E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, coauthors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012), dive into the complicated life and teachings of the apostle Paul in their newest release, Paul Behaving Badly. This is now the third “behaving badly” publication from IVP. The other two are God Behaving Badly by David T. Lamb (IVP 2012), and Jesus Behaving Badly by Mark. L. Strauss (IVP 2016). You can read a review of Jesus Behaving Badly here, which was written and reviewed by my Greek and Biblical Studies professor from my undergraduate studies, Dr. Phil Long. All three books explore the difficult portions of scripture many readers find themselves wrestling with. There is no question that understanding the sociological, historical, and cultural contexts of scripture is necessary for interpretation, and the life and teachings of Paul solidify this further. It’s because of such why Paul tends to get a bad rap, and rightly so. Nevertheless, Richards and O’Brien attempt a conversation to alleviate these poor perceptions.
The book’s introduction addresses the problems most people, if not all, would encounter at some point when observing Paul’s persona and teachings. Richards and O’Brien include experiences of their own to relate to the readers with similar qualms. This all points to hermeneutics (interpretation) and how readers are led astray without it. The “problems” that one experiences in reading Paul is exactly why they emphasize the importance of a good hermeneutic. The introduction finishes with an invitation to the reader; an invitation to journey with them through these difficult portions of scripture with an open mind, and prepared to better understand this apostle who comes off as… well, kind of a jerk (21).
Each chapter deals with the common problematic verses of Paul’s teach, and each is unapologetically titled with, what I would consider to be cleverly marketed with their enticing shock value. The chapter titles are as follows:
- Paul Was Kind of a Jerk
- Paul Was a Killjoy
- Paul Was a Racist
- Paul Supported Slavery
- Paul Was a Chauvinist
- Paul Was Homophobic
- Paul Was a Hypocrite
- Paul Twisted Scripture
You may be thinking, “What passages are you referring to that fits these claims against the apostle?” Richards and O’Brien ask questions and make observations of these problems one sees when reading of Paul. This is done thoroughly in each chapter without restriction. For example, Paul opposes Peter upon his arrival to Antioch and does so “because he [Peter] stood condemned” (Gal 2:11), yet exhorts to other believers, “as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18)? What about Paul’s expulsion of the wicked person in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5:13), or saying “let them be under God’s curse” (Gal 1:8-9) if one were to disagree with his message? Jesus himself said to turn the other cheek and encourage all who were weary or burdened to come to him (Matt 5:39; 11:28), why on earth would Paul speak on behalf of the gospel, but say something so opposite to Christ’s teachings? Not to mention the verses that make Paul seem racist (Rom 10:21), sexist (1 Tim 2:1-14), homophobic (1 Thes 4:3-6), and a supporter of slavery (1 Cor 7:20-21), giving Paul the benefit of the doubt is difficult to do when read with western eyes (pun intended); even the apostle Peter admits that Paul is “difficult to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). This is a brief synopsis of the several passages conversed throughout the book. All of which include analogous anecdotes from the Richards and O’Brien’s life experiences in addition to their Biblical study, which I found very beneficial.
Another thing I enjoyed about this book was the structure of each chapter. Both sides of the coin are given fair consideration without indecisive “fence-riding” one might expect. When a book’s focus is to bring newfound understanding to the umbrella of civil rights issues one sees in Paul’s writings, it is bound to be rattling some cages; especially considering the consistent increase of social injustices we see from the media.This makes the need for theologically sound interpretation of Scripture all the more significant, and further proves the urgency for literature that will address these “problem” passages. Richards and O’Brien have provided an excellent aid to the church considering, and I hope to see many more like it for the sake of people the church can be salt, light, and love to.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in bringing clarity to the difficult passages attributed to the apostle. Any reputable exegetical, theological, or socio-rhetorical commentary would discuss these same issues (probably at greater length), but shouldn’t turn anyone away from reading this book. Though commentaries might discuss the issues at greater length and interact more with the original languages, Paul Behaving Badly is different from that. Think of this more like a well researched collection of essays by Richards and O’Brien. Each chapter/essay deals with a unique “problem” passage rather specific letters he wrote. In addition to this, it is layered with testimonials from the authors, which makes the contemporary significance easier lay hold of for the reader. It would make an excellent book for a small group to work through, and an affordable resource for those studying the apostle. If you would like to purchase this book you can buy it on IVP’s website here.
Conclusion: Was Paul a chauvinistic homophobe who supported slavery? Was he a hypocrite who signed God’s name on his own agenda? Did he manipulate the masses by twisting scripture with motives ulterior to the gospel? Was he anti-Semitic and arrogant in his superior-like statements of judgment? Was he really a jerk?
I believe the answer to all of these questions is no, and the authors have done a fantastic job defending this with grace and understanding to both camps. The 21st century lens that readers look through presents a problem that seems to never dismay, and Paul’s letters are not exempt from this irresponsible habit. Paul was a product of his cultural context, and his writings do not fit the guidelines of Western Europeans. Paul Behaving Badly emphasizes the necessity of understanding the context of every portion of scripture, and we must wear glasses fitting to apostle’s first century context if we wish to achieve that.
Disclaimer: Thank you to InterVarsity Press and Krista Clayton for generously providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not effect the thoughts and opinions expressed in my review.