This blog has been on hiatus, mainly, but now I’m thinking that I should return from time to time. My classes this term are really enjoyable and I’m learning a lot, but I have an unusually heavy teaching load, and I fear that if I don’t take note of some of the things I’m thinking I’ll forget them. And a blog is a good way to give a responsible account of one’s thoughts. So I’ll be here occasionally with field reports.
A small group of Baylor University Scholars and I are reading the New Testament, in a slightly peculiar fashion. I’ve asked them to read each book not in the canonical order, but in the likely order of composition, and to imagine themselves as followers of the Way, this new faith centered on Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the whole world. But we don’t know whether we’re doing it right. The Way is quite recent, has spread by word of mouth, and no one account of its essentials meshes perfectly with the others. When someone brings to us a painstakingly-copied letter or narrative from what we believe to be an authoritative source, we pounce on it, we treasure it, we read it with forensic attention. And what do we learn?
We have all been struck by certain matters of tone.
We begin with some of the letters of Paul. He begins hopefully. Most scholars believe that the earliest of Paul’s letters is is his first to the Thessalonians, and while he’s happy to answer some of the Thessalonians’ questions about when Jesus will return, his main concern in this letter is to praise them for their faithfulness in following the Gospel that he taught to them. Maybe at that point in his career he thought that this whole “evangelist to the Gentiles” thing was going to be relatively simple.
But his very next letter, most scholars think, is that to the Galatians, and it radiates utter exasperation. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Here we discern a note of high anxiety creeping into Paul’s letters: he can visit and teach the members of a particular church, but once he has departed to teach elsewhere, he has no idea how faithful a given community will be to his instruction. He spends a lot of time reminding the Galatians of his God-given authority, of how he was converted not by human persuasion but by the direct intervention of Christ himself. (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”) Nevertheless, he notes, the other apostles, the ones who knew Jesus in the flesh, have heard from him and have accepted his apostolic authority. Why do “you foolish Galatians” fail to do so? The self-commendation here is relentless and, to some of us, rather off-putting.
In the next letter, the first to the Corinthians, Paul continues to fret: in this case, about divisions within the community. There are soaring heights of rhetoric in this letter, most famously the great paean to love in chapter 13, and soon afterwards the hopeful looking forward to the resurrection of the dead, but the overall tone is anxious. Paul sees this church beginning to pull apart and from the distance at which he writes to them there is nothing he can do about it. In order to convince them to heed his advice he once again beats the drum of his apostolic authority.
We are accustoming ourselves to this Paul, this stressed and determined man, confident in his own calling but increasingly doubtful that that calling will be recognized by his fellow followers of the Way. There are so many false teachers out there, so many ways to go astray. He is like a shepherd whose sheep are scattering over a vast field.
But then we come to the letter to the Philippians, and it is difficult to imagine a greater contrast to what we have been reading.
For at this point Paul is in prison, and clearly doesn’t think he has much of a chance of getting out again. But instead of leading him to despair, this miserable situation gives him a mysterious peace. He realizes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is infinitely greater than he is, and that even if he dies it will live and thrive. All of his anxiety passes away, and he can earnestly counsel the members of the assembly at Philippi to “be anxious for nothing”: if they but make their requests known unto God, then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep their hearts and minds in Jesus Christ their Lord. There is no self-defense here, no self-commendation, no stress — just the serenity of a man who has resigned himself to his own death, who suspects that his earthly story will soon be over, at which point he will enter the company of his loving Lord.
But Paul is not killed; instead, he is released. And when we come to the second letter to the Corinthians we see that the memory of the peace he gained in prison remains, but his old habits of worry return to gnaw at him. He begins again to defend himself, to assert his authority, but now admits that when he does so he is “speaking as a fool.” He seems to know that the profound gift of peace that he received in prison is slipping from his grasp, but he just can’t help himself. The instinct to self-defend is too strong, even though he knows the absurdity of it, when he thinks about the Corinthians ignoring him and giving their homage to those whom he derisively calls Super-Apostles, Hyper-Apostles (Ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων).
But whatever anyone dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman — I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
It’s that last line that really catches me: Paul has had all sorts of afflictions heaped upon him, but what weighs heaviest on him is this: I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. The peace that overwhelmed him in prison when he thought his race was run has evaporated. And maybe this is the strongest sense in which he has become a fool, ἄφρονα, without wisdom: he has forgotten that, great though his responsibility is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ can survive and even thrive without his interventions.