Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Radical Paul according to Crossan and Borg

Twice this year I’ll be teaching Paul courses, one for pastors and laypeople and one for our seminarians. For both courses I’ll assign the new bestseller by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (HarperOne, 2009).

Maybe the subtitle says it all, but I think they’re right. All the time I meet people, pastors included, who dislike Paul. Either he was misogynist, or anti-Jewish, or homophobic, or freaked out by sex, or socially reactionary, or too other-worldly, or out of touch with the Jesus he worshipped.

The book helpfully begins by sketching the reasons people might object to Paul, then it advances its most compelling argument. Almost all scholars distinguish between the authentic Paul, the disputed Paul, and the “pastoral Paul.” That is, we all agree that the authentic Paul wrote seven letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Folks dispute whether Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. And outside of conservative evangelical circles, few scholars attribute the pastoral epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, to Paul.

Crossan and Borg demonstrate how authorship makes a huge difference. The socially conservative Paul, who tells women and slaves to submit to their masters and who seems to focus on a heavenly future more than the transformation of this present age, is found only in the disputed and pastoral letters. Crossan and Borg call these the conservative Paul and the reactionary Paul, respectively. But we find the radical Paul in the authentic letters. This Paul regards women as equals in ministry, promotes the freedom of slaves, and proclaims a gospel that confronts the present order with a community of equals empowered by the Spirit of the risen Christ. And by the way: this radical Paul does not see Jesus’ death as substitutionary suffering for the sins we have committed. Rather, Jesus’ death demonstrates the character and passion of God to make things right (we often say, to “justify”) in the world.

I have reservations concerning some key points in the book. I’m not sure the authors satisfactorily account for Romans 13:1-7 (“submit to the ruling authorities”), but then again I’ve never seen a satisfactory interpretation. I also don’t buy their contention that Paul’s references to the law indicate even the law of conscience (pp. 169-71), rather than most specifically the Torah.

Despite these and other reservations, I’m grateful for how Crossan and Borg frame their most important points. They show how Paul’s gospel isn’t about God simply forgiving us but rather concerns a “Spirit transplant” (138). They insist that Paul’s gospel isn’t simply about saving individuals but building community and redeeming the world. And they helpfully remind us that the problem isn’t faith vs. works but faith-with-works vs. works-without-faith.

I should say that only a few opinions in this book are novel. Neither author has made a career of interpreting Paul. If the book had footnotes, it would have to engage Richard Horsley, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, N. T. Wright, Neil Elliott, Brigitte Kahl, and perhaps Elsa Tamez. Newer voices would include Davina Lopez and Joseph Marchal. Yet thank goodness for Crossan and Borg, who will reach a new audience on behalf of the radical Paul, adding new insights of their own along the way.

25 comments:

Leo Hartshorn said...

Thanks for the review of Crossan and Borg's book. I am currently reading it. A much earlier book on the issues Borg and Crossan present is Neil Elliot's Liberating Paul (1994).

Greg Carey said...

I used to assign Elliott for my Paul and the Early Church class. Lemme know your thoughts about the Crossan and Borg book, Leo.

Bryan Owen said...

I'm curious what Borg and Crossan make of Paul's view of the resurrection of Jesus in this book. What's their reading of what Paul believed about that?

Greg Carey said...

Thanks, Bryan. They say the resurrection is an "experiential reality" that empowers and commands living the way of Jesus in the present. They don't see Paul appealing to an empty tomb tradition but to a series of visions of the risen Jesus experienced by Paul and others. (I agree that Paul does not mention an empty tomb, but Jewish apocalyptic thought implied something other than simply "visions." A transformed body would be more like it.)

Bill Uhrich said...

Romans 13:1-7 is a tough one, particularly when it comes to what appears to be an acceptance of capital punishment. I essentially rely on John Yoder's interpretation in The Politics of Jesus. At least it helps us sleep better:

"It is not the case that two imperatives are affirmed in the New Testament, obedience to government on one hand and loving the enemy on the other, between which we must choose when they contradict. Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or in tension. They both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls "vengeance" or "justice." They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry"(214).

Greg Carey said...

Sorry to keep replying to every comment, but Yoder's was the first serious treatment of Romans 13:1-7 that I ever encountered.

James said...

Why is Romans 13 problematic? If Jesus, like John the Baptist and Paul, presumed that any day now God would intervene and bring his kingdom to earth, then surely Roman authority would be swept aside. Obedience to it in the context of its imminent disappearance is of little consequence--all that matters is entrance into the new kingdom.

Of course, it didn't work out as anticipated. But the church adjusted to this very well, with the able assistance early on of Luke and John. Our problem with Paul's attitude toward political authority is of a piece of the problem of dealing with the mistake about imminence.

Greg Carey said...

I'm not convinced that imminent expectation necessarily implies social acquiescence. In that sense I agree with Crossan and Borg.

barking reed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
barking reed said...

I am a thirty year old artist/writer/painter, and this is the absolute first time I have heard anyone say that the idea I've long held that much of the Pauline writings are the work of a fruit bat might actually have some credibility.

While I am not particularly qualified to yammer on about theology, since I was maybe fifteen years old I have felt that a lot of Paul's writing doesn't seem to fit with what Jesus or the rest of the Bible seemed to be trying to convey.

I have gradually become more and more sickened by the way the church in North America has focused its attention on these anomalous writings and then used them to construct a corporate agenda that is just plain ugly and anti-Christian. I have been extremely frustrated by people who loudly scream about "Bible-based teaching" and then proceed to pick-and-choose what to read as "merely cultural" in a way that furthers their aims.

As an artist, I am okay with mystery. So I've just sort of shrugged my shoulders and said, "meh?" to the whole stinkpile.

I read this post and I was immediately inspired to go jump on the bandwagon, buy the book, et cetera. But I don't want to be one of those prooftexters, so I just have to ask: beyond "it doesn't fit", what is the justification for dividing Paul into portions?

My approach has always been to chuck the baby with the bathwater, and to assume that the dead dudes who gathered the original canon were on crack, and Paul was just another preacher who said some good things and some bad things and that was that. Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

Auto Insurance Quotes auto insurance in michigan

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your blog. Keep it that way.

shopping blog said...

The curve of pandora jewelry the end of the ironing board to Pandora charms act as the shoulder. Now, mist pandora bracelets and charms the shirt with your spray bottle and then buy Pandora you start ironing over the front of the discount pandora bracelets shirt. When you approach the part of Pandora necklace the shirt that has the buttons on the pandora necklace beads edges, you pull the bottom part of the shirt taught and then work against Pandora necklace sale the direction you are pulling at with the iron. Next you will then proceed to pull the shoulder taught by cheap pandora charms once again pulling the end of the shirt so that you can iron the front of the shirt where your pectoral muscles would be.

Anonymous said...

cheap auto insurance

Anonymous said...

texas car insurance

Anonymous said...

http://pfncstu.ru/bic/forum/profile.php?mode=viewprofile&u=22884
http://forum.albora.it/profile.php?mode=viewprofile&u=2763
http://queeri.co.uk/forum/index.php?action=profile;u=82545
http://agrolex.net/forum/member.php?u=130119
http://thebeautifulface.com/forum/index.php?action=profile;u=38483

Anonymous said...

I am really Glad i ran across this blog.Added ntgeeks.blogspot.com to my bookmark!

Anonymous said...

Ede y nvf y porn, sex. Uin f, kmg zbzjfc|crh zszkgaz o dn ky.

www.camobel.org said...

This can't actually work, I suppose like this.

Anonymous said...


This is a topic which is near to my heart... Take care! Where are your contact details though?

Anonymous said...

can you buy valium online what type of drug is valium classified as - buy genuine valium online

Anonymous said...

buy valium valium drug company - valium side effects breathing

Anonymous said...

xanax mg how can you buy xanax online - how to buy xanax online in ireland

Anonymous said...

buy xanax xanax dosage chart - xanax overdose complications

Anonymous said...

buy tramadol cheap online where to buy tramadol - buy tramadol online without a prescription