Daily Archives: 2009-06-21 21:51:28 GMT+0000

Borg’s and Crossan’s charlatan interpretation of Paul’s command in Romans 13:1-7 (but hey, it’s only for a public audience)

In a recent post I discussed Borg’s and Crossan’s attempt in The First Paul to demonstrate (through a bit of good old fundamentalist style “proof-texting”) that Paul’s gospel was essentially an anti-imperialist polemic. An obvious question to ask — and thanks to Keith for raising it — is how this sits with Romans 13 where Paul issues his well-known command for all readers to “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Romans 13:1)

In my reply to Keith I had to confess that I am not persuaded that Romans 13:1-7 was original to Paul’s letter (Winsome Munro argues that it is part of a series of interpolations by “the Pastoralist”) but still, I had to check back on what Borg and Crossan say about it.

Here it is. Firstly, they insist that Romans 13:1-7 must not be read in isolation but within the context of Romans 12:14 to 13:10. Fair enough. I’m willing to try that.

But then I discover I’ve been tricked. B and C tell me not only to read the Romans passage in the context of a wider Romans passage, they actually go further, once I start, to tell me to read the Romans passage in the context of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, written some decades after Paul’s letter! Reading Romans in the context of Matthew is NOT reading Romans in context!

I am reminded once again of the jig-saw games fundamentalists play with the scriptures to justify any doctrine that happens to be the core tradition of whatever particular church! “Here a little, there a little. . . “, a passage drawn from Isaiah to justify flagrant decontextualizing of texts to create any-which doctrine one chooses.

Here’s how B’s and C’s argument goes:

1. Romans 12:14 tells readers to bless their persecutors, and Matthew 5:44 says much the same.

2. Skip now to Romans 12:21. “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” If we are reading Romans forwards, B & C ask us to read Matthew backward to make the anachronistic parallel work. We are to compare Romans 12:21 with Matthew 5:39, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”

What would scholars say about “parallelomania” if any fundies attempted an argument like this!?

3. Then we come to Romans 13:1-7, the passage threatening any reader who disobeys the powers of government with being guilty of rebelling against the decree of God himself! To what is this a parallel in the Sermon on the Mount? Same verse as above, Matthew 5:39. How does that work? By digging out a Greek lexicon and finding meanings to parts of words that can lend support to translating them with a new nuance to do with “violent protest” that you never suspected was there from any traditional translation.

4. B and C find lines in the Liddell & Scott Greek lexicon (“the major Greek lexicon”) that the word for “resist” can be used in reference to a battle where soldiers are commanded to “oppose, withstand”. Their conclusion? “In Matthew 5:39, therefore, it means ‘to resist violently.'”

Only one or two or more problems with that explanation. It runs against the very next sentence in Matthew 5:39 where an example makes it very plain what Jesus meant here. “If anyone slaps you on one cheek, turn to him the other.” Jesus is clearly commanding something more positive than mere “non-violent resistance‘. We know what follows — give more to the one who sues you, go the extra mile for the one who compels you to go one mile. So B and C’s pedantic reliance on selective lines from Liddell and Scott is exposed as a falsehood.

B and C are scholars of the highest rank yet are writing here as charlatans!

Their arguments ring as false as Keller’s in my previous set of posts on his book.

I also checked how else the same word for resist (anti + histemi) is translated in other NT passages. One can consult them: Luke 21:15, Acts 6:10 and 13:8, Galatians 2:11, Ephesians 6:13, 2 Titus 3:8 and 2 Timothy 4:15, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:9. Those interested can discover how often the word really does mean “violent resistance”.

5. B and C continue: “If anti + histemi is redolent of (military) violence (vridar: we have just seen this is hardly so from the above examples) anti + tasso is even more so.” (page 119).

The word in question here? “One must be subject . . .” (Romans 13:5).

How on earth can B & C possibly take a word that in context means clearly “subjection to an authority” to be “even more” redolent of “violent resistance”?! The Liddell & Scott lexicon to which they turn includes a meaning like “to set opposite to, range in battle against” — I would suggest from the context that here the emphasis is on soldiers submitting to their commanders’ orders to hold fast against the enemy. Those interested can do their own study of this Greek word in the Crosswalk Lexicon here.

6. The final parallelomania, sorry, “parallel” is the word used by B&C, is when we move on in Romans 13 to verses 8-10 and compare these with, no, not still reading backwards in Matthew, but forwards again this time, back to where we started in verse 44: Love your enemies. But this time, we are given even more parallels — Luke somewhere says the same thing! This (comparing Romans 13:8-10 with Matthew and Luke from decades after Paul) is all to help us understand the context of Romans 13:1-7!

Sure enough, Romans 13:8-10 talks about Loving one’s . . . Sorry, no. Start again. . . .

While Matthew 5:44 talks about loving one’s enemies, Romans 13:1-7 talks about loving one’s neighbours! And this is used as a “parallel” that will help us understand that Romans 13:1-7 is really about the same thing as Matthew saying somewhere that we should turn the other cheek and go the extra mile — Woops, sorry, I mean, this is really about the same thing as Matthew saying we should not “resist violently”! — Even though that Greek word clearly does not mean that most other times it is used in the New Testament. Nor does it mean that in Romans 13:1-7.

7. B and C in this way conclude that Paul in Romans 13:1-7 is “most afraid, not that Christians will be killed but that they will kill” to avoid paying taxes! “It is something that appalls him so much that — in rather a rhetorical panic (vridar: did anyone else detect a panicked tone in Rom 13:1-7??) — he makes some very unwise and unqualified statements with which to ward off that possibility.” (p. 120)

Yet B and C have just spent the last page or two trying to argue from parallels with Matthew and Luke and from selected lines in a Greek lexicon (not from other NT contextual uses of the words) that Paul was meaning exactly what he wrote! So which way do B and C mean us to take his words?

If Borg and Crossan excuse themselves for such shoddy and untenable “exegesis” because their book is for the public and not fellow scholars (few of whom would probably ever read it anyway), then I suggest they are treating their public with contempt.

This is clearly dishonest exegesis of Romans 13:1-7 from scholars of such a calibre that they really have no excuse.

Footnote:

There is a YouTube video of Crossan and Borg discussing atheism. Crossan uses a similar pedantic argument to assert that atheists are really fixated on God. His case? The word “a-theist” contains “theist”, meaning God, so if they are “a-theists” then they are fixated on God! Hoo boy! Maybe his best days are over and we should just be reading his earlier stuff?

The diverse Jewish religious environment of Paul outmatches the imagination of Borg and Crossan

Following on from this previous post . . . . .

Borg and Crossan (B and C) (The First Paul) attempt to argue that despite Paul’s clear assertions that he sought to preach only “Christ crucified” and that “Jesus is Lord”, that this could not possibly have been true:

[W]e think the notion that Paul’s message was primarily or exclusively about the death of Jesus and not his life is highly unlikely. Indeed, we find it impossible to imagine. As an illustration, imagine a conversation between Paul and someone he sought to convert. Imagine, for example, Paul’s conversation with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). (p. 126)

Borg and Crossan then portray Lydia as a very capable and intelligent woman (she was a seller of a luxury item) who was a gentile “God seeker”.

Now imagine Paul telling Lydia about Jesus. Imagine, also, that he focuses on “Christ crucified” (and also, of course, on “Jesus Christ is Lord”). One cannot imagine the conversation going very far before Lydia asks, “Well, this Jesus you talk about who was crucified and then raised from the dead, what was he like?” Paul says, “Never mind what he was like — what really matters is that he was the Son of God who was crucified and died for your sins.” Such an answer would have had no meaning for her. It would have been a conversation stopper.

For Paul to have told her about Jesus’s death would have had no meaning unless he also told her about what Jesus was like, about the kind of person he was. What was this person like who got crucified? What did he stand for that led to his execution by the powers that ruled his world and then his resurrection by God? Who was the Jesus who is now Lord? Proclaiming “Christ crucified” could not (and still cannot) exclude talking about what Jesus was like, what he taught, and what he stood for.” (pp.126-127)

It simply does not occur to many bible scholars (Borg and Crossan are not alone) who are, to a large extent, essentially supported  by various Christian communities, to re-examine their historicist assumptions that force them into the position of having to make up imaginary scenarios like the one above to support their arguments. There is simply no evidence that Paul was ever obliged to, or ever did, discuss the pre-crucifixion life and character of an historical Jesus. The evidence that we do have actually speaks against any idea that he did do this. But the assumptions from which Borg and Crossan are working force them to imagine that Paul must necessarily have preached something akin to one of our four narrative gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit now that I once thanked Crossan for helping me appreciate the importance of “historical methodology”. Well, his Historical Jesus did take me a long way forward from where I had been until that time. But boy have I learned so much more since. Mostly what I’ve learned since is not that hard, really. Simply study the historians and classicists of nonbiblical ancient history and literature topics and apply their methods consistently to the biblical topics too. No favourites or disciplines with special rules to make them somehow exceptional cases. (Okay, I had several years studying ancient history as an undergraduate so I guess it’s a bit easier for me than some others. But I’m trying to share on this blog.)

What else could Paul possibly have preached?

Just what he said he preached. Christ crucified, for starters. Why is this a problem for most? Because, I suspect, we start out with assumptions of Jesus’ historicity. The gospel crucifixion scene consists of only the last few chapters of each of the gospels. It is not enough of a narrative on its own. It needs all the earlier bits like the healings, the miracles, the teachings, the crowds and conflicts, to mean anything much. But all of these are generally acknowledged as having been written long after Paul.

All this starts to make more sense when we understand that first century c.e. Judaism was not the rigidly “monotheistic” cult that we associate with later rabbinism and today’s Jews. Whether we follow Margaret Barker and her The Great Angel : a Study of Israel’s Second God (which proposes that Judaism before the fall of the Temple in 70 c.e. contained factions that effectively still retained memories of El, Yawheh, Asherah as distinct yet all divine beings) or James F. McGrath and his The Only True God : Early Christian

Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (which argues that what passed for “monotheism” in the first century was a broader definition than we allow today), one soon learns that Judaism before the fall of the Temple was not the same as what it became in the second century.

Just a few drops to indicate the incredible diversity of Second Temple religious beliefs among Jews, which later rabbinic Judaism attempted to deny:

  1. For some Jews, individuals such as Jacob existed in heaven before they appeared on earth, as we learn from The Prayer of Joseph.
  2. And some wrote of subordinate heavenly beings with names like Yaoel, a contraction of Yahweh and El, as in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a text with remarkable echoes of the Gospel of John.
  3. Some factions also dedicated themselves to the study of “hidden wisdom” and roles of angels, as we learn from apocalyptic texts like the Book of Enoch.
  4. Even the New Testament cannot avoid reference to these narratives of great powers in heaven, including their Enochian source, as we see in Jude.
  5. For others, such practices had to be denounced and expunged, as we see from the survival of the texts that have since become the Jewish Bible and Christianity‘s Old Testament.
  6. I have also discussed in depth Levenson’s exploration of how the Isaac story among some Jews apparently became transformed into a death and resurrection narrative by the Second Temple period.Apocalyptic literarature of Second Temple Judaism
  7. And first century Jewish philosopher Philo also speaks of the Logos as a second god.
  8. Recall also the varied myths of Jacob’s Ladder,
  9. and speculations that changed the original Aramaic meaning of Son of Man in Daniel.
  10. and the “two powers in heaven” “heresy” with Metatron being found in the place of God in heaven according to visionary narratives.
  11. and those strange references in the New Testament and other unorthodox Jewish literature to Melchizedek
  12. and how seriously should we read take the description of a woman in Revelation being clothed with the sun — surely an obvious allusion to her divinity — who bore a child who was not crucified on earth but whisked immediately to heaven?
  13. and the survival of the Ugaritic divinities in various forms in the apocalyptic literature, and Margaret Barker’s discussions of the distinctions between El and Yahweh even in the OT.
  14. and the cosmic-spiritual meanings attributed to astronomical data, including within Mithraism of the same era.
  15. and the Qumran community with texts discussing unorthodox messiahs
  16. and Samaritan traditions, some involving John the Baptist,
  17. and some scholars suggesting a link between Simon the Sorcerer in Acts and Paul, and Damscus traditions
  18. and what do the above suggest about Paul’s reference to “the god of this world” who is responsible for the blindness of mankind and “the rulers of this age” or “the princes of this world“. In what sort of theological framework was he immersed?
  19. and what did he discuss among converts about the meaning of his vision of Jesus, and the times he felt himself taken up to the different levels of heavens, and the meanings of the “marks of Jesus” in his hands, as he also mentions in his letters, and the power of angels from heaven to preach, and what he meant by Christ being revealed “in him”, and being “set forth crucified” before the very eyes of the Galatians?
  20. To answer, these contents of Paul’s letters ought not to be overlooked as embarrassing oddities. We need to seriously consider how Christianity could have been so overwhelmingly dominated by Marcionites and Valentinians in the early second century, and that it was only as that century wore on that current orthodoxy began to gain the upper hand. Recall how the orthodox (Tertullian?) could even say that Paul was “the apostle of the heretics”.

Paul’s letters need to be read against this three dimensional context of Jewish religious speculation and writings, not just through the two dimensional OT and modern Christianity perspective.

Once we leave behind the monochrome Judaism of our OT and begin to enter the far richer and more complex world that was first century c.e. Judaism then Paul’s letters begin to need less creative imagination from Borg and Crossan to explain. Lydia was a capable and articulate woman who may well have been engaged by a theological-cum-philosophical discussion about powers and beings of heaven and what they offered anew for people like her on earth. Or maybe there was much allegorizing, as we find in the first gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark, seen by many as reflecting the theology of Paul, allegorizes the crucifixion to indicate the overthrow of the demonic powers of this earth and the opening of the gateway (cross/ecliptic . . .) between heaven and earth, an event privatized for Jesus at his baptism, but made available to believers with the tearing of the veil (representing heaven with its pattern of stars) that had hitherto separated the place of God from the place of humankind. Paul’s cross fits in well with theologies of the overthrow of demonic or “lesser god” powers, and declaring just and saved all who believe in their “oneness with God” through the cross, symbol of giving up all their earthly desires, and symbol of the gateway between heaven and earth.

I suspect Paul taught the sorts of things he wrote about. He discussed why and how circumcision was no longer valid because of the complex meaning — hitherto a mystery, as he says — of the crucifixion of Jesus. He taught about how a new way of relating to God could be based on faith in a crucified Messiah, much as Stoics could teach of a new way of living and relating to the cosmos through the denial of the flesh (see Engberg-Pedersen — will do some posts on his work some time). In both, new communities arose out of such teachings. All of this is lost to modern readers who are fixated on an historical interpretation of a narrative that in its original form was clearly allegorical — see my notes on Gospel of Mark on my vridar.info site.

By no means am I claiming that the above points as presented like this are proof or even linking evidence that Paul did teach something more esoteric than a biographical narrative. I can do no more in this post than point out the religious environment and suggest alternatives. There is certainly no evidence for B’s and C’s imaginative scenario — quite the contrary.

Lydia

A capable, intelligent, “God-seeker” like Lydia was also immersed in this world of theological diversity, and no doubt would have been wrapped in any such discussion. The original narrator of the tale, the author of Acts and Luke, however, was a proto-orthodox Christian opposed to such speculations. For him, the literal interpretation of the narrative of Jesus was destined to replace the heretical speculations the original devotees of Paul clung to.

The crucifixion has no meaning without resurrection?

This is certainly true according to B and C. But if that was really true for Paul then one must remain at least somewhat perplexed by his frequent separate treatment of them – even sometimes discussing the meaning of the crucifixion without any reference to resurrection at all. When Paul does discuss resurrection, it is to affirm life after death and the ongoing Lordship of Jesus. These are not, contra B and C, presented as “answers” to the crucifixion. The death of Jesus has its own salvific value for Paul quite apart from any discussion of a resurrection. But this is another topic if I need to pull out the citations etc to make the point. Later. Enough blogging for one weekend.

“When Jesus went out with a loud voice” revisited – – – wikipedia footnote

I earlier blogged about the “last shout” of Jesus before he left this world (When Jesus went out with a loud voice . . .) and one reader responded by saying that the shout itself was a miracle that proved the divine power of Jesus, at least to the nearby centurion. The argument is that at the point of final asphyxiation a loud shout would normally be impossible.

I personally think such a “miracle”, if that were the case, is quite anticlimactic in comparison with the sun turning black at the time of a full moon and a bodily resurre

ction, unless, perhaps for a physician. But since then, while reading for another blog post, I came across the following in the Wikipedia entry on Crucifixion:

Justus Lipsius: De cruce, p.

Experiments by Frederick Zugibe have, however, revealed that, when suspended with arms at 60° to 70° from the vertical, test subjects had no difficulty breathing, only rapidly-increasing discomfort and pain. This would correspond to the Roman use of crucifixion as a prolonged, agonizing, humiliating death.