The First Paul

Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

New York: HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.
$24.99 (hardcover), $13.99 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

The “First Paul” is the author of the Pauline letters generally accepted as authentic. Historically, according to Borg and Crossan, he was followed by “Conservative Paul” (the author of Colossians, Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians) and by “Reactionary Paul” (the author of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). This is a clever pedagogic device, which they illustrate by showing the degradation of Paul’s attitude toward slavery and patriarchy. The reader’s admiration, however, quickly turns to bewilderment at the concluding mawkish comment, “How sad, how terribly, terribly sad” (p. 47).

Borg and Crossan are well known as active participants in the quest for the historical Jesus, but they have not done the homework that would give credibility to their vision of Paul. This book in fact is an uneasy combination of what they learned in seminary many years ago leavened by insights derived from a common-sense reading of the letters and some far-fetched ideas about borrowing from the pagan environment. The inevitable confusion also extends to the reader they envisage. Sections regularly begin with “what everyone thinks Paul meant” and then continue “but we will now tell you the real truth.” If the reader was so well informed regarding classical interpretations of Paul, then he or she does not need the somewhat condescending and often simplistic introduction to Paul that the book offers.

Although Borg and Crossan insist that Paul remained a passionately committed Jew, they devote no attention to what he might have learned during the 20 or so years that he spent as a Pharisee in Jerusalem. In their view, it had no impact on the way he thought and spoke and it had no influence on his Christology. This extraordinary view demands justification, and what Borg and Crossan provide serves only to underline the extreme poverty of their understanding of Paul. Their fundamental position is that “[Paul was] a Christian Jew within covenantal Judaism criticizing Roman imperialism” (p. 157). No doubt Paul continued to think of himself as a Jew, but it is equally certain that no contemporary Jew would have recognized him as such. His teaching cut him off from the Jewish people (Acts 21:21), whose animosity he feared (Romans 15:31). The clear hints that Paul was radically opposed to the Law totally escape Borg and Crossan.

Much more serious, however, is their belief that Paul’s Christology was entirely a response to Roman imperial theology. Borg and Crossan invite us to believe that the titles of Christ considered most characteristic of Pauline thought (Divine, Son of God, God, Lord, Liberator, Redeemer, Savior of the world) “had been confrontationally transferred by Paul from Caesar to Christ” (p. 121). No proof is offered of a causal connection. As always Borg and Crossan are content with conjecture, which they more than once define as belonging to “the higher echelons of scholarship” (p. 215). Certainly they get no higher. Even the most elementary research reveals that Paul derived his titles for Christ from Jewish messianic expectation. Confrontation with Rome was an unforeseen consequence. Naîvely Borg and Crossan take imperial inscriptions at face value as reflecting the sentiments of the people of the empire. They never ask what might have passed through the mind of a Roman (or one of the conquered peoples) when the divinity of the emperor was proclaimed. Did anyone really believe it? Moreover, contemporary research into Paul, to which Borg and Crossan are oblivious, tends to reject the idea that he thought of Christ as divine.

If Christ and the emperor shared the same titles, what did they have in common, and how did they differ? Borg and Crossan answer that both promoted universal peace, but differed as to the means. For the emperor it was military victory, whereas for Christ it was distributive justice. This neat answer (ideal for a TV soundbite) manifests the fatal flaw of Borg and Crossan’s methodology. Their false starting point in Roman imperial theology forces them to give exaggerated importance to the idea of “peace,” which Paul mentions only as a stereotypical wish (greeting) at the beginning of a number of letters. In the context of the peace wish, God is addressed as Father. But, the authors say, this is an inappropriate title for a God who transcends gender. Hence, the ungendered “householder” should be substituted, and a good household is judged by the just, fair and equal distribution of rights and responsibilities. Quod erat demonstrandum! This sort of nonsense has nothing to do with serious exegesis. Moreover, I find it amazing that two experts on the historical Jesus pass over in complete silence those sayings in which he promises anything but peace, and particularly within the household (e.g., Matthew 10:34–36).

No confidence can be placed in Borg and Crossan’s vision of Paul. The value of their contribution is lowered even further by the exceptional number of factual errors.



Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is professor of New Testament at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, and the author of many books including Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford, 1998), The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford, 1998), Paul: His Story (Oxford: 2004), St. Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology (Liturgical Press, 2008) and Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford, 2009).

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  • Theodore says

    Many thanks to Fr. Murphy-OConnor,

    …primarily for saving me several hours of wasted reading. If I want unsupported opinions, I just talk to myself after a bottle of single malt.

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