What about the awkward teachings of St Paul?

Travelling to Thessaloniki Dr Mark Vernon reflects on some of the themes that emerge from St Paul’s writings to this early Christian community.

Reading between the lines of Paul’s letters, so as to catch a glimpse of what gripped the first generation of Christians, is always tricky. Never more so, I feel, than with the letters to the Thessalonians.

Though the first epistle is the earliest Christian text in the Bible, it could be thought of as warm but a bit bland. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their example and welcome (incidentally, in marked contrast to the account of his visit to the city in Acts: Luke tells us that a riot led to Paul making a rapid exit in the middle of the night). In the letter, Paul also appeals to the Thessalonians to remember that he speaks with divine not mortal authority, and to recall that he and his companions “worked night and day so as not to be a burden to you”.

The letters become more theologically interesting on one issue, though in relation to a subject that’s awkward for Christians living two millennia on. Paul teaches about the parousia or Second Coming. He corrects the Thessalonians for worrying that some of the brethren are dying before Christ has returned. Everyone will share in the resurrection, he writes, and be “caught up in the clouds”. Outside of American Rapture circles, does anyone believe that now?

All things gathered into Christ - but when?

All things gathered into Christ – but when?

But reading between the lines reveals more and, further, helps us relate to such themes. It helps to see Paul not only as a Jew but as an educated Hellenistic Jew. That can cast a different light on things.

For example, the detail about not being a burden has been interpreted by some scholars as a sign of how Paul was influenced by Stoicism. It seems to be the kind of attitude towards hospitality that a Stoic sage would commend, as opposed to, say, a travelling rabbi.

The Stoic teacher prided himself on living an integrated life. His or her knowledge of cosmic and divine matters did not mean that they didn’t care about the humdrum. In fact, they abhorred people who were so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use, because accurate self-perception was the crucial first step on the path to deep wisdom. As Socrates had insisted, Know Thyself! Paul too seems to be saying to the Thessalonians, I manifested such an integrated life, and that’s important for my authority.

The pastoral content of the letters develops the issue. Paul’s moral instructions about not fornicating, living quietly, and minding your own affairs exemplifies what scholars call paraenesis. It’s a type of unshowy morality that emerged from Stoicism, and other Hellenistic philosophy schools, and was regarded as exemplifying the veracity of your beliefs to others. Paul makes this kind of model behaviour his own, and frequently commends it to others.

Why might this be of interest? Well, seeing Paul in this light can help with a common difficulty felt in modern liberal circles: his awkward conservatism. Take a particularly tricky example, the passage in Colossians 3 about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. And now think of it as standard first century exemplary morality. I think that these injunctions would have been taken as self-evident cases of best behaviour at the time. Self-evident cases of best behaviour will inevitably be different now – wives and husbands sharing things, and masters freeing their slaves, say. In other words, such passages shouldn’t be read as timeless truths without context, as they are in contemporary debates about “male headship”.

Paul’s Stoicism can help with understanding his convictions on the Second Coming as well because Stoics too had an eschatology. Many argued that there would be a cosmic conflagration that would bring all things to glorious completion. The good Stoic should wait out the current times, behaving well, and so keep his soul ready for the fiery finale.

St Paul preaching to the Stoic philosophers

St Paul preaching to the Stoic philosophers

This is not at all to say that Paul was a fully signed-up Stoic. His eschatology is distinctive, involving the return of the Lord. But it is to say that such a belief would have resonated with other ideas current at the time, perhaps especially in a Greek city like Thessalonica. As with women obeying their husbands, and slaves their masters, placing Paul in his times – as a pilgrimage can so usefully do – helps us to distinguish the timeless revelation about which he was so passionate from the time-bound assumptions he also made.

Mark Vernon

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