Why write a post like this? Not to be negative or contrarian, but to get us thinking. Modern Christians, especially conservative Protestants, tend to consider Paul the authoritative voice on Christian theology and church life. His letters have been read by each passing generation as if they were explicitly directed at that time, place, and audience. It’s easy to forget that Paul inhabited a unique ancient world of thought and practice, that he did not think like us or understand the universe like we do, and that he assumed his audience shared his worldview. We are not smarter or better than them, but we simply cannot imagine that we have the same interests and presuppositions as any Bible author or ancient person.
And so, five things that Paul asserted or taught in his letters which reflect a point of view completely foreign to modern people, including Christians.
1. Paul assumed an ancient cosmology
This could be said of all our Bible authors and subjects, of course. But it’s interesting to note, given how Paul’s words have informed the way many Christians think about heaven and afterlife, that he frequently describes the cosmos in antiquated terms. For one quick example, the short hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2:4-11 reflects the common “three-tiered” cosmology of his day when it says, “in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.” These were once assumed to be the three zones of reality, each teeming with its own inhabitants. No one today holds to this understanding of the physical universe, though most Christians think they are right with Paul on the “heaven” part. Even here, however, our vague and fluffy concept is a far cry from the very specific realm Paul had in mind. For instance, when explaining his own visionary experience of Christ, Paul indicates that he was “taken up into the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2), a reference he clearly expected to mean something to his readers.
2. Paul believed Christians should be single and celibate
This one might be a big surprise, though I don’t want to make more of it than it is. Paul did not condemn the institution of marriage. In fact, he advises those who are already married to remain faithful and allows for sex-minded young people to get married if they can’t help it (see 1 Corinthians 7). But these are concessions to Paul’s ideal for the first century Christian community, whom he considered to have more important work to do than finding soulmates and making families. Sex and family were little more than distractions from the work of the gospel. This is a long way from our American values of “God and family,” which assume that making a home and raising kids is the ideal expression of a Christian life. Paul disagrees. (I hesitated to include this one on the list, as I’m working on a similar post about Jesus’ complicated teachings on marriage and family.)
3. Paul believed that a moving rock followed the Israelites on their exodus
This one’s easy to miss, but there it is in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Paul says that the Israelites in the desert “drank from the rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah.” Paul’s big idea is to teach his church in Corinth not to be ungrateful and idolatrous like their wandering ancestors, but his brief reference to the “rock that followed” has been a mystery to many. This is actually an allusion to an interpretive tradition about the exodus story, rather than a direct reference to the story. In short, because the Torah speaks of the Israelites procuring water from a rock at two separate points in their long journey (Exodus 17 and Numbers 20), one rabbinical solution was to invent the idea of a mobile rock. None of this is necessarily crucial to the point Paul is making, but it’s an important reminder that there is a huge universe of interpretation and teaching surrounding the Hebrew Bible which was vital and common knowledge for Paul and his readers, but most of which is lost to us (and on us).
4. Paul believed that Moses received the Torah laws from angels
This one is in a similar category with number 3, but I want to use it to make a different point. In Galatians 3, Paul is making a rather complicated argument to his Jewish Christian readers about the relationship between Messiah, Torah, and what he calls “the promise,” the original covenant between God and Abram which predates the law. In verse 19, Paul speaks of the Torah being “laid down by angels, by way of a mediator.” This is one of a few NT references to the idea of the law being given by angels (see also Hebrews 2:2 and Acts 7:53), despite the clear sense from the Hebrew scriptures of God Himself giving the law to Moses. On the one hand, this is another nitpick that offers a glimpse into the vast world of Jewish Bible interpretation, a world foreign to most Christians but in which the entire New Testament was formed. On the other hand, it’s also a reminder that Paul – whatever he believed specifically about its transmission – strongly believed the law to be a genuine divine product. This is why he must weave such complex arguments to support his claim that the law had been fulfilled and supplanted, as it literally represented God’s own blueprints for human living. This puts Paul at odds with modern interpreters (like me) who would tend to view the Torah laws as products of Israel’s religious and legislative activity.
5. Paul believed that God’s judgment is what saves people, not what destroys them
Like Jesus, Paul spoke often of divine judgment, though neither understood judgment like most modern Christians do. Modern people in general tend to conceive of “divine judgment” as something that would have to be invasive and disruptive, punishing and eradicating the bad and (perhaps) rewarding the good. But judgment as a concept in the ancient world was far more holistic and redemptive. Instead of some outside force crashing the human party to dole out justice and sort the bodies, God as judge would be a caring and long-awaited helper who came to set things right for everyone. This meant cleaning up the streets, so to speak, but it also meant rescuing and redeeming people who could not otherwise set things right for themselves. Consider Paul’s rather poetic vision of judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, in which he likens God to a refining fire which burns off dirt and imperfections, leaving a pure and shining specimen behind. This is not destructive or punitive, but restorative and redemptive judgment. It leaves not death in its wake, but renewed life.
Bonus Belief: Paul believed that Christ would return within his own lifetime
I’m not counting this as part of the list proper, since a large segment of today’s Christians believe something like this about themselves, and agree that Paul had every reason to expect the parousia (appearance) of Messiah in his own day. But it is definitely worthwhile to consider that Paul’s vision of the church (and thus his views on marriage, etc.) was predicated upon a strong sense of the looming, urgent, any-moment-now revelation of Jesus and the Kingdom of God (see especially 1 Thess 4 and 5). Again, while a majority of Christians today give assent to the idea of Jesus’ imminent return (some finding in it hope and inspiration, others fear and distraction), there is no doubting that millennia of delay have changed the way Christians look at life, culture, and future. Ironically, the segment of American Christians with the most intense second-coming fervor tends to be the same segment which embraces consumerism and nationalism, two pursuits which betray a deep lack of trust in the reality and approach of a bigger and better world.