Apostle Paul APB 2: Paul’s Fanaticism

Apostle Paul APB 2: Paul’s Fanaticism August 17, 2019

In this video, Rob Orlando (maker of the documentary Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe and author of the book by the same name) suggests that Paul was inclined towards fanaticism – and like many who switch their allegiance from one group to another, even (or perhaps especially) a diametrically opposed one, he remained as fanatical as a Christian as he had been as a non-Christian Pharisee. He was just fanatical about something different.

What do you think? I think this question provides a great opportunity to look at movements for social justice and inclusivity in our time, and the proponents and public voices that represent those stances. Despite the prejudices and stereotypes that many have, those who are extreme nationalists or religious exclusivists most certainly can undergo a change of heart and perspective. But they may end up speaking and acting in ways that exclude those whom they previously represented, excluding those who would still exclude whatever constituency the individual in question is now adamant needs to be included.

Paul’s stance may or may not have been more radical than that of most Christians who welcomed Gentiles. There were certainly different views about the basis on which they were to be accepted and their status once they joined the Way of Jesus.

I think there can at least potentially be a very significant difference between those who think they are switching from bigotry to social justice advocacy and yet are really just being mean-spirited and hateful for a different team, and those who are genuinely concerned for justice and inclusion – so much so that they regretfully have no choice but to oppose and exclude those who are stubbornly opposed to inclusion and justice. The latter stance is not as paradoxical as is sometimes claimed – the analogy I use in the article I wrote with Ankur Gupta is the United Federation of Planets being committed to Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, and yet standing against the Borg. The Borg are uncompromisingly opposed to that diversity, and so there is no way to simply include them in a diverse society without undermining its very ethos and essence in the process.

Richard Beck’s post about our penchant for feeling disgust towards our opponents, and how that can lead us to dehumanize them, is also relevant to this topic.

How do you understand Paul? Is he an extremist? And if so, is he a good kind of extremist or a bad one? Is he a useful figure to look at in discussing subjects like extremism and exclusivism in the present day, as well as in ancient Judaism/early Christianity?

If you missed the previous post in this series, don’t worry, you can find a convenient link to it here. And if you’ve never seen Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, you can do so through Vimeo’s on demand service:

Paul is such an important and interesting voice in early Christianity, that he intersects with lots of other topics. It is no wonder that Rob Orlando finds him fascinating, as do so many academics in the field of New Testament and early Christianity!

While this series of APBs on the historical Apostle Paul is running, I will include links to other blog posts and articles that have come to my attention during the week or so prior that in some way relate to him, as well as trying to interact with and provide excerpts from at least some of them.  Also, stay tuned for two special giveaways that I’ll have in upcoming posts in this series! Once the series gets properly started, I hope to share something weekly. But having started the series a while back and then put it on hold, it seemed about time for another teaser.

In the meantime, see also the piece about Rob’s most recent film, “The Divine Plan”:

The Divine Plan: Did a Holy Alliance Save the World?

See too Brad East’s review of Paula Fredriksen’s recent books, Paul the Pagans’ Apostle and When Christians Were Jews, as well as this piece about Paul’s fanaticism and the stoning of Steven. The Oxford University Press blog shared a book excerpt about where concerns about slavery and social justice went after Paul. Chaplain Mike is one of many to be engaging with Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans BackwardsSee his ongoing series, and also the following:

My RNS Interview

Mondays with Moo and McKnight – Romans 2

What Kind of Jew Was Paul?

Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Rom 12:9-21

Post-Commentary Reflections on Philippians

Scripture, Texts, and Tracings in 1 Corinthians

Joel Marcus’ Retirement Lecture: The Parting of the Ways

AJR on Paul and the development of Christian textuality


Stones, Betrayal, and a Vision

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  • John MacDonald

    I think that instead of asking whether Paul falls under the Category of Fanatic (which probably isn’t wrong, but we could be more descriptive), perhaps it would be more useful to say Paul’s attitudes and behaviors can generally be plotted on a Continuum between the poles of Passionate on the one end, and Fanatic on the other, and when he says things like that when he was younger he was zealous for the Law, this can probably be plotted closer to Passionate, and when he says things like “If Christ is not raised your faith is worthless,” this is probably closer to Fanatic. I think Paul can best be understood as oscillating on this continuum of Drivenness.

    • John MacDonald


      I don’t know of many for whom it would be very useful/meaningful to make the categorical statement that they are basically Fanatical in most of their thoughts and dealings and situations, since this oversimplifies the richness of a person’s life, even if they have fanatical tendencies in certain aspects of their lives. I think it’s more inclusive to say for such people that their actions/personality is often meaningfully plotted on a continuum of Being Driven between the poles of Passionate (a neutral or positive characterization) and Fanatic (an unhealthy term that can inhibit personal and societal functional living).

  • Mark

    Paul remembers being extremely zēlōtēs for the tradition of the forefathers, which I suppose could be translated ‘fanatical’. But the Paul we have access to thinks way too much to fall under our conception of a fanatic. You can feel the strain of thought and of working through all the difficulties and contradictions. On the other hand you might wonder if he isn’t cultivating a kind of fanaticism in his gentile followers.