Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Will the Real St.Paul Please Stand Up?

Written by two Jesus scholars, this 2009 HarperOne book is a fascinating search for the real Paul, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth. Marcus Borg is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture, Emeritus at Oregon State University and Canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, co-authoring this book with Catholic theologian, John Dominic Crossan, an Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Thus there is a lot of scholarship behind the book and an interesting interaction between Protestant and Catholic theology.

These two scholars purposed to discover the theology of the origin historical Paul. They carefully lay the groundwork by emphasizing that Paul can only be discovered by interpreting his writings through the context of the communities he wrote to, the early Jesus movement, first century Judaism and the influence of the dominant Roman empire. They further set the stage by identifying four 'Pauls.'

(1) The "Radical" Paul who wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon.
(2) The "Reactionary" Paul who wrote 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus
(3) The "Conservative" Paul who wrote Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians
(4) The Paul as depicted by Luke in Acts

According to the authors, the "Radical" Paul is the historical Paul and the other three are attempts by others to modify his teachings in order to make it acceptable to the Roman Empire.

This "Radical" Paul

(1) is against slavery (the authors did a masterful study of Philomen)
(2) is for equality of the sexes
(3) is a Jewish Christ mystic in his personal encounters with the risen Christ
(4) understood the cross as (a) God's plan is for peaceful empire (versus the Roman empire); (b) participatory atonement as a transformational pathway; and (c) revelation of God's character
(5) Justification by grace through faith is God's distributive justice, not retributive justice. God's grace for a new nature or 'Spirit transplant' is available for all people.
(6) Life together 'in Christ' is a sort of 'share community' of Gentiles and Jews.

This is an interesting fusion of Protestant and Roman Catholic Pauline theology done during the Year of Paul as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church. The authors put forth convincing arguments for their claims but it would have been better if a more detailed study is presented instead of what appear to be a brief abstract of certain key points. A work of this magnitude should merit more than 224 pages (Hardcover edition) and a single page of notes!

While this is an excellent work of scholarship, it begs the question, "what then?" Are we supposed to only retain the seven epistles of the "Radical" Paul and throw away the rest? That will be a large proportion of the New Testament we will be discarding. Yet that is what we must do if we follow through in this study and remain true to Paul's teaching.



  1. JDC has always been quite innovative and 'anti-empire'. I suppose this book could serve as good info for the socio-political activist movement(s).

    But yeah like u said they probably needed (but left out) a good section on praxis. A good complement could be Bryan Walsh's "Colossians Remixed"

  2. Hi Alwyn,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I will read Bryan Walsh's book.