Category Archives: Letters of St. Paul

Justification, freedom & other core concepts

Philemon (New Testament person)

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Paul’s letters get pretty deep sometimes.  The supplemental reading “Ten Effects of the Christ Event” helps with some of the complicated concepts. We’re supposed to address three of these effects, including justification, on our Unit test this weekend. Good thing it’s only three, as I suspect I’ll need several more encounters with some of these notions to truly understand them.

From our student workbook, New Testament Foundations: Jesus and Discipleship, page 121:

  1. Justification (Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians): God declares the sinner to be in a right relationship with God because of what God has done in Christ.
  2. Salvation (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians): God rescues humanity from evil.
  3. Reconciliation (Romans and 2 Corinthians): God changes the relationship between humanity and himself from one of alienation to one of love, friendship, and intimacy.
  4. Expiation (Romans): Christ’s death has achieved for humanity once and for all what the Day of Atonement ritual symbolized.
  5. Redemption (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians): Christ’s death ransomed humanity from slavery to sin.
  6. Freedom (2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians): Christians enjoy the status of citizens in the heavenly polis or city-state.
  7. Sanctification (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians): Christians are dedicated to the service of God.
  8. Transformation (Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians): Christians are in the process of being changed.
  9. New Creation (Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians): God has created humanity anew.
  10. Glorification (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians): God is giving Christians a share in the divine presence that Christ already enjoys.

In search of the authentic St. Paul

St. Paul statue in front of St. Peters Basilic...

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Gene has pointed out several times that experts disagree on Paul’s letters—which ones are authentic, etc. I’ve become familiar with the viewpoint of one of those scholars, Luke Timothy Johnson (a former Benedictine monk), and find it very helpful. Hope I can express it clearly.

Paul, in the early church, was primarily viewed as a founder of churches, a moral teacher, and a martyr, not a theologian. Much of what seems inconsistent or contradictory in his letters springs from the fact that he was reacting to a situation, not preaching from a systematic theology. He was thinking on his feet, like a good pastor.

Paul used the literary conventions of classical rhetoric. His purpose was primarily to persuade, and he would adopt different literary “characters” to do so. Sometimes when he writes in the first person, it is rhetorical. The emotions we detect—anger, joy, etc.—are often rhetorical and not personal.

The letter to the Romans was written as a scholastic diatribe, stating a thesis, arguing its truth through an antithesis (the opposite point), restating the thesis, giving ancient (scriptural) examples, raising and answering arguments. Typical is the use of rhetorical questions with short, abrupt answers.

  • Thesis: The righteous person will live out of faith
  • Antithesis: The wrath of God is revealed by sin, the opposite of faith
  • Restated thesis: The faith of Jesus saves humans.
  • Scriptural example: Abraham.

Our NAB study Bible concurs that Romans has the form of a diatribe. See note on Romans 7:7-25 (page 1503), where Paul uses the first-person singular for the sake of argument. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.

Other Professor Johnson theories:

  • Some scholars believe a Pauline school after his death wrote some of the disputed letters. Why not hypothesize a Pauline school before his death, with the members working out some of these concepts together? (Here I imagine close associates, such as Timothy or Titus.) Romans, in fact, has the feel of a classroom situation, with students raising arguments and the professor answering them. Under this theory, Paul could have authored every letter (sending them out under his signature, much like the president authors his State of the Union speeches), but not actually written any of them!
  • The letters to Timothy and Titus are highly disputed, partly for the difference in style – “a more Hellenistic sound and vocabulary.” One explanation: They were written not to a diverse audience but to trusted lieutenants who were trained, as Paul was, in Greek rhetoric. These letters do not fit the familiar pattern of letters to individual churches, such as at Corinth or Thessalonika. But they do follow literary conventions of the day: 2 Timothy as a letter of advice, 1 Timothy and Titus as instructions of a governor or ruler to his delegate. Otherwise, the letters have similarities in content or theme with other writings of Paul.

I don’t know enough to raise objections to these theories. But some of our readings that argue against Paul’s authorship of certain letters seem so convoluted. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of Johnson’s argument.

Ephesians, the gospels, and domestic violence

I was very moved by what Gene had to say about Scripture, church teachings, and domestic violence:

  • That abusive men distort Ephesians 5:22 to justify their behavior. (“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”)
  • That abusers cite the gospels in demanding forgiveness.
  • That church teaching on the permanence of marriage vows leads some women to stay in an abusive relationship.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has addressed these distortions and misconceptions. “Religion can be either a resource or a roadblock for battered women,” it wrote in 2002’s When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women. “As a resource, it encourages women to resist mistreatment. As a roadblock, its misinterpretation can contribute to the victim’s self-blame and suffering and to the abuser’s rationalizations.”

Thoughtful reading for all of us. … Here’s a link to the complete statement:

Letters of St. Paul, at a glance

Having a greater familiarity with the writings of St. Paul has already enriched my understanding of Sunday readings. That seems to be the purpose of our current unit in Catholic Biblical School: To recognize the context and major themes of Paul’s letters. A quick overview is all we can manage in such a short time.

Here are the themes of Paul’s ten major letters, as outlined in our workbook. The letters are roughly in chronological order.

  • 1 Thessalonians: Watchfulness in view of the imminent return of Christ. Concern about those who had died and whether they will be saved. Church life.
  • Galatians: Justification by faith in Christ. Freedom from the Mosaic Law (in Christ). The different gospel of salvation preached by Judaizers.
  • Philippians: Kenosis--the self-emptying of Christ. Warning against false teachers. Unity, joy.
  • Philemon: Appeal to accept runaway Christian slave Onesimus.
  • 1 Corinthians: Factionalism. Eucharist. Ecclesiology. Ethics. Gifts of the Spirit. Love. Resurrection from the dead.
  • 2 Corinthians: Paul’s relationship with Corinthian church. The importance of reconciliation. Collection for the Jerusalem church. Paul’s apostolic authority.
  • Romans: Justification by faith in Christ. God’s salvation. Israel in God’s plan—why many Jews have not become Christians. Ethical demands. Holy Spirit within us. Baptism.
  • 2 Thessalonians: Signs that must precede the second coming of Christ. The necessity of working and not being idle. Ethical exhortation.
  • Colossians: Christ’s place in the universe as supreme over all (cosmic Christ). Warning against false teaching. Household codes.
  • Ephesians: Doxology—praise to God. Exhortation to unity. Ecclesiology–the universal church with Christ as its head. Household codes.

Friends and Romans, lend me your ears

Mosaic of St.Paul in Veria.

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Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans to a predominantly Gentile Christian church between 56 and 58 A.D. He did not found the church and had never visited. But how is it that there was a vibrant church there at all? Weren’t Christians expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius? Paul met two of those expelled, Priscilla and Aquila, in Corinth.

Oh, this is confusing. In my ignorance before beginning serious Bible study, I assumed the church in Rome was large  simply by virtue of its presence in the capital of the Roman empire. Not so.

Here’s the timeline as I now understand it. My sources are The Catholic Study Bible, page 1493; The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 1080; and Erdmaan’s Dictionary of the Bible (entries on “Prisca/Priscilla,” page 1084; and “Romans, Letter to The,” page 1136).

Rome had a large Jewish community. Belief in Jesus likely arrived through merchants’ contacts with Jerusalem. According to Roman historian Suetonius, disturbances “instigated by Chrestus” (Christ) prompted the expulsion edict in 49 A.D.

Priscilla and Aquila were among those forced to leave. She was likely freeborn; her husband was a Jewish tentmaker from Pontus. They met Paul in Corinth and worked alongside him, making tents, for about 18 months. They moved to Ephesus and founded a house church there.

Claudius died in 54 and some of the Jewish Christians returned to Rome. They were surprised to find a large number of Gentile Christians—followers of Jesus had multiplied. Priscilla and Aquila moved back and founded another house church.

So Paul had several friends among the individual Christian churches of Rome. In the last chapter of his letter, he greets them, making special mention of Priscilla and her husband: Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles; greet also the church at their house.

As I see it, Paul wasn’t writing to total strangers. He knew his lengthy letter would have a receptive audience in at least some homes.

Running and wrestling with St. Paul


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Have you noticed how often St. Paul uses sports analogies, particularly running? I was first made aware of this last year when I read James Michener’s The Source. The character Eliav addresses the different concepts of sportsmanship in the Old Testament and New Testament. It was the Hellenizing influence on Paul, Eliav explains. Paul would have attended the great games at Antioch. “It was from him that Christians gained their idea of the moral life as a struggle against competitors.”

Once you become aware of this, you find sporting terms throughout the Pauline letters.

  • I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)
  • I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. … You were running a good race. … Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 2:2 and 5:7)
  • He is always wrestling in prayer for you … (Colossians 4:12)

They are especially appropriate in Macedonia and Achaia (Greece). Notes Collegeville Commentary on First Corinthians: “His readers’ familiarity with sports makes Paul’s athletic illustrations appropriate for suggesting the proper motivation to inspire a healthy Christian self-discipline, sacrifice, and renunciation. The Corinthians had a special need for balance …”

Prime example: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

And of course, perhaps the most famous, from Second Timothy:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;  in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7)

A simple greeting rich with meaning

Beginning Sunday (January 16), and running through February 20, the second reading each week is from First Corinthians. I shall hear the readings with a far more attentive ear this year, after studying Paul’s letters to his beloved but willful church in Corinth!

This week’s begins with the first few verses, Paul’s greeting, ending with a phrase familiar to us: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Similar words are found at the beginning of Second Corinthians, and almost all of Paul’s letters.  And the phrase is used in one of our greetings at Mass: “The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

According to Collegeville Commentary, “grace” was a common greeting among Greeks and “peace” among the Jews, so joining the two of them was Paul’s way of recognizing the mixed character of the church–both Jewish and Gentile Christians.

My lectors’ workbook has some further insight, keeping in mind the discord among the churches in Corinth.”When you speak this greeting, think of the power of the peace of Christ, and offer it with warmth, sincerity and reverence for the people before you. Paul’s greeting reminds the Corinthians (and us), that despite divisions on some issues, they have been called to be holy and set apart by God, to live as Christ’s disciples in unity with him.” Amen!