Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My take on Paul (o' the Bible)

Let me preface this by saying the following:
I have a fairly limited blog audience. 2, 3 at most. Of that vast throng of 3, at least 2 are deeply faithful Christian fellows whose posts are absolutely fantastic to read even when I don't necessarily agree, or, as is more often the case, have the slightest clue what they're talking about. (Hi Stan and Ben)

More often than not, it's somewhat akin to a quantum physics professor explaining string theory to a 1st grader. Yes, I know what string is. However, I don't think that is a qualifying factor to be in that discussion.I am not a learned fellow when it comes to the bible and the heaps of theological theory and discussion of the last couple millenia. So this post is the opposite, the 1st grader musing on string to the learned professors. Therefore I am on incredibly thin ice in writing this, but there's something that's always made me wonder about Paul...

Paul, or, Jesus's Pen Pal this Paul guy....he never actually meets Alive Jesus, he claims that Jesus appeared to him in a vision on a road trip post-resurrection. He then becomes the Stephen King of the bible, cranking out letters like nobody's business, some suggesting that he usually used a scribe to write most of the stuff down for him. I had to wiki him (see what I meant about biblical study?) to get the right number, but 14 epistles are attributed to him in the bible. 14!! Over half of the New Testament one guy! That seems like an inordinate amount of influence for a single person. For this is compounded by the content; he's not just saying "Jesus did X, Jesus said Y", he's saying "this is what it MEANS/this is what you should DO". Since so much of modern Christian thought seems to derive from his interpretations/inspirations. And given how much of modern society is built around Christian theology, that makes him one of the more influential people in the last couple millenia. What he says makes up more books of the New Testament than the Gospels and actual direct quotes from the big J. Furthermore, scholars dispute (as scholars are apt to do) the authorship of about half of Paul's epistles, some going so far as to suggest that some of the epistles rode in on the coattails of having had Paul's name erroneously attached to them. I'm sure there are Paul fanboys who will take me to task on this. But just seems weird that the bulk of the books of THE BOOK for a religion are (potentially) authored by one guy interpreting the teachings of another guy he never met while that guy was teaching. factoring in the potential that some of those books may not have even been written by Paul, but slipped in with his name on them, then you have a situation in which you have a goodly number of parts of the Bible written by guys once or twice removed from the guy they're interpreting.

That blows my mind.

Biblical History
I don't write this to cast doubts on anyone's faith, or to try to prove a point, or put forth conspiracy theory. It's just an interesting thing to me, having been raised in a small town church where the teachings were simple, and direct, to really contemplate the history behind the Bible as a document, and the influences it has.

One of the concerns I always had in various journies of faith is the potential for pollution by human hands and human interests. I am certainly not someone of the conspiracy theory mindset that believes possibility = probability= fact. But given that the modern church, with a vastly greater array of societal checks and balances against it, still manages to monumentally flub up now and then (televangelists, catholic altar boy scandals, preachers preaching hate/bigotry/etc,) there's something that doesn't sit right with me in assuming that past church institutions, who racked up abuses in other aspects (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!) were suddenly pure as the driven snow in terms of maintaining doctrinal integrity. Especially when they had motive and opportunity to nudge things to serve their interests.

I know many would say it was divine providence/guidance/protection, and that whatever made it into the Bible is untainted. I am not saying it is untrue..I am not qualified to make that argument...I'm talking about how it is perceived by folks like me who aren't coming in with the automatic, unquestioned assumpition that the Bible is unimpeachable as the Word o' God. Given the variety of interpretations existing now, and the willingness of different sects to promote their own interpretations, it at least FEELS unlikely (divine intervention notwithstanding) that the Bible made it through the initial years, official formulations, and countless translations of translations by folks with direct reasons to alter it to serve their purposes, without having things nudged here and there.

Paul really stands out to me as an example of the controversey, because, damn, he had a HUGE impact on how the early church got shaped. To me, he's symbolic of this issue with Biblical history (of the book iteself, not history as recounted in the Bible)'s somewhat murky as to who wrote what, how it got accepted, why other things didn't get accepted, and to how it may have been subtly or not so subtly altered in the mean time.Having been on both sides of the fence, this seems like it's a point that Christians need to really understand when talking about the Bible with those who have doubts...If someone already doesn't have faith, I'm not sure how effective the assumption of the bible being untainted is at selling your point. Essentially, "You should have faith because of the teachings of this Book. And you should have faith in the Book because the book says you should, even if there's the appearance of the potential of one guy who never met Jesus writing (maybe) half the books of the New Testament, and, oh, yeah, the millenia of the human institution of the church potentially having its way with the Book"

That has to be a hard bridge to get someone to ask them to make a leap of faith not only in belief in a deity, but in belief that the deity's handbook hasn't been influenced by us silly humans who have had opportunity and motive to do so, and who have shown in this person's life that they are as fallible as the rest of us. Essentially a leap of faith that divine intervention occurred in the past, even though it doesn't seem to be occurring in the present. Maybe you guys, Stan and Ben, can comment on how you deal with that issue, how you see it. Like I said, just interesting to me, not a critique of Christian faith. I'm curious how those who evangelize/witness deal with this..

In any case, Paul remains the poster boy of this concpet for me. If any one person embodied the potential for influencing, purposefully or not, how we interpret the original teachings, it's Paul.


Joel said...

Yay! I'm the unholy third audience member!

*dances and capers*

Ben said...

Looks like we have a quorum. :)

Just as a quick note to temper the temptation to see Paul as a sort of lone ranger teacher of doctrine, I'd point out that he does, in the course of his letters, make it clear that he is fundamentally in conformity with the whole witness of the apostolic community (see Gal. 1:11-2:10, noting especially 2:9). Obviously, he considered himself an apostle in his own right, not simply a disciple or student of the apostles, but he is careful to show that his message is in accord with that of the larger Christian movement.

Anyway: I would take some issue with the prospect of divine revelation being humanly "tainted." I mean, if you don't believe there is a God who is out to talk to us, that's one thing - in that case, the "revelation" is a human invention or fancy and that's that. If you do believe in God, and you believe that God is out to reveal Himself to humanity, then it seems strange to assume that He could be properly thwarted by venal interpreters.

That's obviously not to say that revelation can't be misused. You've struck on an important point, one that the teachers I respect deeply tend to point out: you can't separate doctrine and praxis. One informs the other. If your Church is slaughtering the innocent, its doctrinal isn't somehow being somehow magically cordoned off and maintained in the midst of that. A bad tree doesn't give good fruit.

As to the purity of the texts themselves, that's not necessarily something I'm highly qualified to argue, so I'll leave the research up to you. The possibility of tampering over the millennia doesn't seem to bug too many biblical scholars all that much, though.

I obviously can't speak for Stan, but I don't tend to see biblical authority as a line of reasoning that leads to faith in Jesus; I don't think too many people read and study the Bible, decide, "Oh, wow, this really is the infallible Word of God," and then convert - though I have known more than one person become a Christian primarily through reading the Bible on their own.

In my experience, assenting to the authority of the Bible is something that happens in the context of a relationship. You come to believe that Jesus is who he says he is, you repent and believe - that is, you decide that he is trustworthy and that you are going to trust him to save you and change you into the person you are supposed to be - and then you start to realize that there are implications to that. You realize that his attitudes toward things are going to need to be the ones you adopt.

And Jesus takes the Hebrew Bible seriously, and Paul is accepted by the community of apostles that Jesus himself picked out and commissioned, and so the general sense that this is what he was about, that this is how he taught that God communicated with His people - that's what the Christian (at least the Gentile Christian) understanding of biblical authority is rooted in.

I guess that doesn't read like a very rigorous apologetic or anything, but I'm trying to give you a sense of how I see things more than a rundown of the case for reliability of the NT texts, which has been debated and developed more intelligently elsewhere. Hope it helps.

JMBower said...

Joel: I said at LEAST, not only:) You know I'd vote for you for pope any day.

Ben: cool, I was hoping you'd offer what would be undoutbely a much more learned approach. I think the point of what I was saying was not that I strongly believe the bible has been shaped by man, but that for those not already makign the assumption that it is the infallible word of God, the appearance of potential "taint" must be an interesting isue for Christians to overcome when witnessing. Obviously it's hardly essential to have faith. To be honest, even in my undoubting youth group teen days, I still had reservations about the derivation of some of the minor details, but it was alwawys overshadowed by the core principles to me. But I can imagine it being an interesting bump in the road on a journey of faith for someone who hasn't already committed to the concept of it being infallible. Outside of the assumption of divine intervention, and given a healthy skepticism of people in institutions ("A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.") I think that healthy skepticism makes some assumptions. if anything that says something about the nature of how I , in my decided unlearned way, see faith. Belief not just in the absence of proof, but in the potential of disproof...against a healthy skepticism...against probability. To me, anyway, faith is more than just believing something that the jury's out on. That's fine and all, but it's more of a passive faith...real faith in my eyes is what endures when every reason to disbelieve is taken away.

Anywho, that's a bit off topic. No need for it to be a "rigorous apologetic" as the post really isn't intended as an attack, etc. It's really just mental wanderings about the Book specifically, and how we perceive it on a more general level. Paul just stands out to me as emblematic of the potential, if not actuality, for influence, malicious or not. To me, faith in SPITE of that potential, is pretty inspiring.

JMBower said...

err, in the last line, that should be "ever reason to believe is taken away."

stanford said...

I call to order the inaugural meeting of Justin's complete readership. :)


You are hysterical.


yup. I became a Christian because the words of Jesus (and Paul and James) 'rang true'. The had an existential reliability rather than an ontological reliability. But later I required the later (hm, 2 words one spelling, doesn't seem right). This is actually the tact Tim Keller takes, focus on the historicity of Jesus, and deal with other details in light of what you found out about that.


I think I get what you are taking about. 3 preliminary thoughts and then I'll try to send some mp3's you might find helpful. NT Wright, Tim Keller and DA Carson argue this far more believably than I can.

1. I find Paul abrasive. I don't think we would get along. But he’s family.

2. Have you read any Kierkegaard? He is very helpful re: fact v probability v uncertainty in the realm of faith and Christianity. And I think you'd like him. I have a paper on his take somewhere if you are interested.

3. It is hard to disagree that the reliability of the scriptures is one of the biggest issues in the Christian faith. The standard circular argument that 'The Bible is completely trustworthy b/c it claims to be' is embarrassing.

There are strong arguments against canonicity (especially some of Paul's letters and John's gospel). But there are strong arguments for canonicity and reliability as well. These arguments tend to revolve around a historical consensus* and the structure of prose that appeals to eye witnesses (an early version of citation). The 7 undisputed letters of Paul are dated earlier than any of the gospels and were used for Christian worship and doctrine as far back as we have record (even the other scriptures). I stand by them (and the disputed ones, I do not find the linguistic arguments vaguely compelling) as a reliable and authoritative part of my narrative. Sorry for cluttering your comment section. I’d be thrilled to pursue any of these topics further. This was a question I had to sort out for myself, and I really respect you for taking it on.

*early lists, from well before there was any official cannon, only vary by 4-5 books. I think they were James, 3 John (made it) the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas (didn't make it - but interesting reads none the less). If we are wrong about Paul, so were the guys that knew Jesus. Peter (arguably the guy who knew Jesus best) actually recommends Paul's letters (2Peter 3:15-16) to us and calls them scripture (even though he says they are pretty difficult to understand, which is, frankly, hysterical). Wow, I can’t even comment without footnotes.

Ford said...

I had a thought recently about this very subject, and I would be interested to hear Stan's take on it. I was puzzling over Paul's apostleship and why he, the least of the apostles, ended up commanding such influence. Why not Peter or John? Why didn't Jesus appoint an eyewitness to His earthly ministry as apostle to the nations and the writer of the most influential letters prescribing theology and practice for Christians for milennia to come?

Again, this is only an idea, but I wonder if it may have something to do with God's plan for the future church. He could very well have used eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection, but perhaps recognizing the handicap the rest of us have (not being able to see the flesh-and-blood Jesus and follow Him around for three years), He chose an enemy of the Gospel who had not experienced any of the earthly ministry as a template for the rest of us.

Granted, Paul did witness Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus, but who is to say God is incapable of such revelations today? This is important because if God is real, and if Jesus' message, atoning death and victorious resurrection really happened, it helps knowing that God saw fit to use someone who wasn't party to these events as His chief emissary to the nations.

Just a thought.