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The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan

January 8, 2016

TFP 2I didn’t find much that is new in this book. However, people who haven’t kept their reading up to date will find much to shock them. The trouble is that they aren’t likely to read these authors.

So much of the ‘received wisdom’ about Paul has been filtered through Augustine – anti-Judaism, and Luther, who pits law versus grace, which is eisegesis, not exegesis. We must cleanse out minds of such distortions in order to read Paul afresh.

The writings of E. P. Sanders and Tom Wright have done this for us. This book helps further their cause, though the authors are seen as somewhat heterodox.


… For many Christians today, atonement has come to be identified with a particular understanding, namely, substitutionary atonement. … Substitutionary sacrifice was foreign to his (Paul’s) thought. Indeed, seeing the cross of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin is bad history, bad anthropology, and bad theology.”

“If Romans (the was as abstruse as commentators have made it over the centuries, Phoebe would need to have been an even greater theologian than Augustine or Aquinas, Luther or Calvin. Or, with no disrespect to Phoebe, have we made a letter that was surely intelligible to its communities into one deeply unintelligible to us?”

You will notice, by the way, that the ratio of advice for slaves to advice for owners is four to one.

With regard to the Christian community envisioned by the radical Paul, those texts are contradictory, conservative, and re­gressive. They are not just post-Pauline; they are anti-Pauline. With regard to the norms of Roman society, they might even be too liberal. First of all, they advocate reciprocal duties for slaves and owners—even granted that four-to-one ratio.

throughout all of i Corinthians 7, Paul deliberately strains his syntax to make certain that any obligation of the wife is balanced by that of the husband and vice versa. It is always about mutual and reciprocal rights and duties.

of the total of twenty-seven individual Christians in the …..list, ten are women ….. Paul uses the verb “to work hard” (kopiaO) to mean dedicated apostolic activity. He applies it to himself twice, in Galatians 4:ii and i Corinthians 15:io. But here he uses it four times and exclusively for women, for Mary (16:6), Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (16:12). Finally, we return to that Junia just mentioned (16:7), to a case that would be comic if it were not tragic. For the first millen­nium of Christianity, commentators recognized correctly that Junia was a female name. She was the wife of Andronicus as Prisc[ill]a was the wife of Aquila. Then, for the second millen­nium of Christianity, she was turned into a male. Junia, so the claim went, was short for the male name Junianus. That, how­ever, was patently untrue because, although there were over 25o known cases of a female Junia in antiquity; there was not a single one of a male Junia as the abbreviation of Junianus.

Actually, as we saw above in Roman attitudes toward slaves, a Roman paterfamilias, or father of the household, would probably consider the above admonitions far too liberal. First of all, they require mutual and reciprocal, even if unequal and hierarchical, obligations. Second, those deemed inferiors—wives, children, slaves—are addressed directly and not through their presumed superiors—husbands, fathers, masters.

Was Paul’s “physical infirmity” an isolated incident or was it part of the wider “thorn in the flesh” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7?

First, “thorn” (Greek skolops) means more than a minor pin­prick. It is, as a standard Greek lexicon explains, “‘something pointed’ such as a `(pointed) stake,’ then something that causes serious annoyances, thorn, splinter, etc., specifically of an injuri­ous foreign body”

Second, Paul makes a connection between his ecstatic (liter­ally “standing out of the body”) experiences and that “thorn/ stake in the flesh.” He begins by describing “visions and revela­tions of the Lord” when he was “caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body” and was permitted to hear “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (12:1-3)… He adds, as collaborating evidence for his diagnosis, that Paul’s phrase “a stake in the flesh”—that is his translation of skolops­”is the peculiar headache which accompanies the paroxysms [of chronic malarial fever]: within my experience several persons, in­nocent of Pauline theorizing, have described it as ‘like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead.”

Luke says Paul only heard Christ, but Paul insists he saw Christ. Indeed, it is the sight of Christ that makes him an apostle, as he says in r Corinthians: ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (9:1). It is that sight that puts him on a par with the Twelve and all the other earlier apostles

there are profound theological impli­cations to that difference. Do God and Christ call an apostle by revelatory vocation (from Latin vocare, “to call”) directly from heaven even after the resurrection and ascension, or only indi­rectly through the Christian community here below?

Some scholars suggest that he went to the desert to meditate on and prepare for his missionary vocation. But no prophet acted like that—and certainly not one like Paul. He was called by God and Christ to do something—not to think about doing some­thing. We propose, therefore, that “into Arabia” meant Paul’s immediate obedience to his vocation as Apostle of the Gentiles. It involved, in other words, his first mission—to the Nabatean Arabs, whose capital was at Petra in modern Jordan.

Paul passes over this first mission in silence, and Luke never mentions it at all. But as we shall see below, both of them record Paul’s ignominious departure from Damascus at its conclusion. Why was this mission such a disaster? It had nothing to do with theological debates over male circumcision, for example, since Nabatean males were already circumcised. It had to do with very unfortunate timing for a Jewish preacher among Arab listeners…. In Paul’s version the threat comes—very credibly—from the Nabatean civil authorities, who controlled the gates of Arab Da­mascus after 37 CE. For Luke it comes—quite incredibly—from the Jewish religious authorities, who never could have controlled the gates of Arab Damascus. This reveals a Lukan interpretive prejudice that must be carefully assessed throughout Acts for its anti-Judaism. Notice also, by the way, that the problem is civil and political for Paul, but religious and theological for Luke.

Many families lived in one room, all that they could afford, and mostly used it for sleeping and storage. For them, daylight hours were spent working and outdoors, except when weather or ill­ness made it impossible.

In these densely populated tenement areas, lack of sanitation was an enormous problem. Those of us who have traveled in that part of the world have often marveled at the sophisticated plumbing in the villas of the wealthy: running water, indoor toilets, hot water for baths, and so forth. Not so in tenement areas. Tenements did not have running water. Water for house­hold use had to be carried, most often up many floors. Toilet fa­cilities were pit latrines and chamber pots, usually emptied into gutters in the narrow streets.

The lack of sanitation bred not only stench, but insects and diseases. Mortality rates from disease were high everywhere in the ancient world, but even higher in cities—so high that cities could not have survived without a steady influx of people from the countryside. Of this, there was plenty. The major reason was an economic policy of the Roman Empire: agriculture was being systematically commercialized. Once, families had worked a small piece of their own land to provide for their needs, but that was changing as land increasingly passed into the hands of large landowners who employed workers to produce crops for com­mercial sale.

The result was a virtually forced migration to cities. Thou­sands from rural areas who had become landless, whose labor was no longer needed, or who were unable to produce enough income for their families to live on moved to cities. A majority of the urban working class were thus newcomers and strangers to each other. Moving to a city meant the loss of traditional com­munities of support provided by extended families and lifelong residency in a village. Moreover, because of the high death rates within cities, many who moved there with families soon found themselves without family.

Migration to cities also involved people of many different lin­guistic and ethnic groups. Antioch, with its population of 150,000 on 2 square miles, included eighteen ethnic quarters. Misunder­standing, rivalry, and enmity were endemic and often resulted in riots. Thus, as Stark concludes, the cities of Paul were places of “misery, danger, fear, despair and hatred,”5 despite the glory sug­gested by the last remains of their monumental structures.

This is the setting in which Paul conducted his urban mission. He was able to do so in part because he practiced an urban trade: he was a tentmaker. We should not think of tents in the modern sense of what campers use or even in the premodern sense of what nomads lived in. Nomads did not come to cities to buy tents. Rather, a tentmaker was an awning maker, using cloth or skins or both. Tents as awnings were in considerable demand in Paul’s world of the Mediterranean sun, and his skill gave him mobility.

that Paul could never have begun in each city by going to the synagogue to convert Jews to Christian Ju­daism. But he could have gone to the synagogues to do some­thing else—something more in keeping with his divine mandate at Damascus and his human mandate at Jerusalem. Put another way, who are those Gentiles to whom Paul went?

We usually think, from the Jewish religious viewpoint in an­tiquity, of two groups distinguished as “Jews” and “Gentiles” or of, as Paul says in Galatians, “Jew and Greek” (3:28). But there was actually a third option. There were also Gentiles who stayed Gentiles—if they were males, for example, they remained uncir­cumcised—but who became what we might call gentile synagogue adherents. In other words, they accepted Jewish monotheism, respected Jewish morality, family ethics, and communal values, and, most especially, attended the synagogue regularly.

we are told that on the very first day of Christian preaching “about three thousand” were baptized (Acts 2:41). But this is hyperbole. Luke, like other ancient writers often used hyperbolic numbers. The lower estimate is more realistic.

It is common to speak of “house churches,” but more likely we should think of “shop churches”—that is, groups of Christians meeting in workshops, which were commonly on the ground floor of tenements and other build­ings. Shops were small, most not larger than ten by twenty feet, some even smaller. Larger assemblies would be possible if one or more of the converts had enough wealth to own a villa and host gatherings there, as in Corinth. But for the most part, we should think of small gatherings. And it is possible, perhaps even likely, that there were several “shop churches” in a given city.

we begin to glimpse a Pauline alternative to Rome’s program of peace through victory, namely, peace through justice. And here, we emphasize, if it is not already clear enough, that justice means distributive and not retributive justice (punish­ment). There will only be peace on earth, Paul claims, when all members of God’s world-home receive a fair and equitable share of its bounty, when all members of God’s family have enough. Do not confuse, he might have added, peace with lull.

(Romans 13) . Looking back on how it has been used throughout Christian history, Paul might surely wish he had never written it.

Second, it was written to Rome in the mid-5os during the rather disturbed context after the death of Claudius and the as­cendancy of the teenaged Nero.

The twofold pattern executed by Rome and vindicated by God appears twice early in the book of Acts. The authorities cruci­fied Jesus, but God raised him up (2:23-24). A few verses later, in only slightly different language, it is repeated: this Jesus who was crucified by the authorities God has made both Lord and Mes­siah (2:36).

In popular usage as well as often in the history of theology, justice has come to mean pri­marily retributive justice, that is, punishment. Thus God’s justice means divine retribution: we deserve to be punished for failing to measure up to God’s standards. But this is not what Paul meant. If it were, how could God’s retributive justice, God’s punitive justice, possibly be “gospel,” “good news”?

There is another kind of justice that we call distributive justice. Distributive justice is not about just punishment, but about just distribution. In the economic sphere, distributive justice means the just distribution of the material basis of existence; in the Bible, it means the just distribution of God’s earth. Paul’s un­derstanding of God’s distributive justice includes divinely man­dated economic justice and also more, and it is that “more” that we emphasize here. God’s distributive justice means that God is equally available to all—that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.

Paul, like other contemporary Jewish moralists, singled out homosexuality as not only bad, but even “unnatural,” in that in­dictment. But, in that tradition as in many others, sexual nature was determined by biology, body, and genitals. For many people today, however, sexual nature is determined by chemistry, brain, and hormones. So Paul never faced the question we must now both face and answer. Yes, of course, sexual action follows sexual nature, but by what and by whom is sexual nature determined? And what if homosexuality is as “natural” for some as hetero­sexuality is for others? And recall, of course, that Paul—and pre­sumably his contemporaries—found long hair on men and short hair on women “against nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15. We would surely call that a judgment conditioned by time and place, given locally by culture and not universally by nature.

If, however, you misread Paul as announcing that God is a God of retributive justice, you will need theological contortions to explain how that could possibly be “good news” (gospel), es­pecially for that universal human sinfulness described in Romans 1-3. Paul’s actual good news, however, is that God’s own charac­ter of distributive justice is available for anyone willing to accept it—without prior merits or conditions. Justification: transformation, not imputation. If you misread the justice of Paul’s God as retributive, the only good news might be that God would pretend, as it were, that we were just, that God would impute to us a justice we did not have. Such an “as if” treatment would have horrified Paul. There is nothing, for example, about fictional imputation of justice, but everything about factual transformation by justice in these claims from 2 Corinthians:

All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord
as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed

that Paul eventually and successfully focused his Damascus mandate from God and Christ on gentile “God-worshipers,” those non-Jewish sympathizers who attended the synagogue and were located religiously between full Jews and pure Gentiles. For many Jews this was a deliberate missionary strategy, a quite adequate way of turning those individuals away from idolatry and immorality without the requirements of full conversion (for example, male circumcision), to which there was some amount of familial and social opposition.

…He saw gentile “God-worshipers” as lost between worlds, be­cause they were following some Jewish legal requirements while not accepting the full Jewish faith. Paul could never imagine a half-Jewish, half-gentile person. Was that not, precisely, a clas­sic example of works-without-faith? He warned the Romans, on another subject, for example, about those who “do not act from faith” by asserting that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (14:23).

In other words, by attending the Jewish synagogue, gentile God-worshipers admit that something there is profoundly correct and that they should convert to Judaism. By not doing so, therefore, they are in “sin” and what they are doing is works (without faith) rather than faith (with works). What is happening is not a struggle between Paul and his fellow Jews over Christ for them, but over Christ for the God-worshipers.

Therefore, he insists, the weak should not “pass judgment” on the strong, nor the strong “despise” the weak …. What contemporary intra-Christian disputes will seem just as dated and irrelevant to later Christian centuries as those at Antioch and Rome may seem to us today? But, in any case, how Paul ought to resolve those ancient disputes may still be paradigmatic for later intra-Christian disagreements. In any such debates, the “strong” are those who “despise” the “weak,” while the “weak” are those who “judge” the “strong,” and to both Paul says, “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7) and “not for the purpose of quarrel­ing over opinions” (14:1).

working out our salvation with fear and trembling. We can only conclude that the reason we should fear and tremble about our salvation is not because God will punish us if we fail, but because the world will punish us if we succeed.

The issue here is that not everybody got to eat the same food. The wealthy had their own food and drink, and others had little or nothing. This practice was common in the Roman world when a wealthy patron hosted a meal that included people from lower social classes. The patron would serve finer food and wine to others from his social rank and less fine food and wine to those of lower rank. Meals, even when they crossed social boundaries, would nevertheless mirror those boundaries.

In this interpretation, Adam and Eve’s sin was hubris, a Greek word commonly translated “pride.” Pride as hubris does not mean simply feeling good about an achievement, but making oneself the center of existence, puffing oneself (or one’s cause) up to inordinate size. This is what the “first Adam” did. The second Adam presents us with a different model—Jesus emptied himself.

A second way of understanding the contrast sees this text as referring to the preexistent Christ, the prebirth Jesus. Or, to use John’s language, the text refers to the “Word” that was with God from the beginning and that became incarnate in Jesus (John 1:1-14). For this understanding, the incarnation meant that the preexistent Christ, the Word, emptied itself of its divine qualities in order to become human in Jesus. Becoming human meant be­coming vulnerable—even to the point of being executed by the powers that rule this world. This understanding is commonly called “kenotic,” from the Greek word kenosis, which means “emptying.” The Christ who was with God from the beginning emptied himself in order to be among us.

There is a third possibility. Who was it in Paul’s world who claimed to be “in the form of God” and who regarded “equality with God as something to be exploited”? The answer is quite obvious: the Roman emperor, who was proclaimed by impe­rial theology as divine, Lord, Son of God, and the Savior of the World, who had brought peace on earth…. If the contrast is to the preexistent Christ, a similar point emerges: God, self-emptied and incarnate in Jesus, was passionate not about power and control, but about justice and peace, distributive justice and nonviolence.

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