Authentic Letters of Paul Podcast

30 Days of PaulIf you’ve been meaning to take the 30 Days of Paul challenge to read the letters of Paul in the order they were most likely written, and to complete the challenge it in just 30 DAYS, you’ve come to the right place. You can download a reading plan and read posts by all the stellar bloggers who took the challenge with me on the Start Here page.

Rising Light Podcast

I’m writing today to let you know about another resource for the Authentic Letters of Paul, the book that inspired the 30-day challenge. Ron Way, of Rising Light Media, conducted a thorough and wide-ranging two-part interview with authors Lane McGaughy, Roy Hoover, and Arthur Dewey.

Listen to the podcast

Read the transcript

The authors offer extremely helpful background information in this podcast about how the book was written, what it was like to live in the Roman Empire during Paul’s lifetime, what early Christians might have been like, and how the authors decided which letters to include and in what order.

Ron Way interviews the authors of The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Ron Way interviews the authors of The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Excerpt: Deciding which letters were written by Paul

Ron Way: Most Christians assume that all of the letters that are included in New Testament that supposedly written by Paul were written by Paul but that just isn’t true I think you will say. Which ones are in, which ones are out, and how do we know they’re authentic or non-authentic? How about you Lane?

Lane McGaughy: Well, what we’ve done in this book is to try to provide the arguments and the evidence that there are 7 letters in the New Testament that are attributed to Paul that were actually written by him, and that the other letters that are attributed to him are either written by his disciples or others later on who are followers of Paul or trying to somehow nuance his message for another generation. We identify the authentic letters of Paul as being­—to put them in somewhat chronological order first—Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians. Those are the first four. Then we get Philippians, Philemon, and Romans in that order.

We’ve also tried to divide the authentic letters up into the individual fragments of letters that are combined in 2 Corinthians and Philippians. What that suggests is that Paul carried on an extended conversation, communication through letters with some of his churches, but when whomever it was at the end of the first century went around to the churches to collect copies, that individuals then stitched together several letters that Paul might have written to a particular community into one. They end up being composite letters in the New Testament. We both try to identify the authentic letters in order to try to recover the historical Paul but we’ve also then broken up the authentic letters into their various components.

You asked a question about how we identify these. There are various ways one goes about that. I would be happy to hear Art and Roy on this. My principal approach is structural. That is, I think Paul invented, based on the personal letter tradition of the Hellenistic Period, he invented a unique kind of structure for his letters. One can use that template then to sort out which letters attributed to Paul actually are written in the form in which Paul wrote his letters and which seem to be letters that do not contain the unique marks of a Pauline letter. That’s how I begin to make the distinction between authentic letters and pseudonymous letters. Let me hear from these other fellows.

On a Side Note

When you visit the Rising Light website, you can sign up for email notifications each time they post a new interview by filling out the simple pop-up form (name and email address only). Ron interviews not only Polebridge Press authors but also authors across the religion & spirituality spectrum. I appreciate many of his interviews, so I hope you’ll check out not only the Paul episodes but many others as well (a personal favorite of mine is the one with Jason BeDuhn on The First New Testament).

Last but not least, I am working on a new 30-day challenge related to early Christian women. Stay tuned for more news about that, and in the meantime, don’t let other people tell you what they think Paul said… Go out and read his letters for yourself! 🙂


Glynn Cardy’s commentary on Days 21–30

Community of Saint LukeGlynn Cardy continues his daily posts on the Community of Saint Luke Facebook page with days 21 to 30, embedded here for ease of reference. Clicking on the date (“Tuesday, June 30…”) will take you to the full entry on Facebook.

Day 21

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” [11b, 12a]

On our little planet that quote from Paul is a magnificent and frightening measure to hold up against our values and priorities.

Just yesterday I was having a discussion about economics. Grecian and Eurozone economics. ‘What if,’ I said, ‘the base line for an economy is to provide the conditions for the maximum number of people in a given society to be content. Not to be rich, but to be content.’

So, in relation to the Grecian /Eurozone crisis, what economic strategies would create the maximum contentment whether people have a little or a lot of money/resources? What would help create a happy future for the many? …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Monday, July 20, 2015

Day 22

“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill… others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely … [But] what does it matter [if] Christ is proclaimed?” [1:15-18]

REALLY? Does Paul really think that?

In other parts of his letters Paul is not reticence in lambasting his critics and those who preach Christ differently than he does. Yet here he seems to be saying that whatever the motivation, the simple fact that Christ is proclaimed is good enough for him.

Think of all the divisions between Christians. Think of all the inter-denominational strife, and all the intra-denominational strife. Think of the schisms, the persecuting and torturing, that Christians have inflicted on other Christians… Maybe if they had all read these verses from Philippians they’d have packed up their hatred and gone home?

It’s a very serious real question: ‘Why do Christians hate on each other?’ …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Day 23

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

An old Cherokee is teaching her grandchild about life: “A fight is going on inside me” she said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

She continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, and compassion. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”

The boy thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandmother, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Day 24

This text, outlining Paul’s testimony and religious history, is key to understanding Paul’s faith, and correcting a significant misunderstanding – namely that Paul ceased being Jew and became a Christian. [I will quote extensively below from Brandon Scott’s “The Real Paul” pp 73-74.]

Is Paul in this passage renouncing his Jewish faith in favour of a Christian religion? Lonergan in his discussion of conversion says ‘religious conversion concerns root values for apprehending the transcendent’. In this regard we should ask some fundamental questions. What has changed religiously for Paul? He remains a Jew according to the flesh, he still believes in the one true God, unlike his converts who have “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” [1 Thess 1:9]. What has changed for Paul is …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Thursday, July 23, 2015

Day 25

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Somewhat serendipitously, I saw Romans 1:26-27 quoted in a school essay today. The essay’s author wrote: “I find this a hard concept to agree with [the condemnation of LGBT relationships] because the Bible was written thousands and thousands of years ago. So naturally many of the messages have changed over this period of time… like having the right to stone women. In New Zealand today thankfully that is illegal.”

The author of the essay is saying these words of Paul are time and culture bound….

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Friday, July 24, 2015

Day 26

The Book of Romans. Brandon writes, “This was probably Paul’s last letter we have, written around 58 CE from Corinth. Paul is planning to take to Jerusalem the collection which he has gathered from his communities for the poor in that city. After his trip, he plans to go to Rome on his way to Spain. The Roman community is the only church to which he writes not as the founder. There is some debate as to whether chapter 16 is part of the original letter. Some commentators argue that Rome is made up of Jewish and gentile house churches, but there is no evidence of this in the letter.”

Brandon writes a lot more about this letter too – not least about how reading Romans has long been influenced by the Augustinian/Lutheran perspective that Paul has converted from Judaism to Christianity.

But my head is not in it this morning. My head is stuck on one word. That word is “faith”. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Saturday, July 25, 2015

Day 27

Romans 8:1 “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”.
It’s one of those verses that I can still recite. A verse, quoted in isolation and out of context, which seems designed to address teenage angst. Or was it just my angst in those formative years?

Looking back, there were some consistent and persistent negative messages falling on my head. Messages designed to condemn the exploratory, questioning, and experimental mind-set of the teenage Glynn. Messages that said, “Don’t”, “You can’t”, “You shouldn’t”, “Who do you think you are?”, and “Think of others before yourself”. [The ‘others’ were always adult authority figures]. There was a fair helping of guilt dumped on my head. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Sunday, July 26, 2015

Day 28

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

‘This world’ was the empire of Rome. It was, according to Paul, the idolatry of the empire, its very arrogance, which led it to crucify Jesus. Paul’s insight/revelation – his topsy-turvy apocalypsis – was that the crucified Jesus was God’s anointed. A failure, an outcast, a ‘lowlife’, was God’s chosen.

So the first step in renewing one’s mind was to try to make room for the unthinkable: a ‘lowlife’ is God’s chosen. Who God chooses is not who the empire or society would choose. Who God values is not who the empire or society values. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Monday, July 27, 2015

Day 29

There are significant differences in how bibles translate these verses into English. … I want to talk mainly about the use of the word ‘Gentiles’. But briefly, the preference for the bracketed translations are that the word ‘Christ’ carries with it for readers today later Trinitarian ideas that were foreign to Paul; the word ‘he’ is generally overused for ‘God’ and offensive in that it confines God to a human male metaphor; and lastly the word ‘patriarchs’ is overused when the promises are to Paul’s Jewish ancestors, male and female.

Christopher Stanley points out in social terms there was no such thing as a Gentile in the ancient world. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Day 30

“Haters of the Human Race”

In this last post I want to talk about the death of Paul.

JD Crossan and Jonathon Reed in their 2004 book “In Search of Paul” [p.400ff] posit that he was martyred following the great fire in Rome, mid-July 64 CE. So he died almost exactly 1,951 years ago.

That fire totally destroyed 3 of Rome’s 14 regions, and severely damaged another 7. Tacitus’s “Annals”, written in the 220s, tells of the immediate belief that Nero himself ordered the fire. Likewise Suetonius’s “Lives of the Caesars”.

Suetonius though liked the idea that the Christians [as they were called in the 220s] were blamed and punished. Tacitus says vast numbers of Christians were arrested ‘not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race’.

They died horrifically: ‘Torn to death by dogs; or fastened to crosses… [and] burned to serve as lamps at night’.

So, Paul did not die like a Roman citizen executed by a privileged beheading. He died among all those rounded up in Nero’s scapegoat persecution. His death was not special, separate, or supremely important. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In Closing: A Portrait of Paul

I’m standing in a swirl of suffering, trauma, and grand stories of reality that try to account for both. It’s as though we humans cannot bear the thought of our suffering being merely incidental to existence. Painfully aware of a basic need for connection and belonging, the parent in me wants to gather us all up and say, “I choose you, I love you.”

Paul saw himself as both mother and father, enemy and lover of his communities. He browbeat them shamelessly. Like Moses he wanted to haul every last member stiff-necked through the wilderness to God. But he also needed them. Like Humbert Humbert and his Lolita, Paul’s legitimacy depended on his communities buying into his story. In Paul’s case, he wanted people to trust his story even where it disagreed with the story told by people with more apparent authority. Like all of us, he craved a sense of meaning and purpose that only other human beings could give. His whole identity is wrapped up in that oft-neglected web of names that float through the edges of his letters.

Paul had witnessed suffering and experienced it himself. He recognized that no amount of physical, earth-based power could defeat the natural decay of all living things. We all must die. Yet Paul was not the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama Buddha taught people to live with and to some extent overcome suffering through cultivating awareness of the present moment. He encouraged people to put down any extra burdens of suffering rather than carrying them into the future (either ours or others’). The practice of meditation is ironically the mastery of self in order to relinquish the self and participate in a wider reality.

Paul’s solution was nuanced differently although not at odds with the Buddha’s approach. He spoke of overcoming suffering through the practice of communal unity and self control, but only after first binding oneself to Jesus by ritually dying and being reborn with him. In other words, Paul believed pledging a very personal and particular allegiance to another person—building a deep and abiding relationship with another person—could invoke a special power to overcome suffering. That special power then enabled individuals to bond with others.

Where Paul’s thought falls flat for me and for others today is in his choice to overemphasize sexuality as the space where self control is best exercised. Surely today food is at least Americans’ most obvious locus of self-control issues. Frankly, though, the same problems around self control exist in Buddhist cultures, too. I think also of Simone de Beauvoir’s heartbreaking observation about her experience of caring for her mother, who (as was typical then and is still typical now worldwide) was not told she was dying of a terminal illness:

The misfortune is that although everyone must come to [death], each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days… and yet we were profoundly separated from her. (A Very Easy Death)

“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” (Simone de Beauvoir)

Paul’s choice of a crucified man as king still has resonance, as does his anger toward people who clamber over the backs of others to survive. They point to the personal nature of Paul’s answer to suffering. I have always loved the passage below from Judith Butler. I even read it at my grandmother’s funeral. It helps me to understand Paul’s ideas about unity and relationships:

I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place.  I don’t think it works that way.  I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned. I don’t think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.”  I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled.  One finds oneself fallen.  One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan or project, larger than one’s own knowing.  Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable?  What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? …

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.” (Gender Trouble, 18–19)

I think Paul grasped this on some basic level. He experienced it personally in his encounter with Jesus and the followers of Jesus he once harassed. He was, if anyone was, undone.

Paul related with Jesus. Paul’s Jesus was somebody who died in an embarrassing way given what people like Paul wanted to say about him, that he was an anointed king. And for Paul this memory of undoing was his undoing. Somehow it made sense to Paul that God would use such outrageous means to strengthen human beings to emerge from suffering, corruption, and the seductive power of diverting that corruption for one’s own ends—to avoid the inevitable suffering that comes with belonging to the world.

More than that, Paul was a student of Jesus’ life and teachings. Paul talked most explicitly about Jesus’ death, true. We are right to be frustrated that this tendency of his translated into later generations of the movement, especially the Christian creeds. Nevertheless, he alluded just as frequently to Jesus’ words and deeds. Jesus was remembered by Paul as someone who consorted with the ragtag of the world, who turned the other cheek, and who expected his students to make such good sense of the world that those ragtag people would be willing to share what little they possessed for the sake of hearing more. In the future of the movement, students of both Jesus and Paul would refer to such insights as a pearl that only the poor would receive, and they would get it free of charge.

You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the problem Paul was trying to solve or the strategies he offered. We all suffer, and we all crave relationships.  I started this challenge feeling that Paul might have nothing to say to me, but I’ve ended the challenge feeling that I relate with him as a fellow human being. While I would find it difficult to quote him because of how embedded his language is in the culture of his time, I think it is worthwhile to find new ways to paraphrase him for today.

Letters of Paul small squareThank you for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. Today concludes our reading of the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. It’s not too late to take the challenge for yourself. Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul. You can find all the blog entries for each reading listed in chronologically here.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

ISIS and the Inexplicable in History (Day 30)

A reading of Romans 16

In a nutshell: Paul offers this letter of recommendation for the woman who probably carried his longer letter to the Rome. In it he greets numerous friends, kinsmen, and acquaintances.

I recommend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a leader of the Anointed’s people in Cenchreae, … and that you will assist her in whatever undertaking for which she may need your help, because she has provided help to many people, including myself.
—Romans 16:1, 2b

We. have. arrived. Welcome to day 30 of 30 Days of Paul!

Had I not kicked off this morning by reading the gut-wrenching “Mystery of ISIS” (NYRB), published anonymously by a former official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, tamer themes might have tempted me. But after all, there are many ways a small coup can become the status quo. It’s hard not to notice the disturbing parallel—a dark mirror of Paul—going on right in front of our eyes in the Middle East.

Briefly, Paul’s context: Cenchrae, mentioned in Paul’s opening line, was a seaport of Corinth. Paul, writing from Corinth, intended to travel north up the isthmus through Macedonia and Achaia to pick up a donation on his way to the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, to Jerusalem. He would hand over the collected resources to the communities of the Anointed there and then retrace his steps westward, to Rome and then to Spain (see also Romans 15:22–28).

At one of the first Westar national meetings I ever attended, I learned that any honest retelling of Christian origins would need to account for the story of whole communities rather than reducing the story to the actions of a few heroic individuals like Jesus, Peter, or Paul. It was collective memory and collective response that kept the Jesus movement going and growing—circles of friendship and collaboration, also broken circles of betrayal that evolved into the accusations and defenses that came to define the movement in its later years.

I have no vested interest in “proving” Christianity right or wrong, but even a skeptical bystander can see that the first-century Jesus movement was not ISIS, and Paul was not Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi certainly didn’t teach to bless, bless rather than curse, those who harm us. Far from it. I can’t even share photos of anything related to the man. Even sharing a single photo of his campaign simply reinforces his aim of spreading terror.

I may complain about Paul for his harshness at some moments in his letters, but at least his harshness is a matter of words. His communities may even have welcomed such harshness as a sign that he really had inherited the role of cantankerous biblical prophet. He once ordered a community to expel a man from their midst, but it was an order he may even have rescinded later (see all the Corinthian correspondence). Such small-scale censure is like pennies in a pool when compared with torture.

But how did the Jesus movement grow into Christianity, the religion of the Roman Empire? How did ISIS, through entirely different means, “tear off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq, shatter all these historical institutions, and—defeating the combined militaries of a dozen of the wealthiest countries on earth—create a mini empire?” About ISIS we are told this:

The movement now controls a “terrorist state” far more extensive and far more developed than anything that George W. Bush evoked at the height of the “Global War on Terror.” Then, the possibility of Sunni extremists taking over the Iraqi province of Anbar was used to justify a surge of 170,000 US troops and the expenditure of over $100 billion a year. Now, years after the surge, ISIS controls not only Anbar, but also Mosul and half of the territory of Syria. Its affiliates control large swaths of northern Nigeria and significant areas of Libya.

… We now know more and more facts about the movement and its members, but this did not prevent most analysts from believing as recently as two months ago that the defeats in Kobane and Tikrit had tipped the scales against the movement, and that it was unlikely to take Ramadi. We are missing something.

How inarticulate are our explanations of the present and the recent past! We are too quick to believe we can step outside our own time and place and offer up commentary on all those moving pieces. How bewildering must it have been, too, to observe the Jesus movement before it became Christianity! Even belonging to it must have been an exercise in questions and missteps. Who knew it would rise alongside and eventually come to mercilessly harass its brother religion, rabbinic Judaism? We think we know what accounted for it, and we may even be right, but quite a bit of distance was needed to begin to see which strands of explanation were strong enough to survive, embedded in the very fabric of the movement itself.

Yesterday I complained that Paul and I are not living in the same stage of life, and that means I don’t always like his advice. For instance, I don’t think saying, “Be more universal,” is always the right way to handle a local community’s problems. In a list of “take it or leave it” from Paul, top on my list would be this, along with his harsh comments about same-sex relations that are utterly utterly inappropriate to today’s world, and his use of imperial and militaristic language to describe what it means to belong to Jesus.

Nevertheless, today’s entry is a tip of the hat to Gene Stecher’s comments yesterday on the difference between supporting the sort of universalism Hitler offered and the sort of universalism that encourages us to view one another as united in spite of differing spiritual and religious practices or socioeconomic class. As Stecher wrote, “An analogy … would be a modern day Paul traveling the world to highlight the judgment and grace of the planet on human decision making, we either pollute to our destruction or conserve and manage to our glory.”

That is precisely not the message of ISIS. ISIS equate their power with Stecher’s more universal and impersonal notion of judgment. When it comes to personal Gods, I would rather follow Paul’s than Zarqawi’s any day of the week, and that has absolutely nothing to do with “Christianity” and “Islam” because you’ll find both Gods in both camps. The fact that I paused nervously in publishing anything about this subject speaks to the success of the carnivalesque horror of ISIS, where every death is a show meant for others.

Where have we seen this before? Ah yes, the Coliseum.

I’ve stood in that arena. The seats are closer to the action than I imagined. The deaths, hardly impersonal. Terror campaigns are ancient and they are effective. They follow the exact logic of the seductive power of corruption, which is fostered by the false hope of escape from the burdens of life by scrabbling for power over others. This is a failure in understanding the big picture. We all suffer and die. Only some inflict their suffering and fear of death on others. Upon such wretched beings, I “flinch and pray” to that uncomfortable presence the reality of which I so often doubt: “Lord, send Thy necessity.”

Roman Coliseum

Questions for the Road:

  • What does “God” mean to you, regardless of the religion you associate with that God? Is it time to divorce that God and find another?
  • Tomorrow I’ll be offering up my final, personal portrait of Paul. You might consider doing the same so that we can compare notes.

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

When the Local is Not Global (Day 29 Audioblog)

A reading of Romans 13–15

In a nutshell: Paul closes his letter with an appeal to greater tolerance within the community that has rallied around Jesus as God’s anointed king. He especially emphasizes flexibility around other people’s spiritual and religious practices.

I myself have come to believe that you all are filled with good intentions, well furnished with knowledge of every kind, and quite capable of providing one another with good advice.
—Romans 15:14

It’s Day 29! Just one more day to go in our 30-day challenge! Today is the conclusion of the long letter to the Romans. Tomorrow’s reading is a brief letter of recommendation that may have accompanied the longer letter.

think-local“Think globally, act locally.” Paul’s global attitude pops up regularly in his advice to local communities. Paul’s advice is usually to do what he is doing: to think and act globally. He pushes locals to continually think more expansively and universally about their relationships with others and role in ultimate reality.

That was my reality for about ten years of intensive intercultural and interfaith work. I’m still completely engaged in that work, but my reality has shifted. “Universalism” no longer means seeking to make everybody else intercultural and interfaith. HR analyst Josh Bersin underwent a similar reality check in 2013:

While we certainly live in a highly interconnected world, the business world is not as “flat” [a metaphor for viewing world commerce as a level playing field where all competitors have an equal opportunity,] as Thomas Friedman once predicted. Quite the contrary in fact. There is no “global market” for goods and service, rather there are now a set of globally connected “local” businesses.

We are just completing a year long effort to study best-practices in the structure of Human Resources. What we found is that while companies want order and consistency around the world, the highest-performing companies don’t standardize everything:  they localize.

We can see this mentality in Paul, to a point. He still believed that he had a universal message that could bind everyone together. While I still agree with Paul that flexibility and tolerance are vital to community survival, nowhere is the death of the metanarrative more painfully obvious to me than in my attempts to read and interpret Paul’s letters.

Paul tried to make a local god universal. Unfortunately, that particular project has no relevance to my life, nestled in the high desert foothills of Idaho. As for the stories of the Bible, a collection of often profound books written by people who, like me, were looking for ways to survive in a desert climate and taking lessons in wisdom from that harsh terrain—those do have relevance for my life. Paul is a companion, a visitor from out of town. He reminds me that the local can be stagnant when not injected with new vision from time to time, and for that I extend him a hand in gratitude.

Does this mean the lack of a universal story that gives all humanity something to unite around means we must walk in hopeless circles going nowhere? (This is the pessimistic definition of postmodernism.) I like that Paul reminds us to “pursue what makes peace possible and what is constructive for all of us” (14:19b). That’s not possible unless you actually immerse yourself in a real community, get to know its concerns, and let it be personal. If I may be pardoned an utterly non-scholarly soccer reference in the wake of the World Cup:

You’ve got to risk being completely devastated if you don’t achieve your dream.

For some additional insights from the perspective of intercultural and interfaith work, along with some comments about how this whole issue fits into Paul’s broad goal of uniting the nation of Israel with other nations as the people of God, listen to the audioblog below:

Questions for the Road:

  • Why did you read Paul’s letters? What personal or communal concern drove you to stick with this challenge?
  • How do you balance universal and local concerns? What aspects of Paul’s advice do you find helpful for doing so?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

Paul’s Catch-22 (Day 28)

A reading of Romans 10–12

In a nutshell: Paul interprets lack of interest in Jesus among his fellow Jews as an opportunity designed by God to bring in as many members of non-Jewish nations as possible before he once again calls Israel back into the fold.

In view of my being an envoy to the nations, I make large claims about my ministry in the hope that I may somehow provoke my kinsmen to zealous competition and [in this way] lead some of them to God’s fulfillment. If their rejection [of the world-changing message] means global transformation, what would their acceptance [of the world-changing message] mean but a return to life from among the dead!
—Romans 11:13–15

30 Days of Paul around the Web

There is a new page on the blog that you can use to navigate resources for each day’s reading. You can click Start Here on the top right corner of any page to find a list of resources by day and verse. As I mentioned way back when we started this challenge, we are all reading for different reasons. You may find it helpful to read the contributions by other readers.

  • An index of Glynn Cardy’s Facebook posts for days 11–20 is now available on the blog. My personal favorite is his entry on Day 19, because it’s yet another reminder for me of the sometimes forgotten importance of Jesus’ teachings for Paul, even though these are often embedded in Paul’s assumptions rather than in what Paul directly says: “There’s a well-known Bible story of 5 fish and 2 loaves being enough to feed a multitude. In the earlier version [Mark 6] there is no mention of the donor of the fish and loaves, unlike the later version [John 6]. The miracle in Mark is what happened when this gift was blessed, broken and given to the seated groups – groups one author calls ‘circles of compassion’. The miracle in John though also includes the donor – a child, one of the ‘nuisances and nobodies’ of Jesus’ culture.”
  • Justin DaMetz has powered through some of the more mundane moments in Paul’s letters and found a joyful person worth emulating along the way: “the apostle Paul is a man continually filled with the joy of God, embodying a spirit of love and compassion consistent with his assurance in the Message he was spreading. I think the common perception of Paul in the popular mind is a dry, academic, boring personality. But throughout this study of his works, I have found an engaging, relatable, intensely human Paul, a man who is happy and driven and sometimes defensive or a braggart, but always compassionate.”
  • Jack Gillespie takes a moment in his reading of 2 Corinthians to encourage readers not to elevate the Bible as God: “If we’re constantly saying, ‘The Bible says…’ as some sort of legitimacy for our harsh and hateful words and actions toward others then it’s quite true, ‘what’s written kills.’ I think Paul would be mortified if he saw that we’ve made the Bible into an idol, the ‘fourth person’ of the G‑dhead.”

How did Rome come to be so important?

David Eastman lists three reasons people wrote adventure stories about early heroes of the Jesus movement, stories that largely ended in the deaths of those heroes (The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul, xviii–xxi):

  1. Identity formation. What did it mean to be a Christian, a true Christian, among the early followers of Jesus?
  2. Liturgical and cultic development. How did certain days and locations come to hold special significance for the Jesus movement?
  3. Competing claims to ecclesiastical authority. Why should Rome have more authority than places with more obvious claims to authority in the New Testament, like Jerusalem and Antioch?

Such questions were to resurge in importance continuously across the first few centuries of Christianity, when it was still a young religion and the locus of its power was not yet settled. “On one level there was no novelty in the martyrdom accounts of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, which places the apostolic deaths in Rome,” Eastman writes.

Yet at the same time, the stakes that were riding on this claim had grown higher. If the churches of the East were tempted to ignore or claim greater authority than Rome, then they needed to be reminded where the blood of Peter and Paul had flowed on behalf of the faith. After Christ himself, these were the two greatest martyrs of Christianity. They had died on Roman soil, and their bodies still lay in Roman soil. In the minds of Roman Christians, and especially their bishops, this fact bestowed special authority on the Roman Church. The popularity of the apocryphal accounts of the martyrdoms of Paul and Peter, therefore, made these texts powerful political tools of pro-Roman propaganda. (xxi)

I’ve only read Eastman’s introduction to the vast array of stories about what happened to Peter and Paul, many of which he has translated into English for the first time, but this logic is very much in keeping with the findings of the Acts Seminar and the most recent Christianity Seminar discussion of martyrdom accompanied by Jennifer Wright Knust’s presentation on how Christians were actually using the martyr stories.

The letter to the Romans both encouraged early Christians to make Rome important and at the same time has retroactively become more important than it originally was. Readers have come to associate Rome with the leadership of the church because of the Vatican and its predecessors, but in Paul’s time Rome was not as important as Jerusalem. That changed after the destruction of Jerusalem during the Jewish War of 70 C.E.—the subject of the next session of the Christianity Seminar in Atlanta, Georgia (November 2015).

In taking on the weight of such history, this letter to the Romans has become almost too important, so that what was originally a more complicated situation for Paul transformed into fodder for anti-Semitism over the years. In fact, there is a much darker problem going on in the letter.

In the book Catch-22, the bomber pilot Yossarian is placed in ridiculous, absurd, desperate, and tragic circumstances—he sees friends die and disappear, his squadron gets bombed by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals volunteer their men for the most perilous battle in order to enhance their own reputations—and eventually is expected by his superiors to make a choice between two equally unpleasant futures.

The Seductive Power of Corruption

Something I like about the metaphor of the road from Rome to Jerusalem is that it can also be reversed. We can walk both ways. Thinking as a community rather than individuals, we can continually be walking both ways in a continuous exchange. That’s what I hear in today’s reading from Paul. God isn’t choosing one group of people at the exclusion of others. From a “Gods-eye view” all everybody needs is a little time. In Paul’s era, Paul felt God’s focus wasn’t on Jerusalem but on the non-Jewish nations. It was their time to discover a meaningful relationship with God and be adopted (“grafted”) into God’s people. (More cynically, I would say we can all be “drafted” into God’s army.)

As cynical as I can be, it’s impossible to ignore the compassionate notes in Paul’s voice here. He wants to see everybody come together in one community. He reiterates the importance of using one’s gifts for the benefit of all (12:5–8), a reprise of 1 Corinthians. Yes, a lot of this is the loyalty loop, but sometimes people show their loyalty to the group by attacking outsiders. Here Paul urges his community to “defeat what is evil with what is good” (12:21b) by doing things like blessing rather than cursing your enemies and refusing to entertain notions of superiority toward anyone but rather spend your days with ordinary people (12:14–18). Easier said than done.

I’m stretching now back across all the letters we’ve read. Paul isn’t saying people won’t suffer when Jesus the conquering hero comes back to seize the world for God. He believes God’s enemies will suffer and will deserve to suffer because they are morally evil. Most people would agree with Paul that people who commit evil deeds deserve to suffer, but would disagree on how they should suffer and to what degree and by whose hands. In previous readings I observed that Paul insists on leaving judgment to God and also, in some limited capacity, to post-resurrection loyal followers of God (presumably because they will know God’s wishes and be able to carry those out to God’s satisfaction).

So I hope you can appreciate why I’m fighting some majorly cynical voices in my head here as I read. I’m remembering Nietzsche’s dreadfully sexist comment about women that obviously alludes to Christianity, too: “Finally: woman! One-half of mankind is weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant—woman needs a religion of weakness that glorifies being weak, loving, being humble as divine” (The Will to Power, §864).

Once, when I was teaching philosophy, I posed a moral dilemma in which a group’s survival depends on the sacrifice of one member. The worst of the scenarios was a Silence of the Lambs-esque kidnapping. The kidnapped people are locked in a cell and told by their kidnapper that he will return in a few hours to kill one person. He will either kill the person the group decides should be killed, or he will pick one person at random. What would you do in that scenario?

One devout Christian man immediately spoke up. “I would volunteer to be the one who dies.”

But another male member of the group waved him off. “Here’s the reality,” said the other. “Let’s say it’s you, me, and this guy”—he gestured at an Iraq war vet also taking the class—“who are locked in that cell. You’re not a physically strong person. I can see that we’re both stronger than you. It’s as obvious to you as to us that you would not be able to win any sort of struggle that occurred among us in the event we choose you as the first victim, so you take the honorable way out by volunteering to be the one sacrificed.”

Both participants in this conversation were articulate and well-meaning. The second student’s comment may sound harsh, but he was pointing to the impulse to survive if we can. He argued that the choice to die by sacrifice was a matter of choosing how to die, not whether to die; he believed the other person already understood that he was not in a position with enough power to shape the situation further than that. Sacrifice is a choice made by people without the power to ensure the survival of what they hold dear (including their own lives).

It’s possible, in other words, that this was Paul’s position, too.

I really, really dislike this level of cynicism (some would call it plain common sense), but it’s an experience that has stuck with me ever since. I can offer one new insight into the scenario that I didn’t have available to me at the time. The sacrificial victim is responding to a lack of power, but so are the strong-arms. They can’t actually guarantee that the person who imprisoned them will follow through on his promise. They can’t necessarily escape from the cell. They, too, are powerless, but simply perceive (rightfully or wrongfully) that they are at least more powerful than that guy over there.

Yesterday I mentioned that Paul sees the earth as a place of decay slowly drawing us down into the mire. Paul is suggesting that on a sinking ship, we make a choice that is not self-serving so much as life-giving. It’s a how to die, not a whether to die. The main difference is that one person sees that while the others try their best to hold onto what power they can, while they can. That’s the seductive power of corruption Paul was talking about (so unhelpfully translated as “sin” in most Bibles). It’s seductive because it’s still leading to a dead-end; some people just haven’t given up on it yet.

I disagree with Paul that all of life is like the kidnapper’s prison cell. It narrows the view of reality too far, to the point of severe oversimplification. But my experience with my students tells me that Paul was right about people’s short-sightedness in the face of loss. The fact of the matter was that nobody locked in that cell had the power to simply walk away, and they all knew they were about to lose something.

Question for the Road:

  • Have you ever witnessed a how rather than a whether type of decision? (We often see this when people are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, for instance.) What did you learn from the experience?
  • Is there anything actually wrong with being the person who volunteers to sacrifice himself or herself in the prison cell scenario? How should we handle power differences among suffering people?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

Glynn Cardy’s commentary on Days 11–20

Community of Saint LukeGlynn Cardy continues his daily posts on the Community of Saint Luke Facebook page with days 11 to 20, embedded here for ease of reference. Clicking on the date (“Tuesday, June 30…”) will take you to the full entry on Facebook.

Day 11

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a favourite for milliners who specialize in XX customers, and hair salons that specialize in XY customers. As a man who likes hats, it’s one of my least favourite passages of the Bible.

Talking of hats I’m about to get a new one. Malcolm, whom I talked about on Day 4 was a great hat man. And his lovely wife wants to buy me a hat as a thank you gift. A black, felt, classy one. I can’t wait.

As for men with long hair, hasn’t Paul seen one of those pictures of the European looking Jesus with flowing robes and flowing hair? Obviously not. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Friday, July 10, 2015

Day 12

Some paraphrased Brandon Scott thoughts on this whole section of 1 Corinthians 12-14:

The discussion is dealing with an elite group within the Corinthian community who claim to be wise, strong, and well thought of. While valuing knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual gifts, their elitism according to Paul threatens the community’s fellowship or cohesion. This group seem to prize above all else ‘speaking in tongues’. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Saturday, July 11, 2015

Day 13

It’s somewhat rare these days for church people to pose a threat to the dominant cultural, political, and religious currents in this land. The church is seen as a group primarily concerned about their Sunday membership, not about the idols that the nation’s leaders bow down to. Poverty is seen as an economic issue, not a spiritual or moral one. Inequality is seen as an inevitable result of human freedom, rather than seen as a denial and abandonment of the body of Christ.

Paul’s views were different. In his closing remarks to the house church at Corinth he says: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” [16:13, 14].

‘Keeping alert’ in this context has to do with reading those cultural, political, and religious currents swirling around the group of approximately 30 people who made up the house church. Those currents might easily sweep you away to a watery end. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Monday, July 13, 2015

Day 14

‘We are the aroma of Christ’ [2:15]

I have a love-hate relationship with flowers. They look beautiful, especially when lovingly arranged in churches. They complement the worship [for a large part of worship for me is the contemplation of beauty]. They add colour and fragrance.

And that’s the problem for me: fragrance. Especially at Springtime. Especially some flowers. Especially when I’ve been remiss in taking my hay-fever medication!

So, I never ‘smell the roses’. In fact I rarely smell anything. Maybe that’s the result of having stuffed sinuses for most of my childhood. Maybe I never really learnt to smell?

So, this intriguing verse about aroma jumped off the page and hit me on the snout. How do you smell like Christ? What does Christ smell like? …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Monday, July 13, 2015

Day 15

Bill Loader introduces this passage by talking about “the groundswell criticism against Paul, and, as usually happens, people seem to have accumulated as much dirt as possible.” This included criticism of his physical and spiritual presence which allegedly was no match for his rivals as far as miracles, powerful speech, and high connections were concerned. Some saw him as a rather weak pathetic figure.

This passage is a snippet from Paul’s attempt to set things straight, and we can imagine some of the pain and tension behind the text. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Day 16

Every day it seems I’m reading about Greece – in the newspaper and in the Bible. I’m finding it hard to divorce these two contexts.

Paul in this reading today continues to try to encourage the house church in the large and important commercial city of Corinth to listen to his version of the good news of Jesus, rather than the version of other wandering preachers. I wonder what would persuade a member of that Grecian house church to listen to Paul rather than the others. And I wonder how successful he was. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Day 17

One of the myths that float around Christianity is that ‘in the beginning there was unity’. I suspect those who like this myth are the same people who want us to all think the same, all agree, and all agree with them.

Christianity is littered with examples of some believers trying to make other believers agree with them, by kind or cruel means. Even today Christian leaders seem to be better at arguing why they are right and others are wrong than building bridges across differences.

At the time Paul was writing in the mid-1st century there was not one understanding of Judaism. To quote Jacob Neusner, scholarship needs to “learn how to respect the plurality of Judaic religious systems and speak of Judaisms, not Judaism.” …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Thursday, July 16, 2015

Day 18

It could be said that habits define us – good habits, and bad habits.

I suppose that’s what the Jesuits meant when they said “Give us a boy child for his first seven years and we’ll give you the man”. It was about trying to form good habits. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Friday, July 17, 2015

Day 19

I wonder
what would happen
if you dared to believe
that what you could offer
would be enough,
when blessed, broken, and given
to initiate a ripple of change
that would spread out,
be caught and repeated,
until the many are fed
and famine will never again
stalk the earth.
I wonder. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Saturday, July 18, 2015

Day 20

‘What’s the use of Philemon?’

This is a tough little ethical nugget.

There is this slave called Useful [Onesimus in Greek]. He runs away from his master called Philemon. Useful takes some of Philemon’s goods with him [I suspect Useful didn’t own anything].

Philemon becomes a Christian, and gets to know Paul – the itinerant preacher/encourager. After Useful’s escape he too becomes a Christian, and he too comes to know Paul. Paul is serving time in jail.

Paul then writes to Philemon about Useful, encouraging Philemon to receive him back – and says he, Paul, will pick up the tab for the stolen goods. …

Posted by The Community of Saint Luke on Monday, July 20, 2015

Power to Create the Kingdom of God (Day 27)

A reading of Romans 7–9

In a nutshell: Paul explains that the law couldn’t outmaneuver the powers of corruption. The law triggers awareness in one’s inner self of the path to perfection (God), but our bodies belong to the decaying world around us (death). Jesus is an injection of God’s power that makes us strong enough to survive and resist the corruption around us.

I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, nothing in the present or the future, nothing from fallen angels nor from political authorities, nor from any other powerful force, nothing above the earth nor below the earth, nor any other created thing that can separate us from the love of God that has been made known to us through the Anointed Jesus our lord.
—Romans 8:38–39

Do you ever watch sci-fi and fantasy movies? Quite a few play with the idea of disintegrating wormholes, unstable pathways between worlds that sometimes collapse into the void. The journey through a wormhole is fraught with peril, and if you’re caught inside, you, too, may disappear into the void.

The world Paul is describing is sort of like that. It’s like we’re swimming through a sea of decay full of monsters that are clawing us down into the mire. It’s the stuff of creation, but a new form of reality is emerging from it that is able to surpass the creative muck—and live forever. Paul thinks we will either be churned under or emerge as part of that new, enduring reality. The law is like a ship designed to take you through the wormhole. It has all the right pieces and is equipped for the journey, but the decaying reality is so enormous that it is sucking us back. The architecture of this ship (the law) is dictated somewhat by its surroundings. It could never have been designed without some awareness of the destination, but it can’t completely extricate itself from the decaying reality in which it first operated. The law-as-ship doesn’t have enough power to shove us through to the other side.

Enter Paul’s Jesus.

I’ve been wondering why Paul always uses the phrase “the power and presence of God.” The translators of The Authentic Letters of Paul purposefully didn’t keep familiar words like “sin” and “spirit” and “Christ,” because such terms have developed long and complicated histories in the Western world. The “power and presence” of God is what has traditionally been rendered “spirit” in other translations. In past letters that hasn’t meant anything special to me as I read—that is, the new term didn’t stick out to me—but here in Romans I am finding it especially helpful.

Paul values the law, but he seems to feel that the law has been manipulated by the monsters of decay: “The power of corruption used this prohibition [‘do not covet’] to deceive me and arouse all kinds of excessive desire in me,” he says (8:8). The gap between a person’s awareness of God’s reality (the law) and the reality of the decaying earth (death) creates a sort of dark power that seduces us. The law, he believes, is “weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence” (8:3). “I rejoice in the law of God so far as my inner self is concerned, but I observe another law in my outward acts at war with the law of my mind and this other law—the law of corrupting power—takes me captive” (9:22–23).

There is a rich context behind this vision. Conjure the vivid monsters of chaos from the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, predecessors to Noah’s fallen angels, who would employ the name of God to craft a mirror world that was imperfect but still full of power (see Orlov, Dark Mirrors). That is all latent in Paul’s world.

This is a fundamentally mythical worldview. Paul’s Jesus doesn’t “rescue” his people by yanking them through the wormhole out of the grasp of monsters. The world has been “moaning with birth pangs” (8:22) precisely because life/creation comes out of death and decay. Jesus people’s physical bodies suffer and decay so that new immortal bodies can form; within each rotten trunk is a holy seed (quoting Isaiah 6:13). The power is deposited there, in the inner self, so that like little brothers and sisters the Jesus people can emerge as Jesus already has.

By this definition, the “holy spirit” is an injection of the power to resist the seductive power of corruption (sin). Paul seems to think people are capable of greater and lesser acts of divine power. He certainly has high standards for himself, and frequently uses athletic metaphors to establish ranks and rewards. I imagined as I read a vivid sea or stormy universe (earthly life) through which we are struggling to make headway, when suddenly we receive a boost that helps us swim farther and faster, more aware of our surroundings and able to see the far shore (new creation).

I don’t believe this to be a true picture of reality in the sense of an alternate world or “heaven” that people ought to strive to reach, but it is a rich and alluring picture for me of a just and peaceful world right here. I recall Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to take each step in such a way that you leave no imprint of sadness or anger or violence in the ground. Rather, step in such a way that you leave behind love and compassion and peace, and gradually, through walking, you will transform the earth into the kingdom of God. (Such a teaching is especially meaningful when you take into consideration Thich Nhat Hanh’s own practice of this in the wake of his recent stroke.) Paul’s Jesus in such a scenario could be understood as more than a teacher who inspires you to step more lightly; Paul’s Jesus is also the pair of wings.

A scene from Plum Village, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh.
A scene from Plum Village, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Questions for the Road:

  • Who helps you to step more lightly through the discouraging moments in life? How do they do it? Can you do the same?
  • I didn’t touch on Paul’s adoption language in this passage, but Brandon Scott in The Real Paul sees this as extremely important because it gives non-Israelite nations a place in the story of Israel. What sort of things can we do to welcome people who have no place in the stories of our communities?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

Reading Romans with a Little Help from My Garden (Day 26)

A reading of Romans 4–6

In a nutshell: Paul develops an elaborate analogy between Abraham and non-Israelite nations, between Adam and Jesus, and between Moses and the Israelites, all to explain how people who don’t follow Israel’s law can serve Israel’s God.

The corrupting seduction of power has a pay-off: death.
—Romans 6:23a

It’s the weekend, so I’ve been working my garden. Working in my garden reminds me that plants grow best in well-composted soil, that is, in soil that is full of decaying matter. Paul knows that, too, and it shows in today’s reading.

When Paul talks about “circumcision of the heart,” he is saying the law is universal in the same way we mean scientific law is universal. It doesn’t matter if people “believe in” gravity; either gravity is a real phenomenon or it isn’t.

Back in 1 Corinthians Paul very clearly stated that he saw no problem with eating meat sacrificed to other gods because even if human beings chose to handle the meat in that way, the meat is still a gift for our benefit from the actual, living God rather than human-made ones. Paul stressed that the more important reason for not eating the meat was to avoid confusing other people.

Romans 3 and 4 follow the same basic logic. The law is the law is the law. Some people have observed that law and some haven’t. They could be Jewish or not. You don’t have to belong to the Sir Isaac Newton fan club to stumble upon the concept of gravity. The reality is there to be found, and it affects you whether you understand it or not. Just try jumping off a cliff with the intent to fly.

Where do resurrected bodies come from?

Likewise, according to Paul, corruption (sin) exists whether human beings acknowledge it or not. It represents a third puzzle piece alongside Abraham’s trust in God (loyalty) and the law once announced by Moses to the people of Israel. Corruption is death in the broadest definition (5:14)—the natural decay experienced by all living things. Paul sees no difference between the decay that makes your potatoes go soft, and the “decay” fostered by poor moral choices. Rotten potatoes come from the same decay that fosters the impulse to murder.

Perfection is the opposite of (physical and moral) decay. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul shows a gardener’s commonsense knowledge that decay is needed for new creation. He claims immortal bodies sprout from corpses. Resurrection is like an infinity plant that sprouts in a well-composted garden. This might even be true of the whole world: the old era dies—in fact, is “crucified” with the Anointed king Jesus in a shameful way—and then a new era sprouts from the shamed, mutilated corpse. This is a pretty ugly way to explain things, but it smacks of common sense if only you spend a little time in a garden.

decaying flowers
One of several shots in a project by photographer Sara Sweet capturing the rapid transition from a once living to a decaying object.

The Seductive Power of Decay

Here’s something new I learned about Paul’s idea of reality from today’s reading: Decay is “seductive” (6:2b). It’s almost like saying we like to wallow in the compost heap. Paul thinks we’re lured by corruption until we are resurrected; Jesus is free of it now, and anyone who belongs to him will eventually be free of it, too. Jesus got there by trusting God to the bitter end, so that’s the model to follow.

It’s sort of like saying you wed yourself to the new, perfect creation, and since that can only come about by growing in what has first died and decayed, the only way out is through: you have to die in order to be resurrected. This whole reality has to die to pass into a new reality. Don’t serve the old reality by trying to perpetuate it; let God “dispose” of you as “instruments for doing right” (Romans 6:12–13). Where we think of “law” as “ultimate reality,” what Paul means is basically that we should be living out that ultimate reality and not being fooled by the dying throes of what can be seen from our very limited perspective.

This subject makes me really, really, really uncomfortable. It sounds so apocalyptic, like we’re talking about the end times. I agree with Brandon Scott, though, that this apocalyptic point of view may not be as violent as it is in the book of Revelation. Paul seems to view this as a natural sort of decay that is just hard for us to see because we’re in the compost heap. We can’t see the flowers blooming.

On the other hand, if the whole world is dying by crucifixion, that’s pretty brutal.

This subject needs must continue tomorrow, since Paul has to deal with the question of where the law fits into the metaphor of world-as-dung-heap.

Questions for the Road:

  • Are you familiar with the story of Abraham? If you have a little extra time, you might go back and read Genesis 15. How would you interpret God’s promise to Abraham?
  • What definition of sin were you taught? How does this compare to what Paul is actually saying about sin (“corruption”) here in Romans?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

Entering Rome (Day 25)

In a nutshell: Paul first establishes that he and the Romans are all on the same side (they all “belong” to Jesus) before launching into a complex argument against circumcision for people unaffiliated with Israel.

[By virtue of my calling] I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish; that’s why I’m eager to proclaim God’s world-changing news also to you in Rome. I’m not embarrassed by this news, because it has the power to transform those who are persuaded by it, first Jews and then Greeks. (Romans 1:14–16)

Congratulations on making it to the very last of our seven letters of Paul in the challenge!! In five days we’re all going to raise our hands in virtual salute and imagine ourselves walking down to the Garden Room for pistachios and drinks. (For the uninitiated, that’s in the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California, the site of Westar’s Spring national meetings.)

But we have five days and a long letter standing between us and munchies, so let’s ease our way into the reading with a few basics.

Had Paul visited Rome?

I walked into this reading with a few questions already on my mind, beginning with whether Paul actually knows and has visited the communities he’s addressing in Rome. I am leaning toward “no.” Here’s why:

Paul begins by establishing that he and the recipients are all members of the same community. “Through [Jesus, the Anointed, our lord] I have received the gracious favor of my calling to promote in his name the obedience that comes from a confidence reliance upon God among all of the world’s nations. You yourselves are among those who are called, since you belong to Jesus the Anointed” (1:5–6). This opening salvo reminds me of those first few minutes of a conversation when you’re feeling out how much you can trust the other person—is this a “we” situation or a “you and me” situation?

Paul states his desire to come “at last.” From Romans 1:9 onward Paul describes what he has to offer the community, as in a job interview.

Where I’m left wondering is this: Even though Paul gets nasty at moments in this letter, the letter still exists. This might seem like a no-brainer, but if the whole community favored circumcision even of people who had no prior affiliation to Israel, they probably would have just tossed Paul’s letter in the rubbish heap. Whoever ended up with it, preserved it. Does that mean Paul had friends there, that he totally impressed the recipients, or what? Reading further into the letter will probably help firm this up, but right now I’m leaning in favor of saying he didn’t really know them but perhaps had a few friends in the ranks.

Who were the Romans?

It’s very likely the recipients were mostly Jewish because in these opening three chapters Paul relies heavily on scriptural references and (subtly) defends his work with people who are unaffiliated with Israel. The opening few lines identify Jesus as “physically descended from David, appointed and empowered as a ‘son of God,’ in accordance with the spirit of holiness, from the time of his resurrection from the dead” (1:3b–4). He seems to think it’s possible to be embarrassed or ashamed of his message, probably because Jesus died, even though he doesn’t say that here. Compare Romans 1:16 onward with 1 Corinthians 1:20 onward, which pits the foolishness of God against the wisdom of the world, culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Had David died and been beheaded by Goliath on the battlefield, nobody would have taken him seriously, so that is a pretty good parallel for viewing the crucifixion of a would-be king as shameful.

(I’ve said this elsewhere, but you don’t have to believe the historical Jesus saw himself as a king just because our earliest written source, Paul, does see Jesus as one. That’s a different conversation. I’m just trying to understand Paul here.)

The triumphal entry of the Emperor on a four-horse chariot into the city of Rome. Arch of Titus, Rome.

Opening Themes

First, Paul’s basic message hasn’t changed from the set of observations I offered a couple days ago while reading Philippians. He is a bit more concrete in saying that Jesus is a descendent of David compared with other letters, like that time he compared Jesus to the rock struck by Moses.

My list of 6 assumptions Paul made about Jesus continues to be consistent with what I’m reading here. I feel no need to modify that, although I have an inkling of an assumption #7 in the works.

Unfortunately, the theme of corruption is also back in force, and with it—reader be warned—a few ugly comments about same-sex relations (1:18–32).

As in 1 Corinthians and related texts discussed here, Paul has combined his concerns around fidelity to God with equal concerns about corruption. Before I threw my book across the room, I reminded myself that Paul sees no difference between natural physical decay and moral corruption, whereas today most people would see no connection between evil, on the one hand, and, on the other, the cycle of decay and growth experienced by all living things. Also, Paul believes corruption in each human body (“little cosmos”) can spread to corrupt all of reality (the cosmos).

My number one complaint about Paul and sex back in 1 Corinthians was that most of Paul’s sex talks boil down to Paul wanting to avoid any sort of strain on commitment to the Jesus team. For a more nuanced explanation by a well-respected Paul scholar, see William Walker’s essay, “What the New Testament Says about Homosexuality.” Regarding today’s reading (under his proposition #6), Walker writes:

Earlier in this chapter, the author is talking about idolatry, the worship of false gods. Then, beginning in verse 24, he talks about the results of idolatry. Verses 24 and 25 identify the results of idolatry as lust, impurity, and the degrading of one’s body. Then, verses 26 and 27 spell out in more detail the nature of this lust, impurity, and bodily degradation. …

What must be emphasized, then, is that the passage, taken as a whole, is not about homosexuality. It is about idolatry. The only reason it mentions homosexuality at all is because the author assumes that it is a result of willful idolatry. Knowing full well that there is one true God, people nevertheless freely choose to worship false gods. As punishment for this idolatry, God “gives them up” to homosexual activity. Thus, in a sense, homosexuality is not so much a sin as it is a punishment for sin. This should mean, however, that no monotheist would ever take part in homosexual activity—no practicing Jew or Christian or Muslim. Only worshippers of false gods would engage in such activity. This was a fairly common assumption within first-century Judaism, and it is one of the dubious presuppositions that underlie Romans 1:26–27. Clearly, however, it is not consistent with what we can observe in the world around us.

Walker goes on to criticize Paul’s assumption that same-sex relations are “abnormal” or “unnatural” and to criticize Paul’s assumption that homosexuality necessarily involves “insatiable” lust.

In chapters 2 and 3, Paul pulls rank for Jews ahead of members of other nations, with Jews coming first both in punishment and in rewards, even though “God has no favorite people.” This is a complicated topic I’d like to save for tomorrow (Day 25) because it continues into that reading.

Questions for the Road:

  • As we enter this final stage of reading, you may now be feeling like a more mature reader of Paul. What inspires you now to say, “How typical of Paul”?
  • Anti-Semitism continues to lurk in the background as we read. It might be helpful as we read to continue to ask ourselves, “What does Paul mean by ‘the Jews’ when we remember that he considered himself a Jew, too?”

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.