Who was Paul? (Day 15: 2 Corinthians 4–6:13; 7:2–4)

In a nutshell: In service of his message of God’s coming empire, Paul summons up economic images of down payments and recasting coinage alongside agricultural images of new life emerging from the decay.

We’ve been pressured from all sides but not boxed in, at a loss but not at our wits’ end, hounded but not abandoned, knocked down but not knocked out.
—2 Corinthians 4:8

30 Days of Paul around the Web

  • Justin DaMetz is back from a Rob Bell talk he absolutely loved. He draws from Bell’s comments on the universe, especially the way that unity forms from ever-increasing complexity, for his final entries on 1 Corinthians on the Running Dirt Roads blog.
  • Unity is the theme of the day, whatever you’re reading in Paul. Glynn Cardy in his take on Day 15 begins with Paul’s continuous need to respond to criticism and goes on to wonder aloud about our own skills and shortcomings as ambassadors.

Congratulations! We’re halfway through our 30 Days of Paul challenge! As I completed the reading from 2 Corinthians today, I was struck by how many themes from prior letters resurface in this one. A fitting moment to take stock of our reading so far.

Who was Paul? Are you forming a new answer to that question for yourself? If you haven’t already done this, you might want to do this exercise before reading my attempt to sum up where I am with Paul. Consider re-reading any notes you’ve taken. If you’ve been reading Paul in a group, perhaps plan a time to present your individual portraits of Paul “so far.”

Another important thing you might do at this point is have a look at Brandon Scott’s popular 5 Quick and Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paul.

Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?) (Dutch, 1606 - 1669 ), The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, oil on canvas, Widener Collection
The Apostle Paul. Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?) c. 1657.

My Portrait of Paul So Far

Paul is not postmodern.

Postmodern people don’t generally believe in grand narratives of meaning. Instead, we tend to see each person or community as developing their own small narratives. Postmodernism more broadly acknowledges that most of us are aware of other narratives of meaning, even if we don’t like them.

Paul doesn’t think like that.

Here’s my take so far on Paul’s view of reality:

  • The world is coming to an end.
  • The earthly reality is corrupt, including in the sense of the natural decay of all living things. Paul doesn’t separate that from moral corruption, even though we generally do.
  • People who don’t hear and believe the world-transforming message of Israel’s God are actually in the wrong. This is a message meant for everyone.
  • Some people won’t come out well when God reveals their deepest thoughts and desires. They, in some sense, belong to the corrupt world and are too mired in it to break free.

Paul was a student of Jesus.

This should be obvious but apparently isn’t. Paul’s entire motivation for becoming an itinerant prophet was his encounter—real, imagined, spiritual, whatever—with Jesus, and he actually does know and refer back to recognizable sayings and stories of Jesus. At minimum, he belonged to a community of Jesus that involved familiar rituals and even an early creed.

I’m arguing a bit here with a somewhat common claim that Paul doesn’t care much about Jesus’ life and teachings, only his death. I’m no longer sure it’s fair to say Christianity should have been called “Paulianity” (thank you, Google).

I wrote a fairly detailed list of 6 assumptions Paul made about Jesus for our Day 6 reading, but I think there is room for a much deeper exploration of this topic.

Paul believed he was rallying people behind a king.

He called Jesus “the Anointed” in conscious imitation of kings like Saul and David who were anointed with oil by prophets prior to taking the throne. Paul usually talks of his communities in terms of “belonging” to Jesus, who marches before God like a grand general prepared to put down all enemies. This is a divine king in the sense that he participates in the solution of a cosmic dilemma. He dies a humiliating death to end the corruption of the world by taking on whatever curse led to the corruption.

I can’t definitively say whether I think Paul’s king was truly different from other kings before him. How much of Paul’s message of the good ethic of this king is simply typical of the propaganda for rebel kings seeking to overthrow the reigning government? How much of Paul’s vision could be described as nonviolent?

On the other hand, Paul was deeply concerned about communal unity, to the point where it could almost be described as a spiritual practice. Could this be Paul’s best legacy?

Paul belonged to Israel, but his God was bigger.

Whether we call him Jewish or not, I can’t deny that Paul was talking about Israel’s God and dipping into the Jewish scriptures regularly, deeply, and creatively. He saw himself as a second Moses and the nations as having inherited both the stubbornness and the blessings traditionally attributed to Israel. This opening of the floodgates, he felt, was in fulfillment of a promise by God to Abraham to make his offspring outnumber the stars.

It’s possible Paul’s style of brow-beating was a self-conscious attempt to model himself after Moses, and that his communities may have liked that about him.

Paul doesn’t encourage his communities to take unnecessary risks.

Paul urges good behavior and cautions his communities against sticking out in a crowd. He wants them to somewhat resemble the status quo in terms of what ethicist Margaret Battin calls “ordinary morality”—the sort of instinctive moral judgments made by the average person. What he’d rather see is his communities meet and exceed ordinary morality than subvert it. Paul’s attitude toward sex may be rooted in his fear and protectiveness for his communities rather than a necessary component of his theological vision.

Paul holds to a higher expectation of envoys than community members. He fully expects envoys to travel frequently and face near constant exposure to danger and suffering. He holds himself to a still higher standard by refusing to accept support in exchange for teaching, but this is a little facetious of him because it runs against Jesus’ actual instructions to his disciples.

Paul may have experienced trauma in his movement from harasser to supporter of the Jesus-following communities. This may even be why he is so protective of them. It may also be one source of his sense of wisdom about life’s ultimate meaning.

Paul believes individual members of his communities have different gifts. Some gifts (including proclamation, as he does) are better than others. Nevertheless, all gifts are needed and should be valued and respected.

Questions for the Road

  • What is your portrait of Paul so far? If you have been keeping notes, now is a good moment to go back and re-read them. How has your portrait of Paul changed, if at all?
  • If you had to pick one aspect of Paul’s work or personality to say is his legacy, what would you choose?

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.

One thought on “Who was Paul? (Day 15: 2 Corinthians 4–6:13; 7:2–4)

  1. 2 Cor 4, a paraphrase: By God’s mercy we are slaves to preaching the truth openly, on behalf of the one who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness;’ but the god of this world is still able to blind the minds of unbelievers to the glory of Christ. God’s power is obvious in our weakness. We bear the death blows to Jesus so that the life of Jesus may pass from us to you. We know that the one who raised Jesus will bring us with you into his presence. Grace increases followers increases the chorus of thanksgiving. We keep our eyes on what cannot be seen, the renewal of our inner nature for eternal glory.

    2 Cor 5, a paraphrase: We grow in longing in this earthly tent. God has prepared us to be swallowed up by life. We walk by trust. We will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. We give you reason to boast about us to those who only understand outward controls. Our one motivation is the love of Christ whose death and rising was for all. Everyone in Christ feels entirely new, reconciled to God by his death. We are ambassadors for this truth, that Christ became sin so that we might be counted righteous.

    2 Cor 6:1-13, 7:2-4, a paraphrase: Don’t be cavalier about God’s grace. We have allowed nothing, and the list is long and difficult to hear, including imprisonments, beatings, riots, and other calamities, to stand in our way of bringing the message. We have lived out the fruits of the spirit among you though some dishonored us as unknown imposters without authority not worth your time; but there is no burden that we have not borne on your behalf. Keep your hearts open to the riches we bring: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of god. The heart is where we die together and live together. You are my boast and pride. I am filled with consolation, experiencing joy in affliction for your sake.

    Comment: Halfway through, my view of Paul. A Jew, incredibly intense personality, an extreme extremist for the cause, driven by the desire to be right with God, interpreted his conversion to Christ’s crucifixion as freedom from legalism, tends to think in absolute, either/or categories: them and us, you and me, law and trust, flesh and spirit, life and death.


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