Paul: a health warning

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (1 of 2 introducing Paul)

I expect this to be the first of two posts introducing Paul. In the second, I want to take a look at some of his characteristic themes, but today, I want to renew a health warning I have occasionally mentioned elsewhere. Everything you read here is just my opinion. I hope my opinions are well-grounded in the text and the world it was written in. I hope they provide good, illuminating and helpful ways of reading the text. I hope they help you read it, for yourself, and to others, with fresh understanding. But there are always other opinions available.

This variety of views is nowhere more obvious than it is with regard to Paul’s writings. One of the earliest comments we have on them comes in the Second Letter of Peter:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

2 Peter 3:15-16
El Greco’s early 17th century painting of St Paul. Via Wikimedia Commons

For most of the last 500 years, there has been a dominant tradition of reading Paul that owed a huge amount to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. It assumed Paul was a Protestant, and often forgot he was a Jew. Most of the critical scholarship that developed in the modern period did so in a Protestant context, and this favoured the letters which stressed the themes of the Reformation, above all the letter to the Romans. Other views were very much in the minority.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, this consensus was pretty much shattered, although the view still has its fans. But with the breaking of that consensus, just about every possible interpretation of Paul is now seriously offered in scholarly argument, even if only by a handful of people. That means that for most of us, understanding Paul has become something of a minefield.

You won’t have to go far to find someone who will passionately disagree with some or even much of what I say. Nonetheless, I hope, bearing that health warning in mind, what I say here will commend itself to you by helping make sense of Paul’s writings, not least the passages that we read in the lectionary. I will only occasionally draw your attention to these controversies, and concentrate much more on Paul’s own themes.

Gaining an understanding of Paul does matter for those who read it in public worship. The lectionary has more selections from Paul than from any other biblical author, even if we only count the letters nearly everyone agrees that he wrote. That may be a new idea to you, that some people think Paul is not the author of all the books that bear his name, or you may have come across it before. It’s one we need to look at briefly.

Which letters did Paul write? Well, in one sense, none of them. He composed letters, yes, but the actual writing was left to others: fellow workers doing the work of scribes, and possibly amateur scribes at that. Typically, we can think of Paul dictating his letters, and occasionally scrawling something on the parchment or papyrus. At the end of his most frantic and angry letter to the Galatians he adds: “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand” (Gal 6:11). They are large letters in contrast to the neater writing of a practiced scribe, perhaps a professional writer, perhaps a slave in a Christian household. Sometimes the scribe adds his own line, as Tertius does at the end of Romans (Rom 16:22).

For most scholars, there are differences in style between Paul’s letters. Some are much more noticeable than others. (These are often harder to spot in translation: we might notice whether something sounds more like the King James Version or the Message, but translations often make the biblical authors sound quite like each other!) These differences of style raise questions whether they are due to a scribe having more say in the content, Paul addressing a different audience and tailoring his style accordingly, or someone else writing in Paul’s name (with or without his authority to do so). In particular, many scholars have serious doubts about whether Paul wrote the letters to Timothy and Titus.

Collectively but somewhat misleadingly these are referred to as the Pastoral Epistles. They are much more Organisational Letters in which Paul (the presumed author) tells Timothy or Titus (the presumed recipient) how to run the church. In these there is a very different style, but also a very different context, as letters written (on the surface at least) by an apostle able to give orders to a junior colleague, and expect them to be carried out. In these letters, he does not need to persuade a church to go along with him. For many people, the style (and some content) is simply too different to be Paul. Others are still persuaded Paul is (in at least some sense) the authorial mind behind the text.

Most of Paul’s letters, however, are written as letters to specific churches, addressing particular problems. We are in the frustrating position of someone overhearing a phone call: we can hear one end of the conversation, but we have no idea what the other party is saying. We have to make guesses about the situation, the problem, and the question being asked from the comments and answers Paul makes. There’s plenty of room to misunderstand details there.

Because Paul is always responding off the cuff to particular contexts, his thoughts spread across the different letters. He will emphasise one theme here, and another there. He never sits down to organise his thoughts into a neat theological system. Unfortunately, perhaps, there have been an awful lot of people who have wanted to do it for him, and they have often turned his occasional arguments into a comprehensive theology.

This is another reason for the arguments about which letters Paul himself wrote. There’s always a risk that people construct their own picture of Paul’s theology, and then chuck out the letters that don’t fit very well. For rather a long time, one of the arguments used against Paul’s authorship of Ephesians, or the Pastoral Letters, was that they were too churchy. That, however, says more about the dominance of post-Enlightenment German Protestantism in modern scholarship, than it does about Paul.

Paul is often landed with a bad reputation. That may say as much about his interpreters and their prejudices as it does about Paul. The perceived prejudices mask someone who was sometimes quite revolutionary in his attitudes to Graeco-Roman society. I find him a fascinating character: not always one I’d have felt very comfortable to be with, but someone who was and is endlessly stimulating. In my next post, I’ll take a look at some key ideas.

2 thoughts on “Paul: a health warning

  1. Pingback: House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters – Liturgica

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