Friday, February 22, 2013

Thinking about Paul

So I have a young friend who is quite a biblical scholar and who is extraordinarily fond of St. Paul.  About this he and I disagree, rather profoundly.

The oldest writings in the New Testament, excepting perhaps the Book of James (who was the brother of Jesus), the letters of Paul are perhaps the first gospel.  Some scholars believe that these letters were actually published and were written in highly polished Greek because they were intended for publication.  The lack of this polish is how scholars distinguish between the authentic letters of Paul and the so called Pseudoepigrapha, the letters written by others and said to be written by Paul.  These letters were written by Paul to the groups of Christians he had mentored across the Roman Empire.

Now my problem with Paul is pretty simple really.
1) Paul never met Jesus.
2) Paul never studied with Jesus.
3) Paul was not at the last supper.
4) Paul was not at the Pentecost
5) Paul never studied with James or Peter or any of the other Apostles, so far as we know.
6) Paul was in fact one of the chief persecutors of Christians during the early days of the Jerusalem church.
7) The so called vision on the road to Damascus is IMHO nothing less than an authorization tale, designed to provide for Paul the mantle of Apostle by someone putatively identified as the same author of the Gospel of Luke.  Truth to tell we do not know who wrote the Gospel of Luke, so we don't know who wrote Acts either for that matter.  The text of Acts was written approximately about AD 66-67 in memory of the recently deceased Paul.  This story exists nowhere else, there is no double attestation which would prove that it is more than an invention of the author of Acts.
8) Paul was in fact a Roman.
9) Paul was trained as a Pharisee, the very group who were the butt of many of the Parables of Jesus.
10) Paul's letters attack ministers who come among those Christians he had mentored teaching a message divergent from his own.  Scholars think these ministers teaching a divergent message had been sent from the Jerusalem Church founded by the Apostles who had actually studied with Jesus.

So, one has to ask then, just where do these teachings in Paul's letters come from?  They can't possibly represent the teachings of the Jerusalem Church which were in the direct line of Christ's own.

Paul's teachings survive mainly because he was dead when the Jerusalem Church was destroyed and his followers were spread among the diaspora Jewish community when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70.  In addition, those who created the text of the anthology we call the New Testament were followers of Paul.

I contend that if we are really going to know what Jesus the  Christ taught, we have to discard Paul.  The teachings of Paul have so eclipsed the teachings of the Jerusalem Church, his followers have worked tirelessly to suppress the teachings of the Jerusalem Church, so that if we are to see what Christ taught we have to look beyond Paul back to the beginnings of the Church.

We might begin with Phyllis Tickle's book, The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord with Reflections.

One of the Reviewers of this book writes: "We've heard them from the pulpit, scanned the red-letter words in our Bibles and quoted them in scripture memorization. But when we listen --- really listen --- to the words of Jesus, they may change us irrevocably. So says renowned religion writer Phyllis Tickle in THE WORDS OF JESUS, which offers a new way of looking and listening to familiar passages.

The book began with a simple question from a colleague who asked Tickle, "Did you ever wonder what you would really find if you took out the duplications and triplications and connective tissue of the Gospels and stripped it all down again to just His words?" The question stunned her, and she admits, "I had never wondered such a thing...I was also fascinated by the potency of the Sayings format and drawn to the intellectual game and pleasure of trying to tease out just how and why that format works so well."

The "Sayings" format is indeed unique. All of the words of Jesus from the four gospels and the first chapter of Acts are compiled and arranged into five different "books" and then organized by topic. In each book, Jesus' personality is "shaded and shaped by the particularity of either his audience --- public, private, or intimate --- or an activity --- healing." Rather than relying on a particular translation, Tickle brings her own scholarship and the texts of several translations to bear to recreate Jesus' words.

Tickle suggests that the reader begin with Book Two, Christ's words of private instruction to His followers. Here, He is "most self-revelatory and open to us." Bits and pieces of Jesus' words reach out and pull the reader in. "Be careful that you do not look down on one who seems small or unimportant and trivial...," Jesus says in one passage. In another, "Sit down in the humblest place." And, "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." Each saying in each "book" is grouped under a topical header.

Tickle divides the other four books of Jesus' Sayings into The Words of Public Teaching, The Words of Healing Dialogue, The Words of Intimate Conversation and The Words of Post-Resurrection Encounters. The 21 Sayings under "healing" are interesting, Tickle points out, as most of them have little or nothing to do with the healing itself: "Rather, they read now as if much of the time the act of healing becomes a platform for teaching health of more than just the body." Good food for thought.

One of Tickle's passages that resonates particularly well is the idea that the brain and the heart are both organs of perceiving and being. "We must assume that there is in the human being a means of knowing other than that of the brain." Her surprise, she said, was that the Sayings of Jesus "entered prayerfully" are first heard somewhere other than the mind. "The heart, it would seem, has its own consciousness and knowledge and ways that can be experienced just as the brain's consciousness and knowledge and ways are experienced. They are just not as scientifically measurable at the moment, and may never be."

Tickle, who has worked with other sacred writings before (The Divine Hours series), has a delightful blend of humbleness and confidence in her reflections on the Sayings. As she began compiling the "words" of Jesus through the past two years, Tickle said she wrestled with new perceptions about what it is to be a Christian, as well as to be herself.

So reader be warned. If, as Tickle says, "It is the correct and proper business of followers to try to discern the meaning of God's words," then THE WORDS OF JESUS is a good place to be about our business. But readers will encounter the sayings of Jesus through this book in new ways --- and may come away changed."

--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby

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