October 9, 2010

Would Paul Ever Have Changed His Mind?

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In my experience people, still deeply religious in their adulthood, seldom change their minds a great deal about the basics of their faith. It does happen, of course, but it is not a usual thing. The basics of one’s personal faith are simply too important for one to challenge. To do so, would turn one’s world upside down.

     I have often wondered about the apostle Paul in this regard. In my view he was not an unreflective scribe mindlessly responding to a heavenly muse in what he wrote. Rather, he was a shrewd manipulator of people praising (1 Thess 1:6-8), cajoling (2 Cor 9:1-2; 2 Cor 8:7), currying favor (1 Cor 11:2), encouraging (1 Cor 1:4-9), chiding (1 Cor 11:17-22) those who allowed themselves to be influenced by him. He was a rather opinionated fellow who did not look kindly on any who disagreed with him (Gal 1:6-9). Nevertheless he was clearly a reflective man who tried to work through some of the implications of what he believed (in particular, Romans reflects this).

     He clearly knew the difference between the tradition that he received, favored, and passed on (1 Cor 15:3-7) and his own opinion (1 Cor 7:25). Although he had a high opinion of his own ideas, he was aware that his ideas did not reach the level of a “word of the Lord”—to which it seems that he always deferred. In one incident, he figured that God had spoken to him personally (2 Cor 12:8-9), but he did not seem to think of himself as an early Christian prophet “channeling” sayings of the resurrected Lord.

     Might he have said things differently, had he known how things would turn out? Clearly Paul was completely wrong about the end of the world coming in his lifetime (1 Thess 4:15-17; 1 Cor 7:25-31); surely he would have changed his mind about that—possibly coming to a position somewhat like the position of Second Peter many years later (2 Pet 3:8-10). The odd thing is that Paul based his social ethics on the near end of the world, and for that reason he may well have changed his mind about several things. For example, his usual “rule” was “stay as you are” for the end is upon us (1 Cor 7:17-20). But even in the first century he was uncomfortable telling slaves to stay slaves, and made an exception for slaves advising them to get free if they had the chance to do so (1 Cor 7:21). Without a doubt he would have changed the rule “to stay as you are,” had he known the world would still be around for nearly two thousand years after his death! Hence he might have developed a more positive outlook about marriage (1 Cor 7:8-9): he thought that people ought to remain single (1 Cor 7:27-28). He may not have changed his mind about Christian/non-Christian marriages, but he may at least have changed his mind about one of the reasons for advising against it (1 Cor 7:13-14)

     I once heard a preacher make the statement that the whole Bible is the unalterable Word of God—an affirmation that only described his own personal feelings and said nothing about the nature of the Bible. But if he is correct, then one should conclude that God told Paul wrong—for the world did not end in Paul’s day. Even Jesus is credited with a statement suggesting that the Kingdom of God would come in the lifetime of those who were listening to him (Mark 9:1)—an event for which the church is still waiting! Was Jesus wrong as well?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:10pm

You are certainly deserving of this honor. And your contributions do honor not only to MSU but to the whole guild of scholars who work to understand the ancient world of the early Christian centuries, and what those findings might mean for us today. Congratulations!!!
Arland Jacobson
Posted by Arland Jacobson on 10/26/2010 at 10:28am

I am a former student who, bored with most of what I read in the religious arena, decided to Google you to see what you were up to. I was pleased to find this blog. Although I live in the Springfield area, for 20 years now I have worked, and continue to work, for a Brooklyn based Int'l technology company. With the diversity and nature of my work environment, I view religion from a broad and rather scientific approach. Since getting my MA in Religious Studies, I also got an MA in Counseling and work part time for a United Way counseling agency. As a counselor working in Springfield area, I run into all kinds of religious mindsets. As such, the study of religion remains a passion for me. I am looking forward to reading your intellectual, yet compassionate ideas and research to this regard.

Rita Moore
Ozark, MO
Posted by Rita Moore on 10/24/2010 at 6:31pm

Hi Rita,
Welcome to my “wry world.” I hope that you will not be shy about expressing yourself in responses to the blogs.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/25/2010 at 8:39am

I've always wondered if the millenarian ideal is dead or not. I think that many people continue to live as though there will be an end to the world. That book series, (Left Behind), seems to have a huge appeal to Americans today. And certain secular movements are very similar in their world view. I think particularly of the environmental movement-- the idea of global warming, collapse of renewable resources and so on-- which not only posits an end in view, but visualizes the scenario of the final days, and even includes a plan for salvation (for the faithful). So do you really need an expiration date for the world to live as though the end is nigh? I don't know that Paul would have changed his mind if he'd known his date was unreliable...

Charles Hedrick
Cowell College, UCSC
Santa Cruz, CA
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/8/2010 at 9:19pm

Hi Cholly,
Well obviously I don’t know either, but when you get a bit long in the tooth and things have not worked out like you expected, you begin to reflect. I can imagine that Paul, had he and his followers lived into something approximating old age, would have been forced to do what modern apocalyptic preachers do when their predictions of the end fail to occur—they modify the time frame for the end (which is what 2nd Peter did).

Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/10/2010 at 9:08am

Hi Dr. Hedrick:
That question at the end of your posting sure is a curious one, isn't it? The answer people have given me is that, in this case, Jesus was referring to the Christian church, not to an "end-of-times" Kingdom of God. I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about this.

Posted by Lee Penya on 10/9/2010 at 5:29pm

Hi Lee,
I cannot in this forum give a full answer to your query. For my part understanding the saying as a reference to the future church would not have fitted the historical situation of Jesus or with the rest of what we know about him. The passage is contested by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. Votes ranged from “he did not say it” to “perhaps he said it” (see Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels). From my perspective the saying is likely a case of Mark putting words in Jesus mouth. The view of the near end fits too well with Mark’s own views (see for example Mark’s summary of Jesus’ preaching in Mark 1:15a). The saying has only a single attestation in the entire corpus of Jesus sayings. Even Matthew and Mark in the parallel passages modify the saying. Those that accept the saying as genuine argue that Jesus could have been referring to his mighty deeds (healings, exorcisms, etc.) as a sign of the presence of the kingdom, and these things would have been observed by those hearing him (Luke 11:20 = Matt 12:28) but this is a Q tradition and apparently unknown to Mark.

Posted by
Charles Hedrick on 10/10/2010 at 9:02am