FOR READERS: I have just started a new blog: xtremejesus.co which is intended to contribute to political and social debate from the point of view of the Jesus tradition. Some have found difficulty in accessing the site from their search engines and browsers. At present, Google Chrome gives it easily.
MEANWHILE, this old faithful blog has continued to explore Paul’s Corinthian correspondence day by day. Yesterday it completed 2 Corinthians. Today there’s a brief reflection on Paul’s theology. The news headline is a reminder of the world we live in.
MAD RACIST LE PEN WINS COURT VICTORY OVER SANE RACIST DAUGHTER
(The great amount of commentary on this site can be accessed by date from the archive, or by googling emmock.com and adding either a scripture reference or topic, e.g.: emmock.com John 3:16; or emmock.com punishment.)
WHAT IS PAUL DOING IN HIS LETTERS?
At first the answer seems obvious: he’s organising and educating people who have responded to his preaching about God and Messiah Jesus. But immediately we should recognise this answer as too simple. We have to go back a stage, and recognise that what we have is an edited collection of Paul’s correspondence, some of which is clearly not by Paul. A number of editors have been at work some re-presenting Paul for a new generation of believers, some using his name to present the views of others. We know very little about this process, but we can detect on the one hand, a movement away from Paul’s thought and practice towards a less charismatic version of faith, and on the other, a movement back to Paul which wants to maintain his special theology. It is generally accepted by scholars that Hebrews, Timothy and Titus are definitely not by Paul; that Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Corinthians, Philemon and Romans are almost certainly by Paul, and that Colossians and Ephesians may or may not be. Apart from the letters we have no other reliable information about Paul except that he is a major figure in The Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of Luke’s Gospel, around 90 C.E. The Acts is a major source for at least one strand of the churches’ memory of Paul, but it is not a modern history as it contains a mixture of fact and legend which is almost impossible to disentangle.
We should doubtless forget all that, and concentrate on the authentic letters. But even here, many scholars have detected the hands of editors, for example, as I have done in seeing 2 Corinthians 10-13 as the remains of an earlier separate letter. Smaller but significant bits of editing certainly took place as the manuscript tradition reveals. Careful readers of Paul must make their own decisions about these issues, using the best evidence available, but they will also be aware of what an astonishing privilege it is to have these ancient letters, from such an early stage in the development of Christianity, preserved at all, and in such a largely undistorted state.
But they are letters written for particular audiences to deal with particular issues about which we know litte more than what the letters themselves reveal. Sometimes we have Paul’s version of the issue he’s addressing, but we never have the recipients’ version. Historical, geographical, socio-economical, theological and rhetorical scholarship have been brought to bear on this issue throughout he history of the church. Small gains have been made in understanding the nature of the Assemblies established by Paul and his colleagues; and in identifying what the issues may have been; but in truth, there are few certain conclusions and there probably will never be. This means that any commentary on a Pauline letter always involves the commentator inventing a historical narrative that fits what facts she has. For this reason there are forms of commentary which reject the whole idea of historical reference and accept the text as it stands as the Word of God, or simply as a rhetorical construction that says what it says. The first of these positions is that of some biblical fundamentalists, the second that of many post-modern scholars. Neither are of much interest to me, so when reading these letters over the years, I have invented changing stories that encompass what I know and understand about these texts. Guess – work and creativity are required to interpret them. Those who fondly imagine that theirs is the only right interpretation should take a look at the right interpretations of those who thought Timothy and Titus were written by Paul.
I am in awe of Prof. N.T. Wright’s meticulous work on Paul, but his Paul is not mine, in part because he thinks T &T might well be by Paul, but more because he seems to believe that Paul’s story of God is historically true. God really did choose Israel, he really did give them his Holy law, he really did send disaster upon them and exile them from their land because they neglected his law, he really did despair of them doing his work, and therefore he really did send his son Jesus the Anointed, to get him a new people drawn from all the nations. I do not deny that something like that is the story Paul took from his own tradition, but there’s a fundamental difference between those who turn the story into history, and those who ask about the history of the story, especially about what inventing and refining such a story might mean.
Those who take the “realist” position, that says, God did this and that and the next thing, somehow manage to detach the story from the storytellers, the belief from the believers. Biblical authors become purveyors of doctrine and little more, as if they had no life outside their writing. This is especially inappropriate with Paul, who snatched time from his dynamic activity as a missionary to dictate his letters. I have tried to imagine Paul as a person in his various contexts of living. I’ve asked what he was like as a Pharisee, whether he liked women and was married, how he learned his trade, and so on, and I did so, not out of novelistic sentiment, but because I wanted to think what it meant for that man to have written these words.
Paul grew up in a tradition which provided a detailed story about the origins, history and faith of his people, in the Torah, Prophecy and Writings that constituted their scripture. The story they told was utterly different from a secular history of the people, for its great kings are judged not according to their administrative or martial skills, but solely by whether they permitted worship of Canaanite Gods and Goddesses alongside Yahweh, the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. This alerts us to a fundamental truth: people, in this case, generations of Jewish people, invented a story about God, humanity and themselves, which means they invented and continued to invent this God. Continuing to invent was important as it prevented God from going out of date. Sometimes this meant that there were multiple versions of the same event or revelation, sometimes the new replaced the old.
It was also a playful tradition with regard to its scripture: God had not only given them these texts, but also the responsibility for arguing over their meaning. The history of Jewish theology is the history of these arguments as collected in the Mishnah and the Talmuds. Paul was used to this process and would as a Pharisee have been open to the notion that stories of God were “inventions” rather than history, and that they could be altered, re-interpreted or added to, so that they took account of experience. Of course he would not have used the word “invention”; he would have said that it was all God’s truth, which could however be treated with an inventive freedom that would scandalise even the most liberal of modern scholars.
For what is it to be part of a tradition that invents God? It is to allow that tradition and its stories to fashion your way of living and thinking; reading it to guide your own reading of reality; while also allowing it to read you, uncovering the bits of your life that fit the story and those that don’t. Often that may mean altering your life, but sometimes it may mean altering the tradition. These will be crucial moments in the life of the tradition, determining its capacity to relate to new kinds of experience. In Paul’s case, his own experience of Jesus Messiah and his followers, led him towards a radical re-write of his people’s scripture, which displaced the Jewish people as such, along with their Torah from the centre of the story and replaced them with Jesus Messiah and his good news of God’s love for all humanity. The story he created is a mapping of his experience of good and evil in his own life. In his arrogance he had approved persecution of a good man as a lawbreaker and sinner, because he had in God’s name sided with lawbreakers and sinners. He had then persecuted people who believed that man to be God’s Messiah, Forgiver and Renewer of life. The suffering of Jesus which overflowed into the suffering of his stubborn followers became for Paul an overwhelming argument against the Pharisaical story of God and his own self-righteous violence. The forgiving victim became his master, whose story he now wanted to tell to the gentiles.
It names what Paul experiences as the origin and power of this transformation. He names it as the source of the cosmos, of human life, of his people’s history, of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. of the Assemblies of Jesus, and of the ultimate perfecting of creation. This way of attributing all goodness to one source only is profoundly Jewish. The unification of Paul’s character is seen as part of the unification of all things through love. It is the same unification that Dante achieves at the end of the Paradiso:
The Divine Comedy/Paradiso/Canto XXXIII
Here my ambitious fantasy broke off
and like a wheel moves smoothly without jars
my will and my desire were moved by love
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Paul’s story of God does the same for us as Dante’s poetry: invites us to imagine our lives and the life of the universe as the movement of one love.
No one should think that because I have used the word “Invent” of how we humans get a God, I am saying that God is unreal. Human beings invent all reality, from the particles studied by physicists to the table at which I sit. The fact that human beings are involved in creating reality doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.