Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 224 pgs., Pb.; $16.00 Link to IVP

This book follows Mark Strauss’s Jesus Behaving Badly (IVP 2016, I review this book here) and David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly (IVP 2011). In many ways this new book is similar to an earlier volume written by Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012). The goal of this book is to offer some explanation for some of Paul’s writings which strike the modern (and politically correct) reader as not just difficult, but impossible to apply. In the conclusion to the book, they state “Paul was a product of his time—like everyone else” (194).

paul-behaving-badlyIn the introduction to the book, the writers set up the “problem of Paul” by describing their own misgivings about Paul. On the one hand, Paul does say some rather disturbing things. Most Christians struggle with Paul’s command for women to remain silent in church because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor 14:3-35). His commands on head-coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) are difficult to apply in a modern context. Paul can certainly be abrasive and downright rude, calling be infants or foolish (Gal 3:1). There are many Christians who prefer the kind, loving Jesus to a cranky, autocratic Paul. In the conclusion to the book the authors express their hope that this book does not “hate on Paul” (193),

But another serious problem is that Paul is intimidating! Reading Paul can be a difficult slog in terms of both content and theology. Following the argument of Romans can be challenging, and unpacking Paul’s logic in a way which resonates with a modern reader is not always possible. For many Christians it is far easier to understand a parable of Jesus and immediately apply the parable to a situation in their life than to wade through the thick theological argument of Romans or Galatians.

Richards and O’Brien, begin with the way Paul communicates with his readers. Sometimes he seems to be “kind of a jerk.” This is certainly true when Paul’s letters are compared to the popular image most people of Jesus. Another aspect of Paul’s letters which is hard for some to handle is arrogance. Rather than following Jesus, Paul regularly tells his readers to follow him. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example, Paul demands his readers follow his example as he follows Christ. Despite demanding peace in his churches, Paul occasionally bullies his opponents (24), calling them names and mocking their views. Richards and O’Brien point out that Paul makes a great deal out of his calling to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and he seems to put his own agenda ahead of the leading of the Holy Spirit (citing Acts 21:4). Richards and O’Brien conclude “there is no way around it. Paul thought he was special” (36). At least some of Paul’s bluster can put explained as Greco-Roman rhetoric, and put into the context of other Roman writers, Paul is not that much different (perhaps he is less of a bully that some!)

Chapters 2-6 deal with specific issues in the Pauline letters which are difficult to apply in a modern context (Paul was a killjoy, racist, pro-slavery, a Chauvinist, and homophobic). In each case Richards and O’Brien set up the issue by citing several passages in Paul which imply he was in fact a racist, etc. After examining these passages within the cultural context of the first century, Roman world, they conclude Paul is not guilty as charged. At least not by the standards of the first century Roman world. This is a key observation for each of the issues Richards and O’Brien cover in chapters 2-6. If Paul is understood as a Second Temple period Jew living in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, then his “politically incorrect” sayings are perfectly understandable.

For example, Paul did not “support slavery” in the same sense than nineteenth century Southern Americans did. Certainly Paul did not demand Christians release their slaves, and he did tell slaves they ought to obey their masters. But in the context of the Roman world, slavery was not always an abusive relationship nor would every slave desire to be free! Although Richards and O’Brien do not mention this, it is worth noting that Jesus never demanded his followers free their slaves. Many of Jesus’ parables include slaves, although it is hidden behind the softer translation “servants.” So Paul could be charged as “pro-slavery” if his words are taken out of context, but within the correct cultural context, he is neither for nor against slavery.

With respect to chauvinism and homophobia, from a modern perspective Paul may be “guilty as charged.” But again, Richards and O’Brien work to set some of Paul’s difficult anti-women and anti-homosexual statements into their proper historical context. With respect to women, the writers conclude that Paul does come across badly, but Paul’s Jewish culture would have not been pleased with the level of freedom and responsibility Paul suggested women have in the Body of Christ (122). With respect to homosexuality, it is absolutely true that Paul considers homosexuality a sin, but his view stands on the foundation of the Jewish Law. Paul’s view was counter to the morals of the Greco-Roman world, but as Richards and O’Brien conclude, homosexual relationships acceptable in the Roman world did not include gay relationships between equals (gay marriage).

The two final issues in the book are more difficult. First, was Paul a Hypocrite? The issue here is Paul’s ministry strategy of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:20-21). Did Paul tell to live one way, while living a different way himself? In some letters, Paul refuses to take money from his churches, but in others he thanks the churches for their gifts. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols seems odd to us today, but it is was an important issue in the first century since Gentiles had no problem with the practice, Jewish Christians would have thought it was a sin. Richards and O’Brien offer an interesting analogy, should Christians practice yoga? Most Christians would answer like Paul, it depends. Since the origins of yoga are part of a non-Christian religious practice, could a believer do yoga as recreation without all of the pagan baggage? What if you listen to Chris Tomlin while doing yoga? For Paul, the wise answer for some practices depends on the situation (164).

Second, did Paul twist Scripture? There are a few places in Paul’s letters where he seems to read the Old Testament in ways which the original text did not intend. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 is an example of this, since Paul uses the two women (and their children) as an analogy for a change in God’s plan from Promise to Law to Grace. I have occasionally joked that if my exegesis students turned in papers using the same methods Paul did in Galatians 4, I would probably fail them! But as Richards and O’Brien point out, Paul is reading the Old Testament as a Jewish Christian. He was a trained Pharisee who was thoroughly trained in rabbinical techniques including midrash and pesher. As with virtually every section of this book, reading Paul in the context of the Second Temple period helps us to understand what Paul is saying. They conclude Paul did not twist Scripture, “but he did squeeze every last drop out of it” (190).

As a conclusion to the book, Richards and O’Brien offer a short reflection on whether we ought to be “following Paul” or “following Jesus.” Like most of the questions in this book, the question is set up in order to generate the discussion which follows. Of course we follow Jesus, but we imitate Paul has he followed Jesus. It is true Paul may have been a “bull in a china shop” at times, but he was called by God to suffer for the sake of Jesus.

Conclusion. As with any book of this kind, chapter titles are set up in order to catch the reader’s attention and make the answer to the question applicable to a modern reader. So, “Was Paul a homophobe?” suggests to the reader perhaps he was, although the answer is always comes down to careful definition of terms. The cover of the book and the promotional material which will accompany the book are intentionally shocking. This book would make an excellent small group Bible study since the chapters are set up to generate discussion Paul’s views on controversial issues and how those issues ought to be addressed in the church today.