“The Apostle Paul was kind of a jerk”
This is the provocative premise of what might be my new favourite book on Paul, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, two New Testament scholars who have previously co-written Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, and write engagingly and clearly about Paul and his various opinions, characteristics, and interpretations. Richards and O’Brien state at the outset that their aim is “to bring current scholarly research into conversation with issues of interest to Christians outside the academy“, and in my view they succeed in this.
The authors open with a helpful introduction – instead of a potted biography, they suggest that Paul is simultaneously a man of his times and a man used by God, both too conservative and too progressive, for his time and ours, and challenging us in our view of where Paul sits in relation to Jesus. As they rightly observe, “One of our goals in this book is to humanise Paul – to remind us that he was a human being with all the foibles and potentials we all carry“. This balance of taking Paul seriously and taking Paul honestly comes throughout the book, and makes it both readable and wise. Without wanting to spoil the book (Because I really think it is worth reading!) the most refreshing ‘big idea’ of Paul Behaving Badly can be drawn from the title. By both Roman contemporary cultural norms, Jewish cultural norms, and the generic Western culture we find ourselves in, Paul is difficult, because of his singular obsessions with the person and message of Jesus.
Paul Behaving Badly is predominantly eight chapters, engaging with the challenge or question that Paul was variously ‘Kind of a Jerk’, ‘a Killjoy’, ‘a Racist’, ‘Supported Slavery’, ‘a Chauvinist’, ‘Homophobic’, ‘a Hypocrite’ and ‘Twisted Scripture’. Each of these are questions and concerns I’ve experienced from people around me in a variety of Church, Christian and social settings. These are good questions! The chapter on homosexuality is a brilliant short treatment of a contentious topic, worth the books weight in gold. Similarly, the chapters on women, racism and slavery are world-class, with the latter two distilling some incredibly complex but important issues into something practical and Jesus-focused.
Ultimately, Paul Behaving Badly is a superb book because it resists easy answers, digs deep into Paul’s actual context, and challenges us in our own culture. As the authors note, “we have to ask whether later interpreters interpreted him correctly“, whilst also acknowledging he was a difficult character. One of the most powerful images in this book is the way in which the shared table of the Lord’s Supper challenges social norms profoundly because it is Jesus’ table, not our own. Practically speaking, Paul Behaving Badly is also scattered with helpful sidebars on contentious questions – with short answers to questions like ‘Are women saved through childbearing?’ the meaning of ‘Head/kephale’, and ‘If invited, do I go?’. I’d warmly recommend this book to anyone wanting to wrestle with Paul and the challenges of the New Testament, and particularly those who think that Paul’s influence on the world is inherently damaging. For pastors and preachers, this is both a helpful apologetic and discipleship tool, as well as providing some really helpful background on Paul’s life and letters.