The Apostle Paul at his writing desk, by Rembrandt. Image credit: jesuswalk.com
Lately I’ve begun reading commentaries on some of the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament as part of my research for a novel I’m writing telling the backstory of Philemon. My aim is to understand Paul better—since he’ll be an important character in the novel—and especially his attitude toward slavery, since that is one of the novel’s key themes.
The first commentary I’m reading is James D.G. Dunn’s commentary on Galatians, since it has the earliest version of Paul’s claim, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), which seems important to Paul’s attitude toward slavery. (He makes something like this claim in other places too, e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11).
I’ve understood for some time that Galatians is one salvo in a theological battle over whether gentile Christians need become Jews (by performing the “works of the law” and, for males, becoming circumcised) or whether their faith in Christ is sufficient for justification before God. (Paul, of course, holds the latter position in the letter.) However, in reading Dunn’s commentary what I’ve been surprised by is whom Paul appears to be tussling with in Galatians. Continue reading →
If I’m perfectly honest, I want glory. I want my gifts to be reflected far and wide. I want my accomplishments to be honored by many people. I want to be known and praised for doing great things.
These desires have a natural and appropriate root. Human beings are social creatures. Part of what that means is that we want to be acknowledged by others, and being honored for good things we’ve done is an important part of that acknowledgement. If I wash the dishes, it is good and right for my family to thank and perhaps even praise me. If my friend accomplishes something extraordinary, it is good and right to celebrate the accomplishment and shine a light on it for others to see.
The trouble is, despite this honest root, my desire for glory tends to bloom in distorted ways. Continue reading →
At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.
Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading →
I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testamentletter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.
The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.
In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading →
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (NRSV)
This passage is, of course, a familiar “difficult saying” of Jesus. However, the podcast reflected on it in a way I had never heard before: suppose the enemy you are to love is yourself. What then? Continue reading →
I listen regularly to the Pray as You Go podcast. Last week, one of the passages featured was the passage below from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church:
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!
2 Corinthians 3:4-9 (NRSV)
In this passage Paul contrasts two covenants—first, the giving of the law through Moses; and second, what he calls “a new covenant…of spirit,” which “gives life.” Paul goes on to refer to the first covenant as “the ministry of death,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”