Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Morna Hooker: Introducing Paul, part 1

Morna Hooker is a Paul scholar (that's Paul wot wrote bits of the Bible, just in case you weren't clear). She is a legend. I have read at least one book by her, but this series of posts is going to be based on a series of her lectures that I attended.

Some of the big questions in Pauline scholarship go like this: Did Paul distort the original message of Jesus, or was he actually the best theologian, like, ever? How typical is Paul of Christian theology at the time: how much of what he writes are his how ideas, and how much does he just say what everybody else was already thinking? Is he more Jewish or more Greek in the way he thinks? How exactly does he reconcile the Old and New Covenants?

We have two main sources for information about Paul’s life: Paul’s letters, and Acts, written by Luke, who clearly thought Paul was the man (as in 'you da man' rather than 'stick it to The Man.' Much Paul scholarship revolves essentially around the question of whether Paul is da man or The Man). Acts is mostly about Paul, but there are problems because Luke doesn’t really tell us much about his theology: where he speaks, he doesn’t sound very much like the theologian who wrote the Pauline letters, and Luke’s clearly concerned with trying to show that Christianity really isn’t that politically dangerous, honest: Paul, da man, is no threat to Caesar/Rome, The Man. It’s difficult to tell, as a result, how reliable Acts is, not least because Luke and Paul sometimes recount the same incidents but in contradictory ways (compare Galations 2 with Acts 15).

What can we be sure about?
Well, Paul probably did used to be called Saul, although Paul is the Roman version of Saul so he might just have used that when hanging out with Romans, rather than as a result of a dramatic name-change post-road-to-Damascus. It’s plausible that he was born in Tarsus, as he’s clearly familiar with Greek rhetoric, which he could have picked up there, and he may well have got his familiarity with Jewish exegesis from being trained in Jerusalem.

Which letters did Paul actually write?
This is a hot topic in the world of biblical studies. In the 19th century, F C Baur argued that Paul only wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, because they were the only four letters that mentioned justification by faith, which Baur believed was Paul’s great theme. He was stupid (though how much more stupid than any other person who tries to work out who wrote which letter is up for debate). In the 1960s, a guy called A Q Morton fed all of the letters into a computer and looked at sentence length and how often ‘kai’ (Greek for ‘and’) was used, and concluded that Paul’s letters were written by five different people. He was also a moron (starting to get a hang of the tentative foundations of this way of reading Paul?).

'More sensible' people start by saying that Galatians, Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Philippians were written by Paul. Philemon’s a bit short to analyse the style, so it’s hard to be sure whether it was Paul, but then why would anyone else write it and pretend to be Paul? 1 Thessalonians is generally thought to be genuine Paul, 2 Thessalonians and Colossians maybe Pauline. Ephesians is considered more suspicious, as are the Timothys and Titus.

Does it even matter who wrote the letters?
It does if you’re trying to work out what Paul thought rather than about theology more generally (If you don't care that's totally fine, and you can join my club of people-who-think-it's-a-bit-silly-because-we'll-never-really-know). When we thought that Paul wrote Hebrews (which no one really does any more), it distorted our view of his theology as a whole. Ephesians, the Timothys and Titus were probably written by the next generation of Christians continuing Paul’s legacy – at the time it was considered fine to write under someone else’s name if you thought you were continuing their school of thought.

Paul wasn’t setting out to write Scripture, he was responding to specific questions arising from early Christian communities, and so when reading him, it’s important to think about what issues he’s responding to, rather than just assuming he speaks directly to our specific circumstances. There’s a long history of theologians misreading Paul because they failed to understand this – Luther being a classic example (ooh, controversy), thinking that Paul was mostly concerned with individual salvation and that he didn’t like the Jews. D’oh.

2 comments:

Gabriel said...

Keep it coming Marika, this is gold.

We tried to continue the Pauline tradition with 'Paul's letter to CLC' in our cell group and it ended in a massive fight.

Liz said...

I am really enjoying reading your blog Marika. Interesting and informative...edutainment.