More than a few progressives are troubled by the letters of the Apostle Paul and for good reason. Paul’s letters seem to condone misogyny, slavery and other forms of oppression in countless ways. But, perhaps even more troubling, his letters also contain some pretty good theology and have played a part in making us progressive Christians who were are today whether that’s a positive or not is up to the individual. I say it’s troubling because it means we can’t just throw out everything he said as oppressive, misogynistic bullshit and, instead, have to dig in and find the good stuff.
Current scholarship maintains that Paul didn’t write everything that’s been attributed to him. There are 13 epistles that bear his name and most biblical scholars think he actually authored 7 of them: 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans. There’s a relatively even split on the authorship of Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, but not so for the pastoral epistles. About 80% of scholars believe they are pseudepigraphic written by someone else in Paul’s name. That’s very convenient for progressives because the pastoral epistles contain some of the most oppressive words and ideas credited to Paul, making it so much easier to write those letters off and ignore the fact that one of the superstars of Christianity was kind of an asshole.
Yes, I said it: Paul was an asshole. Even without the pastoral epistles, Paul said some pretty hard things. In the first chapter of Romans, he condemns “unnatural” sexual relations in a rather harsh manner. In 1 Corinthians 7, he’s not exactly a cheerleader for the institution of marriage; to me, he seems to view it as a necessary evil, at best. In the letter to Philemon, he affirms slavery. And, in 2 Corinthians and Galatians, he reacts to challenges to his authority with all the grace of a petulant 5-year-old. So, yeah, it looks like Paul was an asshole. But, does that mean he didn’t have anything good to say? Of course not.
Even when confronted with all that evidence, many of us don’t want to admit that one of our heroes was a massive jerk. That leads to things like discounting the pastoral epistles (or even the ones he actually wrote) and there are people who do both just because they say stuff we don’t like. That’s not good, but there may be something worse going here. In our attempts to make Paul palatable, to tame him, are we denying an essential part of his humanity by not letting him be the huge ass it seems he really was?
Paul may well have been an asshole, but the truth is, our current day problems with Paul lie less in what he actually said than with how what he said has been misunderstood, misapplied and misused by “Christians” and I use that term loosely over the centuries. All too many of us have been ostracized, marginalized or abused by people who claimed authority to do so based on something they believe Paul said. Every so often, you’ll see a meme about what Jesus must think of the way we’ve screwed up his message. I wonder the same thing about Paul; if that ugly little lump could see what has been done with the letters he wrote to address specific issues in specific places, how would he react? I have a feeling it wouldn’t be pretty.