The First Paul -- A Review

THE FIRST PAUL: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Icon. By Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009. 230 pages.

Whether people are Christians or not, they generally love Jesus. The same cannot be said for Paul. He has plenty of supporters, but he probably has just as many detractors. These detractors consider him to be the great spoiler of Christianity. If not for Paul, surely Christianity would be a much more pleasant tradition. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan – both are well known for their work on the life of Jesus -- turn to Paul in this latest collaboration. Borg and Crossan believe that Paul has gotten a bad rap and needs a good defense, and they bring both their scholarship and their engaging style to the task.

Much of what they write isn’t new or groundbreaking. People like Robin Scroggs were writing similarly several decades back, but the ability of these two celebrated authors to bring the discoveries of biblical scholarship to the populace will likely introduce these interpretations to a new and receptive audience, one not given to the deep and dense writings of biblical scholars.

The primary way of reclaiming Paul is to distinguish the true Pauline texts from those written later by more conservative Christians, authors who abandoned Paul’s radical message of equality and freedom in the hope of finding a more comfortable home within Greco-Romans society. Borg and Crossan speak of three Paul’s. One is radical and his message is found in Romans, the Corinthian letters, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. These letters, written in the late 40s CE through the 50s represent the earliest written witnesses to the Christian faith. The Paul present in these letters is a Christian Jew, converted from a zealous pharisaic Judaism by way of a vision (at Damascus, though not on Luke’s Damascus Road), who sees his mission as sharing the way of Christian Judaism with Gentiles. They make the intriguing claim that Paul garnered opposition from traditional Jews because he was poaching what Luke calls the “worshipers of God” or God-Fearers, telling them that they can have all the blessings of this faith without circumcision. This Paul told Philemon that he was brother to Onesimus, which meant the need to free the slave from his bondage. Paul also spoke of living without social, religious, and gender distinctions, so that there was a mutuality between men and women and an end to Jewish/Gentile distinctions.

If this is the preferred Paul, the one who offers the church the way forward, the one who confronted Roman political theology by proclaiming Jesus to be Lord and Son of God (in contrast and contradistinction to Caesar), there was a more conservative Paul, the one found in such letters as Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians. The conservative Paul told Christian slaves to obey their masters and wives to submit to their husbands, though this author did add that masters treat their slaves well and husbands should love their wives, still there was a retention of hierarchy. This might be too much for Roman society, but it wasn’t nearly as radical as the true Paul. If this Paul is conservative, the one we encounter in the Pastorals is reactionary, even “anti-Paul. There is little of the conservative Paul’s suggestion that masters and husbands treat slaves and wives with respect and love – just calls for obedience. They are convinced that there has been a “deliberate deradicalization of Paul as we move from the authentic through the dispute to the inauthentic letters” (p. 58).

By making these distinctions, they suggest that we can reclaim Paul. The Paul whom so many despise is probably the one found in the Pastorals, the one who tells women to submit and be quiet. The reader will have to decide whether this case has been made. Personally, I have no problem distinguishing the Pastorals from the Pauline corpus, and yet I wonder if by making such a large distinction we lose the opportunity to find words of value within the Pastorals. As for the more conservative texts, I’m willing to grant that they are post-Pauline, but I think it’s worth considering that as Paul aged, he might have become less radical. It’s possible that these so-called pseudo-Pauline texts simply represent a later stage in his life, when the realities of living in Roman society required some adjustments. Simply to say that because there are differences in style and tone, isn’t sufficient warrant. If you look at my own writings over the years, you’ll notice major differences. Could the same be true of Paul?
As to the argument in the book, our authors take us on a journey, one that includes an introduction to Paul’s life, setting the context in which to understand Paul. They make use of Acts but suggest that Luke’s picture is not only much later, but something of a domestication of Paul. Thus, to best understand his life, we need to look to his own letters first, and fill in where necessary from Acts, knowing that Luke tells his own story for his own reasons. Thus, in regards to his conversion, we should take as fictional the elaborate Damascus Road story, especially the suggestion that Paul came to Damascus armed with letters from the priests n Jerusalem – reminding us that the priests would have had no authority to summon Christians for trial, nor would they have the authority to execute (the Romans did the executing – and not for theological issues).

Having set the stage, the two authors wrestle with key elements of Paul’s thinking. They do this by focusing on key phrases from Paul’s letters – “Jesus Christ is Lord”; “Christ Crucified”; “Justification by Grace Through Faith”; and “Life Together ‘in Christ’.” At points one can see the hand of Dom Crossan, especially as the book explores the idea that Paul is confronting a Roman Imperial Theology. The claim by Christians that Jesus is Lord stands as an affront to the Emperor, the one who is both Lord and Son of God. This contrasting perspective is also explored in some detail in Crossan’s book God and Empire (HarperOne, 2007). It is here that radical nature of Paul’s message becomes clear, for to embrace Christ is to ultimately stand against Rome. It is also a reason why the authors raise questions about Acts, since Acts offers a much more positive view of Rome than does the authentic Pauline corpus.

The chapter on “Christ Crucified” has important implications for contemporary debates on the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. They note that the cross was central to Paul’s message, that he preached “Christ Crucified,” but they also insist that the cross was not a substitutionary sacrifice. Instead it was and is a sign of God’s love and passion for humanity. It stands as a means of atonement, in that it offers a way of reconciliation and liberation. Indeed, getting back to the imperial theology, it is an anti-imperial statement, even as it stands as invitation to personal transformation. But, the cross can’t be understood outside the resurrection, which stands as God’s yes to the world’s no. Now Borg and Crossan don’t take the gospel’s resurrection stories as “literal-factual narratives” (see the Last Week for more). As for Paul, the appearance of Jesus was “an experiential reality.” It was something he had experienced himself – the last of the witnesses (1 Cor. 15:5-8). The key here, though, isn’t the debate over spiritual versus physical reality, but the meaning and purpose of resurrection. It is God’s yes, and it’s also the first fruits of our resurrection. Cross and resurrection have both “personal and political meanings.”

“In its personal aspect, it was the path of transformation: we are transformed by dying and rising with Christ, by undergoing an internal death and receiving a Spirit transplant, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. As a political statement, it proclaimed that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not. And it proclaimed that God’s greatest cleanup of the world had begun” (pp. 153-154).

From the cross and resurrection, with all of its implications for atonement and reconciliation, we move onto the doctrine of justification. This is a conversation that draws in the two authors from very different starting points. Borg is of Lutheran background, while Crossan is Roman Catholic. Lutherans and Catholics understand this issue very differently, but the important statement here is that we must understand this conversation in its original context and not from that of 16th century Reformation debates. Paul wasn’t a Lutheran! Paul wasn’t arguing against Catholics, he was seeking unity between Gentiles and Jews, Jews and Christians, and Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. He was looking for a means of overcoming the walls that divided these groups, even as he took the message of Christian Judaism to Gentile lands.

Finally they come to the question of Christian community. They make the important point that “Paul did not simply convert individuals, Paul created communities” (p. 185). Paul uses a number of descriptors in regards to the community – “in the Spirit,” “body of Christ,” “Brothers.” He spoke of a new family, a new age, and a new creation. But, unlike Jerusalem, Paul’s communities were not communal. However, the Lord’s Supper was a strong component of the community’s self-understanding, a statement of equality, with warnings against abusing that equality. Passages like Galatians 3:28 and the debate in 1 Corinthians about meals reminds us that this radical Paul preached a message of equality.

Whereas the bulk of the book wrestles with biblical text, the conclusion must rest on speculation. Any book on Paul’s life and teaching has to at least touch upon what happened at the end. Of course, Paul couldn’t have written out his ending himself, but neither did Luke – who they speculate may not have wanted to end the story on such a dark tone. They assume that Paul died in Rome under Nero, as part of a general persecution in 64-65. For background we must turn to a Roman historian like Tacitus, who describes Nero’s attempt to scapegoat the little known Christian sect for the great Roman fire, and the late first century Christian leader, Clement.

Borg and Crossan have developed the ability to put forward compelling studies of early Christian theology and practice in lively and interesting prose. These are scholars of the highest repute, but they’ve learned to write for a general audience. In this book they step outside their primary area of competence, which is Jesus studies, to enter into conversations about Paul. As noted above, their purpose is to rescue Paul’s reputation, in large part by separating him from the more conservative and controversial parts of the Pauline corpus. This is, of course, not a new tactic. Indeed, it goes back at least as far back to Marcion, though their reasons and methodology are very different from Marcion’s (please don’t take this as a suggestion that they’re Marcionite). For the most part, I think that their arguments are useful and compelling, even if not original to them. I have no doubt that the Pastorals are post-Pauline, though I’m not completely convinced on the other so-called “pseudo-Pauline” epistles. It’s true that these show a more conservative dimension, but if written late in his life, could the more radical Paul have given way to a more pragmatic one? I have no stake in Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but I wonder why we need Paul to be completely consistent. I’m not consistent – no theologian that I know of is completely consistent.

If I have any real criticism of the book, which is very well written and very readable, is that they provide very few footnotes and no reading list. The reason I raise this issue is that neither of these very competent scholars is a Pauline specialist. They make reference at points to contemporary scholarship, but very few. Because they’re not Pauline specialists, it would be helpful to know to whom they are looking. If nothing else, a reading list or bibliography would be in order. So, with that caveat, I say – get this book and read it carefully and joyfully, so that you can see a different side of Paul, one that might just be more attractive, and perhaps closer to reality. Then, when we read the Epistles we can have a better sense of what Paul is doing at the beginning stages of the Christian movement.


Mystical Seeker said…
Very good review. Thanks for writing it.

One comment I would make is that if the letters of the "conservative" Paul are those of an older Paul who changed his thinking as he got older (rather than the works of later authors writing in his name), that isn't necessarily an argument in their favor. Not all of our changed opinions as we get older are necessarily for the better. If this does represent the same person, what I think really matters is, at least if we accept some of what Borg and Crossan are saying, that it represents an ideological shift from what the early Paul said and believed. So whether or not it is the same person behind that shift or different people, it does represent two ideological/theological frameworks, and I think it is still useful to view the letters in terms of those frameworks.
Robert Cornwall said…
You're right the more mature isn't necessarily better, but my critique is that change doesn't mean different author. We as the reader of the letters have to decide what to make of them and how to use them. The fact that the pastorals have reactionary elements, doesn't mean that there is nothing of value in them either. We all, as they say, must pick and choose!
Anonymous said…
Oh, time for another Oscar Wilde quote-

Truth, in the matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.

David Mc
Anonymous said…
Only the shallow know themselves.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.

Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes his biography

Only the shallow know themselves.

I don't recognize you - I've changed a lot.

Oscar Wilde

I'm determined to use these up, and I hope to actually read/see a few of his plays someday- David Mc
Steve said…
Bob, you ask, "...could the more radical Paul have given way to a more pragmatic one? I have no stake in Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but I wonder why we need Paul to be completely consistent. I’m not consistent – no theologian that I know of is completely consistent."

With this Q&A, you reveal the real reason those who believe in inerrancy can't accept the notion of a deuteroPauline interloper: Truth doesn't change! However, I think this is also the answer to why there must be one (or two): If Paul did indeed change his theology, why would it be AWAY from the gospel's egalitarian stance? It seems to me Paul would likely have moved in the OPPOSITE direction, from conservative to radical, as the gospel worked its way through his thinking.

Excellent review, as always.
Jamie Goldberg said…
Thanks for your review of "The First Paul." HarperCollins has a great web resource called Browse Inside that lets you share up to 20 percent of this book’s content online with your readers for free. This is the link that you can use – feel free to share!

Jamie Goldberg

Publicity Intern, HarperOne
Anonymous said…
I too have written a review of The First Paul, and I included a link to your review. FYI, my review is at:

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