2017-03-01

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

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by Tim Widowfield

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul

English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them.

How soon will Jesus come? He believed “we” who are living will be caught up in the air. So the Parousia, he thought, would happen within his lifetime. That belief may have fueled his desire to get the message out, which could explain why his letters were preserved, copied, passed along, and read in other churches in other cities. His written words could reach much father than his spoken words.

♦ Social Philosophy: Stay Put

Because he thought God was about to turn the entire universe upside down, Paul advised his followers to remain in their station. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives a list of situations in life you might want to leave, but he says to stay put. He even says if you can, stay single.

Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. (1 Cor. 7:20, NASB)

I take his position on “staying put” as evidence that Paul’s advice not to worry about terrestrial rulers has more to do with not making waves and focusing on important matters before the Parousia than with some deep-seated belief that people should not seek better conditions.

♦ Paul’s Ancient Mind

Paul didn’t know squat about science.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. (1 Cor. 15:35-36)

Seeds don’t die. Paul was wrong about how seeds work, but he wasn’t alone. It doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything, but it’s a tap on the shoulder, a gentle reminder, if you will. “Psst. This guy lived 2,000 years ago.” You could argue that we should cut him some slack. Why, you may ask, should we expect Paul to know anything about science?

I agree with you. But then I would ask, “Why should we expect him to know anything about anything?” He was entirely wrong about the schedule of the Parousia. So why should we expect him to be correct about any feature of the eschaton? If he had known two millennia would pass, and still no Jesus — how could that not have affected his thinking?

Let me put it a different way. We understand the world today almost entirely through experimental science and mathematics. Paul understood the world through philosophy, received wisdom (scripture), and direct revelation. But it turns out that much of Paul’s understanding of the physical world and his knowledge of upcoming events was wrong. His tools — including a supposed direct conduit to his Lord — failed him.

If that’s the case, then why should we take seriously his views on justice and morality?

♦ Paul’s Morality as a Relic

Paul’s stance on ethics is a relic from a bygone era, and it should be treated that way. By their very definition, they are situational ethics. If Paul had not believed in the imminent arrival of Christ, his ethics would not have been the same. His justification for extreme chastity and staying put would vanish. In other words, if Paul hadn’t been wrong about his fundamental understanding about where he and his congregation stood, he could not have argued the way he did.

We know he was wrong about the timing of the Parousia. He was dead wrong. He is dead and he is wrong. Therefore we’re justified in asking how much of Paul’s moral and ethical advice arose from those erroneous beliefs.

But more to the point, why should people living in the modern world take Paul’s writings seriously? And I don’t mean believing that what he wrote had divine inspiration and has the status of “God’s Word.” That’s embarrassing enough. No, I mean to say, “Why should we take it seriously at all, other than to study it as a fly trapped in amber?”

♦ Are Paul’s Ethics Coherent?

Paul says Jesus was killed by the “archons” who didn’t know what they were doing. If the common understanding is correct, then why does Paul say later that earthly rulers have power only because God permits it? Is it because “worldly things just don’t matter”? Or is it because God is pulling the strings in a world that is little more than puppet theater?

I submit that Paul’s teachings on this matter and others only seem coherent because legions of theologians and apologists have ruminated over them for centuries, pounding them into submission.

Conclusion

How can any serious person who poses as a “historian” ruminate over the words of a man who thought he was about to be snatched up into the sky by his resurrected savior? Paul may help us understand early Christianity, but he is extremely unlikely to give us any useful information about how we should live our own lives. His intellect is nowhere near Plato’s or Aristotle’s, and we take those great thinkers with a grain of salt. We might use them to spur further discussion, but if a professor of ancient history treated the works of those philosophers as venerated, received truths we’d have to wonder if he’s got a screw loose.

22 Comments

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-03-01 20:53:33 UTC - 20:53 | Permalink

    No opportunity should be missed to note how curious it is, that when Paul in Romans 13:1-7 urges obedience and tax-paying to civil authorities, he neglects to support it by citing the slam-dunk of Mark 12:17. Just sayin’.

  • R Pence
    2017-03-02 07:49:50 UTC - 07:49 | Permalink

    “We understand the world today almost entirely through experimental science and mathematics.”

    That is so supremely questionable I wonder if there isn’t a sort of reverse chauvinism at work.

    But apart from that – there are so many different Pauls, you have to ask whether the idea that the ‘authentic’ epistles have a literary unity and therefore one author isn’t itself a theological and apologetic expectation imposed on the texts.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-03-02 08:01:37 UTC - 08:01 | Permalink

      R: “That is so supremely questionable I wonder if there isn’t a sort of reverse chauvinism at work.”

      Do go on.

      • R Pence
        2017-03-02 17:40:45 UTC - 17:40 | Permalink

        A statement like this strikes me as objectionable in two or three ways. First, on simple empirical grounds: who is the ‘we’ understanding the world in this purported way? What percentage of the world’s population has access to more or less accurate scientific information? And of that percentage, what smaller percentage is actively understanding the world in scientific and/or mathematical ways? Even among scientists, a skilled biologist for example, there may be a more or less complete ignorance of geology. A chemist may know only rudimentary physics. An electrical engineer may have solid math and no biology. Unless you are a scientific generalist, you are not understanding the world in the way you describe because your knowledge is partial and not enough to approximate a ‘world’. Scientific generalists (and I don’t mean science bloggers) are so few that to refer to a ‘we’ and at the same time mean the culture at large, well, it doesn’t work.

        And along those lines: even in advanced societies, what portion of the population in possession of some sound scientific facts is also, for example, entirely free of superstition? Neil deGrasse Tyson just got done railing against architects with a superstition about the number thirteen on the Joe Rogan Podcast. Our understanding of the world may be informed by scientific findings and mathematics, but this information sits alongside a wealth of other ‘beliefs’, some conscious, some unconscious, some socially derived, some hallucinated (like much of human memory) and none of it is scientifically tested or testable.

        Which brings me to the third point: I don’t like it on epistemological grounds. A statement like that to me carries a whiff of positivism: everything we know amounts to a set of propositional statements – or ‘facts’ – that are meaningful insofar as they are falsifiable, etc. But this is nonsense. At a given moment, I may feel hungry. This is neither scientific nor non-scientific. I may want to fuck a particular girl I see on the street – neither scientific nor non-scientific. I may know my mother gets drunk on Thursday – again, this exists outside the universe of discourse of science. You might succeed at translating some of these things – some – into scientific language that is meaningful, but that requires a transformation of apples into oranges. You might as well say based on an Italian translation of Shakespeare that Shakespeare wrote in Italian all along.

        Of course, if you start off by defining ‘understanding’ as only consisting of scientific and/or mathematical knowledge, and then in a circular fashion say that today our understanding of the world is scientific and/or mathematical, then you’re fine.

        • James D williams
          2017-03-03 02:08:30 UTC - 02:08 | Permalink

          “We understand the world today almost entirely through experimental science and mathematics.”

          Thus, an all-inclusive “We”.
          “What you mean “we”, [ ]…?
          Like, “We are star stuff.” (smallpox included)
          And, “We left Africa 100,000 years ago.”
          (Denisovans, Floriensans, Neanderthals are offended!)

          From Wiki:
          Nicolas Chauvin (French: [ʃɔvɛ̃]) is a legendary, possibly apocryphal French soldier and patriot who is supposed to have served in the First Army of the French Republic…

          • James D williams
            2017-03-03 02:28:23 UTC - 02:28 | Permalink

            “We” should also include our Canine-American Life Partners, Our American ‘Cousins’, lest ‘we’ be speciesist.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-03-02 08:04:50 UTC - 08:04 | Permalink

      R: “. . . there are so many different Pauls”

      Agreed. And it seems the process for choosing which epistles are really Pauline is entirely circular. “This must be Paul’s, because it sounds like Paul. And we know it sounds like Paul, because this is what Paul ‘must have’ sounded like.”

      • R Pence
        2017-03-02 17:41:06 UTC - 17:41 | Permalink

        I’m with you there.

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2017-03-02 18:18:54 UTC - 18:18 | Permalink

      … you have to ask whether the idea that the ‘authentic’ epistles have a literary unity and therefore one author isn’t itself a theological and apologetic expectation imposed on the texts.

      It’s the a priori assumption of the Paulina as a literary unit from a sole author that demands from apologetics the construction of a theological solution to the numerous & glaring contradictions of Paul. An ultimately impossible task for, as the theologian, Heikki Räisänan conceded, “…on any count Paul is difficult.”
      (His emphasis.)

      The extreme contortions, equivocations and prevarications theologians must routinely resort to when discussing Paul’s schizophrenic soteriology, doxology, eschatology, antinomianism, etc., is evidenced just in the linked post by James the Less, who in the space of five brief paragraphs, must couch his confident assertions with:

      But then one realizes that Paul … was himself counter-evidence to his own claim here!

      It may be that Paul is simply contradicting himself here, or hasn’t thought through the implications of what he has written.

      But it may also be that Paul is focused more narrowly….

      That doesn’t entirely alleviate the difficulty of Paul saying….

      The fall-back position — jettisoning half the epistles while clinging to the ‘authentic’ remainder — offers no relief, as the latter are themselves ridden with intractable contradictions. Christians are thus forced to denigrate their ‘founding father’ as alternately: impulsive; duplicitous; fickle; hot-headed; perfidious; mendacious; suffering from cognitive dissonance; not very bright. Räisänan, again, went so far as to conjecture that Paul, when writing Galatians, had “second thoughts” about the true meaning of his Damascene experience!

      One is almost driven to pity the confusion & agonizing of these apologists, all because they cannot accept the obvious explanation: that the Paulina 1) have been heavily redacted by diametrically opposed sects, and 2) weren’t written by Paul — whoever he really was — in the first place.

      • R Pence
        2017-03-02 20:02:22 UTC - 20:02 | Permalink

        I find myself wondering on account of just how schizophrenic Paul is, just what was going on back then in early ‘Christianity’. And I don’t mean that in the trite way it sounds. It’s such a strange hash. I wonder if there is any clear parallel for the Pauline literature in other religious traditions. You have this strange aberrant figure who was not the nominal founder, not even one of the disciples… It seems freakish and senseless to invest so much energy in constructing what seems like a beta version to the gospels – and a lot of it retrospectively at that. The very idea of saving these hacked up, spurious letters, pretending they are run-of-the-mill epistles akin to others in antiquity…the mentality seems completely alien even from the point of view of what we imagine and know of the Mediterranean in that period.

        • Matt Cavanaugh
          2017-03-03 04:03:58 UTC - 04:03 | Permalink

          If any of the material in the epistles is authentic, then Paul wrote it one or two decades prior to the earliest putative dating of GMark. But the first confirmed appearance of a gospel is c. 140, when Marcion produces one* — along with the first 10 Pauline Epistles. Marcion, of course, was a devotee of Paul, a second-generation student via Cerdo.

          The current thought (though it was first developed in the 19th century by the Dutch Radicals and Tübingen school) goes: Marcion &/or like-minded docetists created the Paulina as ammo in a 2nd Century sectarian battle with the Petrine church based in Rome. (The existence of mature ecclesia and the nature of the disputes give away the true time frame.) The epistles were then heavily redacted by the Roman sect, which interpolated negations of ‘Paul’s’ docetic and anti-mosaic law statements. Thus the ‘schizophrenia’, or what Roger Parvus has described as “zigs and zags”. cf.
          http://vridar.org/2014/07/17/a-simonian-origin-for-christianity-part-12-a-different-perspective-on-the-corinthian-controversy-conclusion/

          Before I go and make a hash of this explanation, I will instead heartily recommend Hermann Detering’s The Fabricated Paul for a concise and scholarly summary.

          * René Salm, for one, believes that Marcion’s Evangelion was merely an orally-transmitted doctrine, not a written ‘gospel’ as we know know that term.

  • Bob Jase
    2017-03-02 20:00:12 UTC - 20:00 | Permalink

    Apologetics is a placebo – it only works on those who believe it does.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-03-03 01:55:40 UTC - 01:55 | Permalink

      That’d make a good bumper sticker.

  • James D williams
    2017-03-03 02:22:33 UTC - 02:22 | Permalink

    Colloquialisms!
    I had to translate Phi Beta Kappa this week for the Mrs…
    My effort was “Philosophia Biblios Katharsis”… not so good:
    “Η φιλοσοφία είναι ο κυβερνήτης της ζωής” is better.
    From bing translator:
    Philosophy is the ruler of life …going backwards:
    Philosophy is the Lord of life … Uh oh!
    Who (besides a theologian) knows what the Bible means?

  • Yam
    2017-03-03 08:03:26 UTC - 08:03 | Permalink

    I believe that we can understand Paul and other Jews as soon we understand that the Hebrew Bible is written in the Hellenistic ages. Gmirkin’s book (Plato 2017) is maybe the best source on this.
    So Paul when writes:

    “13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
    13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)
    He is just misunderstanding the world he lived, cause Paul believed that the Pentateuch (Torah) was written by Moses, this means long before any Greek claims.”

    I think Josephus demonstrates this in his writings :
    e.g. Against Apion, 2.280–2.288
    http://lexundria.com/go?q=J.+Ap.+2.280-288&v=wst

    and especially 2.88
    “288and now I think I have sufficiently completed what I proposed in writing these books; for whereas our accusers have pretended that our nation are a people of very late original, I have demonstrated that they are exceeding ancient; for I have produced as witnesses thereto many ancient writers, who have made mention of us in their books, while they had said no such writer had so done. “

    Josephus’ witness is the Hebrew Bible, but Plato’s influences in the “Laws” are the Athenian laws as was demonstrated by Alston Hurd Chase in “The Influence of Athenian Institutions upon the Laws of Plato” : https://www.jstor.org/stable/310682?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    So we can study how the Athenian constitution (and laws) came to be e.g. Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution : http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Aristot.+Const.+Ath.+1&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0046

    or we have to accept that everything is created by ex nihilo by a god, which is the claim of the Hebrew Bible and what ancient Jews (and Paul) believed.

    So Paul just misunderstood the reason the Roman laws are so similar to the Jewish laws and he believed that this is a divine intervention “and those which exist are established by God.”

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2017-03-03 19:17:54 UTC - 19:17 | Permalink

      He is just misunderstanding the world he lived, cause Paul believed that the Pentateuch (Torah) was written by Moses, this means long before any Greek claims.

      As attestation to Paul being an observant, pharisaic Jew, we have but Philippians 3, widely regarded as deutero-pauline, and the consistently unreliable Acts, which unbelievably makes Saul/Paul the devout student of the much-abused rabbi Gamaliel.

      Once we recognize the authors of the Paulina as Simonians, Gnostics, &/or Marcionites, ‘Paul’s’ position on Mosaic law becomes clear: a covenant with a lesser, creator god, from which believers in Christ have been liberated. And as Tim notes above, the advice regarding adherence to laws was simply to not trifle with earthly matters but rather instead concentrate on preparing for the imminent Parousia.

      • Yam
        2017-03-04 10:30:13 UTC - 10:30 | Permalink

        As far I am aware Gnosticism and Marcionism are later developments. I do not find any reason to believe that Paul was not a believer of the O.T. and etc.
        Also attestation that Paul was a Jew you can find in the quotes or paraphrases he made from the O.T. there is no need of a text which states that Paul was a Jew, as long as he uses and understands the laws of the OT he is vulnerable to fall in the misunderstanding of why the Roman laws are so similar to the Jewish.
        And the answer is cause the O.T. is a Hellenistic product.

        • Matt Cavanaugh
          2017-03-04 14:10:55 UTC - 14:10 | Permalink

          As far I am aware Gnosticism and Marcionism are later developments.

          Later developments than what?

          I do not find any reason to believe that Paul was not a believer of the O.T.

          Try Eph 2:15-16, Gal 5:2-4, 1 Cor 15:56, Col 2:16, and Rom 7:6 for starters.

          Also attestation that Paul was a Jew you can find in the quotes or paraphrases he made from the O.T.

          Justin Martyr quotes extensively from the OT. That doesn’t make him a Jew. In any case, I said “observant, pharisaic Jew”.

          [Paul] is vulnerable to fall in the misunderstanding of why the Roman laws are so similar to the Jewish.
          And the answer is cause the O.T. is a Hellenistic product.

          I’m afraid your point eludes me here. What misunderstanding, and how does an hellenistic OT explain it? Also, you seem to accept that the Pauline epistles in toto are the product of a single hand, written c. 50-66 AD.

          • Yam
            2017-03-04 16:07:38 UTC - 16:07 | Permalink

            [Later developments than what?]

            Later developments from Paul’s letters.

            [Try Eph 2:15-16, Gal 5:2-4, 1 Cor 15:56, Col 2:16, and Rom 7:6]

            Highly irrelevant quotes, those quotes do not prove that Paul did not believed the OT. Those passages among others proves that he knew his OT and that he was passing a message of a new man in peace (Eph 2:15) and circumcision does not matter (Gal. 5:2-4) and Jewish tradition and etc.

            [Justin Martyr quotes extensively from the OT. That doesn’t make him a Jew. In any case, I said “observant, pharisaic Jew”.]

            Highly irrelevant again, he is Christian of course he knows his OT.

            [I’m afraid your point eludes me here. What misunderstanding, and how does an hellenistic OT explain it? Also, you seem to accept that the Pauline epistles in toto are the product of a single hand, written c. 50-66 AD.]

            If you leave aside all those laws which Paul does not consider valuable, circumcision, “kosher”, sabbath and etc. then the laws of the Jews are the same with the laws of the Romans. The reason is cause the OT is a product of the Hellenistic ages. That’s why Paul says what he says in the Romans. It is cause he believes that the similarities between the Roman laws and the Jewish laws are a deviny interversion. That’s why he says for example Rom. 1:18-19
            “18 We see the anger of God coming down from heaven against all the sins of men. These sinful men keep the truth from being known. 19 Men know about God. He has made it plain to them.”

            He is confused, cause Judaism is a syncretic religion created in the Hellenistic ages and he believes that the similarities exists cause “These sinful men keep the truth from being known” and that “They did know God, but they did not honor Him as God” and etc.

            Also it doesn’t matter who wrote those things, but what he writes and what we can understand from his writings.

            As for Marcionism, they used Paul’s letters cause Paul’s letters existed.

            • Matt Cavanaugh
              2017-03-04 17:56:55 UTC - 17:56 | Permalink

              Highly irrelevant quotes, those quotes do not prove that Paul did not believed the OT.

              I’m not sure what you mean by ‘believed the OT”. But far from “irrelevant”, those passages are but a sample of Paul’s profuse and adamant rejection of adherence to Jewish law.

              …circumcision does not matter….

              It was far more than a ‘take it or leave it’ matter. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Yahweh, which Paul declared moot. It was demanded as a prerequisite to becoming a christian by the judaizers against whom Paul incessantly rails. If we engage in the fantasy that the epistles were written in the middle of the 1st Century, then it was a time when foreign potentates were obliged to undergo circumcision to marry jewish wives, and where siciarii were going around forcibly circumcising. For Paul to disparage and reject circumcision was a controversial & radical rejection of Judaism itself.

              Highly irrelevant again, he [Justin] is Christian of course he knows his OT.

              You can’t have it both ways, Yam.

              He is confused, cause Judaism is a syncretic religion created in the Hellenistic ages….

              Is this your personal interpretation, or a product of some theological school of thought?

              Also it doesn’t matter who wrote those things, but what he writes and what we can understand from his writings….

              It matters immensely. The Paulina are incomprehensible as coming from a single author. Exegetes have been befuddled from the 2nd Century to today. Only by recognizing the epistles as a scarred battlefield trodden over numerous times by opposing forces, can we gain a true understanding.

              As for Marcionism, they used Paul’s letters cause Paul’s letters existed.

              This is as good an argument as saying, Stern used the Hitler Diaries because the Hitler Diaries existed.

              Does it not strike you as odd that no one seems to have known anything about Paul’s letters until Marcion revealed them to the world c. 140?

              • Yam
                2017-03-04 19:44:07 UTC - 19:44 | Permalink

                Sorry I just replied to you in the root of the comments section.

  • Yam
    2017-03-04 19:30:39 UTC - 19:30 | Permalink

    [… Paul’s profuse and adamant rejection of adherence to Jewish law.]

    For the gentiles, who are going to follow Christ.

    [… If we engage in the fantasy that the epistles were written in the middle of the 1st Century, then it was a time when foreign potentates were obliged to undergo circumcision to marry jewish wives, and where siciarii were going around forcibly circumcising. For Paul to disparage and reject circumcision was a controversial & radical rejection of Judaism itself.]

    You give very good points to reject circumcision for the gentiles over here.

    [You can’t have it both ways, Yam.]

    Looks like that the problem is identifying Paul as a Jew, my point is that he believed the OT. This means he believed that OT or more accurate that the Pentateuch were written by Moses.

    [Is this your personal interpretation, or a product of some theological school of thought?]

    This is my own interpretation by taking in account the fact that the Hebrew Bible is written in the Hellenistic ages as it is proved by Gmirkin in “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus” (2006), by Thomas L. Thompson (Editor), Philippe Wajdenbaum (Editor) in “The Bible and Hellenism” (2014) and many more.
    But if you read Gmirkin “Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible” (2017) it becomes quite clear that the Jewish laws are not far away from Plato’s “Laws” and the Athenian laws, and this is the reason I am saying the Paul is just confused.

    As for the syncretism proofs from can be obtained by reading (e.g.) Mark S. Smith’s “The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel” (2002), John Day’s “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” (2002) and Philippe Wajdenbaum’s “Argonauts of the Desert” (2014). The last one is about syncretism with the Greek religion.

    So I interpret Paul as a confused Jew after the destruction of the Jewish temple. Which by the way was supposed to be burned and never repopulated, if we take the Jewish laws in Deut. 13 seriously.

    [Does it not strike you as odd that no one seems to have known anything about Paul’s letters until Marcion revealed them to the world c. 140?]

    I have no knowledge on this, please share some sources.

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