In part 1, I introduced co-authors Borg and Crossan, and in part 2, I discussed their majority view treatment of authentic Pauline letters vs pseudo-Pauline writings that came later as “correctives” to the radical Paul, in the authors’ view. Today, in part 3, I will discuss their less orthodox view that the Roman Emperor and the Empire were Paul’s veiled enemies in his writings, and this discussion will include links to a number of discussions of this issue.

Borg and Crossan are first and foremost Jesus scholars who offer a low christology that is less divine and more human, less other-worldly than here and now, more about a social reformer than an end-times avenger. Whether one agrees or disagrees is not relevant to this book, but what is important to note is their attempt to have Paul fit the same mold. This is where they part company with their scholarly peers.

Jesus Through Jewish Eyes is an excellent collection of essays by rabbis and Jewish scholars. In general, the essays view Jesus favorably as a long lost Jewish brother, an inspired Torah teacher, a prophetic voice for justice — but not the divine messiah. In many ways, their views are compatible with the low christology of the Jesus seminar. In private correspondence with one of the editors, I asked a related question — what do Jewish scholars think of Paul? Here, the answer was decidedly different: Paul was the apostate responsible for setting emergent Christianity on a collision course with Israelite religion by interjecting Hellenistic notions (human becoming divine, life-death-rebirth mythology, etc). The most extreme statements, yet generally consistent with the negative attitude of Jewish scholars toward Paul, come from Hyam Maccoby who characterizes Paul as The Mythmaker.

So, the Borg/Crossan treatment of Paul as the Jewish evangelist who promoted a Hebrew messiah in opposition to the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire would appear to be decidely at odds with the view of current Jewish scholarship. What about current Christian scholarship?

Borg and Crossan promote a “Paul vs Empire” thesis that is a very recent and emergent product of ongoing scholarship. The leading proponent of the thesis that Paul was an anti-imperial evangelist is noted British scholar, N.T. (Tom) Wright. In November, 2007, he debated with his friend and fellow scholar, John Barclay, and the reports of their dialogue crop up in a number of blog reports. Since this is emergent sholarship, I am unaware of any formal response to the “Paul vs Empire” view of Wright and of Borg/Crossan in their book, but I expect Barclay or others to challenge the view along the lines of Barclay’s oral response in their debate.

In particular, I note the blog report of Lee Irons who was present during the debate who attributes the following paraphrased statement to Barclay:

There is no evidence that Paul accords special role to Roman emperor. He never refers to any Roman governors or emperors by name, although he does mention King Aratus, thus showing he’s not averse to naming rulers. Paul never refers to Roman deities. He never refers to his Roman citizenship positively or negatively. He never identifies the cross as a Roman punishment. It is the Jews (1 Thess 2:14) or the nameless ”rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:6-8) who killed Christ. The offence of the cross is drawn out in relation to the Jews and the Greeks, never in relation to the Romans in particular. Paul attributes his punishments and persecutions to the Jews, never to the Roman authorities. When he does refer to civil rulers, they are always anonymous and never specifically identified with Rome.

Tom [Wright] and others in the ”Paul and Empire” coalition argue that Paul uses “code” or “hidden transcripts.” This whole scenario strikes me as absurd. There is not a single hint in Paul’s writings of a second meaning. Why on earth would Paul need to write in code? Paul’s letters are private communications carried by trusted friends. There were no secret police in Paul’s day opening the early Christians’ mail to look for signs of political insubordination.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with the Borg/Crossan proposal to reclaim the radical Paul against the patriarchal and pro-slavery correctives of the Pastoral epistles, I am dubious about their attempt to make him a low christology, anti-imperialist. If one laments the anti-Jewish history of Christianity, if one is uncomfortable with the exclusive claims of Christianity, if one wonders about the high christological trinitarianism of orthodox Christianity, then Paul cannot be excused. As the first and foremost interpreter of Jesus of Nazareth, he set the trajectory for emergent Christianity: Gentile not Jew, exclusive, high christological, and spiritual not worldly.

Borg and Crossan justly criticize the authors of the Pastoral epistles for domesticating a radical Paul. But, can the anti-Jewish polemic of Paul be excused? Can the Hellenistic influences on Paul be overlooked?

Links to other discussions of the Tom Wright thesis:
Dunelm Road Blog
Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean
John Dart article in The Christian Century

Links to other valuable reviews of this book:
Pastor Bob Cornwall
Rich Harwell in
Spirituality & Practice

Originally published in Spirit of a Liberal blog.