Opinion Columns & Blogs

St. Paul: Appealing or appalling?

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan begin their book, “The First Paul,” by asking if we think St. Paul is an appealing person or downright appalling. Good question. When you read all 13 epistles attributed to Paul in the New Testament, you come away shaking your head. On the one hand, it’s a pleasure to read 1 Corinthians 13, and marvel at the sheer beauty of his poem on love; it’s better than Keats or Shelly. However, you’re appalled by his anti-Semitism and misogyny and homophobia — all of which show up in the epistles attributed to him.

Many new pastors have a terrible time with these appalling verses; they simply avoid them and search out the appealing ones for their sermons. But what’s the truth? What kind of a guy was Paul?

My Roman classmate, Crossan, and our mutual and much-loved friend, Borg, identify three entirely different “Pauls.” The First Paul, (the title of their book) is the man we have grown to love and is the man we’d like to think was the original Paul. We can then identify the other Pauls who endorse slavery, subordinate women, and condemn homosexual behavior— as later writers who are using Paul’s name to advance their later Christian attitudes. Today, we’d call that forgery.

Take slavery, for example. Here’s “Paul’s” letter to Titus, “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity.” (Titus 2:9)

This sounds like a Christian in the first or second century using Paul’s name to support the horrible practice of slavery which continued throughout Christianity unchecked until just a hundred years ago. This Paul doesn’t condemn slavery; he endorses it. I don’t want to have that image of Paul.

I want to think of the Paul who wrote the tiny letter to Philemon. Philemon was Paul’s friend and a wealthy slave-owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, evidently committed a crime worthy of severe punishment. However, before they could catch him, Onesimus used a Roman law loophole that allowed him to run away to his boss’s superior — in this case, Paul, to plead for him. Thus: The letter to Philemon.

In the letter, Paul pleads for this runaway slave and asks his master Philemon, to free him. Paul’s legal brief would make any defense attorney proud. He wins his case with clear evidence but also with manipulation and sheer cleverness. There can be no doubt this young lad returned to his former master as a free-man because Paul made it happen. Instead of hearing the “Titus Paul” yelling to this slave to be “submissive to your master” we hear the “Philemon Paul” saying to his friend the slave-owner, “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus.

We see the same switch about women. This one occurs between three chapters inside the same letter. Look at I Corinthians, chapter 11 where Paul is talking about the Roman custom in Corinth of head coverings for women when they pray or prophesy. The word “prophesy” means preaching. Paul is acknowledging that the women who are preaching in his church are simply following the customs of the day.

Compare this to what “a Paul” says just three chapters later in 1 Corinthians 14:34. Now he’s yelling again. “Women should be silent in the churches; they are not allowed to speak. They should be submissive.”

People who read each word in the Bible as the inerrant word of God have a terrible time with Paul. My friends, Borg and Crossan, however, tell us to focus on the “appealing Paul,” and I do. And I dismiss, out of hand, the “appalling Paul” — whoever he is — as a man with no common sense or decency or Christianity.