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.


Jesus: resurrection, history and misplaced apologetics

Just before Lent I heard what I regarded as an unhelpful – to put it charitably – sermon on the Transfiguration story. It was unhelpful for several reasons. The preacher used Luke to “fill in the details Mark left out” and largely ignored Mark’s shaping of the story. He referred to the “eyewitness account we have” in 2 Peter, as though this was unproblematic, whereas it seems to me verging on dishonesty, to hide from “the laity” any knowledge that Petrine authorship is almost universally questioned by scholars.

Mosaic of the Transfiguration, St Catherine’s Monastery Sinai. Public Domain

Above all it was unhelpful because the preacher’s main aim seemed to be primarily, if not solely, to establish the historicity of the event. This fixation on historicity led to contrasts such as “not an hallucination, not a vision, but something that really happened”. (The possibility that it was a theological story was not entertained.)

I can understand the “not an hallucination” – a term we tend to use for those who are either ill or ingesting psychotropic substances. I can’t understand the “not a vision” since it is the testimony of almost all cultures but ours that visions are “real experiences”. What was it if it wasn’t a vision experience, and how does it being a visionary experience make it less real to its participants?

But leaving all that aside, what made this in my view a big problem, was that there was no real engagement with the summons to be transformed by following Jesus down the mountain and onwards on the way of the cross. The story of exaltation is sandwiched between Passion predictions, which is one of the reasons, I take it, that the Church of England messed around with the Revised Common Lectionary and moved this away from Lent 2 to the Sunday before Lent, to invite us to see Lent as walking this path of transformation. Listening to this sermon rather brought to mind Eliot’s line from The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets) “We had the experience but missed the meaning”.

Why do I bring that up at this end of Lent rather than at the start? Well apart from the fact that I wasn’t really blogging at the time, it is because I see the same temptation regularly surrendered to as Easter approaches.

It seems so easy for us Christians (teachers and preachers especially) so to give ourselves to an apologetic defence of the resurrection having actually happened, that we spend insufficient time and energy opening up the meaning of Easter. In doing so we run the risk of turning the resurrection of Jesus from the entropy-busting event that offers new hope and life to everything that happens in history, into just one more thing that happened in the distant past.

I’m sure no-one intends a form of apologetic that reduces the resurrection to a past event. I think, however, that an over-fixation on establishing its historicity as a ground for faith can produce exactly that effect. I suspect it is more that finding faith in the risen Jesus is the ground for accepting both the historical and eternal reality of his being raised from the dead.

Easter Eggs and the Daily Mail’s resurrection of George Carey

Today’s Mail on Sunday has one of those stories (click at your own peril) which makes it sound as if they’re on the churches’ side. (They really have mastered the art of link-bait – the url includes Jesus, Sainsburys and Darth Vader amongst others.)

But what is this? In a story complaining about the ignorance of supermarket chains about Easter, the Daily Fail subs show their ignorance of the Church of England. They think their occasional columnist George Carey is still archbishop of Canterbury.


The nub of the story is that some supermarket chains won’t stock the Real Easter Egg. I confess I remain seriously suspicious of the report that:

One chain even asked ‘what has Easter got to do with the Church?’, according to the makers of The Real Easter Egg,

When a quote is that anonymous – one chain – and it is qualified by attribution to a company, my instinct is to doubt its veracity. I don’t doubt there is widespread ignorance of the Christian Easter faith, but when a quotation is so carefully not attributed to anyone who might be able to sue, it is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what anyone actually said.

I also have to say, while I think the Real Easter Egg is a great idea, it is a commercial initiative. It has to succeed on commercial grounds, not on the basis of archepiscopal, or wish-I-still-were-archepsicopal pronouncements. As a bare minimum, it has to taste good, in order for people (other than those who wish rightly to support its message), to want to buy it. And, much as I regret having to say so, based on my personal chocolate taste, the Real Advent Calendar has put me off “Meaningful Chocolate” for some time to come.

The Church of Enunciation and Resurrection Tuesday

Some typos are too good to pass over without comment. I was fascinated to read in the Independent this morning about the Church of Enunciation.

Church of Enunciation

On one level it’s simply amusing. Although I hadn’t noticed any qualitative difference in people’s elocution at the Church of the Annunciation. At another level, you wonder why someone reporting on a country in which religion is such a significant part of cultural, racial and political identity, shows himself quite so ignorant of a fairly basic Christian concept. (And of the importance of Nazareth as the largest Arab city – leaving disputed Jerusalem out of the equation – in Israel, not just another Arab majority town.) Perhaps as a Defence Correspondent, he’s simply filling in, and the Indy is underfunded and understaffed.

Indeed that may be a more likely explanation, for in another article, someone who is described as an “online news reporter” has written a piece describing why Easter moves around in the calendar. She seems to think it moves around considerably more than it does, since she has it falling a week on Tuesday.

Easter dates

It suggests to me that not only is the Independent unable to source stories from specialists, but it’s unable to pay for basic sub-editing. But I wonder if it is revealing problems of religious literacy in the media more generally, that such basic mistakes are allowed in a news organisation that once had aspirations to change the industry for the better.

Hidden pictures and primitive history

Somewhat by chance I heard of Mow Cop as an interesting ruined castle worth visiting with a camera. And despite rather harsh and contrasty sunlight, it was. Oddly, this must be the worst signposted castle in the UK. It was almost as though they didn’t want visitors. There are no signs at all, even close to the actual ruins.

Mow Cop 35

What I hadn’t known until I saw this stone, was that this was the place where the Primitive Methodists originated. You go out for an interesting image, and come in with a better grasp of English and religious history.

Mow Cop 44

I’d heard of them as a more protestant, revivalist, and lay movement. I hadn’t realised where they originated in the Potteries.

Photography is a very educational hobby.

The Bible says …

I have always thought that “the Bible says” is a deeply problematic thing to say. If there was just one phrase I would like to ban from the pulpit, I think it would be a serious contender.

The problem, to my mind, is it erases the interpreter from the picture, yet everyone who says ‘the Bible says” actually means, “I say, the Bible says.”. There may be more or less sophisticated, elaborate, studious acts of interpretation that lie behind that “Bible says”. The affirmation made may have widespread agreement, or very limited agreement.

But it is still an interpretation, and to hide the interpreter’s responsibility for what they say, for the claim they make by that “the Bible says” is a moral abdication. We are responsible for our interpretations of scripture, whether we use them to feed the poor, justify genocide, liberate slaves or subject wives to domestic violence. Arguably all those actions could be prefaced by a “The Bible says …” introduction to applying a verse to make a case.

That’s why I’d like people to stop saying it. It’s a way of refusing to take responsibility for our positions, while rhetorically cloaking them in a “beyond argument” garment.

Discipleship & Establishment

Apart from appreciation offered by Christians of all (Protestant) stripes to Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, the word “discipleship” really began entering contemporary Christian discourse through David Watson’s book Discipleship (originally published 1981, I think). That came with a characteristic charismatic evangelical flavour, although influenced by some of Watson’s newly acquired friendships with catholic Christians.

It was complemented in popular evangelical reading by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which offered a particular evangelical Quaker take on the catholic spiritual tradition. This made for a fairly heady combination, which was always eclectic and reaching beyond any single tradition of churchmanship.

The language of discipleship, informed by this history, and an ever-widening embrace of devotional writings, not least those of St Ignatius and St Thomas à Kempis, has become the aspiration of “ordinary” Christian belonging. As such it has received a rather OTT reaction from people like Angela Tilby.

the language of discipleship to describe the normal Christian life does not stand up particularly well to scriptural scrutiny.

It would be an understatement to suggest that is not a view well grounded in the scriptural text, even if the language of discipleship is used somewhat differently from one author to the next.

However, the debate over the language, and the increasing use of it, does point to a sea-change in the way the Church of England speaks about its identity. The language of discipleship belongs to a gathered church, where belonging is conterminous with commitment. That sits poorly with talk of establishment, which embraces (among others) a sort of Anglican agnostic, or the Prime Minister’s description of himself as someone whose faith is a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns (“it comes and goes”). To some extent this also surfaces as an urban / rural divide.

The question Angela Tilby raises may be an un-alphabetical example of the D-word following the E-word, but despite the hyperbolic language there is a real question to be pondered. Does emphasising the challenge of discipleship reduce the opportunity to welcome the less committed or enthusiastic? And does it simply emphasise a favoured type of commitment?

Development aid: one good reason for pride in Britain

Scrutiny of development aid is important, and helps ensure it is used effectively. In the real world, all honest scrutiny will identify things that need improving. Today’s Making Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report needs to be read in that context. There’s a good article on it in The Guardian here.

There’s always the danger, however, that those who are opposed to aid on ideological grounds, or simply those of prejudice, will seize on the existence of any criticism to argue for a reduction in, or even the abolition of, the aid budget. So it might be a good time to rehearse some of the fundamental reasons why it matters.

In the pastoral letter Who is my Neighbour? (PDF), the Church of England’s bishops said:

The government is to be commended for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid when budgets have been so hard pressed. For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.” (p74)

Those commentators who try to dismiss the letter as a leftist whinge against the government might note this is one of several places where the letter commends the government. Why though, do the bishops say this?

For Christians, there will always be an awareness of the gospel imperative to help those most in need, and that we are encouraged to do things not for those who might one day return the favour, but for those who never can. It is, of course, not only Christians who might wish to argue for the morality of altruism on the basis of need.

There is another moral argument, from obligation. The West’s economic superiority and standard of living owes much to our past history of colonialism. Bluntly, even those of us who believe that the British Empire gave many of our former possessions much of value, should be honest that our shared history was more to our benefit than theirs. Our markets’ purchasing power can still over-determine their economic production, and to their detriment.

But for those who think moral arguments have no place in politics, who oddly enough are always those who gain advantage from present arrangements, there are also pragmatic arguments.

A very practical argument is that the more we can contribute to the well-being, health and stability of other countries, the greater their chance of a more productive economy, better health, less violence, fewer economic migrants and asylum-seekers. Aid helps others and serves our own long-term interests.

Changes in the world’s climate, combined with deep poverty are a real threat in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. As in Northern Nigeria, with Boko Haram, there’s a real danger that those conditions will leave people prey to the rise of militant Islam. For the sake of global peace and stability, we need to support solutions to things that are not just “someone else’s problem.”

When it’s well placed, and UK aid is better targeted than ever, (even if, as toady’s report reminds us there’s always more to be done) it helps economies grow to the point where they can trade more effectively, and be better global citizens.

Well-placed development aid is win-win. And, to be honest, we should be proud as a country that the UK government is leading the way by honouring our commitments. Aid is an investment in the world’s future.