solving the issues by avoiding them

I decided to take today off and do some mindless, random things from home.  Two forces were at work in making this decision: 1) yet another headache, which began yesterday afternoon and shows no signs of departing, and 2) I typically take a day after a supervisory meeting to internalise the conversation and map out how I will proceed.  However, because of the headache my mapping out skills are laughable at the moment, thus I am doing things that require less thought.  In this case, I’m doing some reading of 19th and early 20th century scholarship on Paul.  Yeah, I have a headache, mental cartography issues, want to do minimal thinking and reading old Pauline scholarship is my drug of choice.  I’ll seek help eventually.

Quick summary for those unfamiliar with Pauline scholarship: for the curious student of Paul there are a handful of significant issues, especially pertaining to the chronology of his life.  One of these issues deals with his birth in Tarsus and his years in Jerusalem.  This issue raises all sorts of other questions about Paul’s education (i.e. was it primarily Jewish, Graeco-Roman, or was it a mixture?), which city was the primary hub for his training, and at what points he pursued such things.  Another issue follows from the Jerusalem question, and that is whether or not Paul had any awareness or knowledge of either Jesus or Jesus’ ministry.  This discussion often emerges in light of the assumption that Paul’s education in Jerusalem took place somewhere between 15 and 30 CE.  Other big questions naturally follow from how one deals with that one, but we’ll leave those alone for now.

A third issue has two parts: 1) Paul’s instructor was Gamaliel, the famed Pharisaic-rabbi* of the 1st century.  Gamaliel was known for his wise council and his desire to avoid controversy if possible.  In Acts 5.33-40, we see Gamaliel instructing the members of the Sanhedrin to leave the Jesus-followers alone and not take any action against them.  2) In Acts 8.1-3 and 9.1-2, we see Paul (still called ‘Saul’ at this point)** going absolutely mental on the Jesus-followers.  Thus, the issue is fairly obvious: if Paul was a faithful student of Gamaliel (which would be the natural assumption), why would he ignore the wise, non-controversial council of his instructor; why does Paul attack the Jesus-followers when Gamaliel said leave them alone?  There are other concerns with this that I have to sideline for now, but you see my main point.

Those are good enough for now; there are certainly many other issues that one must confront when doing Pauline studies.  While reading through this book on the life of Paul, I came across an chronology that deals with the issues in a rather surprising way: it simply avoids them.  Here is the breakdown that the book supplies (adapted slightly from page xi), which is admittedly reflective of another work on Paul:

  • 3 CE . . . . . . . birth in Tarsus
  • 16-26 CE . . . taught by Gamaliel in Jerusalem
  • 26 CE . . . . . . return to Tarsus
  • 27-30 CE . . . ministry of Jesus
  • 30-35 CE . . . spread of the Jesus-followers
  • 35 CE . . . . . . Paul returns to Jerusalem, takes part in the martyrdom of Stephen
  • 35-36 CE . . . Paul persecutes the Jesus-followers

I won’t quibble with the birthdate; it’s close enough as far as I’m concerned.  However, the remaining dates and the details pertaining to those dates prompted laughter from me and the quibbling nature of this post.  Conveniently, this scheme places the training of Paul and his (assumed) departure back to Tarsus prior to the ministry of Jesus, which presumably settles one of the key issues with ease.  In this case, the question about Paul’s knowledge of Jesus and/or Jesus’ ministry is settled by saying: Paul was not even around to hear about Jesus or his ministry.  Moreover, this scheme places Gamaliel’s non-controversial advice during Paul’s hiatus from Jerusalem.  Thus, two issues are solved at once: Paul was not being disobedient to his instructor by persecuting the Jesus-followers when he did so; he was simply acting without knowledge of what his instructor suggested during his absence in Tarsus.

While this chronological scheme is certainly intriguing by its ability to deal with significant issues in Pauline studies in one go, it is ultimately based on one particular detail and that detail is nothing more than mere conjecture.  (The detail being Paul’s [convenient] return to Tarsus in 26 CE and his [convenient] return Jerusalem in 35 CE).  Admittedly it is difficult to prove that Paul did not return to Tarsus during this time, for the first mention of Paul in Acts is the martyrdom of Stephen in 35 CE–according to this scheme.  The difficulty is rooted in the fact that no data exists to justify the claim that Paul did not return to Tarsus.  However, by the same token, no data exists to justify the claim that he did return.  So it appears as though this attempt at solving key issues by avoiding them has ultimately created a new one.

* Just a small rant: unlike a small handful of popular preachers today, I use the term ‘rabbi’ is the more general sense (i.e. ‘teacher’) when referring to Jewish teachers prior to the fall of Jerusalem.  Contrary to what is being said by these popular preachers, the term ‘rabbi’ does not take on the more specific and unique nuance (i.e. ‘Rabbi’ with a capital) until near the end of the 1st century CE.  When I say that Gamaliel was a ‘Pharisaic-rabbi’ I am simply pointing out that he was a Pharisee and a teacher of Pharisaic Judaism.  (For extra credit: Gamaliel was a teacher of the Hillel school of Pharisaic Judaism).  Rant done.
** Another small rant: Paul’s name was not changed as a result of his Damascus Road experience.  Many preachers today preach that, but they preach it without justification.  The textual evidence (and the logic) of Acts points to the fact that Paul had two names and was known by both.  Rant done.

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