The recent book Paul the Progressive? by Eric Smith is an attempt to rehabilitate the image of Paul and his outsized influence on the New Testament and Christianity. Within the introduction, Smith writes, “This book is an attempt to convince you think about Paul differently. I hope that I can convince you that Paul was not a misogynist, a homophobe, an anti-Semite, a prude, an apologist for slavery, a defender of arbitrary government power, a purveyor of spiritual debt and guilt, or hijacker of the Christian tradition. I hope I can introduce you to a Paul who was early Christianity’s great champion of inclusion, constantly pushing the boundaries of how people thought about God’s family.” (3)
Over nine chapters, Smith assesses various reasons why some have disassociated from the Pauline epistles, using the above negative associations (Paul the Misogynist, Paul the Homophobe, Paul the Anti-Semite, etc.) as a framework for applying his criteria for discerning the “real” Paul. This methodology requires one to separate what are considered authentic documents from the person of Paul and those that were likely composed after his death by leaders in the early church (this is a practice known as pseudepigraphy). Secondly, to engage with the Pauline texts on their own rather than attempt to reconcile with a different genre than includes him (The Acts of the Apostles). Third, to judge Paul based on what he is recorded to have done over what is in the text. (For example, we know that there were women who served in ministry leadership with him, which out to carry more weight than a literal and eternal interpretation for church leaders to only be married men. And fourth, to recognize that we each look at Paul through our own contextual lens and our priorities and understandings shift due to time and place.
What this book succeeds in doing is bridging the gap between recent academic inquiries into the Pauline corpus and a broader non-academic audience. Beginning in the chapter “Is Paul an Anti-Semite”, Smith begins to introduce the work of the “New Perspective on Paul”. This approach is where the book has the opportunity to make a broader impact as it brings contemporary scholarship into conversation with the level of bible study being done in most churches. He returns to this material throughout the remaining chapters and does a thorough job demonstrating the impact of reconsidering the Traditional View and its flattening of Pauline material.
While the book may help to recover “Paul”, the issues raised are still present within the text and their use is still active in the church. The role of pseudonymous authorship merely shifts the material by a generation or so (the primitive church to the early church, I suppose). Moreover, the role of Paul is purely symbolic to most readers who consider “the bible” to be a single, internally consistent anthology.
The reader will need to determine for themselves whether this argument is successful or not, as it pertains to how one views the role of sacred scripture and tradition and the separation of a text from its authorship. While it will comfort some to take problematic texts out of the mouth of Paul, they still remain within our Protestant Canon and need to be addressed for any type of synthesis between a textual tradition and a contemporary faith. So while the texts that have been used as tools oppression may not be a true rendering of Paul, they are nonetheless “biblical” in the most literal sense.
I would recommend this book to anyone who avoids the epistles because of its associations with Paul. The author acknowledges how texts are used violently against some and does not dismiss their experience, and challenges interpretations that condone scripture-supported abuse. By supplying context and perspective, he is especially critical of so-called “plain reading” supports for mysogyny, homophobia, anti-semitism, et al.
An unlikely audience that could benefit from this book are conservatives who struggle to see why someone would be uncomfortable with the influence and material in the Pauline epistles. This may also help bridge some of the stereotypes that conservatives have about progressives’ lack of concern about the bible.
This book would be an excellent choice for an adult bible study (a five-week study would require ~30 pages per week and cover two chapters each) and would provide a fairly broad exposure to the bulk of the New Testament. It is also an excellent resource for deeper study to accompany problematic passages that arise from the biblical text.
*A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of providing an honest review.