Bible 2219

I have been examining biblical passages to show the role imagination plays in constructing faith. The comments of my friend Ksarant on  bible blog 2218 have led me to take another example from St. Paul to show why I disagree with him.

Romans chapter 5 (my translation)

So, since we have been made into just people by our trust, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Messiah. Through his faithfulness we also have a way into this divine goodwill in which we stand and boast – in hope! – of the splendour of God. Not only that, we even boast of our troubles; knowing that trouble produces endurance; endurance produces fortitude; and fortitude issues in hope; and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us.

While we were still feeble, at the appointed time, Messiah died for those who despise God. Now hardly anyone will die even for a decent person – although maybe for a good person someone would have the courage to die- but God proves his love for us in that while we were still wrongdoers, Messiah died for us.

If now, in his blood, we have been made into just people, how much more shall we be rescued by him from God’s anger! For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his son, so much the more now we shall be rescued by his life. Not only that, even our self-advertisement is now in God through our Lord Jesus Messiah, by means of whom we received reconciliation. So we may say that just as sin came into the world through one man, and through sin, death which spread to all human beings because they all sinned –

(prior to the Jewish Law, there was sin in the world, but sin is not counted when there is no Law. Yet death held sway from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sin was not like the commandment- breaking of Adam. He is the negative image of the One-to- Come. But the favour is not to be compared with the wrongdoing. For if death came to many through the wrongdoing of one man, God’s favour to so many as a gift through the one man Jesus Messiah has done much more. Nor is the gift to be compared with the result of the one man’s sin. For the judgement after one wrong action was condemnation, but the favour after many wrong actions makes wrongdoers into just people. Because of one man’s wrongdoing, death ruled through that one man; but those who receive God’s overflowing favour and saving justice will rule much more powerfully in life)

– one man’s wrongdoing brought condemnation on all humanity but one man’s just action brings a just life to all. By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, but by one man’s obedience many will be made just. When the Jewish Law arrived, it multiplied the wrongdoing; but where sin increased, God’s favour was superabundant, so that as sin ruled in death, God’s favour would also rule through the rescuing justice that offers eternal life through Jesus Messiah, our Lord.

The point I would take up with Kostas is his remarks on Paul’s habitual use of Greek rhetorical devices, which he decries firstly as incomprehensible to ordinary members of the Assemblies of Jesus, and secondly as incompatible with his rejection of Greek wisdom. The latter is easily disposed of: Paul saw wisdom as the handmaiden of faith and love, and not as the supreme virtue of human life. His dismissal of Greek gnosis (knowledge) is similar: “knowledge puffs up but love builds up”, but knowledge in the service of love and faith, is desirable.

In the passage above, Paul uses a Greek rhetorical construction in his ascending list of virtues, such as he might have found in Stoic writings, but his list is also based on his own hard-won experience, and would have surely been comprehensible to his audience. The literary device of an ascending list serves to make his point  clear and beautiful. Paul was able to imagine the inheritance of Greek culture as a help rather than a hindrance to the joyful news of Jesus, and to the life of his Assemblies, just as he had been able to imagine the peoples of the Empire as recipients of the joyful news. The idea that Paul was carving out an empire for himself rather than for God is contradicted by this huge imaginative leap and by the danger, toil and criticism to which it exposed him. We also should note the many expressions of Paul’s affection for the Assemblies and their members.

Again Paul doesn’t leave his conviction about non-jews as a mere programme of action, he also imagines God’s love for his gentile converts; “those who despise God” is a translation of the Greek word which Jews used to describe non-Jews. Paul insists that the Messiah died for them. Can something like God’s love be imagined into existence? No, the imagination is precisely of a love that already exists but needs to be announced so that people may trust it.

Then Paul goes on to record his grand imagination about Adam and Jesus. There may have been contemporary Jewish speculation about the relationship of Adam and Messiah, but it would have been very different from Paul’s  comparison, as orthodox Jewish faith saw the Messiah as first of all for Israel, whereas Paul sees Messiah Jesus as being for all humanity. His basic imagination is the series Adam- disobedience- transfer of sin- leading to death/ Jesus-obedience- transfer of justice- leading to eternal life. But he makes a mess of his syntax (which I have indicated by a parenthesis) because he wants to emphasise the overwhelmingly greater effect of God’s action in Jesus Messiah.

The nature of Paul’s imagination is to see Adam and Jesus as progenitors of the old and the new status of human beings: the first as ruled by sin and death conceived as cosmic powers; the second as liberated by Jesus from these powers to live as just people under God. Clearly he does not imagine these states as simply successive eras of history, but rather as existing contemporaneously within every person and every community of faith. Already the powers of sin and death are broken, but human beings have not yet realised their full freedom.

The power of this imaginative picture is that it can be understood by all. My great aunt, the wife of a missionary, and certainly no intellectual, used to describe her infrequent bursts of bad temper as “my Old Man jumping out”. Scholars and theologians have written millions of words about Paul, but it’s his imagination which placed his message in the minds and lives of believers.





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  1. So you choose Romans 5 to respond to my rejection of Paul. This is precisely one of the chapters that I most reject, and your translation does not improve matters. How you get “his faithfulness” in verse 2 is beyond me. Clearly you subscribe to the theses promoted by some recent scholars about the faith of Jesus. That’s fine, it’s not an issue with me, because I don’t really care what Paul thought about this and many other matters. My problem with the chapter you chose to demonstrate Paul’s “grand imagination” is that it is precisely writings like this that promoted mythological and juridical understandings of salvation. Why should I believe anything Paul writes here if Adam is just a myth? Meaningless nonsense about death spreading to all human beings because Adam sinned. Not only does Paul rely on myth, but he expands the myth’s reach way beyond even what the original myth maker(s) had in mind! Here is Paul the creator of the dogma of “original sin” which has plagued Christianity for 2,000 years. And all that stuff that you so appropriately put in parentheses? Just more examples of Paul’s meaningless rhetoric. And his attitude to the Law? What Jew would agree that the Law caused more wrongdoing? Is Paul obsessed with sin or not? You like this guy? But thanks for at least translating verse 20 correctly – which shows how sick Paul’s mind could get. ‘Multiplied’ is indeed an accurate translation of pleonásē. So God provided the Law through Moses in order that there would be more sin in the world, just so that God souls show off his grace in response? Only in Paul’s mind. Now if you had chosen Romans 8 as an example of Paul’s “grand imagination” I probably would have written nothing in response. But Romans 5? Ugh.

  2. Sorry, I missed an autocorrect my computer imposed. The phrase third line from the end should read: “just so that God could (not ‘souls’) show off his grace in response?”

  3. I think it’s reasonable to reject the teaching of St. Paul, albeit that’s a fair chunk of the New Testament. It may also be reasonable – although with less clear evidence- to dislike the character of St. Paul as defined by our own reading of his work.

    But it cannot be rational to denounce a man of peace, who whatever our dislike of him, tried to do some good in the world, because we attribute to him motives of which we cannot be certain, and opinions which we cannot fully justify from the text.

    However because this comment deserves to be taken seriously, I will deal with it at length in my next blog

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