I’ve been learning so much about Paul this year. Things that never ever occurred to me as a believer, and which I’ve never heard any believer address, are, like a lot of things, common knowledge to the biblical scholarship community. (Well, – the basis of a common knowledge upon which debate rages as to the details and ramifications, but… you get the point. Nothing is unanimous in scholarship.)
I’m fascinated by what I’m becoming aware of about the differences between Paul’s Christianity, ie that which became dominant, and some other early versions. It’s an interesting matter of context. Of course, as atheists, we are often accused of taking the scriptures out of context and misrepresenting them or misinterpreting them. Well, if what I’ve been reading has any merit, and it apparently does, it turns out I’m guilty as charged, and have been ever since I was a believer, and even before that.
The context within which Paul wrote many all of his epistles, is one in which vastly different versions of Jesus-belief were fighting for supremacy. Particularly, a fight was raging over whether a Gentile needed to become a Jew, and partake in all the Jewish rituals and ‘initiations’ (those pertaining to foreskins and sharp implements, for example, to put it bluntly,… OUCH!) before he could be saved in Jesus. Paul said no, faith alone was adequate without “works”. Yes, the faith/works debate, (in which the book of James has long been seen to take a contradictory view to that of Paul) is more about whether you can keep your foreskin and eat certain meats, than whether you can earn your way into heaven by being nice. It’s an argument about how Jewishly you need to act. THAT’s what was meant by ‘works’. We know that, because degrees of adherence to the Jewish laws and traditions was one of the main things that separated the early sects.
Paul was apparently having a hard time convincing his followers to accept his view and reject the views of other groups, such as that which later came to be known as the Ebionites; who were WAY Jewish and kept all the customs and laws alive. Who else? Well,… yes, the Ebionites, whom you probably have not heard, and… Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and the other original 11 Apostles, whom you might have; who, it seems, didn’t quite see things the same way that Paul did. There was a very long and very heated dispute between them. I’ve found recently that reading Paul’s letters with that context in mind really has them making a lot more sense. They are suddenly about something real: a historically verified battle of ideas that we know took place. I’ve had The letter to the Galatians, particularly, really jump off the page at me, reading it through the lens of a proper historical context.
Here are some wonderful excerpts from a book I’ve been reading this year, Bart Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities”. (Interesting, and telling, that my spell-checker doesn’t recognize the second word of that title).
According to Paul, a person is made right with God only by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, not by following any of the deeds prescribed by the Jewish Law. And this applies to both Jews and Gentiles. Since Jesus alone is the way of salvation, then anyone who tries to follow the Law in order to be right with God has misunderstood the gospel and probably lost his or her salvation (Gal 1:6-9, 5:4)…
…Paul fired off a white hot anger letter in response to his “Judaizing” opponents in Galatia, in which he went on the attack against these “false teachers”, who, in his judgement, had corrupted the true gospel of Christ and stood accursed before God. This letter, of course, made it into the new Testament, and so most people simply take it at face value: Paul’s opponents were corrupters of the gospel and accursed by God…. One of our greatest losses is a written response from one of them. But if any such reply was made, it has disappeared for ever. One should always bear in mind that in this very letter of Galatians Paul indicates that he confronted Peter over just such issues (Gal. 2:11-14). He disagreed, that is, even with Jesus’ closest disciple on the matter. What would Peter have said in response? Regrettably, once again, we can never know, since all we have is Paul’s version.
At the same time, whereas only Paul’s account all his confrontation with Peter and the Judaizing missionaries of Galatia survives, at one time numerous positions were represented… A close reading of our surviving sources shows that one of our Gospels, at least, appears to represent an alternative point of view.
… Matthew’s Gospel is frequently thought of as the most Jewish of the Gospels of the New Testament. This account of Jesus’ life and death goes to extraordinary lengths to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus…. [eg, its opening genealogy]. Time and again it quotes the Jewish scriptures to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God in fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures.
[Ehrman quotes, in full, Matthew's (5:17-20) record of Jesus insisting that the Jewish law be kept... "Not the smallest letter or the smallest stroke of a letter will pass away from the Law until all has taken place." Nothing comparable exists in any of the other (less “Jewish”) gospels.]
For Matthew, the entire Jewish Law needs to be kept, down to the smallest letter. The Pharisees, in fact, are blamed not for keeping the Law but for not keeping it well enough. It is worth noting that in this Gospel, when a rich man comes up to Jesus and asks him how to have eternal life, Jesus tells him that if he wants to live eternally he must keep the commandments of the Law (19:17). One might wonder: if the same person approached Paul with the same question 20 years later, what would he have said? Would he have told him to keep the Law? His own writings give a clear answer: decidedly not. (cf. Rom 3:10; Gal 2:15-16).
Ehrman, Bart. 2003 “Lost Christianities”, Oxford University Press. p98-99
How fascinating, that even within the early Christian writings that survived and came to be considered canonical, there is evidence of serious dissent and disagreement. More fascinating, though, is that it is between Paul and Peter, (and perhaps the author or later ‘editor’ of Matthew, too), and that there were such differing, and conflicting ideas about the person and teaching of Jesus. Can you imagine how Peter and the apostles must have felt, being ‘upstaged’, as it was, by some late-comer who never even MET the person they’d followed around for years and were devoting their lives to?
It turns out that the Scriptures themselves, in the case of Paul’s epistles at least, were largely attempts to argue a case in contrast to a very specific “heresy” which is now largely gone, and has been these past 1600 years or so. Amazing to think that the heretics that Paul’s version of Christianity eventually triumphed over were Jesus’ apostles, no less.
They never taught me this in church. Has it been put on the curriculum since I left?
[I’ll be writing more about this. I’ve just started another book, a brand new one hot off the press, called “Jesus and Paul”, by James Tabor, of UNC (Charlotte) . It is almost unputdownable. It is especially interesting in the ways that it slightly deviates from the ideas of Ehrman and others I’ve read and heard on this topic. Wonderful! I have no idea why this fascinates me so much, but oh, how it does.]
I used to read and understand the New Testament as being God’s timeless word and instruction for my own faith. I used to meditate deeply upon passages and even upon the individual words, poring over them meticulously, allowing (I thought) the Holy Spirit to help supernaturally reveal their deeper meanings to me – prayerfully hoping to allow those words to transform me from the inside out into someone fit to partake in the task of furthering God’s kingdom. It turns out, rather, that it was mainly an angry and frustrated Paul venting over a very specific and contemporaneous theological dispute to do with Jewish rituals and foreskins; and boasting that he knew Jesus better than everyone else, because he’d seen him in visions. (The man could very well have been a diagnosable nut-case, but that’s another story.)
Perhaps people who read Paul’s epistles the way I used to ought to be aware of the CONTEXT in which those epistles were written, and not take them OUT OF IT!