Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some thoughts on the letters of Paul.

My regular readers will know that I’m an atheist. Those who have read this blog for sometime will also remember that I spent some time in seminary. That’s seminary, not penitentiary—though there were times the two were quite similar.

I concluded that the concept of god simply didn’t make sense—that there was no reason for me to believe. I bode no ill will for those who conclude differently, in spite of believing that they conclude wrongly. And I have had an abiding interest in all things theological. I studied the belief systems of the major branches of Christianity and many of the less well-known sects as well.

So, in spite of my utter lack of faith, or a belief in the supernatural, I continue to study the subject of religion—Christianity in particular. Christianity has had a major impact on Western society. I live in Western society, so it behooves me to study this influence—especially since I have concluded that the influence of Christianity has not been benign.

One of the courses I am currently listening to isabout how the Bible can into existence. It is not a topic that we actually spent much time studying in seminary. My seminary believed the Bible was the infallible, wholly inspired, word of God. At the time, I was trying very hard to agree with them. Even then I was seeing flaws in that claim.

And, my continued study of the origins of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, goes a long way in explaining why the seminary ignored this historical approach. We were told to believe, to have faith, to never question, and were never taught how the Bible evolved.

Even if we stick to just the New Testament the history is inconvenient, at least for the fundamentalist interpretation. Of course, there was no such thing as the New Testament for most of the years of early Christianity. Christianity spread by word of mouth, not by the Bible, as there was no Bible.

In the course I am currently taking there has been some discussion on the letters of Paul to the various local churches. These letters are in fact the earliest writings of what became the New Testament. The New Testament is not chronologically collected. The gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, and in all likelihood, by individuals who never saw or meet Jesus.

Similarly the letters of Paul, which make up a huge portion of the New Testament, were written by someone who never saw Jesus alive. Paul did claim to have a vision of Jesus sometime after his death and claimed resurrection. And, as a result of this alleged vision, Paul went around seeking converts to his brand of Christianity. He was quite successful at it too, creating small churches throughout the region of Asia Minor.

After Paul left an area he often heard of problems with his converts. So Paul would write them letters trying to set them straight, or give them guidance. Those letters, and others attributed to Paul, are now much of the New Testament

But, there is no reason to think that Paul, when he sat down to write those letters, believed he was writing the infallible, inerrant, word of God. No doubt he did think his doctrines were straight from God, but then so do most believers. But surely Paul thought he was writing a letter to some specific people trying to give them advice and guidance. He was merely sending a letter. Had the computer/internet been invented in Paul's lifetime we, no doubt, would be reading emails from Paul, not epistles.

People kept many of Paul's letters, copied them over and passed them around. Or, more likely, someone read them aloud since most Christians were illiterate. Paul was seen as the one who converted them to this new “one true” faith. So his advice was taken seriously.

But there is no indication that anyone, at the time, thought these letters were the “word of God.” That came much later. There is actually some evidence that, while they clearly admired Paul, they didn’t take care of his letters very well. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, known in the New Testament as First Corinthians, Paul makes mention of his previous letter to the Corinthians. First Corinthians is not the first letter to the Corinthians at all. It is actually, at the very least, the second letter Paul wrote the church in Corinth. Paul makes mention of this in chapter five, verse nine.

Paul continued some of the points he made in his first letter, in his second letter. So far no copies of the first letter have survived. Apparently the church in Corinth did not think that Paul’s first letter was the infallible word of God. They thought it was a letter from Paul chastising them for immorality. We know the first letter was preaching at the Corinthians about sex because Paul wrote them telling them “not to company with fornicators.” I would think that if either Paul, or the Corinthians, thoughts these letters were the inspired, infallible word of God, then they would have been a little more careful with the letter that they lost. Surely Paul, had he ever thought of his letters the way contemporary fundamentalists do, would have been far more diligent and kept copies of each one.

My point is, that if you believe you are holding in your hand the only copy of the inspired, inerrant word of God then you are going to be pretty damn careful not to lose it. But the Corinthians apparently did lose it, or someone did along the way. And Paul didn’t see any reason to keep a back-up copy of “God’s word” either. I suggest that neither Paul, nor the Christians in Corinth, understood the letters of Paul to be the word of God.

Actually, at no point in the early history of the New Testament was text treated as the literal word of God. People treated it the same way they would any collection of stories. When the various manuscripts, that were later collected and called the New Testament, were copied—the only form of duplication in existence at the time—the scribes often added their own flourishes or deleted things they didn't like. And apparently no one bothered to carefully proof read the copies as thousands of variations between ancient New Testament writings survived to this day. This attitude indicates they didn't think they were handling the inerrant word of God, otherwise they would be more careful about the errors, and editing, they were making.

Oddly, modern fundamentalist refer to their view of the Bible as the “old time religion” yet, it is not actually the oldest, of the old time views. It seems fairly clear to me that Paul, and those he converted, never saw his epistles, or letters, the way modern fundamentalists do. Fundamentalism is not returning to how Christians first viewed these letters at all.

My view is that the letters of Paul are interesting historical documents explaining his beliefs and some of the problems in the churches he founded. They help explain how and why some Christian doctrines survived and others died out, or are now branded heresy. Paul’s letters are important because he, far more than Jesus, is the true founder of Christianity. Paul’s brand of Christianity is the one that ultimately won out, of all the different versions of the faith alive at the time he was. So studying his letters tells us a lot of the evolution of the Christian religion. But there is no reason to think that anyone at the time they were written, including Paul, saw these letters the way modern fundamentalist do today.

Illustration: How Rembrandt imagined Paul.

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