Ted Grimsrud—January 10, 2022
The more I read what scholars have to say about the writings of Paul, the more I feel like they miss important elements of Paul’s thought that might speak to us today. I think of Paul as a biblical prophet alongside the great Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself, and John of Patmos who wrote Revelation. As such, I think Paul is a great witness to the message of shalom that I associate with the prophets and with Jesus.
However, the Paul of Christian biblical scholars seems more like a teacher of a new religion, one centered on beliefs about Jesus’s death and resurrection and on escaping the failures of the ancient Hebrews. Such a Paul has little to say against domination and power politics and little to say about key issues of social justice such as wealth, social power, warism, and systemic prejudice. That is, the Paul of the Christian biblical scholar seems cut off from the OT portrayal of Torah, the insights of the prophets, and even the life and teaching of Jesus.
In raising this critique here, though, I am not intending to focus on recent Christian scholarship (at least not yet). Rather, I want simply to raise a few questions about how we might approach Paul in ways that are different from the standard approaches and that have promise to be more relevant for our current world healing concerns. I like the idea of reading Paul (for right now, I will focus on Romans) in the context of the Bible as a whole, where we keep the Big Story plot line from the Old Testament in mind and where, especially, we read Paul in light of the life and teaching of Jesus.
Social conflict in the Old Testament
The Bible is full of social conflict. The main shape this conflict takes from the beginning in the story of the exodus is how the powerful exploit the vulnerable. That foundational event of the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt establishes that Israel’s God sides with the exploited against the exploiters. For the rest of the Old Testament, we read story after story where the leadership class of Israel violates Torah in its oppressive practices—and, in response, where the prophets who speak on behalf of God condemn the oppression and warn of terrible consequences for the community due to the injustice of its leaders.
The “failures” of Israel, more than anything else, were the failures of the leadership class to allow Torah to shape the community toward justice for the vulnerable. The well-known story of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel doing violence against the Hebrew farmer Naboth illustrates the close link between what the prophets condemned as idolatry (in this case, Ahab allowing Jezebel’s Baal-worship to shape his policies) and injustice. Worshiping God was seen as inextricable from justice for the vulnerable, as spelled out in some detail by the prophet Amos. It was never simply a religious problem in ancient Israel but also a manifestation of the social implications of worship choices.
The ultimate destruction of the territorial kingdom in the promised land was understood by various prophets to be the consequence of corrupt and exploitative leaders—kings and their minions and the Temple elite. The problem was not that a unified, singular “children of Israel” blatantly failed to live faithfully—it was the leadership class. The people on top fulfilled the warnings from Samuel in response to the elders of Israel asking God for a king: the king will take and take and ultimately return you to the horrendously exploitative social dynamics of Egypt under Pharaoh.
Jesus against the “tyrants”
Christians all too often pay too little attention to the continuities we find in the story of Jesus in relation to the earlier parts of the Bible. Jesus’s world was also a world of social conflict, with many of the same dynamics. The leadership class in the first century, both the kings with their imperial overlords and the religious leaders who ran the Temple (the Sadducees) and enforced the Law (the Pharisees), are portrayed in the gospels as strengthening their own wealth and power at the expense of the vulnerable masses—the very people Torah had emphasized as the recipients of the care from those who would be faithful to God. The announcements at the time of Jesus’s birth and the beginning of his public ministry emphasized his identity as a special prophet who would restore the original emphases found in the exodus and Torah: Support for the vulnerable and opposition to the exploitative leaders.
Christianity theology’s traditional focus on the supposed sacrificial theology linked with Jesus’s death by execution has muted, even silenced, the revelation in that story of the violent corruption of the leadership classes. The political and religious leaders collaborated in attempting to silence this great prophet, at least in part due to his siding with the vulnerable people and speaking against the tyranny of the rich and powerful.
The social conflicts that led to Jesus’s death were not Jews vs. Gentiles but Jesus vs. social elites (both Jew and Gentile). Jesus drew deeply on the traditions of his people, Torah and the prophets in particular. His message reflected the part of the Hebrew tradition that was articulated in Genesis 12 with the promise that Abraham’s descendants would bless all the families of the earth. This promise was echoed thereafter in various universalistic emphases that alluded to God’s concern for all the nations—and that condemned Hebrew injustices as being in continuity with the nations’ injustices (see, e.g., Amos 1–2).
Who was Paul challenging?
What if we read Paul in line with these earlier biblical prophetic themes? What, especially, if we read Paul as complementing and furthering the message of Jesus in his life and teaching (and not mainly as being only concerned with Jesus’s supposed sacrificial death and his resurrection)? Would such a reading help us make better sense of some of Paul’s hard-to-understand emphases? For now, I will limit myself to looking at Romans.
One complicated question in relation to Paul’s theology in Romans is who he has in mind when he refers to “Israel.” All too many interpreters seem to assume that Paul has in mind “ethnic Israel” (i.e., all the Jewish people without social distinctions). Paul is said to be concerned with the failure of Israel to recognize Jesus as Messiah. In his critique, Paul is then said to be making a strong distinction between “Jews” and “Christians”—in hopes that the former would escape their pending condemnation by embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Such a reading of Paul has contributed to many significant problems, not least the long and deadly heritage of Christian anti-Judaism. It has also contributed to the tendency of Christianity to emphasize right belief over right practice, a tendency that has greatly marginalized the message of Jesus and the prophets.
I’m wondering, though, if recognizing a closer connection between Paul and his major biblical influences might help us rethink what he had in mind. Let’s start with the recognition that Paul was a Jew, always and only. Paul’s tension was not between “Christianity” as a separate religion and Judaism (remember that Paul never uses the term “Christian”). The tension was between different interpretations of the faith of Israel.
Is there any reason why Paul would not be echoing the prophets and Jesus when he critiques “Israel”? Could he have had in mind mainly the leadership class (not “ethnic Israel”)? The problem among the Jews, in Paul’s mind, may have mainly been the same as it was for Jesus—exploitative power, disregard for the vulnerable, making the protection of privilege a cause for violence.
Remember that Paul’s main “enemy” among Jewish people was himself—a paradigmatic violent, exploitative, oppressive religious leader. When Paul critiques Israel in Romans, he most likely had in mind himself before he met Jesus. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul goes into some detail about his own violent acts and attitudes that were the result of his religious convictions. Pre-Jesus Paul was concerned with the ways that followers of Jesus were jeopardizing his own privilege as a zealous guardian of the true practice of Judaism. What was this concern but simply another expression of the long tradition of exploiters using their community’s faith traditions to increase their own power?
Chosen for what?
One of the underlying issues in Paul’s thought reflects a powerful tension that goes back to the beginning of the story: What is the purpose of God choosing the people Israel? How do we understand election? What is the core meaning of the covenant? We see a struggle within Israel from very early on. Is the point the blessing of all the families of the earth—or the privileging of one “family” (that is, one small segment—the elite)? Might this question about election not actually be another version of the question of who will be the center of concern for the community under Torah—the vulnerable and marginalized or the power elite?
As the story plays out during the course of the Old Testament and on into the gospels, we can see that the emphasis on exclusivity, on privileging “Israel” over against outsiders to the community, tends to favor the powerful. Enforcing the boundary lines generally means violence against the vulnerable and easily excluded.
My sense is that Paul (like Jesus) cares mostly about ending elite domination and violence. It is not a strictly religious or belief-centered focus, but a social one, an ethical one. The issue is what kind of community will people of faith cultivate—a place of welcome, compassion, and healing? Or a place of hierarchy and domination of the vulnerable by the powerful? Is commitment to the God of Israel best understood in terms of blessing for all families or in terms of the exclusive blessing of only a particular group?
Ironically, the way most Christians have tended to read Paul has made him a supporter of the latter kind of communal identity. He has been read as a belief-centered thinker whose influence empowers those who set up and police doctrinal boundary markers and empower Christian exclusivism. Might it not be that by making Paul the ultimate doctrinaire “Father of the church,” Christianity has ignored his core passion—to tear down the walls of violence that divide people and that empower the elite and to open access to God in ways that empower the vulnerable and marginalized?