When Paul Gets It Wrong

Let me begin by emphasizing that I would really rather be focusing on where Paul gets it right, the wonderfully insightful things he has written, and so on. Alas, in order to not have my appreciation of Paul misunderstood as a claim to his inerrancy or the inerrancy of his writings, it is necessary to point out not only where he writes things that offer a poignant challenge to contemporary readers, but also where he is not accurate in relation to modern science.

In ancient Greece there were debates about whether sentience, will, emotions, decision making and other such human mental activities were rooted in the heart or in the head/brain. Aristotle famously argued for the former position. Paul quite clearly follows him, consistently using heart in reference to human beings’ thinking. Of course, most modern readers simply take such language as a metaphor. This would be fine, if modern readers would consistently take such pre-scientific language metaphorically. But unfortunately some readers pick and choose, deciding that it is OK to take Paul’s references to the heart as the seat of consciousness and volition metaphorically, and yet still demand that other language be taken literally even when there too scientific data shows that, taken literally, the statements in question are just plain wrong. [There was an excellent paper on Paul's language in the context of the Greek head vs. heart debate at last year's midwest SBL meeting]

There are many good examples of our interpreting Paul as though we know what he is talking about, when in fact in his own context Paul’s meaning would have been significantly different. Some wonderful examples are provided in the book Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture edited by David Balch. Providing many different disciplinary perspectives and many different points of view with respect to the contemporary debates, the most interesting information is provided in the studies of the use of terminology such as “nature” with reference to sexuality in ancient Greek texts, as background to Paul’s language in Romans 1. There are, in reading Paul contextually, two main options, neither of which resembles the usual interpretation of modern readers who read Paul in English. First, there is the possibility that Paul’s reference is primarily to the problem of passion, which was felt by some (in particular, but not exclusively, the Stoics) to represent a disordered or unnatural use of sexuality. Second, there is the fact that in Paul’s time the problem with homosexual intercourse between two adult males of the same social status was that one took on the passive role which was the natural subordinate state of females, but was inappropriate to adult males. Given that Paul speaks of men lusting for one another in a way that is contrary to nature, either of these two options could make sense of what Paul says. What is to be noted is that Paul does not have in mind the natural complementarity of male and female sex organs (and note that neither Paul nor any other Biblical author suggests that there are some orifices that are completely off limits in the context of married male-female intercourse, which might have been expected if that were the point of the reference to what is ‘natural’ here). Also to be noted is that Paul never addresses the most common form of homosexuality in the Hellenistic world, namely intercourse between an older male and a younger one. To our modern sensibilities, this practice is pederasty, the molestation of children. Yet on this issue Paul says nothing directly or specifically. His concerns, as one would expect from a male author of his time and context, was on the way sexual relations between men of the same status were dishonoring, since one inevitably took on the passive role that is natural only for women, who are naturally subordinate.

Paul’s views on this subject do not correspond in any precise way to the views of those who quote him in the context of contemporary debates about sexuality, and this is worth noting. But I would now like to highlight another, even more remarkable irony in how Paul is read and interpreted today. Paul’s own writings regularly seek to set aside Scripture in light of experience. This might seem nonsensical to modern readers for whom Paul’s writings are themselves Scripture. But in Paul’s time, Scripture meant the Jewish Scriptures, what most Christians refer to as the Old Testament, and Paul concluded because he was convinced God had given his Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles that God had set aside the Torah, the Sinai covenant, and had accepted as full members of the Christian community people who had been excluded by Scripture. This is a remarkable argument, found in Galatians and Romans in particular. Yet it is even more remarkable to try to imagine how Paul would react to people using his very writings which aim to include those excluded by Scripture but accepted by God in pouring out his Spirit, as ammunition to argue for the exclusion of certain people today. Could anything be more ironic?
If we are really interested in the question of whether God welcomes homosexuals as full participants in the Church, Paul’s letter to the Galatians would suggest that the evidence to decide the matter should not be sought in Scripture, but rather in the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and thus of God’s acceptance. To absolutize Scripture is not merely idolatry, treating this element of the created order as though it shared in God’s perfection and inerrancy. It is also to ignore the very ways Paul relativized some Scripture over against others in arguing for the inclusion of Gentiles as full members of God’s people. The issue boils down to whether Christians today want to simply be those who stick to laws written on stone, as it were, repeating as precisely as possible the exact words of Scripture as they have learned them, or whether the appropriate way to appropriate the Scriptures today is to learn from the example of early Christians like Paul, and to not simply do what they said (ignoring differences of context, scientific knowledge, and so on), but to do what they did, and follow the example and the principles they have left for us.

On some things, Paul clearly gets it wrong, at least from the perspective of science/medicine/anatomy. On other matters, he simply has the perspective of an ancient author, which it is hard for a modern reader to understand. But in his approach to this matter, and in particular his willingness to set aside Scripture in welcoming those whom he perceived that God was welcoming, where a fundamentalist might be tempted to say Paul gets it the most wrong (were that not to trap him or her in an unsolvable paradox), it is here that Paul’s willingness to change his mind and to struggle for the inclusion of those he himself once sought to include, Paul’s example to us is not only on the mark and profoundly challenging, it is nothing short of heroic.

[I've reposted this entry from my old blog to facilitate referring to it in a discussion on the Julie Unplugged blog]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08144417439505262113 Elliot

    An excellent post.

  • Camassia

    Your second paragraph reminds me of something I’ve wondered about for a while. How do the ancient anatomical theories relate to the whole “husband is head of the wife” concept in Ephesians? Nowadays it makes it sound like the husband is the “brains”, but obviously that’s not true if you believe people think with their hearts. What role was the head thought to play in the human body, then?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I am even more interested in Paul’s use of the concept in 1 Corinthians 11, where ‘heads’ are the focus, although what precisely about them (hair, veils, or something else) is unclear. It is arguable that ‘head’ there has to do either with origin or with the most honorable part. Perhaps the most interesting feature (obscured in many translations) is that Paul there says the women should have authority over their heads! We husbands hope Paul’s use there is literal and not metaphorical, of course! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04088870675715850624 Sam Norton

    Actually, as I understand it, modern neuro-science is re-establishing the primacy of the ‘heart’, especially as regards decision making. See, eg, Antonio Damsio’s ‘Descartes’ Error’ and related writings.Agree with the general point though.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sam, are you using “heart” in the metaphorical sense in which it is common to do so in English? If so, then I’m sure you have a point. But was “heart” a metaphor for Paul any more than for any other ancient author whose knowledge of biology and anatomy was very different from our own?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04088870675715850624 Sam Norton

    er, not sure I understand your second point. I’m arguing that language of ‘the heart’ is not necessarily metaphorical. More specifically, that our decision making is grounded upon our emotions, and we can’t understand ‘the mind’ without also exploring heart (and other viscera in fact). I’m not a great fan of the division between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ which I see as un-Scriptural, but you know more about that than me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Sam, do you think Paul knew that the heart was actually an organ that simply pumps blood to supply oxygen, nutrients and so on to the rest of the body? Do you think he knew that the brain was the place where thinking was localized? My point in the original post was that Paul seems to have sided with Aristotle (who wouldn’t?) and have regarded the heart rather than the head as the place where thought and feeling occurred – literally!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04088870675715850624 Sam Norton

    Been reminded to come back to this following your link in the inerrancy thread. Yes, I am saying that Aristotle is more right than (eg) Descartes. Some of our thinking (and all of our feeling) is located in the body. To put it simply: we cannot leave out the body, especially the viscera, from our theory of mind. To locate all our thinking inside our heads is to embrace a profoundly flawed Modernist metaphysic.