The Diversity of Pauline Traditions

By Deirdre Good

The author of 2 Peter admits that there are some things in the letters of Paul that are hard to understand. Perhaps the author had Paul’s attitude to marriage in mind. Given the shortness of time, in I Cor 7 Paul commends the unmarried state without qualification to young and old, women and men alike, while in another place, (I Tim 2:15) he stipulates that a woman is subject to male authority and that she will be saved through childbearing.

To reconcile these opposing sentiments and others like them, scholars have come up with various solutions. Among the more creative is one by C. Wilfred Griggs, Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, who explains Joseph Smith’s addition to the text after I Cor 7:29 (italics are mine and indicate additions):

“But I speak unto you who are called unto the ministry. For this I say brethren, the time that remaineth is but short, that ye shall be sent forth unto the ministry. Even they who have wives shall be as though they had none; for ye are called and chosen to do the Lord’s work.”

Paul is not condemning marriage in this chapter, Prof Griggs argues, but is advising missionaries who wish to become married that while they are on their missions (and the time for missionary work is short) they should be concerned with the work of the Lord and not with family or personal matters.

Other scholars, myself included, prefer not to add anything to Paul’s words, however obscure and challenging they might seem. They propose that followers of Paul wrote several documents in his name after Paul’s death, “clarifying” Paul. Among them are the Pastoral Epistles of 1&2 Timothy and Titus that apply Paul’s teachings to late first and early second-century situations after his death. “Paul” of the Pastoral Epistles eschews celibacy, accepting and promoting instead hierarchical ideas about relations between men and women in so-called household codes. These household codes advocate a hierarchy of domestic arrangements that echo some Pauline statements but which are alien to others such as those proclaiming that life in Christ transforms sexual and ethnic distinctions (Gal 3:28). Paul’s teaching commending the unmarried state for men and women reappears after Paul’s death in the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla. In this text not found in the New Testament, Paul preaches a version of the Sermon on the Mount blessing “those who keep the flesh chaste, for they shall become the temple of God.” Thecla hears Paul’s word of purity and renounces her engagement in favor of following Paul the itinerant missionary. She assumes this lifestyle for herself, becoming a role model for other Christian women.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla and the New Testament shed light on each other: the Corinthian community of saints proposes to embody holiness and to enact purity through renunciation of genital sexuality. Bodies are called temples of God and made holy by their relationship to Christ. Similarly, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul exhorts hearers to forego patriarchal marriage for a lifestyle free of marriage to preach the gospel, showing mutual hospitality and a shared economy. Thecla’s autonomy and self-determination came at a price: she lost home and protection and in the narrative is tried and condemned by a Roman court

Pauline tradition in the second-century seems to have bifurcated into two distinct interpretative streams originating from Paul’s preaching and letters. The more conservative one found expansion and elaboration in the Pastoral Epistles of I and II Timothy and Titus. The other less hierarchical one advocating a celibate condition in which women and men exercised a particular freedom, fell out of mainstream favor as the time became patently less short. One cannot understand Paul’s teaching on marriage without understanding how Pauline tradition was interpreted after his death. And one cannot understand Pauline tradition–on marriage or anything else–without taking into account all the literature that bears Paul’s name. How the Pastoral Epistles came to be included in the New Testament and the Acts of Paul and Thecla excluded is in part answered by what we know of the development of the canon-the process of selecting which documents came to be regarded as authoritative as sacred scripture.

In the next few weeks, I will be posting pieces on a number of writings outside the New Testament that shed light on the period of Christian Origins. Why might anyone be interested in writings not included in the New Testament? I suggest several reasons: it took four centuries for the writings that make up the New Testament to be identified as canonical, that is as authoritative. If we want to understand the period of Christian Origins from an historical perspective, then we will do well to know about and even read some of these texts preserved or subsequently excluded by our ancestors in the Christian tradition. Christians today do not agree which texts are authoritative; do not subscribe to a single canon. Oxymoronic though it may seem, diversity of canons is a fact: the Roman Catholic’s canon, for example, contains more ancient texts than the Protestant’s. The Ethiopian canon of scripture encompasses the longest list of texts regarded as sacred scriptures. I do not propose to open a canon; I propose to open our minds to texts excluded from the canon, so that we may know something of the originality and diversity of early Christian writings in order to understand the richness and complexity of Christian tradition.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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