The first word of Romans is “Paul.” It can be so easy to gloss over this name and think nothing of it. After all, we all know who Paul is, right?
This idea that Paul is someone that we “get”—someone that we know—is increasingly being challenged. In recent years, Paul has received a great deal of attention from folks like John Gager and the so-called “New Perspective,” as well as non-biblical scholars such as Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Zizek.
While we might like to turn to Jesus and call him the foundation of Christianity, Paul makes this difficult. Yes, the four gospels are quite foundational, but it was Paul’s interpretation of Jesus as presented in his various New Testament letters that came to define the emerging Judaic religion.
If he’s so important, let’s then think about who this Paul character is:
- A Jew
- Trained in Greek rhetorical practices
- A former persecutor of Christ followers
- A self-proclaimed Apostle
- Unifier of races (Jew and Gentile)
All of the items that we have mentioned are labels that we can put on him based only on what he wrote, and what others wrote about him. Is it possible to know Paul based on the items on this list? Hardly. It is difficult to say: “Paul was a great guy.” Or, “Paul had a quick wit.”
I admit, I often have difficulty reading Paul because I sometimes feel like he’s a cold voice in a far-off world. What could this first-century Jew have to say to me?
I have remarked before that I have professors who are fond of saying things like: “Paul is not writing to you.” My response has typically been: “No, Paul did not have me in mind when he wrote this…but God did.” The problem that I see with academic circles, and their study of Paul is that they refuse to recognize the importance of Paul’s thought for the modern individual. This is ironic to me. Why study something if it’s irrelevant? I don’t think most scholars would say: “The subject matter I study is irrelevant.” But, I fail to understand exactly what drives some of the studies I’ve seen—an immense amount of work with little or no passion.
Of course, some of the newer trends that I mentioned (e.g., Agamben and Zizek) try to take Paul seriously—thinking of what Paul has to teach us about ourselves. Unfortunately, this is not a stream of scholarship that I’m really in tune with—I’ve only dabbled.
For me, there is one item that needs to be added to the list above. This particular item, ultimately, is the closest I can come to knowing Paul:
- Christ Follower
Now, some will say that orthodoxy is invented and that my brand of Christianity is so far removed from Paul that his idea of “Christ Follower” must be fundamentally different from mine. Perhaps.
Ultimately, though, I know that Paul and I believed many of the same things. Some of the most important of these things are summed up in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Paul and I both believed in the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul and I both believe that we have been bought and that we are now slaves of Christ, slaves of righteousness. So on and so forth…
Do I have a perfect interpretation of Paul’s writings? Absolutely, not. There are things that I just don’t know. Do I understand a lot of Paul’s writings? Sure.