Paul—Christianity's Unlikely Champion
John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed examine one of Christianity's enigmatic founders.
This review originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.
Mention the term “Son of God” and most people today think immediately of Jesus. But if it had been uttered anywhere in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus, hardly a soul would have thought of anyone but Augustus Caesar—divi filius, divine son of the deified Julius Caesar. Augustus had conquered the world and established peace on Earth, the Pax Romana that would last some 200 years. Augustus was revered as Lord, Redeemer and Savior of the World.
Now imagine the apostle Paul crossing the Mediterranean to proclaim that Jesus, a man he’d never met and who’d been executed by Rome as a criminal years earlier, was actually the Son of God, our Lord. Paul was usurping titles reserved for Caesar and applying them to Jesus—a calculated act of treason.
It is this historical Paul who emerges in John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s engrossing new book, “In Search of Paul.” Crossan, a leading historical Jesus scholar, and Reed, an authority on biblical archeology, adopt a “you are there” approach, touring archeological ruins in Italy and Greece, Turkey and Syria to see the world in which Paul lived and preached. They also use historical and exegetical analysis to revive Paul, a Jew who understood Hebrew and who helped persecute the early Church before joining it and becoming one of Christianity’s most dominant—and enigmatic—figures.
Paul has been criticized in recent years for advocating the submissiveness of women. Crossan and Reed try to set the record straight, distinguishing between New Testament letters written by Paul and other letters that, in a tradition common then, were attributed to him. The authentic Pauline letters (e.g., Romans, Galatians) speak of a radical equality in Christ in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. Later non-Pauline writings, such as 1 Timothy, which says that women should stay home, get pregnant, and keep silent, attempted to change Paul’s image to suit the later needs of the church—to “sanitize a social subversive, to domesticate a dissident apostle, and to make Christianity and Rome safe for one another.”
Their approach casts other old questions in a new light. In a world divided between Jews and Gentiles, how did Paul manage to establish Christian communities in the capitals of the major Roman provinces so rapidly? If he’d gone to Jewish synagogues to convert Jews (as the Acts of the Apostles says he did), he would have encountered serious resistance; and if he’d targeted gentiles, he would have had to spend months or years tutoring them in Jewish practices, traditions and scriptures.
The authors make a compelling case, based on archaeological and biblical evidence, that Paul reached out to a vast third group identified in the New Testament as “God-fearers” or “God-worshipers.” These were pagans sympathetic to Judaism; they admired Jewish culture, supported synagogues and attended services. Crossan and Reed contend that Paul went to the synagogues not to convert Jews but to “unconvert” their pagan sympathizers. And because they were already familiar with Jewish theology, Paul could work quickly. “The Pauline express thundered along on God-worshiper rails,” they write, “and Paul moved fast because he did not have to lay track.”
The questions at the heart of this book are: What was the purpose of Paul’s mission and what was his message? Paul directly opposed Roman imperial theology, which in its claims for the emperor’s divinity went beyond rhetoric or Caesarean swagger to form “the ideological core of Roman imperial power, the theological heart of Roman global rule,” Crossan and Reed write. Caesar ruled by a mandate from heaven to secure peace through victory. This divine directive involved a sequence of actions visually depicted by the ancient Roman sculptured altar Ara Pacis Augustae: piety, war, victory and peace.
Paul’s alternative, based on the teachings of Jesus, called for peace through justice. Like Jesus, Paul was a Jewish visionary in the tradition of Old Testament prophets who claimed that if justice is established, peace will follow. He opposed the Roman empire ideal of achieving social order through power, possession and hierarchy. Paul offered Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, which promises equality and peace to all, here and now, as a free gift of God.
Paul opposed the Roman empire not because it “was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive,” Crossan and Reed write. Thus Paul asked: Who is God—a God of violence and power, or a God of justice and equality? And in whom do you find God—Caesar or Christ?
The authors pose the same questions for today’s society, asking to what extent America can call itself Christian. “We are now the greatest postindustrial civilization as Rome was the greatest preindustrial one,” they write. “That is precisely what makes Paul’s challenge equally forceful for now as for then.”
John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com and is the author of A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City.
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