Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

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robert j
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Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by robert j »

Part 1 --- Paul Was No Saint

Mostly only children believe in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the tooth-fairy --- but millions of adults today believe in a great Saint Paul.

Among those that would stop well-short of sainthood, many would still picture some version of an evangelist and true believer.

I think Paul’s letters reveal a first-century Jewish missionary who promised interested Gentiles an easy short-cut to full participation with the chosen people of the great and ancient God of Israel. And I think Paul wrote those letters to his congregations of potential patrons --- after he had visited with them and gained their interest in his spiritual system.

I have gone back-and-forth for a few years over the question --- was Paul a true believer? Of course, Paul would never admit in his letters if he wasn’t.

I think a more accessible question is this --- was Paul’s primary mission to benefit his followers, or himself? Preachers have to eat, but are there examples in the letters in which the best interest of his flock took a back seat to his quest for monetary compensation? I suppose this set of posts could serve as a prelude.

Paul Was a Criminal

Paul admitted to his most financially supportive congregation that he was imprisoned at an Imperial facility (Philippians 1:13), and in his own inimitable way sought financial assistance (Philippians 2:25-30). I think a careful analysis of Paul’s letters reveals that Paul was imprisoned for a period of time in Ephesus; but regardless of the location, there is no clear indication that Paul was imprisoned specifically for teaching about a Jesus Christ.

Paul was a self-promoter, but the best he could do in this situation was put lipstick on a pig ---

Now I want you to know brothers, that the things against me really have turned out to advancement of the gospel, so as for my bonds in Christ to have become clearly known in all the Praetorian guard and to all the rest; and most of the brothers, trusting in the Lord by my bonds, to dare more abundantly to speak fearlessly the word (Philippians 1:12-14).

Trying to put a positive spin on his imprisonment, Paul only managed to make a woefully vague claim that the guards knew something about his “bonds in Christ”. But Paul never claimed that he was arrested for teaching about Jesus Christ. Paul bragged that his imprisonment has allowed others “to dare more abundantly to speak fearlessly the word”. If Paul had been imprisoned specifically for teaching about a Jesus Christ, his bonds would certainly not have encouraged his followers to more confidently and fearlessly engage in the same activity.

Paul’s imprisonment may have been, or perhaps even most likely was, related to his evangelizing activities. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence in Paul’s letters to clarify the reason for his arrest. But there is no clear evidence in the letters to indicate that Paul was ever punished by Roman authorities for teaching about his Jesus Christ.

And beyond his imprisonment, Paul claimed that sometime in the past he had been repeatedly and publicly punished by both Jewish and Roman authorities. Such punishments were meted-out to those convicted of breaking some kind of law ---

First a Jewish punishment ---

Five times I received from Jews forty [lashes] minus one. (2 Corinthians 11:24)

And also a typical punishment from Roman authorities –--

Three times I was beaten with rods … (2 Corinthians 11:25)

I suspect exaggeration here, but Paul bragged about his marks to the Galatians as if they were well aware of them (Galatians 6:17). Some of the Galatians probably saw his scars with their own eyes when they cared for him when he was sick (Galatians 4:13-14).

Paul never clearly revealed in his letters the reasons for his floggings. There is no evidence in his letters that Paul had received such punishments as a result of his work teaching about a Jesus Christ, nor even for having been flogged during the time of his evangelizing work. I suspect most or all of those punishments preceded his missionary activities.

Paul was in over his head with the sophisticated Corinthians. After Titus returned from his second unsuccessful attempt to obtain a collection for the ‘saints in Jerusalem’, some among the Corinthians were apparently accusing Paul and Titus of trying to take advantage of them, and of being crafty and of trying to take them by deceit (2 Corinthians 12:16-17).


robert j

Next up momentarily --- Paul Was a Liar
robert j
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by robert j »

Part 2 --- Is a Lie that Glorifies God a Sin?

The following passage about the righteousness of God reflects the wider theme in Romans, but things seem to get personal ---

… But let God be true, and every man a liar, as it has been written: "That you may be justified in your words, and will prevail in your being judged." But if our unrighteousness shows God's righteousness, what shall we say? God, inflicting the wrath, is unrighteous? I speak according to man. Never may it be! Otherwise, how will God judge the world? (Romans 3:4-6)

But if in my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And not as we are slanderously charged and as some affirm us to say, "Let us do evil that good may come." Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:7-8)

With a literal reading of verses 3:7-8, the author of Romans is apparently admitting that:

--- Paul lied
--- (however) Paul’s lie promoted God’s glory
--- some people are judging Paul to be a sinner
--- some people are accusing Paul of “doing evil that good may come”

Did Paul actually admit to lying about something directly related to God in the crown jewel of the Pauline corpus, in a letter sometimes heralded as the greatest letter ever written? In the midst of the ‘greatest letter ever written’ there is a fly in the ointment. Here are a few comments gleaned from J. King [1/] ---

About Romans 3:1-9, Godet admits, “one of the most difficult, perhaps, in the epistle.” Sanday and Headlam see the passage as a “digression”. Dodd calls the passage “obscure and feeble” such that the whole epistle would make more sense if the passage were omitted. On the other hand, Wright claims that Romans 2:17-3:9 contains the key to understanding the whole letter.

I might agree with Wright on that much; but without reading his text, I would assume for very different reasons.

Justifications that attempt to paper over this admission of lying are a dime-a-dozen in the commentaries and in the scholarship. Some claim that Romans 3:1-8 is part of the wider continuing dialogue about the judgment and righteousness of God being justly applicable to both Jews and Gentiles.

Arguments typically arrayed in Paul’s defense --- that he did not admit to a lie --- often characterize Romans 3:7-8, along with the wider context, as exhibiting rhetorical techniques including diatribe and speech-in-character (prosopopoeia). Such arguments boil-down to claims that Paul was speaking hypothetically in Romans 3:7-8 and just using himself as an example to make a point, or that the passage contains an imaginary interlocutor in dialog with the author of Romans. Granted, some of the surrounding context is rife with conditionals, and with hypothetical and rhetorical questions. But such constructions don’t apply to the existence of the lie in verses 3:7-8 where the literal reading is an admission that Paul was caught in a lie.

Some reprehensible translators even interpolate the text by adding “Someone might argue” at the beginning of verse 3:7.

There are many examples in his letters of Paul using relevant conditional verbs and conjunctions when writing rhetorically, or when writing hypothetically and using himself as an example to make a point. [2] The only relevant conditional in Romans 3:7-8 is “if my lie” resulted in the glory of God. That conditional applies to the result of the lie, and doesn’t question the existence of the lie, nor designate the lie itself as a hypothetical.

For the sake of sorting-out the message and the associated arguments offered in Romans, I think it helps to paraphrase verse 3:7 as a generalized hypothetical question --- If a lie glorifies God, is it still a sin?

It’s necessary here to determine what constitutes a sin for Paul. Many pages could be devoted to a comprehensive review. But for now, I think the concept can be summarized in a couple of sentences ---

In Paul, and especially in Romans, a sin is anything that fails to honor God. And that other failures such as impurity, lust, jealousy, cheating, rivalries, idolatry, envy, etc., are all a result of failing to honor God. This is near by ---

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

Then, if a lie brings glory to God, is it a sin? According to the concept of sin in Romans, if God is honored and glorified by a lie, it doesn’t qualify as a sin. The question in verse 3:7 is left as rhetorical, and the author of Romans assumes the answer to be self-evident. Verse 3:8 does not deny the lie itself, but only denies that the lie that glorified God constitutes “doing evil”. The author of Romans apparently knew that just assuming the justification to be self-evident wouldn’t fly with his readers, and I discuss his main argument in defense in part 3 … I lied, but …

Paul denies lying to his audience in three letters with some version of “before God or Christ I’m not lying” --- (Galatians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 11:31, and Romans 9:1). Evidently Paul was well-aware that his audiences would not appreciate being lied to.

I think many readers, both then and now, would have a variety of opinions on the question, ‘If a lie glorifies God, is it still a sin?’ It creates a moral dilemma that has spawned reams of apologetics and rationalizations surrounding this passage. At least one passage in the Jewish scriptures explicitly and without exception prohibits lying, and is presented as a direct order from the “Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:10-11, LXX).

An internet search on this passage using a few appropriate key words reveals page after page of those wondering about Paul’s lie, along with apologetic explanations. The literal reading of the text clearly leads to such questions, and triggers the need for rationalizations.

Regardless of how one might choose to rationalize verses 3:7-8, the literal text stands. Sunday school teacher to impressionable children, “In the Bible, Saint Paul tells us that it’s OK to lie if it helps God.”

I suspect the passages specifically telling readers not to lie --- written by the subsequent Paulinist authors in Ephesians 4:25 and Colossians 3:9 --- were intended to correct the implications of Romans 3:7-8.


robert j

Next up momentarily --- I lied, but ...




1/ Justin King, Speech-In-Character, Diatribe, and Romans 3:1-9, in Biblical Interpretation Series, vol. 163, 2018, p. 165. The footnotes below are only slightly modified from the list in King (the citations were gleaned from portions of the book not behind an internet paywall) ---
F.L. Godet, Romans, 131.
W. Sanday and A.C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary
on the Epistle to the Romans
, 1902, 75.
C.H. Dodd, Romans, 46.
N.T. Wright, Romans 2:17-3:9, 1-25.

2/ Chapter 7 of Romans is a notable exception if seen as written by Paul. There are no conditional constructions to make it clear that the author is writing as if in the voice of another. However, readers that might know Paul’s Jewish backstory (Galatians 1:14, Philippians 3:4-5, and 2 Corinthians 11:22) would recognize that Paul was using himself as an example and writing as if in the voice of another. When picturing the intended recipients of the letter, I think it’s important to keep in mind the tainted evidence for both the Roman addresses in chapter 1 and the interest in Rome in chapter 15. And for readers that might not already know, the necessary information about Paul’s Jewish heritage is provided less than two chapters away in Romans 9:3-4 (also see 11:14). No such additional information is found in the letter to designate a hypothetical nature for the lie in verses 3:7-8 --- Romans 9:1 certainly doesn’t qualify.
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robert j
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by robert j »

Part 3 --- I Lied, but

… But let God be true, and every man a liar, as it has been written: "That you may be justified in your words, and will prevail in your being judged." But if our unrighteousness shows God's righteousness, what shall we say? God, inflicting the wrath, is unrighteous? I speak according to man. Never may it be! Otherwise, how will God judge the world? (Romans 3:4-6)

But if in my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner? And not as we are slanderously charged and as some affirm us to say, "Let us do evil that good may come." Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:7-8)

With a literal reading of verse 3:7, the author of Romans admitted that Paul had lied, and that people were calling him a sinner. For the author of Romans to make such an admission leads me to think that the lie had become widely known among the intended audience of the letter. And that briefly addressing the accusations directly, and then quickly moving-on, was considered to be the best option. When picturing the intended recipients of the letter, I think it’s important to keep in mind the tainted evidence for both the addresses to Rome in chapter 1 and the interest in Rome in chapter 15.

The author of Romans may have believed that a lie that glorified God was not a sin and did not constitute doing evil, but verses 3:7-8 indicate that some people were accusing Paul of those very offenses. The author needed more to justify Paul in his lie as he briefly acknowledged an audience that apparently felt aggrieved that Paul had lied to them about their spiritual well-being.

The first two verses of chapter 3 of Romans are a continuation from chapter 2, continuing a Jew-Gentile argument. The question in verse 3:3 was used as a bridge towards the admission that Paul had been caught in a lie, and to the attempts to lend justification to that lie, beginning with verse 3:4 ---

… But let God be true, and every man a liar, as it has been written: "That you might be justified in your words, and will prevail (νικήσεις) in your being judged." (Romans 3:4, citing a portion of Psalm 51:4, LXX)

The author of Romans establishes that ‘all men are liars’. OK, that’s a start, but that’s just a mundane platitude. The next defense is the core of the argument here in keeping with a major theme in Romans, to wit --- God, not men, will judge the world (and Paul).

In verse 3:4, the author of Romans cites the second half of Psalm 51:4 (LXX). As Paul often did, the author of Romans plucked a useful phrase out of context in support of his argument. The wider passage in the Psalm is a confessional with admissions of sinning and doing wicked things against God, and those unused portions would have only served to undermine the assumption in Romans that Paul’s lie that glorified God was not a sin.

The author of Romans cited the useful portion of Psalm 51:4 verbatim except for one significant change. In the LXX, the verb νικήσης in the Psalm is in the subjunctive, passive --- “may or might prevail”. Paul often changed verb forms to enhance his point when citing scripture. And here, the author of Romans changed the verb to the future indicative, active νικήσεις --- “will prevail” [1/]. However, if intended as a general or universal claim, the implication of that change would be out-of-character in the letter and would be presumptuous to front-run the judgement of God by implying that all liars will prevail when their words are judged by God. Verses 2:6 and 2:16 in Romans imply otherwise. But if applied to Paul’s lie as I think the author intended --- with that change in verb form --- Paul “will prevailwhen his words are judged by God, as the altered version of the citation now implies.

Next, the author of Romans frames the questions in verses 3:5 and 3:7 in a parallel manner. A general case to a specific case ---


Romans 3:5


Romans 3:7

But if But if
our unrighteousnessin my lie
shows God's righteousness,the truth of God abounded to His glory,
what shall we say?why am I also still judged as a sinner?

The response is sandwiched between those two questions and echoes between both, providing the answer in both cases --- men might be unrighteous but God is not, and judgement rests in God’s hands ---

… God, inflicting the wrath, is unrighteous? I speak according to man. Never may it be! Otherwise, how will God judge the world? (Romans 3:5-6)

God, not men, will judge the world. The concept of judgement being in God’s hands --- and not in that of men --- is a major theme in Romans [2/], especially in chapters 2, 3, and 14. And the chosen location in the letter for the admission of the lie is certainly appropriate in that context. One nearby example can be seen as a prelude to Romans 3:4-8 ----

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, each one who is judging. For in that which you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge do the same things … do you suppose … that you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 2:1-3)

To recap ---

But if in my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory” (3:7) --- Literal Paraphrase --- I lied, but it was for the glory of God.
Why am I also still judged as a sinner?” (3:7) ---- Justification --- It’s not a sin if God was glorified; and only God, not men, can judge my words.

The last argument that I will highlight here is a counter-attack to the tune of ‘how dare they accuse me of evil’. Leaving behind much more subtle justifications, the author of Romans gets indignant ---

And not as we are slanderously charged and as some affirm us to say, "Let us do evil (κακὰ) that good may come." Their condemnation is just. (Romans 3:8)

Some are accusing Paul of kaka (κακὰ); not baby-talk, not incontinence, but rather exhibiting an evil nature. The Greek term carries the connotation of an essential bad character for persons, but here is applied as doing evil things. No wonder the terse rejoinder of slander along with a condemnation. But it is important to point-out here that the author does not deny the lie from verse 3:7, but rather vehemently denies that the lie --- that glorified God --- constitutes doing evil.

If the lie itself was intended as a hypothetical for the sake of making a point, why would a skilled rhetorician crafting an important lesson flub pivotal lines? The author clearly wrote verses 3:7-8 in such a way that a literal reading of the text can readily be understood as an admission by Paul of lying. A skilled author would have been aware of how the reading of such a text might be understood --- or misunderstood --- by readers of the times with various levels of sophistication.

A couple of simple conditional terms could have easily made a hypothetical nature of verses 3:7-8 quite clear. But that’s not the way the author of Romans chose to construct those verses.

Solution: Paul got caught in a lie, and the audience of the letter knew about it.


robert j




1/ Many bible translators and scholars use the reading of the manuscripts with the future indicative νικήσεις, “will prevail” in Romans 3:4. But manuscripts in the Byzantine line of transmission have the verb in the subjunctive, νικήσης “may, or might prevail” --- as found in Psalm 51:4 in the LXX. I think the verb in the future tense, “will prevail”, is by far the most likely original reading here in Romans for two reasons. First, Paul often changed verb forms when using passages from the LXX in order to strengthen his arguments, and the change to the future tense here does just that. And secondly, I think it would have been far more likely for some Byzantine manuscript scribe to “correct” the reading to match the LXX, than for scribes in other lines of manuscript transmission to corrupt the scriptural reading. Regardless, either verb form still works for the argument --- ‘it’s God that will judge my words’.

2/ With judgement being in God’s hands --- and not in that of men --- a major theme in Romans, I suspect the author of Romans is also correcting the hubris and excesses implied in 1 Corinthians, especially 1 Corinthians 6:2-3.
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Irish1975
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by Irish1975 »

Recently my wife and I have been watching documentaries about cults. It is noteworthy how many traits the Paul of the episltes has in common with, e.g., a figure like Keith Raniere, leader of the NXIVM cult:

always raising money
trouble with the law, punishments, imprisonment
evasions, dishonesty about the same
searing betrayals, pleas for personal loyalty
constant instruction in the right view of things, how to live

I realize it is problematic to apply a framework from modern day cults to ancient Christianity; but still.
John2
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by John2 »

Regarding what you wrote in part 1:

Paul’s imprisonment may have been, or perhaps even most likely was, related to his evangelizing activities. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence in Paul’s letters to clarify the reason for his arrest. But there is no clear evidence in the letters to indicate that Paul was ever punished by Roman authorities for teaching about his Jesus Christ.

And beyond his imprisonment, Paul claimed that sometime in the past he had been repeatedly and publicly punished by both Jewish and Roman authorities. Such punishments were meted-out to those convicted of breaking some kind of law ---

I don't know if the timeline or location fits, but isn't this the way Paul is presented in Acts? It looks to me like he is presented as causing a commotion and being arrested not for teaching about Jesus but rather for teaching "against our people and against our law and against this place. Furthermore, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place" (21:28). Then he was mistaken for "the Egyptian who incited a rebellion some time ago and led four thousand members of the ‘Assassins’ into the wilderness” (21:38).

Paul then publicly recounted his conversion to Christianity and the crowd took issue only with his final statement about associating with Gentiles (in keeping with their earlier opposition to his teaching against Jews, Torah observance and his association with Greeks in 21:28).


22:21-24:

Then he [Jesus] said to me, ‘Go! I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

The crowd listened to Paul until he made this statement. Then they lifted up their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He is not fit to live!”

As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be brought into the barracks. He directed that Paul be flogged and interrogated to determine the reason for this outcry against him.

And in 23:28-29 the charges against Paul are said to have "involved questions about their own law" and not Jesus (as per 21:28).

... since I [Claudius Lysias] wanted to understand their charges against him, I brought him down to their Sanhedrin. I found that the accusation involved questions about their own law ...
robert j
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by robert j »

The later 'legends about Paul' presented in the Acts of the Apostles don't play a role in my understanding of Paul's letters.
John2
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by John2 »

robert j wrote: Wed Sep 15, 2021 5:31 pm The later 'legends about Paul' presented in the Acts of the Apostles don't play a role in my understanding of Paul's letters.

Do you think the author of Acts is presenting their understanding of Paul's letters, and if so, shouldn't that be taken into consideration?
robert j
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by robert j »

John2, I'm just not interested in raking such arguments about Acts back and forth over the coals.
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by yakovzutolmai »

John2 wrote: Wed Sep 15, 2021 5:43 pm
robert j wrote: Wed Sep 15, 2021 5:31 pm The later 'legends about Paul' presented in the Acts of the Apostles don't play a role in my understanding of Paul's letters.

Do you think the author of Acts is presenting their understanding of Paul's letters, and if so, shouldn't that be taken into consideration?
The author of Acts is constructing a contrived history of an apostolic church founded by a Galilean Jesus in the 30s. There is no evidence of such an organization, the Paul of Acts is totally unreliable.

The ultimate question is what the author of Paul's epistles thought the audience of those epistles knew about himself and his history.

In the case of Aretas and Damascus, we find an allegory for Old Testament content. Meaning that the character Paul never experienced that event, but the author of the epistles is hoping to portray his character in a way in which the audience might believe it. Clearly signaling something to the more educated, while conveying something else to the less educated.

So, if Paul claims to be a criminal, why would he self-incriminate except as apology? And we have to ask, is this actually apology, or is the author of Paul constructing a fabricated personality for the sake of his audience. What about Paul's self-incrimination would appeal to that audience, why would they find meaning in it?

I'd wager it has more do with the story of Aretas than an apology for actual depraved acts. Paul is a literary construction, a 90s AD pretend character posing as having a history from the 50s. Is the "criminal and the liar" invoking allegory? Is he appealing to an audience? That has to be answered first.
John2
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Re: Paul --- A Criminal and a Liar

Post by John2 »

The author of Acts is constructing a contrived history of an apostolic church founded by a Galilean Jesus in the 30s. There is no evidence of such an organization, the Paul of Acts is totally unreliable.

The ultimate question is what the author of Paul's epistles thought the audience of those epistles knew about himself and his history.

I think the author of Acts created their history with knowledge of Paul's letters if not also of Paul himself and it thus has some value when it comes to understanding Paul. Does it have ancient-style "special effects" and try to put things in the best light as far as the emergence and spread of Christianity goes? Sure. And to my eye it also has knowledge of earlier writings about Jesus (like Mark and Matthew) and reflects what Paul says in his letters ((such as his being opposed by Jewish Christian extremists and being arrested and imprisoned and his relations with Jewish Christian leaders and Herodians). I also think it accurately reflects the Fourth Philosophic climate of the time as described by Josephus.

I see the author of Acts as being among the audience of Paul's letters (and/or of Paul himself and perhaps also of Josephus) and thus can see some good value in it.
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