This summer I’ve been preparing a curriculum on the whole Bible. This is slow going, but it is worth it in many ways. One of which is that I have gotten to read a great deal of books on the history and theology of Paul that I had never gotten around to starting.
Two of them have really stuck out to me:
- Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2003
- Cassirer, H. W. Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1988.
Now, in general I think that the Biblical authors, Paul included, need to be read on their own terms. This means that they need to be read first as ancient Mediterranean Jewish persons. Secondly, in the New Testament, they need to be read as people who purport to be representatives of the gospel of Jesus. In other words, they must be read as preachers or theologians.
This isn’t to say that Paul or the gospel writers shouldn’t be read using recent critical methods, it is just to say that those critical methods aren’t necessarily designed to understand these authors precisely because they do not let the authors speak for themselves. So there is one sense that reading Paul in light of modern philosophy is a dangerously easy way to misunderstand him. There is another sense in which reading Paul on such terms requires the reader to be rather ruthless in attempting to understand Paul on his own terms in order to put his ideas in conversation with philosophical quests and attitudes from far beyond Paul’s own day. Badiou and Cassirer both do this rather admirably. Both of them attempt to grasp Paul’s gospel and the historical particularities of its utterance in order to place that gospel and its corollaries in conversation with modern continental philosophy and Kantian rationalism.
Both authors attempt to show that Paul is not purely a moralist and that Paul is not anti-semitic. This is important simply because arm-chair philosophers who haven’t read their New Testament love to make claims of this sort. They also both see Romans 7 as autobiographical. Which, at the end of the day, it may be. But I really don’t think that it is. If either author could convince me it would be Cassirer. I think both authors needed to study more ancient apocalyptic literature and to pay more attention to typology and fulfillment language in Jewish literature. Both authors pay great attention to the Greek text of the New Testament though, which Larry Hurtado notes in his review of Badiou’s book with the wry observation that New Testament PhD’s don’t do sometimes.
Badiou is an atheist who notes that he has no care “for the Good News that he [Paul] proclaims or the cult dedicated to him (Badiou,1).” Anyhow, Badiou spends his entire first chapter attempting to demonstrate that Paul is our contemporary from an ideological perspective and I think he is spot on. He essentially notes that in Paul’s day, truth was often seen as the view of this or that group of which one was a part rather than an accessible feature of reality. Badiou notes that in Western Civilization (circa 2002-2003) even mathematics is seen as a sort of political power play and not an actual instrument of knowledge (Badiou, 6). In fact, he even notes that any obscurantist view could be considered as valid as a mathematical proof so long as the group who holds said view has been victimized in some way (ibid). The point being that in Paul’s day, as in ours, truth is seen as merely a matter of kinship or patronage (what group am I in and who is my master). With this in mind, Paul is the anti-philosopher of subject or the individual who embraces the event of the resurrection. Paul warns philosophers that the universal truth of humanity and indeed history cannot be purely conceptual, but must be an event. For Paul, the event is the resurrection, which Badiou does see as fictitious. Badiou also sees a radical break between the teachings of Paul and the content of the synoptic gospels. While I used to agree with such a notion, authors like David Wenham, Scot McKnight, and James Dunn have essentially proven that Paul is indebted to the Jesus traditions and that his gospel preaching necessarily would have included elements of Jesus’ deeds and teachings.
As a brief aside, Aristotle himself seems to have seen the quest for truth, not in consideration of concepts, but in sensory data that helps us to form concepts about physical reality and events. I wonder if the distinction between philosopher and anti-philospher is overblown.
While the argument of Badiou is too long to express here, I wish simply to note that in his effort to understand Paul’s place in philosophy, we have a philosopher who (while trying to demythologize Paul’s concepts into atheism) seems to really “get it.” Badiou understands that for Paul, truth is primarily about a certain event (the resurrection) and thus about how certain particulars can reveal universal reality. In this sense, customs and ceremonies are diaphora insofar as they do not cause people to fight or to lapse back into pre-resurrection ways of living by treating group trivialities as though they were the truth of existence (Badiou 98-106). It remains the case that Badiou’s treatment of Paul is not the best possible, but the ontological argument probably does not apply to treatments of Paul or is there a “greatest imaginable treatment” of Paul that must exist. Nevertheless, I suggest that this book be read by New Testament specialists and by philosophy students who have dismissively avoided reading Paul.
Cassirer, unlike Badiou, is a theist. He was thoroughly Kantian in outlook, including attempting a non-religious quest for moral perfection. He eventually became a Christian around the age of 50, which he notes in a brief auto-biographical comment, because of the impression Paul the Apostle made upon him (Cassirer, 167-169). Prior to this, Cassirer had followed in his fathers footsteps and had made a name for himself as one of the greatest Immanuel Kant scholars in the world. His book is an attempt to show A) an agreement between Kant, the Old Testament Prophets, and Paul concerning moral evil in the human soul, B) to contrast their view of the solution, and C) to show that in this contrast Paul has something to say to modern philosophers about human nature (Cassirer, xiii-xvi).
While I love reading Kant as much as the next guy, I’m more interesting in Cassirer’s reading of Paul which is refreshing because Cassirer treats Paul as an intellectual rather than as a religious relic at arms length and thus disagrees with him on certain points. The biggest potential mistake Cassirer does make is that he attempts to read Paul in a way that attempts to find his personality. While this is not necessarily bad, books like Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Personality by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey seem to demonstrate rather conclusively that ancient persons typically did not reveal many of the personality traits that we would be interested in when they wrote or spoke publicly. That caveat aside, Cassirer does show rather convincingly that Paul’s personality is deeply in line with his doctrines and ideas about the Christ event. This is why Paul can be extremely realistic about the moral flaws he sees in society or in specific groups of Christians (see Romans 1:18-3:23 or all of 1-2 Corinthians) and yet be so tender-hearted and optimistic just sentences away (2 Corinthians 1-2) (Cassirer, 131-153). Paul can simultaneously believe that human beings are morally devious, even beyond the capacity of self-repair, and yet believe that human beings by connectedness to Christ can possess moral repair while also avoiding drabness of personality precisely because of his belief in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. In this concrete event, Cassirer notes, Paul sees the solution to the problem of human captivity to evil, the need for moral progress, and finally the freedom to maintain self-hood while being morally perfected (Cassirer, 169). Badiou, it seems, would agree with this assessment of things.
One more thing is that Cassirer, like Badiou, sees Paul as a sort of anti-philosopher or anti-intellectual (Badiou, 28 and Cassirer, 160). There is something that is partially true about this assessment, but another aspect of it simply is not. It is true that Paul is skeptical of a purely rationalist account of curing the human problem. But it is not true that Paul is against carefully reasoned exploration of the natural world nor of the implications of God’s self-revelation in Christ. This is demonstrated, inadvertently by Cassirer and Badiou, as well as intentionally by N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Paul uses a great deal of cognition language in order to show that moral formation as much a matter of reordering the thoughts to match reality (which requires logic and contemplation) as it is of willing oneself to do what is right.
I highly recommend Cassirer’s book. While I don’t find his exegesis of Paul entirely convincing (Paul is dealing with more problems than that of human evil, he’s also dealing with problems of ancient promise fulfillment, covenant renewal, his own apocalyptic worldview, and the cohesion of a series of churches), by and large Cassirer rarely misses the mark. His book really should be read by philosophers and students of the New Testament. Incidentally, he apparently a genius. He taught himself several languages in a brief time, including English and Greek. He then translated the New Testament into English.
- “…Paul writes in Greek, the Greek commonly spoken in the Orient of those days, which is a sort of international language…It is in no way a contrived or esoteric language, but the Greek of traders and writers. We must try to restore to Paul’s words, whose translations have become worn by centuries of obscurantism (all this “faith!” “charity!” “Holy Spirit!” What an extravagant waste of energy!), their contemporary, every day currency; forbid ourselves from seeing them as Church dialect.” Badiou, 28
- “…Paul, who for crucial reasons reduces Christianity to a single statement: Jesus is resurrected.” Badiou, 4
- “But all things considered, there is something absurd about bringing him [Paul] to trial before the tribunal of contemporary feminism. The only question worth asking is whether Paul, given the conditions of his time, is a progressive or a reactionary so far as the status of women is concerned.” Badiou, 104
- “Far from fleeing the century, one must live with it, but without letting oneself be shaped, conformed. It is the subject, rather than the century, who, under the injunction of his faith, must be transformed. And the key to this transformation, this renewal, lies in thought.” Badiou, 110
- “I am, of course, fully aware that nothing that has been said may serve to establish either that Jesus Christ is the son of God or that he appeared to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Yet, as I have remarked before, I myself have no doubt that Paul was right on both counts. This is largely because the impression I have formed of St. Paul is that he was the very last man to fall victim to self-deception and because, in consequence, I find it impossible to entertain seriously the idea that his spiritual pilgrimage had a hallucinatory experience for its starting point.” Cassirer, 168
- “One of the most interesting features of St. Paul’s teaching is his belief that the further a man progresses in combating self-will, the more readily he becomes submerged into Christ and trusts himself to Christ’s guidance, the more that same man will become his true self.” Cassirer, 155
- “I soon became firmly convinced that nowhere, except in the Old Testament, and especially in the prophets, was there an account of the moral life which I could accept as essentially true. In fact everything I read struck me as both important and profound.” Cassirer, 96
- “That St. Paul’s doctrine is essentially antirationalist and anti-intellectualist is indeed not open to doubt. Yet, at the same time, it is striking to find how many warnings there are against sheer enthusiasm and its evil consequences.” Cassirer, 160
- “Still, it is essential to insist very strongly indeed that the opinions which St. Paul holds in this matter are in fact radically mistaken. Christianity may well be a doctrine which is sound in every way. Yet at no time was there ever any justification for the hypothesis that those opposing themselves to the Christian religion were necessarily under the influence of sinister and malevolent motives.” Cassirer, 165.