The Common Good
March-April 1998

No Acolyte of Rome

by Neil Elliott | March-April 1998

A new look at the Apostle Paul.

Paul the persecutor
Was a mean and sinful man.
Jesus hit him with a blinding light,
And then his life began....

I'm not one to fret when rockers like the Rolling Stones put the apostle Paul's name to music ("You'll Never Make a Saint of Me," from the new Bridges to Babylon album). I do wish their take on the apostle weren't so dismayingly familiar, however. Sure, Paul—like Augustine of Hippo, who also gets play in the song—is supposed to have had amazing brushes with the divine; but those events, so the song implies, are the fuzzy old Flannelgrams of Sunday school lore.

In fact, the Stones, poor old dears, can't muster a fraction of the existential passion that the real apostle from Tarsus would have thrown into a chorus of "You'll never make a saint of me." It's too bad the Stones aren't keeping up with the latest news. Right now the "historical Paul" is enjoying a tremendous renaissance in biblical studies. Those debates, at least in my eyes, are far more intriguing than the well-publicized fuss over the "Jesus Seminar," and they bring out the real drama of the flesh-and-blood saint's life and work.

Convert or Prophet?

A 1963 essay by Krister Stendahl, then a professor at Harvard Divinity School and later the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm, launched the modern "Pauline renaissance." Stendahl ably showed that modern Christians were far more apt to press Paul into the mold of our own religious sensibilities than to discipline ourselves to learn from him.

True heirs of the Puritans, we American Christians prefer the intense emotional fireworks of a good conversion scene, whether on the road to Damascus, in Luther's tower, or in the villa garden with Augustine. Stendahl observed that Paul enjoyed a "robust conscience" both before and after the incident on the Damascus Road. He felt much less anguish over his own guilt as a persecutor than over the God-promised destiny of his fellow Jews (Romans 9:1-4). Paul simply doesn't give us much material for a psychological profile as a religious convert. He fits much more the portrait of the biblical prophets.

Look at Romans, by any measure Paul's premier letter. Thanks to Stendahl, it's harder and harder for anyone to read Romans as we once did—as a sublime meditation on Christian salvation, penned by a brooding perfectionist who had fathomed his own native religion and found it wanting. That might describe the "introspective conscience" of Augustine, or Martin Luther, but that's not Paul.

Romans reads, rather, like a prophetic wake-up call to an arrogant society, declaring God's judgment on all humanity—Israel and the nations alike. This isn't a post-mortem on Judaism by its most flamboyant apostate: Paul was no more a "convert" from Judaism than was Jesus himself. In fact the letter's strongest warning is directed to people like me: Gentile Christians, living at some distance from the synagogue, tempted to forget that Jesus wasn't one of "us"; Christians so accustomed to linking "Israel" with "unbelief" that it's easy to lapse into speaking of "the Jews" in the past tense.

No one today can dismiss Paul's anguished argument on behalf of Israel in chapters 9-11 as the mere reflex of ethnic prejudice, as was routine a mere 50 years ago. Neither would a number of scholars allow us to read Romans 2 or Romans 14 as critiques of Jewish piety. It's increasingly clear that Paul's target was the arrogance of the human heart, especially as it found expression in the boastful supersessionism of early Christianity.

Social Conservative or Radical?
Books on Paul written only 20 years ago spoke assuredly of Paul's "social conservatism" and the "love patriarchalism" he encouraged—meaning that Paul urged Christians to smooth over deep differences of class and status with "holy kisses" and the heated language of "brotherhood." A more radical picture of Paul is beginning to emerge from studies that focus on two key insights.

First, whereas a quarter of a century ago everyone took it for granted that Paul accepted the institution of slavery as a reality of Roman society, that premise is hotly debated today. Most scholars recognize now that the question is far more complex than a simple generalization about "Paul's view of slavery" would allow. Clearly the lowermost rungs of Roman society were inhabited by the poorest of slaves, alongside day laborers and peasants who were legally "free." But other slaves, for example those highly skilled servants who managed business affairs for wealthy individuals, could actually appear prosperous to their neighbors.

Perhaps more significant, several recent studies of Paul's short letter to Philemon have reversed the hoary old assumption that Paul never intended to change Onesimus' status as a slave. We now read Philemon as rhetoric, language very carefully designed to achieve a strategic result. Paul says he wants everything to be done from the master's own free will (verse 14), but he makes it very clear there is a "duty" that he could "command" (verse 8) or "compel" (verse 14). The message is clear: the master is expected to know what he has to do without Paul having to say so. Paul's offer to redeem the slave out of his own pocket (verses 18-19)—and the reminder that Philemon owes Paul himself much more than the slave is worth!—drive the point home: this slave, at least, is to be set free.

It's also become clear that most of the problems Paul addressed in 1 and 2 Corinthians arise from differences between the well-to-do and the "have-nots" among the Christians in Corinth. Instead of resorting to some sort of religious opposition to Paul's message, interpreters now regularly describe the conventions of Roman patronage that required those of lower status to give honor and service to their social "superiors," in order to maintain their own tenuous standing in a highly stratified society. Paul rebukes the Corinthian elite for abusing the poor in their midst (1 Corinthians) and refuses to play along with the wealthy, who want to "sponsor" him as their own client (2 Corinthians). In this light, Paul's declaration that "God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:28) sounds surprisingly similar to what we today would call God's "preferential option for the poor."

Paul and Women: Colleague or Oppressor?
Probably no aspect of Paul's letters causes more distress in churches today than the repeated commands that women be subordinate to men (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:11-15) and silent in the Christian assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Social workers have documented the abuse suffered by women while these passages ring in their ears; Christian feminists have suggested posting a warning over Paul's letters, "Danger: May be Hazardous to Women's Health."

Many scholars, perhaps most, would readily acquit Paul of the most troublesome of these passages on the grounds that Paul didn't write Ephesians, Colossians, or 1 Timothy. Recent discoveries suggest that the verses in 1 Corinthians 14, too, may have been added by a later Christian scribe (perhaps inspired by the sentiment in 1 Timothy 2). While those judgments may be surprising to many Christian readers, they should be far more surprised that their own pastors—many of whom are quite familiar with the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy in the New Testament—haven't done more to promote informed discussion of these issues in their churches.

Of course, scratching these letters off the list of Paul's own writings doesn't remove all the problems. Paul still thought hierarchically, in terms of a "chain of command" in which women were subordinated to men (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). But it's also quite clear that Paul assumed women would lead Christian worship with authority (1 Corinthians 11:5, 10), and that he worked side by side with women he regarded as full colleagues. He speaks of a woman deacon, Phoebe (Romans 16:1), and of another woman, Julia, as "prominent among the apostles" (16:7)—though her name survives in only one manuscript known to us today, a papyrus manuscript from about the year 200. (The New Revised Standard Version is the only English translation to provide her name—and that only in a footnote!)

Recent studies by feminist scholars, notably Antoinette Clark Wire and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, have widened the lens with which we read Paul. His letters give us only one side of a conversation, after all—a dialogue in which Paul clearly wanted to engage his readers as full participants. The letters provide not just the transcribed views of one prominent Christian leader, but glimpses into the complex and dramatic life of early Christian congregations in which exceptional women and men of Spirit shared in labor and leadership alike.

Paul and Rome: Apologist or Opponent?
Early in my academic career a Christian friend warned me to give up my inquiry into Paul's attitude toward the Roman empire. "There's nothing political about Paul," I was told.

An increasing number of scholars disagree. More than a hundred scholars gathered in the late 1990s at a new consultation on "Paul and Politics" at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Not a few of them regarded aspects of Paul's teaching as being at least potentially subversive to the sacred imperial ideology of Rome.

It's all but impossible for most English readers to catch the political import of Paul's vocabulary. Words like "church," "gospel," "Lord," "righteousness," "faith" scarcely have any meaning for us beyond the religious. In Paul's day, however, these terms were, first of all, the coinage of imperial propaganda. The ekklesia was the political assembly of the Roman city, where loyal citizens would be regaled with declarations—euangelia—of the emperor's triumphs. The emperor proclaimed himself Kyrios and autokrator—sole lord and sovereign of the world—and promised his unwavering justice and loyalty to his subjects. Not only does Paul take over these political terms to describe the "heavenly citizenship" being lived out in Christian congregations (Philippians 3:20); he also insists on making a particular crucifixion—an irreducibly political form of execution—the central focus of life in those congregations (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Paul's exhortation to "be subject to the governing authorities" in Romans 13:1-7 remains a serious scandal to many Christians, for whom obedience to unjust regimes—Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa are frequently cited—is simply unacceptable. While the historical context of verses continues to occupy the skills of interpreters (a significant minority of whom are convinced that here, too, we are dealing with an interpolation by another, later hand), it is at least clear that this exhortation does not sum up Paul's view of the imperial government.

Alongside these verses stand many others that describe the present age as unremittingly evil (Galatians 1:4), governed by rulers opposed to Christ, who are doomed to pass away (1 Corinthians 2:8, 15:24-26). Paul has even taken up a current political imperial slogan in 1 Thessalonians 5:3: the labor pains of the end times will convulse the world just when people are exclaiming "peace and security"! Finally, we have the eloquent silent witness of Paul's own arrest record, and the official beatings he suffered at the hands of Roman magistrates (2 Corinthians 11:25), to correct any misapprehension that the apostle was a mere acolyte of the imperial order.

It's still too early to speak of a single "new perspective on Paul." It's clear enough already, however, that our understanding of this extraordinary figure is being enriched and, in important ways, transformed by recent discoveries and insights. The apostle turns out to be not nearly so two-dimensional a "saint" as the Rolling Stones would have it—and more an advocate of the justice of God than earlier generations have imagined.

Neil Elliott, the author of Liberating Paul, was a professor of New Testament at the College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul, Minnesota, when this article appeared.

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