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 that the Acts of the Apostles is not a first-century historical document but rather an early second-century “founding myth” of orthodox Christianity.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

Sex and Gender in Early Christianity

I had the privilege this weekend of hearing Westar Fellows Pamela Eisenbaum and Stephen Patterson speak about sex and gender in early Christianity at a Jesus Seminar on the Road jointly sponsored with the University Congregational UCC Lecture Series in Seattle, Washington. Pamela Eisenbaum, author of Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, and Stephen Patterson, author of The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, introduced ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish ideas of gender, and tackled some red-flag issues such as virginity, asceticism, male-male sex, and some early Jesus followers' practice of cross-dressing (yes, really!). I wish I could pack it all into this blog, but I'll have to confine myself to the highlights.

Male-Male Sex in Greco-Roman Culture
By far the most fascinating thing I learned this weekend from Stephen was about Greco-Roman attitudes toward male-male sex. Homoeroticism was commonplace in ancient Greece, but of course when you delve into the history, the situation is more complex than that. Properly defined, ancient Greek culture condoned pederasty, or amorous relations between young adult men and boys in their upper teens, and most of the relationships gave way eventually to heterosexual marriages. The intent behind this practice was to develop the boys into proper citizens.

Here's the catch: there were specific rules around such relations, the most important of which was that male citizens were not to penetrate other male citizens. This rule did not apply to male citizens penetrating women, male slaves, or foreign men. Thus, maleness in this culture was defined not by male-female relations but by dominant-subordinate relations. Any subordinate could be one's partner, but if one penetrated another male citizen, it was labeled rape and could be prosecuted.

In short, as Stephen explains from a different angle in his 2013 article "David Loves Jonathan," in the ancient world male-male sex was generally about ownership, not love. We should not confuse this with modern definitions of male-male sex as an expression of intimacy between two partners.

By now you might be wondering about female-female sex. What do we know about it? The answer is, not much. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: it didn't directly challenge the power hierarchy, so it didn't get much attention or regulation. Of course, this doesn't mean women didn't challenge the power hierarchy in other ways. For example, the early Christian heroine Thecla rejected her arranged marriage for a life of celibacy, cut her hair short, and dressed as a man. Thecla is by no means atypical; she is one of many possible examples we might cite of women in the Jesus movement acting out masculine or asexual roles as a way to express their commitment to mastering human desire for the sake of religious commitments.

As I hope this admittedly brief description of Greco-Roman ideas about gender and sex demonstrates, gender is, among other things, a structure of power. Gender as power manifests in expectations about what a person can or should wear, spaces people are allowed to occupy, forms of speech they can use, and so on. Like all socially constructed concepts, gender holds a different meaning depending on culture, and power is allocated differently depending on one's gender. We still see this today in areas like government office, church hierarchy, and the arts. Yet to enforce power differences you must define male and female; you have to know which is which. The philosopher Judith Butler, whom I mentioned last week, defines gender as a role to be performed. Early Christ followers operated within the structures of the reigning culture but also challenged them, discovering and shaping new gender roles through experimentation and practice.

Image of  an androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora, from Plato's theory of the origin of sexual orientation.  Credit: aquileana.wordpress.com

Image of an androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora, from Plato's theory of the origin of sexual orientation.

The Body in Greco-Roman Culture
Pamela in her presentation transported us back to a world before Descartes introduced the concept of mind-body separation. Westerners often struggle to return to that world because Descartes' explanation of the relationship between mind and body as two separate entities, coming as it did at the cusp of the Enlightenment, was so helpful and timely that Western culture has more or less absorbed his language into its basic concepts of existence.

In contrast, words like "spirit" and "soul" in the ancient world did not describe non-tangible entities. Prior to Descartes, psyche and pneuma were substances, like ether. For instance, the Stoic philosopher Seneca says, "Nature (natura) includes things that exist (sunt) and things that do not exist (non sunt)." Would we ever say this? Probably not, because nature in the modern world is specifically confined to the physical universe. We can see that the very models of what a person is and what the fleshy aspects of the self were in ancient times, are not the same as our concepts of them today. Even where Paul describes a "spiritual" resurrection, he still implies a substance of sorts, just not the base material substance (physic).

Queering the Bible
Most of the discussions in the final hours of the lectures today were dedicated to dialogue among participants, Pamela, and Stephen. A couple lessons emerged from this back-and-forth that I thought you also might find helpful in your own reading of biblical and other early Christian stories:

  • Queer theory is about how we handle difference.
    Do you take a fundamentally fearful or a fundamentally curious approach to difference? Do you let yourself imagine your way into a very different position from your own? Next time you read a biblical story, try reading the story from the point of view of each of the actors, and ask yourself how each person might have interpreted what happened. Where do you see power relations acted out? Does reading the story from somebody else's point of view change the lesson you take from it?
  • Uniqueness can be an empty concept if not given some context.
    When we talk about difference or uniqueness, it’s hard to know what we mean by it. "Christianity was unique in that [insert a characteristic]." However, common sense tells us that everything is unique in and of itself. It would be just as easy to flip a statement about Christianity around to make a claim of uniqueness about a pagan cult, Second Temple Judaism, or another movement of the times. Often, what we are actually doing is making a claim of superiority. We're implying that Christianity was special. It may very well have been special, but only when given a context for that special status. We need to ask why we care about that uniqueness and be mindful of present-day power plays based on such claims.

This really only touches the surface of the weekend's conversations, which were incredibly thoughtful and deep. Thank you to everybody who came out to join us! Last but not least, here are a few resources recommended by Stephen and Pamela for further reading:

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.