Tuesday 6 July 2010

Paul - an "F" for communication

Paul is generally agreed to be a great theologian. Deep. 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 formidibly 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 Augustine onward. Was Paul anti-Torah? Did he eat the first-century equivalent of ham on rye? Probably not.

Nobody tell Mike Feazell!

The point for the moment is this. If Paul was such a genius, how is it that he wasn't able to pass on his insights in any coherent form? What on earth did those 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 understand? How much do we really understand, even after reading it again and again?

If you haven't guessed it already, I've been tasked with writing a two-thousand word essay on Paul's theology. No sweat, the footnotes alone could easily come to two thousand words. Earlier I mentioned John Gager's book Reinventing Paul, then the stimulating work of Mark Nanos. Pamela Eisenbaum has recently released a new book provocatively entitled Paul Was Not a Christian. It sounded promising enough that I sent off an order for it earlier today. Even then it would be sheer arrogance to think that any of us has heard the definitive word on either Paul or his gospel.

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


  1. Excellent piece Gavin! Politically incorrect for Mike Feazell but that's a very good thing!

  2. Excellent post, and so very true. I suspect Paul, if he even existed at all, was a personality much like many in the "leadership" positions within the COGs -- arrogant, with far too high an opinion of himself, uneducated, ignorant, and most certainly inarticulate. If he really knew what he was writing about, his letters would be much more coherent and far easier to understand.

  3. Mythic Origins8 July 2010 at 17:21

    Ken Humphries dates the epistles in the turbulent 2nd century:

    --"Pauline letters certainly exist but the epistles, far from being genuine letters, originated in the acrimonious doctrinal battles of the 2nd century – a time when "pseudepigraphy" and forged apostolic writings were weapons in the war of "Christianities"."--

    This resolves the the anachronistic dilemma for me: They being more theologically evolved than the Gospels. So the bible gets it right: They do follow the Gospels!?

  4. "Ken Humphries dates the epistles in the turbulent 2nd century."

    WHO? What are his qualifications?

  5. Mythic origins8 July 2010 at 18:36

    I was surprised by Humphries' daring stab for late dating.

    But it does resolve a lot of dilemmas and 2nd century is a safe starting point for assumed dating:

    --"How extraordinary that orthodoxy was defined so comprehensively at such an early date, forgotten for a century, and re-emerged to battle triumphantly with a hundred shades of heresy in the second half of the 2nd century!"--

  6. Gavin R said...
    "Ken Humphries dates the epistles in the turbulent 2nd century."

    WHO? What are his qualifications?

    About the same as anyone else's qualifications when it comes to the supernatural and other things that can't be proved.

    Anyone can do research without having a doctorate in researchology (okay, I made up that word) and their findings are just as valid as if they had a string of abbreviations after their name.

    Either way, the research result is going to be biased toward the researcher's interpretation.

    About the only thing a person can do is check the source material, which in this case is historical.

    As far as Paul and the Bible is concerned, it doesn't matter if a person has a string of abbreviations after their names or not because it all boils down to belief and opinion - of which there exists about 38,000 versions of today. And, since it concerns the supernatural, none of them can possibly know what they are talking about. All they are doing is reinterpreting someone else's opinions and beliefs

  7. Mythic Origins9 July 2010 at 16:47

    As Kenneth says, "Paul is just too good to be true". Once you accept this, it starts to make sense. But if you try to harmonize the NT 'canon' with itself & history, it'll drive you mad!

  8. Gee... maybe it takes a converted mind to understand Paul.

    Or is such a statement Politically ( theologically) incorrect?

  9. Hi Bill. You write: "Gee... maybe it takes a converted mind to understand Paul."

    That could well be true. But who would you recommend as fitting those criteria? Are you suggesting it requires a gnostic approach - a document that only makes sense to those already enlightened? If it does, then they (I'm assuming you mean evangelicals) all should at least agree among themselves.

    That ain't the case.

  10. Looking forward to the book review !

  11. And yet.... some of Paul's thoughts and ideas shine with the greatest clarity, even down the centuries. I confess to glossing over the rest, which you justly castigate.

  12. Any idea if this book is tied in with the Dominionist "Hebrew Roots" movement or something similar?

  13. PH: No. I wouldn't be giving any publicity to it if it was.