me nothing . . . .
While only individuals can love, communities can be organized around such people. This was Paul’s ideal. His is not just, or even primarily, praise of the love of one person for another, but about churches based on demonstrative love, expressed in sharing and caring.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul. HarperCollins, 2009.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Grand Inquisitor. Create Space, 2016
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, The Crossroad Publishing Co, 1994.
Gary Wills, What Paul Meant. Penguin, 2006.
N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography. Harper, 2018.