(Note: This post is an edited version of one of my responses in an ongoing conversation with a reader. Click here to see the original version within its thread.)
Thanks for sticking with the conversation.
I wish I could run a cable from my brain to yours and upload not just the answers to your specific questions, but the grand picture in which those answers become clear. Without that big picture, the details make no sense. It’s like examining a newspaper photo with a magnifying glass. All you see are isolated blotches of light and dark. But when you pull back, a coherent picture emerges. All those little dots suddenly make sense, even while receding from specific notice.
Alas, technology has not yet achieved brain dump functionality, and I lack Spock’s mind melding capabilities. I therefore must stick with these awkward and time-consuming words in communicating these things to you.
In this conversation you have presented many grainy details of specific verses where Paul says this and that. And while not avoiding the graininess of particularity (hence the wordiness of my previous replies), I have also attempted to pull back and show you the picture as a whole, so that those dots of Scripture resolve into a coherent picture. That picture is not the one contemporary Christianity sees, because contemporary Christianity is still using a magnifying glass and missing the big picture.
In this reply I’ll pan out from the graininess to look at the big picture, without which the details of what I have said to you about particular Bible verses will make no sense.
The religious context of Paul’s letters
After our last round, I reread Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, which was the subject of one of Luther’s most extended works of biblical exegesis and commentary. Reading it as a whole, it struck me yet again that Paul was speaking in a particular social, religious, and spiritual context, and that when this is understood, everything he says in that letter and in the rest of his letters resolves into a clear and coherent picture that is very different from the one presented by today’s mainstream Christianity.
What was that context?
You mention Islam, but Islam was still six centuries in the future. Its revival of an Old Testament style behavioral, law-based, monotheistic religion did not exist in Paul’s world.
For all practical purposes, neither did the Eastern religions that have made such headway in the West during the last century or two. Paul’s world did not include the lands where those religions reigned.
The world of the Bible consisted of a relatively small tract of land (by modern global standards) that stretched about 1,400 miles from Egypt and Asia Minor on the west to Persia and Media on the east, and from the Arabian Peninsula on the south to the Black Sea on the north. (See: “How Big is the New Jerusalem?”) Yes, there was some awareness of lands beyond, but that was the “world” of which Paul had some level of awareness—though by his time it had stretched farther west around the Mediterranean due to Israel being subsumed into the Roman Empire.
In that world, there was no Hinduism, no Buddhism, no Islam, no Native American spirituality. Paul’s religious world consisted of Jews and “Greeks”—meaning, not ethnic Greeks, but people whose religion was in the “Greek” mold, i.e., pagans. Another way of saying this is that there was monotheism, represented by Judaism, and polytheism, represented by everyone else: the “Greeks” or Gentiles.
Yes, there was some vague awareness of other religious threads. But like the geographical compass of the biblical world, those were distant shadows, existing beyond the horizon of ordinary life. When Paul speaks of Jews and Greeks in his letters, he is encapsulating the entire religious world of his day.
The existing options, from Paul’s perspective, were to be a Jew or a pagan polytheist.
Judaism vs. Paganism
Judaism had many advantages over paganism. Paul recognizes this in his letters. Of course, it was monotheistic, which is a great advance over polytheism. But beyond that, it was a moral religion—if not perfectly so by today’s standards.
In pagan polytheism, the gods were an unruly lot. They fought each other, had sex rather indiscriminately with one another and with the occasional human, were jealous of one another, and had many imperious and conflicting desires and demands. Following them was complicated. It required a welter of rituals and sacrifices to appease the various gods and curry their favor in order to avoid disasters of various kinds and ensure health, wealth, fertility, and victory over enemies.
Yes, there were some morals ingrained in the culture. But they were tenuous at best, and by our present-day standards, not especially moral or ethical. Temple prostitution was common, and the gods still occasionally required child sacrifice. Pagan religion was more about appeasing the gods than about living a good life.
That is why, in the opening verses of Romans 3, Paul could speak of being Jewish as having advantages “much in every way” (Romans 3:1–2). Judaism by this time had largely left behind its early henotheism in favor of monotheism. There was only one God to worship. And the centerpiece of God’s system was the Ten Commandments, which enjoined not only strict faithfulness to Jehovah, but a strict and unified moral code that all people were to follow, from king to peasant. There was no confusing welter of deities to appease, and there were clear marching orders about how one was to treat one’s neighbor. It was a vast advance over the pagan polytheism from which it arose.
The fall of ancient Judaism
Judaism started out well, gradually lifting its people out of the morass of paganism and replacing it with what might be called “monotheistic paganism.” It was still based on rituals of sacrifice, but those sacrifices were to be made to one God only, who was increasingly seen as the Creator and God of the entire world, not just a local god in competition with the other gods. Judaism was carrying its followers on an arc away from pagan superstitions and toward a right conception of one God who was the God of the entire earth.
Unfortunately, over the centuries it floundered and lost its way. The later books of the Old Testament tell a story of the people falling away from faith in Jehovah and being conquered and exiled by their enemies. The northern tribes of Israel, represented by “Ephraim” in the Prophets, were altogether lost. The southern tribes of Judah were decapitated when their educated elite was deported to Babylon and the continuity of their sacrificial worship of Jehovah broken.
Then came a period of about four centuries prior to Christ in which there was little or no prophecy, and the religion of Judaism became increasingly rigid and formulaic. It became a matter of strictly obeying every tiniest regulation in the Law of Moses, such that the most “righteous” people were the ones who carefully and precisely tithed their mint, dill, and cumin (Matthew 23:23).
Paul the Pharisee
This was the Judaism into which Paul was born.
Paul was a Pharisee: a Jew’s Jew. If any Jew was righteous, Paul was! He belonged to the sect of the best and most elite Jews, who followed every letter of the law.
And what was his character and situation?
Meanwhile, Saul [Paul’s former name] was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way [the early Christians], whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1–2)
This was where Paul’s scrupulous observance of the Law had gotten him. He tithed his mint, dill, and cumin, while neglecting the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). Instead of being filled with justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward all people, he was filled with murderous hatred against people who dared to violate his precious Law, and who were therefore not anywhere near as righteous as he, Saul of Tarsus, was.
Jesus changed Paul
It was in the very midst of breathing out these murderous threats that Paul, the ultra-faithful Jew, was waylaid on the road to Damascus by one Christ Jesus (see Acts 9:1–19).
Everything Paul writes must be read with this context and experience in mind. For Paul, this was not just some incremental improvement on the old ways. It was a whole new paradigm of spiritual reality. Under the Law of Moses, he had still been a miserable sinner, reeking of hatred and revenge against those who fell short of his own proud righteousness. Under Christ, he recognized his own blindness and narrowness of mind and heart, and expanded his view of humanity into a universal love and concern for the spiritual welfare of all of humanity.
This is what drove Paul to brave perils and death to bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
It was not that there was no possibility of salvation anywhere else. That was the view of the old Paul, who believed, in Jesus’ words, that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Under Christ, Paul recognized that his former careful dichotomy of Jew and Gentile had no meaning:
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)
God, in Christ, was the God of all the earth, and all the nations.
Jesus changed the world
The problem wasn’t that there was no salvation outside of the new little sect of followers of Christ. It was that paganism was such a welter of conflicting gods and practices that it provided no clear pathway to salvation, while Judaism, which could have provided such a path, had long since fallen into niggling, physical-minded, and uncomprehending adherence to the minutiae of the Law of Moses. It was getting to the point where even people of good heart and good conscience were faltering and falling into confusion and error. As Paul says in Romans 2:1-16, they still could be saved if they lived according to their conscience. But it was becoming increasingly difficult. The path to salvation had become very narrow, and the gate difficult to find (see Matthew 7:13–14).
That’s because while the other religions that then existed theoretically could provide salvation for a good-hearted and conscientious person, for the most part they were not doing so. They were only confusing and misleading people into physical-minded dead ends.
Christ came as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23) in order to cut through that morass of conflicting, confusing, and materialistic religion and open up a clear pathway to God and salvation.
And as hard as it may be for us to grasp two thousand years later in a changed world, Christ’s coming precipitated a paradigm shift that rippled throughout the ancient Biblical world, and that over the centuries has changed the spiritual state of the whole world.
The first major event in that shift was in the former focal point of religion on earth: Judaism.
Judaism had introduced monotheism into a polytheistic world. But it had also clung to the old pagan practices of animal sacrifice, bodily mutilation (circumcision), and other ritualistic practices. Most of that system was smashed just four decades after Jesus’ ministry when in 70 AD, after one Jewish revolt too many, the Romans razed Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple.
Since the Temple had become the sole place on the entire earth that Jews were allowed to offer sacrifices to Jehovah, the destruction of the Temple meant the end of Judaism as it had existed up to that time.
If you read Jewish accounts of the aftermath of that event, you will read of Judaism painfully reinventing itself into a very different religion. Sacrifice was gone, the priesthood had lost its function, and in due course, Rabbinic Judaism took over.
In many ways, the Judaism that came into being after the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora of the Jews was more like Christianity than it was like the earlier version of Judaism. Yes, it still focused on the Law of Moses. But the whole sacrificial system was gone, and Judaism became a religion of learning and of adhering to a moral code, with a fringe of remaining non-sacrificial ritual practices, such as circumcision, thrown in.
It also was no longer a religion of priests standing between the faithful and God. Like Christianity, Judaism became a religion in which people had a direct relationship with God, even if not a personal one as in Christianity. For a related article, see: “Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!”
The Judaism that we know today is not the Judaism that Paul knew. The Judaism that Paul knew and wrote about in his letters is gone, swept away a few short years after Paul’s death.
Islam replaced paganism
Neither does the “Greek” paganism that Paul knew exist anymore. Six centuries later, Islam swept it all away, replacing it with strict monotheism and an Old Testament Jewish-style adherence to a strict moral code, but without reviving the sacrificial system.
Two thousand years later, while there are still vestiges of paganism and animism in various parts of the world, they are gradually fading away as Christianity and Islam suffuse much of the world.
Yes, Islam is rampant, and may become the largest religion in the world within the next century. But despite the radical fundamentalism fomented by so many wars in the Middle East, even Islam is being infiltrated by the Christian paradigm. For example, Islam, like ancient Judaism, allows for polygamy. And some wealthy Muslims do still have multiple wives. But “true love” and monogamy are fast taking over not only in the Islamic world, but in the Hindu world as well, where many Bollywood movies can hardly be distinguished from American romantic comedies—except for the costumes and all the singing and dancing!
Jesus changed Paul . . . and the world
When we stand back and take in this wider view, we can see that the effects of the Incarnation (God becoming a flesh and blood human being) are far broader than Christ introducing a particular belief by which we can be saved. Christ turned the tide of human history. Before the Incarnation, human society, culture, and religion had been in a downward spiral toward materialism (“the flesh,” in biblical terms), oblivion, and death. Christ halted that descent and started a long, slow climb from physical-mindedness and barbarism toward spiritual enlightenment and moral life founded on the two Great Commandments of loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
It’s easy to get lost in the dots and blotches of particular doctrines and “correct” and “incorrect” beliefs as we hold a magnifying glass to Paul’s letters. But Paul was preaching a much bigger message than that. And the effects of it were far bigger than founding a new religion—Christianity—which would bring humans closer to truth and God than any other religion had done.
The results of the Incarnation were profound. They rippled outward from Palestine to change the entire world. There is very little left today of the Judaism and Gentile (pagan) religion that existed in Paul’s day. For us today, it’s easy to miss that big picture, and read Paul as if he were preaching in today’s very different social, religious, and spiritual environment.
But in fact, Paul’s preaching was one of the first effects of Christ’s work of flipping human history and putting humanity as a whole on an entirely new, and upward, path.
For further reading:
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- Faith Alone Is Not Faith
- The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 1
- Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus