When a Nasty Piece of Work Writes Scripture

Making Christianity Even More Cringeworthy
Before the Bible came under serious critical scrutiny—i.e., historians decided to analyze the texts as they do other documents from the ancient past—traditional beliefs about authorship were assumed to be true. Thus, the Pentateuch was written by Moses and the psalms by David; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were folks mentioned in the gospels and/or epistles.

These traditional certainties have faded or eroded completely, because of evidence in the documents themselves. It turns out that most of the Biblical documents were penned anonymously, and many are now recognized as forgeries. But there is one standout author whom we can identify without a doubt, because a few of his own letters have survived. We know for certain who he was: the apostle Paul, who wrote some of the letters credited to him. Thus we can try to figure out his thought, and we have a pretty good idea of his character.

So the irony: one of the few Bible authors that we know for certain, most of us would probably cross the street to get away from him! Even one of Paul’s greatest fans, evangelical scholar Ben Witherington, is candid, saying he has

“…little doubt that most moderns, even most modern Western Christians, would have been taken aback by Paul. We would have seen him, both before and probably also after his conversation, as a fanatic. We would also likely have seen him as too driven and too single-minded a person without a life apart from his missionary work.” (What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History–Why We Can Trust the Bible, pp. 235-236)

A fanatic. Without a life. And yet his letters became scripture. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. In many articles on the DC Blog I have explored Paul’s thought in some depth because his letters are probably the earliest Christian documents that we possess. I Thessalonians is commonly considered the first New Testament document to be written, and this is my third article on it—commending on each of its five chapters in turn. Article 1, Article 2.

It’s a good sampling of what Christians believed ‘at the beginning,’ but we do have to be cautious about assuming that Paul accurately reflected what all Christians believed. He had his enemies and he railed against those with whom he disagreed, including Peter; he complained about those who preached ‘another Christ.’ Paul represented one element of Christian belief, but ended up having exaggerated influence on Western thought precisely because, by accidents of history, his letters were included in the New Testament.

What a disaster that Paul achieved this status. Am I being unfair, since Christians commonly have warm and fuzzy feelings about some of the things Paul wrote? We all now them, e.g. “love is patient, love is kind,” “…these three abide, faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Christopher Hitchens, at his father’ funeral, read Philippians 4:8:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

So Paul had his good days—or more likely, good moments—when he was on his meds. The grand sweep of his thought tells another story. Before we move on to glance at the thirteen verses of 1 Thessalonians 3, it’s appropriate to review just why Paul was a ‘nasty piece of work.’

• Williams Zingrone, for example, doesn’t hold back: “Read any of the New Testament writings of Christianity in the Epistles ascribed to Paul of Tarsus (I refuse to call that son-of-a-bitch ‘saint’)…the fact that we even read these primitive, uninformed, and oppressive authoritarian writings for guidance is ridiculous in the modern age..." (The Arrogance of Religious Thought: Information Kills Religion, pp. 19-20)

• Hitchens pointed out that the Philippians verse “shines out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.” (God Is Not Great, p. 12)

• Classical scholar Michael Grant is blunt as well, saying that Paul’s letters “display a startling mixture of conciliatory friendliness and harsh, bitter, inexorable bullying.” Paul “…is the very opposite of a tranquil, serene personality. Always pursuing, always pursued, he is the victim of violent, manic-depressive alternations of moods.” (Saint Paul, pp. 22-23)

• A. N. Wilson adds, “To say that the apostle Paul was self-contradictory is an understatement. He was a man who was fighting himself and quarreling with himself all the time; and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast on to the Cosmos itself.” (Jesus, p. 23)

A Handy (Partial) Guide to Paul’s Bad Stuff

So this is a guy God chose to write Holy Scripture? How can Christians today venerate a supposed holy man—one of their heroes, no less—who was wrong about so much? Since there is so little of substance in 1 Thessalonians 3, let’s take a detour to count some the ways.

Marriage and Sex

Paul was over the moon in his anticipation that Jesus was coming soon; getting ready for the Day of the Lord was all that mattered. So much of his bad advice to the Jesus cult flowed from this obsession. First Corinthians 7:

“It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But Paul knew the combustibility of sex, so he conceded the necessity of marriage: “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” But darn, why did people want sex so much! “I wish that all were as I myself am.” Ben Witherington is right: Paul didn’t have a life.

And, of course, one of Paul’s silliest pieces of advice: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

The last time I checked, most folks go into marriage looking forward to being ‘aflame with passion’—rather than using marriage to escape it. His bad advice continues:

“Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.”

By “impending crisis” Paul means the coming of Jesus. So, yet more bad advice:

“I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

So, if you’ve got a wife, from now on—because Jesus is so near—carry on as if you don’t. If you’re happy about something (‘rejoicing’), snap out of it. ‘The present form of the world is passing away.’ Except that it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Can we find any Christian marriage counselor today—especially one who offers pre-marital counseling—who says to a couple, “Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 7 to use as our guide”?

Please, please, please: a little fair play here. Christians who wouldn’t think of taking Paul’s advice on heterosexual relations aren’t allowed to regard Paul as an authority on homosexual relations.

Don’t Take One Another to Court!

If we back up one chapter, to 1 Corinthians 6, we find this gem of delusional thinking:

“When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?”

This gives us a clue to the weird, aberrant churnings in Paul’s mind: with the arrival of Jesus any day now, the members of his carefully nurtured cult will be judging the angels who show up along with Jesus. How can any Christian today take these writings seriously?

Obey Your Dictator!

Another of Paul’s big blunders should be a turnoff for those who cherish democracy. We find this in Romans 13:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.”

In the centuries since, devout and secular thinkers alike have tried to work out the best formulas for governance and achieving just societies. But Paul couldn’t care less; he was certain that all governments would soon pass away with the arrival of Jesus, bringing the Kingdom of God with him. His advice in Romans 13 is as flawed as so much else that he taught.

Putting the ‘Nasty’ in Nasty Piece of Work

Paul assumed that God’s default mood was wrath, and Paul himself was far too furious too much of the time (Romans 1:29-32): “Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”

“Gossips…rebellious toward parents…“…they deserve to die…” So don’t give too much credit to Paul for “love is patient, love is kind…”

His deficiencies emerge so clearly from his letters; he displayed no interest whatever in philosophy, art, architecture, education; he ridiculed ‘earthly wisdom.’ His gaze was always on the clouds, awaiting Jesus’ arrival. That error poisoned everything. It’s no surprise that this religious fanatic was wrong about marriage, about angels being judged by cult members who got into the Jesus kingdom, and about governments being ordained by God. His goofy beliefs emerged from his hallucinations—in which he was sure he heard personally from the dead Jesus.

So we’re entitled to ask: How can Paul’s central theological certainties—let’s be honest: his flashes of magical thinking—be trusted even a tiny bit? “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) That’s just hocus-pocus. Paul’s obsession with the resurrection was fueled by his other obsession: getting out of dying. It’s no wonder that religion blends seamlessly with superstition when escaping death is a primary focus.

‘It’s in the Bible’ Magical Thinking

The concept of canon is an attempt to anchor ‘word of God’—which is not real—to something that is real, namely pages of a book; sad to say, however, so much mediocre material got swept into the Christian canon. When we look at the third chapter of I Thessalonians we can see that canon is a useless, tiresome concept.

In these thirteen verses Paul gushes over his congregation of cult converts. He was so worried that they might, in his absence, have slipped away from the faith. He dispatched Timothy from Athens to check up on them, who brought back a good report (vv. 6-10): “But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love.”

“For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.”

Paul continues to hold out the prize; he offers the incentive to stay in the cult. “May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Paul expected quite a crowd in the clouds.

Long before the days of comic book fantasies, Paul preached a theology of the superhero who would come from the sky to save humanity. Well, not quite: most of humanity would perish, while the lucky remnant of resurrection believers would get their reward. The probability ranking for this hallucination-based theology—these mad imaginings—is just about zero. Why do we have to keep reminding Christians that there is too much madness in the New Testament?

Another clue to Paul’s shattered self-esteem—the projection of the warfare in his breast onto the Cosmos—is found in Romans 7. He needed that magic formula, ‘believing in the resurrection,’ because he saw ‘sin’ as a power that that threatened him at the deepest level. As he put it, ‘sin lived within’ him. And it drove him crazy:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

“…good itself does not dwell in me…” Christianity has excelled at convincing folks of their inner wretchedness that can only be cured by the (amazing) grace of Christ. Paul wallowed in this theology, but what a disappointment: his superhero Jesus never showed up.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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