Paul comes up a great deal in discussions about the Greek Bible. He’s a very important figure in the early church. His writings are demonstrably as close as we can get chronologically to the time in which Jesus lived and worked. That in itself should be enough to secure for him a central place in church history. But there’s so much more to Paul than that. It’s not going too far to claim that without Paul there would be no Christianity today. An enormous amount of what contemporary Christianity is today is wrapped up in Paul’s messages. Paul did two crucial things. First, he traveled the known world preaching and setting up churches in the Gentile world. Second, he created a solid theological structure for the Christian church. The second was, in many respects, a key component of the first. Early Christianity was an outgrowth of Judaism, and a great deal of its message required an understanding of Judaic practice. Paul provided Gentiles with the necessary background, but he went much further. He also addressed corollary questions. Do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism when they become Christians? What is the status of Mosaic Law for Gentile Christians? Should Gentile Christians be circumcised? In the process of addressing these, and other, questions he laid out a program of belief and devotion for all to follow.
Strip away Paul from the Greek Bible and there’s not much left. The earliest gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are theologically quite impoverished. They give us the kernel of Christian belief along with the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection. But that’s it. Without Paul we cannot fully make sense of any of it. Even a well educated Jew would have had trouble making all of the pieces fit. What we have in the gospels is the story of a renowned preacher and healer who got executed and was raised back to life. This is certainly powerful stuff. But what does it mean for you and me? Paul supplies the answers. Paul shows us how the life and death of Jesus can be fitted into a theological and devotional framework. He shows us how to worship. He’s a nuts and bolts guy. He gives us the day to day pragmatic details that the gospels do not.
For the thinking Christian Paul is a literal Godsend because he gives us things to think about. He was brought up in a world dominated by Greek philosophy, and so was able to take philosophical concepts and shape them to suit his theological musings. These sections of his writings give us something to sink our teeth into intellectually. But he was also trained in the temple tradition of the priests and the Torah. He knew a great deal about sacrifice and worship along with the workings of the Law. Because of this he was able to take what he knew about the life of Jesus and blend it with his Judaic and Hellenistic backgrounds to create a satisfyingly complex, yet understandable, philosophical religion.
I think that the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that Paul as an evangelist was a troublemaker. He was not just some shill bent on protecting normative first century Middle Eastern culture as some modern critics would have him, even though there is no doubt that he comes out of a particular cultural milieu which we have to acknowledge when reading his works. There is no question that the Middle East of the first century was patriarchal and authoritarian, as was the religious hierarchy of classic Judaism. Paul was deeply invested in this culture. He had been a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. He had also been zealously legalistic and a jealous guardian of Jewish tradition. But his conversion on the road to Damascus was genuinely life altering. He came to see the world in a completely different light. Yes, he used the vocabulary and imagery of his old religion while crafting the new. But the new was really new. Huge segments of his old life got tossed. A Pharisee who lets go of the Law (and he clearly did) is a fundamentally changed man.
It’s also very clear from his letters and from the historical facts of which we can be reasonably certain, that the new Paul was not faint hearted about social change and upheaval. He strode right into the thick of controversy when necessary. We cannot just dismiss him as some mindless traditionalist clinging on to a sexist, misogynistic, autocratic worldview because it suited his temperament. To do so is to do him a grave injustice. We also have to be fair and admit that without him Christianity would probably not have survived the turbulent times of the first century. Paul’s evangelical ministry saved the church, and so we should start on that high point and move from there.
When Jesus was crucified the leadership of the church was passed on to his disciples. If we can accept the broad strokes of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems that the followers of Jesus rather quickly began the task of creating an institutional church in Jerusalem. In many respects I find the institution they created worthy of emulation, and will have more to say about that at some point. When the church is in need of reformation and revitalization, as I believe it is now, the early church model is a great place to start. They called their new system The Way (or The Way of The Lord). The followers of The Way lived in communes and held all property in common. As such they were primitive socialists. They ate their main daily meals together and worshipped jointly. They were probably millenarians, that is, believing that the second coming of Christ was imminent and the world as we know it would soon come to an end. In preparation for this new world they were also probably worldly ascetics, practicing daily austerities that could have included celibacy, simplicity in worldly activities such as food and dress, and plain worship activities.
One battle that was never really resolved throughout the first century was whether The Way was essentially a branch of Judaism, or whether Gentiles could join in. The Jerusalem church seems to have been oriented primarily towards Judaism and drew its new members predominantly from the Jewish population. They celebrated Jewish holidays, worshipped at the temple when necessary, and followed the Law as appropriate. Acts presents a somewhat confused picture and we should not rely on it too heavily as a source. But it is quite evident that the Jerusalem church was sharply divided as to whether Gentiles should be preached to or not; and if they became followers whether they should be circumcised and follow the Law. Some of the early Jerusalem disciples saw the importance of including Gentiles, but Paul was the true Gentile evangelist. He went all over the place founding churches and bringing converts to The Way.
It’s also clear from Paul’s letters and from Acts that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles did not see eye to eye on a number of critical matters, so that the division of labor whereby Paul went off on his missionary journeys while the apostles mostly stayed close to Jerusalem, suited all parties. (There are many tales that some of the apostles, Thomas, for example, traveled the world preaching and establishing churches, but no hard evidence of this exists and I am seriously given to doubt it.) For Paul to be successful in his proselytizing he had to be able to explain his religious convictions to people who had little or no idea about the basics of Judaism (although it is also quite likely that he began his missionary activities with the Jews of the communities he visited). In some ways, therefore, Paul acted as a kind of applied anthropologist, translating the cultural values of the Jews and their religion into a format that Gentiles in the Greek world could appreciate. In the process he imported a great deal of Greek thinking that would have been alien to the Jerusalem sect.
In the year 70 CE the historical development of Christianity was transformed. In response to political circumstances in Judea, the might of the Roman army came crashing down on the Jewish state. The temple was destroyed, men, women and children were slaughtered, and Judaism centered on Jerusalem was effectively wiped out. With it the nascent Christian church was smashed as well. If The Way as centered on Jerusalem had been the only branch of Christianity, the religion most likely would have died at that moment. But ever since the late 30’s Paul had been busy developing churches all across the Middle East and Europe, and they were relatively unaffected by the loss of the temple. They had not been centered on Jerusalem at all to begin with. The city was not their Mecca. To be sure there were Christians who saw in the destruction of the temple the beginnings of “end times” and the second coming of Christ. But when this did not happen they settled in for the long haul. They created formal church institutions with leaders and administrators, and regularized a code of worship. Paul’s ideas, disseminated through visits and letters, were an immense help in this codification process.
From a social scientific perspective what happened to the church in the first century is quite similar to what happens whenever a brilliant leader ushers in a new intellectual or socio-political era. There is even a whole theory concerning what are called revitalization movements. First you have a general climate of dissatisfaction that forms the background for the movement. Out of this social discord a charismatic leader emerges. This leader (usually male, so I’ll use the male pronoun), paints in really broad strokes. He envisages a completely new world order, a new age that is right around the corner (“the kingdom of God is at hand”). He attracts a large following of the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised who, at this point, are caught up in the generalities of the visionary message. No one is concerned about day-to-day details because this world we live in, this old order, is going to be swept away. It’s an intoxicating time filled with zeal and enthusiasm and, most of all, hope. But time passes. The leader dies. The new world does not magically appear. If the movement is to survive it has to live on more than passion and hope. It needs structure.
The second phase of a revitalization movement is institutionalization (or bureaucratization, if you’re feeling dismal). A second generation leader, or set of leaders, emerges to take on the task of guiding the movement. They have a daunting task. They do not have the charisma of the original leader, although they may be inspiring in their own right. The problem is that they are conveying the message second hand. Glimpses of the original vision are there, but it is less compelling now. These new leaders have to start dealing with the practicalities of everyday life. The followers want to know what to do next. Thousands upon thousands of picky practical questions have to be addressed. How will our leaders be chosen? Will they be paid? If so, how much? Should we build churches? Where will the money come from to build them? What colors should my clothes be? Can I wear jewelry? What foods are acceptable to eat? And on and on. The new leaders are, thus, a mix of spiritual guide and administrator.
Once the movement is on the path of institutionalization it becomes more and more dogmatic and rigid. Doctrines get set in place. What was once a counter-cultural revolution starts becoming another component of the status quo. Eventually, in fact, it becomes another piece of the problem where once it was the solution. It too becomes the focus of disaffection. Members rebel. A new charismatic leader arises, and the process begins anew.
Within this analysis, which I think is penetratingly accurate, we can peg Paul as the most important member of the second generation of Christian leaders. He was both inspiring teacher and nitty-gritty administrator. It is instructive to note that when Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), he mentions church administration along with speaking in tongues and faith healing. When bookkeeping and auditing are seen as gifts of God, you know you are dealing with the second generation.
In pieces like Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church you see both sides of him. He is wonderfully inspirational in the broad strokes tradition of the charismatic leader. Chapter 13, the famous passage on love, is every bit as moving and passionate as the recorded sayings of Jesus. But in the same epistle he also deals with basic pragmatic concerns within the fledgling church such as whether it is acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols, or whether Christians need to be circumcised. He gives advice about celebrating the sacraments. He also addresses matters that many would consider minor: the length of a man’s hair, and what a woman should wear in church. These are parts of the institutionalization process.
The thinking Christian needs to deal with Paul in this light. His role was much needed and we should not in any sense be patronizing of him. But we must realize that he is an interpreter of the vision and not the visionary himself. The fountainhead is Jesus, and Paul is his minister. In some sense Paul was attempting the impossible. He was preaching a radically revolutionary gospel that had the potential to turn the world upside down, and at the same time he was trying to establish and maintain social order within the church. I believe that we should have nothing but praise for the superb job he did of treading that razor’s edge. But in so doing we also need to contextualize what it was he was saying.
Contextualizing Paul’s writings can be done in two rather different ways. First we can measure what he is saying with what Jesus said. If there is a conflict then we must side with Jesus and against Paul. Inspired though he may be, Paul is the servant and he is not infallible. Just as the Bible is inspired but demonstrably errant in spots, so is Paul. Second, we cannot avoid interpreting some of his pronouncements in the light of the particular occasions that prompted them, as well as the general social milieu in which he lived. As such, a number of his decisions were important for specific occasions but need not be seen as having universal applicability.
Let’s take Paul’s statements on hair length as a case study. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is addressing the specific question of whether women should cover their heads when they pray. In the process he says the following (1 Corinthians 11:14-15)
14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,
15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
Paul is making a general argument here that has no merit whatsoever. In modern terms he is saying that it is “human nature” for men to have short hair and women to have long hair. The Greek term for nature that Paul uses, physis (which gives us “physics” and “physician”), literally means those things that occur because of natural laws. Human desire or artifice play no part in them. Paul’s contention is, thus, plainly ridiculous. He is saying that short hair on men is as natural as gravity. If it were natural for men to have short hair they would be genetically incapable of growing long hair. Short hair for men and long hair for women is clearly a cultural preference which may (and does) change over time.
Paul was, of course, aware that certain Biblical men, with especially high standing in the eyes of God, had long hair. Samson comes to mind immediately. Samson’s mother had taken a vow that her son would be a Nazarite whose vows included abstention from wine, avoidance of dead bodies, and not cutting their hair (Numbers 6:5). Most men who took such vows did so for a fixed period of time, but some of the holiest men in the Bible, such as Samson, were perpetual Nazarites. The prophet Samuel is another example (1 Samuel 1:11). The prophet Elijah may not have been under a Nazarite vow, but he was readily identifiable by his long hair (2 Kings 1:8).
So, how can long hair on a man be both degrading and a mark of holiness? One simple answer, often heard from modern conservatives is that deliberately degrading oneself is the whole point. These men took it upon themselves (under God’s command) to look shameful as the very mark of their holiness. If you like, they look wild and woolly so we see that they are set aside from culture; they are special because they have set themselves apart from normal cultured behavior. But that just proves my point. Short hair on a man is a cultural choice. That means that if wild and woolly were the norm (as it is in some cultures), then short hair would be radically counter-cultural.
Even if that argument is not enough there is the case of Absalom, king David’s son. He is described in 2 Samuel as the most attractive man in Israel (2 Samuel 14:25):
Now in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty; from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.
The passage goes on to say that his (literal) crowning glory is his long hair (2 Samuel 14:26):
And when he polled his head–now it was at every year’s end that he polled it; because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he polled it–he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels, after the king’s weight.
A shekel is estimated at about 11.5 grams, so his annual hair cut took off around 2.3 kilos of hair. We can allow for hyperbole here, but the point is that the author is indicating that Absalom had very long hair, and rather than this being disgraceful it is seen as quite the opposite. The quibbler might point to the fact that Absalom’s hair was eventually his undoing. When fighting his father’s troops, his hair (the text actually says “head”) gets caught in a tree’s branches allowing soldiers to catch up with him and kill him (2 Samuel 18:9ff). But we can’t pin his death on his hair. He was killed by the general Joab against the express orders of the king, and, in any case, his great sin was not having long hair but rebelling against his father. Nowhere is his hair perceived as degrading.
Paul’s argument as a general case is clearly bankrupt. But maybe we can salvage a little bit of it in context. The Sermon on the Mount, our ultimate touchstone, condemns ostentation. Vanity diverts our attention from the proper focus of our love, namely, God and others. So, if long hair is not part of the normal cultural conventions that men are living under, then long hair becomes vain and self directed. This may have been part of Paul’s intention. The word that Paul uses for long hair here is not found anywhere else in the Greek Bible, and is not the normal Greek word for hair. It comes from a root that implies special care and attention. Paul may be saying that when a man puts a lot of effort into maintaining his hair it is vanity. But we still have a cultural bias here, because he goes on to say that when a woman puts the same effort into keeping her hair nice it is a blessing. Paul is confused. But we are thinking Christians, so we can expose this confusion and not let it corrode our faith. Nor do we need to discount Paul on everything else because he is confused on this point.
In fact I’m going to go a step farther and say that whenever Paul says something that seems really objectionable we need to be especially careful not to simply turn our backs on him. After all, if the gospels are at all accurate, Jesus asks us to do some pretty outrageous things. He asks us to pull out an eye or cut off a hand or a foot if it is causing problems (Mark 9:43-47, Matthew 18:8-9), he commands us to sell everything we own otherwise we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:33), he tells one man he is unfit to be a disciple if he takes time out to bury his father (Luke 9:59-60), he admonishes another to leave his family for discipleship without as much as a farewell (Luke 9:61-62), and commands us to devote ourselves to him rather than to our families (Matthew 10:34). These are tough, tough commandments. So we can’t just dismiss Paul’s commandments on the grounds that they are extreme or difficult to follow. Christianity is hard. Get used to it.
Nevertheless, Paul does sometimes tangle up the culturally specific and the general. This happens entirely because he is a second generation administrator. He has to deal with specific issues that have arisen in specific locations. So he sometimes ends up responding to local issues in such a way that his statements feel as if they have absolute force when they do not. Therefore a careful reading of the historical and cultural context is invaluable. This is one of my rules of interpretation.
We also must cope with the fact that Jesus was teaching and preaching very much in a classic Hebraic tradition and Paul’s sentiments come from a Greek background. In a way Paul is very useful to us as modern Westerners because our worldview meshes much more with the Greek than with the Hebraic. So Paul is giving us useful tools. But he may also be leading us astray if we follow him too literally. Most especially we need to be wary of the fact that Paul was a classic dualist (and Jesus was not). Paul divided a human into a physical part, which he called “the flesh,” and a non-physical part which he called “spirit” and “soul.” Sometimes he speaks of spirit and soul as being the same, sometimes he speaks of them as having separate qualities. But we can still see him as essentially dividing a human into a physical part, which tends towards sin, and a non-physical part that tends towards God. These parts are often at war. His classic formulation of the flesh and spirit battle appears in Galatians 5:17-23:
17 For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.
18 But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness,
20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions,
21 occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.
Clearly for Paul flesh is not just inert matter, but an active agent opposing the will of the spirit in us. The flesh pulls us down into depravity while the spirit raises us up towards the will of God. Here we have the age old battle of good and evil going on in the core of our beings. I could stretch out Paul’s theology and anthropology at great length, differentiating between spirit and soul, looking at his concept of heart in relation to the modern concept of “mind,” examining the terms “body” and “flesh,” and all the rest of it. But there’s no need. I don’t accept his analysis at all. It is as outmoded as the classic Hebraic cosmology that sees the sky as a vast dome with windows in it, and a path along which the sun can travel. Paul was using terms that made sense to people around him in the Hellenistic world, and we need not be bothered by them too much as long as we accept that the message he was trying to convey is still legitimate: some actions help us spiritually, and some hurt us.
I am not sure there is too much in the lists in Galatians to quarrel with. I don’t care for his metaphysics, but I can agree with the results regardless of how he obtained them (with the possible exception of sorcery, although in this case it is not clear what he is referring to). These are very general abstractions concerning wrongdoing. It’s pretty hard to dispute with them precisely because they are so vaguely generalized. When he starts talking about concrete acts, his metaphysics produces some results that collide with a modern worldview. Most importantly for me as an anthropologist is his inability to see the influence of culture on behavior. Our case study of his view on hair length is a good example. He goes too far quite often, as this example shows, in ascribing to “nature” behaviors that are clearly cultural. The more serious ones, that have been battlegrounds for centuries, are Paul’s ideas concerning gender roles and homosexuality.
Paul seems locked in his own personal struggle between social values and spiritual values. He seems to want to embrace a kind of universal spiritual equality, for example, yet he also finds himself upholding traditional social hierarchies. The following is very Christ-centered and egalitarian (Galatians 3:27-8):
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Despite this radical statement Paul does not advocate slave revolt or gender equity in marriage. Rather, he appears to constantly affirm all the norms of inequality in society. He seems to say in a variety of ways that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a master owning slaves, nor with a husband being the dominant force over his wife and family. He is very concerned about the abuse of such power roles, but takes it as given that they exist.
The simplest way to read Paul in this regard is to interpret him as saying that human institutions are a distraction, so if you can avoid them so much the better. Men and women should try to stay free of marriage, people should avoid selling themselves into slavery, and so on. The obligations that are incurred thereby sap our energies and divert us from the spiritual path. If we have an earthly master to serve, then it is hard to serve God as well. On the other hand he is saying that if we are already committed to those institutions we should not try to escape their obligations. Furthermore he is saying that tenderness and gentleness should be the norm within the social roles that we are locked into. Parents, for example, deserve to be respected because of what they do for their children. But parents need to respect their children also. They cannot rule the roost tyrannically just because they pay the bills. They have obligations towards their children which they must carry out in love. Thus, there may be an asymmetry in the relationship but this asymmetry should not be cause for exploitation on either side.
As I have said all along here, Paul’s job is a lot tougher than that of Jesus. Jesus commanded people to leave their jobs, leave their families, leave their homes and follow him. And they did. Jesus talked in a very carefree manner about not concerning oneself with the petty things of life like where to sleep, where the next meal was coming from, who was going to pay the bills. God would provide, just as he provided for the birds and the animals. It is all truly inspiring stuff. It inspires me. It keeps me going through the tough times. But I have had a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. I couldn’t just walk away from it all and follow Jesus. Among other things that would be incredibly selfish, and, therefore, unChrist-like.
There’s a clear double bind here. If I stay at my job and stay with my family I am not doing what Jesus commands of me. If I abandon all the people who are relying on me I am not doing what Jesus commands of me. So, to boil it down to the basics, whether I stay in my job or quit my job I am doing the wrong thing. Paul is working with the problems that people like me have with the Christian message. He’s trying to make it work given the realities of daily life. Anyone with any insight at all can see that Paul’s task was impossible. He had to make Christianity work as a real and powerful social movement, and not just as a set of high flown ideologies. To do so he had to make sacrifices and he had to be a pragmatist. For this he should be praised. But he should also be treated with a certain degree of respectful distance when we are looking for solutions to social problems of the twenty-first century. What worked two thousand years ago may not work now.
Once again we must use the Sermon on the Mount as our lens. We can take practical issues like how wives should behave to their husbands or whether Christians should own slaves and try to find our answers from the Sermon. Did Paul adhere as best as possible to the Sermon when he proposed answers? Let’s take slavery as a poignant example. In the modern world I have no hesitation in saying that slavery is absolutely wrong and cannot be tolerated. In Paul’s world it was also wrong, but it would not have been possible to get rid of it with the sweep of a hand without causing the entire economic system of the Roman empire to come crashing down. Some people might argue that the demolition of the Roman empire would have been a good thing, but that’s a trifle myopic. When any culture crashes everyone suffers. Innocents – men, women, and children – die or decline into hideous lives. Paul could not advocate the elimination of slavery without countenancing the death and destruction that would inevitably follow.
For me a modern analogy to illustrate the problem would be the existence of the U.S. military-industrial complex. From a Christian perspective it has no redeeming features. The military brutalizes people by training them to be warriors. Warfare kills, wounds, and maims all people involved, either physically or mentally or both. The industrial complex that supports the military occupies itself constantly with research into new ways to kill and injure fellow humans. It is hideous from stem to stern. I would be overjoyed to see the whole edifice dismantled. But if I wiped it out tomorrow with a pen stroke, Western civilization would collapse. The results would not be pretty. Most likely I would die, and so would you. Is that following God’s plan for us do you think?
My goal as a Christian has to be to work for the abolition of the military, but I have to devise an agenda that will not destroy everything in its wake. That’s the Pauline approach. By taking this stance you might accuse me of being too soft. Maybe it looks as if I am not a real pacifist. Maybe Paul looks like a misogynist or a homophobe. It’s easy to sling such accusations around from the comfort of our safe modern perspectives. In contrast it’s hard for me to forget that Paul gave up a really privileged life when he became a Christian. For the rest of his life he lived on the edge. He challenged authority and stirred up powerful people against him. He risked life and limb on numerous occasions. He was beaten and imprisoned. To the best of our knowledge he was ultimately executed by the Roman authorities for his faith. Unless we are prepared to suffer the same fate I think we do well not to judge him too harshly. If we are true followers of Jesus we won’t judge him at all.