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The Radically New Perspective on Paul
on 19 December 2010
Forget about the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Here comes the Radically New Perspective on Paul. From the people who gave us the sound bite "Jesus was something of a party animal", no less. In other words: enter the Jesus Seminar!
Unfortunately, "The First Paul" is something of a disappointment. I expected it to be a historical-critical study of Paul. The first part of the book is. The second part, however, reads more like a theological treatise, expounding the particular religious viewpoints of the two authors, who turn out to deny substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection and justification by faith alone. No surprise there.
In the first part, the authors point out (correctly) that the historical figure Paul of Tarsus wasn't conservative, patriarchal, pro-slavery or pro-Roman. The message of the genuine Pauline epistles is surprisingly radical: Paul demands that Philemon sets his slave Onesimus free, he supports equality between men and women in both family, church and apostolate, and the whole notion of Jesus being "Lord" or "the Son of God" was subversive in an empire where the emperors were hailed as Lords, Sons of God, etc. Augustus was even called "Very God of Very God", "Redeemer", and so on! Later, this radicalism was muted in the deutero-Pauline epistles, and turned into its reactionary opposite in the Pastorals. In plain English: the church slowly but steadfastly adapted itself to the hierarchies of the empire which Paul had criticized. However, as they were doing it, phoney epistles were penned in Paul's name to justify the changes! The radical visionary was turned into a harmless, conservative icon.
The second part of the book, as already noted, contain Borg's and Crossan's private theological musings. They don't seem to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Well, neither do I. But Paul most certainly did! That the resurrection body wasn't simply a resuscitated corpse misses the point. Did Jews or Zoroastrians believe that physical resurrection simply meant that a dead body would start walking again? I think not. Borg and Crossan adopt the later Gnostic position: the resurrected Jesus was a spirit. Indeed, it's unclear whether they even believe that, or whether it's simply a metaphor for healthy, happy, holy living. Alan Watts is the man, yes? Their view of atonement probably isn't Pauline either. However, they obviously have a point when claiming that Paul's view of justification had nothing to do with Luther.
Since I expected all of "The First Paul" to be a study of the apostle himself, I wasn't completely satisfied with the book. It's not bad, if you are primarily interested in the Jesus Seminar and their particular brand of liberal theology. But as a study of the radical apostle to the Gentiles, it feels somewhat derailed.
And now, let's party...