Book Review: The First Paul
Posted June 17, 2014on:
The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.
I was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.
Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:
First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)
Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.
Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.
The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,
Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)
Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.
The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.
The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “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.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.
“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)
Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.
The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.
I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.