jueves, 11 de septiembre de 2014

Review of "Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe" (book), by Robert Orlando

            ORLANDO, Robert. Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. Eugene: Cascade. 2014.
         Atheists dislike Christianity, but Jesus seems to be too much of a nice guy to hate him. So, a la Richard Dawkins, they come up with silly concepts such as “Atheists for Jesus”, or some other slogan to reflect the idea that Transubstantiation or Trinity are ridiculous doctrines, but Jesus’ core message of love is worthy. In this view, Jesus was a simple, nice guy; but then, some perverse mind stepped in, and ruined everything. In most accounts, this perverse mind is the Apostle Paul. Ever since, the preacher from Tarsus has been maligned by Nietzsche and others, as the great corrupter of Jesus’ original religion.

            But, it’s time for a reality check in this “Jesus the good guy vs. Paul the corrupt” approach. If, as in Dostoievski’s tale of the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus were to return today, would he be surprised to see what has been done in his name? By all means; the cliché that the Vatican lives in exuberant riches simply cannot be avoided. But, let us play the fun evangelical game, and ask “what would Jesus do?” If historians are right, Jesus today would go to Jerusalem, and mostly likely would join the Jewish fundamentalists that are preparing for a Third Temple (although I’m not sure if he would approve bombing the Dome of the Rock, as he did not want Samaria to burn) and want to impose Halaka. Inasmuch as fundamentalists do resemble each other a great deal, I’m afraid Jesus would resemble an ISIS zealot much more than Martin Luther King or some other Kumbayah preacher.
            Jesus proclaimed that not one iota of the Law would pass. Well, although this Law was outlined by Jesus himself as “Love thy neighbor”, in fact, it consists of 613 commandments (by standard Jewish count) that include niceties such as stoning adulteresses. But didn’t Jesus save an adulterous woman from stoning? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no, that story is not even in the original manuscripts of the gospel of John.
            Taking this into account, maybe Paul is not the bad guy after all. Whereas Jesus was a xenophobe who called non-Jews “dogs”, Paul proclaimed himself as the “Apostle to the Gentiles”. Whereas Jesus was a fanatic that defended the imposition of Shariah-like legislation and was in favor of mutilating millions of penises, Paul actually favored a “circumcision of the heart” (urologists should have him as patron saint!).
            But, then again, it’s time for yet another reality check in this “Jesus the provincial fanatic vs. Paul the cosmopolitan intellectual” approach. Robert Orlando’s book is a most useful tool in this revision. Orlando tells the story of Paul’s life, and emphasizes his disputes with the Jerusalem community. In his portrait, Paul comes across as a very complex character, but most definitely, very alien to our contemporary world, and thus, very much as Jesus, largely irrelevant for today’s ethics.
Paul had some sort of visionary experience of Jesus on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus (Orlando aptly warns that this may not have been a sudden event, but rather a progress). He then retreated to Arabia (actually, Nabatean territory), and decided to go back to Jerusalem to meet Jesus’ inner circle. In Orlando’s account, Paul had to go to great lengths to achieve legitimacy among the members of the Jesus movement, as understandably, the Galileans and Judeans who actually met Jesus were very suspicious of a Hellenistic Jew who now claimed to have encountered Jesus in visions. This was no easy task for Paul, and he never overcame the resentment of feeling as an outsider to the group.
Nevertheless, Paul was given the opportunity to prove what he was made of, and he embarked on a preaching mission along with Barnabas, the Jewish Christian who had first introduced him to the Jerusalem hierarchy. Paul then took as his personal mission preaching Jesus’ message to Gentiles. This was also a gradual process. At first, he went to Jews in the Diaspora; then he went to the so-called “God fearers” (Gentiles who had some sympathies for Judaism), and finally, to common Gentiles. While Paul may be lauded for his universalism, and he may across as a very modern cosmopolitan reformer, in fact, his intentions were deeply ingrained in first Century Judaism. Paul assumed that Jesus’ resurrection brought forth the beginning of the end (“first fruits”, as he called it), and now, in preparation for the final apocalyptic showdown, Gentiles were to be invited to God’s Kingdom. Thus, his preaching to Gentiles was not really the product of a rational deliberation about the universality of the human species (as the “There is neither Jew nor Gentile” passage may suggest), but rather, a side effect of yet another apocalyptic fantasy. It reminds me a bit of the so-called Christian Zionists of today: they support Israel, but not out of a rational concern to avoid a new Holocaust, but rather, because the foundation of the State of Israel is seen as a prerequisite for the Rapture.  
As Paul gained notoriety for his preaching (and maybe Barnabas’ informing the others about Paul’s bald openness to Gentiles), he was called by James (Jesus’ brother) in Jerusalem. Very much as his brother, James wanted to keep the movement within the boundaries of Judaism. There was some tension at the meeting; Paul brought Titus, a Gentile who was on the brink of being circumcised, and some hardliners (the so-called “false brethren” described by Paul) apparently pressured James not to be taken by Paul’s influence. Nevertheless, they worked out a deal: Paul would be allowed to preach to Gentiles, but he should collect money for the poor of Jerusalem (Orlando aptly clarifies that the “poor” may have actually been Nazirites, such as James himself). But, given the tension of the meeting, some things were left unsolved, and this would come later to haunt the unity of the movement. Later on, Paul would say something like, “Hey, but I thought we had a deal!”, and James would reply something like “Tough luck, homeboy!”
Paul, then, went off on a new religious and financial mission. His goal was to collect the money and come across as the great benefactor of the Jesus movement, and dissipate doubts about his claims to apostleship. He may have never met the actual Jesus, but now he would surely be respected: the great irony was that, whereas Jesus said no one can serve God and Mammon, Paul now had the implicit expectation that Mammon and God could actually be friends! Liberal Christians today complain that the so-called “prosperity gospel” is a corruption of Christianity, but in fact, Paul may very well have been the first Christian salesman. Those Master Card publicists who say that “there are things that money can’t buy” surely don’t have in mind religion, and Paul probably knew this. His plan was to offer James a “polite bribe”, so large, apparently, that in Vito Corleone’s infamous phrase, “James could not refuse it”. But, the tragedy for Paul was that, in fact, James did refuse it.
Friction began when Peter refused to dine with Gentiles in Antioch. Peter proved to be a tremendously weak character, as he originally did dine with Gentiles. But, being concerned about Paul’s influence, James began to send delegates to make sure that the Jews still observed the Law. So, when Peter saw James’ delegates arrive, he decided to eat no more with Gentiles. Even Barnabas joined Peter in his decision. The issue of table sharing had never been settled in the original meeting. And, from then on, begins a cat-and-mouse game. Paul travels to preach and gather money for the collection, and James sends delegates to counter Paul’s influence.
I simply cannot find any virtuous character in all this drama (or, at any rate, I find them as vicious as any regular human being). These are no saints. Paul is the briber, who thinks that money can indeed buy leadership. James is the person bribed, who is willing to modify his message as long as he is provided with money in order to keep an archaic religious vow (I do not buy the argument that, if you are the President of a College, you may put a rock with a benefactor’s name no matter his business practices; if that were the case, it would be O.K. for the Vatican to accept Michael Corleone’s donations). Worse still, after assuring Paul they have a deal, now James deliberately breaks it by sending delegates to counter Paul’s influence. Peter and Barnabas seem to be people who keep their word, but then, when authority comes, they succumb to it and abandon their convictions (they become ‘little Eichmanns’ who just can’t handle peer pressure, and deliver their consciences to their boss’ commands).
Maybe it was not as sinister as it seems, perhaps the deal was just a necessary compromise at the time. But, it seems to me that, no matter how polite and understandable it may have been, a bribe is a bribe. 
At any rate, Paul’s new mission was tortuous. Paul was placed in jail in Ephesus for sabotaging the cult to Artemis (Ephesians, very much as Paul, also knew that religion was a big business, and Paul’s preaching meant bankruptcy for them). In Orlando’s account, it was in prison where Paul most identified with a suffering Jesus. Sure, the early disciples were already reinterpreting Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, but Paul’s prison experience gave it the final touch. Here, I can’t help but sympathize with Nietzsche’s critique: Paul consummated a sickly masochist worldview (he even came up with the idea of stigmata, although surely he did so in a more metaphoric sense, and not in the sickening way of Father Pio and other self-mutilators).
Paul was eventually released from jail. He had big plans. He was hoping to go to Rome to prepare everything for the arrival of the Kingdom. In his apocalyptic fantasy, the powers that be were to be replaced by Jesus himself upon his return, and that is why, in Orlando’s account, Paul had the intention of going to the imperial city to preach “under Caesar’s nose”. His plan would then be to go to Spain, the edge of the known world, to preach in the final preparation for Jesus’ return.
But, Paul learned that James was playing the cat-and-mouse game by sending delegates, and became aware that his deeds were heavily questioned in Jerusalem. So, he decided to go himself to Judea to deliver the collection and reclaim his authority. He obviously had great doubts about what the outcome would be, but was determined nevertheless. He had some difficulties reaching Jerusalem, and on the way there, wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome.
Here again, Paul proves to be a great salesman that dances to the music of his clients, or rather, someone who knows how to flip-flop when it’s necessary to do so. Up to this point, Paul had been quite aggressive in his stand against Judaism. But now that he was on his way to Jerusalem to attempt reconciliation with hardcore Jews, he softened his positions when writing to the Christians of Rome, who were mostly Gentiles. In his epistle to the Romans, he speaks more positively of the Law.
In Orlando’s view, it may also be that, after Emperor Claudius’ death, Jews were going back to Rome (they had been expelled by Claudius), and now, there were new ethnic tensions in Christian communities between Jews and Gentiles. Paul was hoping these problems would be solved, and this time, he felt that the Jews that were coming back needed to be defended from the Gentile majority that showed hostility towards them.
Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem. The fact that the book of Acts makes no mention of the collection makes one think that it was rejected by James. Or, at any rate, James performed what Orlando (quoting scholar Robert Jewett) describes as a “primitive money-laundering scheme”: he urged Paul to use the money to finance the vows of other Nazarites. In that manner, the money would be impure, as it came from Gentiles and was a sort of bribe, but it could be cleansed by using it as finance for a Nazarite vow.
            But, in Orlando’s estimation (and other scholars), we must not rule out it was all a trap. James knew Jews had no sympathies for Paul, so he tricked him into going to the Temple, so that a riot would erupt and Paul would be killed. James, who had great influence in the Temple, arranged everything so that the doors of the Temple would be closed, and Paul would be left alone when all hell would break loose. The plan worked: some Jews from Asia identified Paul, accused him of bringing Gentiles into the Temple, and the riot erupted. Paul was not killed (he was rescued by Roman guards), but at least, he was cleared out of the way for James, so the plan did work.
            Orlando speculates that James could have played some sort of trial by ordeal (very similar to the witches being thrown to the river): if Paul’s mission was indeed sanctioned by God, he would be saved; if not, he would “soak in his own juice”. I do not think that was the case. James’ own brother, Jesus, had apparently been mocked in the cross (although we cannot be sure if this is historical, or rather, the evangelists’ midrashic account to fulfill prophecies of Psalms). And, part of the mockery consisted in people saying that, if Jesus were truly a prophet, he would save himself (again, some sort of trial by ordeal). Jesus did not save himself, and yet, he was considered not just a prophet, but the Messiah. In Jesus’ case, the trial by ordeal obviously did not work. So, I’m a bit doubtful that James would apply a similar trial by ordeal to Paul. Rather, I would venture to say that, all along, James considered Paul a nuisance, and he was determined to get him out of the way.

            Sure, all of this seems like some sort of conspiracy theory, some secret hidden by the Church. But, Orlando’s book is no Da Vinci Code. In the New Testament there are no plain statements describing James’ conspiracy, but there are quite a few discrepancies between Paul’s letters and the book of Acts, and an adequate analysis of these discrepancies does lead to the conclusion that, if James did not eagerly deliver Paul to his own arrest, at least he wanted him out of the way. There are no secret documents hidden in some basement of the Vatican; but, the author of Acts, writing to Gentile audiences, wanted to conceal the truth about the early schism in the Church (Orlando assumes that the author of Acts is Luke the physician; while I agree that Luke and Acts come from one single author, I very much doubt he is the physician postulated by Irenaeus). The great irony highlighted by Orlando, however, is that even if Paul failed miserably in his personal mission and probably died in great desperation (Orlando assumes Paul died in Rome, although he could have considered the hypothesis that he was eventually released and did reach Spain), his branch of Christianity was to become prevalent, if only by a fortuitous event: the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and hence the impossibility to continue the Judaism practiced by James.
            This is a great book, and I highly recommend it. I would only express dissatisfaction with two minor and one major point. First, Orlando believes that the “thorn in the flesh” mentioned by Paul are actually James’ delegates; although Orlando provides plenty of Biblical references where “thorns” are actually human adversaries, I still hold on to the theory that the thorn may actually have been eye disease, otherwise, I cannot make sense of the big letters mentioned in Galatians 6:11. Second, Orlando assumes that the passage where Paul holds the Jews responsible for Jesus’ death is authentic (1 Thess 2:14-16), but this has been severely disputed by many scholars: although the passage is not absent in the earliest manuscripts, it does not seem to fit well with Paul, and may have been interposed by some Anti-Semitic scribe.
Third, towards the end of the book, when discussing Acts’ historical objectivity, Orlando mentions with sympathy “postmodernist” hermeneutics (among many other approaches) and even goes as far as to quote Jean Francois Lyotard. In my view, postmodernism is the greatest academic fraud of the 20th Century, and I seriously doubt Lyotard had even the slightest idea about Biblical scholarship (I have published a book, El posmodernismo ¡vaya timo!, where I refute many of the ridiculous claims made by postmodernists, and review Alan Sokal’s affair). But, my greater point is this: the author of Acts certainly knew he was not writing objective history, but at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, he claimed he was indeed an objective historian (and, not in vain, evangelicals today consider him a very objective historian). So, this author was, plain and simple, a liar. Aesop knew he was telling fictitious tales about talking animals to teach us moral lessons, but he never claimed these stories were real! That was not the case with the author of Acts.
Orlando tries to save Luke’s face by comparing his work with Virgil’s Aeneid. Well, the Aneid, very much as Acts, is an epic work of great literary value. But, in many ways, the Aeneid is, also as Acts, an immoral book: it is widely accepted by scholars that Virgil composed his poem to legitimate Rome’s imperial power, in other words, as Augustan propaganda. Acts is heavily propagandist as well. Propagandist works, by their very nature, are dishonest, and that makes them immoral. We could go on discussing whether or not propaganda writing is as bad as I think it is, but at least one thing is sure: if Acts was inspired by the creator of the universe, I do not think He would have chosen a dishonest historian to be its author.
Books as Orlando’s, in my view, do constitute a blow to faith. I do not think it is tenable to keep playing the liberal Christian game (as some scholars interviewed by Orlando do, i.e., Candida Moss), of acknowledging the very human origins of the New Testament and Christianity, and yet, somehow still affirming that God is behind it all. I think Orlando’s mentor, Gerd Ludemann, is much more honest about it: as far as I know, he simply could not continue being a Christian after his work as a scholar (although, of course, one may continue being a cultural Christian, as is also my case).

8 comentarios:

  1. Este comentario ha sido eliminado por el autor.

  2. Highly interesting, and I agree completely with you.

    I see that modern theologists and believers look like postmodernist thinkers ("Well, this is false, but it is true", "Science is dogmatic", "Everything works out").

    And you are right, Luke was a dishonest historian, but he was not alone: all early Christians were liars too, and that is why they used to attribute false sayings to Jesus (like the mesianic secret), they made up his resurrection and finally said (like fine postmodernist writers): "Well, boys, maybe the Kingdom is not come, but look inside you: it is there! Open your minds!"

    Today millions and millions of people believe in the most shameful failure in the history, which was followed by the highest mountain of lies and nonsenses (redemption, Trinity, Mary's perpetual virginity, and so on). Where are now the psychiatrists?

    1. Hi Jose, I very much agree with your portrayal of tehologians and postmodernists, "yes, but no".
      However, I disagree with one particular point: I don't think the sayings about the messianic secret were false. I think Jesus did say them. He believed he was the Messiah, but he did not want other people to know, until the very end. Why not? I guess he was afraid they would arrest him before the Kingdom came...

    2. I think the strength of post modernist thinking is that is focuses on the subjectivity and at times bias of the person thinking or perceiving. This fact must be taken into consideration in any situation, and it also tempers dogma.

  3. I will quote Gonzalo Puente Ojea, "¿Existió Jesús realmente?", pp. 173-4:

    "Este pasaje (Marcos 8, 31-33) es luminoso e inequívoco, y demuestra dos cosas:

    1) Que Pedro conocía la naturaleza mesiánica de la personalidad de Jesús en el contexto judío y específicamente davídico de las promesas de Yahvé [...]

    2) Que, inesperada e inexplicablemente, el mismo Jesús habría hecho una declaración antimesiánica que echaría por tierra la proclamación de mesianidad que acaba de admitir por la boca de Pedro, al anunciar lo que implícitamente descartaba la pretensión mesiánica de cualquier pretendiente, es decir, la derrota, la crucifixión y la resurrección [...]

    Puede afirmarse con sólidos fundamentos que esta silente profecía soteriológica no figuraba, ni explícita ni implícitamente, en ninguna tradición oral o escrita de procedencia prepascual, o sea, procedente de Jesús."

    It seems that Mark wrote this pericope in order to explain why nobody had ever heard Jesus saying that he was the Messiah: though he certainly was, he kept it secret.

    1. Hi Jose, I agree with Puente Ojea that Mark 8:31-33 is fictitious, as well as all other passages where Jesus presents himself as a suffering Messiah and announces his own death and resurrection. But, I do think that what happens immediately before that (Peter's confession at Cesarea Phillipi) is historical. So, in my view, Jesus did consider himself the Messiah and told his inner circle about it, but wanted to wait until the last moment to proclaim it. Thus, I repeat: Jesus did consider himself the Messiah, but in the tradicional Jewish sense, NOT in the current Christian sense of someone who had to suffer and die.

    2. I think that is a fair assessment because it shows that there was an understanding of the role of Messiah, but not in the later traditions sense, rather in the original Jewish sense.

  4. Yes, I know, I considered as ficticious just that Markan pericope.