The apostle Paul was kind of a jerk. He was arrogant and stubborn. He called his opponents derogatory, racist names. He legitimized slavery and silenced women. He was a moralistic, homophobic killjoy who imposed his narrow religious views on others. Or was he?
Bible Gateway interviewed E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien (@brandonjobrien) about their book, Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? (IVP Books, 2016).
Who was the Apostle Paul and why is he important?
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: When we first meet Paul in the New Testament, he’s approving the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He’s a zealous, ambitious Pharisee and, by his own estimation, “blameless” in his adherence to the Law (Phil. 3:6Acts 9). From that day on, God channels Paul’s zeal, ambition, and hardheadedness for the glory of Christ and his Kingdom.
Ultimately Paul is significant for being the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 1:5). He was the first to translate the gospel, which Jesus and the other apostles preached to fellow Jews, to a hostile Gentile audience. In some respects, Paul is the first cross-cultural missionary.
What does it mean that Paul’s books are “occasional writings” and why is that an interpretation challenge?
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: In this case, “occasional” doesn’t mean that Paul only wrote periodically. It means that when he wrote, it was with a specific audience and situation in mind. His writings were specific to a particular occasion (hence “occasional”).
The occasional nature of Paul’s writings poses a challenge because we don’t always know what questions, debates, or circumstances Paul is responding to in his letters.
Paul’s letters are half a correspondence. In some cases, they’re Paul’s responses to letters he received from others. But we don’t have their letters with their questions and concerns, so we’re listening in on only one side of a private conversation. Just like listening in when your spouse is talking on the phone, you can usually figure out who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about, but we can’t always be absolutely certain. This doesn’t give us less confidence in the Bible. It remains the infallible Word of God. But it should give us a little humility about how we’re interpreting it.
How difficult was it to write this book?
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: At first we thought, This should be easy. There are already two great books out there similar to this one: God Behaving Badly by David Lamb and Jesus Behaving Badly by Mark Strauss. What could go wrong? The road has been mapped for us.
Then it occurred to us that Paul isn’t God or Jesus. Jesus was perfect and God is, well, God. But Paul was a mortal human. He’s the one who wrote: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom 7:15). So, before you even begin reading the book about God behaving badly or Jesus behaving badly, you feel somehow that everything is going to be okay. Surely neither God nor Jesus ever really behaved badly, right? But it’s very possible that Paul did. After all, he’s only human. On the other hand, we believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
Explain what you mean when you write, “Paul has the dubious distinction among the earliest Christians of irritating everyone at some point.”
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: Paul was frequently guilty of behaving badly in the eyes of his Jewish contemporaries. He offended their sensibilities. He likewise behaved badly according to Roman culture. He challenged their assumptions and exposed their misperceptions. He had the audacity to tell a Roman man how to treat people in his own house. We say a man’s home is his castle, but in first-century Rome they really meant it. It was off limits. He told the Jews that their Law and their Temple had been replaced by the Spirit of God. That’s a real no-no. Not even his fellow Christians were or are always sure what to make of Paul.
What are a few examples of what some people consider Paul’s “bad behavior” and how do you explain them?
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: Among the charges against Paul are that his opinions are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and generally on the wrong side of history. And that’s just the modern cultural critics. He’s also charged with being hypocritical and a bully. Space here doesn’t allow a fair treatment of any of those charges. But here’s how we handle it in the book. We refused to harrumph the criticisms of Paul or sweep them under the rug. We allow his critics to build the best case they can that Paul is a racist or a chauvinist or whatever. Then we weigh the biblical evidence in light of Paul’s first-century context. Knowing Paul, we think he’d appreciate the scrutiny!
Would you want to invite Paul to your neighborhood backyard barbeque?
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: Maybe if we gave him a list of things first that he wasn’t allowed to talk about!
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien: We both use Bible Gateway all the time, including the app. It gives us quick access to biblical texts, different translations, and also allows us to put the Greek text next to whichever translations we want. It’s our go-to tool, especially on the go.
Bio: E. Randolph Richards (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is dean and professor of biblical studies in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He’s a popular speaker and has authored and coauthored dozens of books and articles including Rediscovering Jesus, Rediscovering Paul, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, and The Story of Israel.
Early in their ministry he and his wife, Stacia, were appointed as missionaries to east Indonesia, where he taught for eight years at an Indonesian seminary. Missions remain on the hearts of Randy and Stacia. Randy leads mission trips and conducts missionary training workshops and regularly leads tours of the Holy Land, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. He’s served as interim pastor of numerous churches and is currently a teaching pastor. He and Stacia reside in Palm Beach, Florida.
Brandon J. O’Brien (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of Christian theology at Ouachita Baptist University and director of OBU at New Life Church in Conway, Arkansas. He’s the author of The Strategically Small Church and coauthor, with E. Randolph Richards, of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes and Paul Behaving Badly.
O’Brien has published in Christianity Today, Relevant, Leadership Journal, and the Out of Ur blog, and has been interviewed by and quoted in USA TODAY and other national newspapers.