Between N.T. Wright’s In Search of Paul and Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in the presence of the apostle Paul during this Lenten reading series. Not that that’s a bad thing.
In Search of Paul brings a unique perspective to the apostle’s work. The authors explore Paul in the context of the Roman and Jewish worlds of his time, as revealed through archeological discovery. The main burden of the book is to show, as the subtitle says, “How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom,” and this is highlighted by archeological discoveries showing how Caesar Augustus and the subsequent emperors positioned themselves as gods and saviors within the Roman Empire, and how Paul’s language about Jesus clearly challenged that.
While that’s the main point, it’s a big book — maybe even a bit rambling in places — and it covers a lot of other territory too. Another major theme is the existence of “God-fearers” in many of the cities Paul visited, devout pagans who attended Jewish worship services and believed in the God of Israel without making the full leap to conversion to Judaism. The authors argue that it was primarily to this group of people, rather than to Jews or pagans, that Paul aimed his message, and that the controversy he stirred up with local Jews came about because he was perceived as poaching on their convert-territory.
They also spend a good deal of time examining the role of women in the early church and in Paul’s writings, and recognize, as most Biblical students do, that a vibrant and active leadership role for women in the early church was erased and forgotten by a patriarchal leadership as the church moved into later generations. However, unlike the author of the last book I read to address this topic, Scot McKnight, Crossan and Reed are not evangelicals with a high view of Biblical inspiration, so they don’t feel the need to harmonize the “let the women keep silent” passages with the rest of Paul’s writing. Rather, they take it as given that several of the epistles are not just post-Paul but explicitly anti-Paul, trying to correct and rein in Paul’s egalitarian tendencies, and that the passage about women keeping silence in 1 Corinthians (which they view as an authentic letter) is a later interpolation. This allows them to view Paul as consistent and harmonious.
Despite viewing Paul’s letters as products of a brilliant human brain rather than divinely inspired Scripture, the authors seem to take a less iconoclastic approach to Paul’s writing than Crossan, at least, is famed for having taken to the historical Jesus. Topics such as resurrection and eschatology in his writings are treated quite respectfully, as having meaning for Christians today. A theme which recurs throughout the book (though it’s not heavy-handed) is the comparison of today’s “American Empire” to the ancient Roman Empire, with the implication clearly being that just as Christianity posed a challenge to the prevailing imperial theology of the first century, it should be doing the same thing today.