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5 Quick & Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paul

The Real PaulBernard Brandon Scott, author of The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Voice, kicked off a daylong series of lectures at the Westar Spring 2015 national meeting with a story about two women missing from the cover of his book—a reworking of an image of Paul from a 4th-century grotto outside Ephesus (pictured below). “The book cover becomes a larger parable of the whole problem of studying Paul,” Scott explains. “We tend to focus in on this one thing, and forget the whole context that’s there.” He goes on:

If you’re going to interpret Paul’s words, you’ve got to put them in a context. This is the problem with literalism. People say, “I want to interpret the Bible literally.” That’s nonsense. That means they want to put it in their context. … Words mean what they say in the context you put them in. You’ve got to step back and put the words in a larger frame.

As a corrective to this problem, Scott proposed these 5 “quick & dirty rules” for interpreting Paul—a discipline of sorts to check ourselves before leaping to conclusions about who the apostle Paul was and what he was trying to say.

A couple notes before we get underway:

  • A FREE podcast with Brandon Scott about The Real Paul is now available from AuthorTalk radio. Have a listen!
  • Brandon Scott frequently refers to the Scholars Version (SV) translation of Paul found in The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2011). Find it here.

Thekla listens to Paul from inside her home (left), while Thekla’s mother Theokleia (right) teaches alongside Paul (center). Is Theokleia Paul’s opponent in this image, as she is in the written version of the story, or does this image stand for a different story in which Theokleia is an apostle with Paul? Photo Credit: Oliver’s Site

#1. Set Acts of the Apostles aside.

The Westar Acts Seminar reached consensus (even against their own initial assumptions!) that the Acts of the Apostles is not a first-century historical document but rather an early second-century “founding myth” of orthodox Christianity. It paints an idyllic picture of the early church led by apostles who always cooperated with one another. But should good historians—or, let’s face it, good theologians—treat Acts as the definitive story of Christian origins? What would happen if we let other voices from the earliest generations of the Jesus movement put the experience in their own words?

As it turns out, one of the earliest voices to be systematically ignored by Acts is Paul himself! There are major differences between Acts and the undisputed letters of Paul, the letters considered by most biblical studies scholars to be written by Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon) rather than by others in his name (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians).

Unlike Acts, Paul in his authentic letters never calls himself a Roman citizen, never expresses regret or apologizes for persecuting followers of Jesus, and never claims to have left his ancestral religion. We should prioritize the very best evidence, and that means putting what Paul says about himself in his letters ahead of what Acts claims about him.

#2. Paul was not a Christian.

Paul was not a Christian. This point is indebted to the work of Pamela Eisenbaum, author of the book by the same title. Traditionally, Paul is understood as a Jew who converted to Christianity, from one religion to the other. In his own letters Paul describes himself as “called” in the same way all Jewish prophets are called by God. He lived in the era before the Temple was destroyed. Temple Judaism still had a place—the place?—in the spiritual, religious, and public life of the people of Israel and the Jewish community scattered across the empire. When traumatic events pushed Paul to think about things in a new light, he found himself embracing not a new religion but a new vision, one that brought the non-Jewish nations into God’s covenant. This strongly suggests he understood himself not as leaving his tradition but as fulfilling an important role within it.

Scott recommended that we follow the rule-of-thumb offered by John Gager in Reinventing Paul:

Any statement that begins with the words, “How could a Jew like Paul say X, Y, Z about the law…” must be regarded as misguided.

Paul was a Jew, so sometimes we need to stop and rethink (or rediscover) the wider context of Paul’s words. One test case here is Paul’s confrontation with fellow leaders in the Jesus movement, Cephas and James, which Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians 2:12–14.

Before representatives of James came to Antioch, Cephas would eat with those from the nations. But when they arrived, he avoided and kept his distance from those people because he feared those who were advocating circumcision. In turn, the rest of the Jewish followers also began to waffle, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their duplicity. But when I saw they were behaving in a way that was inconsistent with the meaning of God’s world-transforming message, I challenged Cephas in front of the whole group. (SV)

Jews had a legal exemption from participating in imperial libations, but members of “the nations” (more on this term below) did not. In a place like Jerusalem, where the majority population was Jewish, this was perhaps less of a risk than in a predominantly Roman city like Antioch. Traditionally, this story is described as a debate between Christians and Jews, but it makes more sense to view it as intra-Jewish. In an unsafe environment like Antioch, what conditions should be placed on members of the nations and/or the Jews who wish to share meals with them? Their options appear to be as follows:

  • All participants or at least members of the nations cave to imperial demands and make libations to the emperor
  • Members of the nations become fully Jewish by accepting circumcision
  • Jews withdraw from fellowship (the choice ultimately made by Cephas and James)

While the choice of Cephas and James is clearly a prudent one in terms of risk management, Paul has a real problem with it largely because it returns the nations to a state of idolatry. For more on this issue and its residual problems, see chapter 7 of The Real Paul, “Showdown in Antioch.”

#3. Paul was addressing the nations.

In Christian and Western culture the standard view of Paul is of a theologian speaking universally about all humanity where in reality when he says “we,” he means Jews. “You” refers to the nations. English translations unfortunately often obscure this point, especially translations in the era following the highly influential work of theologian Karl Barth (see rule #5 below). In most English dictionaries, the word “gentile” is associated with “Christian,” so the use of the term “gentiles” instead of “nations” for ta ethnē (Hebrew gôyîm) is problematic and reveals itself to be a fallout effect of thinking of Paul as Christian for so long. As Scott writes in The Real Paul, “The singular does not refer to a gentile, that is, a non-Jewish individual, but to a nation” (58). Importantly, “nation” is not a religious term.

This leads to another problem. Borders are artificial, and land can be claimed by a nation even without a shared border. A nation is formed around a mythos, a shared story. When Paul sets out as a prophet to the nations, which nations are they? These nations, of course, belong to Rome, and Paul is claiming them for God. Paul’s opponent is not the Jews but the Roman Empire. The figure who stands opposite the crucified Christ is another “son of God”—the emperor. Hence, Paul confronted the Pax Romana, the Roman “peace,” for the sake of God’s empire and God’s peace.

Jump ahead to the 4th century, to the Emperor Constantine, and you find that the God’s Empire now is Rome’s Empire. Clearly, Paul’s voice got lost somewhere in the intervening years.

#4. An apocalyptic scenario underlies Paul’s understanding.

In Paul’s eyes Rome committed the ultimate blasphemy when it crucified God’s son Jesus. Like a good rabbi, Paul interprets this through the lens of his Jewish scriptures. He draws a parallel between the birth of Israel (through Isaac) from Abraham and Sarah, both devastatingly old-aged and barren up until that point, with the birth of the nations through Jesus on the cross. Life out of death.

Interestingly, Paul’s apocalyptic scenario may not be violent. God is life-giving and faithful in his promises, as Paul’s reliance on the story of Abraham reveals. Jesus, the Abraham of the nations, demonstrates his faithfulness to God by dying on the cross. As God’s son, he could have come down and gotten even, but there was no need for revenge. Instead a new age is ushered in, an age in which the nations are grafted onto the people of God.

#5. Read Paul’s letters in the Greek.

Asking us all to learn Greek may be too much to expect, but the problems with Paul often boil down to translation. Which translators do the best job of staying true to Paul’s own words, even where Paul doesn’t make good sense? Translation can deeply affect meaning. Most popular modern translations inherit even the logic behind their chapter divisions from Augustine and Luther. Sometimes this has the unfortunate effect of creating a visual break between two connected themes or arguments.

Another facet of the translation issue has to do with a sea change in theology between 1950 and the late 1970s—the rise of Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy. This becomes visible when you compare the red phrases in the translations below of Romans 3:25–26:

King James Version (1611): Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Revised Standard Version (1952): … whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

New International Version (1980): God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

New Revised Standard Version (1989): … whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Scholars Version/Authentic Paul (2011): … whom God presented publicly as the one who conciliates through his unconditional confidence in God at the cost of his life, in order to show God’s reliability by overlooking, by divine restraint, how we messed up. This shows God’s reliability at this decisive time, namely, that God is reliable and approves the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’ unconditional confidence in God.

The NIV and NRSV reflect the influence of the Barthian movement. The Scholars Version in The Authentic Letters of Paul avoids that and returns to a translation that is more similar to the years prior, including the well-loved KJV translation. The exact meaning implied by each translation is up for debate and goes beyond the scope of this report, so I won’t get into that here, but the side-by-side comparison at least shows how cultural and theological movements can leave their stamp on translations.

Let us then all take care in our reading to second-guess ourselves and our received knowledge, and move forward with a very different—dare I call him exciting?—Paul.

Featured on AuthorTalkWant to know more? Listen to the AuthorTalk interview with Bernard Brandon Scott and read ongoing reports from Westar's Christianity Seminar, of which Brandon is the chair. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.