Ever found yourself floundering as you read Paul’s letters? Do you wonder if you’re missing something? Do you start reading a chapter full of determination, and then find yourself at verse 5 thinking about if you’ve fed the dog with little idea of what you have just read? If you are someone who finds Paul easy then good for you! This post is not for you, but rather for those, like me, who have a somewhat more difficult relationship with Paul.
I am a Physics teacher and I am proud of it. It has to be said that as a rule physics is not big on writing. Sadly, the exam boards are demonstrating a growing insistence on ‘long answer’ questions where students have to produce well argued, scientifically accurate, descriptive writing. All too frequently I come up against students’ work that is, frankly, incomprehensible.
Like a zooming bouncy ball set free in a squash court, students’ ideas lie camouflaged beneath sloppy, 100 mile-an-hour thinking. Wrapped in an impermeable membrane of SPAG errors, is a germ of something useful. Or at least I hope there is.
Out of my depth with Paul
We in life group have been looking at Ephesians, which I am sure you know dear reader, was written by Saint Paul. Putting it out there I feel like I am way, way out of my depth with Paul. Sure, there are passages containing wonderfully flowing prose, and passages with powerfully, evocative imagery. Think of Eph 1, Col 1, and Phil 2. However, I am with the writer of 2 Peter who says of Paul:
His letters contain some things that are hard to understand
Somewhat understated I feel.
If a contemporary of Paul’s could write this, then I can take some comfort in knowing that I am in very good company. Reading Paul needs to be done with a good measure of humility I think. But I want to be honest – I find some of his writing like trying to grab that energetic, cartoon bouncy ball flying around inside those four walls. Humanly speaking it is difficult to say for certain where the ball is, or where it is going; just like my students as they wrestle to express their ideas and insights clearly. ‘A good set of bullet points goes a long way’ I think, as it helps to strip away unnecessary detail, and gives form to the random connections inside the average student’s brain. Surely Paul would have benefited from trying to express his ideas in bullet points.
Thing is though, Paul is clearly very intelligent, and had a deep, deep understanding of his roots. He also had a lot to say, and much of his writing is addressing specific issues in specific times, though it is thought that Ephesians was a more of a general letter on doctrine that did the round of the local churches in Ephesus and beyond. Having said that I often wish I could share a coffee with Paul and get him to summerise his ideas. There is so much I want to ask him.
Getting into Paul’s Headspace
On my MA track, I took a module on Paul. This was taught by a very enthusiastic and skillful Canadian Lecturer who did his best to help me get into Paul’s headspace. As was one of the foremost Pauline Scholars in the world, he focused on Paul’s understanding of Judaism, and the theologically disruptive interloper that Paul famously met on the road to Damascus. He had some success. Being shown just how politically subversive and counter cultural Paul’s epistles are was very exciting – there is a tendency to suggest that Paul went along with the power structures of his day No way – Paul was very counter cultural.
Back to life group. This all came to a head for me as we started looking at Ephesians. To be honest I had not really prepared very much (come on, admit it – I hadn’t prepared at all because I could not come to a firm decision about what we were going to do — Micah or Ephesians…) In the end I figured we could just read Ephesians chapter 1, and then have one of those ‘what jumped out at you’ discussions. This is my standard ‘starter for 10’ question anyway and it can often be very productive.
Long, long sentences go Flying over my Head
On this particular evening our conversation was bobbing along nicely when the issue of the complexity of Ephesians 1 came up. Its not that the individual little groupings of words are hard to grasp on their own, just that as you put them together into long, long sentences that bounce around so it becomes hard to hold onto what is being said. Surely, if this letter was read to the congregation at Ephesus, it would have gone over most of their heads? Given that they were illiterate, uneducated people then they just wouldn’t have got it. And worse, most likely they would have listened to all 6 chapters in one sitting.
This created quite a lot of back and forth. If this letter was written to ‘God’s holy people in Ephesus’ then it was mostly likely not written to just the intellectual elite, but rather read out – maybe to anyone who wanted to hear it. We picture the early church as being very inclusive, which is after all how Paul described it (Gal3:28) and if this is correct then the audience would have been very educationally diverse.
Picture the Scene
You could picture the scene – a class of mixed ability students all being read to in an ‘I speak – you listen’ style. Giving careful attention at first, the students soon realize that the letter is explaining new and complex material, seemingly without laying a foundation. ‘Key terms’ and ‘buzz phrases’ are plentiful, but with little (if any) testing of understanding or previous knowledge! In teaching terms this would be a recipe for an OFSTED ‘Needs improvement’ rating – the inevitable result being boredom and frustration leading to sleep at best and disruption at worst.
Of course, I parody. But this does raise a number interesting questions. I wonder, how the hearers related to the content as it was read to them? Was it hard for them to take it in? Are we even correct in our assumption that they were mostly illiterate and uneducated? Sure, some of them would have been, but it is certainly true that illiterate does not mean “thick” or uneducated. Far from it.
Even if they couldn’t read, it seems that back then people were “awake” to this kind of theological language. After all, Ephesus was a cult center for the goddess Diana. Religion saturated the culture in a way that has been lost to us now. Ideas surrounding worship, sacrifice and divinity seeped into everyday life. Consider too the reaction of the ‘common people’ to Jesus as he taught the Sermon on the Mount – clearly they were interacting with this material. Yet you could full a library (or a server!) with people’s attempts at understanding it. (Mat 7:28) Though I can’t back it up, (yet) I have long suspected that our ancestors were not as ‘uneducated’ and gullible as they are often portrayed. And of course, there were plenty of teachers in the early churches too.
What has this to do with us then? I found the discussion quite sobering. It was good to know I am not alone in having to wrestle when I read Paul, and my mind drifts away… On one level I think we loose out because Paul was writing to an audience that was more theologically literate than we are. This is not a criticism so much as an observation. Theological concepts are covered over now, and are not much remembered in day to day life by our society. The result is that Paul can seem very alien to us. I think most likely that taken in the round more people would have understood more of Paul than we think. Put simply, they were better equipped to do so
But this is also a very positive thing. If there is a theological vacuum now, then we have an opportunity to identify and throw off bad teaching and wrong understandings of Paul’s work. There is a great deal of discussion in the academy which attempts to relate Paul more effectively to our culture today. Of course, some even question if this is important. Personally, I think it is vitally important and a very, very exciting opportunity for the church to grow again.
I do wonder what Paul would make of our understanding of his native Judaism. I intend to write about this in the next post.
For now though, I suspect he’d shudder at it.