Thursday, April 5, 2012
The Apostle Paul in Prison: its effect on the New Testament and the Church
So how did he get his letters out of the prison? Dietrich Bonheoffer had a friendly guard; so did Paul, but it is one thing to have a pencil and paper, quite another to have a quill, ink bottle, papyrus. Probably someone was even brought in to take dictation. That leaves the usual option: with the permission of the authorities.
Probably – well, possibly – in Rome when he was first under house arrest Paul had his choice of to whom he would dictate a letter. There would be no guardian angel to slip it out to a courier, however; that is out of the question. Money was passed – probably - but a censor would still go over it, of that we can be sure. This man was accused of creating social unrest in a significant area in the Empire. We can lay bets that someone, or more likely several, were in on the decision whether to let Paul get out any communications to his followers. This Jesus had been executed by order of a Roman authority and by Roman soldiers; that first letter would be particularly well debated and Paul would be well aware of that – enough so that perhaps we can even take a good guess at which one.
Does that reality collide with some forms of theological thinking? Almost a certainly; that form of thought is a very human stretch at enlarging our understanding. A theology may be brilliant – by our standards - but then we are always pulled towards a greater understanding. We anxious humans strain mightily at absolute certainty, but Actuality has His/Her way of winding outwards and upwards.
When we look at those seven letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, contemporary scholarship has raised questions whether any, or which, are authentically Paul’s. The reasoning is studious and beyond reproach. I think, however, all seven are his. Creditability was the crucial issue in those earliest decades; the time when they might have been written by others was one of still on-coming persecutions. To have written a letter supposedly by Paul would have attracted the attention of the politically appointed, who were not reluctant with axes. A letter writer would be painting a ring around his neck: to write a supposed letter from a person executed by order of the Emperor himself .
Some Christian sectarian would have undoubtedly risked it. In some aftertimes it might have be done. Looking at the letters in question, however, the unsolvable is: what is the motivation? The suspected letters are mostly organizational commonalities flavoring the religious thoughtfulness; it is our openness to the Spirit that makes for the larger dimensions.
The conclusion to which we finally came in our book is that we were looking at a game often played by prisoner and the powerful, as old as hands tied behind the back. " I am agreeable to something if you agree to let me...' Paul would have long since become an expert with negotiating with whomever was jingling the keys.
What the officials in the Empire had to gain from these letters is identifiable: compliance. It is what was emphasized by the Church-and-State officials after that political re-arrangement was made some centuries after. You people stay in line: slaves, wives, you little ones. Bow your heads respectfully to the status quo, to the powers that be. Our social arrangements do not last forever; God at work. Jesus is crucified. Christ has arisen.
Do you know someone who might be interested in reading this? Just “forward to.”