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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 that the Acts of the Apostles is not a first-century historical document but rather an early second-century “founding myth” of orthodox Christianity.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. 

A Weak but Potent God

Seminar on God and the Human FutureThe Seminar on God and the Human Future gathered on March 21, 2015, at the Spring national meeting to launch a five-year project on what we mean by a little word with big consequences: God. When Westerners speak of God, they can mean many things: Supreme Being, First Cause, Creator, Lawgiver, the source of all that exists, the energy or force that pulses through all reality, the “ground” of being, the All. We speak sometimes, too, of a “God of the gaps,” of that which surpasses human understanding. Rilke called God “the primordial tower,” which we circle without ever figuring out who or what we are.

Radical theologian John D. Caputo, whose work was celebrated by the Seminar, asked attendees to consider a new way of thinking about God: a weak but potent God, God as “the great perhaps.” As Caputo explained, this approach to theology comes in the wake of work done by twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich:

It is Tillich who initiated, at least in the most decisive way in the twentieth century, the critique of supernaturalism and the attempt to understand religion in the mode of what Heidegger described as “being in the world” … a mode which taps into the depths of mundane life.

Joseph Bessler of Phillips Theological Seminar, in his paper “Moving Words,” contrasted Tillich with his contemporary Karl Barth, who “sought in the face of World War I to draw theology back from public discourse and to protect it from the gross failures of modernity.” Tillich’s willingness to put theology out into the public sphere, as a public art, may be his best legacy. It is in that spirit that the God Seminar has issued a call for participants who are willing to engage with this and other meaningful theological questions in a very public way.

God as an absolute Being diminishes God in a way by revealing the human need for stability. A mighty, unchanging God is safe. Such a God can be made to stand for whatever aspects of life we find comforting and would rather not give up. Other kingdoms may falter, but surely a kingdom “of God” is stable. A kingdom sounds grand and certain, so we settle into complacency about it. Of course it will come. God is in control. Yet the Kingdom of God in practice is not certain at all. We’re continually pulled from the false stability of where we are now toward a vision that is not yet real. This vision is attainable in the sense that we can always move closer to it and yet it is never quite done in the sense of arriving in paradise. Consider French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of justice: “The law can strong-arm us, but justice calls.”

Law—of the sort that takes you down to the courthouse—is not justice. There’s a weakness to justice, weakness in the sense that there is no safe or predictable structure handed down from a king or even the cosmos to us that says, “This is justice. Do it exactly like this and you’ll be fine,” or “This is the law. The law is always just, so you can trust it.” Sometimes human law fails to meet the higher value of justice. Likewise, sometimes human claims about God fail to meet the higher value or concept of God.

The temptation in a conversation like this is to jump to a familiar escape route: “Of course human beings can’t understand God. God is bigger than any human thought. We can only do ‘negative’ theology by talking about what God is not.” But Caputo is not claiming God is a Supreme Being, a higher entity, or even the “ground” of being. He’s not asking us to imagine a particular being in the sense of a potentially physical entity that exists. Instead we are invited to consider God as weak in the same sense as the weak force of justice. Sarah Morice Brubaker, a Phillips Theological Seminary professor and writer for Religion Dispatches, put it like this:

There’s a really big difference between talking about the weakness of God and really following that through [as Caputo has done], versus simply saying, “Well, God isn’t vulnerable to the constraints of being. God doesn’t show up within beings’ terms. That was fascinating to me reading [The Weakness of God] because there are many similarities between the two approaches notwithstanding that huge difference. I was thinking of Jean-Luc Marion, a very theologically inflected French Catholic philosopher who wrote, among other things, God without Being. The God you get there is not a vulnerable God. It’s a God who is so invulnerable even being can’t contain him—and I agree it’s a ‘him’ in this case. This is a God who no matter what you bring at him, can say, ‘Whoa, step off, back off. That’s nothing. I can bust those categories without breaking a sweat.’ … It’s kind of a rescue mission [to prove God’s invulnerability].

How is Caputo’s view different from this absolutely powerful God of Marion? Answering that question requires us to let the idea of God get a little messier (with the promise that it straightens itself back out as we go). We do this by “deconstructing” the concept of God.

Statue of Justicia (Justice), by Walter Seymour Allward, outside Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Deconstruction simply means interrogating the concepts handed down to us by our communities and traditions for the sake of understanding those inherited concepts more deeply and even in a new way. When you deconstruct something, you destroy the concept in the sense of picking it apart, but then you rebuild it with a better understanding of the full range of its meaning—why people care about it and appeal to it in everyday life. You purposefully play with the language to see what it’s all about, in the same way you played with objects as a child both to understand the world better and to understand your own power to manipulate objects into tools that may help you or hurt you. There are no guarantees when you do this that you’ll retrieve either the language or the object in the exact form in which you received it. Deconstruction does involve risk. In this case, we’re willing to take that risk because the value of God is up for question in our modern, increasingly scientific and technological and nevertheless earth-bound community. What sort of God—if any God at all—makes sense in this world?

The point here isn’t to dismiss or downplay the importance of whatever you are deconstructing. It’s deadly serious business. We should avoid what Caputo and others semi-jokingly described as “postmodernism-lite,” that is, deconstruction used as an apologetic tool that pulls apart human stories of reality in a materialistic, reductionistic way of saying, “See, if you interrogate an idea far enough down, there will be nothing at the bottom.” Why are we deconstructing the human story or idea of God? What are we deconstructing God in the name of? We must not forget why we employed the method in the first place.

We’re deconstructing in the name of a value, and the one I most often heard named during the God Seminar discussions was justice. Justice is not served by understanding God as some outside being that lays down absolute law, who “balances the scales” in the end. We know that because, to give just one example, we can’t forgive our enemies on the principle that we expect God to hurt them later, what Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary (emeritus) referred to as the “myth of revenge.” Forgiveness in the radical sense of the word comes without such a condition even on the metaphysical level. When the apostle Paul said the weakness of God trumps the strength of the world, he surely didn’t mean to imply that was because God has the bigger bludgeon. “Faith, hope, and love are the virtues of the unhinged,” Caputo warned. Before that: “In the name of God, something gets itself said and done.” God is a call, an allure, a threat, and not necessarily human in the sense of active agency. Westar Fellow Susan (Elli) Elliott, in unpacking this example of forgiveness, compared the identification of a people by a shared story over against identification of a people by shared landscape. One sees in her example how the land itself shapes and suggests the work of the future, not by wielding a kingly power to bring it about but because it is the horizon presented to us by our own past:

We’ve talked [in the Big Sky region] about the difference between the metanarrative that comes from Europe primarily, that has been successfully imposed upon this hemisphere and on our territory. There’s a huge difference between grounding in a place in the earth and grounding in a metanarrative that’s alien, fundamentally alien to the place. When we think about forgiveness, when we look at the layers of what has happened to our places … of the removal of native plants and replacement with agriculture and mining, change[s] … that are unforgiving, [we might ask] what it means to turn to the landscape in which we dwell for our collective memory.

Forgiveness, in this sense, comes about not because God is a supreme bully who’ll whack you if you put your toe over the line but because forgiveness opens up a new possibility for moving forward. Nothing can take away the fact that human actions have changed the land under our feet. Will we take a risk that changes that trajectory? Sometimes you have to take a chance on a world-changing event.

“You’re talking about the fact that God, theology, event, are verbs and not nouns,” observed Lane McGaughy of Willamette University. “The assumption that is built into Latinate languages is that naming came first … but really language starts with verbs, that is, calling things, not naming things. … I hear naming as a way of pinning things down, that, as it were, fossilizes or sediments them.” Event understood as a verb is messianic, always something coming in the midst of the relatively stable structures—social, legal, theological, and so on—by which we live our lives. That relative stability is important, but sometimes a single act can change everything. All of this should be very familiar: the Bible is one story after another of this kind of experience. God is the warning that the event is possible, never here but always calling. As the German philosopher Heidegger warned in Being and Time about the project of being, when you arrive, you’re dead; to complete the circle, to reach paradise, is to cease to exist at all. Caputo sums it up: “Paradise is the death of hope.”

Jesus Seminar ballot box

Participants voted using the Jesus Seminar ballot boxes, a choice which Robin Meyers, author of Saving Jesus from the Church, suggested might be an interesting statement in its own right about the importance of public theology.

What sort of theology is implied by this idea of God? What is the work of theologians who accept this idea of God? Jeffrey W. Robbins of Lebanon Valley College recommended two books by Caputo for members of the public who are interested in pursuing this further. The first is On Religion: “Who do I love or what do I love when I love my God?” The other is What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, a reclamation of Sheldon’s novel In His Steps from the evangelical cultural “machine” to remind readers of the concern for social justice that underpinned the question, “What would Jesus do?” In fact we are living in an era in which the lines between philosophy and theology are not nearly so neat as they have appeared in past eras, especially since Heidegger famously described theology as a closed circle and philosophy as an open one. Robbins explains:

People are rethinking the conditions of possibility for philosophical theology. … If radical theology happens in confessional theology whenever confessional theologians get themselves in trouble, because they’ve thought themselves to the limit and all of a sudden stumbled upon something that religious authorities perhaps are uncomfortable with, the same phenomenon happens within philosophical circles. Throughout especially twentieth-century continental thought, what you have is philosophers thinking themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, and interestingly once they think themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, all of a sudden they stumble upon God—or they stumble upon, not God as some kind of entity, some hyper-being, but they stumble upon religion. How do you talk about that which is beyond your ability to talk about, your ability to conceive? Philosophy thinks itself to its limit and becomes theological … All the while, Martin Heidegger tells us that never the two should meet. What we’re seeing is the two bleeding into one another.

The Seminar concluded its sessions with a vote on the statement, “The subject matter of theology is God conceived as a supreme being or highest entity.” The recommendation for the vote was BLACK, which means the seminar committee was urging both professional and public participants to DISAGREE with the statement and open up the question of what the subject matter of theology truly is.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about the new Westar Seminar on God and the Human Future. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

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.