Saturday, January 26, 2013

That pestilent fellow Paul

As one term lurches towards its end and another hastens towards its start, I find myself chewing over the person whose name is spread out over a good chunk of the New Testament, and yet who is not Jesus.  Paul, the latecomer apostle (the title of this post is a reference to him by His Abysmal Under-Secretary Screwtape in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters), figures prominently in at least half of the book of Acts, and is credited with writing everything in the NT between Acts and Hebrews (note the cautious phrasing; more on that later), which leaves only the Gospels, and the stuff from Hebrews to Revelation untouched by Paul-who-was-once-Saul.

Paul has also been a pretty efficient lightning rod for readers of the New Testament.  Depending on how you read him you can pin Paul as a misogynist, a gay-basher, an inconsistent preacher/teacher, too anti-Jewish or too pro-Jewish, intensely jealous and overly sensitive, and all manner of other negative characteristics, and a whole lot of baggage has been strapped to Paul over the course of Christian history.

The smug Paul-bashing that comes easily to the lips of many, including not a small number of my classmates, seemed too facile to me.  Partly as a result, in addition to the required New Testament sequence from last spring, this past month I added an elective course on Paul's letter to the Romans to my studies.  It is a fascinating book, and I'm still trying to process everything that the class took in (so no, this isn't a Romans post).  Besides the content of the book itself, the study continued the process of my trying to wrap my mind around who this character was and why he wrote what he wrote.  This won't be a process that actually ends, mind you.

In the meantime, a few of the random wonderings that stir about in my mind when reading this apostle:

1) Did Paul write what Paul wrote?  Sadly, just because Paul's name is on a letter, doesn't necessarily guarantee that Paul actually had anything to do with the letter.  There are a clutch of reasons for this.  Sometimes the letter seems to address issues that weren't issues until after Paul was dead -- as if someone claimed to have a letter from Lincoln addressing the Spanish-American War.  Or the literary style of the letter doesn't sound like Paul -- as if that supposed letter from Lincoln read more like a Teddy Roosevelt speech.  Thematic inconsistencies from one letter to another are also an issue.  Apparently, what would be considered fraud today wasn't frowned upon the same way back then, which makes me glad not to live back then.  At any rate, the discussion on this is still plenty fluid, but one gets terms like "Pauline" and "deutero-Pauline" to mark off those letters that are considered genuinely from the apostle (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon) from those considered more problematic.

2) I do have a favorite.  As much as I enjoyed the recent seminar on Romans, I don't think it's my favorite Pauline epistle.  As silly as it might sound, I remain profoundly struck by the shortest of the letters, the one to Philemon.  No, not because it's the shortest.  It is in some ways the most transparent.  We may not know exactly what happened, but the gist of it is clear; Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of his absconded slave Onesimus.  The climax of his plea on Onesimus's behalf is Paul's request to Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother.  To me there's a dare implicit in that: this is your brother in Christ.  I dare you to make a slave of him.  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Philemon got that letter.  There are some who complain that Paul didn't explicitly order Philemon to free Onesimus.  To me, I don't see how an explicit statement like that could possibly have been more challenging or shocking to Philemon.

3) It's kind of hard to ignore Paul.  You end up with a lot of New Testament off-limits if you insist on doing so.

4) To limit 1 Corinthians 13 to a wedding text is to totally miss the point.  The love that Paul writes about there is not limited to husband/wife stuff--that would be too easy.  It's about everyday love.  It's about how you love everyone around you.  Much more challenging.

5) Proof-texting from Paul to slap onto modern situations is a really, REALLY bad idea.  These letters are not given the names they're given just for jollies.  Paul really is trying to deal (on the fly) with real situations in real churches, with real specific people behaving in specific ways.  Pulling out a string of separate verses from Romans, for example, to stitch together into a step-by-step method for individual conversion does incredible violence to the sophisticated and elaborate argument Paul is making for God's redeeming action on behalf of all us Gentiles.  Make yourself study the whole thing at some point.  You may be surprised.

By no means am I or will I ever be an expert on Paul.  For me it's enough if I can preach coherent sermons from the Pauline corpus.  Still, it's a start.

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