Give Paul a Chance

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.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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