Remembering Paul: a brief review

Remembering PaulTom Wright rather over-eggs his pudding when he claims in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that St Paul invented Christian theology. The earliest Christians’ reflections on memories of Jesus and his teaching, as well as their experience of the Easter event and the presence of the risen Christ with them in the Spirit, were already what Paul the pre-Christian persecutor was reacting to as he chased them down.

Paul is, however, the most influential of Christian theologians, not least by virtue of his writings being canonised as scripture. His range is greater, more diverse, and more practical than “John”, his major canonical competitor for the title. It is not surprising then, that when subsequent Christians articulate their theology, they want Paul on their side.

Remembering Paul is Benjamin White’s exploration of that attempt to claim Paul as one’s own, as his subtitle “Ancient and Modern Contests over the Image of the Apostle” suggests. In the first chapters of the book he looks at some of the ways modern critical scholarship has both claimed a “real Paul”, and how post-Enlightenment scholars read the early history of Pauline reception in the second century church.

Modern scholars have (at least until recently) chosen a Paul whose theological heart is found in Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, the so-called Hauptbriefe. Most commonly the “real Paul” is held to have written seven letters, adding Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon to those four. The Paul so constructed is a Lutheran Paul, but not only was justification of the individual believer made the cornerstone of constructing Paul, it also became the yardstick by which Pauline influence on the Apostolic Fathers and other early writers was measured. Where they are non-Lutheran, they are judged un-Pauline. So scholars invented a Pauline captivity, in which he was held prisoner by Marcion, Valentinus and other heretics, before Irenaeus reclaimed him for orthodoxy at the end of the 2nd century, albeit a more catholic orthodoxy than the “real Paul” (read Lutheran Paul) would have been happy with.

This narrative lasted until almost the close of the 20th century, and it is White’s claim that what is now needed, and what he seeks to provide is a new prolegomena to Pauline studies that sees Paul as a constructed, remembered, frequently re-imagined figure. He proceeds through mapping the history of scholarship since F C Baur, explores how the narrative that held sway from Baur onwards has now been largely exploded, and offers his own fresh study of how Paul is remembered by the orthodox using 3 Corinthians (p. Bodmer X) and Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses.

He ends with an eight point program for better Pauline studies. First, he argues that interpreters need better to situate themselves in their own context, not least that of the history of interpretation through which they approach the text. He argues (2) for better awareness of the institutional framework (perhaps disciplinary framework would be better?) of the academy’s practice and that (3) the academy ought to provide a place for the proper contestation of methods assumptions and interpretations. His fourth point is that critical engagement with methodology must always be at the heart of the discipline. One could be excused for thinking those four points are the same thing said in different ways.

Fifthly, he suggests that claims about the “real Paul” need to be accompanied by descriptions of how they might be falsified. Given his literary approach to historiography, this seems to come from a rather more positivist discipline than any he has articulated. Sixth, appeals to the canonical letters are appropriate as primary evidence “inasmuch as there is a high probability that at least some … go back to Paul’s apostolic team” (p 180) Well, that’s a relief! His seventh point is that even authentic letters are rhetorical constructions, and that a developing mind, never mind a potentially inconsistent one, means that a fixed-point “real Paul” will always be elusive. Finally, he concludes that the remembered Paul may be a matter more of broad impressions, rather than a clear historical reconstruction.

That last point shows a deliberate overlap with, indeed imitation of, the place of social memory studies in historical Jesus research which White particularly explores in his fourth chapter. Those of us who are unconvinced that social memory studies bring anything significantly new to the table of Jesus studies are even less likely to be convinced that they have something new to bring Pauline studies. The historical Jesus left no writings and is only accessible through the refracted memories of the tradition. The historical Paul left writings in his own voice, and even if our reconstructions should rightly be chastened by many of the points White makes, the Paul we remember is one who left us his own words, even if we dispute still which words in fact be his.

Rejecting Rankean positivism (White repeatedly uses “wie es eigentlich gewesen” as a rhetorical dismissal) is nowadays somewhat passé. That dragon has been slain, or to change the metaphor, no-one in academia sails that close to Scylla any more. However, White sails far too close to his namesake Hayden White, a Charybdis at least as risky as Ranke. If Hayden White be a historiographer, then he is one at which most practicing historians curl their lips and roll their eyes.

There is, I think, a genuinely interesting parallel which White draws out between the ways in which ancient and modern writers alike construct a Paul congenial to their cause, a “real Paul” from whom they draw the comfort of their orthodoxy. In drawing attention to that process, however, White really ends up saying very little about how we deal with the represented Paul of the canon, whether those are the self-representations of a man who constructs his rhetoric carefully, while professing not to use “plausible words of wisdom” or the representations of a wise mentor of young pastors that we find in the Pastorals. Nor does he explore how those and other representations (such as Luke’s) might refract the same apostle, and what methodologies might be employed to hold them in some kind of interaction that doesn’t simply reject what is not the “real Paul.”

And finally, I cannot but draw attention to his conclusion that it is right to appeal “to specific Pauline letters and passages within letters as primary evidence for Saul of Tarsus” (p 180). I rather hope it is a conscious irony that he chooses to refer to the Paul of history by the referent “Saul of Tarsus”. After all, the Paul of the letters nowhere claims that Hebrew name, or that Cilician place of origin. Remembering Paul is indeed in need of careful historiography.

Remembering Anzac Day

I was once privileged to take part, some 32 years ago, in the commemorations of this day on Anzac Hill, overlooking Alice Springs. Although, I don’t think, growing up, I had heard anything about the Anzac campaign, or had ever heard of Gallipoli, by then, having lived in Australia for a few months, I knew rather more about it.

The first I really remember becoming aware of it was in 1981, seeing one of the most powerful anti- war films ever made, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. In my memory it was elegiac in its simplicity, striking in its effective use of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene and Albinoni’s Adagio as twin themes offsetting each other, and a gut-punch in its freeze frame ending of sprinter Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) breasting an imaginary finishing tape of his last run, not white as in all his past races, but the red of blood and bullets. If you haven’t seen it, I still recommend it as worth watching.

But in commemoration today, here’s first one of the most powerful folk songs commemorating it by ex-pat Scot Eric Bogle (and I’m not normally a folk music person). I think in my mind the mood created by the film is somehow intertwined with this song. And after that a collect from A Prayer Book for Australia for use on Anzac Day.

O God, our ruler and guide,
in whose hands are the destinies of this and every nation,
we give you thanks for the freedoms we enjoy in this land
and for those who laid down their lives to defend them:
We pray that we and all the people of Australia,
gratefully remembering their courage and their sacrifice,
may have grace to live in a spirit of justice,
of generosity and of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mixing faith and politics: Cameron, Gove and a barmy blog


It would be unkind, but not unfair, to suggest that David Cameron’s Easter message showed rather less understanding of religion than the Bishops’ Election letter showed of politics. It seems that Magic FM’s reception in the Chilterns has improved as the election nears.

In a similar vein, Michael Gove’s polemic in this week’s Spectator sits oddly alongside his achievement in sidelining Religious Education through his education reforms, collateral damage in his search for his particular vision of the greater educational good.

Nonetheless, in their own way, each provides a reminder that the relationship between religion and politics needs a rather greater amount of attention than our society’s leaders and leader-writers seem willing to give it. Certainly it needs more thought than this article calling for religion to be banished from the public sphere.

The author, who is remarkably shy about his own commitments and associations, seems basically to be saying that we don’t want our politics to be like American politics. He manages to ignore the reality that in the US religion is rigorously separated from government, yet intrudes everywhere, and in the UK it is formally enshrined in the organs of state, yet is often invisible. Consideration of that alone should have given him pause to ask what exactly he means.

He publishes the demands he made to party leaders on his blog. Again he withholds any information about his own affiliations while seeking to deny those of religious affiliation the freedom he is currently exercising. He seems miffed that they haven’t recognised the significance of his campaigning by speedy – or indeed any – replies. These are his demands:

  1. Your party will not solicit financial or electoral support on religious grounds (any religion);
  2. Your party will not give any form of special access to policy-making or campaigning to any religious group;
  3. Your party will publicly repudiate any person or organization who solicits support for it on any religious basis (for or against any religion)

I’m not sure exactly what the first means. And I’m not sure the author does either. “You and I,” says politician X, “believe in justice for the oppressed. Your scriptures are full of it, your prayers talk about it. I believe our policies deliver on that better than any other party. I hope you will see that and support us.” Mr Heller, it would seem, would like to prevent politicians saying such things.

The second is an odd attempt to make specific what ought to be general: no government should give any interest group special access to policy-making. Or does Mr Heller believe that it’s okay for the RSPCA and the National Secular Society, and other non-religious groups to have access? Or does he mean what he really, really wants is a commitment to abolish bishops from the House of Lords?

The third is even more bizarre than the first. You’ve been inspired by your faith to campaign for the Living Wage. He wants you banned from publicly supporting a political party that promises it. Your church has been running a food bank and wants to get commitments from politicians to address the root causes of food poverty. He doesn’t want a party to listen to you because your faith is a living and visible part of your motivation to provide emergency supplies to those who need them.

Now, I suspect that isn’t what he really means, and he’d feel I’ve distorted what he meant. It is, however, a fair interpretation of his actual words. I don’t think he’s thought through the implications of his slogans. But he’s certainly a good candidate for this week’s poster boy for secularist bigotry.