Colonies of heaven: Christianity as a Roman religion in Philippians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Christianity might have been born in a thoroughly Jewish home, but it quickly got sent to a Roman boarding school. In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we see something of that happening. Philippi, like Corinth was a Roman colony, and Paul draws rather more positively on that heritage to shape his language when he writes to the Philippians, than he does in his more troubled relationship with Corinth. Indeed, it may well have been the Philippian church Paul had in mind when he spoke of the generosity of the Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), appealing to the competitive spirit at Corinth, and trying to get them to up their game in the generosity stakes.

Paul envisages in Philippians that his death might be a very real possible outcome of his imprisonment. The picture is the traditional site of Paul’s burial in Rome.
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A bold vision of a cosmic church: Ephesians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

When we turn from Galatians to Ephesians, the change of tone is startling. This is one of those letters where the tone is rather less argumentative as well as less specific than Paul normally is. For many scholars, that suggests a disciple of Paul summarising some key elements of his master’s teaching. For others, it represents simply a different scribe, and Paul in a more reflective and different mode of teaching. The letter certainly shares Paul’s love of long and convoluted sentences, with Eph 1:3-14 essentially being a single sentence in the original Greek (depending on your view of what a sentence is!).

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Paul’s angriest letter: Galatians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Galatians, selections of which are read in the early Sundays of Ordinary Time after Eastertide in Year C, reads like Paul’s hastiest and angriest letter. He addresses the recipients as “foolish Galatians!” (Gal 3.1) And the letter includes one of his rudest comments, carefully left out of the lectionary, “Those agitators [arguing for circumcision] had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!” (Gal 5:12 REB) Paul’s passion and anger revolve around the subjects of circumcision especially, but also sharing a common meal.

A statue of Paul with a sword (symbolising the word of God) seems particularly appropriate for this fiery letter. The statue is in St Paul’s Outside the Walls, Rome.
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Keeping up with the Corinthians: a second letter to Corinth

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Paul wrote more than two letters to the Corinthians: it’s the only way of making sense of the letters he mentions in his correspondence with them. It’s just that we don’t have any more than two collected in our scriptures, and don’t know what happened to the other(s). We have no way of knowing exactly how many there were. Some scholars, observing that the letter in the Bible called Second Corinthians seems a bit of a patchwork, suggest that it could have been stitched together from at least two, and perhaps three original letters.

There’s no real evidence to say so. The changes of mood and direction could just as well come down to getting interrupted mid-dictation by some event or news which caused a swerve in the argument. Since no-one has ever found a fragment of manuscript that shows a version of the letter with a different beginning, middle or ending, I think I prefer the simplicity of an interruption causing Paul to alter course. Either way, it’s a reminder that there are simply gaps in our knowledge, and not everything Paul wrote ended up as scripture.

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When the church doesn’t do “Christian”: pastoral care case by case in First Corinthians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

From looking at Paul’s most carefully and tightly argued letter, we turn to one that is almost a ragbag of collected problems, First Corinthians. These problems are either ones that the Corinthians have written to Paul about, or ones he has heard of from others. Here, even more than usual, we are aware as readers that we only have half a conversation.

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Tracing Paul’s argument in Romans: from Abraham to Jesus and beyond

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts on Romans.

In my previous post, I offered a picture of the context at Rome which causes Paul to write this letter. It is written to a city in which divisions between Jews and Greeks focussed on claims about Jesus have previously boiled over, and may be heating up again. I noted that more than in most letters, with Romans you need a grasp of the overall argument to see the meaning of any individual reading. Today I offer that kind of outline of how I read this letter. There are others.

The Colosseum, built after Paul’s day, reminds us how much violence was a feature of life in the Roman Empire

Paul’s first three chapters, after an opening greeting, step straight into this. Paul initially takes up and repeats the common criticisms Jews made of the pagan world, and then he echoes some not atypical Roman anti-Semitic attacks on Jews. Both are shown to deserve the criticism the other dishes out, but Paul goes on to privilege the Jewish scriptural tradition, not because it was given to the Jews, but because it was given by God. God will be faithful even when God’s people are not. In point of fact, the scripture reinforces the mutual criticism Jew and Greek heap on each other, for it says “There is no-one righteous, no, not one.” (Rom 3:10)1

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A letter, not a compendium of theology: Paul writes to the Romans

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The first of two posts on Romans.

Rome’s chariot race track was already an established feature in Paul’s day.

Romans is Paul’s longest letter (just beating 1 Corinthians to the punch). It’s worth noting that this is why it comes first in the New Testament: Paul’s letters are organised in order of decreasing length. The Sunday lectionary contains readings from all its chapters except 2 and 3, so we need to spend a bit of time on it.

The number of readings reflects both its length, and the way it has been thought of, especially since the Reformation, as the most important of Paul’s letters, and a kind of compendium of his thought. Despite that long tradition, most people nowadays go at least part way to accepting that it is a response to specific circumstances, just like Paul’s other letters. It is written for a particular situation, not as a timeless treatise of theology. Different scholars give more or less weight to a whole range of different reasons, so I am going simply to outline my own speculation, which I think helps make sense of the letter’s content.

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A radical faith in a faithful Messiah: some themes in Paul’s letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts introducing Paul.

In the previous post, I looked at some of the general issues involved in reading Paul’s letters. In today’s blog, I want to explore a couple of key themes. There are core ideas which crop up repeatedly in Paul’s thinking; but the specific ways he develops them belong to the different contexts of each individual letter.

One idea which crops up in a number of contexts is usually called “justification by faith”. Since some people suggest this is Paul’s main, only, or central theme, we need to spend a little bit of time looking at it here, while saving many other themes for individual letters. It’s probably also worth repeating my previously given health warning: other views of Paul are available, and here we enter one of the more controversial (and occasionally rather bad-tempered) areas of both modern scholarship and church-dividing doctrine.

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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:

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We are an Easter people: the Acts of the Apostles

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Triptych of Pentecost by the Florentine artist Orcagna (Andrea di Cione)
Via Wikimedia Commons. As in most early representations, the Mother of the Lord is central.

As I turn to a book that is unique in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, I note that the lectionary uses it in a unique way. The church reads the stories of the earliest churches during the Sundays of Easter in place of a reading from the Old Testament. My title reflects that: it comes from a saying frequently attributed to St Augustine “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song.”1

The Acts of the Apostles stands in a genre of its own among canonical literature, though writing legendary “Acts of …” various apostles became something of a literary pastime among the early Christians. It clearly shares a great many of the themes of Luke’s Gospel, to which it forms the sequel. If Luke’s gospel was largely the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the Acts of the Apostles is the story of how Jesus’s word makes the journey from Jerusalem to Rome.

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