Monday, December 15, 2014

Disputed Questions About Paul Of Tarsus: A Dialogue (Part 1c)

The following series was originally written by Carlos A. Segovia (marked CAS below). It is here translated into English and features additional responses by Thomas W. Hudgins.

Can we apply to Paul categories and concepts that were actually developed later in Christian theology? Is it possible that some of these inadvertently go too far in our interpretation of what Paul says and does not say? And why is it necessary for us today to release Paul from the Christian interpretation of him?

CAS: Regarding the first question: We can apply such categories and concepts to Paul, but we shouldn’t do it. As for the second: It is not only possible, but is, in fact, the norm today. I think I have given numerous examples, examples that go beyond mere clich├ęs like "Paul converted to Christianity," which are infinitely more subtle than these topics, but no less dangerous (e.g., the sacrificial interpretation of Paul, the attribution of preexistence to Christ, etc.). As for the third, the reason is simple: Because what we call Christianity, whatever Paul’s contribution to its implementation was, has come to us after Paul! We must study Paul, a Jewish author of the first century, in its historical, intellectual, and religious context. And we now know that this is much more complex than we have traditionally thought. If our view of Judaism before A.D. 70 has changed as it has during the last decades, I think it also means our view of Paul should change. For example, was Paul a Hellenist, influenced by the mystery religions, or was he competing with them? Ask yourself. If you ask me, I think we should redraw the contours of Pauline theology in light of his new Jewish face.

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AP: Regarding the second question: To a historian like me who strives to be independent, absolutely rationalist, and agnostic, that possibility is so predetermined, in the sense that in the "new radicals" there appear some obviously, a priori, unlikely conclusions, at least in my opinion. They are: (a) after Auschwitz "there can only be one type of theology"; (b) in order to improve relations with the Jews is necessary that as the first interpreter of Jesus (and one that forever marks the development of Christology), Paul be exempt from any form of anti-Semitism; (c) all the conceptions of Paul must be essentially and exclusively Jewish; the roots of his theology are of the purest form of Judaism. This frame of mind leads to a risky and forced exegesis of a remarkable number of Pauline texts, and it renders other a priori matters highly unlikely too. The ones that call the most attention to me are: (d) it is absolutely plausible that all disciples of Paul did not understand the teacher in essential points; all were wrong, even those closest to him chronologically speaking; (e) actually, Paul never says anything against Jewish law; what Paul does say about the Law refers only to the Gentiles, etc. Moreover, is there anything more Jewish and more Mediterranean-Hellenistic than the the idea of a sacrificial system and vicarious death? And if we’ve even come to think, with only a few texts (e.g., 1 Enoch), in a possible Jewish binitarianism (the rabbis refer to the theology of the "two powers in heaven"), why think, then, that Paul’s view of Christ as preexisting must be due to the twisted influence of Nicene Christianity, which was already deeply anti-Jewish?

And regarding the third: "Because what we call Christianity, whatever Paul’s contribution to its implementation was, has come to us after Paul!" That’s a firm grasp of the obvious! Of course it does. Paul is developed by his disciples. This is so obvious ... As for the phrase "whatever the contribution of Paul," that's simply amazing from the standpoint of the history of Christian ideas. You forget that even if we accept the thesis that all the followers of Paul erred in their interpretation—which is your thesis, and seems absurd to me—the form of Christianity that followed was thoroughly Pauline. And this is my argument. The New Testament is not the foundation of Christianity, but the foundation of a form of Christianity, namely Paul’s. Up to the fourth century all other christianities were marginal. There were many other forms of Christianity, but they can be traced back to two general branches, one of Judeo-Christian tendency and the other of Gnostic tendency. They either cease to exist as it were as time passes, or they were eliminated by the accurate and astute organizational action of the Pauline churches. I hope I have shown that in my book Los cristianismos derrotados.

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TWH: Whenever anything is studied, and I mean anything, categories and concepts develop. God made us conceptual beings. We can't apologize for developing concepts. Beyond that, I'd be hard-pressed to find one thing that actually exists–one issue involving the synthesis of data and ideas–where there are not good and bad concepts floating around side by side. What is necessary is for us to sift through the data, filtering everything through sound hermeneutical principles.

I shared my own view about the apostle Paul in Part 1a of this series. I do not agree with the view that Paul was a Jewish teacher seeking to extend his own brand of Judaism, tweaked in areas to allow for the inclusion of and foster a mass embrace by the Gentiles. I think Paul was a Jewish man, best described by himself in Phil. 3:5-6. But that changed. All of those things paled in comparison to who he became when the Messiah stopped him in his tracks on the road to Damascus. And it's not that they just paled in comparison. He willfully exchanged those human marks of achievement for this incomparable relationship with Jesus (Phil. 3:7).

I don't believe that there has been an entire misunderstanding of the apostle Paul. The idea that everyone got it wrong entirely just seems incomprehensible. There is nothing that indicates that Paul was pushing an adjusted form of Judaism for the inclusion of the Gentiles, all while personally holding on to Judaism as he supposedly knew it.

If there were forms of Christianity in the first century that pushed for something other than justification by faith, they were wrong. This is not Paul's form of the gospel, but the actual gospel. If there were forms of Christianity promulgating the idea that justification is one thing, but believers needed the law for their sanctification, they were wrong. And Paul is right for steering believers away from the Mosaic Law to the law of Christ; elements found in the Mosaic Law that were to extend into the New Covenant community were specifically identified by the apostles (e.g., believers should not steal, not commit adultery, not have idols, etc.). I believe that God is at work in the building of Christ's Church. He is the one who gives gifts to men; he is the one who provides revelatory instruction in the first century, through those with the gift of prophecy, so that he could guide them in the way that they should believe and live. What we have after the first century is the working out of all that God revealed in Scripture by fallible human beings, albeit redeemed if they placed their faith in Jesus Christ. All of that must be worked out in changing socio-cultural and historical settings. And it doesn't always look the same. The importance of justification by faith was not a newfound concoction in the period of time surrounding the 16th century. That was a schism that overturned one of the most flagrant perversions of the gospel. I don't think Paul could have looked forward and pictured with clarity the papacy and the global control the RCC exercised on spiritual matters. But the root of how it maligned the truth and its dangers are clearly seen in the letters of Paul, just directed to a different manifestation of a threat to the truth of the gospel.

We have a New Testament corpus that is heavily Pauline (as far as the letters of the New Testament are concerned), in my opinion, because that is what God wanted us to have. We do not have Paul's form of Christianity, though. The NT canon is more than Paul, but consistent and cohesive. Where there are interpretive challenges, it behooves us to wrestle with them and land on an interpretation that best fits all of the evidence. Our exegesis must be one that deals with the immediate text we are studying in its context, but the greatest test for whether our interpretations are as the author (and God) intended occurs when we hold them up to the rest of Scripture (e.g., in our exegesis of Matt. 5:22).

For a discussion on the canon, can I recommend B.M. Metzger's The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). That's just a great place to start.

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