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 that the Acts of the Apostles is not a first-century historical document but rather an early second-century “founding myth” of orthodox Christianity.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

Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible

Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s tempting to assume that the Bible is the Bible is the Bible. Modern versions have a set number of books that only slightly differ depending on whether you picked up a Catholic or Protestant version, but otherwise it is what it is. But how settled, really, are the contents of your Bible?

The story is complicated, even without referring to translation issues. I’m referring to the actual big-picture decisions about what books should be considered of topmost value to Christians. In my previous post I gave an overview of Westar’s Christianity Seminar discussions on martyr stories and the emergence of Christianity. Here, I offer a report on Jennifer Wright Knust’s specific presentation on how early Christians were actually using the martyr stories, and what this can teach us not only about the first few centuries of Christianity but also, by implication, about modern biblical literalism.

Biblical literalism generally refers to reading a text for the plain or apparent meaning conveyed by the grammar and (limited) context. Setting aside the problem of how you literally read a translated text, were early Christians even reading the text “literally”?

As it turns out, that is practically a non-question. Early Christians were reading all sorts of texts they considered sacred and of doctrinal significance, many of which you won’t find in a modern Bible at all. This isn’t even a matter of individual Christians who defied the “official” version. Competing lists of biblical or “canonical” books appear even after the famous letter of Athanasius in 367 CE. Texts like the Letters of Clement, 1–4 Maccabees, the Odes of Solomon, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and so on, could be bound up in the same books as the biblical texts we know and love (or love to hate, as the case may be).

These mixed books come without explanations or excuses. A book’s canonical status had no bearing on its popularity. The collectors behind a given library of Christian texts had wide-ranging spiritual interests and actively put resources toward preserving texts they felt addressed both rituals/practices that mattered to them and important doctrinal issues. Even as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, Christian collections continued to vary in their content. “Christians in late-antique Egypt did not limit themselves to Saint Athanasius’ famous canonical list, … even in monasteries, where he was regarded as a hero of the faith,” Knust observed.

Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century) attests not so much to the achievement of universal status for these [the books of the Maccabees] and other books as to the endurance of local Christian canon lists, even in contexts where considerable thought and planning, not to mention expense, must have gone into a manuscript’s production. As an illustrated pandect, complete with decorative coronis and a now-lost set of canon tables, Alexandrinus was a luxury item wherever it was copied. … And yet it’s collection of sacred texts is unique and different from both Sinaiticus (mid-4th century) and Vaticanus (4th century).

Knust offered up three principles to guide our thinking about how texts were used by early Christians:

  • Religion and civic identity were, above all, public affairs.
  • Late medieval Christians did not limit themselves to the New Testament or Septuagint (Greek version of the Bible), so why should we, whether we’re studying the history or trying to define what it means to be Christian?
  • Christian manuscripts were part of a wider world of books and book-making.

Ironically, the torture of Jews in hell depicted in this Christian art mimics the tortures suffered by the Jewish Maccabean martyrs, whom the Christians venerated. (“Hell,” miniature from Hortus deliciarum, Herrad of Landsberg, c. 1185, reproduced in Heinz Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History [New York: Continuum, 1996], plate 13. Photo Credit: Shira Lander)

Knust focused on the Maccabees as an especially interesting and telling case study. (If you aren’t familiar with the stories, you can read them here.) The Maccabees are Jewish stories that pre-date Jesus, yet they were wildly popular and were even celebrated by Christians at annual events. Over time, fully Christian locations including basilicas developed to venerate the Maccabees. One story in particular drew special attention and consideration by Christians: the gruesome martyrdom of a Jewish mother and her seven sons at the hands of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV (2 Macc 7) in the 2nd century BCE. As each son one by one refused to violate their religious commitments by eating pork, the King and his soldiers subjected them to torture and death, yet one by one each son faces his fate bravely. The first is scalped, has his hands and feet cut off, and then is fried alive in a pan while his brothers and mother look on. The equally terrible punishments that follow are described in vivid detail, and in the end the mother, too, is killed.

"These martyrs were upheld as models of the noble death by Jews and Christians, but were particularly important to late antique Christians," Knust said. In a detailed handout she listed the many "sightings and citings" of the Maccabean martyr story (see pp 6 & 7), which give a feel for the many ways it was used by Christian writers, such as this one from a commentary on Daniel by Hippolytus of Rome:

For we find also the seven martyrs who, under Anthochus, endured terrible punishments and were taken from the world. And so what of it? Was God not able to smite king Antiochus and to rescue the seven brothers? He was able, but he did not will to do this so that this example may become ours. For if he rescued everyone, who would he destin to testify? But if all were testifying and were killed, he would be reckoned by some of the faithless as being this: a powerless God.

What the various references reveal is a distinct shift in emphasis from the context of 2 Maccabees (the Maccabean revolt) to an interest in identifying model martyrs around whom a worship life could be constructed. "To Christians the Maccabeans were principally important for their precendent as proto-martyrs who suffered under a gentile tyrant, not for their role in the Maccabean revolt," Knust explained. By the fourth century, veneration of these martyrs only intensified, and even led to an official feast day (August 1). They were held up by Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, not in association with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah but for their "Christ-inspired fortitude given to all those who possess a pure mind both before and after the incarnation." Gregory claims the Maccabean martyrs for the specific work of establishing holidays and liturgy (worship & ritual practices), not just as an obscure exercise in rewriting history or stirring up doctrinal debates. This sort of work doesn't end with re-appropriating Jewish martyrs for Christian ends. Knust goes on to give examples from the apocryphal acts of the apostles, such as the Acts of Peter, and other texts that enchanted early Christians and played a meaningful role in their religious practices.

The point here for anybody interested in Christianity today is, I hope, clear: if what was meant by "the Bible" was so incredibly diverse even into the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries CE, it's difficult to see why we should limit our definitions of "Christian" to a smaller circle of texts. For Christians, this could mean a dramatic opening of the gates for self-definition, community practice, ethics, and even the understanding of Jesus' role in Christianity. For non-Christians, it means, at minimum, being cautious when making blanket statements about the history of "Christianity" as though there was only one definition of it in antiquity. But I think the more important lesson for Christians and non-Christians alike is to give the voices in these other texts a fighting chance. Read them. You might be surprised and delighted by what you find.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. The report on the Spring 2015 session of the Christianity Seminar can be found here: "Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion." 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. 

Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion

Christianity SeminarChristianity has long been celebrated as the religion that triumphed over Rome—and hence, the world—by the blood of its many martyrs, people who died because they were unwilling to compromise with Roman practices such as sacrifice to the emperor. “I am a Christian,” these unruffled martyrs would state before an unsympathetic judge, often while their families stand to one side pleading for them to relent, after which they are condemned to gruesome, torturous deaths.

Especially after the start of the reign of Decius in 249 ce, martyr stories exploded in popularity. A handful date at or before that: the Martyrdom of Polycarp; Leontius, Hypatius and Theodulus; the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs; and Perpetua and Felicitas. The Acts of Paul and Thecla also involve multiple, thwarted attempts at martyrdom, even an incident involving killer seals (yes, you read that right!). The story of Perpetua and Felicitas is especially compelling, full of emotion and powerful visions, including one in which the young noblewoman Perpetua defeats a fearsome “Egyptian.” In what is likely a fictional diary account, Perpetua describes being thrown into a dark, dank prison followed by a heartbreaking scene in which her aging father begs her on his knees to remember her family, especially her young son, for whom she also worries. Nevertheless, she stays the course. In a vision that plays on her own maternal care for her earthly child, she climbs a bronze ladder guarded by a dragon into an immense garden:

In it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said, “I am glad you have come, my child.”

He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: “Amen!” At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.

Artistic renderings of women martyrs often fail to represent the calm and control the women exert over their deaths. Instead, they are often painted in helpless, anguished positions. This painting (unattributed?) of Perpetua comes close by showing her at the moment she pulls the sword across her throat. Notice how her hand is positioned to draw the sword closer rather than push it away.

As moving and dramatic as these stories are, evidence from the earliest generations of the Jesus movement does not support the claim that martyrdom was widespread and systematic. Douglas Boin’s Coming Out Christian in the Roman Empire provides a helpful vignette of the conversations about martyrdom that took place among the scholars of Westar’s Christianity Seminar at the Spring 2015 national meeting:

Even after A.D. 313, when Christians didn’t have any legal reason to fear “coming out” anymore, many kept on doing two things at once. They visited the racetrack on festival days, when Rome’s gods were honored. They went to baths, where Rome’s gods were honored, too. They lived hyphenated lives.

Many of these quieter Christians have been tucked away for years behind bigger names, labeled martyrs, but I think they have something important to tell us about the rise of Christianity. The Christian men and women who learned to juggle being both Christian and Roman played a role in raising the profile of their movement, too—not just their more opinionated peers. (5)

Without implying that persecution is a complete myth—death in the arena was a reality for many people in the Roman Empire, and Christians no doubt were among the troublemakers condemned to it—nevertheless scholars cast serious doubt on claims that large numbers of ancient Christians were systematically harmed and killed as a result of their faith. Among the voting items put forward were the following:

Jews, Christians, and Christ people were executed by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: red (agree)

First- and second-century Christ people and Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: black (disagree)

In portions of the last half of the third century and very early fourth century Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: pink (somewhat agree)

For those of you unfamiliar with Westar Seminar voting, a red vote indicates that you agree with a statement, pink means you somewhat agree, grey means you somewhat disagree, and black means you disagree. We always try to formulate positive statements for clarity’s sake, so sometimes the recommendation will be to vote red, sometimes black, as you can see in the examples above. Both scholars and members of the public followed the recommendations: this means there was a general consensus that, while Jews, Christians, and Christ people were likely executed, the execution was not systematic, that is, not heavily targeted at these groups. It might be fair to say that early Christ people were carried along on the waves of general Roman violence, in that their “deviant” behaviors were not treated that differently from other forms of deviance frowned upon by the empire. At the recommendation of Carly Daniel-Hughes of Concordia University, scholars and members of the public voted red the statement:

While some early Christians invested heavily in martyrdom, other Christians (perhaps the majority of them) complied and compromised with Roman authorities to avoid death and physical harm.

The question of the exact motivations and concerns of these early followers of Jesus remain complicated, however, in part because of the diversity pointed to by Daniel-Hughes based on a case study of early martyr writings in North Africa, especially those of Tertullian (160–220 ce). “Even among those people who are promoting martyrdom, or constructing it, or theorizing martyrdom in North Africa, they don’t all agree on what martyrdom is, what it means, and particularly what the martyr symbolizes.” Some viewed martyrdom as intermediaries, possibly anticipating the cult of the saints. Others, like Tertullian, was adamantly against this view of martyrs and wanted to limit the effects of martyrdom to personal benefit for the individual only.

Maia Kotrosits of Denison University sought to intervene in the standard view of Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred sometime during the reign of the Trajan (98–117 ce), that is, that he died as a result of being a Christian and as a key figure in the emergence of orthodox Christianity, especially over against Judaism, as though his only context is one of an emergent religion. “I suggest this is not just an anachronistic picture but a somewhat romantic one [that] ignores a whole set of historical forces and factors,” she said, and advocated for seeing him as situated in a web of forces including “Judea’s recent and ongoing longings for and failures to recover some level of national sovereignty.” Susan (Elli) Elliott, an independent scholar and author of Cutting Too Close for Comfort (2003/2008), echoed this concern in terms of how we do history:

Why was Ignatius arrested? … There are latent assumptions about which side of history we’re reading from. From the side of the people who get arrested, the rationality is not as clear as if we’re looking for rationality from the Roman Empire. We see that today: Was the young man shot because he was a threat or because he was perceived as a threat? The question that brings those two together is, “What was the threat that was perceived?” For the Roman Empire, it may be just that he [Ignatius] was assembling people.

Judith Perkins of Saint Joseph College (Emerita) called upon the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgia Agamban to draw attention to the way political states relegate certain groups to nonhuman (by implication, nonvaluable) status, what Agamban called “bare life.” Rome employed violence regularly to exert control through war, killing games, and so on. “To take life is the quintessential sign of power and control in this environment,” she explained. “… The Empire’s overarching attitude was that it wanted no trouble, no social unrest, and nothing to upset the community’s ability to contribute to the imperial center.”

While scholars and the public agreed with (voted red) Hal Taussig of Union Theological Seminary’s proposal that “discursive martyrdom played a significant role for Jews, Christians, and Christ people in negotiating and strategizing their relationship to imperial violence,” scholars more tentatively endorsed the possibility put forward by Kotrosits that the real issues at stake were “questions of sovereignty, belonging, diaspora, and social integrity/vulnerability” (voted pink). Public participants were more willing to entertain this possibility, and voted it red.

Coming at the question of motivation from yet another angle, Christine Shea of Ball State University wondered aloud whether martyr stories set out to do what a patrician would do to honor a dead leader, while Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminar (Emeritus) continued the rich parallels and borrowings from Roman culture to put forward the following proposal about Paul based on the presentation of his new book The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Voice (2015):

Paul understands Jesus in the noble death tradition, not sacrificial atonement. Recommendation: red (agree)

This approach to Paul depends on sorting out an enormous number of translation issues, common misunderstandings about how Paul understood himself in relation to the Jewish tradition, and the continuously frustrating problem of separating Paul’s authentic writings from texts written in his name. Watch the blog next week for a separate, more detailed post (and radio interview!) about this issue. Here it suffices to say that both scholars and members of the public followed the recommendation and voted it red.

More can be said here about the noble death tradition. To flesh this out, Elliott presented a detailed story of Roman gladiator culture alongside martyr stories. Gladiators, though slaves, came to represent Roman identity (Roman virtus) in a powerful way. Christians coopted this strategy, in a sense claiming to be “more Roman than the Romans” in service of a spiritual rather than physical empire. Several ballot proposals were put forward, including this one:

As presented in the narratives of their deaths, the Christian martyrs became icons for Christian identity in a Christian vision of the Empire much as the gladiators functioned as icons for Roman identity in the Roman Empire. Recommendations: pink/grey (somewhat agree/somewhat disagree)

One theme that has persisted across the entire Christianity Seminar since it launched, and which emerged throughout the martyrdom discussions, is the acknowledgement that the Roman Empire was the backdrop and primary opponent/competitor in the eyes of early Christ followers—in other words, the Jews were not seen as their primary opponents, contrary to the claim made in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, it is likely that many/most early Christ followers saw themselves as Jewish or at least compatible in some way with Judaism. As Scott observed, what was the Christian peace if not competition with Roman peace (the Pax Romana)? Elliott elaborated this further by pointing out parallels between Roman gladiators’ willingness to tolerate pain for the sake of honor and Christians’ willingness to tolerate pain for the sake of allegiance to their God. Both scholars and members of the public followed Elliott’s recommendation and voted this statement pink.

All of these questions must also be considered through the lens of how the martyr stories were practically employed by successive generations of Christians. Why have they survived for us to read today? Jennifer Wright Knust of Boston University reminded us that martyr stories were physically bound together with biblical texts in the same codices (books). Our modern separation of texts in the Bible from other texts written in the same historical era is not at all representative of how Christians were reading these texts even in late antiquity, at least through the sixth century ce, and in medieval times. Knust worked closely with the material evidence, in many cases even traveling to the locations where the manuscripts are actually housed so that she could work directly with them. This experience caused her to question a popular way of studying the New Testament and early Christian history:

Ruinart [in his Acta primorum Martyrum sincera published in seventeenth-century France] attempted to identify which of the martyr acts were authentic—what was true and what was fiction. He wanted to know. He ignored, as most who edit these stories do today, the practical use of the stories by ancient and medieval Christians, which is why we have them at all, because they were read in largely liturgical contexts and other kinds of devotional settings. This habit with martyr stories of attempting to fix the text … to establish the historical truth of that account or not, and to remove legendary accretions and excesses from texts, seemed very familiar to me as a New Testament scholar.

The obsession with “what’s the real text” and “what’s the real truth” in New Testament studies can cloud our understanding of how texts were used in late antiquity. The martyr stories in fact “promiscuously mingled” with canonical texts (the texts of the Bible). It’s important therefore not to separate texts artificially where they were not separated by early Christians. Knust’s full presentation can’t be summarized here, so please watch for a separate report on this topic.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. Find the report on Jennifer Wright Knust's presentation on martyr stories and canonization here: "Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible." 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.