Growing up, I was a Bible reader…like read the Bible every night before bed, went to a Christian school where I memorized entire chapters for a letter grade, read it from cover to cover 4x by 12th grade…Bible reader.
I was told that every word of the 2000 year old letters that the first Christian pastor Paul wrote to the small house churches in the Middle East between 60 – 120 AD…were at true today as the day they were penned.
I was told that Paul, a middle aged high ranking Jewish Rabbi, was leading a team of soldiers to hunt and murder Christians and then met Jesus on the road to Damascus.
And after being hit with the Holy Ghost, Paul began to write and teach without human errors.
Paul then became a Jesus-like fountain of divine words. Then Paul’s life and letters to the early church were put into the Bible.
This is literally what I was taught.
Paul and his disciples wrote dozens of letters about theology and food and sex and marriage and money to brand new small churches from AD 60 -120. Churches that were made up of a very unique blend of people. Socially conservative Jewish converts and Roman citizens who grew up going to public co-ed baths and worshiping Jupiter.
I was told every rule and theological reflection in those letters could be directly applied to our lives today.
With one caveat.
They were as true today as the day they were penned…unless my pastor specifically mentioned that a rule didn’t apply to today.
For example, women didn’t have to wear head coverings at our church.
Why? Because our grey haired pastor with a Ph.D. from a very conservative university said that things were different now.
I didn’t really understand why somethings were different now and others weren’t. But I was told that our pastor knew how to make the right calls.
I remember listening to my male pastor reading Paul’s letter to his disciple Timothy about why women could not be pastors. I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:12) And I believed him.
A few months later I was at my cousin’s Methodist church with a female pastor. And I sat in the pew thinking that she didn’t belong up there, that this wasn’t a real church.
In high school there was a gay student who told me that he wished people would stop spreading rumors about him smelling the other boys underwear during gym class. And I didn’t try and help him. I didn’t even feel sorry for him because of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27)
I still feel ashamed of the way I acted. Ashamed of the things I thought.
But now I’m a pastor…a pastor who supports gay marriage and is surrounded by amazing gay friends. I serve at a church with two women pastors.
And I have a nursed a grudge against Paul for a long long time.
Life taught me that Christians can’t just blindly apply Paul’s words 2000 years later.
Hoping to God, that we are picking and choosing the right things that apply and don’t apply. So I stopped reading Paul’s letters to the early churches. They were too full of terrible shameful memories.
But then I was watching a Ken Burns Documentary the other day and I thought to myself,
What if we read the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul like an ancient Ken Burns documentary?
Now I know this is gonna land badly on a lot of people. I can just hear people screaming at their screen: THE BIBLE IS A HOLY SCRIPTURE NOT A !@#$@#% DOCUMENTARY! (sorry, I imagine people swearing a lot)
Now hold on to your headscarf there friend!
I am not saying this is the definitive reading of Paul or that you have to read it this way…I’m just saying that this is how I think of Paul.
I have started to think of the Biblical life and letters of Paul as an ancient bio-pic with historic letters interspersed. And like most documentaries, the life and letters of Paul have a point of view.
The Acts of the Apostles reads like a dramatic recreation of the life of Paul. Usually seeing Paul’s eccentric qualities in the best possible light.
For example, Acts barely talks about the fact that Paul brutally hunted down, imprisoned, and murdered Christians before his conversion. Simply writing: “[Paul] began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3)
Like many of our church saints, Paul’s failures are largely glossed over to make way for their faith-filled adventures. For another example see Martin Luther’s anti-semitism and murder of peasants.
The 13 Letters of Paul (The Letter to the Romans – Letter to Timothy) are included after his life story. Paul write a series of letters back and forth between the churches he started across the Mediterranean (some of these letters were likely written by Paul’s disciples).
These really really old letters…I mean look at how old this letter is! And this is a later copy of the Letter of Paul to the Romans from 200 AD.
Chester Beatty Papyrus (P46) c. AD 200 – Letter to the Romans
Earliest manuscript containing Paul’s letters
Paul writes to his Jewish and Roman church members who have questions about everything. Sex, money, gender, marriage, food, the Hebrew Bible, the end of the world…and Paul has an opinion on everything. From the top of a woman’s head to the tip of a man’s penis.
Reading it is fascinating and shocking and at times really beautiful. But when Christians try to apply the rules from these very very old letters directly to our lives 2000 years later…they can be very very harmful. (see my childhood)
But if we read them like the letters in a Ken Burns documentary…they start to feel very different. Law & Order’s Sam Waterston beautifully reads Lincoln’s letters throughout Ken Burn’s The Civil War Documentary
When I started to read Paul’s letters (I choose celebrity voice actor: Paul Giamatti) as field notes from the front lines of the early church, a rich discussion emerges. Conversations between an itinerant pastor and his many churches.
It’s important to remember that these letters are not finished books. We are catching snippets of a real time conversation. We don’t have records of what the church’s wrote back. We don’t even had the full collection of what Paul wrote. Paul likely never intended them to be collected and published at all.*
We are opening someone else’s mail.
We can and should have interesting discussions about why Paul responded in 60 AD to questions from his church. His views on Jesus’ sacrifice, homosexuality, women in leadership, and the tip of a man’s penis.
But it has been 2000 years. We have learned a lot about human relationships, and our society has changed. Our definition of love has grown. We have learned so much about what a blessing healthy same sex relationships can be. We have seen amazing female pastors, and have learned that covering your head is a woman’s choice.
Paul was an important person in the history of the church, someone worth reading. But in order to do this, I had to stop reading Paul like a divine mouthpiece stating truths for all time.
Paul wrote sometimes beautiful, sometimes deeply homophobic and misogynistic letters to his churches. And maybe we would do well to read them less like the words of Jesus and more like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
*Fun story: The first person to collect and publish 10 of Paul’s letters was Marcion in 200 AD (150 years after Paul and his disciples wrote them). Marcion liked Paul’s letters because Paul was dismissive of the Old Testament and Hebrew laws. But…Marcion was later kicked out of the church for teaching people that they should stop reading the Old Testament. However, Marcion’s promotion of Paul’s letters set the course for Paul to be included in the canon of the Bible in 367 AD.