Archive | July, 2010

Dear Pauline Post

1 Jul

The assignment that follows was originally submitted as my final synthesis paper for my course on the Letters of Paul at Regis College, Toronto, ON, Canada, on 7 April, 2010, MDiv I, Semester 2. Students were invited to synthesize the content of the course creatively. As the opening paragraph indicates, I chose to present the Pauline theology taught in the course and in its reading material as a series of letters and responses to an advice column similar to those found in contemporary newspapers. Unlike many previous essays posted here, the footnotes in this paper are in line with the text and are not listed separately.


The following will be a series of four fictitious letters to and responses from a columnist of “The Pauline Post,” a newspaper that presents themes from the Biblical letters of Paul in a contemporary context. These letters will follow the format of an advice column. The first letter and reply will focus on Paul as an enigmatic and divisive figure in both first century C.E. Mediterranean and in twenty-first century Western societies. The second letter-response will discuss Paul’s eschatology and use of apocalyptic literature and how his written style and expectation of the imminent Second Coming of Christ differs from the current long-term expectation of the parousia. This letter exchange will also relate Paul’s apocalyptic approach to his views on love, family life, gender differences, and sexuality. The third letter and response will treat Pauline kenotic theology and his perspective on the cross as human foolishness but divine wisdom. It will also question to what extent Paul opposed or acquiesced to Roman power and what import Paul’s relationship with Rome has for our view of civil authority today. Paul’s insistence upon the Christian goal of a common good will be the subject of the fourth letter and reply.

–           Dear Pauline Post: My husband, Ambrose, and I attended a church service last Sunday during which a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was proclaimed. The verse, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22) infuriated me but delighted my husband. I am afraid that Ambrose will cite Ephesians as a pretext to demand the same reverence from me as that which I owe to God alone. My husband contended that he would never consider himself equal to God, for Paul warned against pride in relationships- “love is not pompous [and] is not inflated” (1 Cor 13:4)- and against boasting: “God chose the lowly and despised of the world… to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.” (1 Cor 1:29) I remain unconvinced by Ambrose’s attempts to allay my concerns. If Paul were alive today, he would need to answer for having created such rows that threaten the unity of families. Signed: Furious in Philippi.

–           Dear Furious: Your husband would be heartened to know that the saint whose name he bears shared his favourable view of Paul. Indeed, St. Ambrose referred to St. Paul as “Christ’s second eye.” Other commentators have opined negatively about Paul’s representation of Jesus, about Paul’s vices over his virtues, or even against his saintliness. For example, A.N. Whitehead decried Paul’s distortion and subversion of Jesus’ teachings. Philosopher Ernest Renan described Paul as “proud, unbending, imperious…, self- assertive and masterful,” and “not by any means a saint.” The discord generated between you and your husband over the Pauline legacy is thus not unprecedented; Paul was a cause of division in the first century C.E. and remains so today. Theologian Gustav Deissmann accurately said that “there has probably seldom been anyone at the same time hated with such fiery hatred and loved with such strong passion as Paul.”

Concurrently understood, among many characterizations, as a saint, a founder of institutional Christianity, an anti-Jewish renegade, and a misogynist, Paul and his letters must be appraised within their first-century social milieu, which was as diverse as and in several ways dissimilar to the modern world. Paul contended with the clash of Jewish and Gentile influences on early Christianity, with the definition of the Christian minority’s place within the pagan Roman Empire, and with the expectation of Christ’s immediate return to establish God’s reign on earth. After Paul’s death under Nero and with dimming anticipation of a sudden parousia, Christian writers absorbed much of the Imperial social order pioneered by Caesar Augustus, which included strict regulation of gender roles and family life (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul, 95-99). Letters like Ephesians were penned during this period. The undisputedly authentic Pauline letters- Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon (Ibid., 105)- obscure boundaries of gender, social class, and ethnicity in favour of a more charismatic notion of church (Gal 3:26-29). Some scholars, like N.T. Wright, consider Colossians (N.T. Wright, Paul, 27) and Ephesians, which you cite, to have been written by Paul, but those texts diverge in vocabulary from and feature a higher Christology than the texts listed by Crossan and Reed (Ibid., 18-19)  and are usually classified as deutero-Pauline. If Paul were alive today amid Western civilization, he would be confronted with a society as divided as that of the first century, but on different matters. Those include increased spousal and familial strife, greater awareness of gender equality, extremes of poverty and of affluence, and the threat to peace posed by destructive weaponry coupled with heightened intra- and international friction. Paul, though, would perhaps be encouraged by proposed solutions to such problems, chiefly continued emphasis on solidarity of Christians toward the betterment of the world for all- a “common good” (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 26, 46-93).

–           Dear Pauline Post: In your response to Furious in Philippi, you rebutted the argument based on Ephesians 5:22 that Paul was opposed to an expanded role for women in the family and in the church by countering that Ephesians is considered by a majority of scholars to be of post-Pauline authorship. I referred to your column, which cites 1 Corinthians as authentically Pauline, in my recent homily centered on Paul’s instruction, “Women should keep silent in the churches.” (1 Cor 14:34) My suggestion that those Pauline words should be heeded verbatim in our age was contested by a woman whose tirade after Mass made me wonder if the end times were looming. In deep reflection after escaping the mob of parishioners who tried to throw me off the nearest cliff (Luke 4:29), I thought that Paul had abandoned his gender egalitarianism as time progressed with no sign of the parousia, hence his infamous passage in 1 Corinthians. I am confused, though, since the same First Letter to the Corinthians exalts both celibacy and marriage as divine vocations (1 Cor 7:7-11). Paul’s “only” exhortation is that “everyone should live as the Lord assigned, just as God called each one.” (v 17) Signed: Counting the Days in Corinth.

–           Dear Counting: Two issues are raised in your letter above: Pauline authenticity, particularly of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and the influence of apocalyptic theology on Paul’s perspectives on love, on family life, and on sexuality. Pauline redaction of 1 Corinthians is undisputed among Biblical exegetes, although many scholars hypothesize that this letter contains interpolations of later deutero-Pauline material into Paul’s original work. One of these probable interpolations is 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. Notably, if this passage is omitted, the preceding text, “[God] is not the God of disorder but of peace,” (v 33a) links smoothly with the succeeding verse, “Did the word of God go forth from you, or has it come to you alone?” (v 36)

That argument alone does not negate Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. However, if Paul did prohibit women from speaking in churches, his words must be situated in mid-first-century Corinth. Plato derided the stereotypical ritual prostitute of Corinth with the Greek word korinthiazesthai– “Corinthian girl.” Previously in 1 Corinthians, Paul condemned the Corinthians’ pride in their incestuous acts (E.P. Sanders, Paul, 106); the perpetrators of such evil were to be purged from their midst. (1 Cor 5:13) Paul then upbraided the Corinthians for excessive “divisions” created in what ought to have been a communal feast of “the Lord’s supper.” Instead, at Corinth some would become drunk at table, while others would go hungry. (1 Cor 11:17-22) Even the irenic ode to love (1 Cor 13:1-13) was a Pauline rebuke of first-century Corinthian lack of moral qualities: patience, humility, endurance, faith, hope, and charity. Corinth was an ancient economic hub noted for discrepancies in wealth and for rampant promiscuity.

          1 Corinthians 7 is indeed an example of Pauline apocalyptic literature. In Paul’s expectation of an imminent parousia, he instructed the church at Corinth not to be swayed by extremes of lust or asceticism, but to obey their divinely-ordained vocations. Paul begins 1 Corinthians 7 with a quotation of an ascetic Corinthian motto against the city’s renowned debauchery: “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman.” (v 1) Paul retorted that sex within marriage was a holy “duty” (v 3) of husband and wife, although prayer “by mutual consent” was a just cause for temporary abstinence from marital relations (v 5) In marriage, wife and husband are fully given to each other as to God (v 4). The Pauline message was consistent whether to the married, to the unmarried (vv 8-11), to the circumcised Jews, to the uncircumcised Gentiles (v 18), to slaves, and to free persons (vv 20-21): we did not create nor do we possess our own lives, but God did create and did, acquire us “for a price.” (v 23) Paul’s enduring point, then, in expectation of the parousia, is not to “become slaves to human beings” (v 23) but to discern and to adhere to God’s timeless call to each person (vv 17, 24). Lastly, on time and on apocalyptic literature, in a period of crisis and persecution for the nascent church, Paul anticipated the parousia not to be the end of chronos, or quantitative time, so much as the fulfillment of kairos, a decisive and divinely-willed moment in which all have lived since Jesus’ era and in which we are now living (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 176-177). Nonetheless, he greatly underestimated the chronos in which it would be finalized, but developed the theology that Christ’s return would radically complete the work in this world begun by our Lord’s death and resurrection.

–           Dear Pauline Post: We agreed with your reply to Counting that the eschatological process is both underway and yet to be fulfilled. Thus, your Corinthian interlocutor ought not to be worriedly counting his days. We also valued your comment that the end times began with the death and resurrection of Christ. Conversely, though, we wondered during our telephone conversation about this year’s Good Friday service whether Christ could have saved us by a less horrific death than by crucifixion. Jesus was either extremely foolish or knew his Father with intimacy beyond human comprehension to have “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7) in such a manner. Signed: Theologian in Thessaloniki and Writer in Rome.

–           Dear Theologian and Writer: Jesus’ self-emptying, or kenosis, has perplexed theologians and writers since Christ died and rose again. Paul attempted, especially in Philippians and in his letters to the Corinthians, to address the implications for Christian faith of Jesus’ death by a humiliating and painful method of execution sanctioned by Imperial Rome. With scathing vitriol at the outset of 1 Corinthians, Paul reproached the community at Corinth for its reliance on the “wisdom of human eloquence.” (1 Cor 1:17) The Corinthians were then asked rhetorically: “Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” (v 20) The Pauline gospel was thus affirmed: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the wisdom of God and the power of God.” (vv 24-25) Paul’s message was indeed good news, however subversive it was to Imperial authorities. Although he was skilled in rhetoric, Paul urged early Christians to rely entirely on God. Divine power exceeded and outlasted that of successive Roman Emperors, even though many of the latter bore the title, “Devi Filius– Son of the Divine One” (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 91). For his efforts, Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus, then in Caesarea, then in Rome. Philemon and Philippians were written during the Ephesian imprisonment (Ibid., 272). Philippians and 2 Corinthians contain passages of a dialectical literary style. In both letters, life and death, hope and despair, and exaltation and humiliation were abruptly contrasted, but hope emerged victorious for Paul (Ibid., 273) as he experienced Christ’s kenotic suffering in his “own mortal body.” (Ibid., 278) Paul was therefore able to preach authoritatively the mystical Christian union with the crucified Jesus. Christians thus share in God’s salvific and revelatory kenosis that supersedes but does not threaten temporal powers. (Ibid., 291)

–           Dear Pauline Post: Despite Paul’s reputation as an angry, proud, and divisive figure, I am attracted to his support of a “common good” (1 Cor 12:7) in early Christian communities. As expressed in previous exchanges with The Pauline Post, Paul mystically lived and taught by Christ’s self-emptying example. He anticipated an imminent parousia of whose “day and hour no one knows.” (Matt 24:36) Paul was converted on the road to Damascus yet over a lifetime (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 6-10); he was not perfect, but his struggles and vices make him all the more human to me. I was once unsure of my religious confession, but the more I read Paul’s letters, the more I am compelled to seek Christian baptism at the earliest opportunity. Signed: God-fearing Goodness Seeker in Galatia.

–           Dear God-fearing: The Pauline Post welcomes you to and supports you in your Christian journey. You are clearly not one of the “stupid Galatians” (Gal 3:1) whom Paul once excoriated. The Holy Spirit, Paul might say today, has moved you toward the Christian faith as the same Spirit moved “God-fearers”- neither Jews nor wholly pagans- sympathetic to Judeo-Christianity in the first century (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 36-37) toward fellowship with God and toward formation of loving human communities. Christian love, as Paul taught, is not easy, nor is it mere feeling, but is in its essence actively unitive. Together let us build up God’s church in the Spirit and in love seek the common good. (1 Cor 12:7; 1 Thess 5:11). “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal1:3) in this Easter season.