The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary behind the Church's Conservative Iconby Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan
“Borg and Crossan reveal a figure who, besides being neither anti-Semitic, anti-sex, nor misogynist, stresses social and political equality among Christians and between them and others. A refreshing and heartening exculpation of a still routinely maligned figure of the first importance to culture and civilization.” — Booklist (starred/b>
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“Borg and Crossan reveal a figure who, besides being neither anti-Semitic, anti-sex, nor misogynist, stresses social and political equality among Christians and between them and others. A refreshing and heartening exculpation of a still routinely maligned figure of the first importance to culture and civilization.” — Booklist (starred review)
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg—two of the world’s top-selling Christian scholars and the bestselling authors of The Last Week and The First Christmas—once again shake up the status quo by arguing that the message of the apostle Paul, considered by many to be the second most important figure in Christianity, has been domesticated by the church. Borg and Crossan turn the common perception of Paul on its head, revealing him as a radical follower of Jesus whose core message is still relevant today.
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The First Paul
Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon
By Marcus Borg
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Paul: Appealing or Appalling?
Paul is second only to jesus as the most important person in the origins of Christianity. Yet he is not universally well regarded, even among Christians. Some find him appealing, and others find him appalling; some aren't sure what to think of him, and others know little about him.
The cover of Newsweek for May 6, 2002, asked, "What Would Jesus Do?" The story inside referred to Paul as well, citing passages attributed to him on slavery, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and heterosexism:
The Biblical defense of slavery is: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as you obey Christ," writes Saint Paul. Anti-Semitism was long justified by passages like this one from I Thessalonians: the Jews "killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets." And the subjugation of women had a foundation in I Timothy: "As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. . . . If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." And yet in each case, enlightened people have moved on from the worldview such passages express. . . .
And if science now teaches us that being gay may be a "natural" state, how can a reading of the Bible, including Saint Paul's condemnation of same-sex interaction in Romans, inarguably cast homosexuality in "unnatural" terms?
These are among the passages in letters attributed to Paul that many find more appalling than appealing. So we begin our story of Paul by speaking about his importance, the reasons for his mixed reputation, and the foundations for our way of seeing him.
Paul's importance is obvious from the New Testament itself. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament, though to call them "books" is a bit of a misnomer, for some are only a page or a few pages long. Of these twenty-seven, thirteen are letters attributed to Paul. Not all were actually written by Paul, as we will soon report, but they bear his name. To these add the book of Acts, in which Paul is the main character in sixteen of its twenty-eight chapters. Thus half of the New Testament is about Paul.
Moreover, according to the New Testament, Paul was chiefly responsible for expanding the early Jesus movement to include Gentiles (non-Jews) as well as Jews. The result over time was a new religion, even though Paul (like Jesus) was a Jew who saw himself working within Judaism. Neither intended that a new religion would emerge in his wake.
This does not mean that Christianity is a mistake. But it does mean that the two most important foundational figures of Christianity were Jews whose passion was the God and the people of Israel. When Paul spoke to non-Jews, it was to the God of Israel as disclosed in Jesus to whom he called them. Nevertheless, Paul more than any other figure in the New Testament was responsible for the emergence of Christianity as a new religion that, though it included Jews, became increasingly separated from Judaism.
Paul's importance extends beyond the New Testament into the history of Christianity. Many of its most important theologians and reformers were decisively shaped by Paul's letters. St. Augustine (354-430) was converted to Christianity by a passage from Paul. Before his conversion he was a gifted, brilliant, and troubled young man who fathered a child with a woman to whom he was not married. His spiritual journey led him through philosophy to Manicheanism, a religion that emphasized that the flesh was bad and spirit was good.
Then one day, as Augustine tells the story, he heard a child singing, "Pick it up, read it." He picked up a copy of the New Testament, and his eyes fell upon Romans 13:13-14:
Let us live . . . not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ . . .
In his Confessions, commonly seen as the world's first spiritual autobiography, he reports:
Instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all of the gloom of doubt vanished away.
After this experience mediated by Paul, Augustine became the most influential theologian of the first millennium of Christianity.
In the more than thousand years from Augustine to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Paul continued to be revered because his writings were part of Christian sacred scripture. But during the Reformation, he became decisively important for Protestants. Martin Luther (1483-1546) had his transforming experience of radical grace while preparing lectures on Paul. Paul became the foundation of his theology, especially the Pauline contrasts between grace and law, and faith and works, language that has been paradigmatically important for Lutherans ever since.
John Calvin (1509-64), the other most important Protestant Reformer, also made Paul central to his theology. Calvin's theological descendants include millions of Protestants: Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists (today's United Church of Christ), and other Reformed denominations.
Two centuries later, Paul played a central role in the birth of the Methodist church. Its founder, John Wesley (1703-91), was converted to his mission to reform the Church of England while listening to a reading of Luther's commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans. His life's work eventually led to a new denomination, now the second largest Protestant denomination in America. Thus hundreds of millions of Protestants around the world, whether they know it or not, have Paul as their primary theological ancestor.
To say the obvious, Paul matters. But how he matters and how much he matters vary greatly among Christians. There are very diverse understandings of Paul's importance, message, and character. To some extent, the same could be said of Jesus, for he is diversely interpreted as well. But all Christians agree that Jesus was admirable, attractive, and appealing. Not so with Paul.
Excerpted from The First Paul by Marcus Borg Copyright © 2009 by Marcus Borg. Excerpted by permission.
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Marcus J. Borg (1942–2015) was a pioneering author and teacher whom the New York Times described as "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." He was the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, and he appeared on NBC's The Today Show and Dateline, ABC's World News, and NPR's Fresh Air. His books have sold over a million copies, including the bestselling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus, The Heart of Christianity, Evolution of the Word, Speaking Christian, and Convictions.
John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, is widely regarded as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Historical Jesus, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, God and Empire, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Greatest Prayer, The Last Week, and The Power of Parable. He lives in Minneola, Florida.
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