Friday, 28 December 2012

The Reductionist's Paul

James Tabor makes some interesting comments in his latest book about "four Pauls."  To wit:
  1. The authentic or early Paul who wrote the 'undisputed' epistles.
  2. The disputed (or deutero-Pauline) Paul who wrote Ephesians and Colossians.
  3. Pseudo-Paul who wrote the Pastoral letters.
  4. Legendary Paul who appears in Petrine drag in the book of Acts.
 I'm glad James spells it out as clearly and unequivocally as he does.  Despite everything you might have assumed from a thousand sermons, there is a lot about the Apostle that we only think we know. 

James goes on: there is almost universal agreement that a proper historical study of Paul should begin with the seven genuine letters, restricting one's analysis to what is most certainly coming from Paul's own hand.

And of those other sources: In modern parlance we call such writings forgeries, but a more polite academic term is pseudonymous, meaning "falsely named."

James' old mentor, Rod Meredith, would surely have a hernia reading this, so it's just as well he restricts his reading to in-house pabulum.

The book goes on to list those things we most assuredly know about Paul drawing on autobiographical details gleaned in those 'undisputed' writings.  It's certainly a safer procedure than most flap-jawed preachers use - with more eagerness than erudition.  But I wonder even then if we're getting anything like an accurate picture of the man behind the mask.

Imagine if you tried to gain an impression of some modern figure just based on the material they themselves provided.  Pope Benedict perhaps, or Mitt Romney; Margaret Thatcher or Fidel Castro; Benny Hinn or Muammar Gaddafi. 

There's another more recent Apostle-type figure that both James and I know something about, him much more so than me; a man who wrote a great deal about himself both incidentally and deliberately, including a weighty autobiography.  Imagine, if you will, that the only information we had about Herbert W. Armstrong was what he himself supplied.  On the basis of that we'd all be holding hands with Bob Thiel and singing Dwight Armstrong hymns unto this very day.

So when Paul said that he advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, being extremely zealous for his ancestral traditions, or that he had visionary experiences where he saw Jesus and was commissioned by him, I can't help but think of Herb bragging about his time at the Eugene public library acquiring the equivalent of a top-level degree, or getting his own unique end-time commission.  Just because someone makes an over-the-top claim doesn't mean its worth the paper it's written on.

You won't learn much about someone just by trawling through their press releases.

And the one thing we do know about Paul - it seeps out from all his writings - is that he had a towering ego, and a tendency to slap down anyone who got in his way, even when he was trying to demonstrate just what a reasonable, tolerant and thoroughly humble bloke he was!  Poor old Barnabas, John Mark, Apollos, James et al.  Paul, whatever else he might or might not be, is a passionate, no holds barred master rhetorician, so anyone wanting to make some sense of what he writes has got to factor in the deliberate exaggeration, self delusion and embellishment that go with that art. 

I recommend Paul and Jesus, despite some mainly minor quibbles.  Whatever Dr. Tabor's agenda might be - and we all have one of those - he brings an considerable degree of scholarly nous to a popular audience. 


  1. I honestly have trouble with the type of analysis I think Tabor may have done. Admittedly, I would have to look at his book to see how he derived is conclusions. But I expect it is like other similar material I have read. Using the approach common to Biblical criticism we might review Gavin's writing during the course of this blog and come up with the following four Gavins:

    Gavin the New Zealander
    Gavin the World Citizen
    Gavin the Student of Christian Theology
    Gavin the Critic of Armstrongism

    Depending on how Gavin has been involved in these areas, particularly what he may have read and to whom he has spoken, we might find the use of slightly different vocabulary and syntactical structures in each case that would tend to corroborate for us the view that this blog is managed by four people bearing the name Gavin rather than one.

    I agree that it is very difficult to know someone from what they have written about themselves. But I would extend this and say that it is very difficult to come to know a person from writing in general - especially that person's non-autobiographical writing. The division of writing into "undisputed" and other does not solve this problem. It may only permit us to parse a little better without permitting us to graduate to a new level of accuracy and authenticity.

    -- Neo

    1. I think the analysis of the Pauline writings suggested by Tabor is very sound and, dare I say it, irrefutable. The only people who tend to argue the point are apologists. Yup, it would probably be a good idea to look at the arguments Tabor provides - bearing in mind that he's saying nothing new; all biblical scholars are familiar with the problems of Pauline authorship. If you're so inclined, you could even check out a piece I wrote a few years back on the authorship of the Pastorals.

    2. We're all apologists for something. -- Neo

  2. What does it say about the NT Canon when it contains 6 forgeries in the name of "Paul", three forgeries in the name of "John" and 2 forgeries in the name of "Peter"? The NT Canon also contains 4 anonymous gospels, an anonymous 'epistle' to the Hebrews and a mysterious Apocalypse written by an unknown author calling himself "John". Not to mention a book of Acts that totally contradicts the 'authentic' epistles of Paul. Should we think that anything about the NT Canon is "authentic"?

    1. Rhetorical questions I assume?

      You're the first person to post a comment all in bold.

      And the last to get away with it, LOL. No more from anyone please, at the almost certain risk of going straight to the trash basket along with the caps SHOUTERS.

    2. Sorry, Gavin, I can barely read the light colored text, I'm old, you know...eyes failing or something. But, no, I didn't intend the questions to be rhetorical. They may as well be rhetorical though, because folks tend to assume way too much when it comes to the NT Canon. None of it appears in history until the second century and Paul doesn't appear to even have been heard of or quoted by any of the church 'fathers' until after 130 AD and the appearance of Marcion's Canon. Wouldn't it be possible that the letters of Paul are actually Marcionite polemics against the orthodox proto-Catholics which have been edited by the orthodox to make Paul appear to have been an orthodox apostle himself? The reason I say that is because I don't think Marcion would have presented a copy of Galatians with "James, the Lord's brother" in it. To Marcion, Jesus was not a man but a manifestation who only appeared to be a man and would not have had any biological siblings.