Mark Goodacre has posted a link on his blog to an interesting review on the PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly site by Allen Dwight Callahan called “The Real Paul.” It’s an interesting read, with much of it poking holes in the flawed anti-imperialist picture of Paul offered by Crossan and Borg. One especially noteworthy section caught my eye, a section that deals with the image an honest reader of Paul often sees:
John J. Kilgallen, professor of New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, begins his America magazine essay, “A Complicated Apostle,” by admitting that “when one reads or hears what Paul wrote, one often meets a personality that can seem unpleasant or even antagonizing … appearing pompous, cantankerous, superior, harsh.” Experts agree: Paul can be a difficult fellow. He exhorts love for enemies, yet is not above wishing aloud that his enemies would castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12). He calls his addressees stupid (Galatians 3:1).
Due to their built-in veneration for Paul (and all things apostolic and ancient), many Christians don’t read Paul as though he were an actual person (after all, if the Bible is “God’s Word,” it’s not the writing of a real-life human being) and tend to overlook how these letters would come across if they were being written by a contemporary. Those who do pay attention to the bigger picture and read carefully often come to the conclusions above; I had a friend in college who admitted she struggled reading Paul’s letters because “he’s so arrogant.”
I am convinced that a majority of modern Christians (most of whom venerate Paul) would surely detest the man and reject him as unpleasant, arrogant, and a “poor witness,” were he alive today. For that matter, I wonder how many modern Christians would actually be able to tolerate five minutes with the historical Jesus, who doesn’t come across as the nicest, most polite chap, either (when my Intro to New Testament students—many of them Christians—had to read the Gospel of Mark straight through as though they’d never previously read it and then reflect on their impressions, they nearly universally concluded, with some surprise, “Jesus is a jerk!”). This disconnect between our sanitized and civilized impressions of the leading figures of early Christianity and the actual portrayals of them in the New Testament is worth some reflection for modern Christians, and provides an excellent opportunity for scholars, whose job it is to demonstrate the historical realities at the origins of Christianity.