It could be easy to doubt Paul. He is widely regarded as a key founding figure of Christianity and many people have mixed feelings about the legacy of the church. Perhaps Paul gave some bad guidance. Perhaps he left people thinking they could live like hell and wait for heaven. Perhaps Paul was a small-minded creedalist, urging doctrines on people divorced from any world-improving conduct.
To disprove this for yourself, simply open a Bible to 1 Corinthians 13. You’ve heard it before even if you’re not much of a Bible reader. Paul’s paean to love is on par with any great literature of the West, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (vs. 2). This is clearly not a man who is about dry religious creeds and unconcerned about transformative action. He goes on to say:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (vss. 4-8).
Learning to appreciate Paul is not as difficult as you might imagine. It could be, for many readers, the things we import into our reading of his letters that color our perception. This book will in many cases be about unmaking commonly held beliefs about Paul. I will argue that Paul does not view God as essentially against us, and only for us if we come to hold the proper creed. I will attempt to blot out the image of the Jewish traitor version of Paul, who went from persecuting Christians to vilifying his own Jewish people. I will explain how some of Paul’s dialogues with inadequate Jewish teachers, who did not properly represent Judaism, have been mistaken for Paul’s own beliefs. I will depict Paul as a Jewish teacher of Gentiles, who told them they were as beloved of God as his own people. I will make the case that Paul was in many ways more Jewish than his peers, holding his non-Jewish students to a higher standard. I will argue that Paul did not share classical Greek and Roman views of female inferiority. I will explain how Paul was a mystic, one accustomed to apocalyptic ways of seeing reality, whose way of living for his students was refreshingly forward thinking.
For those who follow my news and projects, this is an except from a Paul book I am writing. The Paul book is temporarily on hold while I rush to write a discipleship guide for Messianic Jews and Gentiles for a publisher who wants it in a hurry. I shall soon be back to writing about Paul. Meanwhile, if you’d like to stay in touch, get extras, and make sure you don’t miss any of Messianic Jewish Musings sign up here for my weekly email. If you want to read Torah and Gospel each day with my commentary, sign up here for the Daily D’var.
I have learned to appreciate Paul from my position as a specialist in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a., the Old Testament). I have written articles saying that if people would develop a thorough understanding of books such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, their appreciation for Paul would increase. I have observed painfully in my lifetime Christian clergy garbling “Old Testament” passages out of a superficial desire to bring them into harmony with their idea of Pauline thought. I believe they made the error of reading the Bible backwards, something I often urge against. That is, they read Paul first and tried to understand the Hebrew Bible through their inadequate understanding. They made a Procrustean bed of unsophisticated interpretations of Paul and tried to fit Moses into it. But the Bible is a forward moving conversation with later parts referring back to earlier ones. To understand the way advanced teachers like Paul are using Jewish texts, you first need to understand the Jewish texts! It just may be, and I will contend for this, that Paul is a master bringing true light from Torah for his non-Jewish audience.
I also have approached Paul after a long period spent understanding the Gospels, the life of Yeshua, and the origins of belief in him. Just as I believe Paul did not overturn the meaning of the Jewish Bible, I also am convinced he did not misrepresent his Messiah and Lord. Apparent differences between Paul’s teaching and Yeshua’s will, as I will show, fade away as we realize the specific purpose of Yeshua’s teaching and how different his context was from Paul’s. When it comes to the core ideas, Paul has carried Yeshua’s teaching forward to a new generation, a different people, in different circumstances, and after some universe-altering events which Yeshua hinted at in mysteries only.
Paul didn’t write to confuse people. He never anticipated this long delay in the return of Messiah which we have been living in for two thousand years. He never anticipated that his letters would need to be understood by a changing world and there is no way a person living in the Roman era could foresee our questions and needs precisely. But at least if we are going to appreciate Paul we have the ability to, imperfectly to be sure, go back into his world and retrieve as much as possible what he was saying to his culture and era. Then it is our task as interpreters and students to apply ancient words in new contexts.
The apostle who penned the finest sermon on love in human history is worth hearing. He has something to say that did not become irrelevant with age. This book is about making Paul’s message clear and available. But it is helpful to look at the seeming contradictions in Paul to gauge the challenge of our undertaking. So you think you understand Paul? Think again and ask yourself if the apostle of grace had two faces or what?