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! 🙂

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.

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.

“Those Curs,” Host Libel, and Paul (Day 24)

A reading of Philippians 3:1b–4:3

In a nutshell: Paul delivers advice edged with a sense of immediacy of death. He criticizes advocates of circumcision and urges serious listeners to drop everything and follow Jesus.

Watch out for those curs, watch out for those perpetrators of fraud, watch out for those who would carve up your flesh.
—Philippians 3:2

Blood and Host Libels in Anti-Semitism

I owe a great deal of my understanding of anti-Semitism to Kenneth Stow, the author of Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters. Stow is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of Haifa. He gave the lecture embedded below at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto in January, 2008.

In this lecture as well as in his book (which is quite dense, so I’m afraid I can only recommend it to brave readers), Stow traces the long, painful history of blood and host libels. Most memorably, Stow recounts a story told by Chilean-Jewish author and activist Marjorie Agosin (minute 5:00 in the video above):

My classmates, as though innocently, … called me to join in a game. They made a circle and told me to get in the middle. I saw all of them with their white aprons, and suddenly their faces went dark, became threatening with me in the middle of them, and I felt the press of the group on my shoulders. There was nowhere I could run or hide as I heard their yell, “¿Quién se robó el pan del horno? Who stole the bread from the oven?” And the chorus responded, “Los perros judíos. The Jewish dogs.” They said it slowly and I was deeply hurt. The practice then was also to strike the child in the middle.

This story is an example of a host libel. The “bread” is Christ’s body, which the Jewish “dogs” steal. A blood libel is similar except that it is in that case the blood of Jesus that the Jewish “dogs” attempt to steal. It was believed in medieval times that the Jews,

believing paradoxically (which they obviously could not if they remained Jews) that the consecrated wafer was in fact the very body of Jesus, desired to renew upon it and him the agonies of the Passion, by stabbing, tormenting, or burning it. Such was the intensity of their paradoxical hatred that they would not abandon their Jewish perfidy even if the sacred wafer manifested its indignation and its miraculous essence by shedding blood, emitting voices, or even taking to flight. There is no need to regard as a wholly spiteful invention the statement that the consecrated wafer shed drops of blood, the most common manner in which the outrage became known, for a scarlet fungoid organism (called for this reason the Micrococcus prodigiosus) may sometimes form on stale food kept in a dry place, having an appearance not unlike blood. The charge of desecrating the Host was leveled against Jews all over the Roman Catholic world, frequently bringing in its train persecution and massacre. (Jewish Virtual Library)

This was an official teaching of the church from 1215 onward. Horrific paintings and drawings throughout the medieval era show Jews stealing children in order to sacrifice them and consume their flesh and blood. In the lecture Stow also discusses the painting below, which belongs to the Sandomierz Cathedral. The painting shows multiple scenes in the same frame, beginning with the purchase of a child in the bottom right corner, following the bloody ritual across the right side, and concluding in the bottom left corner with the dog (a metaphor for Jews) eating the remains.

In 2014 the painting was put on display for the international Day of Jewish-Catholic Dialogue in order to open up conversations about the Jewish roots of Catholicism.

“Mord Rytualny” (“Ritual Murder”). Karol (Charles) de Prevot. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This is a disturbing history, all of which of course comes after Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Philippians. But it’s a history that was certainly aided by the fact that we continue to read these two letters and use them for our own ends. Today I simply want to observe the course this language took in our history, lest we forget.

Questions for the Road:

  • Have you ever encountered blood and host libels before? Does your family have any history with the Jewish tradition and anti-Semitism? Where do you see this kind of thinking trickle into everyday language about Jewish people?
  • Dogs were the carrion eaters, the scavengers of the ancient world. A teacher once told me that in the early days of the movement Jesus followers were also called “dogs” because, of course, they were said to “eat” the body and blood of Christ in their ritual meals. If this is true, what would it mean to take seriously that Jewish and Christian identities are so deeply intertwined?

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 Letters sans Loyalty (Day 23)

A reading of Philippians 2:19–3:1a, 4:4–9, 4:21–23

In a nutshell: Paul preens Timothy as his successor in the event that he dies while in prison. Meanwhile, he send back Epaphroditus, whose illness raised concerns among his friends.

No one else here is such a kindred spirit, who will be as genuinely concerned about how you are getting along as I am. All of the others are looking out for their own interests, not the interests of Jesus the Anointed.
—Philippians 2:20–21

So if it’s not about loyalty…

There I went and opened my big mouth. Yesterday I talked about the loyalty loop and concluded by saying, “But I still think we can know what Paul cared about.”

“So,” you say, “what can we know?”

If I narrow my view down to just the evidence presented in this letter to the Philippians from prison, here is the content that stays behind when I pass it through the loyalty sieve. It’s not much, but it is instructive.

Observation #1: To whom or to what?

God is the one to whom we should be loyal, in the sense that whatever brings honor and praise to God defines the merits of our loyalty (1:12). Furthermore, we are also encouraged to be loyal to Jesus (1:21), or at the very least, Paul feels that his whole life is dedicated to Jesus and that his companion Timothy is also wholly loyal to Jesus—in fact, Tim is more loyal than all those other guys that are just involved for selfish reasons (2:20–21).

Sorry, yes, I just dropped a “Tim” like a youth pastor. Did I mention I still tune in to Christian radio sometimes? Am I the only member of the church alumni association that does this?

Yesterday I emphasized that loyalty always needs a buddy. Loyalty for loyalty’s sake is dangerous and sometimes even despicable. I really like that Paul is loyal to a person (albeit a deity) rather than any one cause or object or value. People can never be one-dimensional. Jesus is not one-dimensional unless you only read one story about him. Even if you restrict yourself to the Bible, you’ve got four biographies of Jesus. That leaves a lot of leeway in a dialogue with Paul: “You say Jesus was a divine king, but I say he was a healer. Let’s discuss.”

Observation #2: God has news

God has earth-shattering news (1:5, 7): the news is that Jesus is the Anointed (1:6, 10). We know this not only because the big event is named after Jesus—“the day of the Anointed”—but also because Paul has a long paragraph about what it means to go around “proclaiming the Anointed.” This isn’t a secret message, by the way. Paul is happy no matter who is shouting about it (see 1:15 onward). Paul is even happy that his imprisonment has brought more attention to the cause (1:12 onward).

Funny thing about this. It’s so familiar. I feel like I’m reciting my Pentecostal upbringing and singing Hosannas at Christmas. “Glory to the newborn king!” I’d like to say, “Aha, they were wrong and that stuff isn’t in Paul!” The newborn part isn’t in there, but the theme of proclaiming a new king certainly is.

Here Paul is happy to proclaim a message loudly and clearly, whereas back in 1 Corinthians 3 he claimed to have to hold back on some teachings because the communities in Corinth were like infants not yet ready for chewable food. That was Paul’s explanation for the misunderstandings that came between them. This isn’t a contradiction, in my opinion. The core of the public announcement could be, “Jesus is king and Jesus is coming,” while the details are reserved for those who have made a commitment to serving that king.

That’s pretty much how most community groups operate today.

Observation #3: Man against man except when it’s the other way around

The Anointed lends support to his assemblies by means of “the power and presence of God” (1:19). This is probably not metaphorical. Opponents of God and the Anointed are facing “ruin” (1:28), a reminder that like any king, Jesus is imagined as coming and putting down his enemies. Jesus will rule someday over the three-tiered universe of underworld, earth, and the heavens (2:10).

I’d like to say Paul was aware that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but I don’t really see evidence of that. This language is all militaristic. It really does sound like Paul is planning a coup.

In his defense, he believes Jesus is more fair and good than the leaders of the current regime, and that the God of Israel has generously offered to accept any members of the nations who are willing to be adopted into the fold. One might ask, “And what rebel government would say otherwise?”

Maybe the corruption of the reigning government was so obvious, so egregious, that nobody needed to be convinced otherwise. Nelson Mandela was somewhat controversial for his willingness to commit violent acts of resistance, but many people would agree with him that the apartheid-era conditions warranted strategic violence.

I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. (Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964)

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Roman Empire was violent, but we won’t get that evidence from Paul aside from the fact that he’s in prison and that, in previous letters, he described other ways he had been harmed. Like yesterday’s letter from Yves to Alex, we have to rely on external evidence to flesh out the situation.


Observation #4: Loyalty can become content

Paul lapses into a loyalty loop around Jesus in the creed of 2:6–11. Jesus was born “in the image of God,” which was probably Paul’s way of saying Jesus was a born noble like any Roman emperor (cf. practically every book on the royal family). Paul then says Jesus “accepted a servant’s lot” and “became trustfully obedient all the way to death, even death by crucifixion” (2:7, 8). “That is why,” Paul tells us, “God raised him higher than anyone” (2:9). In other words, Jesus gets to be king because he is obedient even when it seems to lead to utter shame.

I’m disappointed by this. I think Paul is missing an opportunity here. By describing Jesus as good because he was obedient, he collapsed loyalty into the content of his message and lost track of whatever more fundamental points make worthwhile the choice to pledge allegiance to this God and this king. Anybody can be obedient, anybody can be loyal. The sacrificial piece, the part about dying, is more extreme, but the people who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, blew up the London subway, and released sarin in the Tokyo subway were also pretty self-sacrificing. So what’s the real point, Paul?

I just get really, really frustrated when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be rooting for. As we move into our final letter to the Romans, this problem weighs heavily on my mind.

Questions for the Road:

  • Let’s get inventive. Right now the creed in 2:6–11 gives obedience to God as the reason for Jesus’ importance. Try revising it so that it gives a different reason. Bonus: try giving a reason Paul might be willing to endorse.

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.