Is Muhammad the better Paul?

In Romans 9-11, Paul lays out what he believes to be God’s plan for Paul’s work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Though the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the vast majority of Jews seems to be a huge defeat, God is actually using it as an opportunity to achieve something even greater: extending his promises to all nations. By Paul’s reckoning, once the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the messianic life opened up by Jesus’s death and resurrection, they will be so jealous that they will ultimately embrace Jesus. From a contemporary perspective, this view is appealing because it radically relativizes actual-existing Gentile Christianity — it is just a detour, an elaborate ploy in God’s bank-shot attempt to win over the Jews, who remain his real priority. And yet from a contemporary perspective, we must also admit that the plan does not seem to have worked out.

Yesterday I was reviewing some material from ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. Reading the whole of this vast and unwieldy document is not possible in the context of my course, so I selected portions on the religious and political background of the Arabian penninsula, Muhammad’s early life and ministry in Mecca, his work in Medina, and the events leading up to his triumph over the authorities in Mecca. One issue that will surely arise in this context is the question of “Islam and violence,” because it’s impossible to give a fair or comprehensible account of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam without taking into account such key events as the Battle of Badr. If commenters have any ideas for how I might address it in class discussion, I’d be eager to hear it (though I also expect that Shimer students will by and large be bending over backwards to be as fair-minded as possible and to avoid cliches about Islam, so perhaps it won’t be an issue).

One thing that struck me, amid all the undeniable brutality, is how often Muhammad chose not to press his advantage. Read the rest of this entry »

Islam course idea

As I work on my Islam course for the fall, it occurs to me that I’ll likely have more material than I can use in one course. Hence, I’m pondering the idea of proposing another Islam-related elective for the spring semester as well, which would have the added benefit of helping me solidify my own preliminary grasp on Islamic thought. I’ve thought especially about something like the Qur’an and the Bible, and more recently about something comparing St. Paul and Muhammed. What do you think, readers? Does any of this sound plausible, particularly that last idea?

“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 »

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