From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. When they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus. And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
–Acts 20:17-24 (NRSV)
Pastor Randy’s sermon today (it’s Sunday afternoon as I write this) had some very nice things to say about Paul. This isn’t surprising, since we’ve been studying Paul’s life and activities as an Apostle to the Gentiles and as a role model for Christians, and especially for missionaries, in the Church today.
But Paul has been on my mind lately. This is sort of a “part 2” to my previous blog post Questioning Paul. While Paul’s teachings as we have them in Luke’s Book of Acts and in many of the Epistles are well accepted by the Church, since after all, these sources are part of our Biblical canon, not everyone sees Paul as a beneficial influence. In fact, he’s a big problem to almost everyone else outside of the normative Church who cares about his impact on Christianity, Judaism, and the world beyond.
As you recall from prior blog posts, I’d been having an email conversation with a Jewish friend of mine about Paul and how my friend believes the Epistles show Paul to be an arrogant, anti-Law Apostle, possibly a convert to Judaism, and certainly a traitor to the Jewish people, to the Torah, and to the Temple.
I posted this link to my review of the second lecture in D. T. Lancaster’s five-part series What About The New Covenant into a closed group on Google+. I got another perspective on Paul from a person who replied with the following comments (edited for context):
OK, please post supporting OT scripture or where Yeshua said this was so, not Paul’s rabbinical commentary of OT scripture. Let’s stick to the source.
I look at the writings of Paul as for (sic) what they are, they ARE commentary on what is already written. If they add to or remove from what is written in the Tanach, then they are false. They HAVE to agree, plain and simple.
In other words, Paul’s letters (and probably the Book of Acts as well as epistles written by other apostles) are mere commentary and not on the same level as the Torah, Prophets, Writings (Tanakh or Old Testament), and Gospels. We are free to disregard Paul whenever we perceive that Paul is in contradiction with the Tanakh or the teachings of Jesus in the four Gospel accounts.
So let’s review the three positions we have on Paul so far:
- Christians accept Luke’s Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul as Biblical canon and writings inspired by the Holy Spirit, just like the other books in the Bible.
- Generally, Jewish people do not accept any of the writings in the part of the Christian Bible from Matthew through Revelation, and my friend suggests that I consider the Epistles more “authentic” because they are Paul’s own words and reveal him to be anti-Judaism, anti-Jewish people, and anti-Torah, thus in conflict with the Tanakh.
- At least one representative of the Hebrew Roots “One Law” movement, accepts Paul’s letters as an authentic part of the Bible, but only at the level of Torah commentary, much like how Christians consider portions of Talmud, thus whenever Paul seems to contradict the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, the Tanakh must be right and Paul must be wrong.
I haven’t spoken of this on my blog, though I have in more private conversations, but I remember, I think it was back in 2005, when a fellow named Monte Judah, who is the head of an organization called Lion and Lamb Ministries, publicly came out and said that the Book of Hebrews should not be part of Biblical canon. His article is rather lengthy, so I won’t attempt to analyze it or quote from it here, but the problem he produced then in the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish worlds is the problem I seem to be experiencing: can we “adjust” Biblical canon to eliminate or minimize portions of scripture we find are a “problem?”
Of course, from my Jewish friend’s perspective (as a non-believer), there’s no issue since nothing in the New Testament is considered the Bible, thus Paul should be a “non-event.” Paul, or at least how he’s been traditionally interpreted, is only an issue to the degree that his writings have been used by the Church for nearly two-thousand years, to at best marginalize the Jewish people, and at worst to exterminate them.
This isn’t the Paul that I know, who would take any risk and suffer anything for the sake of his Jewish brothers and sisters:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
–Romans 9:1-5 (NRSV)
But even here, the letter picking up at verse 6 seems to see Paul damning those he just praised. Paul appears to be a maddening contradiction, at once praising the Jewish people and denigrating them; at once saying how lovely the Torah is and also how it is the way of death. They can’t both be right. Either Paul was hopelessly double-minded or we’re missing something.
Men like John Mauck, Mark Nanos, and Scot McKnight have been trying to interpret Paul in a way that actually makes sense and doesn’t violate God’s intent toward the Jewish people or break God’s prior covenants with them as we see in the Tanakh, but it’s an uphill battle. Both Christianity and Judaism see Paul in fundamentally the same way, a man who walked away from Judaism and, based on the teachings of Jesus, created a brand-new faith for non-Jewish people that Jews could only join by abandoning their Jewish birthright.
For at least a few in the Hebrew Roots movement, the answer to Paul is to downgrade him from scripture writer to Bible commentator whereby he “merely” is interpreting older scripture without adding to canon as such. Again, I can only assume that the other epistles and Luke’s Acts are also relegated to the status of commentary (which doesn’t make them scripture at all) and only the Gospels (and John’s Revelation?) are the real, authentic Word of God we find post-Tanakh.
Paul is a lightning rod of controversy because of the apparent contradictions in his writings and the “weirdness” of having letters included as part of our Bible. On the other hand, Revelation 2 and 3 record Messiah’s personal correspondence to seven diaspora churches, so Jesus himself creates a wrinkle in the fabric of what we consider scriptural writings.
How are we to evaluate canon? Who is qualified, competent, and has the authority (which presumably would have to come from God) to change the Bible we have today? Who has the right to subtract entire books from the Bible or even a paragraph, a sentence, a word, or a letter?
Certainly not me.
You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
–Deuteronomy 4:2 (NRSV)
But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
–Galatians 1:8-9 (NRSV)
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
–Revelation 22:18-19 (NRSV)
Admittedly, I’m taking these verses out of context and I can’t say that they present a blanket statement that covers the entire Bible from Genesis through Revelation (though they do seem to cover the Torah, the Gospel as presented in the context of Paul’s Galatians letter, and Revelation), but they do indicate that it is a dangerous thing to play fast and loose with the contents of the Bible. I mean, we already play around a lot with the context of the Bible, with how we choose to interpret it, with how we decide what it means, but once we think we’re all big and bad enough to decide as individuals or groups, that we can put this part in the Bible and take another part out, we might as well resolve to meet our demise in the manner of Nadab and Abihu.
My answer is that we have no sound basis for changing the contents of the Bible, which for better or worse, has been part of our religious canon for almost twenty centuries as far as the Apostolic Writings go, and the rest of the Bible, a good deal longer.
The Bible is what it is. We either learn to live with it and try to learn from it, or we admit defeat by either blindly trusting what leaders and experts tell us it means, or give up our faith altogether, or as much of it as is based on the Bible. If we love the Tanakh but don’t trust the Apostolic Writings, we Gentiles, by definition, must abandon Jesus and convert to Judaism (or alternately become Noahides). This could include even those who feel comfortable readjusting the level of Paul’s importance and authority as a Bible author, for once you start questioning Paul, how much “Christianity” do you have left?
As a disciple of my Master, the only reasonable choice I have is to believe that all of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, tells a single story about God and Israel and what that story means about the people of the nations. I have to believe, even though there seems to be different messages from and about Paul in Acts and in the Epistles, that there is an internally consistent Paul who believed one thing, was on a single mission, and who was always faithful to God, the Master, the Torah, the Temple, and the Jewish people.
Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”
–Acts 28:17-20 (NRSV)
This is only one time when Paul defends himself against the false charges of teaching Jews against following the Torah of Moses (see Acts 21:21-24, 24:10-21, 25:10, and 26:22-23 for other portions of Paul’s testimony). If Paul is telling the truth, and I believe he must be (for why would he suffer such terrible persecution including beatings, stonings, and other hardships just to lie in order to get out of punishment now) then we must be reading wrong those portions of his letters that seem to indicate that Paul had a low (or no) view of the Torah.
I know I’m probably pinning a lot of my hopes for understanding the Apostle to the Gentiles on the scholars of the New Perspective on Paul, but I really don’t think there’s another reasonable option. Given everything I’ve said up to this point, the only answer to this conundrum is that our interpretation of Paul, the Church’s traditional, historical interpretation of Paul, is faulty, due either to an early second and third century misunderstanding, or to a deliberate “massaging” of the text in an attempt to make Paul fit an anti-Jewish paradigm.
Tinkering with Biblical canon in any way isn’t an option and frankly, I think you’d have to be pretty “nervy” to even suggest it. The Bible is what it is. Now, the challenge is to discover the identity of the real, consistent, sane, Pharisee and observant Jew who we call the Apostle Paul.