the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Peterson's Paul: Romans 1:1-17

Remrandt paints himself as Paul. Just another mystery

Now on to Paul of Tarsus, the inventor of Christianity and its first and greatest spruiker. I don't personally see Paul as much of a philosopher; he was more of a rhetorician. He didn't so much argue as persuade, cajole, and occasionally thunder.

Years ago, as a young rebellious wannabe intellectual, I devoured Nietzsche's The Antichrist, and needless to say, I revelled in the lashing of Christianity... ''the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick brute-man.. the Christian". Of course Nietzsche, the wannabe pitiless Hyperborean, has the air of a naked emperor these days, but youthful influences die hard, and I'm only now trying to break the spell of his excoriating critique of Paul.

As I think I wrote earlier, Paul's letters to the Romans, the first in the order of works attributed to him in the new testament, have been collectively described as 'the premier document of Christian theology', and I have to say, after reading them in Eugene Peterson's suspect and probably softened version, I at least don't feel any great animus toward the man, but it's now time to subject his writings, which I hear are very much in vogue theologically, to a closer scrutiny.

At the very beginning of Romans, Paul, whose indefatigable travels we’ve already read about in ‘the Acts of the Apostles’, describes himself as ‘authorized as an apostle to proclaim God’s words and acts’. This is an important claim, considering how much Paul speaks for his god in the letters/sermons that follow. In other versions [I’m principally following The Message, probably a bad idea], he is ‘called’, but there’s no doubt that something official is intended. In Acts, eleven apostles are mentioned, and maybe Paul, who is certainly the central figure in that book, should be added to them, but the names of the apostles in Matthew, Mark and Luke are all slightly different. It seems likely that Paul was a latecomer who quickly became an organizing principal.

Jesus is mentioned in the very first verse, and his godliness is ‘established’ in 1:4, though we immediately run into a problem that has never been fully resolved. Jesus is claimed as a descendant of David, a Jewish chieftain raised, in the old testament, to a much higher status than he ever seems to have attained historically (in fact, as with Jesus himself, there is no extra-Biblical evidence of David’s existence). This descent was, of course, claimed for every Jewish messianic figure, and they were, unsurprisingly, a bit thicker on the ground during the oppressive Roman occupation. The difficulty for Paul was to promote this new religion abroad with Jesus as its centerpiece, while also holding on to as much of his Jewish constituency as possible. Thus we have a figure who, as the son of god, clearly can have no attachment to David, certainly not through the male line – but still the claim must be made. This is partly resolved – but really only obscured – by the idea of the duality of Jesus, god and man. As Peterson’s Paul writes: ‘His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master’. The trouble is, the fleshly side of Jesus is, understandably, far more associated with Mary, whose physical relationship with the child of god can’t be spirited away, and no amount of fake genealogizing will convince anyone of Mary’s high-born ancestry – and presumably the patrilineal connection is all that matters anyway.

Let’s leave aside this conundrum though – there will be plenty of them – and return to Paul’s high-spirited message, ‘this extraordinary message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.

The exuberant tone shouldn’t be allowed to mask the content here. It’s the kind of content that Nietzsche railed against – enslavement to the Master, worship, toeing the line for the reward of immortality in some other place, hatred of reality [from which we need to be rescued] and so forth. To be fair, though, real life for the Jews in Palestine in Paul’s time wasn’t much chop, and just about the only thing to get enthusiastic about was a future world of rewards and privilege, proof against the humiliations of the present. Such hopes were particularly pertinent to the Jews, so naturally Paul was keen to woo them before other peoples, though this had the tricky effect of placing the Jews in what seems to have been a privileged position. But much more will be said about this later – remembering, of course, the complicated role of the Jews in the crucifixion, as told by the gospellers.

What Paul is celebrating in these early verses is a community of faith, the ‘rescued’ who are ‘in right standing before God’. What this means precisely is unclear, but the KJV puts it this way: ‘the just shall live by faith’. As is common throughout both testaments, being just or virtuous is simply associated with belief in a particular deity, though this is often contradicted by other biblical passages. And the question of whether ‘righteousness’ is a matter of faith or works is no small one. The Catholic cult tortured and burned a great many ‘heretics’ who opposed the orthodox view on these matters. In this passage, Paul is very much on the side of faith rather than works, but we’ll see if he manages to remain consistent on the matter.


Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...
have a look at this + the other speakers.

12:34 AM  

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