Paul's Interpretation of the Christ Event
Paul is a well-known figure in the Bible because of his philosophic texts that are said to promote universalism and acceptance of all people. Although universalism is illustrated in some of his writings, many scholars have discovered that his teachings promote a pseudo-universalism, which is rank-ordered and bias toward Jewish law and customs. Paul’s two, contradicting messages cause many to believe that these texts were not all written by the same man. This paper will examine Paul’s ideas of universalism by focusing on the Letter to the Romans and the book of Corinthians. Through this examination, texts by the contemporary scholars, Badiou (2003) and Agamben (2006), will be cited to further analyze Paul’s concepts of universalism.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes was king of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to163 BC. During his first year as king, he forced the Jewish High Priest to resign from his position and made it illegal for anyone to practice Jewish customs including circumcision and the Sabbath. The punishments for disobeying this new law were brutal. For many people, the abolition of Jewish Law marked a time in history that was similar to that of America’s Great Depression. Years later, this depression brought life to the Messianic Era, when Jesus the Messiah, Bar Kokhba and others claimed to be sent by God to save the Jewish people. When reading Paul’s texts, it is important to understand that Jesus was the only messiah that is known for his resurrection, a occurrence Badiou (2003) refers to as the “Christ Event.”
Twenty years after the Christ Event, Paul distributed the Letter to the Romans. Interestingly, the gospels were passed in 70 CE, forty years after the event, but precede Paul’s texts in the Bible because his philosophy is based on the Christ Event. Because the physical resistance against the Romans seemed impossible in Paul’s time, apocalyptic thought and the second coming of Jesus the Messiah is an evident theme within his writings. Because Paul believed the second coming will be soon, he invited the world to join a universal religion made possible by the Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul’s ideas within Romans and Corinthians are based on the Christ Event. Badiou (2003) writes that the event is not something that can be caused, but rather an event with no connection to what came before it. Badiou believes the Event never occurred and could never exist in our realm of being. He thinks Paul was the “theoretician of the Event” and spread the word to join him in a universal religion.
To Badiou, Paul’s texts promote a universal religion that preserves the customs of many cultures—one that any man can be saved: “With regard to the world in which truth proceeds, universality must expose itself to all differences and show, through ordeal of their division, that they are capable of welcoming the truth that traverses them. What matters, man or woman, Jew or Greek, slave or free man, is that differences carry the universal that happens to them like a grace ” (Badiou 106). This interpretation follows the theories that say Paul is a universal thinker that promotes acceptance. He writes, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13). Paul’s universalism is defended by this verse and others with the same basic message. As a result of the Christ Event, Paul claims that every man can be saved, and that under Jesus, they are the same: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This passage makes it seem that Paul is promoting a universalism that does not require someone to convert. Like a salesman, he waits until later passages to describe what it means to follow Jesus the Messiah.
Paul would be disobeying God, who has divided people into different sects and practices, if he were to ask people to convert to a new religion: “But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches” (1 Cor 7:17). The author of this passage promotes universalism, which includes all people who follow God regardless of their norms, races, or creeds.
As Badiou describes, Paul preserves differences in potential followers so not to abandon their callings:
Paul demonstrates in detail how a universal thought, proceeding on the basis of worldly proliferation of arteries (the Jew, the Greek, women, men, slaves, free men, and so on), produces a Sameness and an Equality (there is no longer either Jew, nor Greek, and so on). The production of equality and the casting off, in thought, of differences are the material signs of the universal. (Badiou 109)
Because God has created every man, he has placed them in their callings. For Paul to require people to abandon those differences would be to disobey another of God’s commandments.
Paul writes: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:19-20). Without law, people do not have knowledge of good and evil, but with too many commandments to follow, one can find themselves disobeying them very easily without the possibility of redemption.
Paul describes a new religion under God and Jesus the Messiah that accepts all beings, without causing them to reject their “nomos”—“law” in the King James Version of the Bible. The Greek word “nomos” is used in Romans to describe Jewish practices such as circumcision, eating habits and obeying the Sabbath: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for all that have sinned: For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom 5:12-13). Paul is defending his ability to be saved without obeying the 613 commandments in Jewish Law (Torah). Although his argument supports Badiou’s theory that Paul promotes universalism, Agamben and others read the same verses and interpret them differently:
The messianic vocation separates every klesis from itself, engendering a tension within itself, without ever providing it with some other identity; hence, Jew as non-Jew and Greek as non-Greek….You see why it makes no sense to speak of universalism in regard to Paul, at least when the universal is thought of as principle above cuts and division. In this sense, there is neither beginning nor end in Paul, only Apelles’ cut, the division of division, and then a remnant. (Agamben 53)
Agamben shows that Paul is abolishing the law that many follow their whole life in order to serve the Lord. Although he says that people can practice their nomos, these laws are not important or even necessary to follow for redemption.
The universal themes that many interpret Paul to have are not necessarily universal when one does a close reading of the text. Badiou interprets Paul’s messages to include anyone, yet, Agamben shows that Paul’s texts are far from universal and must be read without these themes in mind. As Paul writes about the results of the Christ Event, he notes that God accepts all people, no matter their “calling”—be it slave, master, Greek, or Jew—yet, he describes that the “nomos” of the Jewish people is not necessary in order to be saved:
But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. (I Cor 7:17-20)
By saying that “circumcision is nothing” Paul is showing his blatant disregard for Jewish practices. His statements do not promote social mobility or redemption before death. If God has called you to be a slave, you must abide to that calling. For Paul, life before death is not what the world has to look forward to. It is the afterlife that Paul focuses his writings on, which shows his disregard for an obedient lifestyle (Agamben 2006).
Paul goes further with this thought and argues, “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:22-24). As Paul rejects the commandments of the flesh, he is denouncing the significance of Jewish practices of the body, such as eating habits: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom 8:13). Because Paul believes that the spirit is eternal and that the body is temporary, Jewish laws are not of any significance to Paul, even though Jesus the Messiah followed this law.
In the second book of Corinthians, Paul asks people to be reconciled:
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:18-20)
If there were a universal calling, and anyone can easily be saved, why must Paul beg people to be reconciled to God? Unlike the verses in Romans 8, everyone may have the ability to be saved, yet, not everyone is saved automatically by Jesus’ resurrection.
The idea of redemption as seen in Greek literature is very important in understanding Paul and the purpose of the Christ Event. When reading Romans, we can find evidence of Greek thought in Paul’s writings. Adam brought sin into the world, and therefore death, according to Paul. This marks the beginning of a process that ends with Jesus the Messiah’s death, bringing redemption to those that have sinned. Adam’s death, or mortality, is proof of the original sin and the need for redemption.
The process of redemption is constructed in a Greek fashion. Romans 10:4 says, “Jesus Christos is the (telos) of the law.” In the King James Version of the Bible, “telos” is translated as “end,” yet the Greek term carries more weight. “Telos” means the end of a process that fulfills the purpose of that process. What comes after “telos” is superior to that which proceeded it; in Romans, it is clear that what will follow the “telos” is the Messiah’s second coming. Paul writes: “For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:14-15). Paul believes that the Christ Event was the destruction of the law and that they can be saved if they follow one, basic commandment: to love thy neighbor as you love yourself.
As we examine the writings of Paul, we see that universal themes are evident in the scripture, yet, there are two levels of universalism. One will accept all people, regardless of their past, status, race or gender. The other is rank-ordered, giving more power to those in power and less to those that live according to the flesh. Through a close examination of Romans and Corinthians, this writer believes that Paul’s ideas were constructed in a Greek fashion. According to Paul, Adam’s initial sin caused his death and redemption was offered once Jesus the Messiah was resurrected. Though this seems like a universal religion, Paul is quick to reject the laws of the Torah, laws that Jesus himself accepted and performed on a daily basis. Through a closer reading of the text, we can see that Paul’s apocalyptic mindset has clouded the idea of the universal, causing him to contradict himself throughout his writings.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains: a Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006. Print.
Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.
King James Version Bible. Thomas Nelson. Print.