Sunday, December 16, 2018

Real Paul and Fake Paul

Marcus Antonius Felix was the procurator of the Roman province of Iudaea between A.D. 52 and 58. Secular history tells us he was a Greek, known for his cruelty and fond of bribes. His rule was characterized by political unrest, which he put down ruthlessly. He married three times, his middle wife being a Jewish divorcee named Drusilla who died two decades later in the famous first century eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

It would not be wildly out of line to suggest Felix’s “rather accurate knowledge” of The Way was likely a direct consequence of this second marriage.

An Imaginary Debate

The apostle Paul appeared before Felix at the tail end of his term as governor. His defense at Caesarea is profoundly damaging to Andy Stanley’s case for decoupling the Testaments and “unhitching [o]ur teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant.”

Chapter 22 of Stanley’s book Irresistible contains an imaginary debate between Paul and atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris which starts with a series of actual Dawkins and Harris quotes intended to vilify the entity they describe as the “God of the Old Testament”, to which Stanley provides a fictionalized Pauline rejoinder. If other Christians reading Stanley’s response find it as lame and uncompelling as I do, rest assured there are good reasons. For one thing, it sounds remarkably unlike anything the apostle ever said. Luke records four of Paul’s defenses before both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 22, 23, 24 and 26), so it’s not like we have a dearth of material to compare with Stanley’s version.

Putting Words in Paul’s Mouth

Here it’s not merely the tone but the content that is wildly off. Stanley’s version of Paul says this:
“If you’re going to dismiss the Christian faith, it’s not enough to discount the credibility of my Jewish ancestors. You’ve got to discount me!
Now, Paul is not shy about using his conversion testimony with Gentiles when he believes it will help his case; in fact, he mentions it to King Agrippa two chapters later. With Felix, however, he takes his stand for the Christian faith on the compatibility of his own teaching about Christ with that of the Law and Prophets of Judaism:
“This I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.”
Rather than distancing himself from the “credibility of my Jewish ancestors”, the real apostle embraces everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets.

The Credibility of Jewish Ancestors

He does this with Agrippa too, referring to “my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day,” and following it with this:
“I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
If Moses and the prophets said it, Paul believes it. Contra Stanley, the credibility of Paul’s Jewish ancestors is critical to the argument he makes to both Gentile rulers.

Furthermore, in the real scriptures, Paul links himself to the very “God of the Old Testament” that Dawkins so disparages:
“I worship the God of our fathers.”
Yes, this would be the very same individual Dawkins calls:
“… the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Moreover, Paul does not even disparage the way his fellow Jews interpreted the Old Testament on the odd occasion that they got it correct (“having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept”). He shows no reluctance at all to link his “new” Christian message, which Stanley so painstakingly distinguishes from earlier revelation, to the very revelation Stanley (and Dawkins) deem so problematic. And why not? It was Paul whose interpretation of the Old Testament was truly orthodox, not that of the Pharisees.

History Trumps Rhetoric

Paul was familiar with all the very same Old Testament incidents and testimony about God that so attract Dawkins’ ire, considerably more so than either Dawkins or Harris. Yet the apostle had no problem identifying himself fully with the teaching of the Old Testament and the God that same Old Testament presented to the world. He staked his own credibility on it.

You can see why Stanley is forced to construct his fictional Pauline defense without the slightest reference to things Paul really says in the book of Acts: Luke’s history totally eviscerates the false, modernist argument Stanley is so at pains to construct.

History itself necessarily trumps a man’s rhetoric about it, however passionate.

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