After having pretty good luck with Borg and Crossan’s The First Christmas, I thought I would take a chance on another book from their recent collaboration. Mentioned in a past “Library Loot” posting, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon is the two authors’ attempt to reexamine and thus reinterpret the Apostle Paul in light of his original first century context. By examining Paul’s theology as he articulated it in the Epistles which most scholars feel were actually written by Paul, Borg and Crossan paint a picture of a man who not only preached a new religious message, but also advocated a radical reexamination of society’s treatment of women and slaves. Of course, such a reinterpretation of Paul flies in the face of our traditional understanding of him, by today’s standards, as a reactionary figure who called upon both women and slaves to be silent and obey their respective masters.
To make their points, Borg and Crossan break down Paul into three different personalities: the “Radical Paul”, (based on the Epistles which according to many scholars were most likely written by him-the Corinthian Letters, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon), the “Reactionary Paul”, (based on the Pastoral Letters which according to Borg, Crossan and other scholars were not written by Paul) and the “Conservative Paul”, (the Epistles of Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, again probably not written by Paul). The two authors examine Paul’s theology in its original context, meaning the first century world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Borg and Crossan argue that Paul’s message of Christ’s lordship and saving atonement is a radical challenge to the divinely ordained anointment of Caesar as well as Roman Imperial rule in general. According the Borg and Crossan Paul’s authentic writings point to him shaming a Christian slaveholder into freeing a runaway slave as well as taking the culturally radical step of welcoming women and gentiles into the Church as equal members.
I think for the most part I liked this book, although I thought it was a bit uneven with some portions feeling a bit tedious. In addition, while I enjoyed the authors’ interpretation of Paul’s theology as a radical reaction to various elements of the larger Greco-Roman culture, as well as Borg and Crossan’s contrast between the harmonious Paul of Acts versus the sometimes contentious Paul of the Epistles, I thought their attempts to challenge the traditional Pauline concepts of salvation through substitutionary atonement fell a bit short.
I’m hoping this book will be the first in a series of books on the Apostle Paul to grace the pages of my blog. If so, it will be interesting to see how future authors’ interpretation of the thoughts and theology of Paul stack up against those of Borg and Crossan.