Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book Review: The First Paul

Marcus J. BORG and John Dominic CROSSAN. The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon. [New York]: Harper One, 2009. 230 pp. $24.99.

This review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Stone-Campbell Journal and is reproduced here with permission. Visit Stone-Campbell Journal at

In his now classic work Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, noted Danish scholar Johannes Munck warned against a kind of secularizing of Paul that would divorce the apostle from his roots in Jewish apocalyptic thought. “Purely secular ideas have been used to describe the apostle and his call,” he wrote, “and those secular ideas have been imposed on the apostle himself as if they were his own thoughts and motives” (p. 65). Now, some fifty years later, we see another attempt at a secularized version of Paul in a book co-authored by two of the most well-known New Testament scholars writing for the public today, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

Heretofore Borg and Crossan have made their mark primarily in Jesus studies, both being original fellows of the controversial Jesus Seminar. Now in this volume they cast their critical glance towards Paul, who, in the authors’ opinion, was “remarkably faithful to the message and vision of Jesus himself” (p. 11). But, it must be asked, which Paul? Answer: the radical Paul of the genuine letters (Romans, 1,2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), a Jewish Christ mystic who challenged the dominant societal values of his day, especially slavery and patriarchy. This first Paul stands in contrast to the conservative Paul of the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) that compromised this radical vision and the reactionary Paul or “anti-Paul” of the Pastoral letters (1,2 Timothy, Titus) that effectively negated it. The authors add a fourth “Paul” to the plethora of Pauls in the New Testament: the Paul of Acts, which the authors regard as an important secondary source, albeit used critically.

To hear the voice of the radical Paul, Borg and Crossan point the reader to a commendable and worthwhile goal: to wrest Paul away from his sixteenth-century Reformation context and place him back into his first-century Roman one, “to see him properly as contrasting not Christianity to Judaism or Protestantism to Catholicism, but Jewish covenantal traditions to Roman imperial theology” (p. 7). By “Roman imperial theology,” they mean Rome’s embodiment of “the wisdom of the world” that achieves peace and justice through military conquest and imperial order, in stark contrast to Paul’s vision of a society of equals committed to justice and non-violence based on the radical “family values” of God as Father of all, the benevolent Householder of the entire world.

Borg and Crossan’s previous work on Jesus is not unrelated to their work on Paul. “The radical Paul, we are convinced, was a faithful follower of the radical Jesus” (p. 19). Both Jesus and Paul offered an alternative vision of how life on earth should be lived. Both opposed empire. Both were executed by empire. And both, one should note, were decidedly non-apocalyptic. While the authors admit that Paul expected the end-time to come soon, this expectation does not affect their reading of Pauline ethics in any meaningful way. In a stunning commentary on 1 Corinthians 7, Borg and Crossan state: “Since Paul was wrong about the timing of that consummation, we emphasize that only his vision of celibacy—never his vision of general Christian life—was derived from that incorrect presumption” (p. 49, italics mine). In sharp contrast to Beker, who sees apocalyptic as the coherent center of Paul’s thought, Borg and Crossan never even mention the word and only rarely (and much too late in the discussion to be of much significance) mention “eschatology” or “Eschaton.” This benign neglect makes for almost a purely secularized version of Paul, one suspiciously amenable to Western democratic idealism.

Instead of a thorough-going eschatology, Borg and Crossan offer a thorough-going anti-Roman imperialism as the interpretive lens through which to see Paul. Sin and death are not hostile cosmic powers stemming from Paul’s apocalyptic worldview but humanity’s involvement in systems of violence and injustice; the crucifixion of Jesus is not the apocalyptic defeat of those powers but the result of “the violent injustice he had opposed justly and nonviolently” (p. 166); the resurrection of Jesus is not an apocalyptic event that convinces Paul as a former Pharisee that he is living at the dawn of the new age but an affirmation that God’s great cleanup of the world is already underway; righteousness is not a forensic-eschatological concept in Paul ala Kasemann but God’s distributive (not retributive) justice by which God’s Spirit is equally available to all; the gift of the Spirit is not an installment or guarantee of better things to come but “the Spirit of nonviolent distributive justice . . . offered freely and gratuitously to all people” (p. 183).

While this political reading of Paul may be appealing on a theological level, it fails to justify on an exegetical one. Borg and Crossan’s interpretation of such key eschatological texts as Romans 8; 9-11, and 1 Corinthians 15 is strained at best, distorted at worst. Even the all-important baptismal formula of Galatians 3:27-28 rests on an apocalyptic foundation (“no longer male and female”) that the authors fail to recognize or else admit. Moreover, the authors’ political reading of Paul runs into significant obstacles with a text like Romans 13, which encourages submission to a seemingly benevolent empire, not to mention certain features of Luke-Acts, which cast Rome in a positive or at least neutral light. (Can it be lost on our authors that Luke proudly proclaims his hero Paul on more than one occasion a Roman citizen?) Borg and Crossan are on stronger exegetical ground with their analysis of Paul’s letter to Philemon, though one wonders whether Paul’s appeal for manumission yields the wider social application Borg and Crossan wish to give it. Despite their proclivity for tendentious exegesis, the authors frequently appeal to what Paul really “meant” or how Paul has been tragically “misunderstood.”

The first Paul was indeed the radical Paul. Unfortunately for our authors, he was also the apocalyptic Paul. Paul’s social vision was inextricably tied to his apocalyptic vision that gave it birth. Any attempt to separate the two runs the risk, as Munck reminded us, of seriously misunderstanding Paul. In this light it is unfortunate indeed that much of liberal Christianity today desires the ethics of Jesus and Paul without the eschatology while much of conservative Christianity desires the eschatology of Jesus and Paul without the ethics. What God has joined together, let no one separate.

Review by David Lertis Matson, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lertis Matson is Professor of Biblical Studies at Hope International University.

The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.

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