Review: Paul Behaving Badly

paul behaving badly

Paul Behaving BadlyE. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Takes on the charge that there are many problems with Paul, among which that he is racist, pro-slavery, anti-woman, homophobic, and hypocritical, and suggests that while he behaves badly, it may be in different ways than we might think.

This is the third in a series of “behaving badly” books, the previous titles of which are God Behaving Badly (reviewed here), and Jesus Behaving Badly (reviewed here). As in the previous works, the authors take some of the common objections raised about Paul in a way that both takes the objections seriously, and shows through careful study of the biblical text and cultural context what may and may not be warranted in these objections.

The authors show that Paul indeed behaves badly, but not in the way one might think. While not coming out against slavery, his affirmation of slaves as brothers and sisters and his instructions to masters were quite counter-cultural and would have raised great objections. While he seems at points to make racist comments, he in fact made ground-breaking strides to build bridges to the Gentile world, and that any apparent anti-Semitism was really directed to a very specific group of Judeans (“Jews” in the narrowest sense) who tried to impose circumcision and legal observance on the Gentile churches Paul and his team had planted.

Their treatment of women and homosexuality are perhaps the chapters to which many will first turn. While I would have liked to see more of a treatment of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, which the authors leave open to differing interpretations on the matter of women teaching, they observe the radical ways in which Paul elevated women as ministry partners, in how they were to be treated by husbands, and the very fact that they were permitted to learn. Likewise, while the authors clearly see Paul speaking against same sex relationships, they are careful to point out that Paul recognizes that persons who have been involved in these relationships are in the church, and contrary to Jewish practice, neither requires their expulsion nor execution. They also observe the difference between contemporary focus on orientation to focus on specific acts between people, and in some passages, between those who penetrate, and are penetrated, which may often be the case in master-slave relationships, particularly between masters and boy slaves in the Roman context. In summary, they write:

“When Paul denounced homosexual practice both for the active as well as the passive partner, he was behaving badly in Roman eyes. But when he welcomed both into the church as sinners in need of a savior (like the rest of us), he was behaving badly in Jewish eyes. Paul did indeed behave badly in the eyes of his culture and sometimes in the eyes of other Christians” (p. 195).

The book also addresses criticisms that Paul was a killjoy, eliminating pleasure wherever he found it. They take on the charge that Paul was a hypocrite, as in the example of circumcision, where he takes a strong stand against it, and then circumcises Timothy (in this case the answer seems to be Timothy’s partially Jewish heritage, where to not be circumcised would be a repudiation of that heritage, and an obstacle to mission in Jewish circles).

Finally, the authors deal with how Paul handles scripture, which to modern eyes often seems to be a twisting of scripture. They show, rather, that Paul was using the accepted interpretive approaches of his time–literal, midrash, allegory, and pesher among them, that would not have raised the eyebrows of his Jewish listeners.

What I most appreciated is that this is not a whitewash on Paul. The authors observe how he could be stubborn, as when he resisted prophetic counsel that he not go to Jerusalem. We should not put him on a pedestal, though we may learn from him, such as how he avoided financial entanglements, and for his courage in “behaving badly” by going counter to culture in the cause of Christ, sometimes at great personal and physical cost.

This can be a helpful book if you have a hard time reading the Pauline works, or know friends who object to Paul. We tend to see Paul through our own cultural lenses and this work helps us see Paul in his own context, and goes beyond particular verses to the whole character of Paul’s work. No alabaster saint here, but rather a very human person, whose indeed “behaved badly” at times, but in ways that we may end up admiring rather than censuring.

3 thoughts on “Review: Paul Behaving Badly

  1. Bob, You write, “The authors observe how he could be stubborn, as when he resisted prophetic counsel that he not go to Jerusalem.” Do they really think that God didn’t want him to go to Jerusalem, and that it was his stubbornness that prevented him from listening? That would be an odd conclusion to draw from the story of Acts, with its narrative parallel to the story of Luke.

      • Well, then, I hope we can all be as stubborn in pursuing the way of the cross, even to death, when the time comes for it. It seems an odd example for a man with Paul’s avowed convictions and frequent escapes, which curiously enough follow Jesus’ pattern of avoiding death until the proper time, then resolutely setting his face toward Jerusalem.

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