Saturday, 8 October 2011

Plain talking about Paul

Gerd Ludemann is something of an authority on Paul.  That's Saint Paul if you're a traditional Christian, or the Apostle Paul if you're sane, sectarian or semi-secular.  Ludemann has written a number of dense tomes on his subject which, while enlightening, are hardly light reading.  Then again, he's German, and since when has any German theologian or biblical scholar been easy reading?

So it's refreshing to find a short Ludemann article on the Man from (maybe) Tarsus appearing as the opening chapter in the Polebridge volume Rediscovering the Apostle Paul (edited by Bernard Brandon Scott).  The essay is a highly condensed précis of his book Paul: The Founder of Christianity.

In the essay, entitled Paul - an Obituary, Ludemann observes that this remarkable man was, at once, "a Jew, Roman, and a Christian," and that whether in his own words or those of others, "he stands at the center of a third of the New Testament."  So far, so Dallas Theological Seminary.  But Ludemann is no ecclesiastical yes-man, reminding us that only now "is the history of exegesis becoming an independent discipline and producing many new insights."  Not just new insights, but a freedom to crack the shell of hallowed piety that surrounds Paul and re-envision him on realistic terms.
"In a bold leap of thought he combined the Jewish ideal of the Messiah with Isaiah's Suffering Servant...  Remembering that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had claimed divine election, Paul applied this directly to himself (cf. Gal 1:15f.) and fantasized that like the two great prophets of the past he had been divinely ordained from his mother's womb to be a preacher."
And the fruit of this endeavour? "A new movement was called to life by a man who had never known Jesus personally."

For Ludemann Paul is, absolutely no question, the real founder of Christianity.  Even though he is the big kahuna behind it all, the apostle's theology is disturbingly ambiguous.  Romans 1-8, for example, seems to say one thing, but "in Romans 9 - 11 [Paul] partly takes back everything that he has written previously."
"Paul's theology of the Law was anything but clear...  Paul had become a Gentile to the Gentiles, a Jew to the Jews, and thus in effect neither a Gentile nor a Jew."
Even worse, the much trumpeted genius of the early church just didn't cut it when it came to doing battle with the big guns.
"The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers showed him his limits...  Despite his repeated (though sometimes deceptive) advocacy of reason, his religion, grounded in mystical experiences, was not up to the intellectual challenge of Greece.  That he founded no community in Athens speaks volumes."
In fact Paul's approach, Ludemann maintains, "calls for uncritical surrender to authority and to divine guidance: the norm is not the intellect but the emotions."  Paul an the importer of orientalism into the West.  "Hellenism marked the maturity of the ancient world; orientalism its downfall."

(This line of argument isn't new, can be highly controversial, and deserves a discussion in itself. )

But...  Gerd, Gerd, what are you saying?  Quit beating around the mulberry bush and tell us what you actually mean.
"We may almost ask whether it would not have been better had Paul never lived."
"... the view that his letters represent God's word is a crime against reason and humanity... he summons [unbelievers] to obedience only to escape damnation.  His monotheism is totalitarian..."
Overstated?  Maybe.  But we do, whether we're grass-roots Christians or tendentious authors of weighty green and black-covered commentaries on Romans 1 -8, tend to hear and read Paul the same way we lap up the rhetoric from a political figure we intend to vote for, uncritically with lashings of 'benefit of the doubt'.  And for that reason alone Ludemann is worth engaging with.

1 comment:

  1. Supposedly, according to Paul, he was personally taught by Jesus Christ while he was away in the desert.

    I've thought through what the New Testament would look like if there were no epistles from the Apostle Paul there. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Jude, Peter, John, Revelation. There would be so many gaps and holes, I'm not certain that anyone would see the remaining books as having any cohesion whatsoever.

    Any thoughts?

    Anyway, Paul seems to explain some things believers would not otherwise understand. He also says things that cause people to go, "Yeah, I've felt like that".

    Mostly though, if we didn't have Paul's writings, we wouldn't be able to throw rocks as easily at those so aptly described in II Timothy 3. Well, virtual rocks, anyway.

    Without Paul, too, those arguments over the Bible wouldn't have any where near the rich fecund depth with endless wrangling there is now.