Sunday, 9 October 2011

Paul: Profound or Confused

Heikki Raisanen's contribution to Rediscovering the Apostle Paul is entitled "A Controversial Jew".  Among the insights he brings to his subject is the apparent difficulty we have in making much coherent sense out of Paul's writings.  What is his position on the observance of the Torah for Jews?  Are Jews saved in the same manner as Gentiles, or is the Gentile gospel a special arrangement - a limited time offer, if you will - in view of the 'fact' that Jesus is returning awfully soon?  "I think", writes Raisanen, "that Paul's relation to his Jewish heritage was ambiguous at best... Paul picked and chose what he would and would not observe from the Torah."
"Could it not be that there are conflicting tendencies in Paul's own mind?"
Well, no Heikki, just ask any of those nice systematic theologians that plague the Reformed tradition.

Why did the confusion arise anyway?  Raisanen suggests the development of Christianity as a separate, detached faith from Judaism was marked by the need for ad hoc decisions from its inception: "As so often, practice probably preceded theory... new experiences seem to have triggered a bold reinterpretation of Jewish tradition... [Paul] is desperately trying to solve a problem which proves to be too difficult."
"Paul first became a missionary sponsored by the congregation of Antioch, the home-base of the Hellenists.  But when his views grew more radical, the Antiochians broke with him, and he had to continue his work independently."
 "Paul is struggling to make sense of a strong tension between his inherited values and his new convictions."
No wonder we have so much difficulty trying to put the pieces back together again today.  Humpty Dumpty is, perhaps, beyond the systematising ministrations of the interpreters.  Does God, for example, predestine hapless mortals to glory or destruction?  Read some of Paul's arguments, and it certainly seems so.  But read on and he seems to drop the whole idea.  "Future generations of Christians would have been spared a great deal of anxiety and despair, if Paul had not tried it at all."

It's not as though we can just play one book off against another, claiming that Paul's "mature" view is the one to follow.
"... some scholars assume that Paul's theology underwent a substantial development between Galatians and Romans.  But the thesis presented at the end of Romans 11 is also quite different from the thesis argued a couple of pages earlier in chapter 9."
Darn.  Was Paul making it up on the hoof?  Isn't it clear that, if not completely incoherent in places, the Apostle was at least embarrassingly inconsistent?
"Paul is found consistent only if the interpreter knows how to tell the coherent kernel from the unimportant husk."
And therein lies the trick.  A fibre-free gospel?  Just ask the All Bran brigade about the pitfalls of that strategy.
"Do not the attempts to find in Paul coherence at all costs betray a kind of docetism?"
Docetism, maybe.  Or just plain dishonesty and special pleading?

Raisanen concludes with the plea that, instead of deferring to Paul as an authority, a know-it-all to whom (if we can only work out what he's actually saying) we must kow-tow, we should embrace him as a discussion partner.  A somewhat befuddled discussion partner it seems.


  1. If it is one thing people should learn about religion it is that putting all one's eggs in the basket of the one man show is a BIG mistake. We tend to understand this in the present day, but when it comes to Paul, we give him a free pass.

    IMHO Paul was a Pharisee wanna be or otherwise a Pharisee like no other. He was confused in his analogies and often misquoted the OT to his advantage.

    Here is a man who made the father of the uncircumcision out of the Faather of Circumcision, Abraham. A man who thought that since "seed" was singular and not plural it really did not mean the descendents of Abraham but Jesus. Pretty darn lame. He turned Sarah in to the bad woman and Hagar in to the good one. He simply tried to hard to make his undersized shoes fit.

    If he was the smartest pencil in the box, it was a small box and I suspect Gamaliel never heard of him or at least would have asked him to renounce his Roman Citizenship as that was not something Pharisees of Pharisees should brag about.

    Take Paul out of the NT equation and you might get closer to what any Jesus actually taught. I doubt Jesus had the Church of Paul in mind.

    "Paul the Mythmaker" by Hyam Jacoby is a good start to wonder about this man called Paul

  2. For a moment -- against all probabilities -- let us suppose that the Apostle Paul was taught by Jesus Christ personally in the desert (which violates what was said early in Acts). If he had superior spiritual knowledge, would it be comprehensible to the "unconverted"? Logic suggests not. Maybe. Probably not. Therefore, if he was incomprehensible to the "carnal mind" [this is beginning to be distasteful, even to me], he could only be understood by the "converted".

    This problem is compounded by the Apostle Peter saying that Paul was difficult to understand -- to the downfall of those not sophisticated enought to be able to comprehend what he was saying.

    At this point it is tempting to be reminded of the last sermon I heard Dr. Herman Hoeh give at the Feast of Tabernacles about the 75 year economic cycle in Eugene, Oregon: It was incomprehensible rubbish which, some how, was supposed to make sense, given his reputation for saying complex things. I believe that I was one of the few people who kept the entirety of his sermons in my head as he wove his complex intertwined reasonings tied up at the end from the usually clear and simplistic beginning. If you failed to remember the whole thing, you'd be completely lost. But his last sermon... well, I understood it well enough, it's just that it was preposterously wrong. And the passage of time has proved that, so it wasn't just my imagination.

    It is with that overlay that I look at the writings of the Apostle Paul and have the same reaction. Was it brilliance we cannot fathom?

    Or was it the random ravings of someone with schizophrenia who managed to weave things together which did not fit, but made it seem as though they did?

    At this point, I'm not feeling so bright.

  3. If God/Jesus revealed to Paul that gentiles could ignore circumcision and certain other Jewish traditions - why didn't God/Jesus reveal that to the apostles who were before Paul?

    Seems the Xians could never get their story straight and never have. Could it be because it's not a straight story to start with?

    Could it be that "the end of all things is at hand" 2,000 years ago be wrong? Naw, religious people don't lie and make up stuff, just ask any modern day apostle.