The Common Good
March-April 1995

Give Paul a Chance

by David Rhoads | March-April 1995

The surprise of Pauline praxis.

For anyone following biblical studies from a liberation perspective, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle, by Neil Elliott, is must reading. Elliott, who teaches at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, has written a comprehensive political analysis of Paul from the point of view of the oppressed. As the ambiguous title suggests, he is liberating Paul from centuries of misinterpretation by offering a fresh analysis that shows how liberating Paul really was.

Elliott begins with a devastating litany of the misuses of Paul's writings to serve "systems of domination and oppression"-to justify slavery (1 Corinthians 7:21-24; Ephesians 6:5-8), the oppression of women (Ephesians 5:22-24; 1 Timothy 2:8-15, among others), the suppression of homosexuals (Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), the promotion of anti-Semitism (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16), and the disregard of the poor (2 Thessalonians 3:10); and to provide various totalitarian regimes with justification to crush dissent (Romans 13:1-7).

Elliott argues that these are distortions of Paul, resulting from an uncritical view of scripture. Many of these passages, scholars now believe, are not from Paul. Paul did not write Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, or the Pastoral Epistles. The passages about silencing women (2 Corinthians 14:34-35) and the Jews crucifying Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) are interpolations by later scribes. The controversial passage about slavery (1 Corinthians 7:21), properly translated, exhorts slaves to choose freedom. Paul never addresses issues of homosexuality in the terms we understand it today. Finally, the passage in Romans about obedience to governmental authorities addresses a particular situation, and we should not universalize it.

Elliott shows how generations of commentators have depoliticized Pauline theology by applying his writings to individuals and by portraying Paul as more concerned about eschatological redemption than the transformation of present systems of injustice. This has led to a view of Paul's ethics as "social conservatism."

Interpreters have highlighted Paul's origin from the upper strata of society rather than his choice, as a follower of Jesus, to identify with the weak and the poor. Interpreters have thought Paul was opposed "not to oppression but to the structures of the Jewish religion." They have subordinated issues of human liberation to a concern for spiritual, inner freedom. Often, scholars have allowed the later, more conservative Deutero-Pauline letters to control the interpretation of the authentic letters of Paul.

IN ELLIOTT'S VIEW, the key to recovering Paul's authentic voice is "the political aspect of the cross," for the cross was an instrument of Roman social control. The cross reveals the rulers of this age as hostile to God, and the resurrection "reveals the imminent defeat of the powers, pointing forward to the final triumph of God." Thus, Paul's theology is not only against principalities and powers (as in Ephesians), but also against actual human beings who dominate political systems that oppress.

For Paul, Elliott argues, the crucifixion did not mean that the power of sin had already been defeated (as in Ephesians) but that Christians have died to sin. The death and resurrection experience of baptism transfers people from the sphere of sin and death to the sphere of God's life-giving power.

In Elliott's treatment, Paul has interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus in the context of the mythic symbolism of Jewish apocalyptic, as the end of one world era and the inauguration of another. In this perspective, Elliott argues, Paul has not denationalized or depoliticized the cross but internationalized it. Thus, Paul's theology does not move from plight to solution (i.e. law to gospel), nor from a preference for Jews to a preference for Gentiles, but toward "God's unexpected way of including both" in a new apocalyptic scheme.

Elliott marshals much evidence to show that Jews accepted or opposed Roman rule depending on whether they believed the Romans were still carrying out the curse of God's punishment upon Israel from the time of the exile. Before his conversion, Paul submitted to Romans as agents of God's wrath and persecuted Christians whose opposite attitude threatened the social order. Paul's encounter with the risen Jesus, however, convinced him that Jesus must have taken the curse of the nation upon himself and exhausted it. Henceforth, the violence of a foreign power in Palestine was no longer to be accepted as the wrath of God, but was to be opposed simply as the violence of Rome.

Elliott details Paul's liberating praxis that emerges from such a theological perspective: the call to free Onesimus; the collection for the poor in Jerusalem; exposing the imperial lie of "peace and security" (1 Thessalonians 5:3-6); enumerating the outrages of imperial immorality (Romans 1:18-32); creating alternative communities of love; limiting the rights of the privileged (1 Corinthians), and so on-all of which express Paul's vision of justice grounded in the necessity of Christians to resist conformity to this world (Romans 12:1-2).

Finally, Elliott argues that Paul's admonition to be subordinate to the authorities (Romans 13:1-7) does not express an unqualified legitimation of Roman power. Rather, it emphasizes the commitment of Christians to be ready to pursue peace unilaterally with all people.

Liberating Paul is an impressive rethinking of Paul. Along with Elsa Tamez's recent book on Paul, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification From a Latin American Perspective, it will become an important part of the vigorous debates about interpretation. Much more important for many of us, however, is the fact that it proposes a voice and an image for Paul that truly fosters liberation rather than oppression.

DAVID RHOADS is a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

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