• When and Where
Paul is an amazing figure. Beginning as one so zealous in his understanding of Judaism that he self-describes seeking to persecute followers of Jesus, he had an encounter of the risen Christ that transformed his life. He then spent the 40′s and 50′s tirelessly traveling and preaching a message of radical love and inclusion. Much of the book of Acts will recount this story. His experience was so powerful that he described himself as an Apostle, just as those who had journeyed with Jesus before the crucifixion. In some ways this transformation was instant, in others it was a long and winding journey. My own conviction is that some of what we see in the letters we’ve read is Paul working these things out for himself, as well as for the communities he writes to – almost thinking aloud at times. His journey strikes me as very “Wesleyan” – conviction, assurance, justification, sanctification, working out his own salvation in service to others.
• Key Insights
Chapters 9-11 of Romans are often described as the climax and heart of the letter, emphasizing God’s covenant with all people, including those Jews who had not become followers of Christ (a point tragically far too often missed throughout Christian history).
The later chapters again focus on the theme of transformation in this lifetime and living in love. I’ve previously recommended Borg and Crossan’s tremendous book The First Paul. It does a great job of making sense of the complexity of Paul and Pauline writings in a very accessible way. One aspect of Paul’s writing I have not previously emphasized is how he challenges the theology of Rome, emphasizing that peace is achieved “in Christ” and through nonviolence and justice – rather than war and victory.
• Big Picture
Paul is divisive figure, much beloved for many of the tremendous and soaring passages we’ve read thus far, much despised for some of the angry and demanding texts we’ve read and a number of statements attributed to him in letters we will read later.
While 13 letters of the NT are commonly attributed to Paul, most scholars consider Romans the last of his authentic letters (although this is disputed). It is crucial to note, however, that this does not mean the remaining letters are forgeries – rather they are letters written by followers, disciples of Paul, from within communities of faith and thought he founded. In the 1st Century, indeed for centuries afterwards, it was normal and expected for a disciple to write in the name of his teacher as a sign of respect and acknowledgement of authority. We will see, however, that parts of Paul’s radically inclusive theology will be softened, or even contradicted.
For me, learning that Paul wrote first was liberating. It reveals the 4 Gospels as later theological documents of various Christian communities rather than contemporaneous newspaper accounts and explains some of the apparent contradictions in the NT, thus inviting us to take it all seriously and wrestle deeply with what it means to be faithful disciples in our time and place.
I hope you are continuing to enjoy this journey as much as I am. Blessings on your reading!