Putting Paul in His Place

By Charles W. Hedrick

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 1
January – February 2018
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Christians today live out their faith very differently from those in the earliest communal gatherings to which the modern church traces its roots. The earliest sources providing a clear window into the faith and behavior of the forerunners of the modern church reflect many ideas that seem strange to those whose worldview has been shaped by the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century current of thought that developed the critical method, rejected the hegemony of Christian belief, and relied on human reason to explain humanity’s place in the universe.

Those of us who, from our earliest years, have grown up in the traditional Reformation Christianity that established and nourished the growth of Christianity in America have tended to give Paul too much credit as a responsible creative thinker. This is due to Paul’s literary influence in the first century. Paul did what the synoptic writers, the author of John, and others did not do. He conceived an early institutional framework and conceptual rationale for the Jesus movements which, through his later disciples, eventually produced a workable institutional understanding of the Galilean wisdom teacher. In a sense Paul is the founder of institutional Christianity, although not of the more freewheeling Jesus movements. This statement should not be taken to ignore the diversity of the earliest period, but simply to credit Paul for the conceptual foundation for the church that, for good or ill, has survived into the modern period.

Paul knew only a few details of the life of Jesus, the Judea man upon whom, in the form of the resurrected Christ, he developed his gospel.

Paul knew only a few details of the life of Jesus, the Judean man upon whom, in the form of the resurrected Christ, he developed his gospel.1 Nevertheless his linkage of the death of Jesus to the Israelite sacrificial system produced an appealing theological explanation for the death of Jesus that has generally worked well for the church’s outreach. For these reasons, at a minimum, readers tend to overlook some of Paul’s other less-than-plausible ideas. Paul lived in a pre-scientific age and could not help being influenced by its antique way of thinking.

The primary sources for understanding the earliest religious gatherings of Jesus movements are Paul’s letters. His first letter to the “gathering of saints” at Corinth, which dates around 50 CE, is the most revealing of the differences between modern perspectives and Paul’s ancient one. In this letter, Paul tried to influence their behavior and beliefs with arguments that fitted well into the mythical worldview of the first century, but sound quite odd in the post-Enlightenment twenty-first century. Here are three examples from First Corinthians.

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Judging Angels

When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide among members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren. (1 Cor 6:1–8 RSV)

In this passage Paul is scandalized that members of the community are suing one another in civil courts. In Paul’s view this amounts to allowing their cases to be judged by the “unrighteous,” rather than by the members of the community— the hagioi, “holy ones” or saints—themselves (1 Cor 1:2). His rationale is that the holy ones will soon be judging the world; therefore, they are surely competent to try trivial matters such as personal disputes within the community. Furthermore, they will also judge angels (1 Cor 6:3). And if members of the community are capable of judging supernatural entities like angels, surely they can resolve disputes over ordinary matters of human life. Paul argues that members of the community should not engage in lawsuits with one another at all. If they cannot resolve their disagreements, they should simply let themselves be defrauded.

The scenario Paul describes in which the world and angels are judged by the Corinthian saints is clearly not an event in normal time and space; it is part of some final endtime drama. So Paul’s rationale for shaping the behavior of the Corinthians is based on his own idiosyncratic view of what happens after the world ends. His argument can persuade only those who think he has some unique insight into what will happen at the End Time. (And since Paul was confident that the End would come during his own lifetime [1 Cor 7:29–31], we have every right to be skeptical about his power of prophecy.) Even if one believes what Paul says about angels, the impracticality in the twenty-first century of avoiding civil courts for some sort of “church” tribunal is obvious, as are the personal hazards of subjecting oneself to a religious court. Paul has a higher degree of confidence in the members of the Corinthian fellowship than is warranted, to judge by their behavior reflected in his letter.

Angels are supernatural entities that apparently make up a middle category of sentient beings between humans and Gods. We humans have always believed in such supernatural creatures of a third estate, although with the advent of critical thinking their numbers are being steadily reduced. In the modern world many of these creatures are now recognized as mythical or legendary, meaning that they never really existed except in the dark recesses of our minds. There have been hundreds of such creatures endemic to every culture throughout time. Here are a few familiar examples: elves, fairies, angels, demons, trolls, gnomes, ogres, water sprites, witches, vampires, satyrs, sileni, unicorns, goblins, pixies, leprechauns, sirens, centaurs, and nymphs. Basically, we invented them to explain what we did not understand. A great number of these supernatural entities are still considered “real,” but the truth is that angels, as is the case with demons, can influence your life only if you believe in them.

But if angels do exist, how exactly would one go about judging them? What behavioral criteria apply to supernatural creatures? What constitutes proper and improper behavior for angels? What judicial procedures govern the court hearing: who prosecutes, who defends, who regulates the course of the trial? I know very little about angels, but I know they are earlier and later than the Jewish and early Christian period. In the thirteenth century, for example, angels permeated Christian medieval society. Today angelology is part of the academic curriculum in conservative Christian colleges. Belief in angels thrives among those who take the Bible to be literally true.

I am not persuaded by Paul’s argument for “church tribunals.” For one reason, my world is not populated by angels, satyrs, dragons, and unicorns, despite the fact that the Bible describes them as real.2 For another, church tribunals do not offer the same legal protections that are enjoyed in the “pagan” courts.

Spirit Travel or Astral Projection?

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this thing be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor 5:1–5 RSV)

In this passage Paul addresses what he regards as outrageous immorality in the Corinthian community: a man is cohabiting with his father’s wife and the Corinthians are tolerating the arrangement. Paul considers their tolerance an egregious scandal. We are given no further information about the persons involved—who were, of course, well known to the Corinthians—but I note that Paul did not say that the lady was the man’s mother, so likely she was a stepmother. Given the marriage customs of the time, the man’s stepmother could well have been younger than he. It is also likely that the man’s father was dead, for if he were alive Paul would surely accuse the man of adultery. The community clearly tolerates the relationship, but Paul considers it a moral outrage. Why? Most likely because Paul’s moral sensitivities are grounded in the Torah, which prohibits a man from marrying a woman who had formerly been his father’s wife (Lev 18:8). Paul urges the community to expel the man.

Paul thought of humans the way the Hebrew Bible does: as unified living beings

A proper understanding of Paul’s response requires the correction of a minor, but unfortunate, mistranslation by the RSV, which has Paul say, “For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present I have already pronounced judgment” (1 Cor 5:3). However, there is no warrant in the Greek for the “if” in “as if present.”* Paul describes himself simply “as present.” Compare this to a similar statement that does not create the same difficulties: “Though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit” [Col 2:5].) Paul directs that when the community is assembled “and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus,” the man should be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved” (1 Cor 5:4–5). This latter statement clearly presupposes that human beings are comprised of a separate spirit/soul inhabiting a physical body, a quintessential Greek concept. Conventional scholarship, however, maintains that Paul thought of humans the way the Hebrew Bible does: as unified living beings (see Gen 2:7).3

*Paul’s Greek is hōs parōn. “As if present” would require hōs an parōn.

How might Paul have conceived of his own spirit “being present” although his body was absent? He says it twice (1 Cor 5:4). The temptation is to think that Paul has just been careless in his language, and that he meant to say something like the following: when you assemble and think like me about this situation (i.e., in this way I am psychologically present in spirit), you will pass judgment on this fellow (as I have already done), and deliver him over to Satan— an odd way of stating (what he probably means) that the fellow should be expelled from the community. The New International Version of the Bible and Today’s English Version ignore the difficulty posed by the Greek text and make Paul’s statement completely innocuous: “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit, and have already passed judgment … just as if I were present.” The Scholars Version also avoids the problem by translating what in Greek literally means “I am present in spirit” as “I am truly present.”

One commentator thinks Paul’s presence in spirit has to do with the belief that when the community is assembled, the Holy Spirit is present.

One respected commentator, however, recognizes the oddity of the Greek text and thinks Paul’s presence in spirit has to do with unity in the Spirit—that is, the belief that when the community is assembled the Holy Spirit is present among them. “For Paul that means that he too is present among them by that same Spirit” (which is still an odd idea). Gordon Fee cautions, however: “We must nonetheless not try to make Paul think or talk like us.”4 An excellent caveat! No one really knows what Paul thought. Paul’s statement on its surface actually sounds like some kind of spirit travel.

Spirit travel was a familiar concept in antiquity

Spirit travel was a familiar concept in antiquity and Paul clearly refers to it in 2 Cor 12:1–4: “I know a person … who was caught up into the third heaven” (three heavens?— how odd!). Heavenly journeys are amply attested in ancient texts. Here are a few references in the Bible to the odd idea of spirit travel.

  • John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10; 4:1–2), and he says that an angel “carried me away in the Spirit” (Rev 17:3; 21:10).
  • Ezekiel also was carried away by the Spirit from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezek 2:12–15 and 8:3; see also 11:24–25; 37:1; 40:2).
  • After the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, the Spirit caught up the apostle Philip (physically?) and transported him several miles to the city of Azotus (Act 8:39–40).
  • Spirit travel is also referred to in 1 Kgs 18:12, when Elijah tells a friend, “As soon as I have gone from you, the spirit of Yahweh will carry you I know not where.”
  • In Bel and the Dragon verses 33–36 (which Jews and Protestants do not consider canonical),5 an angel takes the prophet Habakkuk by the hair and carries him to Babylon, in order to deliver food to Daniel in the lion’s den.

These observations on 1 Corinthians 5 have taken an odd turn, evoking such ideas as astral projection and outof- body experiences. I am more than skeptical about such things, although a great deal has been written about them.6 It is difficult to know what to make of Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 5:3–4. Is he thinking of an ecstatic experience like John’s in the Apocalypse, or perhaps more substantively like Ezekiel’s? Did Paul think perhaps that he could be present with the Corinthians when he was in an ecstatic state? Or did he think of a divided spirit, part of which travels and part of which inhabits his body (I assume that the body needs its spirit/soul force to remain alive). But if a part of one’s spirit travels, neither the particle in transit nor the deficient part left behind can be thought of as an individual’s complete spirit; a divided spirit is something other than the usual condition of one’s spirit at rest in the body, it seems to me. Perhaps Paul is thinking of a “spirit twin” that could be projected at will?

This passage requires a strange way of thinking in a post-Enlightenment world, and it is little wonder that twenty-first-century folk who are heirs of the Enlightenment would have difficulty with the odd ideas found in it.

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Are Holiness and Unholiness Contagious?

In discussing the problem of interfaith marriage with the Corinthians Paul expresses another rather strange idea: “The unbelieving husband is made holy through his [believing] wife and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her [believing] husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy” (1 Cor 7:14). To “make something holy” is technical language normally used in discussions of ritual requirements, where it means to render something suitable for ritual purposes. Paul uses the same language describing his gathering of saints at Corinth; they are made holy, or sanctified (1 Cor 1:2; 6:11), and hence are “holy ones,” set apart for the Lord’s service.

In Hebrew Bible usage the word “unclean” describes something that renders one unsuitable to stand before God or to be a part of the covenant community (see Num 19). Moses sets forth purity codes enumerating things and people that are considered unclean (see Lev 15; Mark 7:14–23; Acts 10:9–35). This formal language of ritual impurity or uncleanness is carried over into the ethical sphere where sin renders one unclean before God, and hence it disqualifies the sinner from serving God (see Isa 7:1–10; Ps 24:3–4).

Paul’s statement affirms that parents pass to their children the condition of either unholiness or holiness. A child born to an interfaith couple is rendered holy because the holiness of the believing parent trumps the unholiness of the unbelieving parent and the child is born undefiled or “clean.” Hence Paul seems to conceive of some kind of religious “contagion,” an essence of holiness or unholiness that is actually transmitted from parent to child. In the case of interfaith marriage holiness is more powerful than unholiness (see also Rom 11:16).

Compare this to the opposite argument about interfaith marriage in 2 Cor 6:14–7:1 (this segment is probably a non-Pauline insertion into the letter 7). This passage rejects interfaith marriage out of hand and suggests that marriage to unbelievers will defile the holy character of the believer. In this passage the unholiness of the unbelieving partner compromises the holiness of the believer.

Paul applies the same logic when addressing the case of male members of the Corinthian community (whom Paul calls “brothers,” 1 Cor 6:1–6) who visit prostitutes (1 Cor 6:15–20). He argues that coitus with a prostitute compromises a brother’s holiness, for sexual intercourse with a prostitute makes them “one body” and defiles the believer’s body, which is an extension of Christ (1 Cor 6:15). In other words, the contagion passes from the prostitute and corrupts the holiness of the brother. In the case of coitus with a prostitute unholiness is more powerful than holiness (1 Cor 5:6–7)

The idea that holiness or unholiness can be communicated to things or people survives the modern world in only rare instances. Translators attempt to domesticate that ancient worldview reflected in what Paul wrote.

Ritual defilement, the idea that a state of holiness or unholiness can be communicated to things or people, is an ancient idea that survives in the modern Western world in only rare instances. Hence, the tendency for translators seems to be to select language for this verse that does not readily betray the blatant ritual defilement that comes across so strongly in the Greek text. These translators attempt to domesticate the ancient worldview reflected in what Paul wrote. For the most part modern human beings in the Western world do not function in their daily lives with the idea that religious defilement can be inherited or transmitted by physical contact with persons or things. But Paul apparently did.

Here are a few modern translations showing how translators handled the offensive ritual defilement language in 1 Cor 7:14:

  • Unbelieving spouse “is consecrated” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “unclean,” but now “holy.” (RSV)
  • Unbelieving spouse “made holy” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “unclean,” but now “holy.” (NRSV)
  • Unbelieving spouse “is consecrated” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “unblest,” but now “are consecrated.” (Goodspeed)
  • Unbelieving spouse “is consecrated” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “unholy,” but now “consecrated to God.” (Moffatt)
  • Unbelieving spouse “is sanctified” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “unclean,” but now “holy.” (NIV)
  • “Heathen” spouse “now belongs to God through Christian” spouse, otherwise children “would not belong to God, whereas in fact they do.” (New English Bible)
  • Unbelieving spouse “is made acceptable to God” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “pagan,” but “as it is, they are acceptable to God.” (Good News)
  • “Non-believing” spouse “is dedicated” through the believing one, otherwise children would be “unholy,” but now “they are dedicated.” (Berkeley Version)
  • Unbelieving spouse “is, in a sense, consecrated” through the believing one, “if this is not so, children would bear stains of paganism whereas they are actually consecrated to God.” (J. B. Phillips)
  • “Non-Christian” spouse “may become Christian with help of Christian spouse;” otherwise “if family separates, children might never come to know the Lord.” “A united family may, in God’s plan, result in children’s salvation.” (The Living Bible)
  • Non-believing spouse “has been spiritually set apart from the world” because of the believing spouse. “Otherwise your children would be contaminated by the world, but now they are spiritually set apart.” (The Common English Bible)

Clearly many things may be inherited from parents or transmitted from prostitutes, but religious defilement is not one of them. Paul’s ideas are survivors of a pre-scientific way of thinking that engaged the natural world in terms of unseen spirit realities. Having lived as he did some fifteen centuries before the advent of modern science, he could not help sharing in the ancient worldview of his day.

[Paul’s ideas] serve as a vivid reminder that the Bible does not belong to our age.

It is not surprising that some of Paul’s ideas sound strange to those of us who have lived into the twenty-first century. They belong to a pre-critical worldview and serve as vivid reminders that the Bible does not belong to our age. One may use the Bible for ethical, moral, and religious guidance should one choose, but the task of interpreting the Bible for guidance demands that one must always respect its integrity as an ancient text and not conceal features that do not conform to a modern worldview. Truth be told: Paul’s place lies in our past as the innovator of a new faith, not in the present as an arbiter of ethical behavior.

Copyright © 2018 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Photo of Charles Hedrick

Charles W. Hedrick (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate School) is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University. He is the author of several books including Many Things in Parables (2004) and The Gospel of the Savior (with Paul Mirecki, 1999).

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1. Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 27–28.

2. See my “Making Oxen out of Unicorns” in Fourth R 18,4 (Jul–Aug, 2005), “Satyrs or Wild Goats?” in Fourth R 25,6 (Nov–Dec, 2012), and “Be There Dragons in the Bible?” Fourth R (forthcoming.)

3. Bultmann, Theology, 1, 201–2.

4. Fee, First Corinthians, 205.

5. The Story of Bel and the Dragon is included in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles at Dan 14:33–36. In Protestant Bibles it is regarded as part of the Apocrypha, where the cited passage appears as verses 33–36.

6. Tabor, “Heaven, Ascent to,” ABD 3:91–94.

7. Dewey, et al., Authentic Letters of Paul, 116, 148.

Works Consulted

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. Translated by Kendrick Grobel. 2 vols. in 1. Scribner’s Sons, 1951, 1955.

Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Polebridge, 2010.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1987.

Hedrick, Charles W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Cascade, 2014.

Hedrick, Charles W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Cascade, 2014.

Tabor, James D. “Heavens, Ascent to.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, et al., 3:91-94. 6 vols. Doubleday, 1992.

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