Authors: Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan
Reviewed by Geoffrey W. Sutton
Borg, M.J. & Crossan, J.D. (2009). The first Paul: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the church’s conservative icon. HarperCollins e-books.
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan introduce us to the apostle Paul by providing historical contexts for his life and teachings. Early on they explain why only a small collection of documents were actually written by the apostle who wrote the first “books” in the New Testament.
Scholars affirm seven letters (aka books) were actually written by Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon.
Scholars believe the pastoral epistles were written later by other authors. These are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Finally, scholars disagree about the authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians; however, according to Borg and Crossan, most believe these were not written by Paul.
The different teachings in the three groups of letters named above challenge readers because they offer different views on such matters as the equality of women and men as well as slavery.
In their brief biography of Paul, the authors remind us that like Jesus, Paul was a lifelong Jew. And we learn about the Roman Imperial religion that offers an important context for Paul’s writing about Jesus as Lord (instead of Caesar) and the special terms used to refer to Caesar and to Jesus. Terms like God, Son of God, and the one who brings peace to the world are applied to Roman Emperors and to Jesus.
The biography also reveals some differences between the Paul presented by the writer of Acts and by Paul in his own letters. Readers of the New Testament know Paul called himself an apostle. Borg and Crossan explore the meaning of apostle by considering who sent Paul and to whom Paul was sent.
Chapter two is particularly useful as it helps readers learn how to read one of Paul’s letters. The focus is on the short letter of Philemon and the topic is Paul’s view of slavery. After reviewing the text, the authors show how Paul’s view in Philemon differs from the views presented by the letters Paul did not write. Next, the authors provide a similar analysis on the subject of the head of the household and equality for women and men.
In chapter three, the authors look at the contents of Acts and Paul’s letters to discover areas of agreement or disagreement. In chapter four, we see how Paul contrasts Roman and early Christian theology. The focus is especially on Rome’s pursuit of peace through violence and Christ’s approach to peace through the nonviolent pursuit of justice.
Why was Christ crucified? That’s the message of chapter five. The authors see the crucifixion, a Roman method of execution, as part of Paul’s anti-imperial stance. Thus, Paul doesn’t just preach Jesus died but emphasizes Christ crucified. The authors also take on the theology of substitutionary atonement and the understanding of Jesus sacrificial death. They suggest understanding Jesus’ sacrifice as being for the sake of those he loved like a parent who might sacrifice their life so their child might live. In this view, “The death of Jesus as God’s Son is a parable of God’s love for us (p, 54).”
Chapter six deals with justification by grace through faith. The authors emphasize Paul’s focus on transformation in this life rather than a focus on the afterlife. And they do not pit faith against works. Instead, they contrast faith-without-works to works-without-faith. And they clarify that faith refers to commitment rather than an affirmation of belief statements as seems common in some branches of Christianity.
The final chapter is about Life Together “In Christ.” The authors note that the phrase “In Christ” appears more than a hundred times and it usually refers to living in community.
I recommend The First Paul to readers interested in a scholarly examination of traditional teachings attributed to the apostle Paul. How Christians interpret Paul’s theology has had a significant impact on the lives of billions.
First, there are practical matters that have made a difference in how the church has historically viewed slavery, women, and people who experience same-sex attraction. Those Christian views largely come from the teachings of Paul or texts attributed to Paul.
Second, there are theological matters. Many in the church have focused on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a different way than do these authors who challenge the doctrine of atonement.
Borg and Crossan do not hesitate to consider areas of disagreement in the relevant texts. This lack of hesitation is a contrast to the resistance found in evangelical circles where clergy often take a fundamentalist approach to the texts as if the letters were dictated by God rather than produced by first century Jewish men like Paul.
One matter the authors did not address is that even letters written by Paul may have a personal bias and be subject to the limitations of human memory. Given other works by these authors, I do not think they would overlook these cognitive factors but they did not explicitly identify them when dealing with historical events such as those in Acts.
I think some evangelical women have missed out on a sound biblical argument favoring the equality of women and men when they do not distinguish between the letters written by Paul and those he probably did not write. There's a difference in Paul's affirmation of equality in those were he wrote compared to those that sound more like a taming of Paul to fit the male hierarchy in the culture.
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