The Problem With Paul
he Christian Church today in all its branches is really Paul’s church.
It should be called “Paulism” or “Paulanity,” so dominated is the church with this talented man's
beliefs and strictures. Jesus himself often gets short shrift in the majority of Bible studies, sermons, and theological discussions because Paul is the focus.
Is this because his theology is obscure and demands study? Is it because we are attracted to his powerful and truthful main theme: reconciliation of humans to God and to each other? Is it because of his powerful, lilting and often poetic prose, the apparent result of an encounter with the Risen Christ or the Holy Spirit? Yes, yes, and yes.
Yet Paul’s writings contain problems. For example, Paul’s classically understood formula for salvation -- vicarious substitutionary atonement -- is surely false. And a number of other beliefs he held are too antiquated to be taken seriously today.
Standard Christian (that is, Pauline) theology would lead a standard Western Christian (not an Orthodox or Wesleyan Methodist Christian) to evangelize a non-Christian in a manner something like this:
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Christian: “Hello, friend. I have good news for you. God loves you. He wants a good life for you, but there’s a problem. You have unfortunately inherited the sin of Adam and are condemned to go to Hell very soon now--when Jesus returns on a cloud for the Last Judgement. There is only one way out of this lamentable inevitability – to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, whose blood alone will atone for your basic sinfulness. He is the only way you will be able to gain salvation. Will you pray the Believer’s Prayer right now with me? Will you be saved? I beg you to do that now!”
Non-Christian: “I just don’t believe that. You’re telling me that I’m going to Hell having done nothing special to deserve it?”
Christian: “Well, yes. Scripture tells us that only a few people are going to heaven. I hope you are one of them.”
Non-Christian: “God created all these people only to torture most of them in Hell for eternity? Are you serious? And you say that he’s a loving God?”
Christian: “God wants everyone to have a chance to accept or reject the invitation. Please, you might die this very night! Accept this invitation now!”
Non-Christian: “You’re crazy.”
Christian: “You’re probably not among God’s elect. He has selected those who will be with Him in heaven from the foundation of the world.”
Non-Christian: “You’re a raving lunatic.”
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So there it is. It doesn’t sit well in the modern world, but that’s what Paul says. Let us examine the main highlights of Paul’s beliefs as traditionally interpreted.
Outdated and Misinterpreted
1. All humans are deeply sinful. “No one is righteous, no, not one,” writes Paul in Romans 3:10. In fact, Paul’s view is that humans are so deeply infected with the sin which they have inherited from Adam that they are helpless to do anything about correcting their moral deficiencies. There is no effort, no “work” one can do that might please God enough to escape harsh judgement (Romans 9:16; 11:5 Galatians 2:15-16), except one thing: One can decide to throw oneself at the feet of Jesus as one’s Savior and claim Jesus’ “work” on the cross and “assume” his righteousness as a free gift (Romans 10:9).
2. Once a person has “asked Jesus to come into [his] life” as “[his] personal Lord and Savior” one is totally changed, a new person; one’s innate sinfulness has been washed away with the result of becoming joyful and desirous of performing the good deeds in thankfulness that we were previously incapable of performing. The Holy Spirit enters a person’s life (Galatians 3:14), and that person becomes a Son of God (Galatians 3:26). For the first time, one is empowered to resist one’s own sinful nature. (Galatians 5:16, 24).
3. This act which brings salvation is called “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus atoned for the sin of humanity as a substitute when he died on the cross (Romans 3:24-25, 28). Hence, “Jesus died to save you,” or, "Jesus died for you," is a common teaching of Paul’s (Romans 5:6).
4. If you have done this it is evident that you are one of God’s “elect,” you have been predestined for salvation, and you will be redeemed when Christ returns (Romans 8:29-30).
5. Jesus will come soon to transform the world, allowing only his elect (his “saints”) to live with him in a new, wonderful, heaven on earth with Jesus himself at the head. (Romans 13:12; 1 Corinthians 7:31, 15:51-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) Dead saints will be resurrected to live with the “elect.”
6. Christianity supersedes Judaism and its Old Covenant of the Law as God’s way of offering all of humanity redemption from their sin (Romans 9:30-31). Jesus brings in a New Covenant of grace, the free gift of salvation through his blood. And in fact, the old Mosaic Law (the Law of Moses) is “a curse” (Galatians 3:10), because if we are told by the Law not to do something, we actually begin to want to do it, so perverse are we (Romans 7:7-8; 1 Corinthians 3:6).
7. God has hardened the hearts of the Jews so that the elect Gentiles will be offered salvation and will all “come in,” to the Kingdom of God, thus making the Jews “envious” so that their elect will come in later (Romans 11:25-26).
Two major points should be made about Paul’s theology. First, the above interpretation of Paul, mostly focusing on his letter to the Romans, is logically incompatible with the words of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and with the entire tenor of the Old Testament as well.
Second, there has been an enormous amount of scholarly work that has occurred in the past half-century that will show that the above points are not what Paul meant at all.
Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne, 1618-20
A Response to the Traditional Paul
Readers who are familiar with the Old Testament and the words of Jesus should be aware of how Paul contradicts the entire tenor of the Biblical record. Jesus, the Mosaic Law, and the Prophets admonish us to “do this; don’t do that,” to act right. Yet Paul says that our innate sinfulness prevents all of us from engaging in any good actions, so God’s command is impossible to obey. This was a new idea. This is one reason Christianity is different from Judaism or Islam, both of which call for righteous actions.
Let us criticize just three of Paul’s beliefs, as stated above. First, his claim that no one is righteous. Second, that God predestines us to heaven or hell. And third, that Jesus’ death on the cross atones for our sin.
1. “…No one is righteous, no, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
Paul is simply wrong. The Bible is full of descriptions of righteous people. Noah, Daniel, Abraham, David, Abner, Job, Joseph, the husband of Mary, John the Baptist, Simeon in the Temple, and Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are all mentioned specifically.
Jesus’s words also testify to the falsity of Paul’s assertion: Jesus said that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” as if there are notable numbers of both (Matt. 5:45).
“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” implying that righteous people are not scarce (Matt. 9:13).
In Matthew 13:17 Jesus claims that “many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see…”
And he predicted that “angels will separate the evil from the righteous.” (Matt. 13:49)
Although Paul selects eight Old Testament passages to prove his point, he misrepresents each one!
The first example he gives is taken from Psalm 14 and its near companion, Psalm 53. In Romans 3:10-12:
There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
There is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is not one who shows kindness, there is not even one.
But Paul does not mention the end of the psalm which reads “…God is with the company of the righteous….the Lord is their refuge.” (14:5) The psalm actually juxtaposes righteous people with unrighteous people and calls the unrighteous “fools” (“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt…” v.1). But the psalmist says, “If you want to be with God, he’s over there with the righteous.”
Paul similarly misrepresents the meaning of another psalm when, after citing the accusation, “…their throats are open graves,” he omits the conclusion, “For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.” (Psalms 5:9-12)
It turns out that all eight examples that Paul gives to prove that “no one is righteous” are similarly based on inaccurate interpretations of scripture. In each passage that Paul quotes we find that the writer has juxtaposed the righteous with the unrighteous and shows that God prefers the righteous! Paul would flunk out of any college or university today for the error of “selection bias.” He only selected the passages that showed that humans are always unrighteous!
(Righteousness should not be confused with sinlessness. All humans sin; both Paul and God know that. Righteousness means that God sees you as “right in his eyes,” that is, your attitudes – your world view – is consonant with God’s and you actually act on that attitude, albeit imperfectly. So if God sees you as “right in his eyes,” we can also say that you’re “saved,” and that you’re “going to heaven.” Looked at another way, we read that “faith saves.” If we define “faith” as “belief that is strong enough to compel one to action,” or simply "obedience," then if you act rightly, then God is pleased and judges you as “righteous.” But righteousness is not simply an intellectual understanding of a creed; it must contain action.)
Paul’s assertion that “no one is righteous, not even one” has cast a long, dark shadow over Old Christianity for 2,000 years. It is deeply erroneous. A more honest inspection of Scripture and everyday life would show that humans are capable of both good and bad, but need encouragement to act rightly. New Christianity should become a more encouraging, optimistic religion in the 21st Century once this error is recognized.
2. God predestines us to heaven or hell.
Second in the many points of Paul’s theology is that we are predestined to heaven or hell. This belief also has cast a long, dark shadow over Christianity and filled its practitioners with anxiety (“am I of the elect?”) quite unnecessarily.
This hoary belief is a holdover from a typical ancient world view which accommodated the idea that fate determines all. In a world in which humans had little control over life or death, it made sense. Today it’s laughable.
Paul presents it this way: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son … And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)
And speaking of Jacob and Esau, Paul writes, “Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) [Rebecca] was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” (Romans 9:11-14)
Paul’s supporting argument for God’s inscrutable will is the story of Esau and Jacob found in Genesis 25:19 -28:6. But Paul distorts the story of Jacob and Esau to support his contention that God preordains everyone’s salvation or damnation. In that original story we first discover that God did not prefer either of Isaac’s sons. Esau, a hunter, was his father’s favorite. The other, Jacob, “was a quiet man, living in tents” and a favorite of his mother, Rebecca. One day, Esau, coming in from outdoors, was so famished that Jacob forced him to give up his birthright in exchange for a mess of pottage. So one boy was perhaps simple, and one was smart and rather sly. But God did not pass judgement, nor favor one over the other in the Genesis telling.
Selling the Birthright, Matthias Stom, 1639
Paul then quotes the prophet Malachi, who lived 800 years after Jacob and Esau, having God say, “I have loved Jacob but have hated Esau.” Paul adds, “Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call)… [Rebecca] was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’” (Romans 9:11-14) But Paul’s observation blurs the 800-year difference in time and circumstance that separates Genesis and Malachi and the fact that the two nations that had originated with these two quarreling brothers were sometimes called by their ancestors’ names, Jacob and Esau. “Jacob” became the Hebrew people (Israel), and “Esau” became the people of Edom who lived south of Israel.
Paul has engaged in a shocking deception by his misuse of scripture. God, (in the Malachi reading) refers to a later event that was the result of a bad action on the part of Esau's descendants: The people of Edom had attacked the people of Jacob in partnership with King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, displeasing God ("I have loved Jacob but have hated Esau.")! Therefore the centerpiece of Paul’s doctrine of God’s inscrutable and arbitrary election is invalid. God proves not as inscrutable as Paul claims.
Paul concludes, “So it [salvation] depends not on human will or exertion…” (9:16) Oh, yes it does. God’s anger was prompted by an action, the attack by Esau’s descendants against those of Jacob. Human actions matter. We can indeed please God and earn His approval by acting righteously, something all the prophets, including Jesus, asked their listeners to do. The general tenor of the entire Bible holds true: “Do this; don’t do that.” And, of course, do it because of your belief that it’s the right thing to do. Acting on your belief in God’s will is called having faith.
So people are not predestined for Heaven or Hell. Of course there are sometimes grave consequences to sin, but that is not the same as being arbitrarily consigned to everlasting punishment. No one knows exactly how God deals with sin except that we know that it’s not desirable.
There is one kind of predestination that we might consider while we discuss this topic. It is commonly accepted that God predestines every person with a task or “calling” in life. If one performs that task they will please God (and themselves, since the task matches the talents God has given us). Paul was called to be a prophet of God, that is, to speak for God (Galatians 1:15-16). In fact, many people feel “called” to speak for God. They are preachers, pastors, priests, and some lay Christians.
But by observation, most people have a different life calling. The variety of tasks within that category of “calling” is infinitely long and should be honored. Some people are called to be scientists or mathematicians, some to be teachers, some to be politicians, and others to work with the elderly or nurture the young. Some might be protectors – soldiers or police – others might be cooks, bankers, builders, or business people. Everyone should act to please God, and if that should ever occur, we might encounter what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and watch as a modern Garden of Eden reappears on earth!
Let’s firmly reject predestination to “salvation” or “damnation.”
3. Jesus’ death on the Cross atones for our sins.
It follows that if humans have inherited the sin of Adam, as Paul claims, and that there is nothing we can do to atone for that sin due to our corruption, then God must afford us some way out of our predicament. According to Paul, the death of Jesus on the cross is that way out. We have just enough free will (or predestined grace) to fall at the foot of the cross and appropriate, in some mysterious way, Jesus’ blood to wash away that omnipotent original sin and “save” ourselves. That is why it is said that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and why we must be “washed in the blood of the Lamb” and “take Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.” It all seems to fit quite logically.
But not on closer inspection. Let’s look again at Scripture.
Let’s consider the problem of blood sacrifice in Scripture. Isaiah, 750 years before Christ, reports God telling him,
…listen to the law of our God.... 'The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord.' "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…Your incense is detestable to me…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean… Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow…" (Isaiah 1:10-17)
Note the use of transitive, action verbs: "seek," "defend," "plead." We are required to act according to God's will.
Micah added this: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
When John the Baptist, standing on the banks of the River Jordan, bade people to confess their sins and be forgiven, did he require blood sacrifice? No, he simply asked people to confess and be baptized with water. He ignored the Temple, the priests, and all the costly requirements of Temple atonement.
Jesus did the same, but without water. Nowhere is there a record that Jesus ever offered a blood sacrifice or directed anyone to do so. When Jesus returned the sight of a blind man, he urged him to “go show yourself to the priests…as a testament to them” (Luke 5:14). Besides fulfilling the law, it was as if he were saying, “Show the priests that one can be forgiven without empty, bloody, and expensive rituals.”
In fact, when his disciples gazed in wonder at the beauty of the Temple in Jerusalem Jesus called it “a house of prayer,” implicitly rejecting it as a house of blood sacrifice and blood atonement. (Mark 11:17)
Yet 20 years after the death of Jesus and his rejection of Temple sacrifice, we have Paul of Tarsus telling us that Jesus’ blood atones for our original sin, thus reviving a practice that had supposedly been ended. Strange? Strange, indeed.
Some have interpreted Paul’s logical explanation of why Jesus died to be that God must have required his blood. Why, this line of reasoning goes? In order to atone for the sins of the world. It was a logical conclusion, given Paul’s background as a Jew. Undoubtedly he recalled Passover when the blood of the Paschal lamb “saved” the Hebrew people. He also surely considered the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the only and beloved son of Abraham, as similar to the sacrifice of Jesus as the only and beloved Son of God. He may also have seen a parallel in the slaughtered bull of the Yom Kippur ritual. But in light of history and previous scripture, Paul’s explanation is false.
Consider the fact that Jesus showed us several ways to atone for sin other than through blood atonement. He teaches reconciling with the person whom one has offended. Don’t even go to church until you do (Matt 5:23-24). And if one has offended God, then one should pray to God earnestly and He will certainly forgive. No blood required. Your contrition is sufficient, even as it was for so many sinners who came to Jesus.
Or consider the Lord’s Prayer which says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If you want forgiveness, be a forgiving person.
Or consider where Paul deals importantly with the faith of Christ in Chapter 3 of Romans and the faith of Abraham in Chapter 4. In Chapter 4 he does not mention the Binding of Isaac. If it had been Paul’s intention to compare Jesus’ death with the Binding of Isaac, he would surely have done so here.
Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio (c.1598)
But Paul only mentions the Call of Abraham and Abraham’s positive response to that call. If he believed in sacrificial atonement why wouldn’t he mention the perfect example -- Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son that would mirror God’s purported sacrifice of his son, Jesus? It is because that’s not Paul’s message. His point is that Jews should be inspired by prophet Abraham’s faith in God and that gentiles should likewise be inspired by prophet Jesus’ faith in God.
Or consider this point. Paul’s apparent adoption of substitutionary atonement turns the entire Bible and the teachings of Jesus on their heads. The prophets and Jesus taught “do this; don’t do that.” Paul seems to teach that we can’t do anything pleasing to God. If this were really Paul’s teaching, wouldn’t he have made a major point of it rather than implying it in several obscure passages in his letter to the Romans?
Still another objection is relevant. Why would a loving God make his beloved Son suffer an excruciating death? And why did Jesus have to atone for other people’s sins? Is either position loving or just? No. It’s not the way a loving father treats a beloved son, and it’s not just that one person is made to pay for another’s sin.
Christians should do away with Jesus’ “work” on the Cross, often called “vicarious substitutionary atonement.” That idea is a misinterpretation of Paul. The blood of Jesus is not a mystical gateway to Paradise. Jesus has given us a better way to expiate our sins. He has given us a better mission: show love, seek justice, and practice mercy.
So why did Jesus die, we might then ask. He died as it is recorded in Scripture. Jesus taught social justice. The Jewish elite who controlled the temple were corrupt and he told them so when he traveled to Jerusalem for Passover. He overturned the merchants selling their goods on the temple grounds. This, and his popularity with the masses, alarmed the elite who feared a revolution against them and the occupying Romans, so they arrested him, gave him a kangaroo-court trial, presented him to Pilate as a seditious revolutionary and Pilate had him crucified for sedition.
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, Boulogne
The lesson of all this is not substitutionary atonement. However, we can learn two other lessons from Jesus’ death. First, if one speaks truth to those in power, then one should expect to be persecuted. Second, Jesus used his death and his appearance afterward to demonstrate a central truth: we all live beyond the grave, a fact with profound implications.
The New Paul
Having said all these things about Paul and his theology, we now come to another significant issue: Modern scholarship has largely abandoned the traditional interpretation of Paul as outlined above.
Beginning in the Nineteenth Century and especially in the 1960s, an eruption of new scholarship has emerged and presented a clearer understanding of Paul’s beliefs. In fact, we certainly know today more about Jesus, Paul, first century Palestine, and the first century Roman Empire than either Luther or Calvin knew. This new understanding promises to completely reconstruct our interpretation of Paul and realign a significant portion of Christian belief. In fact, the first seven points in “Outdated and Misinterpreted” above are now believed to be a misunderstanding of Paul’s intent.
This new scholarship is sufficiently difficult and the traditional understanding is so deeply entrenched in the Church that the correction will undoubtedly come very slowly. People will continue to read Paul because his words are there in the scriptures and to a modern eye they contain the traditional meaning. An appreciation of the New Paul comes only with study and understanding.
For those interested in the New Paul, and how he fits into New Christianity the following is a brief description.
1. Paul had a divine revelation, telling him that he was to be the apostle to “the nations,” meaning gentiles or non-Jews living under Roman control. (Galatians 1:12) He was to announce a new method of redemption to the nations that God had initiated in fulfillment of His promise made to Abraham that “the nations” would come to worship Him along with His people, the Jews. (Genesis 22:18; Zechariah 2:10-11; 14:16)
The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio, 1599
2. Paul never converted to Christianity. (Philippians 3:6) He was a practicing Jew whose mission was to announce the New Covenant to the nations. He did not reject his faith. For all Jews, their faith and the Law is a blessing and a gift, not a curse. The New Covenant simply states that God offers redemption to gentiles, too.
3. The usual understanding of Judaism as a religion of empty "works-righteousness" is incorrect. There is plenty of faith, mercy, and redemption to be found in Judaism.
4. Christianity does not supersede Judaism. Instead, according to Paul, God has created two paths to salvation: One pertaining to Jews who are required to have faith in God as strong as Abraham’s and to follow the Law (not just the Ten Commandments, but the hundreds of tribal laws given by Moses, too) and the Prophets. (Romans 4 and 11:28, 29) This is the Old Covenant, still in effect for Jews.
The other path, the New Covenant, is meant for gentiles (Romans 3) which requires faithfulness to the more universal teachings such as the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, and those of the later Prophets. Gentiles are exempted from the tribal laws found in Numbers and the latter parts of Deuteronomy such as circumcision, dietary and Sabbath laws. In fact, Paul became angry when he found that some followers in his Christian church in Galatia were thinking of becoming circumcised. (Galatians 5:12)
5. Faith is required of both Jews and gentiles. Faith is defined here as obedience to God's will for each person, belief strong enough to effect action. Abraham left his home and tried to sacrifice his son because God told him that was his will. Jesus was called to be the greatest prophet (the Messiah) and preach the gospel which he did unto death, because speaking for God was God’s will for Jesus. John the Baptist and Paul did the same. All people have a calling from God and Jesus, John, and Paul are the models for Jew and gentile alike. And that means to do what God commands for each person. As we will see in another part of this website, that is to act with kindness, avoid sin, do the specific task that God has given you, and to pray for guidance.
6. Paul’s letters are specific to the issues of the churches he is addressing, not universal teachings. For instance, the Epistle to the Romans was aimed at gentiles who were returning to that city after their expulsion by Nero. It is a warning not to believe in the Roman claim to salvation through emperor-worship, but rather to worship the one true God who was about to end the ruthless, hierarchical Roman empire and replace it with the egalitarian, compassionate empire of God. When his letter addresses his audience as “we,” “you,” “us,” or “everyone,” he is referring usually to gentiles.
His Epistle to the Romans is also a highly polished letter in the Roman classical style, to be read with that lost understanding. He probably wrote in that style because Rome was the capital of the empire and he believed that such formality would be more impressive. Paul uses literary devices such as the “diatribe,” in which he creates an imaginary discussion between two individuals (Romans 2 through 6, off and on), and a “speech in character” when he writes in the guise of another character, such as a “typical” member of “the nations,” helpless in their sin. (Romans 7:5-25) These make understanding of his letter difficult to modern readers.
7. There is no “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus did not “die for your sins.” This interpretation follows from a mistranslation of certain fundamental passages in Romans, especially 3:22 and 26, some of the most difficult passages in Paul’s writings. The Greek pistis tou Christou is properly translated as “the faith OF Christ,” rather than “faith IN Christ.” God wants gentiles to have the same strong faith in God’s purpose for them that Jesus had in his own God-given purpose in life. Redemption (“justification”) comes from righteous actions done in accordance with God’s will for each person, both Jew and gentile. Just as Abraham acted on God’s calling to “go to a land that I will show you,” and then to sacrifice his son, Jesus acted on God’s will that he become the mightiest prophet, the Messiah. He was tasked with preaching the Gospel to the people, including the Temple elite, an action that cost him his life. He didn’t flinch, his faith was that strong.
The traditional interpretation, “faith in Christ,” has led Christianity to understand faith as a belief that one must have. In fact, the words “faith” and “belief” are often used interchangeably. This radically changes the clear message of the Old Testament and of Jesus and Paul that one must act righteously. Since belief is in the mind, Christianity, and Protestant Christianity in particular, has become a “mind” religion with emphasis on creeds and confessions but cautious of “works.”
(The Christian emphasis on “belief” is reinforced in the Gospel of John where it appears 84 times, while the word “faith” does not appear even once. Please read this site’s discussion of the Gospel of John for more objections to that gospel.)
Paul did not mean that we should be cautious of works. All through his letters he calls for righteous works and asserts how they will be ultimately judged by God. This misinterpretation has led readers to see two conflicting instructions from Paul: to have “faith alone apart from the Law” (Galatians 2: 16-17; 3:11; also Romans 3:28) while still calling for lawful works: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Romans 2:13; also 1 Corinthians 3:8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7) Because of those apparent contradictions Paul was always a challenge to understand. Many readers of Romans have expressed frustration saying, “Paul doesn’t make sense.” The New Paul is clear and consistent.
When Paul inveighs against “works of the law” he is speaking about the tribal laws that were and are meant to keep Jews apart from others as a support to their identity. When he argues that even the Ten Commandments cannot be kept, he means that we can’t keep them perfectly.
Finally, Paul also uses the words “atonement” and “sacrifice.” These also have supported the idea that Jesus’ death was a substitutionary atonement. But we need to understand the context in which he used such phrases.
Here are examples:
…Christ Jesus…whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood (Romans 3:25)
…while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
…we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (Romans 5:10)
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. (I Cor. 5:7)
…[he became] high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. (Hebrews 9:26)
Again, we need to how Paul understands the word “sacrifice.” It is closely associated with ancient conceptions of the Noble Death and martyrdom, now long out of use.
As a highly educated Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jew, Paul was certainly familiar with the concept of The Noble Death and martyrdom in both Hellenistic and Hebrew societies. It is a natural human reaction that when someone dies voluntarily for a cause they believe in, it makes a profound impression. Since we all fear death, we’re impressed by the martyr’s courage and strength of belief. We naturally see the death as a sacrifice for the martyr’s beliefs.
Even Hellenistic Jews such as Paul would have been familiar with the storied death of Socrates of Athens who was executed in 399 BCE. Socrates could easily have escaped death but instead accepted it rather than engage in what would have appeared to be a cowardly act. His belief in philosophy would have seemed weaker than his fear of death.
The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787
As a result, his fame was crowned and philosophy grew in stature. Thereafter, Greeks championed their philosophy over other religions as they conquered new lands under Alexander and his successors.
The conquests included ancient Judea which in turn leads us to the story of a Jewish mother, her seven sons, and Eleazar, a temple scribe and their martyrdoms under the Greek-Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanies (175-164 BCE) in Jerusalem. Largely forgotten today, Greek rule over the Jewish people was a calamity. Antiochus attempted to “modernize” the Jews by forcing them adopt Greek philosophy, the gymnasium, and, in this example, eat pork. At least two large and violent rebellions broke out resulting in dreadful massacres of Jews.
Eleazar could have escaped torture and death by eating pork but he refused, somewhat like Socrates, saying, “Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will … leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” (2 Maccabees 6:27)
All the mother's sons were tortured and killed in her sight. The fourth son died declaring: “…the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you [Antiochus] there will be no resurrection to life!” (2 Maccabees 7:14) The seventh declares that his brothers died "under God's covenant of everlasting life" (7:36) and “I like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation… to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.” (7:37-38)
This story was famous in Jewish history; Paul was certainly aware of it. It set the example for the interpretations of the death of Jesus to follow. Noble death is an inspiration for faithful followers to imitate the values that have been tested, a guarantee of resurrection from the dead, and an atonement for the nation. To early Jewish-Christians, these two stories, and others like them, seemed to fit the fate of Jesus.
These beliefs were repeated by Paul so Jews could understand Jesus’ death in a familiar way. Paul argued that Jesus did not die a common criminal; he died a Noble Death and, as a martyr, his life was worthy of emulation. But important to note, this is not Paul’s theology, it represents his way of explaining Jesus’ death metaphorically. Jews within the later prophetic tradition, such as Jesus and Paul, understood that God required “mercy, not sacrifice” as described earlier in this chapter. Paul simply affirms in this traditional way that there are some things worth dying for and argued in a traditional way that a martyr’s death can be seen as a sacrifice that inspires us to adopt his belief system.
The author of the “sermon to the Hebrews” uses the Noble Death/martyr theme even more explicitly. Let us lay this work aside. The author is certainly not Paul. The intended audience is probably a church in the late first century that is considering returning to Judaism under the charge of heresy as cited in the chapter discussing the Gospel of John. The author goes to extremes to claim that Jesus is a more excellent High Priest than any Levite, and that his sacrifice is superior to any sacrifice that a temple priest could make. It is an example of the historic adoption of the substitutionary atonement theology.
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Christian readers can immediately see that this new theological paradigm shift will shake Old Christianity to its core. Jesus did not die for our sins. He died as the Gospels say: he spoke truth to the power of a corrupt priesthood in Jerusalem and they arrested him, presented him to Pontius Pilate as a revolutionary, and Pontius Pilate executed him for sedition.
The “faith that saves” is not faith in mere words, such as a professed mantra or repetition of a creed. It is a life of God-approved action. You do not “take Jesus as your Lord and Savior” due to his death, you take him as a model of faithful actions and teachings to emulate unto your death.
This new understanding of Paul, described very simply here, holds the promise of clarifying a difficult, even obscure, existing theology that sits uncomfortably with the words of Jesus as well as the entire tenor of the Old Testament. Modern scholarship shows that Paul never intended to teach vicarious substitutionary atonement.
In addition, this new understanding will expand New Christianity to a religion open to the entire world insofar as it is not necessary to “profess the name of Jesus,” but rather to simply act righteously. This in turn comports with the modern understanding that God loves all people equally and wants all to act righteously and win his approval.
This new understanding can also help mend a 2000-year breach between Christianity and Judaism. Judaism is not cursed by “works-righteousness” and Christianity is not an improved version of Judaism. According to Paul, the two religions are for two different yet complementary purposes. Properly understood, Judaism and Christianity should coexist. Both call for the worship of one God. Adherents of both should strive to uphold the moral order of the universe by acting righteously and respecting others. Both insist that one should pursue one’s “calling.” The only difference is that Christians are allowed to eat shrimp!
Was Paul Gay?
With the “coming out” and more general acceptance of homosexuals in recent decades, the question about Paul’s apparent lack of a wife has raised the question of whether Paul was gay.
The short answer is, “Probably not.” Paul thought Jesus would return very soon -- in his lifetime -- as he stated in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive…will be caught up in the clouds…to meet the Lord…”, so Paul believed that people should prepare themselves for presentation before the Risen Christ. He apparently discouraged marriage as a simple matter of attention to the immediate future.
Yet the gay community has pointed out several indications that might point to Paul’s possible homosexuality.
First, Paul was overly-concerned about homosexuality in general and we note that Jesus wasn’t.
In this regard we note that in Romans Chapter 1 Paul makes a remarkable claim, that when “the nations” worship idols they become subject to homosexuality! He states it three times and concludes with a listing of 21 of the sins that they commit because of homosexuality, a screed that is unmatched in anger anywhere else in the Bible. "They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice ... envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness ... gossips, slanders, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." (1:29-31). It seems that Paul was extremely sensitive about the topic (while Jesus wasn’t. In fact, Jesus never spoke about homosexuality). Was the anger Paul showed in these paragraphs an indication of the anger generated by repressed homosexuality? Was his extraordinary claim a Freudian slip? Or was he covering up his own homosexuality by verbally condemning homosexuality, a practice that is well known today?
Next, for those who suspect Paul of homosexuality the strongest proof (note, always circumstantial) comes in Chapters 6 and 7 of Romans. He certainly sounds like a gay man fighting his nature.
He describes his upbringing: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” (7: 9-10) Here he recalls himself happy as a lad as he began to study the Law, hoping to find “life” there. When he grew older, he realized that he had homosexual attractions and that therefore he stood condemned by the Law.
Jews were taught that homosexuality was abhorrent to God and merited death according to Jewish tribal law (Leviticus 20:13). We might speculate that Paul lived a good portion of his life repressing his sexuality for that reason and dealing with the resulting emotions of guilt, anger, and fear. Perhaps his anger came out against Christians in the form of zealous persecution, such as his involvement in the stoning of St. Stephen. If he revealed his attractions he, too, could have been stoned to death. So his sexual orientation “proved to be death to me.” He had to repress his sexuality every day and cover it with lies and excuses. We know today how difficult that is for gay people.
It would also explain why for Paul studying the Law about sexuality only made him think of the fact that he wanted to break the Law. It could also account for his remarkable statement, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” (Galatians 3:10) A curse? Jews considered the Law as a blessing and gift from a loving God.
In chapters 6 and 7 Paul argues that before we are baptized in Christ, we are "slaves to impurity" (6:19). When we try to obey the law, we only become aware of the possibility of doing the opposite action which we are helpless to resist. For this he gives the example of covetousness (7:7). Told we shouldn’t covet, we begin to do exactly that.
Really? His detractors ask. When told not to murder, do we look immediately for someone to murder? When told not to steal, do we snatch a newspaper from a stand? Of course not.
It seems that Paul is speaking here of compulsions. The only compulsive urges humans usually have are for food, certain chemicals (i.e., drugs and alcohol), and sex. Since the first two seem improbable for Paul, isn’t he talking about sex, then? And perhaps his own suppressed urges?
Here are the passages that raise the question: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity…” (6:19b) and “…our sinful passions, aroused by the law…” (7:5) Note the words “members” and “passions.” Covetousness does not seem an appropriate reference. “Members” sounds not like simply another word for “body,” but rather something more specific. The word used in Greek is melos, meaning appendage. Certainly it doesn’t refer to the ears, the nose, or the toes. Our ears, nose and toes are not subject to passion and they don’t compel us to sin.
Paul complains that he is “…sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want….” (7:14, 15) He is describing compulsive behavior here and we may conclude that sex is the compulsion rather than food or drink.
The guilt he feels over his "wretched body” leads him to self-loathing: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of death?” (7:24)
Then the revelation: “But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me…Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (7: 17, 20) He excuses his homosexuality! He seems to realize that homosexuality is natural to him; it’s “within” him. Yet in his mind he rejects it. Therefore, he's innocent.
The Stoning of St. Stephen, Rembrandt, 1624
Then the Risen Christ appeared to him and gave him a new mission in life: to be an envoy to the nations. And then at some point it dawned on him: God loved him and chose him for this important task despite his “sin.” God didn’t seem to be worried about it. What a release he must have experienced! He relief could account for the lilting, beautiful, and inspiring rhetoric he uses throughout his writings, perhaps his most lasting legacy to us moderns. He could discard the fear that God hated him.
Traditional scholars ascribe these verses to general sinfulness, not to Paul’s possible homosexuality. Paul is using, they say, a classic literary form called “speech in character.” That is, he is speaking as a typical gentile (as he conceived of one). When he writes “I,” he means gentiles. Jews had very negative views about the basic moral character of non-Jews, and the negative views stressed sexual sin. Thus, this is a logical explanation.
Still, the urgency, passion, and repetition that Paul employs causes one to wonder if he might have universalized his own situation. He says that following the law makes everyone feel condemned just as it has made him feel guilty. This strong feeling continues on into his writings even after he felt forgiven by God due to his faith.
However, gays say, remember that the basis of his condemnation of homosexuality in Chapter 1 of Romans was that homosexuality was “unnatural.” Paul says, “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women.…” (1:26-27)
According to this logic, Paul knew that pederasty was practiced between heterosexual men in Greece, and that the women on Lesbos were primarily heterosexual but were driven to the company (and sexuality) of other women by the bad treatment of women by Greek males and their cultural attitudes towards them. Paul declares that those relations were “unnatural” and forbidden.
But today gays and lesbians say that homosexuality is “natural” to them; they have no choice in their sexual orientation. They were made that way, and it follows that it was God who made them that way. Therefore, just as Paul discovered, there is no sin involved.
It is possible then, to understand why Paul saw sin as so strong that we are trapped and literally enslaved by it. He was trapped by his innate homosexuality and enslaved by it. He felt “helpless in [my] sin.” It could be why his experience with the divine had such a powerfully liberating effect. He became elated about the new life that God had given him and by God's apparent refusal to condemn his homosexuality.
Significantly, Paul universalized his life experience in his teachings, something that we all tend to do. If something happens to us, we tend to think it should happen to everybody. Many Christians today believe that to be an authentic Christian one must have an "apocalypsis," a "born-again" experience such as Paul had. No. God appeared to Paul for a certain reason and gave him charismatic gifts probably to help him spread the Word. God gives such gifts for his own purposes which remain largely obscure to us humans.
Was Paul Gay? Summary:
When he found the passage in Psalm 14 that read “no one is righteous, no, not one,” Paul seized on it as describing his own self-loathing and universalized it, thereby casting a dark shadow over the “good news” that Jesus taught.
When he declared that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, he expressed a simple truth observable by everyone, but Paul emphasizes that belief in particular because he felt so sinful himself. He then universalized his own feelings of sinfulness.
When he declared that we all inherit our sin from Adam, he expressed a view of the innate sin that he felt inside of himself -- his “natural” attraction to other men, an abomination according to Jewish tribal law. That in turn led him to declare that we are all “helpless in our sin,” casting yet more darkness over Christianity.
When he declared that the Law was “a curse” that “brings wrath,” he was universalizing the curse he felt laid upon him by the Law and the wrath he feared he might suffer from the laws against homosexuality found in Leviticus.
Paul was freed from his guilt and self-loathing by an encounter with God. He realized that God was not concerned with his homosexuality since He had made Paul that way. As Paul stated it, he felt “…justified by His grace as a gift…effective through faith…He had passed over the sins previously committed….” (Romans 3:24, 25)
God’s intentions about homosexuality are inscrutable, but modern people should be similarly freed from their prejudices against homosexuality by Paul’s story. God not only doesn’t care about it; he makes some people that way.
Is this interpretation viable? Does it supply the missing ingredient to unlock some of the apparent contradictions and peculiarities we find in Paul’s writings, his animus against the Law and overwhelming feelings of sinfulness? Only time will tell.
What survives today from Paul’s teachings?
How, in sum, must we evaluate Paul in the 21st Century? Much of our present interpretation of his words is either wrong or outdated. What survives to guide us in a confused world? There is one thing (see below). The rest already has been accomplished or is hopelessly outdated:
In the category of “hopelessly outdated”:
He taught that the end of the world was coming “soon,” in his lifetime: “…we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) The prediction that Jesus would return when Paul was alive -- in that first generation -- didn’t happen and must be discarded.
After Paul’s apocalypsis, his "born again" experience with God (or the Risen Christ or the Holy Spirit), and his acceptance of his new life mission, Paul felt predestined, elected, and “saved” “by grace alone.” He then universalized his experience to believe that everyone whom God wants to “save” would be similarly predestined, elected and "born again." Today, we can say that God chose Paul for a special mission and that his experience cannot be universalized and that God holds out mercy to all people. For that special reason most Christians do not need a "born again" experience.
His belief that humans are incapable of being righteous because they are totally sinful, unable to please God by any action, is a complete refutation of the Jewish tradition and a reversal of the teachings of Jesus. We now suspect that his pervasive sense of sinfulness blinded him in important ways.
His excessively powerful screed against homosexuality is possibly based on his own personal situation and so must be set aside.
In the category of “accomplished” are:
His main work was to induce “the nations” (gentiles) to follow Jesus of Nazareth. Today, that has been accomplished, at least nominally, for all Christians. The Christian message has traveled around the world with wide impact.
He was deeply concerned that gentiles not subscribe to the tribal requirements of Jews; for example, they should not worry about being uncircumcised or eating certain “unclean” foods. No gentile who is concerned with his/her spiritual status worries about such things today.
He taught the power of what became later to be called the Holy Spirit and how it can change one’s life. That is still current and accepted.
He taught the importance of faith, that is, belief that is strong enough to compel one to act on God’s will for that person. That too, is not novel, although it must be more precisely defined and differentiated from "belief."
He emphasized that God wants reconciliation between Himself and His creation, and between all people. That endures today and is similarly not novel.
We must face the fact that Paul’s writings reflect his difficult, personal, and often obscure views of the world. They are difficult to understand and even after study enough to understand them the result is unremarkable today for the reasons given above. The works of Paul should therefore be placed in a New Testament Apocrypha, available to all but to be read today with caution and scholarship.
One thing is left for New Christianity: his joy which lives through his remarkable, inspiring words. While all else of his works may be deemphasized in the modern day, his inspired words still shine. Indeed, they may be considered the “Psalms of the New Testament,” equal in inspiration to those of David’s in the Old. They should be emphasized. A sampling are presented on this website as examples. Enjoy them and be inspired.