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.

2 thoughts on “Paul’s Catch-22 (Day 28)

  1. Romans 9-11, a paraphrase: Paul has let us know in numerous ways that he is a son of Israel, and now he presents himself as a grieving but hopeful son of that heritage. Whether or not these sudden change in subject matter chapters, most of which are not found in the reconstruction of the Marcion material (BeDuhn, The First NT), were imported into Romans from another source is a matter of debate. Vocabulary changes could mostly be due to the change in subject matter, and the subject of Israel can be viewed as a continuation of the Torah and circumcision discussions. Further the same intense personality is apparent in these chapters as in the other writings.

    After my remarks about Torah and circumcision you may be surprised to hear me say that I am in almost unbearable grief over the people of Israel, those who have rejected the gift of Christ. These are my people, the ones first to receive the covenants, law, promises…and the Annointed. I speak of the descendants through Isaac as testified to by scripture. This choice is not arbitrary. God has mercy on whom he has mercy. God brings to power, including pharaohs, whom God brings to power. The object molded does not question the molder, and the clay does not question the potter. God prepares vessels for destruction and for splendor. God’s judgment required that only a remnant be left. Israel did not choose the way of trust in God. They stumbled over the stone of Trust.

    My heart longs in anguish for the ultimate well-being of Israel. The problem is that their zeal for righteousness has lacked discernment. They don’t understand righteousness as putting their trust in God. It requires the confession that Jesus is Lord and the confidence that God raised him from the dead. And according to scripture God will deliver all who approach him – both Jew and Gentile. But of Israel scripture also says – a recalcitrant and contentious people.

    I am sure that God has not given up on Israel. The oracle said to Elijah, “I have reserved for myself 7000.” Just so, even now there is a remnant, freely selected by God, and so not based on observance of the law. Remember that Israel’s misstep means wealth for the Gentiles, so how much more to be revealed will their inclusion mean, nothing less than life from the grave. Perhaps my zealousness for the nations will provoke my kinsmen to be jealous for the gospel. God always gets the first portion so the life-giving root of the tree belongs to God. Gentiles, don’t get impressed with yourself as a grafted branch from a wild tree; things can change quickly if you don’t put your whole trust in God. The natural branches of Israel can more easily be grafted back into a cultivated tree. I will share this mystery revealed to me: a hardness has come upon part of Israel until the full number of Gentiles has come in, and then all Israel will be saved, an expression of love because of their ancestors! Defiance has been inescapable for both them and you, all human kind, so that mercy might abound. We do not know the mind of God, but we are obliged to accept his ways as they become revealed.

    Comment: I’m confused by the suggested reading order, chapters 7-9 together, and chapters 10-12 together, so I’m a little off track. To my mind, chapter 7 is a continuation of the law-flesh-spirit discussion, 9-11 go together as reflections on the fate of Israel, and 12-15:6 are observations about the moral imperatives which follow upon the new life in Christ.


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