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Rethinking Paul (the Apostle, not the Beatle)

I always kind of thought the Apostle Paul was an *&^$#%^. Falling somewhere on the spectrum between "ruining Christianity" and "totally misunderstanding everything." Those of you who aren't big into Christianity, he's probably the reason why. Then again, those of you who are into Christianity, he may be the reason why. He's the gatekeeper, the filter, for much of what we know as the organized Church and the theology that comes with it. A deeply flawed human being with some weird quirks, axes to grind, and frankly not always the nicest. It was probably far too easy for me to throw him out with the bathwater.

But, just as the movement of Jews following Jesus after his death--and even Jesus himself--needs to be put into a wider context (culturally, historically, etc.), a little perspective on Paul has helped me go a little easier on him in the past few days. After attending the event for my former professor a couple weekends ago, I decided to take another look at one of his works that I had downloaded onto my Nook awhile back (and never got around to reading). I'd read a couple prominent publications from Paul scholars (he's seen a flurry of new research and was a bit "hot" for awhile) and wasn't eager to return to a subject who usually annoys me.

Ron Miller always had a way of tackling difficult topics that made them accessible though. Whether that's conflict in the Middle East, fundamentalism, existentialism, mysticism. So it didn't surprise me that his The Sacred Writings of Paul managed to change my mind. It maybe did, however, surprise me that Paul surprised me.

I maintain that Paul is weird. A devout Jew who harshly persecutes early Christians before he himself...becomes Christian. He then turns around and picks a fight with devout Jewish Christians who are mad that he has decided to preach to gentiles. It's complicated and involves a lot of putting him in historical context.

The easiest way of saying it is that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew and Paul was...not that kind of Jew.

Jesus came from a culture that had far less of a mind-body split. Paul was far more influenced by Greek culture and had a disconnect between head and torso (a little dark martyr humor there) that left him preaching "head good, body bad." Jesus spent his days advocating participation in society...healing sick, feeding the hungry. While Paul gives birth to a much more ascetic tradition of leaving the world behind. Jesus comes from a traditional Jewish theology of being called to account before God for NOT enjoying Creation. Paul...hates Creation a little bit.

What intrigues me more about Paul, however, is his lengthy struggle for acceptance. We think--mostly--of a lot of uglier messages from Paul about sin and salvation, predestination, homophobia, his separating God out of the world and away from humanity with his theology. Not to mention the patriarchal Church traditions which arise and subjugate what is, essentially, victims of Christianity. Yup, that's all Paul. His fault. But Paul was also in this very Jewish struggle over what it means to be Jewish and his take was a very open, expanding view of then-Jewish Christianity.

The folks in Jerusalem were busy thinking of themselves as Jewish followers of a Jewish Jesus. They read the Torah, they kept the commandments, they didn't eat forbidden foods. But Paul goes to bat for non-Jews being allowed to sit at the table as followers of Jesus. He has his own radically inclusive mindset that does seem to have some element of Jesus there. Ron Miller points out that Jesus didn't seem to be overwhelmingly concerned about what religion you were. The gospel was a humanitarian one more than anything. Roman solider, tax collector, woman, he didn't care about the rules for mingling and social etiquette. Jesus seems much more interested in eating together, drinking together, healing the sick. (A very un-Paul mindset, but a very Paul way of breaking down social barriers.)

Paul is not only battling the Jewish-Christian church about his evangelizing gentiles, but he's eventually killed by a Roman Empire where Christianity was a dangerous, fringe sect undermining authority. So my updated view of Paul--the gentler one--is that he spent a lifetime trying to win converts to a faith that was never really Jewish and simultaneously hated by the authorities. There's an undercurrent leftover from Paul's time as a Pharisee early in his life where he's never quite "good enough." Psychologically, it's the same kind of innate self-hatred that both drives his quest for approval and also drives his persecution of all others he deems unfit. It gives early Christianity--almost from the start--a big old dose of neurotic "can't quite make up its mind." It's really the root, theologically, of why it's always the most fundamentalist who end up getting caught in the hypocritical, monumental's fun to root out the sin in others when you see yourself as intrinsically fighting inner demons.

Are we sinners? Are we saved? Is there a Heaven and Hell? Paul ends up winning all those arguments. Battles that, strangely, Jesus never bothered to fight himself as a Palestinian Jew. That's the real question I've been wondering about as I read Ron's book is WWJD. What would historical Jesus have thought about Paul? The church in Jerusalem was, in many ways, closer to Jesus during his life. So it's tempting to throw Paul under the bus just like I did. Jesus was a Jew, but we've lost to history his daily observance. He obviously made some trips to the Temple even if he clearly has issues with organized religious authorities who abuse power. But was Jesus' message Jewish? Spiritual but not endorsing a particular faith? My contention would be that Jesus certainly never meant to found the church that springs out of Paul. But would Jesus have endorsed Paul's message to the gentiles?

There are no answers here because we don't know. It's just enough that I'm willing to give Paul a benefit of the doubt though. He's still a jerk and modern Christianity would do well to de-emphasize anything having to do with him. From the big picture perspective, however, I think Paul did have an element of Jesus somewhere in there. It's hard to claim he expanded and included anybody considering the ramifications of his theology leave so many hurt and excluded. BUT...but...that's the most precise way of saying it. He expanded and included people who would not have otherwise given a strange Jewish sect the time of day.

We may be burdened with a Paul-flavored Christianity that tastes sour, but we can hopefully appreciate that it was the right medicine for his time and place. He defended his territory in ways that we may find disgusting today, but he's like that crazy woman at the party who means well so you listen to her chat for 30 minutes even though you plan on ignoring her and can't wait to get away.

A lot of people are eager to get away from Paul. Understandable. Remember my whole opening introduction about ruining and misunderstanding? Where do you go then? Nuanced discussion of where he went wrong? Is Christianity forever down this path of Pauline crazy and too far gone? I'll leave those answers to people smarter than me. I do think there's an ongoing debate within the faith about what the future holds. But the next time you get in a shouting match with someone trying to foist their stubbornly-Paul theology on you, remember that they get it honestly. Paul kind of hated himself. Not his fault. Paul hated a lot of things.

Jesus? He'd have probably wanted to go have a drink and talk it out.


  1. Dear Sir;

    I appreciate the sentiment you've expressed and particularly the change of heart you've had regarding the Apostle Paul. "Rethinking Paul (the Apostle, not the Beatle)". Clearly you are someone who would be considered a student (read disciple) but I'm wondering if you have considered the following fine points:

    * Jesus was emphatic about re-illustrating the law. He wanted to reveal to all that the law was about intent rather than an outward show of piety, generosity, devotion, etc. That was the ongoing difficulty he had with the dominant sects of the time (the Pharisees and Saducees). He said " Do not think that I have come to do away with or undo the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to do away with or undo but to complete and fulfill them" Matthew 5:17 He goes on later to say [among other things . . . ] You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy; 44 But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,45 To show that you are the children of your Father Who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and makes the rain fall upon the upright and the wrongdoers [alike]. [Amplified Bible]

    * Paul on the other hand was explicitly stating that he wanted the Jews to accept Christ Jesus and so stated [Romans 10:1-2]. Unfortunately, he like most of us born in sin, had difficulty with this flesh/spirit thing; something Jesus kept well in check.

    The truth of the matter is that one cannot discount the strengths of one over the other. Christ Jesus is the architect of all things, King and Lord of all by virtue of creating all things. [Darwin notwithstanding] Paul was church-builder/overseer and expositor. He was daily concerned with the care of the churches he built [II Cor. 11:28] He was sent as a special emissary to the "gentiles" and did just that. He helped confirm the next steps for Peter who was head of the church in Jerusalem and volunteered to travel abroad to further the gospel. The only reason he ended up in Rome was due to mistreatment by other Romans in the outer conquered world.

    1. I think Paul was a very confused guy about having multiple roles in multiple societies. I think he's useful but too much of Christianity has been built on him rather than Jesus. But on the other hand, we'd have no Christianity if not for him...Jewish followers of Jesus would have died out a small, strange sect within Judaism. It cuts both ways.

      I think we can cut him some slack but then hold current theology to a more contemporary standard. If Paul said it, we should be skeptical but still listen?


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