Welcome back for Part 2 of our two-part Conversation with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, among the most influential Bible scholars of
our age. In answer to some of our readers’ emails — yes, these are the men you’ve seen in documentaries on PBS and other cable channels talking about the Bible, Jesus and the ancient Middle East.
They’re back with a terrific new book about Paul — one of the most important figures in world history, certainly in the history of world religions. (CLICK HERE for Part 1.)
Yesterday, John “Dom” Crossan sent us an encouraging note about this Conversation — especially about the various images of Paul we included with Part 1 yesterday. He added two photos for today’s Part 2. He sent us pictures of two marvelous bronze pieces from the 4th Century.
The one above (and we’ll show you the full length of this piece below) depicts, in Dom’s words: “Peter as Steersman and Paul as Pilot, which I allude to in Chapter 1 of the book. It’s a gentle suggestion to the Pope for this Year of Paul.”
HERE ARE OTHER NOTES ON SOME OF TODAY’S IMAGES:
FIRST, a reader asked that we show Crossan and Borg more clearly. So, that’s Marcus at left and Dom at right. Then, Dom also sent us the image of Paul in bronze (below) standing poised with one hand open and the other holding a scroll. It’s his “favorite” of Paul, he says, and is also a 4th-century bronze, only about 4 inches tall.
REMEMBER: Their new book is, “The First Paul.” Order it via the Amazon link below.
And, we’ve also got images today that include Rembrandt’s impression of Paul in prison. Plus, there’s a photo of a Roman gate that remains in Tarsus, among the ancient stoneworks through which Marcus and Dom have spent so much time exploring Paul’s life.
HERE IS PART 2 OF OUR CONVERSATION:
WHAT PAUL, THE “CHRIST MYSTIC,”
HAD TO SAY ABOUT A BRAVE NEW WORLD
DAVID: You write in your new book that “immediately” you must “emphasize the most foundational fact about Paul: He was a Jewish Christ mystic.” And that’s not a typo. You say “Christ mystic.” Most people today use the word “mystic” almost casually to describe someone who’s deeply spiritual. On the contrary, you write: “A mystic is one who lives in communion or union with God. … On this crucial foundational fact, Acts and Paul agree.”
Let’s talk about that. You’re saying that Paul’s letters aren’t just the New Testament’s “guidebook” to best practices in Christianity. These are passionate letters written from a man who felt he was experiencing God through a risen Jesus Christ — and he felt an urgent need to tell people about what that realization means for the world, right?
DOM: Yes, we are saying that Paul is a mystic. We are not alone in saying that. A lot of people have said that, although some may have forgotten it in focusing so much on the arguments about Paul’s teachings.
And, here is what we mean by that: A mystic is someone who is in union with God. Then, Paul also is saying that every Christian is called to be a mystic — that is, to find union in God.
DAVID: But Paul doesn’t expect everyone to do it exactly like he did, right?
DOM: Exactly. Paul says that not everyone will experience this in the same way. He is saying that some people are called to be ecstatics. But Paul spends three whole chapters on this subject, insisting that there are many different gifts in a community. Every gift is for building up the community — and ecstasy is just one of those gifts. Only some Christians are called to be ecstatics, he says — but Paul insists that every Christian must be a mystic.
DAVID: For people who aren’t as familiar with Paul’s story, let’s explain here a little bit about the defining story in Paul’s life. He was a well-educated Jewish man and he was opposed to this movement within Judaism to follow Jesus — in other words, he opposed what would become the early Christian church. Then, he had this startling experience on the road to Damascus in which he experienced a risen Jesus. You show this scene on the cover of your new book. He was blinded and his life changed forever. That’s how the story is told.
DOM: Yes that’s correct. People talk about the “road to Damascus experience,” of course, the account coming from Luke. Luke says Paul saw a blinding light and he heard a voice and that’s a typical ecstatic kind of experience and Luke is describing it that way because he’s trying to model what Christians go through in baptism — but I don’t think that would have been quite enough to have Paul say to Peter: “I am your equal. You have seen the lord in person and after the resurrection. So have I. I have seen the Lord.”
MARCUS: Let me come at this question in a little different way. For me, the phrase “religious experience” is a broader category than “mystical experience.” The bigger category includes everything from feelings of inspiration, let’s say. There are glimmerings and warmings of the heart. That’s what John Wesley in the Methodist tradition said he had after a meeting in which he heard a reading related to Paul. Wesley had heard a reading from Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans being read one night. So there’s that kind of experience.
At the other end of the spectrum is this extraordinarily intense kind of experience that can involve visions — that’s not the only form it can take, but visions can be part of these really intense mystical experiences. We think that’s the kind of ecstatic experience Paul had. And, we think Paul had more than one of those.
It’s described as experiencing a great light — and many mystics have talked about experiencing light.
We think Paul had visionary mystical experiences in which he saw the figure of Jesus and, of course, such experiences are reported elsewhere in the New Testament involving other people, too. And this has been something people have experienced throughout Christian history. St. Francis had a famous vision of the crucified Christ and so forth.
DAVID: The reason this is so important in understanding Paul, you write, is that it transformed Paul’s whole understanding of the world, of the nature of imperial system and the nature of the kind of community God wanted here in this world.
You’ve got a significant section of your book in which you write about Paul and the issue of slavery. You argue that Paul was very clear in saying that Christians shouldn’t own Christian slaves. Christians must be free. And you point out that Paul wanted everybody to become a Christian. You say Paul actually was a strong opponent of slavery.
There are very troubling passages about slavery in other letters in the Bible that are attributed to Paul. These other letters seem to indicate that Paul thought slavery was just fine — and he ordered slaves to obey their masters.
You argue in the book that those letters actually weren’t written by Paul himself. They were written by people later in the life of the early church — probably written by people who thought they were doing a good and faithful thing. But they were a whole lot more invested in the status quo than Paul and they didn’t want to end slavery.
I find that section of your book really fascinating, because essentially the same thing happened to John Wesley. It took Wesley decades of thinking about slavery before he finally decided it was wrong. But, when he did reach that conclusion, he was completely and enthusiastically opposed to it.
He urged his American followers to get rid of their slaves — and, instead, they formed a committee to study it. And slavery didn’t end until the Civil War.
DOM: Yes. Paul was not the only one. Philo was his contemporary — a Jewish philosopher who said quite clearly that all slavery is unnatural. Philo says it’s a matter of greed.
And, there were other people at the time of Philo and Paul, including other Jews, who saw that there was something wrong with slavery.
Paul’s vision, at first, appears narrower and more focused than what we think today. He says that a Christian cannot have a Christian slave. Today, we could say: Oh, that’s too narrow, Paul!
Well Paul would say: Yes, and I also think everyone should be Christian. And Christians can’t have slaves. So I’m in the same place you are.
The sad thing is that Colossians and Ephesians have not the slightest problem with Christians having Christian slaves. So these books really are a de-radicalization of Paul.
Why doesn’t Paul do more against slavery? In one sense, he’s not interested enough in that particular issue. He is writing to Romans that “our generation will be the last” and it’ll all be over soon. So, in that sense, he’s much more urgently interested in how Christians should live in this final period.
DAVID: And, when it turned out that the world didn’t end so quickly, a lot of the staunch Christians in that era — like a lot of staunch American Methodists in Wesley’s era — began to have second thoughts about freeing slaves.
DOM: You can understand people thinking like that. Even though Paul is talking about Christians not having Christian slaves, well we know that none of this is going to stay within the church, right? This idea is too radical. It’s going to cause people real problems. As soon as Christians start freeing Christian slaves — this news is going to spread among the slaves. They’ll tell others that, if you convert to Christianity, you’re going to become free. People got scared about this idea.
What’s unfortunate is that is that the later letters that people attributed to Paul included this warning that slaves should obey their masters. That stuff got into the Bible and became an official teaching of the church.
MARCUS: That’s exactly right. That’s how this trajectory moved from Paul, through the more conservative letters that people wrote and attributed to Paul later. We eventually get to the point where the movement gets so close to the prevailing culture that it accommodates that culture, including slavery. This is a process that seems to happen in every time and place down through history.
It’s fascinating to see this process happening in the very early years, even before the New Testament finally was formed. We can see it happening right there in the pages of the New Testament.
This shouldn’t surprise us, really. Think about the last 200 years of our own American history. When the conventions of our American culture accepted slavery — most Christians endorsed slavery. When the conventions of our culture accepted segregation — most Christians accepted segregation. And, when patriarchy was the dominant culture in America, Christians didn’t have a problem with patriarchy.
This process of cultural accommodation seems to be a perennial temptation of the church. It happened by the end of the first century. You can see it in the pages of the New Testament.
DAVID: This isn’t an abstract point you’re making about history. It’s a crucial example in understanding the really radical nature of the original Paul — the pure, unvarnished Paul who wrote letters like Romans, first and second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and first Thessalonians.
One of the moments in reading your book that made me slap my forehead — you know, a moment of saying, “I should have seen this! It was right there all the time!” — is your focus on Paul’s words about “Christ crucified.”
For readers who aren’t familiar with Paul — that’s what Paul is well known for saying: His faith rests in “Christ crucified.”
Tell us why those words are so important.
MARCUS: Yes, “Christ crucified.” Very deliberate choice of words. Paul didn’t say Christ was “killed” and he didn’t say “died.” He said “crucified.”
You have to hear this with early Christian ears.
If we take the original Paul out of this Reformation context of theological arguments and we put him back into the first century, we begin to realize that he was living in this powerful imperial world. The meaning of his language suddenly becomes so clear. It’s such radical language.
By saying “Christ crucified” — he was talking about the Romans killing Christ. He was talking about this conflict with empire. He was confronting the system of domination of his time and place. He was standing against what might be called the “normalcy” of civilization.
DOM: In one sense, Romans is the key. If we shift our understanding of what Paul really was talking about back to the first century context, then we begin to see that he was talking about distributive justice — that God is a God who wants everyone to get a fair share of the world. If we begin to see this in his writing, then Romans opens up as a new world for us.
MARCUS: What Paul is saying must have been quite radical to first-century ears. He summarizes his gospel as “Christ crucified” — not that Jesus died for us. And the same thing with Paul’s phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” He is deliberately using words that the imperial system would have understood.
DAVID: I think that section of your book is one of the most stirring and provocative — and, of course, followers of your earlier books will recognize right away what you’re talking about here. You’ve pointed out for years that the early church used words to describe Jesus — and their new faith — that were identical to the way Romans described the adoration of the emperors. This was a whole different vision of how the world should be structured.
MARCUS: Yes, Paul was a radical challenge to empire.
In that world, a cross was always a Roman cross and “Christ crucified” had that immediate meaning. Paul was saying: The empire killed our central figure — but God has vindicated him.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but the closest contemporary analogy we make is the figure of Oscar Romero. He was killed in effect by powerful forces close to his government. In killing him, this became an assassination by powers allied with the government of a major figure close to the peasant class. That’s the kind of impact Christ’s killing would have represented for Christians in the first century.
DAVID: At one point in your book, you try to convey the radical urgency of what Paul was saying to these first-century ears. You put it this way: “It’s about the world, dummy. It’s about the world.”
Toward the end of your book, you write: “Although conversion is a personal process, Paul did not simply convert individuals. Paul created communities. He converted people to a new life in community, to life together ‘in Christ.’ The phrase is shorthand for a way of life in community radically different from that in the normal societies of this world.”
MARCUS: Some people will read that and will say: Oh, you’re making it seem that this was only political!
And we say to that: No! No! No! For Paul, it’s always both spiritual and political.
The gospel of Jesus — the gospel Paul preached and wrote about — is about the transformation of the world. It’s about the transformation of ourselves and the transformation of the world along with it. That kind of double transformation is right at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the cross.
DOM: On the cover of our book, you see Jesus talking to Paul in whatever this vision was that Paul had on the road to Damascus. Jesus is saying him: “Why do you persecute me? I am Jesus.”
That’s the whole theology of Paul. Paul isn’t persecuting Christians. He’s been persecuting Christ. All followers of Jesus are in Christ and that’s all packed into Paul’s inaugural vision. He gets his central theology from that vision itself.
Paul’s real message is lost if you focus only on all these individual topics, all these individual arguments from his work. His far larger, far more important vision was transforming the world through building new kinds of communities.
Paul wanted to take back the world for God. And he wanted all of us to join him.
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