Tag Archives: canon

Should We Get Rid of Paul?

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.

hebrews_letterI 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.

John Mauck

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.

nadab-abihu-fireOne does not treat a consuming fire lightly.

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.

Did Canon Close for Christians and Jews?

Talmud Study by LamplightWhen we asked Major General Farkash why Israel’s military is so antihierarchical and open to questioning, he told us it was not just the military but Israel’s entire society and history. “Our religion is an open book,” he said, in a subtle European accent that traces back to his early years in Transylvania. The “open book” he was referring to was the Talmud — a dense recording of centuries of rabbinic debates over how to interpret the Bible and obey its laws — and the corresponding attitude of questioning is built into Jewish religion, as well as into the national ethos of Israel

As Israeli author Amos Oz has said, Judaism and Israel have always cultivated “a culture of doubt and argument, an open-ended game of interpretations, counter-interpretations, reinterpretations, opposing interpretations. From the very beginning of the existence of the Jewish civilization, it was recognized by its argumentativeness.

-Dan Senor and Saul Singer
“Chapter 2: Battlefield Entrepreneurs,” pg 51
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Less widely appreciated, though, is the paradox that in Judaism the canon remained fluid even as it became fixed. The word of God, unlike the language of humans, was deemed to bear an infinity of meanings with the result that canon spawned commentary. Of all literary genres, commentary is the least appealing to the modern temperament with its penchant for speed, novelty, and self-expression. Yet it is the key to Judaism’s singular achievement: a canon without closure. Revelation proved to be expansive rather than restrictive. The right, indeed the obligation, of every Jew is to plumb the Bible for meaning kept the text open, pliant, and relevant in a conversation that spanned the ages.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Introduction,” pp xv-xvi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

This is probably one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism: the belief that it is “normal” to not agree about religion and what the Bible says. Add to this, the belief that Biblical canon is not immutably fixed across time and in fact, that interpretations of the Bible must change across time in order to remain relevant, and you have a tremendous barrier between Christianity and Judaism as religious entities.

Well, sort of.

I’m talking about the various branches of Judaism vs. fundamentalism in Christianity. If you shift to the other end of the spectrum, the view becomes different.

Simply put, the desire for an original source document is one that we’ll likely never overcome because we’ve been taught that a “source” must always exist. We assume that in order for the written word to be valid, it must be verifiable, because we were raised in the era of book reports and footnotes. The Bible, however, is a not a term paper written to appease a persnickety professor. Rather, the Bible is a written collection of generations-old, evolving oral stories as they existed at the time they were written down. Someone chose to record a tiny piece of the evolving oral tales in writing, capturing one solitary moment in the life of the story. Even in cases where the works were copied from other documents, it is probably not proper to wonder where the “source” document is, because the source was the spoken word.

From what I’ve gleaned in the essay written by Fowler and other writers, we erroneously believe that the preservation of God’s Word is the same as preserving each string of words. We also erroneously equate preserving God’s Word with preserving an interpretation of the Word. We spend a lot of time chopping scripture into sound bytes and mining tiny details of our stories, but this is not how ancient storytellers and hearers engaged these stories… We differ in approach because our high level of literacy has made us letter-focused, rather than spirit-focused, when a more faithful use of the text would be to focus on the power of story to bring people together.

-Crystal St. Marie Lewis
“Our Literary Bias: What it is and How it Affects our Perception of Scripture”

BibleStorytellingThe blog author is commenting on an essay written by Robert M. Fowler called “Why Everything We Know About the Bible is Wrong.” I’d love to be able to read this essay myself. I commented on Ms. St. Marie Lewis’s blog asking for the source and she was gracious enough to supply the relevant link.

According to her brief bio, Ms. St. Marie Lewis says that she “writes from the perspective of a progressive Christian about religion and how it relates to the world around us,” which should tell you that she’s unlikely to reflect a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. However, it’s her progressive perspective that is more likely to fold into, at least to some degree, the Jewish idea that canon is not rigidly fixed.

The church I attend is Baptist and generally supports a dispensationalist point of view:

Dispensationalism is an evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations,” or periods in history.

One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.

History_of_Dispensationalism_Darby_IIIDispensationalist don’t see themselves as reinterpreting the Bible from a human standpoint to adjust to the requirements of different generations, but nevertheless, they do take the text and view it as becoming more densely packed with information as it progresses from past to future, making “the Church” the ultimate receiver of the highest and most “evolved” revelations of God, somewhat in contradiction to the level of intimacy that someone like Moses would have experienced at having spoken with God “face to face” (the level of intimacy implied here is that of a husband and wife) as it were.

If dispensationalists believe that God progressively revealed Himself up to the end of the Biblical period and then stopped, that’s one thing, but what if they believe that God’s progressive revelation progressed after the end of the Biblical canon and for many centuries to follow?

John Nelson Darby is recognized as the father of dispensationalism,[1]:10, 293 later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–96, with his popular style spread Darby’s teachings to humbler elements in society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren Movement. Mackintosh popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author.

As there was no Christian teaching of a “rapture” before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, he is sometimes credited with originating the “secret rapture” theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove his bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because “God is able to graft them in again”, and they believe that in his grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the methodologies of God may change, his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as he has shown unmerited favour to the Church, he will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.

Um…whoa! As it says at Wikipedia, it seems as if progressive revelation continued to progress well past the Biblical period and into modern times. How else do you get doctrines such as progressive revelation, the rapture, and Calvinism that didn’t exist in Biblical times and were created closer to the 21st century than to the 1st century? Why did God “reveal” these concepts to Christians so much later in history (and after the Christian Biblical canon was theoretically closed) and how does all this compare to the basic viewpoint of Rabbinic Judaism?

The feature that distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism is the belief in the Oral Law or Oral Torah. The authority for that position has been the tradition taught by the Rabbis that the oral law was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Law and that the Oral Law has been transmitted from generation to generation since. The Talmud is said to be a codification of the Oral Law, and is thereby just as binding as the Torah itself. To demonstrate this position some point to the Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 of the Bible are cited to show that Moses appointed elders to govern with him and to judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the revelations from God while carrying out their duties. Additionally, all the laws in the Written Torah are recorded only as part of a narrative describing God telling these law to Moses and commanding him to transmit them orally to the Jewish nation. None of the laws in the Written Law are presented as instructions to the reader.

The oral law was subsequently codified in the Mishnah and Gemara, and is interpreted in Rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Torah cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law. Indeed, it states that many commandments and stipulations contained in the Torah would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep without the Oral Law to define them — for example, the prohibition to do any “creative work” (“melakha”) on the Sabbath, which is given no definition in the Torah, and only given practical meaning by the definition of what constitutes ‘Melacha’ provided by the Oral Law and passed down orally through the ages. Numerous examples exist of this general prohibitive language in the Torah (such as, “don’t steal”, without defining what is considered theft, or ownership and property laws), requiring — according to Rabbinic thought — a subsequent crystallization and definition through the Oral Law. Thus Rabbinic Judaism claims that almost all directives, both positive and negative, in the Torah are non-specific in nature and would therefore require the existence of either an Oral Law tradition to explain them, or some other method of defining their detail.

bible_read_meI know that Christian progressive revelation in the post-Biblical period and the development of Rabbinic Judaism in the post-Second Temple period don’t seem particularly related, but look at the core of what they both accomplish. They both state that the various authorities in each of these religions take the Bible as the base source material and interpret it (either via the Holy Spirit in Christian understanding or under the authority God gave the Rabbinic sages) across time in order to meet the requirements of each generation. Although Christianity likes to believe it has closed the canon at the end of the book of Revelation, the fact that many doctrines have been created in post-Biblical times that would have been alien to Jesus, Peter, and Paul attest to the opposite.

Judaism, if anything, is more upfront with what it has been doing. The Bible may be a fixed document, but it’s how we interpret it at any given point in history that gives it a lived meaning in the Christian and Jewish worlds. Are any of us truly living “Biblical lives” or are we actually living “Doctrinal lives” as interpreted by our different denominations, sects, and movements?