Rediscovering the Apostle Paul

Book Review

Bernard Brandon Scott, editor, Polebridge Press, 2011, 94 pp.

As the Jesus Seminar now begins to engage the questions of the historical Paul, the Polebridge Press Jesus Seminar Guides study series has published its first collection of essays committed to the subject. Those who think highly of the Seminar’s work will find this to be a helpful introduction to the diversity which exists in Pauline studies.  For interested laypersons and others who appreciate the candor of Seminar writers, the collection will facilitate discussion with easily digested material that lends itself to challenging many assumptions that a study group or religion class brings to the table of Pauline discourse. Toward this end, the guides provide a series of questions at the end meant to stimulate conversation relevant to each essay. If this is the primary purpose, the guide is a useful tool for ministers, congregations, or study groups who are looking to get beyond what contributor James Veitch identifies as the assumed saintliness of Saint Paul.

As Veitch points out, the church has too often resisted historical research due to its fear that it has too much to lose. Veitch writes, “So much of what the church had become was regularly traced back to the influence of Saint Paul… if this were found to be historically suspect then the church’s power and influence would be undermined.” (39) As such, Rediscovering the Apostle Paul explores the diversity of approaches to understanding the man, and making sense of his often conflicted writing, exhortation, and understanding of what occurred in the wake of Jesus’ ministry and execution.

While Gerd Lüdemann may be engaging in foreshadowing when he entitles his essay “Paul – An obituary,” the title does not prepare unfamiliar lay readers for Lüdemann’s Paul.  Lüdemann’s introductory biographical notes indicate that many German Protestants were unprepared for Lüdemann’s Paul, and they targeted the scholar, facilitating a dismissal from his chair at Georg-August University. If a reader is picking out Jesus Seminar materials for scholarly alternatives to the Paul of faith, however, Lüdemann’s Obituary is a good start. Identifying Paul’s transformative experience as a “radical about-face,” he indicates how radically Paul’s understanding had to change – that “Paul had never heard of a suffering messiah.” The” Damascus” experience had forced Paul to co-opt (reviewer’s words) and Christianize key passages from Isaiah to make sense of Jesus’ execution – and subsequent following – despite that fact (13). Such understandings are key to the aims of Jesus Seminar projects. Many readers interested in a new understanding of Paul do not often perceive that early messianics were forced to manipulate or re-contextualize Hebrew texts to support their claims about Jesus. Lüdemann’s essay provides an early exercise in directing readers to jettison some of their Christian assumptions if they want to add depth to their epistolary reading experience.

Lüdemann is most perceptive when he reflects on understanding the necessary nuances to reading Paul. He challenges the reader to consider that Paul is as conflicted as he or she might be, and that Paul’s diverse communities of messianic contemporaries must have often been “perplexed” by some aspects of his letters. He rightly concludes that “as [Paul’s] accomplishment’s attest, this adaptability [or “tendency toward vacillation” in a prior comment] was a good way to succeed” (19).

The fruits borne by Lüdemann’s Pauline tree are bitter. He notes the “tragic outcome of [Paul’s] work” is “Christian anti-Judaism” and he places the responsibility for anti-Semitism squarely upon Paul’s preserved body of work, if not Paul’s own shoulders. Lüdemann  challenges readers to confirm the foolishness of Paul’s first-century religious claims, and continues that such “dangerous” claims are still being made by theologians, and, in some cases, academics, that are founded in the attempt to historicize magical thinking about resurrection and add cosmic significance to such events that intend to validate the church’s teachings (21).

Heikki Räisänen’s “A controversial Jew” follows, and while the above essay deems Christian interpretations of Paul as an instigator of violence, Räisänen’s essay suggests that Paul’s evangelical success corrupted the message of Jesus (23). He suggests that the messianic Paul was an antithesis to the concept of a “good Jew” and actually displayed “animosity” toward mosaic law, as opposed to the simple “laxity” in attitudes toward Torah attributed to Hellenistic Judaism. Räisänen is most startling when he writes, “Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage was ambiguous at best” (27). Though many will identify with his assertion that it takes “resorting to tortuous interpretations of Paul” in attempting to develop a systematic Pauline theology, Räisänen stresses that it takes similar interpretive gymnastics if one is to identify Paul as a faithful Jew (27). At times, it seems Räisänen erects straw men to support his thesis that Paul is ambivalent about his Judaic heritage, such as suggesting that the lashings Paul received for messianic preaching were indicative of a monolithic “bad Jew” (29) without reference to the often assumed diversity of first-century Judaism that perpetuated a consistent interfaith argument concerning which kind of Judean was faithful, and which kind of Galilean or rabbinic “school” was not. Perhaps the concept of “Judaisms” is outdated and no longer applies to the discussion of tensions between religious authorities in historical Judaic faith.

Räisänen’s treatment of continuity and discontinuity (within the context of Hebraic texts) in Pauline understandings of messiahship is interesting, and a clearly stated definition of a working Pauline soteriology would add welcome support to his assumptions. A valuable observation about Paul is found in a statement that informs Räisänen’s  final comments.  He writes, “Paul’s arguments fluctuate back and forth, as if he is desperately trying to resolve a problem that proves too difficult” (33). This statement may reveal an important aspect of Räisänen’s hermeneutical lens. Of course, making sense of transformative “supernatural” experience is often “too difficult.”  Räisänen writes earlier (31) that Paul is “wrestling with the burning issue that Israel is not accepting his message.” Indeed, how difficult is it to sell the idea of a failed messiah as a vindicated savior? Perhaps unintentionally, Räisänen provides pastoral insight that should lighten the burden of his thesis.  Rather than taking Paul’s epistles as direct answers to specific questions, he writes, it is “helpful to look at [Paul’s] struggle as an example of our own situation as well, when embracing cultural pluralism is imperative even if the outcome…may not seem intellectually successful” (35-36).

In his essay “Spotlight on Paul,” James Veitch might be viewed as further attempting to “deconstruct” Paul’s canonization and the baggage it brings to any attempt to interpret Paul with historical integrity. As stated above, Veitch challenges the usefulness of viewing Paul’s work through a lens of centuries of Christian cultural dominance. He affirms the advances in scholarly understandings of Paul when thinkers began to recontextualize Paul within a more historically legitimate first-century Judaic setting. He credits W.D. Davies for de-christianizing Paul (47), and recognizes the importance of reading the authentic Paulines with an eye toward a narrative understanding of the apostle’s struggles to articulate a consistent gospel that makes sense of the ancient texts relative to the reality of his contemporary culture (43).

In reading John White’s “The second founder of Christianity,” even those who fully embrace the twists and turns of Jesus Seminar scholarship will find themselves reading about a more familiar Paul. He asks the important question – Is it Paul that divinized Jesus? Does White’s title assume that Jesus is the founder of a new religion? Interestingly, he asserts that Paul is a “convert” to a “Hellenistic-Christian” perspective which is further identified simply as the Greek-speaking Jewish church (51). While such assumptions will be most familiar to many readers, they might not be the most popular. Also, the question remains as to whether Paul was a “convert” to a Hellenized “church” or whether the linguistic realities of evangelism and the rejection of his gospel by Palestinian messianic communities necessitated Paul’s considerable use of Greek cultural cues.

That aside, White does an excellent job, and grasps what may be the most important aspect of connecting Paul’s evangelism directly to Jesus’ teachings, a link some find less than direct. White writes that he is “convinced that Paul’s root idea of God was fundamentally like that of Jesus. The conception that God called both to be radicals” (50). He brings an important eschatological understanding that is familiar to New Perspective students, especially those of N.T. Wright, who would agree that “Jesus did not announce the world’s cataclysmic end, yet his counter-cultural ideas about God were nonetheless ‘earth shattering’.” He recognizes that Paul’s messianic understandings are equally “striking” (53).

Of course, suggesting that Jesus and Paul were both radicals with earth shattering ideas about God does not necessarily indicate that Paul was simply affirming what Jesus and the earliest messianics were stating. It also does not indicate whether or not one can deny Räisänen’s question as to whether Paul’s striking messianic beliefs were very “Jewish.” The reader, however, should not assume these questions regarding White’s Paul indicate weaknesses in his portrait. The observations simply place his essay into an academic context that includes such critical scholarship.

Particularly attractive in White’s work is evidence of familiarity with the concept of the potential for a “non-violent” atoning work of Jesus and the potential for Pauline reflections to be interpreted as such (54, 60). He provides an astute interpretation of Galatians 5:2ff and Philippians 3:2-3, refusing to identify Paul’s anti-circumcision polemic as “anti-jewish,” but affirming that it is more likely an attack on the idolatrous nature of Hellenist Christians following the example of popular mystery religions that tended to mystify identity markers and ritual as a means of facilitating socializing instead of obedience or faithfulness to the Abrahamic God (58). More attractive is the way in which White pulls together the conflicted nuances of Pauline “theology” by tying them together as part of an overarching narrative that centered around the God of Abraham and Sarah, an almost fully realized eschatology, and Paul’s ability to see a continuity between God, the covenant with Abraham, the radical work of Jesus, and his rather “strikingly” transformed messianic understandings.

While Veitch and White write with evidence of an understanding of Paul that does not indict him as the initiating force of continuing morally criminal acts on behalf of a failed messiah, they do affirm that Paul believed he was acting within a belief that the God of Israel had acted in history and changed the balance of power between good and evil, and that he was personally chosen as an envoy of salvation. Critical readers without a relationship to traditional beliefs may have a hard time wrapping their heads around such thinking and still taking Paul seriously as a thinker.

Both Veitch and White, along with the other contributors to this Jesus Seminar guide, wholly ignore those aspects of Pauline studies that deal with the reality of Rome and imperial economics (traditionally conflicting truth claims that were ever-present engines for Judean anti-occupation insurgencies) and the liberating aspects of Israelite narratives in the face of consistent challenges to Palestinian Judaism and its attending assumptions of self-determination. Whether future Jesus Seminar works concerning Paul will include this perspective remains to be seen. However, this collection of essays is sure to get discussions of Paul rolling in church lounges, college libraries, and “Free-Thought” societies everywhere.

 Scot Miller

2 Comments

  1. Obie Holmen says:

    Paul sure is fun, isn’t he?

    The Jesus Seminar scholarship you reference mirrors, in many respects, the critique of Paul put forward by Jewish scholars such as Hyam Maccoby (Paul the Mythmaker).

    I think Paul is best interpreted in the context of his ongoing controversies with the Jerusalem followers of Yeshua led first by Peter and then by James, the brother of Jesus. Clearly, this dispute centered on Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and their lack of traditional, Torah observance. Less clear but probable are differing christologies.

    I explore these issues in a different medium, that of historical fiction–“A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle”, which has garnered high marks for its historical accuracy.

  2. Michael Harris says:

    Brandon,

    Michael Harris from way back when. SBTS student seminar in ’86 at your home, I think. New Testament scholar who fell off the established map of “that” (and I note you are in mapping sounds these days re Jesus and his “good news.”).

    I have given up the “historical Jesus.” Such things are approximations, to be sure, in that which one cannot be sure. I Have traded in my historical Jesus apparatus for Kierkegaard’s ironically-laden subjectivity prone toward the passionate. There is too much irony these days in historical approximations (speculation without a speed limit), and the butt end of such endeavors would make all of us Marxists in the end, or pipers of dreams. “Honesty, all I want is honesty,” Soren said. And so be it. The Philosophical Fragments and his “Postscript,” the concluding section of the book after the name, says it all, in my view.

    Who, exactly, is “Paul,” other than an appendix to an approximation of truth? So “Paul” is a mirror? I do not get this. But I see your work has a benign, even loving fuel to it. And so I am grateful for it. Stanley Cavell, a wonderful philosopher, I might add, has written a good deal about coming to terms with oneself within a speculative perspective (He is “rabbi” to Wittgenstein and Freud in a way similar to the way Derrida is subaltern “rabbi” to the European metaphysical tradition [as only the French can do with their aesthetic insistence–in this case, with reference to words written–of refusing the menu]). He is avatar to the American philosophical tradition, raising Emerson and Thoreau from the dead, so to speak. He speaks greatly of the “ordinary,” or holding up the train of Wittgenstein’s insistence that in the modern period (which we are still in, by the way), the task of “philosophy,” all of it, is to “bring the metaphysical back to the everyday from which it arose.”

    Michael Harris, Ph. D.

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