Since we’re in the midst of Paul for several months, I thought I’d share this. It’s a handout I’ve used sometimes about four common ways we misread Paul with modern, Western eyes. (That book is one of the Top 5 I books recommend
1. Inside Baseball
Reports of baseball games (or, if you speak baseball fluently, substitute “jai alai” or “sepak takraw“) don’t explain baseball. They presume a pre-existing understanding of the game. Similarly, Paul’s letters were not written as chapters in a systematic exposition of Gospel basics, like a doctrinal handbook nor are they missionary documents meant to expound or convert. His letters were not tracts or General Conference talks. Paul is not explaining the Gospel to someone who’s never heard it at all, but presupposes knowledge and acceptance of its; so much goes without being said. Written at different times, with different purposes, and somewhat different styles, Paul sometimes changes his mind or seems to be at odds with himself. His letters are not entirely consistent. They are partial expressions of Paul’s thought.
Every so often, I hear my wife on the phone, and the content is strange enough that I want to say, “who are you talking to?” With Paul’s letters, we are quite literally listening to half the phone call, half the conversation. We don’t know the context. These are occasional letters, and we don’t know the occasion, except for whatever Paul tells us or we manage to extrapolate from the content. For example, we know Paul had very strong feelings about the sacrament, but only because of what he writes in 1 Corinthians 11, which he writes because the Corinthians were making such a hash of it. Were it not necessary to correct the Corinthians, we would never have known this information.
3. Manner We read chapters and verses silently, breaking it down. Paul’s letters were meant to be read out loud, all at once, and heard by the believers present;
1 Thessalonians 5:27 “I solemnly charge you by the Lord to have this letter read before all the congregation.”
Colossians 4:16 “when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.”
Notably, reading and writing were rare skills, and Paul himself could not write very well. Taken at face value, anyway, note Galatians 6:11, where Paul apparently takes the pen in his own hand to say “Look what large letters I use with my own hand!”
4. Presentism We tend to read Paul in our context, through our view of LDS Church history and doctrine. There are two competing principles here: the Restoration principle (i.e. Paul and his audiences knew and understand as we do today) vs. Line Upon Line principle (we know and understand more, about the Gospel because more has been revealed to or clarified for us today than in Paul’s day.)
I tend to think we should interpret more through the Line upon Line principle, but it varies based on topic and passage. Regardless, there is context that is very different from our day. So much of Paul’s letters is devoted to reconciling and explaining the issues of Jew vs Pagan, Jesus vs. Torah, and I can’t recall the last time our Elders Quorum got embroiled over circumcision. On the other hand, the issue of factionalism (though the dividing line changes) is certainly a live one today.
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