3 Reasons Why Apostle Paul Is the Crazy Uncle No One Wants to Talk About (and 2 Reasons Why We Need to Get Over That)

For many Christians--especially for conservative evangelicals--Paul's writings form the core teachings of their churches, from settling church squabbles to the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ.
10/08/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

The Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament and charted a course that Christians have been following (and fighting about) ever since. For many Christians--especially for conservative evangelicals--Paul's writings form the core teachings of their churches, from settling church squabbles to the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ.

So here's the irony: Paul's letters have long formed the core of Christian theology, but Paul's handling of his Bible makes him look like the crazy uncle you make excuses for or avoid entirely.

Here's why.

1. Paul read the Bible out of context.
Modern Christian readers are taught to read the Bible "in context." That means "respecting" what the biblical authors were intending to communicate, by paying close attention to the words they use and remembering to place it in their specific historical moment in time.

Reading "in context," provides a necessary boundary around the Bible that protects it from subjective flights of fancy, and from incompetent or disruptive readers who make the Bible say whatever they want it to say.

I agree with the reading "in context," but you know who didn't read in context? Paul didn't read the Bible that way. Context didn't bind him as it does modern readers.

For example, in Romans, Paul argues that Jesus's death and resurrection has made Gentiles and Jews full and equal partners in the eyes of Israel's God.

But that's not the problem. The problem is how Paul backs up that claim with his interpretation of the Bible.

In Romans 9:25-26, Paul quotes two passages from the book of the prophet Hosea (1:10 and 2:23), where God says those who are "not my people" will be called "my people" and will be "children of the living God."

Paul reads "not my people" as Gentiles who are then called by God to become "my people" - making Gentiles equal partners with Israel which has been on God's mind all along!

Only, Hosea isn't talking about God having mercy on Gentiles. "Not my people" refers to the rejected and stubborn Israel whom God will restore as his beloved people after a period of punishment.

The way that Paul interprets these texts is not what Hosea meant to say. Not at all.

2. Paul didn't just read scriptures in odd ways; he also accepted the odd readings of others who preceded him.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1-22, Paul recounts the Israelites and their period of desert wandering as a warning to his reader to be faithful to God today. According to the Old Testament, God provided water to the Israelites from a rock--at the beginning of the forty years of wandering (Exodus 17) and at the end (Numbers 20).

There are some Jewish interpreters that handled this scripture in a creative way by claiming that the two rocks that supplied water were in fact one and the same. They also believed that the rock accompanied the Israelites through the desert like a moveable water fountain.

Enter Paul. In verse 4 he connects not only this Old Testament episode to Christ (as he always does), but the moveable rock idea too. And so, in Paul's interpretation, Jesus is the "spiritual rock that followed" the Israelites in the desert.

Also, in Galatians 3:19, Paul says that the Law on Mt. Sinai given through Moses was "ordained through angels." (Acts 7:52-53 and Hebrews 2:2-3 say something similar.)

You can read the Old Testament upside down, backwards, or in Klingon, and you won't find any mention of a rock following the Israelites in the desert or angels involved in the giving of the Law.

However, it should be noted that Paul isn't just using his imagination in his own interpretive flair. An angelic presence on Mt. Sinai when God gave Moses the Law is part of Paul's Jewish heritage. This is where keeping the where and when in mind during Biblical interpretation is key.

And so, Paul accepts interpretations from outside sources of the Old Testament that aren't in the Old Testament - an act that ruffles many conservative Christian readers that believe Paul shouldn't endorse this sort of nonsense. Instead, Paul is supposed to correct it the "misinterpretation" and get the Bible right.

3. Paul pitted one verse of the Bible against another.
Conservative Christians in particular are taught that the various parts of the Bible are supposed to be cohesive. Theologically speaking, the entire Bible is "on the same page," and faithful readers need to assume that from the outset.

Paul apparently didn't get the memo. In Romans 10:5-8, Paul cites 2 passages from the Law of Moses and pits them against one another to make a point about Jesus.

First, Paul cites Leviticus 18:5, where Yahweh tells Moses that the Israelites are to "Keep my decrees, for the man who obeys them will live by them." Essentially saying - keeping the law is doable and a good thing.

In the very next verse, Paul cites Deuteronomy 30:13-14. Here, too, the commands of God to the Israelites are doable. They are not up in the heavens or somewhere across the ocean, they are not out of reach but instead they are right here-"in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it."

As they stand, these two texts from the Law are in complete harmony. But Paul finds a way to contrast them, to pit one against the other. Paul trumps Leviticus 18:5 with Deuteronomy 30:13-14.

Leviticus 18:5 presents a problem for Paul. He has been arguing throughout Romans that "life" does not come from obedience to the law but by faith in Christ.

To trump Leviticus, Paul calls up Deuteronomy. But how can he do that, seeing that they both say the same thing?

Even though Deuteronomy clearly says that the Law of God is right here - ready and waiting to be obeyed--Paul claims that Deuteronomy isn't about the Law of God at all. Instead, it's about having faith in Christ, free from the Law of Moses.

It's hard to pass over the idea that Paul is reading Deuteronomy against the grain, completely out of context, and only seeing what he wants in these texts.

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Why does Paul do these things? Two reasons.

(1) Paul was Jewish. Long before Paul arrived on the scene, Judaism had a history of creative engagement with its scripture. "Stick to the context" wasn't their rallying cry. "Find ways for our ancient scripture to speak to us today" was.

Paul was Jewish and handled his Bible with similar non-contextual flare to allow scripture to speak "today." Leading us to the second reason.

(2) Paul was a follower of Jesus. Paul read his Bible in creative, innovative ways because of his Jewish heritage. The extent of his creativity is explained by his faith in Christ.

Paul wasn't driven by a conviction to read the Bible "in context." He was driven by his belief that Jesus was the Messiah and raised from the dead by Israel's God.

For Paul, scripture was ultimately about Jesus, and getting the Bible "right" meant bending it towards Jesus.

This is where some Christians might have a problem, and I am 100% sympathetic to it. I also practice the art of biblical interpretation by paying close attention to what the biblical texts mean in their context.

But Paul didn't. And that's a problem.

I began this piece with something ironic and I think it's apt to end it with irony.

Maybe the problem isn't how Paul read the Bible, but how the Christian readers who says that they are reading the Bible in context, really are not.

Because if they were, this ancient Jewish Paul with his ancient Jewish ways of reading the Bible, wouldn't be called crazy but be understood within the context of his time.

Paul would have a seat at the head of the Thanksgiving table and he will be leading the rest of us in a lifelong conversation about Jesus the Messiah.