In my left hand, I’m holding a bottle of water. In my right hand, I’m using a mouse as I conduct this recording of my podcast. But there’s also a bible around here somewhere, so let’s do a show about some of that stuff in that book.
Welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Today we continue and conclude our look at the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul. There’s a lot of ground to cover today, so I’m going to assume you’re caught up on Parts 1 and 2. Today’s menu features ten short letters and one very spicy controversy. That comes later. First up today is Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.
Galatians is a very cranky letter to a church that Paul believes has lost its way. They have been infiltrated by Christians who teach, in Paul’s words, “another gospel.” That is, they deviate from Paul’s own teachings. These Christians are sometimes referred to as “Judaizers,” and they taught that Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and observe Jewish laws and customs in order to be accepted into the church community. This outrages Paul, who delivers a rhetorical assault in the form of this letter. First, he defends his own version of the gospel, insisting that he received it from Jesus himself on the road to Damascus. He recounts his conversion story in a telling that seems to contradict Acts Chapter 9 (which would have been written later anyway). Paul claims that he did not go to Jerusalem and meet Peter for three years after his conversion, and that it was a total of 14 years before he met the rest of the apostles. His point seems to be that no human teaching has altered or compromised his version of the gospel.
Paul then takes on the Judaizers themselves, explaining why he considers their teaching so poisonous. They “pervert” the gospel, he says, because they teach that something – anything – other than Messiah is necessary to be made “righteous.” Out of context, some have taken Paul’s “faith not works” teaching as an indication that what you believe is more important than how you live. But not unlike what we saw in Romans, Paul’s context is the relationship between Gentile converts and the demands of the Torah law. He’s not discouraging his readers from doing good deeds, he’s denouncing anyone who would burden new Christians with a heavy yoke of religious obligation. For Paul, to saddle Christians with anything other than trust and hope in Messiah is an obstruction and a perversion.
Paul piles up a series of arguments against the Judaizers and the notion of Christian Torah-keeping. Some are familiar arguments from Romans and Corinthians, some are new. In Chapter 3, he celebrates the radically egalitarian nature of the Christian community, declaring, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, no male and female, you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus!” And in Chapter 5, he gives the Galatians a stirring pep talk, reminding them that “Messiah set us free so that we could enjoy freedom! So stand firm, and don’t get yourselves tied down by the chains of slavery.” Paul pleads with the Galatians, if we have truly been liberated by Messiah, let’s not become willfully enslaved to religion again! And at the end of the letter, he gets in one last dig at the Judaizers, suggesting that the only reason they want Christians to be circumcised is to avoid persecution. They want to “boast in their flesh,” as Paul puts it. But he’d rather “boast in the cross of Lord Jesus the Messiah.”
That’s the Letter to the Galatians. In some ways similar to Romans, being primarily concerned with the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. However, there’s a new dimension in Galatians concerning Christian factions and rivalries. In a lot of ancient Christian literature, even here in the New Testament, we see strong rhetoric against “perverts” and “false teachers” and “heretics.” But these are not satanists or enemies of Jesus, they are Christians who simply represent different forms of the faith that were not ultimately declared “orthodox.” While I’m sure most of us would look at Paul’s arguments here and declare him to be in the right, I sometimes feel compelled to take a moment and appreciate the fact that the “false teachers” in these letters were likely well-meaning people who simply had their own ideas about how to follow Jesus. We shouldn’t imagine that they were evil incarnate, nor should we use biblical rhetoric like Paul’s as an excuse to demonize those with whom we disagree today.
Ephesians is a strange letter, to be frank. It’s kind of hard to determine what Paul’s point is, other than a general exhortation to one of his churches. His overall message to the Ephesian church seems to be, “you’re doing great, but you can do better!” This is not a crisis letter like most of what we’ve seen from Paul so far, it’s an encouragement to a community of new Christians. Never one for subtlety or restraint, Paul’s encouragement takes the form of cosmic apocalyptic pronouncements: “God chose us [the Christians] for this before the foundation of the world!” The church, says Paul, like Messiah, was predestined for its mission by God in ancient times. They were once “dead” in sin just like everyone else, but God “raised” them up with Messiah and sat them with the King in heaven, they were vindicated and exalted along with Jesus, and with great power comes great responsibility. Paul declares that the Messiah has brought Jews and Gentiles together by “abolishing the law” (something the Jesus of Matthew Chapter 5 specifically says he refuses to do). As a result, Gentiles can share in Israel’s “inheritance,” because God’s “secret plan” to do all of this has been revealed. More apocalyptic language.
Most of the rest of Ephesians consists of practical advice, as Paul admonishes the church to ”live up to the call” they have received, to be loving and unified. “You were spiritual babies,” he says, “and now it’s time to grow up!” This involves taking off the old kind of life and putting on a new kind, and not be “ignorant” like the Gentiles. They should imitate God, tell the truth, and avoid fornication and idolatry. Wives and husbands should be “subject to one another” because of the Messiah. Parents, children, masters and servants should respect and love one another. In these passages, Paul presents a sort of Christian subversion of Greco-Roman “household codes,” the social structures and hierarchies by which Gentile society was structured in the First Century. While Paul’s Christian codes don’t exactly abolish slavery and patriarchy, they do emphasize mutual love and respect instead of domination and exploitation. In context they are actually rather progressive, and hint at the radically liberating potential of Paul’s gospel.
In a famous passage at the climax of the letter, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “put on the armor of God,” a military metaphor that probably worked a bit better in an ancient context. Christians are to fasten the belt of truth, don the breastplate of justice, wear the boots of the gospel of peace, wield the shield of faith, polish the helmet of salvation, and draw the sword of the spirit. Finally, he says, pray all the time, for everyone. For all Christians, and pray for Paul. He mentions at the end that he is “chained up,” indicating this is one of his prison letters, which makes its positive and even triumphal content that much more remarkable.
Philippians is another very happy letter to a church for whom Paul seems to have a great deal of affection. Paul establishes in the salutation that he is once again writing from prison. In fact, Paul celebrates the fact of his incarceration, as the “Imperial Guard” and the everyone else in the prison has had the opportunity to hear the gospel about Jesus the King. Paul says he expects to he rescued, but if not he will happily die and be “with the King.” As in Corinthians and Ephesians, Paul stresses conduct and unity in his churches that is worthy of the Messiah’s reputation. “Look after each other’s best interests, not your own.”
Then we read what appears to be an extended excerpt from a poem or hymn in Chapter 2, probably one of the earliest Christian hymns on record, if not the oldest. It’s quite beautiful and has a very high view of Jesus, who, according to the text, was divine but chose to be human, “obedient” to the point of death on the cross, having now been exalted and made king over all the earth. The last line of the hymn:
10 That now at the name of Jesus, Every knee within heaven shall bow – On earth too and under the earth;
11 And every tongue shall confess That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, To the glory of God the father.
This last refrain functions on two levels. First, as an echo of Isaiah 45’s declaration of YHWH’s sovereignty, and as a challenge to the claims, in Paul’s own day, of Caesar to be the name to which all allegiance was to be sworn.
Paul does have a general word of warning for the church at Philippi: don’t trust in “the flesh.” For Paul, the term “flesh” seems to refer to human ambition and earthly wisdom, not skin or sexuality. Paul goes on a tirade about all the circumstances and achievements in which he might well boast, but then declares that he considers them all “rubbish” and “nothingness” compared with the gospel of the Messiah. Live your lives like you’re running a race, with Jesus as the prize, he says, consider yourselves “citizens of heaven” – not of an afterlife destination, but of the divine reality. Be like God as revealed in Jesus, and most of all: celebrate in the Lord. Be happy and have a party! Sounds like a good time.
This epistle, from Paul and his associate Timothy to the church in Colossae, is another prison letter not very unlike the two which immediately precede it. Paul seems to think very highly of this congregation, and he prays that they will continue to grow in wisdom and gratitude. He even offers up another Messianic hymn as he did in Philippians, this one celebrating Jesus as a preexistent divine being:
1:15 “He is the image of God, the invisible one, The firstborn of all creation.
16 For in him all things were created, In the heavens and here on earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot – Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers
All things were created both through him and for him.
Paul’s point in quoting this song is that Jesus represents God’s own wisdom and power, the same power that created the world, coming into the world to reconcile all things to himself. This echoes the first chapter of John’s gospel, or rather the other way around since this is a much earlier text. Here in Philippians, it’s the basis for Paul’s encouragement to Christians: you were dead to sin, but you are now part of this amazing work that God has done in Messiah.
He goes on to warn the Colossians about false teachers who might use “philosophy and hollow trickery” to mislead them. They, says Paul, are interested in the “elements of the world, not in the King.” They judge people according to “festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” – not the Messiah who brings freedom and life. Paul emphasizes again and again in this letter that the early Christians have “died and been raised” with Messiah, freeing them from the old way of life and liberating them for a new way. A way not of laws, rituals, and myths, but of love, peace and thanksgiving. And we close with a familiar salutation, “pray for one another,” and for Paul, who is still in chains.
1 Thessalonians is considered by many scholars to be the earliest of Paul’s letters. The apostle is apparently following up with the Thessalonian church after his associate Timothy has returned from a visit there. The letter is fairly typical of Paul’s short epistles. He praises the Thessalonians for their strong faith, calls them “model believers,” and defends his own reputation and that of the apostles, indicating that while many would seek to persecute and discredit them, they remain stalwart in their duty to spread the Messiah’s gospel. To him, churches like Thessalonica represent the “glory and joy” of the apostles and their work.
Paul talks about Timothy’s visit and the good report he brought back, and closes out the brief letter with some admonishments and corrections for the congregation. First, he urges them to “be holy,” to avoid fornication and uncleanness, not to behave like godless Gentiles, and to be more charitable. And at the letter’s climax, he offers a bit of eschatological correction concerning “those who have fallen asleep.” Apparently there is some confusion in this church regarding the fate of the dead, and Paul seeks to correct and comfort them according to his own understanding of the resurrection. But unfortunately, his words of correction to the Thessalonians have caused major confusion throughout the church in our own day. Here’s the passage in question:
15 We who are alive, who remain until the Lord is present, will not find ourselves ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first, 17 then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we will always be with the Lord. 18 So comfort each other with these words.
A couple of observations about this passage. First, Paul clearly expects that this event, the “appearance” of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, will occur soon, within his own lifetime. He plans to be alive to witness it! And the last bit here about being “snatched up among the clouds” is the basis – almost the sole basis – for what we know today as “rapture theology.” The Left Behind franchise and its imitators are all largely based on a dispensationalist interpretation of verse 17, and very little else. Now, we know from elsewhere that Paul’s eschatological vision does NOT involve a mass rapture to heaven, but a rebirth of this world and a resurrection of humans within it. And we also note that there is nothing explicit about “going to heaven” in this passage. So what do we do with the “snatched up in the sky” language?
Here’s what’s going on. The image here is of a king or an emperor, coming to a city to judge and rule his subjects. The people are so excited to see their ruler and so desperate for his judgment that they pour out of the city to meet him and welcome him back into the city to live among them and save the day and give them free tacos. In Paul’s eschatological vision, Jesus is the king, coming to judge and save his world, and his people will be so enraptured to see him, they will meet him up in the clouds – and welcome him back to his world, where they will all live together forever. “And in this way we shall always be with our Lord.” Paul’s message of comfort to the Thessalonians is not about escape from earth, but about the rescue that is coming to it – even for those who are already “asleep.” What’s more, Paul strongly believed that he and the Thessalonian Christians would see this rescue come at any moment within their own lives.
The very short 2 Thessalonians is a puzzle. It shares many attributes with Paul’s other short letters, especially with its prequel letter 1 Thessalonians, but it centers around an eschatological message that seems to contradict the spirit (and details) of the apostle’s teachings up to this point. Try this on for size:
6 …since it is just, on God’s part, to pay back with suffering those who inflict suffering on you, 7 and to give you, with us, respite from your sufferings. This will come about when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels, 8 in a flaming fire, meting out punishment to those who don’t know God and those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Paul, whose message has been one of new creation and reconciliation and salvation, now envisions Jesus coming back with guns blazing to “mete out punishment” against his enemies. Where is this coming from? How does this fit in with the Messiah’s own commandment to “love your enemies”? This is a very difficult passage, especially if we are looking to Paul for instruction or as an example. Is this how Christians should view the world outside the church, as cannon fodder or kindling when Jesus comes back to “settle the score”?
It might help here to remember that Paul is a human being, located in time, space, and culture, who is addressing the needs and hurts and questions of a congregation of human beings. We already know from 1 Thessalonians that opposition and persecution are an ongoing concern, and given the brutal reality faced by some of these early Christians, we might understand their desire for “justice,” even as we question how truly Christ-like that vision of justice might be. But things get weirder still. Paul also warns them about a mysterious “lawless one,” an earthly ruler who will rebel against God and “set himself up in God’s temple.” Whether he’s talking about a particularly ruthless emperor or an “antichrist” figure (he never uses that word), this is something Paul expects before the Messiah can return and rescue the world. But this presents another problem. Why is Paul suddenly making predictions and putting conditions on the “appearance” of the Messiah? In previous letters, this was something that was going to happen at any moment, but now there are additional events which must be fulfilled first. This appears to represent a major shift in thinking for the apostle.
All of these problems have led some to speculate as to whether or not the same Paul actually wrote 2 Thessalonians. Was it an older Paul, from a later time? Or was it another author altogether, writing in Paul’s name? To confuse matters even more, Paul acknowledges in this letter that letters forged in the apostles’ names are being circulated. Speaking of which, we now turn our attention to the pastoral letters of Paul, and enter into a rather sensitive discussion.
THE CONTESTED LETTERS
I’ll just lay it out on the table: there are some serious scholarly questions about the authenticity of these next three letters of Paul. We’ll examine some of those reasons in a moment, but first let’s talk about authorship and the bible.
Up to this point, questions of authorship have been raised on this podcast, but none have been of a “life or death” nature. Because, in reality, more of our ideas about bible authorship come from tradition than from the actual pages of scripture. We’ve questioned who actually wrote the Torah, Song of Songs, Qoheleth, and even the gospels and Acts, but none of these texts actually names an author. They are all attributed to authors by tradition alone. The letters of Paul are more akin to the writings of the prophets; they claim to be the work of a specific figure from religious history, and we approach them under the pretense that they were actually written by the author they claim. So while more conservative forms of Christianity consider all authorship traditions to be sacred and unquestionable, many others don’t see it as a major issue until we get to something like Paul. The alarmist version of the problem is this: if any letter attributed to Paul could be demonstrated to be pseudonymous (a forgery), then how can we trust any of the texts in the bible? Of course, this objection presupposes a certain view of the nature of the canon and the relationship between these books, but the question remains pertinent: what if Paul didn’t actually write even one of these letters?
To exacerbate the problem, we know from Paul himself in 2 Thessalonians that letters forged in his name were in fact circulating throughout the early church. So the question is not whether or not forgeries existed (they did) but whether or not any made it into our canon. I can’t definitively answer that for you, nor will I choose a side. I’m just going to lay out the reasons scholars have for calling these particular letters into question and demonstrate some of the internal evidence from the letters themselves. So, why do scholars question the authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? There are a wide variety of reasons, but I’ll highlight a few of them and explain how they work.
For one thing, the writing style and vocabulary are substantially different from the rest of Paul’s writings. On its own this suggestion is not particularly compelling, and this sort of “data” is easily dismissed, but it is interesting to note that the bulk of the Greek words used in these three letters are not found in Paul’s writing but are common in Christian writings of the following couple of centuries. Hmm. OK. Whatever. Far more compelling are the radically different setting implied by the letters’ content, and the drastically different things this author has to say on some familiar topics.
These three letters are labeled “pastoral” because they are addressed to young pastors, Timothy at Ephesus and Titus at Crete. The letters are filled with advice about running their churches and choosing qualified men to be elders and deacons. Notice anything strange about that? In the undisputed letters of Paul, there were no pastors. These were charismatic communities operated by male and female deacons, but led by the whole group – or rather, led by the holy spirit working through the gifts and talents of the group. When the churches at Rome and Corinth were in trouble, Paul didn’t write to the pastors, he wrote to the congregations, because (as far as we know) the office of “pastor” didn’t exist. These three letters assume a church structure that developed later in the history of the church.
In addition, some of the advice Paul gives to these pastors doesn’t exactly line up with things he wrote in his other letters. Paul’s criteria for elders is that they not only be men, but married men. In 1 Corinthians Paul’s ideal for all Christians was to remain celibate, but now he requires that men in leadership be married. In a notorious passage from 1 Timothy, Paul forbids that women should teach or hold any authority in his churches, explaining that they are weak and gullible and should instead stick to childbearing. Conservative interpreters cling to this passage as justification for denying women the right to serve in the church, and some liberal interpreters have worked overtime to try and dumb down its meaning, but it’s pretty clear what the author is saying. The question is, is this the same Paul who praised women deacons and apostles in Romans, and talked of women praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians? And is the same Paul who prescribed celibacy to all Christians now telling women they must be “saved through childbirth”?
Now, some suggest that these are indeed legitimate letters of Paul, but from a later time. And of course that is possible. But questions still abound: How much later? Did Paul live to see such drastic changes in both church structure and his own opinions on gender and marriage? And, if these are later writings of the apostle, do his teachings here eclipse and invalidate his previous teachings when they contradict them?
One last thing to consider. The main thrust of these letters is a warning to the young pastors about “false teachers” who have infiltrated the church. The author doesn’t give many details about who these false teachers are and what they teach, but the clues we get are intriguing. Paul says in 1 Timothy that these false teachers are obsessed with “false myths and genealogies,” and that they preach a “false knowledge,” gnosis in Greek. Could this be a reference to Gnostic Christianity? Some scholars are convinced, which would place the letters at least a century after Paul’s time.
Now, once more, let me be clear: I’m not saying that Paul didn’t write these letters. I’m not even saying I suspect that he did not. But this is the type of issue you must confront if you want to be serious and intellectually honest when engaging the texts of the bible. This is not the type of conversation one can typically have in the church, so I wanted to face it head-on here on this podcast. There’s much more that could be said, but for now I’ll leave it up to you to consider these ideas and read the text of the letters for yourself.
There is one more super-short epistle, the undisputed Philemon, the shortest of Paul’s letters. It’s a fascinating letter written to Philemon, the owner of a runaway slave named Onesimus, both apparently Greek Christians. Paul writes Philemon from prison, where he has met and developed a deep friendship with Onesimus. He is now sending him back to the household with this letter of appeal. ”Take him back!,” says Paul, “and not as a slave but as a brother!” He stops short of ordering Philemon to do this, but intimates that he could if he wanted to.
It’s one of the shortest bible texts, but it packs a profound punch. It gives a practical example of the Way of Jesus laying the foundation for actual forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s an excellent testimony to the “gospel” Paul preaches, and a perfect note on which to end our encounter with the Paul.
It’s a formidable task wrestling with Paul after meeting Jesus in the gospels, for on the surface the two seem so very different. I spent many years avoiding Paul, to be honest, and it’s refreshing and exciting to finally revisit him with fresh eyes. I hope I’ve been helpful to you in our search for the true heart and message of a figure who has been somewhat divisive in times both ancient and recent. Above all, I hope I’ve emphasized sufficiently the human Paul, the excitable, defensive, brilliant, devoted and repentant apostle, committed to carry the “good news” about the Messiah to the corners of the world. Paul believed that Jesus was the King of the world, and that the King would be soon be back to reclaim his Kingdom. Two millennia later, his letters have a life and a readership that he could scarcely have imagined.
There are more epistles in the bible, by authors other than Paul, and next time we’ll start with a look at the so-called “Epistle to the Hebrews.”
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.