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Hardin, Leslie T. The Spirituality of Paul: Partnering with the Spirit in Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 192 pp. Hb; $16.99. Link to Kregel

Leslie Hardin is a contributor to the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care and wrote The Spirituality of Jesus for Kregel (2009). Like his previous book Hardin does not write a book on practice spiritual disciplines, but rather a series of short reflections on what Paul thinks is key to spirituality. Although this is not a “how to” guide for spiritual life, readers will be encouraged as they reflect on what Paul says about these topics. For Hardin, Pauline spirituality is a “practical partnership with the Spirit,” an expression of the Spirit of God already at work in the life of the believer (17).

Spirituality of Paul, HardinIn the introductory chapter, Hardin discusses Paul’s sometimes controversial commands to “imitate me.” Hardin expresses a common frustration with Paul’s somewhat arrogant view that he is worthy of imitation, especially in matters of spiritual discipline. After all, Paul seems opinionated and angry, perhaps even demanding of his congregations. Why imitate Paul, when Peter and John are original disciples of Jesus? In fact, why imitate Paul when we ought to be imitating Jesus? Like Randolph and O’Brien recent Paul Behaving Badly, Hardin wants to read Paul’s letters in order to answer some of these objections while focusing on the “shape” of Paul’s spirituality.

Hardin discusses ten themes in Paul: Scripture, prayer, disciple-making, proclamation, worship, holiness, spiritual gifts, edification and suffering. Some of these are certainly within the sphere of spirituality, but several are in the category of imitation. Disciple-making, for example, is not usually included in a list of spiritual disciplines. However, as Hardin explains, Paul’s missionary method intentionally sought out individuals to develop into disciples who were told to go and find others to disciple. This process of discipleship hands down tradition from Jesus to Paul, to Paul’s disciples and then to their disciples. Hardin’s discussion of spiritual gifts is good and approaches a potentially contentious issue with wisdom, but it does not always speak to the topic of “spirituality in Paul.”

Hardin discusses the shape of Pauline spirituality in his final chapter. First, Paul was faithful to Scripture. According to Hardin, Paul saw Scripture as a tutor leading to godliness through Christ. Second, Paul was an imitator of Jesus (1 Cor 1:11). Although he encouraged his disciples to imitate him, his eyes were fixed on Jesus. This is not a lame “year of living like Jesus,” but rather living out the lifestyle of Jesus in a way which impacts the world. Third, living life as an imitator of Jesus is, for Paul, a life of freedom. Hardin is clear imitating Jesus is not living exactly like Jesus in every single detail, but embracing the freed from guilt one has as a child of God. Fourth, imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus should result in glorifying Jesus. Paul sees glorifying Jesus as the goal of everything Paul says in his letters. Fifth, Paul’s spirituality is committed to unity. It is undeniable Paul desires his churches to be unified both in doctrine and practice. Finally, Hardin points out the basis of any talk of the spiritual of Paul is his emphasis on the activity of the Holy Spirit.

There are a few things missing in the book. For example, Hardin has consciously avoided interacting with any of the classics of spiritual discipline. Although the focus on Paul might have limit the use of some of these classics, I would have expected some interaction with Rodney Reeves’s Spirituality According to Paul (InterVarsity, 2011). It is also remarkable (or refreshing depending on your perspective) that a book on the spiritual of Paul does not use the work cruciform. In fact, there are only one or two citations of Michael Gorman in this book. Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel is likely too recent to have had an influence on Hardin, but certainly his previous books merit more than a brief citation (Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans 2001 and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Eerdmans 2009).

Conclusion. Despite this reservations, Spiritual of Paul is a good introduction to the several key areas of discipleship in the Pauline letters. Hardin’s style is inviting and will be appreciated by both layperson and scholar. The book would be ideal for a small group Bible study.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

Porter, Stanley E. When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 435 pp. Pb; $34.   Link to Cambridge

Second Corinthians 5:16 is usually read as if Paul is denying he knew Jesus prior to the dramatic event on the Damascus Road. When confronted by the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul asks “who are you, Lord?” This too is taken as an indication Paul did not recognize Jesus and is used as evidence Paul did not know Jesus prior to his conversion. But there have been a few scholars in the early twentieth century who suggested Paul may have seen Jesus in Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion and perhaps even heard Jesus teach at some point.

paul met jesus stanley porterIn this monograph, Stanley Porter attempts to revive this idea by examining the relevant texts in the Pauline epistles as well as the book of Acts. Beginning with William Ramsay, Johannes Weiss, and J. H. Moulton, Porter suggests it is at least plausible to understand some of the texts used to show Paul did not know Jesus as meaning the opposite; he did recognize Jesus on the road to Damascus and he had heard Jesus teaching in person (chapter 1).

Although he admits he has not surveyed every work on the life of Paul (a nearly impossible task these days), Porter claims to have found only one recent scholar who is open to the possibility Paul heard Jesus teach at some point before the crucifixion (Tim Gombis, in Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed). Even works with a vested interest in connecting Jesus and Paul dismiss the possibility Paul knew Jesus prior to his conversion. Porter cites David Wenham who wrote a popular book on Jesus and Paul. Wenham simply states “Paul did not have firsthand experience of Jesus’ ministry (cited by Porter, 175).

So what happened? Porter lays the blame for the common assumption Paul did not know Jesus at the feet of F. C. Baur, followed by William Wrede and most significantly Rudolf Bultmann. As Porter says, “The short answer is Rudolf Bultmann and the long answer is the general history of Pauline scholarship” since Baur (45). There are several assumptions which make the possibility Paul knew Jesus less likely. First, Baur reduced the Pauline canon to Romans, 1-2 Corinthians and Galatians. Second, he assumed Acts altered history in order to make the contrast between Paul and Peter more clear. This led to the third assumption, Peter and Paul represented the two sides of the early church which eventually resulted into the synthesis of the next generation of Christianity. Bultmann argued Jesus’ teaching was irrelevant (and unknowable), and Pauline theology does not really depend on Jesus. Porter interacts at length with Bultmann’s 2 Corinthians commentary since the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:16 is critically important for the thesis he wants to defend in this monograph, that Paul not only knew the teaching of Jesus, but had heard Jesus teach, perhaps on several occasions, and may have interacted with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

As a result of the influence of Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann, most scholars reject the idea Paul knew Jesus or do not even raise the question. For many, there is a gap between the teaching of Jesus and the theology of Paul. Porter cites James Dunn, “Paul’s influence in determining the beginnings of Christianity was almost as great as that of Jesus” (Porter, 71).

With respect to method, Porter realizes many scholars reduce the number of authentic epistles and often reject the Pastoral Epistles, but there is little in the disputed epistles which supports his case. He fully accepts the book of Acts as evidence for the details of Paul’s life and prefers to date the book as early as A.D. 63 (an early date even for conservative Acts scholars). Scholarship on Pauline chronology often favors the epistles and Porter sees no problem using both as sources this study.

His third chapter surveys the data in Acts and the Pauline epistles, including the three reports of Paul’s conversion in Acts, focusing especially on the phrase “Who are you Lord?” For Porter, both Jesus’ statement and Paul’s response imply recognition, that is, Paul saw Jesus and recognized him because he knew him before the encounter (94). Porter gently suggests the phrase “I am Jesus” is similar to a Johannine “I am” saying, so Jesus is using a Christological formula to identify himself (the human Jesus) with the God (92).

Turning to the Epistles, Porter begins with 1 Corinthians 9:1, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” Porter offers a detailed exegesis of this passage, comparing it to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 to argue that Paul had seen Jesus just as the other apostles had. With respect to 2 Corinthians 5:16, Porter interacts at length with Bultmann’s highly influential commentary. Bultmann understood this verse to say Paul did not know Jesus before the Damascus road encounter, that he did not know Jesus “according to the flesh.” Porter offers a detailed exegesis of eleven key points in this verse and concludes it is plausible the verse indicates Paul once knew Jesus only as a human, but now (after the resurrection) Paul knows Jesus as the resurrected Lord. He is careful to suggest this as a possible reading of the text, but along with 1 Corinthians 9:1 and the book of Acts, there is a strong possibility Paul had known Jesus prior to his conversion experience.

In chapter 4 Porter develops some of the implications of Paul knowing Jesus before the resurrection. This would imply all had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ teaching because he had heard it for himself at some point in the ministry of Jesus. To support this, Porter examines five passages in Paul’s letter which seem to reflect the teaching of Jesus: Romans 12:92-21 (loving, blessing, cursing); Romans13:8 and Galatians 5:14 (loving one’s neighbor); 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (on divorce); 1 Corinthians 9:14 and 1 Timothy 5:18 (paying ministers of the Gospel); 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (the Lord’s return).

After examining these passages in detail, Porter concludes Paul had firsthand knowledge of the teaching of Jesus corresponding to three phases of Jesus’ ministry. Romans 12:9-21 alludes to the Sermon on the Mount (which Porter argues was a single sermon preached in Galilee). Loving one’s neighbor alludes to Jesus’ encounter with a lawyer during Luke’s travel narrative on the road to Jerusalem who asked him how he might inherit eternal life.  1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 alludes to the Olivet Discourse, part of Jesus’ teaching to the disciples in Jerusalem. Although Porter does not offer details, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is perhaps a better example of a possible allusion to the Olivet Discourse. Obeying the government in Romans 13 may allude to Jesus’ saying to “give unto Caesar.”

I have several questions about this section of Porter’s argument. First, acquaintance with the teaching of Jesus does not necessarily mean firsthand knowledge. If Romans12:9-11 does allude to the Sermon on the Mount, it is not necessary for Paul himself to have heard Jesus teach the words himself. The writer of the Didache also alludes to the Sermon, but no one would assume that author personally heard Jesus teach. Although it is not necessary to argue Paul had a copy of Q with him wherever he traveled, it is just as plausible he knew of some sayings sources often attributed to Q. This would account for material in Paul’s letters which would later be used by Matthew and Luke.

A second and related issue concerns the method used for demonstrating Paul had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ teaching. Porter must walk a fine line between verbal parallels with the Gospels and general allusions. If Paul heard Jesus teach in Galilee and wrote his recollection of that teaching in Romans some twenty or more years later, it would be remarkable if the words he used were exactly the same as the Gospel of Matthew. Porter recognizes this as a problem for the vocabulary for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 (148-50), eventually concluding Paul offers a paraphrase of what Jesus said.

This raises a third concern. Sometimes a common Jewish source is a simpler solution than Paul heard Jesus teach. For example, that both Jesus’ and Paul’s summary the of Law as “love your neighbor” is not remarkable at all since this was a well-known summary of the Law in Second Temple Judaism based on Leviticus 19:18. That a Jewish lawyer would respond to Jesus in this way is not a surprise. In addition, it is possible to find parallels to Romans 12:9-21 in Jewish wisdom literature.

Finally, sometimes Porter makes a suggestion which goes well beyond the evidence. He very tentatively suggests Paul was the “the lawyer who asked the question” in Luke 10:25-28 (147). Similarly, that Paul “overheard Jesus’ words regarding the worker being worthy of his/her wages” (159) seems to go beyond the evidence or that Paul overheard the Olivet Discourse and “heard enough” of Jesus at that point (167). All of these are of course possibilities, but move into the area of speculation which cannot be supported by evidence.

In his conclusion, Porter cites A.M. Pope who asked what benefit to our understanding of Paul if it can be proven Paul knew the life and teaching of the human Jesus. Aside from historical curiosity, the connection between Jesus and Paul would serve to further strengthen Pauline studies which place Paul in a Jewish context. The wedge driven between Jesus and Paul ought to be removed, but so too the wedge between Judaism, Jesus and Paul.

Conclusion. This is a fascinating book which makes a bold claim and supports that claim with detailed evidence and careful argumentation. Porter makes his case that it is at least plausible Paul knew the teaching of Jesus prior to the crucifixion and that he had personally seen Jesus on occasion.

NB: Thanks to Cambridge for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Gorman Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 731 pp. Pb; $48.   Link to Eerdmans

In the introduction to this second edition of Gorman’s textbook on the Pauline letters, Gorman offers ten approaches to the Apostle Paul’s letters. As is common in a Pauline introduction, the first two are the familiar traditional and new perspectives on Paul, but he also includes narrative-intertextual (Richard Hays), apocalyptic (Martyn, Gaventa, and Campbell), anti-imperialist (Richard Horsley), the “Wright-ian perspective” (N. T. Wright), Paul within Judaism (Mark Nanos), social scientific (John Barclay), feminist (Lynn Cohick, Amy-Jill Levine), and participationist (Douglas Campbell, Morna Hooker, Udo Schnelle). The reader of his introduction to Paul will find references to all of these perspectives in Gorman’s presentation since all make a contribution to our understanding of Paul.

The first six chapters of the book deal with background issues (Greco-Roman context, Pauline Mission and Paul the letter-writer) and theology (the Gospel, Pauline Spirituality and Theology). Since Gorman’s other work on Paul reflects a participationist model, it is not surprising to find this language throughout the book. (See my review of Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel). For example, Gorman sees Romans 8 as the “cruciform life in the Spirit” and 1 Corinthians 13 as the “rule” of cruciform love. Gorman understands justification through this lens as well. Justification in Paul is both a liberation from sin and a transformation to righteousness (175).

In his chapter on Pauline theology, Gorman offers twelve fundamental convictions (which he summarizes in a single sentence, albeit about a half-page in length). Rather than list these, I will focus on what I think are the most important for understanding Gorman’s approach to Paul over all. First, following N. T. Wright, Gorman understands Jesus’s death on the cross as the “climax of the covenant.” The cross accomplished in Jesus what Israel could not and initiated the new age of the Holy Spirit. The present age is the overlap of this age and the age to come.

Second, Gorman describes the “law of the messiah” as cruciformity; the cross is not just the source of salvation, but also the shape of salvation (177). In a text like Philippians 3:10-11 Paul can claim to be like Jesus in his death, even though he is still in this life. Third, Gorman has always challenged readers by describing the church as an alternative community. The ones who participate in the new cross-shaped life in Christ form an alternative to the world in which they find themselves. For Gorman, this is a rich source for the application of Pauline theology to present church life. If churches are to be an alternative community, then they ought to model their participation in new life by transforming communities through justice and peace-making.

Following these introductory chapters, Gorman provides a chapter on each of the thirteen Pauline letters. He begins with the title of the book with a short tagline and key verse. The first section for each chapter is the “story behind the letter.” This section briefly sets the letter into the proper cultural and historical context (including the context of the book of Acts). The second section of the chapter, “the story within the letter,” works through the outline of the book offering a short running commentary of each pericope. Occasionally Greek words appear transliterated in footnotes, so a student with little or no Greek will have no trouble reading the body of the chapter. Gorman provides bullet-point summaries at the end of sections for larger books. The third section in each chapter is the “story in front of the letter.” Here Gorman collects a series trenchant quotations from historical and contemporary commentators on the letter (and occasionally a non-specialist). Each chapter concludes with a series of questions for reflection and a “for further reading” list, divided into both general and technical works. This provides a student with resources to write responses and papers based on the reflection questions.

Rather than survey each chapter, I will highlight a few of the usual things people want to know about a textbook on Pauline letters. Gorman lists 1-2 Thessalonians first, and although he considers the north Galatia theory to be the scholarly consensus, he thinks the south Galatia view better accounts for the data and considers Galatians to be written between 48-51. With respect to the unity of 2 Corinthians, Gorman surveys the major view for dividing 2 Corinthians into three separate letters and suggests Paul’s use of rhetoric may account for the apparent disunity of the book. He says what unifies 2 Corinthians is the “Spirit-filled cruciform shape of the transformed life” (346). With respect to the purpose of Romans, Gorman argues the main purpose is Jew-Gentile friction in Rome, but I believe there is far more to Romans than this one issue.

With respect to the Prison Epistles, Gorman thinks an Ephesian imprisonment for Philippians is simpler, but it does not make much difference for the interpretation of the letter. His comments on Philippians 2:5-11 are the most detailed in the book primarily because Gorman considers these verses to be Paul’s “master story.” Understanding Paul’s presentation of Philippians 2:5-11 will help to interpret other problem texts in the Pauline letters. Gorman does not think the a decision on the authorship of the unit is necessary; Paul may have used a preexisting hymn, adapted a hymn, or composed the text himself.

The authorship of Ephesians and Colossians is always a major point of discussion in introductions to Paul. Gorman concludes Paul likely did not write Colossians word-for-word, but it is so close to Paul’s thought it must be written by someone close to Paul who knew him well (551). He suggests Tychicus, the bearer of the letter, is the most likely candidate since he may have acted as scribe for Paul and then interpreter of the letter when it was first delivered. He thinks this is the same case for Ephesians, Tychicus wrote the book “maintaining the voice of Paul” (580).

For the Pastoral Letters, Gorman discusses 2 Timothy first because he thinks the content of the letter comes from the time of Paul and accurately represents his thoughts, but may have been written after Paul’s death. 1 Timothy and Titus come from a later time and reflect the church after Paul’s death (614).

There are illustrations and maps throughout the book. The map of Corinth is particularly well done, I would have liked to see these for each of the locations (although that is not always possible based on the available evidence). Many of the photographs were taken by Gorman or his students on his trips to Pauline sites in Europe and Turkey. Although they are reproduced in black and white, they are not the usual photographs found in these sorts of textbooks.

Conclusion. This new edition of Apostle of the Crucified Lord continues to be a valuable introduction to the Pauline letters. Gorman’s presentation of Pauline theology challenges contemporary church leaders not only to know Pauline theology, but to live as cross-shaped people who seek to transform their world.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous.  Despite the fact that Paul refers to himself four times in the letter (1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22), the majority of scholarship in the last 150 years denies the authenticity of the letter. Rather than written by the “historical Paul,” the letter was created in the late first century, perhaps as a companion to the book of Acts.

P49 Verso

While there are many variations on this argument, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic on the basis of vocabulary, style, and theology.  For many, the letter does not sound enough like Romans, Galatians, or 1-2 Corinthians to be accepted as authentic.  Usually the letter of Ephesians is thought to be a post-Pauline compendium of Paul’s theology.  It was written by a disciple of Paul (“Paul’s best disciple,” Brown, 620).  Sometimes the reconstruction of the circumstances are quite complex. For example, Goodspeed suggested that Onesimus returned to Philemon, was released from his slavery and eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. After Acts was published, there was a great deal of interest in Paul, so Onesimus gathered all the various letters Paul sent to the churches of Ephesus as an introduction to Paul’s theology.  As Brown says, this is interesting but “totally a guess.”

There are some differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters.  For example, the common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23), and the letter never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.  More surprising is the fact that the verb “to justify” is not used, even though while it is common in Galatians and Romans and might have been useful in the argument of 2:11-22.

Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself?  If the letter contains the actual “voice of Paul” then the letter can be considered Pauline.  By way of analogy, in the study of the Gospels there is a great deal of discussion over the words of Jesus.  When I read the words of Jesus in my ESV Bible, can I know that these are the real words of the historical Jesus?  The answer which satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus’ words were originally spoken in Aramaic, translated to Greek and then to English for me to read!

In the same way, even if Ephesians was not written by Paul, the true “voice of Paul” can be found in the letter.  As it happens I think Paul did write Ephesians, albeit much later in his life during his Roman house arrest.  The letter was intended to go to all the house churches in Ephesus and there is no burning problem which Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians).  This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.

Considering Ephesians to be an authentic Pauline letter may change the way we envision Paul’s  theology.  While Romans and Galatians are concerning with justification and the struggle to define the Church as something different than Judaism, Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in “one body.”  Unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme in the letter.  Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”

How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?

Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous.  Despite the fact that Paul refers to himself four times in the letter (1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22), the majority of scholarship in the last 150 years denies the authenticity of the letter. Rather than written by the “historical Paul,” the letter was created in the late first century, perhaps as a companion to the book of Acts.

P49 Verso

While there are many variations on this argument, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic on the basis of vocabulary, style, and theology.  For many, the letter does not sound enough like Romans, Galatians, or 1-2 Corinthians to be accepted as authentic.  Usually the letter of Ephesians is thought to be a post-Pauline compendium of Paul’s theology.  It was written by a disciple of Paul (“Paul’s best disciple,” Brown, 620).  Sometimes the reconstruction of the circumstances are quite complex. For example, Goodspeed suggested that Onesimus returned to Philemon, was released from his slavery and eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. After Acts was published, there was a great deal of interest in Paul, so Onesimus gathered all the various letters Paul sent to the churches of Ephesus as an introduction to Paul’s theology.  As Brown says, this is interesting but “totally a guess.”

There are some differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters.  For example, the common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23), and the letter never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.  More surprising is the fact that the verb “to justify” is not used, even though while it is common in Galatians and Romans and might have been useful in the argument of 2:11-22.

Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself?  If the letter contains the actual “voice of Paul” then the letter can be considered Pauline.  By way of analogy, in the study of the Gospels there is a great deal of discussion over the words of Jesus.  When I read the words of Jesus in my ESV Bible, can I know that these are the real words of the historical Jesus?  The answer which satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus’ words were originally spoken in Aramaic, translated to Greek and then to English for me to read!

In the same way, even if Ephesians was not written by Paul, the true “voice of Paul” can be found in the letter.  As it happens I think Paul did write Ephesians, albeit much later in his life during his Roman house arrest.  The letter was intended to go to all the house churches in Ephesus and there is no burning problem which Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians).  This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.

Considering Ephesians to be an authentic Pauline letter may change the way we envision Paul’s  theology.  While Romans and Galatians are concerning with justification and the struggle to define the Church as something different than Judaism, Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in “one body.”  Unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme in the letter.  Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”

How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?

There is an obvious need for a clear understanding of slavery as we approach the book of Philemon.   In this  post I want to summarize a few points from John Byron on slavery.   The article is dealing with Paul’s metaphor of a slave, but some of the information provides an excellent entry point into the difficulties of dealing with slavery in the first century.

John Byron surveys recent attempts to deal with Paul’s slavery metaphors in New Testament studies.  The bulk of the article deals with a shift from the work of Bartchy in 1973 which made extensive use of Greco-Roman and Jewish legal texts to more recent sociological studies by Patterson and others.  Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.”  Bartchy’s views have been far more influential on New Testament commentaries than Patterson’s studies, perhaps skewing the point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery.   Byron’s article is a challenge to the commonly taught idea of selling one’s self into slavery to pay debts and the possibility of a better life as a slave.

This debate highlights the problem of sources.  Bartchy, for example, uses legal texts to show that there was a softening of attitudes toward slaves in the first century which made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property.  There are a number of problems with using legal, as Byron points out in his conclusion.  The main source for Roman Law is dated to A.D. 533, well after the first century.  In addition, there is a great difference between a law and actual social attitudes.  Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them. Even in America, we know that simply having a law does not guarantee everyone obeys the law, nor does the law tell us anything about society’s attitude toward the law.  Traffic laws would be a good example here.  Someone studying American law could say the maximum speed on the highway is no more than 70 M.P.H., but we know this is not the case at all.  In some cases, authorities may choose not to enforce a strict speed limit.  The same may have been true for slavery, therefore Roman law becomes less secure for reconstructing actual practice towards slaves in the first century.  Consistency in application of laws is not a forgone conclusion in the case of slavery in the world of the first century.

There are other literary sources for slavery dating to the first century which may provide some data.  Philosophers are often cited as indicating a shift in society’s attitude toward slavery.  As Byron notes, there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment.  In fact, one might argue there are very few times in history where the writings of a philosopher accurately reflected the views of society as a whole!  It is possible to miss the point of a philosopher by not taking a saying in context of their system of thought.  For example, the oft-cited view of Seneca that masters ought to not mistreat their slaves is not an example of a softening of attitudes toward slaves but rather an example of the Stoic ethic of self-control.

References to slaves appear in the satirists and in novels.  These references are also problematic since they do not really say anything about the status of a slave in the society.  To take sayings of Marital, for example, as indicative of the general thinking of the populace is akin to taking Jerry Sienfeld as an example of how all Americans think.  Novels which portray slaves as virtuous, socially mobile, etc. are poor evidence since the slave character is usually a prince who has wrongfully been enslaved and overcomes this setback and is restored to his proper status in the end.  The novelist and satirist do not intend to give a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on them in our research.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery described by Byron.  These studies seem to turn the accepted view of slavery one normally encounters in a commentary on Philemon around in a completely opposite direction. The law codes are a “legal fiction” and slavery was far from a pleasant experience.  If one was forced into slavery it was as if one has died.  This was no mere economic decision (selling yourself into seven years of slavery to pay off a debt, for example.)  The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own. This “dying to self” and giving up personal ownership to a master is an appealing element when looking at Paul’s use of the metaphor, but it may be more influenced by American / western values of individuality and freedom rather than that of the Greco-Roman world.  Was “freedom” more important than slavery?  Perhaps not, sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.

How does this “background” effect the way we look at Philemon and his slave, Onesimus?

Bibliography:  John Byron, “Paul And The Background Of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis In New Testament Scholarship,” CBR 3.1 (2004) 116-139.

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