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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog


The first three letters here are collectively known as the Pastoral Epistles for their focus on how Timothy and Titus should order and care for the churches they are charged with pastoring. Scholars today largely agree that they were not written by Paul, but rather use his name and the detailed greetings to attribute his authority to them. They are, in my opinion, among the least interesting writings of the entire Bible - except for some of the really lovely language you'll find, much of which has found its way into our liturgies and prayers - especially because their patriarchal perspective on households and churches does not endear them to contemporary progressive audiences. Second Timothy is the most intriguing because of its deeply personal tone, as of one writing a farewell letter or even a will – especially seen in the famous passage in 4:6-8: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness...."

There are two perspectives I find helpful in reading these letters. First, remember that there were many "alternative" understandings of the Christian message being offered in the latter part of the first century and beginning of the second – hence the emphasis in these letters on the true gospel and eschewing false teachings. Second, there is to me a note of accommodation to the surrounding culture – a narrowing of gender roles, an acceptance of social class and status, a focus on behaving in seemly ways – that contrasts with reports about how the early Christians scandalized Roman society by crossing such boundaries. I wonder if these letters aren't urging Christian communities to create less controversy by conforming to some of the standards of the society around them. This would particularly seem true regarding the role of women suggested here, which is in direct contradiction to Paul's own acceptance of specific women having leadership positions (I Tim 2:11-12 echoes Paul in I Cor 14:34-35, but the latter is a passage now generally accepted as not belonging to the original letter and not from Paul's hand).

The Letter to Philemon is authentically Paul – the only example we have of a letter from him addressed to an individual. It is a delicately worded negotiation on behalf of Philemon's slave, Onesimus, who has been converted by Paul to the faith. It is unclear whether Onesimus has run away, or been egregiously delayed in completing a task set for him by Philemon, but Paul is calling upon the master to forgive the unspecified wrong, welcome Onesimus home, and then return him to Paul to assist him while he is in prison. Is there a hope that Onesimus, now a fellow Christian, might be freed by Philemon? Or does Paul just want to use his influence to smooth the slave's return to his owner's good graces? It is hard to tell – but this brief and enigmatic letter opens a lovely window into the complications of a first-century community of faith.

See you on Zoom on Wednesday!

Announcement - New!

Hi everyone - As the coronavirus pandemic takes over life's routines, we've all developed new ones. So let's not let it get in the way of the Book of Books Book Club! I invite you all to join me next Wednesday, April 1, at our regularly scheduled meeting time - 7:00-8:30pm - via Zoom for a discussion of our reading from Ephesians through Philemon. I will email you the link to the online gathering - which means that if you want to join me, you must email me by next Wednesday morning at to let me know and I will add you to the list. See you soon!


We've taken on Paul's most important letters in some detail over the past few weeks; now it's time for a bit of a sprint. Each of these letters rewards at least a cursory reading, some deserve much more than that – but all touch on familiar themes even if in somewhat different ways and with different tones. Ephesians was probably not written by Paul, though some continue to debate that judgment; Colossians and II Thessalonians were almost certainly written by someone else. All three claim his authorship, though, indicating that whoever wrote them believed he or she was furthering Paul's agenda and teachings. Philippians and I Thessalonians, on the other hand, are most certainly from Paul's hand and are among his earliest letters, written to the first congregations he had established in Greece.

All five are marked by some lyrical and famous passages; you should hear familiar words from our worship services echoing in your head as you read (Eph 4:5, for example, provides the opening acclamation from the baptism liturgy: " Lord, one faith, one baptism..."), along with some of the lines most closely associated with Paul (i.e., Phil 2:12, " out your own salvation with fear and trembling"; I Thess 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."). Ephesians – whoever wrote it – is a work of sustained beauty and power both celebrating God's grace and love and calling its readers to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called," (4:1) in the unity of Christ. Philippians is marked by unremitting affection for its recipients and joy in the message of hope he has to offer them and in which he believes himself and them to live ("Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you." [4:9]). Colossians is an odd letter that echoes much of Ephesians and references contemporary cultural influences to be resisted that are nearly impossible to decipher ("worship of angels," etc., in 2:16-18), yet also has some lovely passages of encouragement ("Clothe yourselves with love," 3:14). The First Letter to the Thessalonians reprises the tone of affectionate friendship seen in Philippians; unlike Ephesians or Colossians, here we see Paul's emphasis on maintaining faith in the hope of an imminent return of Christ to bring the world to its consummation. II Thessalonians, on the other hand, seems to simply repeat much of the first letter without the same personal tone, and to suggest that the second coming is not quite as much at hand as I Thessalonians thinks, which are the primary reasons scholars believe someone else wrote it.

We are about to bid Paul farewell; only Philemon remains as an authentic letter of his (the three before that, I & II Timothy, and Titus, are certainly not by Paul). Do not miss this chance to mine these works for more nuggets of eloquent faith.


The overall theme of Paul's Letter to the Galatians is covered extensively in the Letter to the Romans – but I must confess that I find it in some ways easier to follow here. Paul is intensely angry at those he perceives as offering "false" and "perverted" teachings to the congregations he himself founded, and that anger seems to sharpen his thinking as well as his tongue.

At issue is whether followers of Jesus must be Jews – i.e., must non-Jewish converts, Gentiles who are being baptized, be circumcised as well? Circumcision is the mark of identity as a Jew, and some teachers appear to have come into the congregations in Galatia (which seem to be four churches in central Asia Minor, though there is some dispute about this) arguing that Gentiles must first be circumcised as well as baptized. Two perspectives on this issue are important, ours and Paul's. From our perspective, we can see that circumcising Gentile converts would mean that "Christianity" was to remain a movement within Judaism; Paul and others are arguing that belief in Christ constitutes a new relationship with the same God, and therefore new beliefs and new practices. This amounts to a new religion, though Paul himself does not ever put it in quite those terms. This dispute, then, is an extremely important historical insight into the birth of the Christian Church.

Paul's perspective on this issue is both profoundly theological and deeply pastoral. He argues that Abraham believed in God's promise; we are children of Abraham, then, through believing that same promise of God to be fulfilled in Christ. The law – the Ten Commandments, and the other 603 found in the Old Testament – was given when the people of God needed behavioral guides, but now the law serves to point up our shortcomings, our inability to keep all of the commandments all of the time. Under the covenant of the law, then, we are subject to rejection by God, and thus (in Paul's view) death. The law cannot save us. Instead, we are freed from the law by the death of Christ, by God taking on the shortcomings – sinfulness – of human nature himself in Jesus, and thus we are promised in his resurrection the same eternal life he himself enjoys. Our freedom in Christ, Paul believes, is so great, and is so important to making our life in the community of the faithful even possible, that we must not allow ourselves to fall back into an economic (you-do-this-and-I'll-do-that) relationship with God that we cannot possibly maintain. Instead, we respond to the freedom given in Christ by attempting to lead lives based on love, knowing that even when we fail we are welcomed back into the love of the community because of the love of God.

My explanation may be muddling things even more – perhaps I'm not angry enough to be as sharp as Paul! Galatians repays a more than cursory reading – I recommend the commentaries of the Oxford Annotated Bible or Oxford's Access Bible as easy guides to Paul's argument.

II Corinthians

Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians is a strange and wonderful piece of Biblical literature. A significant aspect of its strangeness is explained by the scholarly consensus that the letter is composed of selections from at least three separate letters sent by Paul. Thus the abrupt changes in tone and content arise not from Paul's moodiness or inability to stay on topic, but from the differing circumstances of the different sections. The other factor in the epistle's strangeness is the deeply personal nature of these fragments – they reveal less about what the controversies are in Corinth than about how those controversies have pained Paul personally.

Though the exact circumstances of the separate letters, especially their chronology, cannot be established with any certainty – nor is there even complete agreement about how many fragments there are – a couple of assumptions that have general agreement make this work easier to read. First, let's call it three fragments: chapters 1-7, chapters 8-9, and chapters 10-13. Second, let's say that the Corinthians received the letter containing chapters 10-13 first, reacted badly to it but then became reconciled to Paul's position, and then after hearing that report, Paul sent the letter that contained chapters 1-7 – while chapters 8 and 9 belong to a completely separate appeal. With this possibility in mind, the harshly critical tone of 10-13 makes sense as a response to what Paul is hearing other missionaries ("super-apostles," in his sarcastic designation) say about him and about his Christian message; he repudiates their criticisms and asserts that they are false apostles. When he receives a report that the congregation has struggled over this controversy but returned to Paul's perspective, he then writes chapters 1-7 to express his joy at their "repentance" and his concern that they understand why he needed to reprove them. At some other point he sends them a letter that amounts to a capital campaign solicitation (chapters 8-9), reminding them that they had promised a collection of funds to add to what he has already received to support the Christian community in Jerusalem.

What makes this letter wonderful to me is that in all of this, what stands out – if we do not get too caught up in his defensiveness – is the roller-coaster of Paul's personal feelings. He is hurt, he is insulted, he is outraged, he is contrite, he is affectionate, he is joyful, he is gracious, and throughout he is both proud of and humbled by the role of missionary of the faith to which Christ has called him. Second Corinthians offers, then, a rather intimate portrait of a man of faith feeling deeply the joys and difficulties of both being a man of faith and being part of a faith community. 

I Corinthians 8-16

We conclude the First Letter to the Corinthians this week by working our way finally to the two great climaxes I mentioned last week: the hymn to love in chapter 13 and the ode to the resurrection of all in chapter 15. But as in any good journey, getting there is half the fun! Recall that in the first half Paul has taken on controversies in this congregation over factions, sexual immorality, lawsuits, and marriage (good? or bad? in light of the impending end of the world). The first issue allowed Paul to establish his larger theme: the community should not be dividing itself into factions based on who baptized them or who taught them the faith (remember hearing Apollos mentioned in Acts 18 and 19?), for we are all one in Christ. It's important to note here that, as we saw repeatedly in Romans, this unity with each other in Christ is not earned by any process of our own, but rather recognized through faith. The freedom brought about by our belonging to Christ – freedom from having to earn God's love through keeping commandments that are both beyond our ultimate ability and do not bring about salvation, freedom given us by God's grace in the resurrection – this freedom, says Hans Conzelmann (20th-century New Testament scholar) in his commentary on this letter, is "for the renewal of conduct." And Conzelmann continues, "the Christian factor does not lie in a new moral conceptualism, but in the relating of morals to faith." How we treat ourselves and each other, for Paul, comes from our unity with and in Christ – and one response to the freedom such unity brings is to look outside our own needs to focus on the needs of others.

Which brings us to the problem of meat. Chapters 8-10 wobble through a discussion about the propriety of eating meat that was previously sacrificed to the gods of other temples – to idols, in other words. These cults are understood by sophisticated Christians to be worshipping gods that are not real, not God – so meat sacrificed to them has no actual religious connotation. But, Paul says, other Christians do not yet grasp this perspective – so don't eat such meat in front of them and cause them to question their faith, think of them and their need of support rather than yourself and your enjoyment of freedom. This practical matter leads Paul into a discourse on the diversity of the members of the congregation, as diverse and necessary to each other as the parts of the human body, further clarifying our unity in Christ – which unity, he outlines in chapter 13, is based on love. This is not our love, it is God's love, the cosmic love that unites all things, in which our love participates and from which our love derives. The poetry here bears a closer look; we've all heard this too many times, yet it is not really as familiar as we think. And the result of this focus on the wonder of God's love finally leads Paul to the extraordinary exhortation on the resurrection in chapter 15: our understanding of God's love comes from the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in whom we too will live, and die, and rise again. This progression of points about the working of faith, from concrete issues in our daily lives to the most sweeping claims about God and life, is truly a joy to follow.

You'll note that I've skipped over chapter 11, the odd discussion about what is and is not appropriate on the heads of men and women. Scholars are truly at a loss to explain both what this discussion is doing here (why is Paul talking about this? what led him to this? is it a later addition by someone else?) and what Paul is really trying to say, since he appears to contradict himself. Whatever is actually going on, I say don't worry about it – maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Almost Cut My Hair" is the last word on this for those of us of a certain age…!

I Corinthians 1-7

The First Letter to the Corinthians was written in Ephesus, to a community in Corinth that Paul had helped found and which he knew quite well; he visited it not long after writing this letter. While there, he wrote the Letter to the Romans. The two epistles share common themes and concerns, and that commonality highlights their differing agendas. In this case, Paul has had both a letter from the congregation asking him questions and visitors from there telling him what they have seen and heard – and his letter is a direct response to both of those sources of information. It addresses, therefore, specific and concrete concerns and controversies; Paul's responses are developed from a perspective of faith, and therefore allow him to in turn expound upon that faith as the common elements to his responses become clearer. As you will remember, his Letter to the Romans, on the other hand, is written as a self-introduction and therefore as an opportunity to outline his faith and the larger, more abstract themes that concern him about his mission: the relationships of Jews and Gentiles, of Jews and followers of Christ (almost ready to be called Christians), of humanity and the God who created it. Comparing the two letters, then, we can see how his thoughts about Corinth's issues have led him to the most profound levels of his faith, which he can then develop more abstractly in writing to the Romans. Thus we see here again Paul's thoughts on the righteousness of God (the trustworthiness of God's promises), on faith alone leading to salvation (nothing we do can further the grace of God), on the diversity of the members made one in the body of Christ, on the freedom we attain in Christ (not to take advantage of, but to live in response to), and on the centrality of the resurrection of Christ and its implications for human life.

In reading this letter, particularly the first seven chapters, I suggest something similar to what I urged in reading the gospels: remember how it ends. In the case of the gospels, know that the resurrection informs everything that is narrated before it; here, remember that this letter will lead to two great climaxes: the "hymn to love" in chapter 13 (love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" 13:7), and an extraordinary outline of the promise of eternal life in chapter 15 (do see the King James Version of this chapter: "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed... for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible..." 15:51-52). Remembering those climaxes (or even reading them ahead of time!), we can watch how Paul wends his way to them through Corinth's problems: factions, sexual immorality, lawsuits, whether or not marriage is a good thing (in light of the nearness, he believes, of the end of the world with Christ's Second Coming) – and then next week, meat, men's and women's hairstyles in church, how to behave at communion, and the diversity of the community's population – whew! Faith and hope and love unite all these elements, with bursts of glorious poetry leavening the nitty-gritty of life in Corinth.

Romans 9-16

As we complete Paul's Letter to the Romans, there are two major portions on which I'd like to focus our attention. First, chapters 9-11 contain Paul's impassioned effort to outline a logic by which his fellow Jews should, can, and will be saved by God. The emphasis here is on God's righteousness to his promises to Israel, that the promises are not being abandoned but rather made more sweeping, more inclusive of the rest of the world. Second, chapter 12 offers a beautiful portrait of the life to which all of us Christians should aspire. The final chapters, of course, also bear reading: chapter 13 has a strange defense of civil authority; chapter 14 offers a sneak peak at the issue of food that we will see developed so wonderfully in the next letter, First Corinthians; and chapters 15 and 16 outline Paul's hopes and plans to get to Rome and the greetings he would like passed on to all the individuals he knows there. It's all quite lovely, but I want to focus on these other sections.

Paul has been struggling with the Jew-Gentile question throughout this letter, and after arriving at the sweeping statement of faith at the end of chapter 8 that "nothing...can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," he turns back to the problem of then saving the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. He affirms the importance of our Jewish heritage, the key elements that ancient Israel brings to our understanding of our relationship with God, but then outlines a tortured plan by which the bringing of the Gentiles to faith will make Jews jealous and therefore eventually cause them to come to faith as well. There are two underlying problems for Paul, I think: first, he assumes without question or comment that God will only save some of humanity; second, he then makes it sound as if faith in Christ is a requirement for salvation, which seems to me to turn it into a work of its own and thus a way to earn that salvation. This latter problem is a contradiction of all that has gone before (works get us nowhere with God, he has argued; our good works should be a response to our faith that we are beloved of God). The first problem - of limited salvation - is endemic to the vast majority of religions and religious perspectives, but I will always argue that it seems plausible to me to believe in universal salvation and still find Paul's approach to faith compelling. This is not the place to rehearse that argument, but I do suggest that you consider the possibility as you read this letter.

Finally, 12:9-21 is just a piece of beautiful writing that offers a portrait of the perfect Christian life, one in which we "hold fast to what is good" and treat all others as we would wish to be treated. It is yet another demonstration of Paul's preeminence in exploring and outlining what it means to live believing in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 1-8

This is a very lengthy, but I hope helpful, blog post. I want to say a little something about epistles as a form in the early church period; a bit about the background of this specific letter; a bit about Paul's real inability to understand either hetersexual or homosexual relationships; and I want to offer a chapter-by-chapter guide to the letter's contents. Here we go!

With Paul's letter to the Romans – written probably in the late 50s A.D. - we enter into the most popular form of writing in the New Testament, the epistle or letter. Twenty-two of the books in this Christian section of the Bible are letters, and even Revelation makes use of the contemporary conventions of letter-writing. The standard format, while seemingly obvious, is worth noting as variations would have been recognized by readers/listeners as making important statements. Letters begin with a greeting, from the letter-writer (usually named) to the reader or readers; a statement of thanksgiving to God follows; the main body of the letter then takes up the central themes, often mentioned in the thanksgiving section; and finally there are closing greetings to other members of the recipient's community or families. The absence, then, of a statement of thanksgiving in the Letter to the Galatians is a clear sign to its readers of Paul's deep anger; the lingering over the thanksgiving in the Letter to the Philippians, on the other hand, long into the main body, shows how deeply Paul is rejoicing over the news he has had of them.

The Letter to the Romans is different from Paul's other letters in that it was written to a community that he did not found and did not know. Thus rather than addressing issues within a congregation over which he has a large degree of authority, here Paul is introducing himself to an already-famous church. It is the longest of his letters, then, because it is the most comprehensive statement of his faith, and therefore it is placed first among his epistles in the Bible. Its overarching theme is the parallel relationships between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) and between the law and grace. Paul wishes to justify the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community without leaving behind the special relationship between God and the Jewish people; and he wants to base his understanding of faith on the gift of Jesus Christ as the means of God's grace to free us from bondage to the law and sin, yet without denigrating the importance of the law for establishing the need for salvation. Early in the first chapter (1:17), Paul takes the stand that underlies the rest of his arguments: "the one who is righteous will live by faith." It is our faith in Jesus that frees us from sin, not our wayward and futile efforts to obey God's law.

About Paul and human relationships: he's not really good on them. Relationships between humans and God are his specialty, but relationships between genders or within genders - especially relationships of love - seem to leave him baffled. Add to this a fairly standard (for its time) belief in a wrathful God, and a tendency to make sweeping remarks, and we end up with some pretty awful stuff. This must be noted here because Romans 1:26-27 is an extremely difficult passage for all of us convinced of the full humanity of, and love of God for, homosexual persons. Many efforts have been made to explain that Paul's condemnation here is not of committed homosexual love as seen in our world but of prostitution in fertility god and goddess temples or other types of excessive sexual licentiousness of his time (especially in Corinth, where the letter was written, and in Rome itself). Personally I find such arguments persuasive and yet rather convoluted and torturous. Paul, in his letters, reveals himself to be a person of deep faith, powerfully and often movingly articulated; he also reveals himself to be fully human, capable of jealousy, arrogance, occasional whining, and deep gratitude for friendships and communities of faith. But he is not the best authority on relationships between men and women, or on the roles of women in the Church, in his time or ours; I do not find it at all inappropriate also to assert that he is not the best authority regarding the authenticity and naturalness of homosexual love.

A brief guide to a difficult but powerful letter: all humans can know God through God's creation, yet all turn away from him to self-created idols and self-centered wickedness (chapter 1); Jews have no right to judge as they do the same, and in fact have more to be ashamed of as they have been told what is right in the law (chapter 2); yet while all humans stand condemned in God's eyes, all are now offered the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (chapter 3); Abraham, actually, is the first example of this, for his righteousness came by his act of faith, before there was any circumcision or law (chapter 4); so as Abraham believed God would make him and Sarah the beginning of a people, we are called to believe that God raised Christ from the dead to reconcile us to him while we were still in sin (chapter 5). 

Then chapter 6 opens with one of my favorite parts: if our awareness of our sinfulness shows us how great is God's grace, should we sin even more to get even more grace? What a great question! Yet Paul's response is even better: in essence, he says that if we truly understand the saving nature of that grace we would respond in kind, not by seeing if we could get more of it – for there is no "more" grace, it is not something of which we can amass quantities, it is what we already have. In other words: when we know we are loved, would we want to take advantage of that love or would we want to respond to that love with love? Paul thinks the latter course would have greater appeal, which is why he presents the former line of reasoning and then opposes it. It's a lovely way of thinking about our relationship to God.

But it gets better: Paul returns to the idea that the law makes clear where our sinfulness lies, and takes it one step further – the law also makes clear our own inability to be the best we can be: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (7:15) In this context, God's grace to us is even more amazing – which takes us to chapter 8, one of the most powerful statements of faith in God's unending love to be found in all of Christian literature: "For I am convinced that neither life, nor death...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8:38-39) This is tough going, but it is worth the effort. 

Acts 15-28

The second half of the book of Acts is dominated by the scene of the council in Jerusalem in chapter 15. The dispute over circumcision is a dispute over whether faith in Jesus as the Messiah is a new version of Judaism or something else entirely. If Gentiles, non-Jews, who are brought to Christ through the preaching and miracles of the apostles must be circumcised before being baptized, then the followers of Christ are saying that they are still Jews. Paul and Barnabas have been arguing against this practice, and in Luke's telling here Peter positions himself as the one initiating the mission to the Gentiles and as standing against circumcision. Paul's view of this dispute, which we will encounter when we read his Letter to the Galatians in a few weeks, is rather less generous to Peter. Whatever the historical truth, the important point is that the decision by the leaders depicted here – first Peter, and then James (known as James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus) – marks an assertion that Christianity, not yet really so named, is a new movement, a new faith, and something separate from its Jewish heritage. While the Pentecost event narrated in the second chapter of Acts is celebrated as the birth of the Church because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, this council's decision is perhaps the more definitive birth of the Church as a distinct new faith and a separate institution.

The rest of Acts builds on this decision, as it follows Paul on his many trips to found churches or to visit again those already founded. An intriguing aspect of his many speeches in these latter chapters is his willingness to adapt his message to his audience: the sermon on "the unknown God" he delivers in Athens (17:22-31) is radically different from his exhortation to the church in Ephesus (20:17-35) or again from his personal faith story as delivered to Festus and Agrippa (26:1-23). We will see this ability as we read his letters to various churches – Paul's great gift of seeing what aspects of the faith are most useful or applicable in specific life situations is on full display in these chapters and gives us a great view of the rapid growth of this strange new faith.