Interview on ‘First Paul’ with Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan

oday and tomorrow, we have a treat for you! We’re publishing a special Conversation With Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, among the most influential Bible scholars of our age. If you watch PBS, National Geographic or History channels, you’re likely to see these guys show up in documentaries about the Bible, Jesus and the ancient Middle East.

Whatever your faith may be, this two-day conversation is likely to interest you because we are exploring their newest book on one of the thorniest — and potentially most inspiring — figures in the history of Christianity: Paul.
That’s Paul of Tarsus or St. Paul, the author of much of the New Testament. Paul arguably was the first world-class Christian evangelist in an era when Jesus’ follower were fanning out around the world — Peter heading west and Thomas heading east to India.
Now, we do know that some of our readers are skeptical of Borg and Crossan. Both men are controversial in evangelical circles because they publicly support women’s leadership at all levels in religious groups (Marcus’ wife is a priest in the Episcopal church). They also welcome inclusion of all people within the church, including gay and lesbian men and women. This has led some evangelicals to reject their work out of hand.

BUT — and this is a very important “but” —

A growing number of new evangelical leaders, like Rob Bell, value the major themes in their biblical research. That’s because their central theme — based on their life-long research into biblical texts and long periods working on the ground in the Middle East — is that the Bible’s message is full of great hope for our dangerous world today.
Even in this troubled era of rising nuclear powers and empires rattling sabers, Borg and Crossan teach that Jesus’ message — and Paul’s message — was a soul-stirring call to transform the violent power of empire into new forms of compassionate community.
Whatever you may think of specific arguments within their long careers — we all can agree on that core message of rediscovering peace and hope and community in the midst of a violent world.
Borg and Crossan say this was Paul’s first and foremost mission as he preached the good news of Jesus. That’s why their new book is called, “The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.” (A NOTE about images today: That’s Borg and Crossan above on one of their journeys. The rest of the images today are of Paul — including an intriguing photo-like reconstruction of his face by a European team.)


     DAVID: You two are most famous for writing about Jesus, so this book may surprise some readers. Of course, you’re both New Testament scholars and you’ve both written about Paul over the years. In 2004, Dom wrote, “In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.” But most people know you as “Jesus scholars” and you have written mostly about the gospels in the past. Your books for Easter and Christmas are widely used in churches across the U.S.
So, let’s start with this: Why Paul now?
DOM: I really wasn’t planning to do a book on Paul. It was from about the year 2000 on that we were running Borg-Crossan pilgrimages every year, taking us to the region where Paul lived and worked. I began to read Paul within the situation of Roman ruins. As we traveled, Marcus and I talked every night about the Roman world in which Paul preached and wrote and traveled.

For the past 500 years or so, Paul has been almost a prisoner of Reformation debates. But traveling in his world, year after year, and looking at these Roman ruins, we began to think more about Paul’s own world. We began to pull him out of the Reformation debates about his theology and to put him back into the 1st-century world in which he lived and worked. That’s what changed everything for us.
If anyone is interested at all in Christianity and the New Testament – you want to know about Paul. Half of the New Testament is all about Paul.
MARCUS: Dom’s right. For me, too, spending so much time in the concrete circumstances of Paul’s activity – meaning the urban setting, seeing the shape of the ancient cities, thinking about the size of Paul’s communities meeting in these small churches. This was a process of deep contextualization that Dom and I strive for and it really has led me over the last 10 years or so to see Paul much more clearly.

DAVID: One of the points you make in your new book is that Catholics and Protestants see Paul in quite different contexts. I’m talking here about common, everyday assumptions in the lives of Catholics and Protestants about the importance of Paul.
I found that fascinating. Most people, I suspect, might think that Catholics place the most emphasis on St. Paul — but you argue that Protestants actually place a heavier emphasis on Paul as a spiritual teacher.

DOM: As a Catholic, I grew up thinking of Paul as part of a feast day — the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Catholics weren’t thinking about all of these Protestant debates that centered on Paul’s teachings. We thought of him as an important saint and thought of him with Peter. Together — Peter and Paul.
MARCUS: What Dom says about the role of Paul in Catholicism I think is very much on target. In this way, Paul was not as important for Roman Catholicism as he was for the Reformation and for Protestants. In Catholicism, he was primarily seen as a very important martyr and saint and his letters were read.
But this is quite different than the Paul I heard about as I grew up in the Norwegian Lutheran church. We were taught that Paul was the central lens through which to see the gospels.
How can I describe this emphasis? Well, from my perspective growing up, Paul was more important than Jesus in my upbringing. None of my pastors or Sunday school teachers ever would have expressed it like that. In fact, if they had read these words, they would have been shocked that I would describe it like this. But it was true: We saw the gospels through the lens of this idea taken from Paul of justification by faith in grace. Paul provided our theological framework.
DAVID: And you argue that it was this heavy emphasis — really this over-emphasis on Reformation debates about Paul’s theology — that wound up obscuring some of the plain-as-day messages Paul was preaching about the nature of the Christian life.
It’s as though the debates over the finer points of terms like “justification” and “grace” and that whole area of Paul’s teaching began to overshadow the in-your-face, challenging messages he was preaching about the nature of community life in an imperial world.
MARCUS: There’s a whole history of Pauline analysis that we don’t engage in within the scope of this 200-page this book. A lot of other books about Paul do go step-by-step through all of this scholarly in-fighting about aspects of Paul’s theology. You’ll find thick books about Paul that have long passages rehearsing these historic debates. You know: This scholar says this about this aspect of “justification,” this other scholar says that — and I say this.
There are so many books out there that focus on these issues, we wanted to write a book that is quite different about Paul.

DAVID: One of the key differences in your book, I would say, is that many progressive scholars wind up trying to downplay Paul.
Or, to put it in blunt terms: Paul gets a lot of bad press these days. I think it’s refreshing that your book actually is an attempt to revive what you describe as the original Paul, the really vibrant Paul, the “first” Paul — to recapture the spiritually potent preacher before later preachers, teachers and writers got their hands on his legacy.
MARCUS: Think about this — We teach and we speak a lot, so we’ve talked with many Christians over the years. And, I don’t know a single Christian who would say anything like: “You know, I don’t care too much for Jesus.”
That just doesn’t happen.
But I do know a lot of Christians who will tell you: “I have some issues with Paul.”
So, we’ve written this book in a way that reading groups can use it over a series of weeks. I think that about 9 weeks would work best for this. There are seven chapters and you want an initial week to do some group building — plus a week at the end to talk about it all. So that makes 9 weeks.
In that first week, one activity you could do is: Ask people to jot down some positive and some negative impressions of Paul. You’ll find that most people will be able to do this on the first week, even though they haven’t read the book yet. A lot of people bring strong value judgments to the way they think about Paul.
Then, after they’ve read the book and talked about it in the group over these weeks together — ask them in the concluding session to look back at that list from the first week and see if impressions of Paul have changed. I think they will change.
DOM: If you take the time to read this book on your own, or if you take the time to talk about it in a group, then this is going to change your whole thinking about Paul.
This is different than studying the life of Jesus. For one thing, people everywhere like Jesus. People like Jesus even if they’re not a part of Christianity. But a lot of people are aware that Paul has a very bad press.
We don’t agree with everything Paul wrote. We have no problem saying we think he’s wrong about some things. But we like Paul. We want him reclaimed. We want to be part of an effort to bring back a better understanding of this original Paul. We’re convinced that Paul is especially important for the church today, which is struggling once again with empire.
We have profound admiration for Paul. He took Jesus’ message out into the world.

DAVID: OK, so we understand that you both think: Hey, Paul’s an all-right guy! He’s got a bum rap among some folks today. But, listen up! Paul’s got a sock-o message for people that just might help us out in this tough world in which we’re living.
Perhaps that’s over-the-top language. But, basically, that’s what you’re saying.
So, tell us more about this man — as a person. He was a fairly well educated Jewish man from Tarsus, which is in today’s Turkey. But remember: Polls show that a majority of American’s can’t even name all four gospels — if put on the spot to name all four. So, I’m guessing most of our readers don’t know a lot about Paul.
Tell us a little bit about this guy who you say was one of the most important religious figures in world history.
MARCUS: We only have one physical description of Paul from early Christianity and it comes from a book called the Acts of Paul and Thecla that is not a part of the New Testament — but scholars study it to learn more about the period.
In it, Paul is described as being not very tall, only about 4-foot-6, with a hooked nose, with eyebrows that meet in the middle and it says he’s bandy-legged. One intriguing thing about his description is that it says he sometimes had the face of a man — and sometimes the face of an angel.
What intrigues me about that description is that there must have been something charismatic about Paul – and by that I mean, there was an almost contagious charisma about this man. People were struck by his presence, not that he was a Charleton Heston kind of a big, striking-looking guy. But like the followers of St. Francis also talked about there being a presence about Francis — with Paul, there must have been some way that people could palpably feel the presence of the Spirit when they were around him. There had to be something like that about Paul to make people curious about talking with him. There was something in his presence that led people to take him seriously when they entered into conversation with him.
As we say in the book, we think Paul did not typically preach on street corners or rent a hall and try to get people to show up. We think his basic approach was much more conversational. Why would people even give him the time of day unless there was something about his presence that made them curious and wiling to listen?

DAVID: Of course, one of the big mysteries about Paul is this “thorn of the flesh” that he writes about. You’ve got an interesting interpretation of that lifelong affliction that plays a role in Paul’s adventures.
You say that he had malaria.
DOM: That interpretation is not original to us. It goes back to William Ramsay, the Scottish archaeologist who taught at Oxford more than 100 years ago.
I’m prejudiced toward Ramsay, because he was a scholar who believed he should get out of his library and actually travel — even 100 years ago when that was much more difficult. He traveled all over Tarsus in southern Turkey where Paul came from and Ramsay realized that the rivers still come down from the Taurus Mountains as they did in Paul’s time, except that in Paul’s day the area would not have been de-swamped. In the first century, there were swamps, areas of standing water, mosquitoes — malaria.
Some have said that this “thorn” was a kind of sin Paul carried. I don’t think so. I think it was a physical condition he faced and he links this condition to ecstatic experiences. I put them together and I think of it as some kind of ailment that produces a condition that makes it possible for him to slide into a kind of delirium and other ecstatic experiences. I agree with Ramsay. I think it was malaria.
DAVID: The other really interesting argument you make here about the basic details of Paul’s life is that he may not have been a Roman citizen, after all. I can’t add up how many talks or sermons I’ve heard over the years about Paul that mention he started out as a privileged Roman citizen and he carried this status with him even after he had this transformative experience with Christ and became a Christian missionary. This is a key issue in the book of Acts, a work by Luke, especially in chapters 22 and 23.
MARCUS: We’re not saying we’re certain about this. But this detail of Paul being a Roman citizen comes from Luke. Dom thinks that Luke deliberately upgraded Paul’s status and said he was a Roman citizen, when he probably wasn’t.
Or, Paul might actually have been a Roman citizen but simply refused to invoke that privilege. I think that’s a stronger position. In Paul’s letters, he doesn’t write about being a Roman citizen.

DAVID: In the book, you write: “Paul himself never makes a single reference to that status and admits, in fact, that ‘three times I was beaten with rods’ (2 Cor. 11:25) — a Roman punishment forbidden to be used on Roman citizens. Indeed, Luke himself seems to have forgotten that when he has Paul and Silas ‘beaten with rods’ (Acts 16:22). All in all, therefore, Paul was either not a Roman citizen or, if he were, he never used that privilege for his own advantage.”
MARCUS: That’s the point. Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus made himself nothing, humbled himself, emptied himself — however you want to translate that. Or in another passage from Paul: Jesus became poor for our sake. That’s “became poor” or “emptied himself” metaphorically, of course, but it’s an important insight into Christ as Paul tried to imitate him.
It’s very easy to see why, if he was a Roman citizen, he would not have claimed that privilege in his own writings.
Roman citizens were rare. Probably only 1 or 2 percent of people living in the empire had that status. People today may assume that most people were citizens — like most people living in the U.S. today are American citizens. But it wasn’t the case in the Roman Empire.
DOM: The problem is getting a clean, fresh, original view of Paul is that Luke gave us his own dramatic version of Paul in Acts. Luke wants to argue that Paul and the early Christians are innocent and so it serves this purpose to say that Paul was a Roman citizen.
But Paul himself never invokes this in his letters. He is not interested in making distinctions like this that might set him apart from others. Something else was at stake here for Paul.

     DAVID: Well this leads us to the key point you make that Paul clearly saw himself as a part of the community. Obviously, he was not an ordinary guy. He was this major figure with experiences, abilities, world travels and talents far beyond other ordinary Christians in that era — but it was very important for Paul to talk about the way Christian community depends on working together.
In fact, you make a refreshing argument in your book that Paul’s letters are not actually as complicated as people make them seem today. It’s a common thing, at least in Protestant preaching, to have someone tell us that Paul’s letters were extremely complex and the theological distinctions he was making were very elaborate. I love learning about religion and spirituality and even my mind begins to go numb when people get into complex arguments about justification and grace.
You say — Paul’s letters are simpler than we think.
DOM: Right! Yes! Paul is not difficult — except if you put him into the Reformation debates and start asking questions and make distinctions about his teaching that Paul never imagined.
Paul was writing for ordinary people in the Roman Empire. The evidence is that he was successful. His letters were widely read. They’ve survived. If he was as difficult to read as some people think, then people never would have bothered copying his stuff, passing it around and preserving it.
MARCUS: Paul would have recognized a little bit of himself in the Reformation debates. Paul would have understand that the notion of grace — this idea of an amazing grace that is so important from the Reformation to today — comes out of his thought and writing.
But I think he would be amazed at all the attempts down through the years to tease out fine points in the meaning of words like justification and sanctification. Entire denominations broke off down through history over fine distinctions in those ideas.
Paul would have said: No, no, no. That’s not my point.
Think about a letter like Romans, which is so important in Paul’s work. This letter to the Romans had to be clear enough, as we point out in the book, that Phoebe — who is asked to deliver this letter to Rome — could explain it to the congregation there. Phoebe had to be able to say: Here’s this letter from Paul and he’s saying some very important things about what’s going on in our world today.
Listen! Here’s what Paul has to say!


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