The Authentic Letters of St Paul:A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning
by Arthur J Dewey, Roy W Hoover, Lane C McGaughy and Daryl D Schmidt, published by Polebridge Press.
From five gospels to seven letters: A review by Alan Goss
This book is the product of a decade of work by a small team of scholars from the Jesus Seminar in the
An earlier volume from the same source, The Five Gospels, threw a completely new light on our understanding of the historical Jesus. This modest production, it is claimed, will do the same for Paul.
Jesus and Paul have been called the good cop, bad cop of Christianity. Jesus’ message is simple and
comprehensible, Paul's one emerges through the wringer of a convoluted mind and a tortured spirit. As for his views about women — more on that later.
The Authentic Letters
Only the seven letters that Paul actually wrote are dealt with in this volume.
These seven are: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians and Romans.
Omitted from this list are those books either written after Paul's death or where other writers felt free to use Paul's name. Most scholars contend that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — called the Pastoral Letters — were written in the early second century — long after Paul. More vigorous debate surrounds 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians which a majority consider were written by a hand other than Paul's. What is certain is that none of Paul's original letters have survived. Only copies of copies remain.
Though it is widely accepted that some letters are definitely not Pauline, e.g. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus,
the authors also refer to a number of passages in the authentic letters which were probably inserted into Paul's original text and at a later time. These are “Interpolations”. They are collected in an appendix:
three in Romans, three in | Corinthians, and one in 2 Corinthians. The passage in 1 Cor. 14, 33-38 about
women being prohibited from speaking in public gatherings is a later insertion into Paul's original text. It
flys in the face of Paul's more inclusive view “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The Pastoral letters reflect a growing conservatism in the churches in favour of male dominance and females ‘knowing their place’. This is not the authentic Paul. Nor is the key passage in Romans 13, 1 - 7, about obedience to the political authorities. Paul never raises nor discusses the topic in his other letters. It is almost certainly the work of a later author.
Conflicting views surround the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, “In Praise of Love”. The passage is
strangely silent on God — the word is never mentioned — nor is love said to be the love of God. Chapter 13 also disrupts Paul's argument begun in ch.12 and continued in ch.14. However other scholars strongly contend that 1 Corinthians 13 is genuine Paul and the authors have retained it as part of Paul's original text.
A New Translation
Paul's letters have never been fully translated into English — that is the claim made by the authors of this
new version. Previous translations have been too literal, too wooden: with Greek words simply being replaced by English ones from a Greek-English dictionary. The aim of this new translation is to feel Paul's pulse, to get under his skin, “to translate Paul's meaning rather than just his words.” Attention is paid to Paul's use of ancient rhetoric in which the speaker or writer attempted to persuade the audience to his or her point of view. Paul was a persuader and not a pontificator, he took his audiences and their experiences seriously, he allowed his audience always to have the last say.
Paul the Man
Nietzsche was scathing, describing Paul as “a very tortured, very pitiful, very unpleasant man, unpleasant even to himself.” Paul readily admits that his was a torn and divided self, “I do not understand my own actions — I don't know what to do”; ““What a sorry creature I am! Who will rescue me from this earthly self which is captive to death?” John Shelby Spong, in his latest book, supports the view that Paul was probably a homosexual, this was his “thorn in the flesh”. It was only in Jesus that he found release from his travail, in Paul Tillich's words he accepted the fact that he was accepted.
This new version also reveals a Paul who, like Jesus, was aware of a corrosive power eating into the very fabric of people's lives and wider society. Only the blind fail to see those same corrosive powers at work in our world today.
Paul, in writing his letters, used picture language — myths and metaphors to capture his readers' imagination and get his message across. When we theologise Paul's mystical thought we not only confuse Paul's argument, we also confuse ourselves. This is evident from the later creeds, confessions and doctrines of the church, all greatly influenced by Paul, and which now must be put aside. This old warrior, who trudged the roads and crossed the oceans of Asia Minor, who challenged the power of Empire, and who, gay or not, saved Christianity from virtual oblivion, deserves a fresh hearing in public and in the pew. Let the book have the last word:
In a world verging on seeming collapse and disillusion, we come upon an older brother who has an
unusual perspective. In a time when listening is not in vogue and bottom line thinking dominates, Paul delivers a different option. He takes experience seriously (both his and his communities’). He attempts to persuade not override. He risks misunderstanding. He refuses to give up on those with whom he is in solidarity. He is convinced that trust is the tissue of our life together. He speaks against those who would maintain or attempt to gain a competitive advantage over others to win the day at the expense of another. He can imagine that meaning not only can be found in the ‘nobodies’ of the world, but is the prism through which to understand the working of the planet.
Alan Goss, April 2012
Alan is a Life Member of SoF (NZ)