“He who will not work shall not eat”: An explanation

This quotation from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is often trotted out to make the case against government benefits for the poor. What I’d like to do in this post is to clarify the context of this quotation to show that it cannot be construed to contradict the overriding biblical theme of concern for the poor.

Scholars believe that Paul came to Thessalonica fleeing persecution and fell in with a group of laborers (most likely leatherworkers, which is presented as Paul’s profession elsewhere in the New Testament). They formed a close bond, and Paul was able to win them over for the gospel. The occasion for the first letter to the Thessalonians arose when one of the leatherworkers apparently died. The remaining members were concerned that this person would miss out on the Second Coming because he had died slightly too soon — but Paul clarifies in the letter that actually the dead will be raised first, and then “we” will be taken up to join them. Obviously the situation envisioned here is that the End will be coming sooner rather than later, certainly within the readers’ lifetime. This letter is one of Paul’s most deeply felt writings — it is palpable that he really loves these guys and doesn’t want them worrying.

Shifting the scene to 2 Thessalonians, the tone has shifted dramatically. Instead of the tender consoler, Paul here is playing the role of the taskmaster. This shift, along with apparent contradictions in content, has led some scholars to conclude that this letter is actually a pseudonymous “correction” of the first letter, attempting to tone down some of the apocalyptic enthusiasm. I agree with this assessment, but for the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter whether it was the real Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians or not. Apparently some of the laborers have decided to quit their jobs in anticipation of the End, and the author clarifies that the End is not coming quite that soon — in the meantime, everyone should continue contributing to the community.

Two points stand out to me. First, this letter is almost certainly addressing a community of able-bodied men with a set profession. Second, it is responding to a scenario where people are voluntarily refraining from work out of what the author (whether Paul or someone else) believes to be a misguided apocalyptic enthusiasm. Given these facts, it seems deeply questionable to extract this verse as a general principle for public policy, much less to cite it as somehow overriding the clear priority of helping the poor that is pervasively attested throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Occupy Galatia!

It occurs to me that the current Occupy Everywhere movement bears certain similarities to (at least a certain interpretation of) the Pauline communities. The emphasis on consensus-based decision-making certainly coheres with Paul’s insistence on group unity, and the open-ended, process-oriented nature of the movement has certain parallels with the emphasis on creating a way of life that wouldn’t be mediated by an extrinsic law. And of course both movements are prompted by an injustice — whether it be the contemporary abuses of Wall Street or the Roman oppression symbolized by the crucified messiah.

It’s at this point, however, that the parallels seem to me to break down, because there is no single Transcendent Victim that the Occupy protesters are rallying behind. Read the rest of this entry »

The mystery of the economy

I’ve been working my way through the new translation of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory and finding it just as remarkable and thought-provoking as the first time around — only this time, I’ve had a few years to digest the ideas.

One thing that puzzled me when I first read it was his insistence on the importance of the shift between Paul’s notion of “the economy of the mystery” to the later patristic “mystery of the economy.” This time, it seems much clearer. Read the rest of this entry »

A modest proposal: The Collected Writings of Paul

In the last ten years or so, there has been a growing interest both in liberation readings of Paul within the biblical studies and theological guilds and in secular reappropriations of Paul by radical philosophers. Hence, I think that the time is perhaps ripe for a new presentation of the works of Paul: a volume that includes only the undisputed Pauline corpus, in a fresh translation carried out by biblical scholars of a liberation bent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book recommendation: Galatians Re-Imagined

This week, I’ve been working my way through Brigitte Kahl’s Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, and I recommend it heartily to all those interested in liberation readings of the New Testament. In my own attempts to develop a liberation reading of Paul, Galatians, with its seeming anti-Judaism, has proven to be a major obstacle — but Kahl’s book provides a lot of resources for radically rethinking the traditional reading. What she ends up with is basically in the tradition of Neil Elliott’s Liberating Paul, but along the way Kahl provides a lot of information that was new to me. Here are a few of the key facts. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday’s sermon: “Where’s the Death Certificate?”

The following is my draft for this Sunday’s sermon for Zion “Goshert’s” UCC, where I am Pastor.  We are a week behind in the lectionary because Easter 2 has been for the last few years a Love Feast, or an unscripted service of testimony and song.  Plus the discussion of OBL seemed to strike the Doubting Thomas story for me.  The Bible readings for the Sunday are Psalm 16:5-11, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and John 20:19-31.

I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with one of our church members one afternoon this past week, while another of our church members was in surgery, and on the flat-screen television set in the waiting room was the unending discussion and reporting of every single detail of Osama bin Laden’s death.  While it is clear that we should be asking about the legality of what happened and about our allegiances with Pakistan at this point, so much of the public curiosity since bin Laden’s death has been centered around photographs taken of his body.  And this is because apparently many Americans don’t believe that he is dead.

And I shouldn’t be surprised, since one of my own family members immediately informed me that he didn’t believe that Osama was dead, either.  Read the rest of this entry »

Presentation: “Agamben, Paul, and the Oath”

This afternoon, I was invited by my friend Virgil (Bill) Brower to give a presentation at Northwestern under the auspices of the Paul of Tarsus Reading Group. The topic is Agamben’s engagement with Paul in The Sacrament of Language, and you can read the text of my presentation here (PDF).

A brief thought on questions of Pauline authorship

I’ve finally made my way through Paul’s undisputed letters in Greek and am now aiming to read all the epistles this summer (having already read 1-3 John, James, 2 Peter, and Jude — the latter two because of the recent discussion of sodomy). This has been an excellent exercise for shoring up my Greek skills, but the main intellectual result has been to soften or nuance some of my views on Paul. First of all, I realize that I went into this project believing that I would find some clear overarching “Pauline system,” but that ran aground in Galatians — there’s something about having to work through a text in agonizing detail that makes it very difficult to breeze over things, which I was predisposed to do whenever I came across the clear contradictions in Galatians.

The solution, it seems, is to recognize change and development in Paul’s thought, which seems a sensible enough position in retrospect but which was apparently unavailable to me initially because of an unreflected-upon “scriptural authority” that Paul the man, if not all the letters under the name of Paul, still had for me. Once it is permissible to assume that Paul’s position is evoluving, though, I wonder how much the question of authorship matters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Translating St. Paul: Any human day?

Reading 1 Corinthians, I came across the following strange wording:

ἐμοὶ δὲ εἰς ἐλάχιστόν ἐστιν ἵνα ὑφ’ ὑμῶν ἀνακριθῶ ἢ ὑπὸ ἀνθρωπίνης ἡμέρας· ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἀνακρίνω·
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. (4:3 NRSV)

The bolded Greek words seem to be “by any human day” rather than “court.” Is this an idiom I’m missing? Is it meant to contrast the “Day of the Lord” with “human days”? (If it’s the latter, I wonder if there is an economical translation that could capture that aspect a little better than “any human court.”)

The collection in 2 Corinthians

One of the biggest benefits of going through Paul’s letters in Greek hasn’t been a flood of nuance — though there are some ideological or traditional distortions in the translations, for the most part they seem to be perfectly good — but simply being forced to slow down and study things in detail. Nowhere has that benefit been greater than in 2 Corinthians, where the fun ranting part in 10-13 has always led me to underplay the first 9 chapters, which actually contain some really interesting material that provide the greatest support for a “liberation” reading of Paul.

2 Corinthians provides the greatest detail concerning one of Paul’s greatest goals, which also seems to motivate his writing of Romans: the collection for the poor of Judea. Put briefly, it appears to be a desire to fulfill the prophecies that the nations will bring tribute to Israel — but it does an end-run around the powers and authorities of both groups, instead going for a grass-roots level offering from the poor of the nations to the poor of Israel. Perhaps this can inform what we’ve been discussing in previous posts about Paul’s call for the Gentiles to abandon idolatry: instead of stopping with that purely negative gesture, favoring the poor (particularly the poor of Israel) becomes a concrete way of identifying with the God of Israel.

What’s unclear to me is how we should understand what Paul was doing in Corinth and how he managed to attract an apparent critical mass of rich or powerful “converts.” He says over and over again that the Corinthians are his “boast” — perhaps getting the rich and powerful to go along with his mission represents a kind of tour de force (navigating the camel through the eye of the needle, so to speak)? And perhaps allowing other, poorer churches to provide support instead of letting the rich Corinthians keep him as a kind of “court philosopher” was a strategic move to humble them?

Another thought: exactly who was in charge of compiling these letters? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in economics, Saint Paul. Comments Off
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