Reading In and Around the Bible: Epistles of Paul, 1

Working my way through the New Testament; after the four gospels, and Acts, much of it is the epistles of Paul, seemingly the creator of the Christian religion.

(My current plan is to read through the rest of the NT over this next month, then return to the OT to closely read selected books — Genesis, maybe all of the first five, and Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, maybe a few others — then to finish the commentaries (Ehrman et al), to complete this examination of ancient history and cultural influences and primitive thinking, before returning to more contemporary, enlightened, thoughts.)

I’m reading Paul’s epistles in approximate chronological order as written, according to sources; so far I’ve read 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and couple others.

It’s revealing to realize, as I mentioned earlier, that Paul was roaming around the Mediterranean converting people to the ‘gospel’ i.e. ‘good news’ of Jesus the savior, based on his own conversion experience, his relatively brief meetings with a couple of Jesus’ apostles, and his interpretation of prophecies from the Hebrew Bible. But *not* any of the four written ‘gospels’ we now know of in the New Testament — because they hadn’t been written yet. (Presumably oral versions of the stories that eventually were written down as the four gospels were floating around, in scattered fashion, but we all know how much stories change in the telling, especially over decades!) In that context, what is most striking in reading these letters is how certain Paul is of the religion he is trying to promulgate. He lays down the law to his followers, at times obsequious and at times scolding, creating an entire theology derived from selective reading of the Hebrew Bible and apparently based on his own predilections for proper behavior, much more than based on anything Jesus might have said or counseled. Paul is described as humble, perhaps ugly, and not well-spoken, but in his writings, he’s as zealous as they come. Jesus may have been his hero, but the religion is the creation of Paul.

As always, what follows are my immediate comments mostly about the implausibility of what Paul claims, and/or revealing circumstances that suggest how and why these stories came to be, driven by psychological motivations to selectively interpret data and create narratives that serve social and political purposes.

1 Thessalonians: Presumed to have been written about 50, and the earliest of Paul’s letters.

  • 2:2, ‘shamefully mistreated’. Themes of persecution arise immediately. Commentators (Ehrman) point out that the early Christians’ refusal to observe Roman rituals was why they were persecuted — not because of anything inherent about the new ‘gospel’. Yet to this day, Christians love to feel persecuted.
  • 2:10, Paul insists he is ‘blameless’ in his conduct toward his believers. Doth he protest too much?
  • 2:13, “you received the word of God that you heard from us…what it really is, God’s word.” Paul presumes to know, for certain, God’s word.
  • 2:18, Paul blames his failure to visit earlier on Satan.
  • 3:13, Paul is preoccupied with the imminent return of Jesus.
  • 4:3 ff, Paul is very concerned about the sexual habits of his followers, initiating a theme throughout the history of Christianity. Or perhaps revealing something about Paul, a bachelor too busy proselytizing to marry. He’d just as soon his followers live as he does: be pure, live quietly, work hard, pray.
  • 4:15 Most of those alive now will see Jesus return. Why doesn’t this failed prophecy, the most spectacular failed prophecy of all time, completely undermine everything Paul ever said? Paul’s description of the “trump of God” has instead become the template for all imaginings of the second coming. How did he know it would happen like that?
  • 4:17 is apparently the source of the now common idea of the ‘rapture’, when believers will be lifted into the heavens and all others will be “left behind”.
  • 5:23, again, he’s coming soon!

2 Thessalonians: some authorities doubt the authenticity of this.

  • 1:8-9, nonbelievers will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” … ‘Gospel’ may mean ‘good news’, but there’s a huge element of macabre delight by Paul in his insistence that anyone who does not take his word for God’s workings of all creation will be tormented forever. One wonders what a contemporary psychiatrist might say about this. Or is this all about mollifying believers, so they feel self-satisfied about being among the chosen?
  • Ch2, Paul seems to backtrack a bit about the overdue second coming of Jesus, now claiming that some kind of rebellion needs to occur first, including the appearance of a “lawless one” (KJV “man of sin”), apparently never further identified. Asimov, p475, points out these passages as the source of the idea of an “Antichrist”, a theme still much discussed today about anyone the Christian devout does not like.
  • 2:11, In my reading of the Bible, I am sometimes startled to read commentaries that point out individual verses that have over the millennia come to take on enormous meaning, when — reading them in context — they do not seem especially significant. Here’s one that is likely not quoted out of context: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false.” God created the world and people in it to worship him, and now he’s sending them delusions? Context is everything, no doubt.
  • 3:6, Paul is much concerned about idleness.


  • 1:1 Now Paul claims himself to be an apostle, with as much authority as the twelve who actually knew Jesus.
  • 1:4, “the present evil age”, another appearance of this historical cliché
  • 1:7, Paul alludes to other ‘gospels’, presumably meaning not texts, but rival teachings. Of course, Paul insists his followers believe him, and not his rivals, lest they be “accursed”.
  • 1:12, Paul claims to have received his gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ”, i.e. his experience on the road to Damascus. But how many other preachers were wandering around with their own revelations? A number if seems, or Paul wouldn’t protest.
  • 1:17, Paul says he went to “Arabia” before he went to Damascus, which doesn’t seem consistent with Acts.
  • 2:1, Somehow 14 years passed which Paul doesn’t bother to account for. What was he doing?
  • 2:6-9, Paul is obsessed with circumcision, or perhaps people of the day were, for some reason I still don’t quite understand. That it should have been such a marker of tribes suggests that male urination was not a very private affair in those days, else how would anyone know whether anyone was circumcised or not?
  • 2:15, Paul’s message now shifts a bit to claim that faith in Jesus trumps the “works of the law”, i.e. the Hebrew Bible, i.e. Leviticus. (Didn’t Jesus claim he came to uphold the law, not overthrow it? –But that’s someone else’s version of the story.) One assumes Paul is adjusting his message to appeal to his crowd, who are skeptical about adhering to strict Hebrew law — including circumcision. Strange standards to base a religion on.
  • 3:2, Paul admonishes his followers to “receive the Spirit” by “believing what you heard”. Here is a frank admission that people were converted by the power of the story, the lecture, the sermon, and not, of course, any kind of claim to eyewitness testimony, let alone evidence.
  • 3:16, appeal to scripture, of course. One gets the impression the story of Jesus appeals to Paul especially since he can attribute the few details he knows to cherry-picked verses from the enormous Hebrew Bible (i.e. OT).
  • Ch5, Paul now advises that succumbing to circumcision would be to be obliged to obey the “entire law”, and he doesn’t want them to do that!
  • 5:16, contrasting Spirit vs flesh. A note in the Oxford* NRSV says that “the idea of two opposing forces leading either to righteous or wicked behavior was prominent in the Qumran sect”. So many sects; Qumran.
  • 6:7, “God is not mocked”. One of those isolated phrases people like to quote, without context.
  • Asimov’s chapter on Galatians, p452ff, discusses the controversy about circumcision, and the Council of Jerusalem, held in 48, about this matter. Since Paul doesn’t mention it here, perhaps this letter was written before that.

Will post about Corinthians next time.

*I realize I should designate the Oxford edition of the NRSV when referring to their annotations; the Oxford annotators are not the translators of the NRSV. Sometimes the annotations quibble with the NRSV translation.

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