Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

Paul

In the beginning, I loved Paul. I loved the “how to” sections at the end of the letters, and the one and two liners throughout. He explained the meaning and application of the gospel stories to me.

With a little more wisdom, I became disenchanted. I told my spiritual director, “Where I can actually understand him, I disagree with him!” He seemed foundational for all the reactionary rot the church engaged in. He seemed the darling of that part of the church which alienated and abused me, and others. I was not yet wise enough to see that their misuse of him did not mean he was one of them.

Something calls me back. He predates the Gospels. As a colleague asks, “Who is the only major Christian Theologian never to have read the four gospels? ... Paul was most likely dead before the earliest gospel was written.” He is a whole generation of the Faith that came before the gospel stories that lead and inspire me. What am I missing?

And there is his passion and hope which once gripped me. That resonates, still. Perhaps he is not the forensic essayer of frozen grace which some seem to present, but a mystic who is trying to put words around his experience of the Divine. What is behind those letters where he exhorts and argues with his friends? What drives him?

Perhaps my greatest mistake was to think there is only one Paul in the New Testament. There are at least four. There is the Paul described to us by the author of Luke-Acts. He has a purpose for Paul. He uses Paul as a part of his story. Paul may not have agreed with “Luke,” but it never occurred to me to distinguish between Lukan Paul and Paul the letter writer.

There is the Paul who wrote the seven almost universally accepted genuine letters. (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon.) We should not assume, of course, that Paul himself might say of one of these, “Ah, but that was then! Now I think this. ”

There is the Paul(s) who wrote the three letters which many believe to be written by admirers seeking to interpret him, and perhaps tone him down, for their situation. (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.) How much do they represent the true Paul to us, and how much did they misunderstand him? Why did they write?

There are three letters which the scholars generally agree which were not written by Paul. These are the two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus. Even a cursory reading can see the contrast between them and the genuine letters. There is no doubt they seek to reinterpret him as much as they admire him.

Slowly I have begun to make my peace. If I am tantalised by the promise in Galatians, it may not mean I have to defend the rigidity of the writer to Timothy.

An easy to ready exposition of these several Pauls can be found in Chapter One of “The First Paul,” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. (SPCK 2009) In this series I plan to follow their general conclusions about authorship.

Many voices in my past warned me about scholars like Borg and Crossan. Stay with the plain meaning of the text, they begged. Do not be misled. Be faithful to Jesus.

To be faithful to Jesus means to engage the scholars who have given him a lifetime of study. Any Christian who trusts the best we humans can do, and crosses bridges, rides in cars, and has faith in aeroplanes, but does not trust our best scholarship, is not faithful. What faith, unless full of fear, does not trust Jesus and God, and thinks God needs protection from scholarship, and must be insulated off from the rest of the world, and the way we know things?

I will begin to read Paul again.

Andrew Prior  Jan. 2012


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