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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon - Marcus J Borg,  John Dominic Crossan,  Narrated by Mel Foster This book tries to salvage the apostle Paul from the conservative and reactionary writing that was inserted into the New Testament under his name. The book also reclaims Paul from the burdensome theology that has piled up over 2,000 years of Christian history that supposedly was based on his writing.

This book identifies four different Pauls as listed below:

"First Paul" (The real and radical Paul) wrote:
Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon

"Second Paul" (The conservative Paul) wrote:
1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.

"Third Paul" (The Reactionary Paul) wrote:
Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians

"Fourth Paul" is the one described by the author of Luke and Acts who probably didn't have access to the above listed letters. (At least there was no effort to synchronize his writing with them.)

This book (and many other scholars too) concludes that the writings of the second and third Paul occurred after the first Paul's death, and the writings about the fourth Paul also occurred many years after his death. The book then analyses the writing of the first three Pauls regarding the subjects of slavery and women. When viewed in this manner the letters show a definite spectrum from radical, then conservative and then to reactionary (i.e. Pro-Roman). The "First Paul" comes off looking much better to modern liberal eyes than the traditional Paul who was credited as being the author of all thirteen of the letters listed above.

This book then proceeds to attempt a rescue of the word "atonement" from the "substitutionary sacrifice" people with these opening comments:

... 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."

Read the book if you want to know what they consider to be the correct understanding of atonement.

Early in the book the authors provide a detailed, verse by verse, analysis of the Book of Philemon. That analysis provides an up close look at one example of a 1st Century slave-master relationship.

Later, the book also provides a less detailed analysis of the much longer Book of Romans. With regard to Romans, the authors suggest that if we can shed ourselves of the 16th Century Reformation rhetoric and place ourselves into the world of the 1st Century that it isn't that difficult to understand. The follow quote from the book refers to Phoebe who carried the letter to Rome on behalf of Paul:

"If Romans (the N.T.book) 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?"

Hmmm, is it possible that people were smarter back in those days than we are now? Also, I doubt that the "second Paul" or "third Paul" referenced earlier would have entrusted a woman to carry their letter from Cornith to Rome. That clue alone should make it clear that the "First Paul" is not the same person as the other Pauls.

I appreciated the book pointing out the parallels between Paul's writing and Beatitudes of Jesus which I think addresses the question of how much Paul knew about the teachings of Jesus. Paul makes almost no explicit references to the teachings of Jesus. But in Romans there are parallels with the Beatitudes in the books of Matthew and Luke. Since the books of Matthew and Luke were written later than Paul that raises the question, how much did Paul influence Matthew and Luke? (The preceding question is mine, not the book's.)

The book proceeds to ramble through many of the other Pauline books in the style of a bible commentary with a liberal slant to things. I particularly enjoyed the epilogue where they speculated on what happened to Peter and Paul. I've been frustrated for many years about the fact that the writer of Acts ended the story of Paul where he did. I now have a plausible idea of why the story was ended there. If you want to know for yourself, you'll need to read the book.

The authors try to use simple language that's accessible to the non-academically trained reader. Unfortunately, I'm not sure theology can be made interesting for most people. So I'm not sure how many people will grasp the nuanced and metaphorical meanings to the New Testament books that require the reader to think in terms of First Century cultural and political settings. In general I agree with their conclusions, but one needs to be a theology wonk to get excited about it. Therefore I gave the book four stars instead of the five it probably deserves. Borg and Crossan deserve credit for providing to the layperson an alternative understanding of Christianity that is different from that of the more traditional Christian theology.