I mentioned a few days ago, that one of the reasons why my book reviews tend to be favorable, is that I don’t ask for books that I truly don’t care about. I ask for the ones I’m dying to read.
Those of you who know me, know that I am a huge fan of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, so you can assume I was utterly delighted when HarperOne sent me their latest for review.
I can tell you hands down, this book doesn’t disappoint, rather it exceeded my expectations in ways I had not expected.
They start out by echoing my own conclusion, that Jesus never intended to start a new church, he was and remained to the end a Jew, working to reform Judaism. Paul, so Borg and Crossan claim, was of the same general opinion.
It comes as no surprise to any general student of the Bible, that there has been for a long time quite a number of scholars who contend that not all of Paul’s attributed writings are in fact his. This is the stated premise of this book as well, but they break down the entire corpus of “Paul” into the authentic letters (those everyone agrees are Paul’s) as “revolutionary Paul,” the disputed letters (those where the jury is still out) as “conservative Paul,” and those that are simply not Paul’s (those where the majority believes they are not Pauline) as “reactionary Paul.”
Viewed this way, Paul’s theology becomes entirely intelligible. And Paul was, as they contend, exceptionally revolutionary in his thinking, echoing the Jesus he met in mystical visions. Referring to the “authentic Paul” as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon, we see the radical Paul who really meant what he said when he declared that all were equal, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or master, male or female.
Paul juxtaposed the teachings of Jesus and “The Way,” as radical departures from life as usual. Wherein the Roman Empire expressed the world as Emperor as Savior and Son of God, leading to war as a means to achieve victory and thus peace, Paul deliberately again and again declared that this world view was wrong. He submitted that Jesus was Savior, Son of God, which led to nonviolent love, leading to justice and peace. This was “The Way.” Paul was in every sense a traitor to the Empire, supplanting Emperor with Jesus.
Borg and Crossan take us carefully through an analysis that shows that the later pseudo-Pauline texts were written by probable disciples of Paul. They either misunderstood his radical vision and thus Jesus’ too, or they were deliberate in their determination to “correct” Paul’s faulty upsetting of the patriarchal applecart. As we move into Timothy of course, we find the horrifying references that so anger women, wherein they are told to remain quiet, and to take their questions to husbands. Categorically they are denied the right to teach, which is in utter contradiction of what we find in the authentic letters where we find Phoebe a deacon, and Junia, an apostle. (note that Junia remained as she was, female, for centuries before being “masculinized” to agree with Church teaching.)
As an example of how for instance, Paul understands slavery, the authors delve deeply and thoroughly into Philemon. Step by step, line by line, they explain Paul’s letter to Philemon, and by the end, we see that poor Philemon has little choice but to do his Christian duty as Paul has outlined it, and free the slave Onesimus. This is in keeping with Paul’s theology that all are equal before God.
Following this, Borg and Crossan show us how this doctrine of equality was eroded in Colossians and Ephesians, where slaves are now advised to be obedient to their masters. There is no longer talk of equality. Finally, we move to the reactionary “Paul” of Titus, where slaves are admonished to be “submissive.” The return to norm has now become complete, we have come full circle and are back in the world of Rome. These were the verses used in the South by Christian masters to justify slavery in America.
Concentrating on those seven authentic books, the authors turn to Paul’s use of the cross, and what he meant by it. As they see it, Paul was not addressing the afterlife effect of the cross, but rather how we live as Christians, as participants with Christ. The risen Christ is every bit as significant as the crucifixion.
Contrary to much common Christian theology, neither Borg nor Crossan see the blood atonement as a sacrifice of God of his son. Such, they claim leads to a very bizarre picture of God. Rather they see Jesus’ sacrifice as a means of reconciliation offered to us by Jesus. Christ crucified, for Paul, means that imperialism has lost, in the risen Christ, God has said no to imperialism and yes to power of love and justice. God said no to domination systems, and yes to redistributive justice for all.
We participate in Jesus’ atonement not, they argue, by his being a “substitutionary atonement” for our sins, but by dying to the old way of life of domination/Imperial rule, and rising as with Jesus in New Life, as new creations. This, Borg and Crossan claim, was what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. He experienced an “internal crucifixion and death” and rose, a New man. This new creation is no longer of the world of Rome and things as normal, but is in the world as witness to “The Way.”
Perhaps no part of this book was as much a surprise as the chapter on Romans. I, as have countless thousands, have struggled to understand Romans with its discourse on justification, grace and works. I’ve been caught up in the debate between Catholics and Protestants as to whether it is justification by grace? or justification by grace and works? Whole libraries could be made up of all the books and articles written on this subject.
And the authors clear the table in one sentence that should, I would argue, cause us all to roll back on our heels. This cannot be complicated, it cannot require a degree to understand. Why?
. . .[I]t had to be comprehensible to the artisan communities and shop churches in Rome to whom it was written. It was carried to them. . .by a deaconess named Phoebe. She would have had to carry it from one Roman community to the next, read it, explain it, and answer the questions about it.
Think about that for a moment. If Romans were so abstruse as commentators have made it over the centuries, Phoebe would need to have been an even greater theologian than Augustine or Aquinas, Luther or Calvin.
Enough said, read the book if you want the explanation. You should read this book for a hundred reasons, but if for no other than to finally “get” Romans.
There is much more in this small volume. So much more that you will wish it would not end. I learned more about Paul and what he and Jesus meant here than I have in a dozen others put together. If you truly wish to learn what Paul means, then you owe it to yourself to read this. I am aware that there are scholars who do disagree in some respects with their conclusions (Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza in a couple of respects, for one), but on the whole I think their conclusions are fairly based on the facts. They make a strong case, and one well worth your investment in time and money.