Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Snap: Borg and Crossan's "The First Paul"

From the June 2009 E-Block.

The authors of this book, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, would likely say that they came not to bury Paul but to praise him. And at that, the "first Paul." A first? There is a second, or third, or....? 

Yes, that's their hypothesis, but it is not a case of triplets. Rather, this is the familiar tack of editing Biblical texts to create multiple parties out of one.
The "three Pauls" consist of:
  1. A Paul who wrote 7 of the 13 letters, basically, the "nice" ones in which Borg and Crossan detect an egalitarian Paul who follows their desired model of social justice;
  2. A not-so-nice Paul, who wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, and was a bit too conservative for the authors' tastes, endorsing family codes and slavery;
  3. A really nasty Paul, who wrote the Pastorals and didn't like women.
To an extent, Borg and Crossan offer little new with this division of texts, though their basis for division is a bit fresher than usual. Unfortunately the premises come back to serious failures of scholarly acumen:
  • They are unable to resolve Paul's radical instructions to Philemon regarding Onesimus (the slave) with instructions to slaves to behave as found in Ephesians, Colossians and Titus. Borg and Crossan miss the rather important point that the circumstances of Onesimus' escape and his relationship with Philemon is what had Philemon over Paul's honor-barrel; it was a unique set of circumstances that could hardly have been duplicated with every slave and owner. For other letters, only general moral instruction would be expected. (Though they are also compelled to admit that by Roman standards, instructions in Ephesians and Colossians are "liberal", and they still do not grasp what this means.)
  • They are unable to square 1 Cor. 14:33-6 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 with the egalitarian Paul they find elsewhere -- with no hint of awareness of the resolution-contexts of those passages. (And of course, they find it necessary to say that Paul Version 3.0 inserted the former into Paul Version 1.0's text.) They also cannot see how an egalitarian Paul fits into the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians, not minding the fact that the codes indicate mutual obligations between husband and wife and places more obligations overall on the husband (which they admit, but still do not "get").
Other than these things, The First Paul isn't particularly radical or difficult; it has other odd moments, such as the idea that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was malaria (see a better explanation here). Crossan and Borg are often very much off target in seeing how radical Paul's message would have been to contemporaries. Perhaps the only other major stumbling-block is their attempt to parse Paul's language to absolve him of a doctrine of substitutionary atonement by saying that Paul didn't mean that Jesus died "in our place" but rather "for our sake or benefit." How this is in any meaningful way different is not explained, as it seems quite clear that either way it is sliced, the non-Christian ends up dying in their sin as Paul says otherwise. In the end, Borg and Crossan are left with little more than emotional appeals to how awful it would be to suggest that God planned for Jesus to be killed, but in their own reworking of the system, it doesn't seem that God would have been any less aware of the imminent crucifixion.

So it is that The First Paul offers nothing new or radical, or that has not been handled before by apologists and scholars. But as usual, keep your eyes open for it.

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