Appealing or appalling? A response to Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan
The First Paul. Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church Conservative Icon. (NY: HarperCollins, 2009).
Our book group brings together people of diverse backgrounds eager to share our
different ideas about Christianity. We chose Borg and Crossandiscussion because it presents new insights into reading Paul. Geoffrey provided us with the books through the Helensburgh Bush Chapel. We met at Bronwyn and Ross, they set ‘s up some guidelines for the group. We did not anticipate how excited the debate would become, triggered by issues raised but not answered satisfactorily in the book. Our concluding discussion was led by Elaine who got us to each write three things that impressed us about the book, and three things we disliked about it.
We covered a lot of ideas as we listened to each other and referred to sections of the book. In this review I report on the content of the book and our reactions to it. Borg and Crossan start by examining Paul letters. They contend that Paul’s ideas might be thought of as appaling today because his first, radical message is confused with ideas from later conservative letters pretending to be Paul’s work. Thet argue that to appreciate the appeal of Paul’s true radical message, his teaching in the genuine letters has to be distinguished from the reactionary letters written in his name many years after his death.
Borg and Crossan’s own work can be described as both appealing and appallinglling. It is an appealing non-adademic chatty presentation that might draw the reader into an entertaining rethink of Paul’s work. Borg and Crossan cross the line of reader as a participant colluding in unmasking long-standing injustice done to Paul.
However, their work, appallingly, relies too much on general ignorance about Paul,and its superficiality contributes to confusion and frustration.
In a field where information is sadly lacking to the average reader but readily availableto academics, Borg and Crossan’s failure begins with lack of acknowledgement of sources and referencing. Addressing their work to non-academic readers is noexcuse to give so little opportunity to access current scholarship on Paul. They acknowledge only three sources, mention the work of John Meier without naming any of his books, and base their arguments on ideas generated in Crossan’s 2007 book, God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, without any acknowledgement. Such slackness would earn a fail at high school! If their argument works then they need to give readers a chance to follow up and develop their understanding of Paul, including an appendix explaining how they got their ideas.