Scriptures: The Pauline Epistles

In my posts on scripture, I’ve been trying to make the case that the Mormon outlook gives us a unique position from which to interpret scripture. We know that prophets are human, and in our better moments, we don’t expect perfection from them.

Pauline Christianity

Paul presents some interesting challenges to the modern conceptualization of prophets.

For starters, he doesn’t come from within the establishment of the Church. Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus is as dramatic as conversions come in scripture. Following the model of many Hebrew and Book of Mormon prophets, Paul is called from outside the established hierarchy, and unless I’m missing something, we don’t have any record of him being formally ordained into the highest councils of the Church. Quite to the contrary on several occasions, he seems to take pride in emphasizing his separateness from the old-guard leadership.

Secondly, Paul is no timid disciple of the Christian movement. He devotes his life to challenging the established order of things. The conflict between Paul and Peter is downplayed in the Mormon reading of the New Testament, but one gets the feeling that Paul had very little respect for those who assumed authority as leaders of the Church. In Galatians, he writes about people–“false brethren”–who had infiltrated his meetings to “spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.” Later he says of the leadership of the Church (see Galatians 2:6),

But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me

Interestingly, the LDS edition to the scriptures does not have any footnotes for this verse. It is never referenced or cross-referenced in the officially sanctioned study materials included with LDS versions of the bible, and it receives only scant mention in the Church’s other publications. The closest thing I could find to a direct discussion of the Jerusalem Council was a 1974 Ensign article that makes passing reference to a “tense incident” between Peter and Paul.

Most of the other references to the disagreement between Paul and Peter go to great lengths to reassure the reader that Paul was submissive to church authorities and was commissioned by Peter to take the gospel to the gentiles. The scriptural accounts, as I read them, make it sound more like Peter finally assented to Paul’s insistence that he be committed the ‘gospel of uncircumcision.’ As Paul writes, the Church fathers in Jerusalem ‘added nothing’ to him.

Paul and Jesus

The biblical scholar, James Tabor recently published a book called Paul and Jesus where he defends the claim that Paul transformed Christianity (see this interview for a rundown of the main argument). Tabor makes the case that Paul essentially wrenched control of the fledgling Christian movement away from James after Peter’s death.

Tabor argues that Paul’s version of Christ was much different from what was developing among the original apostles. One need only contrast the Epistle of James (tucked away at the back of the canonized epistles) against Paul’s more charismatic writings to get a feeling for how things may have been different. In the interview referenced above, Tabor quotes Abraham Heschel as saying that without Paul there would never have been a need for reform Judaism, as that was the general trajectory of the Jesus movement.

Tabor claims that even the Gospels were heavily influenced by Paul’s version of the Jesus message, and Paul himself was less concerned with the traditions that had been developing around Christ’s life than he was with his own visionary experiences (remember, he never was acquainted with the man Jesus). Paul’s Christianity — the version that took hold — was a very different animal than what likely would have developed in his absence.

What if Paul had it wrong?

It was Paul who penned the words “through a glass, darkly.” It seems like we should be permitted to at least pose the question: what assumptions do we take on when we buy into Paul’s version of Jesus?

This is a specific example of a more general phenomenon that I have talked about several times in previous posts. The great religious thinkers in human history have all been reformers. They — sometimes radically — changed the ways that we think about spiritual things (while often claiming to be restoring something that had been lost), and when they were successful, their followers have sought to preserve their legacies by institutionalizing their teachings.

Somewhere in this process things go wrong. The original revelation was flawed. Often, the efforts of followers to preserve and protect the reformer end up twisting the message. Over time, the message of the reformer loses its original potency.

The beautiful thing about Mormonism is that we acknowledge the importance of continued revelation. However, this continued revelation is highly contingent on the receiver. If we are unwilling to question the assumptions that are lumped in with the larger Christian tradition, we risk being stuck with a more limited understanding of God than we might otherwise.

Where might Paul have gone wrong? Have we misunderstood him?


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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

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