Monday, 10 August 2015

Paul, the Great non-Communicator

No, no, that's starting to make sense! Change it!
Paul is generally agreed to be a great theologian. Deep, profound. Which may or may not be the case. But consider, hardly had the apostle to the gentiles shuffled off the stage, than everybody seemed to agree that his letters were downright confusing. Whoever wrote 2 Peter 3:15-16 (it wasn't Peter) certainly didn't think much of Paul's communication skills. Then, for three hundred years, all that deep theological stuff was either forgotten or ignored. If you asked a second century Christian about justification by faith, they'd likely just stare at you blankly. The only guy who allegedly came close was Marcion, and he's regarded as a heretic!

Two thousand years later Paul's letters have been pored over, each word and phrase studied, scrutinized and exegeted, to an extent unprecedented in ancient literature. The rule of thumb seems to be, if you think you've understood Paul, you haven't. But don't take my word for it, here's what Nicholas King, a British Jesuit scholar, wrote in the introduction to his 2004 translation of Romans: It is, he says:
“...very hard going, and the translator faces a formidably difficult task. A single phrase in Romans 5:12, for example, may have as many as eleven different meanings, and the jury is still out on which of them best suits the context.... At times, I have to say, I have despaired of making Romans intelligible to a modern reader.”
The crazy thing is that it's non-Christian scholars, including Jewish New Testament experts (now there's poetic justice!), who seem to have the best handle on the prickly apostle. Paul, it turns out, has been misread from at least Augustine onward. Was Paul anti-Torah? Did he eat the first-century equivalent of ham on rye? Probably not.

So if Paul was such a genius, brimming over with revelatory insight, how is it that he wasn't able to pass on those insights in any coherent form? What on earth did the Roman Christians - many of whom would have been illiterate - make of his letter to them when it was first read aloud ? How much of it did they - could they - understand? They didn't have the benefit of reading it for themselves at their leisure, it was read to them, everyone scratched their heads, and then it was apparently forgotten. In our hyper-literate age when everyone has a New Testament, and probably a selection of translations to draw on, are we any the wiser? How much do we really understand, even after reading it again and again?

Did Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Barth? or Herb Armstrong for that matter? Can you really expect to extract a meaningful, consistent theology from what are largely polemic, rhetorical writings?

It would be sheer arrogance to think that any of us has heard, or ever will, the definitive word on either Paul or his gospel. One suspects he himself kept moving the goalposts.

And you have to wonder whether the apostle is sitting up there somewhere, laughing.

Adapted from a 2010 posting


  1. Have you read Heikki Räisänen's "Paul and the Law"? A monograph-length treatment by a top scholar showing that Paul's logic and arguments are basically incoherent.

  2. I do not have a copy of Heikki's book but I did view a few pages. In the section on "Some Concluding Reflections" where he would be likely to place some of his high profile arguments, he cites a place where Paul "contradicts himself." In Chapter 9, Paul states that Gentiles were permitted into salvation because God had hardened the Jews as the Pharaoh was hardened in Exodus. Heikki believes this contradicts Chapter 10 where Paul speaks about the Jews having zeal but not according to knowledge.

    One place it is God's hardening, another place it is the Jews' misguided zeal. But it is a big stretch to find a contradiction here. In Chapter 9, Paul is tracing the origin of the state of the Jews regarding NT salvation. In Chapter 10, he is analyzing what that state is. Paul here is not engaging in a continuing analysis of origin. So we have a passage on causes followed by a passage on analysis of outcomes.

    So Paul is not claiming in the text to be addressing causes in Chapter 10. Heikki, however, is claiming that Paul is still addressing causes in Chapter 10, hence, a contradiction is generated (out of whole cloth) by Heikki. This is only one isolated sample. But its placement in the text seems to indicate that Heikki was pretty impressed with this. Heikki, of course, lives in the cruel world of publish or perish. Paul is difficult enough to understand without this kind of academic legerdemain.

    -- Neotherm

  3. Paul's link to earliest Christ cult - or as originator of same - is an intriguing mystery for me:
    I don't think it can be solved:
    His writings have been redacted and interpolated extensively apparently and his history in Acts is fake.
    I think there are signs that he was Jewish and had a life-changing mystical experience
    probably using hallucinogenic fungal plants, maybe combined with alcohol.

    1. I appreciate the fact that you preceded your later comment with "I think" rather than saying something like "There is clear evidence...." or "The evidence is clear..."

      -- Neo