Sorting Out the Apostle Paul
So emotional and knee-jerk do many get concerning what I am about to do, I feel we all need a little historical decorum and perspective before I start.
If you think I really had problems with public education (What is Wrong with Public Education…), they may have been exceeded in church (Southern Baptist) over the years. As I sat in the pews listening to sermons and following along with my personal Bible, as I sat in Sunday School class after Sunday school class, and as I taught Sunday School myself extensively, I began to notice something. The principle text for the sermon or lesson, it seemed to me, was coming more frequently not from the Gospels, but from the letters of the Apostle Paul. That got me to wondering and asking myself questions.
Had I been a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox member of the congregation, that may have been as far as it went, and I might be still asking questions to myself to this day within sanctified walls. But I am a Protestant, a child of the Reformation. Ironically, I do not have the Baptist church to thank for helping me understand the ramifications of being a Protestant. For, along with a growing uneasiness about Paul, was the odd observation that neither the Reformation nor the origins of my particular denomination was ever discussed from a historical perspective. Only lives of inspiring Baptists, from preachers to missionaries were paraded before us as some kind of models. Instead of being inspired, I became increasingly suspicious. My questions, for the most part, were deflected or simply not answered. When I found out how to find the answers to my questions, I began to understand why the church did not want to answer them; the history of Protestantism, beginning with the 95 Theses, unfolded like an expose, an expose of Protestantism, of Christianity in general, and of Christianity’s origins.
So much of what I had been told in church that claimed to go back to the “first century” church went back instead to the Reformation, to the 16th century. For example, the sanctity of the believer, that each man or woman had their own direct link to God. In many ways, the establishment of that idea was a main thrust of the Reformers Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, etc. — about 1500 years after Jesus died!
That is just the tip if the iceberg concerning the Reformation: Basically, I was able to ask my questions and get my answers because of what the revolutionary movement started by the Reformers made possible. Taking advantage of the newly invented printing press, Protestantism encouraged anyone who was literate to read the Scriptures for themselves in their own language! You did not have to know Latin, Greek, or Hebrew! You did not have to have a cleric of any kind, if you knew how to read, read and interpret Scripture for you.
And it was just you, your Bible, and your God, as the pantheon of Saints propped up by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches was swept away, along with the cult of the Virgin, the “Mother of God.” You prayed only to the Trinity. How incredibly simplifying! Moreover, all those orders within Catholicism, as well as celibacy of the priesthood went out the Protestant backdoor, along with the saints and with the cult of Mary, mother of Jesus. Even more simplification! Anyone could understand how to become and live as a Christian. Again, it is just you, your Bible, and your God.
What made all kinds of sense to me is that you do not need clergy at all to be a Christian. This is the origin of my anti-clericism. In fact, as I read the Gospels, it seemed Jesus was teaching the same thing: you don’t need a clergy; you don’t need the Pharisees nor do you need the Sadducees. Jesus, in many ways, seemed to me to be the first Protestant. At the very least, He was a radical reformer of the organized religion of his day; and He paid the price for being so.
Incidentally, there is a price paid by historic Christianity due to the Reformation. The humanist philosopher Erasmus, though agreeing with the Reformers that something had to be done about the corruption of the Roman Church, nonetheless warned that if the Reformation came to blows, which it did (culminating the Thirty Years War 1618-1648), Christianity would shatter into countless shards, like a busted window pane. This is exactly what has happened; the unity of the Church is irrevocably shattered; the number of denominations and sects is legion, and growing. And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t put the Church together again. I don’t sweat this price, as I am not convinced Jesus was working toward a church anyway; more of what I’ve seen says he was not.
So, what I am about to do regarding Paul and the origins of Christianity is to claim my birth right as a Protestant. I am going to find answers to my questions using my own interpretation of Scripture. I exercise my discretionary rights as a thinking individual and choose to consult all the sources I have read on Christianity for decades, as well as the Bible, including many so-called “lost” Gospels beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all unearthed in modern times (e.g. the “Gnostic Gospels” found at Nag Hammadi).
Wait! — you might say. You are not an expert on Christianity! You did not attend seminary! You are not an expert! You are not qualified! Thanks to the Reformation, every person is qualified to interpret what they read according to the dictates of their heart, according to their individual faith. The Renaissance, going on prior and during the Reformation, reinforced this attitude, emphasizing the sanctity of the individual reader; experts were not necessary.
The great epistemological problem of all religions, including Christianity, is that they are entirely faith-based, based upon the authority of simply believing, specifically believing in the authority of church leaders. This means that any system based upon faith cannot show itself any better than another faith-based system. The reason Protestantism took so well to the scientific and industrial revolutions was that the sovereignty of the individual Bible reader became free of the circular arguments of faith-based positions because of them — there could be an authority outside and independent of faith, the authority of the scientific enterprise — nature itself. History became a forensic science, though still a “soft” one, instead of the mere “story telling” begun by Herodotus; history could be “checked” by archeology, comparative and critical literature, and records kept in all societies. “Truth” became a matter of methodology, not a matter of authority or faith. Adding the influences of the scientific and industrial revolutions, the Enlightenment carried on the revolutionary thrusts fostered by both the Reformation and the Renaissance. Anyone can pursue the truth independent of formal education, degrees, or titles. In forensic history, one does not have to be an expert to be correct.
[Without rationally based forensic history, it would be impossible to show any religion better than, say, that of FSM, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster Faith, a theological system set up to illustrate this very point. FSM is the all-powerful Creator-God; if you need a Saviour or Messiah, insert the hero of your choice, and the Chosen People, the “Jews” of FSM, are pirates. So, if you hate pirates, you are the equivalent of an anti-Semite within FSM.]
So, again, I declare my birth-right as a Protestant and ask my questions independent of clergy or other ecclesiastical authority. Thanks to the American Revolution and the French Revolution (separation of church and state), I shall not be arrested or silenced when doing so, and, thanks to the forensic science of modern historical Biblical criticism, the validity of my findings have nothing to do with expertise, my degrees, my schooling, or my opinions. And, of course, all my findings are open to criticism and free discussion.
Any Protestant, in my opinion, who does not read Scripture cover-to-cover and/or turns over to some member of clergy the right to interpret Scripture in his/her stead, sells their “birth-right” as a Protestant. Any of the Protestant clergy who feels they are in any way special compared to the people in their pews are, in my opinion, no better than the Pharisees, Sadducees, Catholic clergymen, or Orthodox clergymen. Such clergy have put themselves at odds with Jesus’ teaching — Heaven help them! (You can imagine how well these declarations go over with my minister friends!)
With all this justification, I ask “Why was Paul an apostle in the first place?” Usually, the word “apostle” means “one of the 12,” or, better “one who walked with Jesus.” This I have no problems with, as this means Mary Magdalene should also be an apostle, as pointed out in the March 2012 National Geographic, but that same issue has no problem titling Paul as an apostle, too. That bugs me, as I think it should be someone who walked and talked with Jesus daily. That was not Paul (the converted Saul). He is called an apostle based upon a “Damascus road experience” wherein he fell off his ass onto his ass and began to see a vision of Jesus, which no one else saw. I believe he fell off his ass onto his head.
If all it takes is seeing a vision, then any of us could attain apostle status by making outlandish claims that no one could prove or refute. Now, don’t get me wrong; Paul probably did think he saw and heard something, but this could just as easily be attributed to the triggering of guilt feelings (as Saul he persecuted Christians) brought on by the trauma of the fall off his ass as it could to an actual revelation from Jesus. His subsequent zeal fits the pattern of all converts — a perpetual need for the new choice to be shown to be the correct one; no greater fear has a convert than he or she has made the wrong change.
I used to question why Paul’s letters were canonized. They are but letters intended to put out “brush fire” squabbles among the plethora of early Christian churches. (There was no Christian consensus in the first century; such a consensus did not materialize until Constantine over 300 years later! This is why churches claiming to be “throw backs” to the first century are so laughable; there was no ONE first century church; the array of different and differing issues with which Paul’s letters had to deal is evidence of this fact.) I do not now blame Paul for this; canonization came with the days of Constantine by the early church bishops; in fact, I do not believe Paul ever dreamed his letters to the various churches would one day be considered part of the Word of God. It was not his fault his letters were canonized.
Paul’s letters are maddeningly absent of any details about Jesus’ life or His teachings; the letters are anything but supplementary Gospel material. All Paul seems interested in is putting out “congregational brush fires” and interpreting the death of Jesus, or the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, depending upon your individual faith. Paul by this demonstrates the perpetual problem of all Christian apologetics — rationalizing Jesus’ death as a criminal. It is possible all Christian theology stems from this need to rationalize. If you look at what are the consensus words of Jesus from the four Gospel writers (the Evangelists) — The Jefferson Bible is a good source to use for this — there is little or no theology at all. Why is this?
Turns out a great many followers of Jesus in the decades after his Crucifixion, including the convert Paul, believed Jesus would return within their generation, before they died. Hence, there was little motivation or need to write down details of Jesus’ life; you only had time to get ready for His return, or, in Paul’s case, had time to squabble with conflicting Christian congregations of all kinds of ilks and with apostles like Peter, who did not agree with Paul.
Then came the historical bombshell that sealed the direction Christianity was to go: the Jewish Rebellion against the Romans in 62-70 CE (or AD) — you know, the one that ended in the siege at Masada. (Read the histories of Josephus.) Not told to Christians, as a rule, are two profound effects upon Christianity by this bombshell: 1) All the Christian and Jewish/Christian sects around Jerusalem (one was headed by James, brother of Jesus — seems Jesus had 4 brothers, including James, and three unnamed sisters (so much for the “virgin” thing concerning Mary, His mother!)) were wiped out or decimated to near-oblivion, like everything else in the Jewish nation. This means that the form of theology that survived was Paul’s, by default, given apostles like Peter apparently never tried to write anything like what Paul was writing. The “official” version of the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (the 40 days) is not Christianity, but “Paulianity,” in my opinion. What other interpretations of the Passion Week were destroyed in the rebellion? [A hint might very well be that to this day a sect survives in Syria/Mesopotamia that believes John the Baptist was the Messiah, not Jesus.] This is why “Paulianity” accepts Gentiles as converts, as well as Jews; Paul operated among Gentiles way away from the rebellion site — remember the missionary journeys of Paul?
2) As the Judaean world began to crumble (the beginning of the Diaspora, or dispersal of the Jews away from the Holy Land), it dawned upon the first century Christians, struggling not to be cultural casualties along with the Pharisee/Sadducee culture, that maybe they better start recording events of Jesus’ life in case they died without writing stuff down, or, Jesus did not return as soon as they had believed, or, both. Thus the Gospels were written; thus were the Gospels (including the Acts), as strange as it may seem, written after Paul’s letters, decades after Jesus died! They are more like evangelical tracts, not like histories. From around 60 CE well into the second century CE, no fewer than 21 Gospels were written, thanks to modern Biblical archeology; for the first 400 years of Christianity, different bishops “sanctified” different collections of the Gospels. All 21, or, what is left of them, have been translated so that anyone may read them. If you have not done so, check them out. This is stuff they don’t tell you in Sunday School or in the pew rows. When the Bible as we know it was finally canonized around 325 CE with the four familiar, evangelical Gospels, the “chosen” four were selected because they correlate better with each other than the other 17 Gospels, which contain sometimes wildly contradictory details of Jesus’ life; even the four do not correlate on certain particulars, as any Bible scholar “worth his/her salt” knows.
So, where does this leave us? As usual, in historical, philosophical, and scholarly queries such as this, it begs more questions than offers answers. As a scientist (physicist) I am very comfortable with unanswered questions, but I’ve seen too many over the years willing to sell their intellectual respectability to some arbitrary authority for an answer, any answer; they sell their Protestant birth-right. I trust none of you readers that have made it this far has prostituted yourself so. I trust many of you have your own view of Paul, a view I hope you are willing to share.
I urge you to be a good Protestant and read your Bible — all of it, and then read the other Gospels. As for this post, I shall leave you with some questions, just to get responses going:
- Can all religions be investigated with the same tools as has been Christianity? (My experience says, “yes,” and, so far, all major and minor religions seem to have their version of a “Paul,” and they all today have a form not intended by their founder, in my opinion.)
- What is the relation between the age of a religion and the difficulty exposing its origins? (As you might expect, the older the religion, more are the layers of historical obscurity veiling the truths at the beginnings. Not surprisingly, to me, Hinduism and Judaism are the toughest to expose, but even in these cases, progress has been made. This is why “johnny-come-latelys” like Mormonism and Scientology are so easy to expose.)
- Some of you may be familiar with the Jewish/Canadian Biblical archeologist Simcha Jacobovici (TV series “The Naked Archeologist”). He is among those who found in 1980 ossuaries (stone chests used to store the bones of loved ones after a year of decomposition in a family crypt — the method of burial in Jesus’ time for those who could afford it) in Jerusalem called the Talpiot Tomb with inscriptions like “Jesus, son of Joseph,” “Mary,” “Mariamene” (Mary Magdalene), and “Yeuda” or “Judah, son of Jesus” scratched on the outside, all dated first century. Nearby is the family tomb of what looks like “Joseph of Arimathea.” These are all common names of the time, but, is this merely a coincidence? Why is Simcha’s team denied close-up access to these crypts and ossuaries? Why isn’t someone being allowed to determine if these are genuine ossuaries or forgeries, like have been found at other sites? Where are the Christian scholarly responses to this work, if any?
- Has anyone seen my lost copy of the January, 2001, National Geographic? They are all accounted for in my library, except that one.
Anyone have a link to the original 21 gospels mentioned here?
I used the book “The Complete Gospels,” Robert J. Miller, editor, Annotated Scholars Version, 1992, 1994, Polebridge Press, Div. of HarperSanFrancisco, to count the number of Gospels compiled. All are made easier to read and compare, as a concordance and ongoing footnotes are featured for all of them. (paperback ISBN 0-06-065587-9) I hope Jim can do some linking to similar sources.
Something I’m curious about:
Aside from cultural or historical sources, there is no evidence suggesting a sentient being beyond us. As someone who has extensively studied science, how do you personally reconcile belief in a deity with the lack of empirical evidence? Or is any reconciliation necessary? The concept of accepting supernatural ‘beings’, or what have you, without verifiable evidence is difficult for me to comprehend. Of course, I don’t mean to insult the concept, just to say that my mind does not see anything pointing to that conclusion. I know many people with the “god of the gaps” notion; is this similar to your view?
Thanks for your inquiry, Alex. Reconciliation may be too strong a term. “Coming to terms with” or “dealing with” may be better.
Where I am now is dealing with what looks like the origin of human religious belief — belief which appears as universal as anything in all human minds. I do not think there is a religious gene, but it does appear there is a universal human tendency to be religious, to suspend judgement and skepticism. It is not so much WHAT one believes, as it is THAT one believes. I’m guessing future work in evolutionary psychology and anthropology will shed light on why we are so religious (At least we know that at one time in our past it was probably true that yielding to that tendency had survival value.). Now, where does that leave people like you and me, assuming we are not radically nihilistic?
Referring back to the posting on the Apostle Paul, the Reformation may very well have given a plethora of choices for our universal tendency on an individualistic basis, or at least went a long way in making certain choices, like atheism (a belief, like all the others, in my opinion) and agnosticism (an indefinite postponement of belief?), overtly tolerated instead of banished to covert secrecy.
Thanks for the response! These types of discussions never fail to be interesting.
I agree, humanity in general tends to think religiously, but I don’t think it’s quite universal. I consider myself an agnostic-atheist; the rejection of the supernatural at present, unless evidence is found. At least to me, this seems to be logical. Do you think it is our unique perception of mortality that causes this common tendency, or maybe something more innate? Also, I don’t think atheism (in most cases), can be defined as a belief, and rather a rejection of a conclusion based on an observance of evidence, or lack thereof. The exception would be strong atheists, who make the claim that there is no god, not that a god concept isn’t plausible at this point in time.
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Great post Doc. I commend your call for folks to study all of the historical Gospel sources and read Paul in the light of someone who was not expecting his letters to become an organizational basis for the entire Assembly of Believers.
A few years ago, among my many neo-sophistry duties around the University of North Texas, I was called to assist in a Post-Modernism course. I was allowed to suggest a couple of books so my input would be more collaborative. Among the three I suggested was Alain Badiou’s “St. Paul & the Origins of Universalism” and Giorgio Agamben’s “The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans.” Both of these texts radically changed my post-Nietzschean interactions with Paul.
The next semester, seven of those PoMo kids did an independent study with me of Karl Jaspers’ three volume PHILOSOPHIE. This led to another semester in which we combined our PoMo work on Paul with our Existenzphilosophie studies via Jaspers. That is, we took up Heidegger’s “Phenomenology of the Religious Life” & Jaspers’ “Philosophical Faith & Revelation” and set about reading St. Paul. Our mutual text was the excellent Norton Anthology “The Writings of St. Paul.”
I am going on at length about this because in that little anthology is a most excellent article written century ago by one of Rudolf Bultmann’s mentors, Wilhelm Heitmüller. The text, “Hellenistic Christianity before Paul.” Between Heidegger, Jaspers, & Heitmüller, our small group came to a similar notion as yourself. Paul never intended his letters to be something that would organize a universal system. Moreover, when you compare Paul’s letters with the Acts of the Apostles, esp. Galatians, you discover that there are inconsistencies in the accounts. His personal testimony does not quite jibe with the recorded witness. Thinking of how Badiou had posited Paul as the only person who had ever successfully “organized” against a universal hegemonic political structure, we were forced to ask, how is it that Paul is often seen as the “founder” of the Christian Church as organization but his own writings are so often counter to authoritarian structures (which should be distinguished from certain obtaining customs). The ACTS came to be seen by us not as a document written by one of Paul’s friends who was amping up Paul’s influence. Rather, it was a post-destruction of the Temple and fall of Jerusalem attempt to redact the failed Jacobian strains with the still thriving Pauline strains.
My sincere belief at this point, and I have used it in long exegetical debates with both Protestant & Catholic friends, is that Paul was the first person to fully grasp the radical message of Christ. He saw early on how many similarities had cropped up between the pharisees and the Jacobian led Jerusalem church. He undermined religious and temporal authority wherever it could get in the way of the experience of the Risen Christ.
So, in my normal long winded fashion, I agree wholeheartedly that Paul’s letters are best seen as examples of giving testimony and attempting to limit the power of authoritarian thinking. I further put forward this claim based on the strong Stoical/Cynical elements found in Paul’s epistles, esp. the six that we can be pretty sure he wrote all by himself.
Christ and Paul both are of a protestant strain, a strain that has emerged in many world traditions throughout the annals perennial philosophy: Socrates, Laotse, Buddha, Jesus, Diogenes, etc et al.
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