The Paul of 1 Corinthians

We are more than halfway through the so-called authentic letters (ca. 50-66 CE) of the New Testament Paul. This past week our reading group discussed the first half of his first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth. This is the first of these seven epistles to provide something Jews might refer to as halakhic details for a distinctive set of two ecclesial practices—baptism into “the Lord” and the “Lord’s Supper” or eucharist, a Greek word that means thanksgiving. These practices, together with the unique nature and requirements for belonging to the ekklesia (at least as the Paul of this letter imagines it), are sufficient to establish a social and metaphysical communal identity that is deliberately distinct and separated from both the contemporaneous Jewish and Greek worlds in which it exists. It is definitely not Judaism, but it is also not the Christianity of the third and fourth centuries CE. The ekklesia communities and their member ekklesians neither refer to themselves as Christians, nor do they call their movement Christianity. In fact both terms, as they are commonly understood today, would be anachronisms. What these earliest New Testament texts attributed to Paul preserve and describe is what students of religious movements once would easily have labeled a cult. Today the more politically correct term is New Religious Movement, but I think this neutralizes the alienating, insular, and dangerous elements of this first century messianic movement, at least as it is laid out in the letters of Paul we have read thus far.  Continue reading

The Paul of Philippians

The New Testament book of Philippians is the third “authentic” Pauline letter our small study group has worked through. Let me preface my comments by remarking on the position taken by Paul Nanos, who describes himself as a New Testament scholar with an alternative approach to understanding the apostle Paul. Nanos wants to read the Pauline corpus as though Paul were a Torah-observant Jew. Now, I am having a difficult time with this approach on two counts. First, doesn’t this beg the question of what the first century Paul’s attitude might have been toward Jewish law? Second, I am left to wonder whether Nanos and I are reading the same texts. I cannot fathom how he finds support for a Torah-observant author (whatever that might mean given the first century CE context). Philippians is a case in point for my argument that the Paul who wrote this letter, and the previous two letters we have read, has no interest in upholding even the rudimentary requirements of Jewish law let alone presenting himself as “Torah-observant”. Continue reading

The Paul of 1 Thessalonians

My Pauline reading circle has made it through the first two of seven so-called “authentic” Pauline texts in the New Testament, which are: Galatians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. With each of these texts, my aim is to arrive at a conclusion about whether these seven letters, attributed to a pseudo-historical Jewish figure named Paul, should be treated as Jewish texts, and if so, on what basis. Unlike Galatians, 1 Thessalonians is not overtly antagonistic to visible Jewish difference, yet the letter eventually undermines any argument that it should be studied as a Jewish text by the way it decides who is “in” and who is “out. “We,” the protagonists in the story, are the ekklesia, those who believe in Christ; “they,” whether antagonists or simply not “us” are all the non-believers, Jew and Gentile alike.  Continue reading

The Paul of Galatians

Our Pauline letters reading group met again via Skype this afternoon to discuss our thoughts about the New Testament text of Galatians. I can’t speak for the other members of my group (hopefully they will leave a few comments of their own when they have time), but I will be brave and write up what I am taking away from a preliminary study. First, I should say that I am interested in doing a close reading, independent of other New Testament texts, in order to see what, if anything, would justify classifying this letter (using Daniel Boyarin’s words) as a “thoroughly Jewish” document. I can begin at the end by saying that, despite its extensive use of Jewish scripture to proof text its message, Galatians reads as a thoroughly anti-Jewish piece of polemical writing.

The letter purports to be written by a Jew (by birth) who has apostatized from his ancestral tradition (Ioudaismos, or Judaism)  in the wake of a divine revelation and commission to preach the good news of salvation in a risen Christ to the Gentiles.  Continue reading