Oral Tradition and the Arrogant Apostle

"Oral tradition" is conceived in biblical studies as the primary source behind the gospels, and it is taken for granted by many people as though it were established fact. But actually there are serious flaws in the theory, and I recently published an article discussing those flaws, in volume 3, no.1 of the Journal of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies (JOCABS). The article reviews the arguments of a scholar who argues that "oral tradition" as imagined by modern scholars is new (a relatively recent invention), unfounded (the arguments that originally created the theory were unsound), unworkable (more recent arguments in support of it have also proven to be unsound), and it is unnecessary (alternative theories are available). I agree with his analysis and supplement it with some observations of my own.

In the same issue is my review of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s book Paul: His Story. I was very ambivalent about this book. It attempts to look beyond Paul as theologian and imagine him as a human being with human feelings and emotions. This is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and in fact any good historian should try to do that with his subjects. The problem is that this book is not written by a historian. A historian is trained to critically assess the reliability of sources and factor that into the degree of certainty ascribed to a reconstruction of the past.  In this case a renowned biblical scholar knows his sources through and through, but the aspect of sober assessment of source reliability is missing. Nevertheless, the book makes for fascinating reading, especially in the way that Paul shapes up in it to be a thoroughly arrogant and insensitive character. Quoting from the first paragraph in  my review:

This is the story of an apostle who “had few scruples about the way he attacked those who disagreed with him.” Paul was “less than honest” when it came to presenting his credentials in the most forceful way to others, and his “lack of empathy” for other people caused him to attribute “the most uncharitable explanation” for any opposition to him. His “tunnel vision” and “self-absorption” were so intense that he did not care about anyone or anything peripheral to his central vision. He showed “contempt” for those who disagreed with him and in fighting them wrote “brutal slashes,” threw “tantrums,” displayed “childishness,” was “manipulative,” employed “moral blackmail,” and engaged at times in a “cruel intellectual game,” “cruel laughter,” and “sarcasm.” There can be no doubt that “Paul’s venom certainly diminished him in the eyes of the genuine Christians in the community.” The hostility he attracted was not due only to his theology, but rather “[h]is own character traits were also a significant factor.” Indeed, his personality impelled him to magnify conflict rather than resolve it in a positive manner: disagreeing with Paul was like waving a “red rag to a bull. Opposition goaded him.” (59, 110, 136, 145, 146, 151, 166, 167, 180, 185, 220)

Yet for all that the author ends up with an unreservedly positive assessment of Paul as a theologian.


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