Paul has been called by many names, most of them nasty. He was an apostate who betrayed Judaism, or he was an apostle who betrayed Jesus. He is not an open and affirming theologian, so why bother to read him today? Some say, as compliment or indictment (wrong either way), that he was the actual founder of Christianity. On the one hand, 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament are attributed to him, and his story dominates one other book, the Acts of the Apostles. On the other hand, books about Paul could fill a library, so why one more on an overworked subject? What's new here?
Something special happens, we are convinced, when you stand on the heights of Priene in the Mediterranean sunlight and read that huge fallen beam from a temple once deciated to the "Imperator Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus." There and elsewhere, on Pauline and non-Pauline sites, we ask you to stand with us, possibly on location, but certainly in imagination. Our new question is this: Where does archaeology uncover most clearly Rome's imperial theology, which Paul's Christian theology confronted nonviolently but opposed relentlessly? In Paul's lifetime Roman emperors were deemed divine, and, first and foremost, Augustus was called Son of God, God, and God of God. He was Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World. People knew that both verball from Latin authors like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid and visually from coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and and forums; from ports, roads, bridges, and aqueducts; from landscapes transformed and cities established. It was all around them everywhere, just as advertising is all around us today. Without seeing the archaeology of Roman imperial theology, you cannot understand any exegesis of Pauline Christian theology.
Some scholars of Paul have already emphasized creatively and accurately the confrontation between Pauline Christianity and Roman imperialism. That clash is at the core of our book, but we see it incarnating deeper and even more fundamental strains beneath the surface of human history. What is newest about this book is our insistence that Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.
Paul's essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a new creation in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, and human rights. The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of "peace through victory," or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of "piety, war, victory, and peace." Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of "peace through justice" or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of "covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace."
In an ancient world divided between Jews and Gentiles, there was also a third, in-between category of pagans sympathetic to Judaism. In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles calls them "God-fearers" or "God-worshipers." They remained pagans, but they admired Jewish culture, attended synagogue services on the Sabbath, and were a very important buffer zone against any localized anti-Judaism. Those pagan sympathizers are absolutely crucial for understanding both Paul's mission and message.
Paul went to Jewish synagogues not to convert Jews (despite those stories from the Acts of the Apostles), but to "unconvert" their pagan sympathizers. That convert poaching was inflammatory in the highest possible degree. He was, where successful, stripping a local synagogue of some or all of its most important religious, political, social, and financial defenders, all still operating fully in the urban civic world. That central focus explains many big questions about Paul.
First, his gentile converts could readily understand his theology, because they were already familiar with Jewish practices, traditions, and scriptures. Second, such convert poaching would have generated stiff opposition, not only from other local Jews, but also from those local sympathizers who stayed loyal to Judaism. Third, that explains Paul's polemical descriptions of Judaism in his letters. In his fight to obtain and hold onto his God-worshipers, Paul fiercely but unfairly-is polemics ever fair?-attacks the quite normal Judaism of his opponents. Fourth, that explains why Paul could move so fast from one major provincial capital to another and could consider his work in the eastern Mediterranean finished when he wrote his letter to the Romans in the mid-50s. He was setting up small cells around those now Christian God-worshipers and letting them bring in other, purely pagan, converts. The Pauline express thundered along on God-worshiper rails, and Paul moved fast because he did not have to lay track.
In 1906 a small cave was discovered cut into the rock on the northern slop of Bulbul Dag, high above the ruins of ancient Ephesus, just off the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey. To the right of the entrance and beneath layers of plaster, Karl Herold, of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, uncovered two sixth-century images of St. Thecla and St. Paul.
We take that original assertion of equality and later counterassertion of inequality as encapsulating visually the central claim of this book for Christianity itself.The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galations, Philippians, I Thessalonians, Philemon), held that within Christian communities it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian woman, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in I Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians though not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home (2:8-15). And a later follower of Paul inserted in I Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church, but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home (14:33-36).
Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla's eyes and hand in that hillside cave. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality. Our book is about the actual and historical Paul, about the radical apostle who was there before the reaction, revision, and replacement began. He did not think in terms of political democracy or universal human rights. He only said that Christianity has never been able to follow, that within it all are equal and this is to be its witness and challenge to the world outside.