Paul… the Radical Countercultural?

Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female: we are “all one in Christ Jesus”

Paul Mosaic at Chora Church in Istanbul

People today don’t give Paul (or Jesus or the Bible) enough credit for “forward thinking”. We like to think that modern man has pulled himself (and herself) up by the bootstraps, a notion that emerges from our modern view of ourselves, of beings that have made ourselves after a long, doggedly determined climb out of the primordial slime.

Paul is often called patriarchal and even misogynist. He is blamed for the “backward thinking” that prevails in some areas of the church. Bronze age ideas and norms, they say, enslave the church in primitive thinking that quashes the rights of more sophisticated modern people.

There are dozens of examples in Scripture that this isn’t true. When we read the Scripture through a modern lens and don’t understand or appreciate the context of the time when it was written, we fail to appreciate the radical nature of Scripture.

I have written on these things many times in the past, but my attention is drawn to one example today. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:

“[I]n Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 3:26-4:7)

Let’s unpack this a bit, and I think you will see what I am talking about. First, we need to consider the context of the time in which this letter was written. Then we need to look closely at what Paul is saying.

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Questioning the Skepticism about Some of Paul’s Letters

A little skepticism of the skeptics might be in order in questioning the rejection of the authorship of some of the “questionable” Pauline epistles.

Old Engraving of the Conversion of Paul

I first learned that some of the “Pauline epistles” were not written by Paul in my religion courses in college. That was the scholarly consensus then, as it is now, among the elite New Testament scholars in colleges and universities around the world. This consensus grows out of the “school of higher criticism” that began in the 19th Century in Tubingen, Germany.

The so-called “school of higher criticism” is textual criticism with a heavy emphasis on the text. (I will explain that comment below.) Not that textual criticism, itself, should be suspect. Textual criticism is “a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification of textual variants, or different versions, of either manuscripts or of printed books…. The objective of the textual critic’s work is to provide a better understanding of the creation and historical transmission of the text and its variants.” (Wikipedia)

And by the way, there are differences among the New Testament manuscripts. Many differences. That fact shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone in this information rich age. If you aren’t aware of that fact, you would do well to consider the work of Daniel Wallace on the subject. I have addressed this issue before (Can We Trust the Bible?). But, I digress….

I have no issue with textual criticism applied to the Scriptures. We have learned much about the Bible from the method of study called textual criticism. “Criticism” here doesn’t mean, necessarily, rejection or doubt, but is more of a method of study that recognizes textual differences between manuscripts and attempts to identify the text that is most true to the original text, among other things.

Because we have so many manuscripts, well over 25,000 of them in various languages, there are variants that need to be addressed and understood. Textual criticism helps us with this understanding. (I should add that we have such a high degree of certainty about what the original text says precisely because we have so many manuscripts. If you want to dig in to the topic of textual criticism as applied to the Bible, I recommend The Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism.)

Some people take the fact that there are many differences among the manuscripts as a reason to reject the New Testament as Scripture, believing it to be inherently unreliable, questing whether we even know what the original authors wrote. This is an extreme view, in my opinion, though one that skeptical intellectuals seem to like. Perhaps, their fondness of this view is that it eliminates the need to take Scripture seriously or to apply it to their lives (to apply a little skepticism to the skeptics).

The fact is that we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts (5800 Greek, 10,000 Latin and 9800 Syriac, Coptic, etc.) that we can know with a very high degree of accuracy precisely what the original text was (like 98.5% per Dr. Wallace). Even if we didn’t have a single manuscript left, there are some 36,000 quotations of New Testament text by the early church leaders. Wallace observes that we could assemble the entire New Testament from those quotations alone, without the need for a single manuscript of the text.

But, I digress. Only a little. The point is that we should be as skeptical of the skeptics as they are skeptical of the text. In fact, Skepticism is the hallmark of the higher school of criticism. Skepticism is their starting place. They assume a skeptical approach. They don’t just wipe the slate clean, and start from neutral; they assume that the plain meaning of the text, the authenticity of the text and the reliability of the text has the burden of proof. And for this reason, we have good reason to be skeptical.

This form of skepticism is the flip side of what some might call blind faith. There is a danger in being skeptical that will not admit a positive result. There is a commitment to skepticism that is counterfactual. We can be as “committed” to skepticism as we are to belief to the exclusion of the facts and reality. I believe this is the case with the Pauline epistles that scholars reject.

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Where is Our Confidence and Focus?

In Paul’s day, and I suggest in ours, the influences we most need to be concerned about are the religious ones in our own midst!

Depositphotos Image ID: 15807997 Copyright: Kuzmafoto

Paul, the man Jesus “recruited” face to face after His death and resurrection to be the apostle to the Gentiles, was concerned about the purity and integrity of that Gospel. He had every reason to be proud of his accomplishments and heritage as a Jewish Pharisee, a scholar and leader of the highest order, but counted them all rubbish for the sake of the Gospel. Paul did not boast in his accomplishments; he boasted in Christ.

At the same time, Paul was keenly concerned with bad influences creeping in to the little pockets of believers that Paul oversaw and nurtured. We see this concern in most of his letters, including the letter to the Philippians, which I have been reading the last couple of days. Paul says in Philippians 3:2-7:

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by [in] the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

This got me wondering: Who might Paul be talking about today?

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