By Bruce Chilton
Reviewed by John Cowan S.C.*
This is the third book by Bruce Chilton I have reviewed over the last few months. What a writer! Perhaps also what an extraordinary scripture scholar. As many other reviewers have said, his writing makes scripture come to life. These are good stories. And as many reviewers have said I too worry that he may be inventing the story instead of reporting it. However, the concern that it makes a great story, perhaps indicates that he is on the mark. It should be a great story. This is the story of Paul of Tarsus, the evangelist who passed on the Christ from the Jews to the gentiles. Bruce does not like the term “Good News.” Its not news, it is a living reality. The preceding is a very big sentence. More in the paragraph following starting with “To a deeper subject.” And more in the conclusion. Finish reading this. It is worth it.
I will give you three examples where Chilton’s perspective makes the story more meaningful than other renditions.
When I studied scripture as a post graduate student I noted that a person named Silas at one point was added by James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the central congregation, Jerusalem, to Paul’s evangelizing team of himself and Timothy. I remember him as an add on. Perhaps he helped carry the bags. In Bruce’s rendition of the story, Paul regularly screwed up his successes by adding something to the pot that really angered his audience or their neighbors. For instance, he would be working with gentiles, building a community around himself and the Christ that he represented and he would decide it useful to point out that they were becoming Jews simply by accepting Jesus. They probably did not care much about that but the Jewish community in the town, and the Christian communities that followed the leadership of the Apostle James did not like that one bit. James taught that to be an Israelite one must be trained and circumcised, as so of course did the local Jews. A war would begin, quite unnecessary for Paul’s ministry. Why was Silas there? To keep Paul on track and report back to James when Paul was being too dysfunctional. How does Bruce know this? Darned if I know. There are copious notes which I look at too little. (How to read a book and keep flipping back to notes almost every paragraph?) Maybe they speak to this? I peeked and did not find. However, it does ring true. Sounds right!
To a deeper subject. The story of Paul as a righteous Pharisee racing to persecute Christians, knocked from his horse and confronted by the Risen Christ, converted and accepted as an Apostle because of this encounter. The Chilton take on this leaves out the horse, ( All scholars worthy of the title do that, the text in acts has no horse,) and says that Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ was an internal encounter. He was overcome by the risen Christ in his gut. Chilton leans on no other scholars for this but on the meaning of the Greek word used there. It is to “uncover,” which implies an internal reality that is uncovered not an external reality which is revealed. Chilton says Paul was clear about it, and if you read the text you will realize that Paul never says other than that. Even further. the Apostles who were already Apostles accepted him as one of them because they too had met the risen Christ internally. They were changed in the same manner as Paul was.
Now I like that version because it fits ever so much better my belief in a Panentheistic God. A God who works through nature would probably not resurrect a dead body. Even more the ancient Hindu’s even to their present day followers believe that if you become empty a new sense of being will be formed in you. They are non-dualists. To a dualist It feels as if you uncover a new person. So if you asked one of them if what Chilton claims happened to Paul could have happened they would say “Of course!” Might even say that something like that happened to themselves. The chorus of those accepting such as this is broad. On the other hand, I did not see any notes directing us to other authorities who support Chilton. That’s our Bruce. Have you noticed that some of those crazy fundamentalists report a similar experience? Couldn’t be they are right could it?
On a lighter note, Pricilla and Aquila. Nice couple. Not Jews, look at the names. Romans of some importance, but Christians. Running a Christian house church when Paul meets them. Of some size. It is thriving as are they. Earning enough from their import export business to afford a house that can be used for a church and possessing a network that would facilitate Paul’s travels. Priscilla was a deacon of the church. This was a real job not simply a liturgical performance. She handled the community’s money and was functioning as the Vice-president of Finance and Administrative Services. (My title, fitting the job.) when she went to Jerusalem with Paul delivering the collection that had been taken for the poor of Jerusalem. Paul did not do this alone. Without Pricilla and Aquila and many like them the Empire would have never received the reality of the Christ. Three cheers for Pricilla and Aquila!
Paul was not much fun. The ministry kicked him in the teeth more than a few times. Not figuratively. He refers to the beatings and stoning quite bravely. But they left real marks. When he talks about not being the perfect vessel for the message it was in one sense correct, Santa Claus would have been friendlier. His capacity for blowing his top and name calling was high. Do not think the recipients of his anger did not hold it against him. Just a note to remember when you read him blasting a congregation. He probably did not get away with it. Ill feelings were probably harbored. Obvious I suppose, but Bruce is the first scholar I ran into that mentioned it.
Last blast. When I was a kid and went up to receive the host at my first communion I rather hoped that I would be changed when I returned to my pew. I was not. I was disappointed. Silly you think? I think not! In the context of a church that goes through motions expecting nothing, silly indeed to expect anything different. In the context of Paul who was changed by internal reality, and then aided others to receive the same change, what I expected should have been there. But, of course, was not.
It is not a message. It is not news, even good news. It is a shift in the bowels. I tremble to say this.