28.8.09

Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the conservative icon


Marcus J Borg and Dominic Crossan have really held my attention with their 'The First Paul', (not finished it, yet) and they are really making me think...

Primarily, they have made me wonder what kind of a 'Bible-reader' I am, for want of a better way of putting it.

On page 13, they describe how:

What differentiates mainstream scholars from fundamentalist and many conservative scholars is that the former do not begin with the presumption that the Bible is unlike other books in that it has a divine guarantee to be inerrant and infallible. Rather, mainstream scholars see the Bible as a historical product that can be studied as other historical documents are...
So where do I sit? There have to be shades of grey in between these two extremes. (Oh, how us Anglicans love sitting in the middle). I do begin with the presumption that the Bible is unlike other books in that it has a divine guarantee to be inerrant and infallible but I also believe that it can be studied as a historical product like other historical documents. I first came to realise that investigation of the Bible in this way is possible without being blasphemous when I started to study Deuteronomy with Dr Daryl Docterman.

For example, even though the New Testament witnesses to Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy through Christ, Peter and Stephen (Matt. 19:7,8; Mark 10:3,4; Acts 3:22; 7:37), theories since the Enlightenment have posited multiple redactors, who are thought to have combined older traditions, oral and written, into a single text woven from many parts. A critical reader becomes conscious of discrepancies in redaction because of explicit features of the text such as Moses' death, which is reported in chapter 34 and can only be being reported by a later redactor.

Some Christians might think that if Christ witnesses to Mosaic authorship then who are we to put our own judgments above God. Well, again, I think Christians can sometimes set up unhelpful categories. Mosaic or not Mosaic? Do you believe Jesus or not? Well, there are countless examples of claims in the Bible that we shouldn't take literally. We have to understand the literary genres. For example, do I have to believe that exactly 3000 people were added to the believers in Acts or might this be hyperbole? I can still understand that a very significant number received the Holy Spirit and were converted. Do I have to believe that all the Amakalites were wiped out in Deuteronomy or do I instead understand that these claims belong to the genre of conquest narrative in which huge claims were made about the spoils and victories in battles much as today we would exaggerate the size of the fish that we caught on our day fishing?

What investigation like this does, though, is have you take great care about where to draw the line. We must guard our lives and doctrine carefully and not be buffeted and blown or led away by false teaching. Certain points in the Bible are non-negotiables.

So to bring this aside to a close, historical investigation does not worry me because I still think that despite its more complicated journey into what we know it today, the formation of the Bible is still something inspired by the Holy Spirit and is exactly as God would have us have it!

So I am not threatened by Borg and Crossan's explanation of how the radical Paul (in his 7 authentic letters) becomes the reactionary Paul in the pastoral epistles (Tim 1 and 2 and Titus, regarded by most scholars as not to have been written by Paul at all because they accommodate themselves too much to the conventional mores of Paul's time) and the conservative Paul in Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians (the disputed letters).

Now prior to reading Crossan and Borg and studying the NT Epistles (which will be my first module in Sept), I have always been able to see all the letters as having been written by Paul. But it is harder for the Church to read the messages of Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy as consistent with the rest of Paul's teachings. Now I am not saying that I have some kind of superior knowledge because I can read them as having been written by Paul, but it could be that not all Christians look into the various interpretations because there are many Christian women, in particular, who simply discount Paul because they read parts of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, Eph, Col etc as being different in tone regarding women. I have heard Christian women say that they love Jesus but they have some serious problems with Paul. This is regrettable and is a situation not alleviated by the Church who have for the second millennium, until fairly recently, considered Junia, whom Paul calls an apostle, a man. Today, consistent with the first millennium, it is known that Junia is the name of a woman. But what was the church going to do with Paul's claiming a woman an apostle? It just didn't suit the prevailing, patriarchal culture. There are other examples of how the Church has not made life easy for those who believe in a radical Paul. Our Bible translations separate verse 21 from 22 with a side-heading in Ephesians, chapter 5, leading readers to lose the sense that the submission Paul is describing is a mutual submission 'to the Lord'.

I have been helped in my reading of the epistles so that a radical Paul is radical throughout by Fee, NT Wight, Bilezikian, Cheryl Schatz, Groothius etc. The Church of England has obviously understood a Paul who is radical too because it teaches an egalitarian Christian theology in which women and men are gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve their families, the Church and the world without it also depending on their gender. The C of E have ordained women since the nineties and will soon consecrate the first female bishops (well, relatively soon).

So, how now do I take on board Crossan and Borg's theory that we read 1 Tim 2 11-15 etc as at odds with the rest of Paul's theology and attribute these verses to another writer?

Crossan and Borg even go so far as to claim that the writer of Tim 1, 2 and Titus is anti-Pauline with regard to major aspects of his theology. These letters 'represent a domestication of Paul's passion to the normalcy of the Roman imperial world.'

They take Philemon as 'the perfect test case'. They look at how Paul could have 'sent the Christian slave back to his Christian owner with admonitions for each: Onesimus is to obey and Philemon is to forgive. Or he could have requested that Onesimus remain as his own slave or even be freed into his care. But no, as we have seen, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon so that Philemon can - that is, must - free him voluntarily as is his Christian duty deriving from his Christian baptismal commitment. Christians cannot be equal and unequal to one another in Christ. But that equality within the Christian assembly spills out into the streets and fills up all of Christian life. Christians are to be equal to one another inside and outside, in the assembly and in our society.'

It's all very convincing - this reading of a radical Paul, intent on equality, turning his world upside down as did Jesus, not segregating the women as had happened in worship within the synagogues but allowing all to lead, preach, teach, pray and prophesy in the house-group churches of the day because ultimately God is the head of the household and all his children are equal and gifted by the Holy Spirit. But their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the letters in terms of authorship is problematic.

So it just leaves me asking, with all our interpretations, exegetical hang-ups, hermeneutical bridges, agendas, presuppositions, theories, prejudices, of which there are many on many sides, Paul did a great deal for Christianity (understatement!) but what has Christianity done to Paul?

When are we really (and now I am going to sound very post-modern) going to know the truth? For me, whether I believe Paul wrote all the letters or whether I come to see in time and with theological education that perhaps Paul didn't write all those letters, Paul will remain for me radical, inclusive of women and anti-slavery; the master-teacher of mutual submission between Christians.

What will a theological education, which is at the same time training for ordained ministry, have me say from the pulpit...surely that all these letters are Paul's? Is the choice here symptomatic of the difference between evangelical and mainstream Anglicanism? Or should I have said liberal rather than mainstream Anglicanism?

I'll blog some more on Crossan and Borg. I haven't made me mind up about them but theirs is just one more theory about Paul for me to add to the growing collection.

7 comments:

Peter Carrell said...

Do Crossan and Borg take account of the canonical status of the Pauline letters, i.e. that the church in its wisdom accepted the Pauline letters as Pauline letters, and might just have been intelligent enough to reckon that a consistent, coherent theology is present through the sum of them?

Rachel Marszalek said...

I know they posit liberal against conservative, rather unhelpfully and they side with the former. They also consider themselves mainstream scholars interested in the Bible as a historical document, they do not sit under it for I think this would cause them to describe themselves as fundamentalist, which at all costs, they seem to want to avoid. I think, of Crossan I can be more secure in saying this, they take little notice of of biblical canonicity.

Tim said...

My favourite quote with regard these type of critics is that of C.S.Lewis:

"They claim to spot fern-seed, but can't spot an elephant in broad daylight at ten paces."

I remember having an argument at Uni with a prof of biblical criticism. He had tried to claim that the book of Acts had been written in the late 2nd century AD by a committee called 'Luke'. He lost the argument with me, in front of the whole class. Their methods are childish, and totally unscientific.

Have you read Redating the New Testament by J.T.Robinson? Now there's an interesting book.

Rachel Marszalek said...

Great Tim, Amazon here I come.

Anonymous said...

Crossan and Borg are both pretty mainstream liberal, both would deny that Jesus was divine or that the Incarnation happened, and both deny that the Resurrection physically happened - in fact, Crossan thinks Jesus was buried in a shallow grave and dogs ate his body. So what they say about the 'Pauline' corpus (again, pretty standard 19th German views) is mild compared to what they believe about the Gospels.
If you want to follow them, good luck, you'll need it.
Anon1

Anonymous said...

Borg's doubts about the Resurrection of Christ:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/religion/jesus_3-28.html

Rachel Marszalek said...

I know anon - I've abandoned the book 3/4 of the way through because they were speaking with too much assumed authority and it was getting on my nerves. I'd always come to this book in the knowledge of Crossan's assoc. with the Jesus Seminar and his denials of the resurrection, so I read the book with this in mind.

Thanks anyway - I'll follow the links
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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions