Romans 13 – Did Paul really write this?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

I’m going to go right out and offer my inexpert opinion: I don’t think Paul wrote vv. 1-7.  I think they are a later addition.  Remember, the New Testament has has undergone almost 2,000 years of transcriptions and translations.  It is very possible someone slipped a little something extra in there along the way thinking that Paul’s message needed to be clarified, or that it needed to be made more palatable, even.

It interrupts the flow of the letter

It’s placement it weird.  Paul ends the previous section talking about overcoming evil with good, essentially expounding upon the “love thy enemies” idea, and then in the next section, continues the love theme by expounding upon “love thy neighbor.”  So why this unrelated insert about respecting authority and paying taxes between those two sections?

One could argue it’s a continuation of the “love thy enemies” theme, but I think that’s rather weak because the word “love” isn’t used at all, where it is used often in the preceding and following sections.  Also, Paul was never one to shy away from punishment.  He had been whipped, imprisoned, put on trial, stoned, and was on a loose house arrest when writing this letter.  Why would he be concerned about avoiding punishment, as he mentions in verse five, or stress that doing right by the authorities is doing right by God, when he has so clearly angered the authorities himself many times over?

Paul had removed himself from the Roman “Honor System”

I find it particularly suspect that Paul talks about paying “respect” or “honor” to someone or something.  As N.T. Wright, Karen Armstrong, and probably many others have written, Paul removed himself from the honor system of ancient Rome in very deliberate way.  In ancient Rome, there was a strict social hierarchy.  Those lower down strove to pay “honor” to those higher up in an effort to gain recognition and status.  Whole cities vied for Caesar’s honor erecting statues and temples to the empirical court.  In short, this created a culture of boasting and bragging, with people crowing about their faithfulness to the empire, their achievements on Caesar’s behalf, and the achievements of those from which they were trying to gain favor.

Paul turns that tradition on its head, bragging not only of his own ignominies and weaknesses (most famously in 2 Corinthians), but also of Jesus’.  Paul again and again stresses Jesus’ death on the cross.  Death on the cross was not some mere tragedy, it was a fall from social grace, a punishment for the most reviled of society.  In addition, it was also often hard to recover and prepare the body for proper burial.  Scavenging animals often further ravaged those that were executed, soldiers may prohibit collecting the remains, and honestly, it may have been just too risky to even try.  Burial rites were an important ritual in ancient times, not least of all for the Jews, so the fact that Jesus died, defiled on the cross, like a base criminal, would have been proof for many that he was not the Messiah.  Where is his honor, his glory? How can we possibly respect someone with such a base demise?  Paul argues that Jesus power comes from his weakness – by accepting such a fate as the cross Jesus brought about the fullness of God’s kingdom to those who need it most: the weak, the oppressed, those crying out for justice and love.  So I ask again, why would Paul suddenly be urging readers to pay their honor and respect to the civil authorities?

I have seen the case that Paul is possibly referring to synagogue authority, and not Roman authority. Paul did take up a collection from diaspora churches and bring that back to Jerusalem before writing Romans, and perhaps he was hoping to do the same thing in Rome.  This, I suppose, is possible, but I again have my doubts.  I think that Paul would have alluded to the synagogue directly, and probably wouldn’t have referred to his collecting money as “taxes.” Returning to Paul talking about fearing authority, I doubt that Jesus-followers in Rome had much to fear from Jerusalem Jewish retaliation.  There were Jews in the city of Rome, but they had only recently been allowed back to the city after being kicked out, and tensions were high.  A Jew attacking a Gentile for any reason (such as being a Jesus-follower) would have only been detrimental to the Jewish individual.  As for the Jewish Jesus-followers, perhaps there was a bit more to fear from local intra-Jewish retaliation, but again, being a large city with several enclaves of Jesus-followers, I think that they could have found a safe haven with like-minded believers.  So we’re left to conclude that the synagogue is not the fearful authority to which this section refers.

The real author of this section

So who did write it?  My guess is an early Gentile contributor, maybe about the time the Deutro-Pauline letters (letters attributed to Paul but probably not written by him: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, possibly 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) a few decades after Paul’s death.  Early church leaders, when they weren’t ignoring Paul’s dense rhetorical letters, often down-played his Jewishness, focusing on the creation of a new religion in a way Paul had not.  An addition about paying “honor” and “respect” to the civil authorities can be seen as an attempt to assimilate Jesus-following practices into the wider Roman culture, distancing themselves from the Jews. Jews had special dispensation to not worship Caesar (aka not participate in the honor culture), and it often deepened Greco-Roman suspicion of the Jews.  If these new Jesus-followers paid honor as the rest of society did, then they might have been viewed with less suspicion than the abstaining Jews.  Of course, as Christianity gained first acceptance and then power in the centuries to come, early Christian rulers would look approvingly upon this passage condoning God’s support of earthly rulers, and thus it’s canonical status would not be often or seriously challenged.

How we should view this addition

Let’s say I’ve convinced you that Paul didn’t write this little blurb.  What does that mean in the grand scheme of things?  Honestly, nothing revolutionary.  It’s just a little historical Easter egg that hints to the long and storied history of the Good Book.  It’s a perfect example of just how the Bible isn’t separate and apart from history, but very much effected by history and affecting history.

Even with “inauthentic” additions, if you want to call it that, I still think reading the Bible is important. I still think we can gain deep insight to ourselves and God through it.  I still think we can turn to the Bible for guidance.  But it once again highlights the fact that we need to understand the Bible in context of when it was written and why it was written, and remember that even if it was divinely inspired, fallible people were the ones doing the writing (and later interpreting).  The important thing is not to get too bogged down in the details, or limit your understanding of the Bible to just a few verses, because then you’ll miss the broader themes.  And here, the broader theme is love.  I’ll remind you once again: The previous section was Paul expounding upon “love they enemies.” The following section is Paul expounding upon “love thy neighbors.”  This little hiccup in between doesn’t change that message.  And it certainly doesn’t negate our responsibility to be caring of our neighbors, our community, and the world.

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Bonus Post: So Why Be Good?

My last two posts have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct.  I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now:  “If we’re all saved and sin doesn’t exist, why bother following Christianity? Why bother following any religion, actually, or even worrying about being good?”  In other words, can we be good without the impetus of damnation or salvation?  It is, ironically, a question from which many atheists have to defend themselves.

The Humanist Connection

At the risk of pissing off both Christians and Humanists, I think the answer lies, at least partially, in Humanist beliefs.  Humanists International says “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.”  Human beings have the ability to reason, to be empathetic, and have the capacity for a wonderful imagination and problem solving.  Whether you believe (as I do) that these are God-given gifts or simply the product of millennia of evolution is beside the point: we can all agree these abilities exist.  We are a communal species, and as such, individuals benefit when the community benefits. Monkeys know this – they sleep together for protection and scream warnings to eachother.  Lions know this – cubs are co-mothered and co-nursed by all the females within the pride.  I could go on with crows, ants, and really any other communal animal.  So, if animals with no religious beliefs (as far as I know), no promise of heaven or threat of hell, can behave in a way that is beneficial for their society, can’t we as humans do so as well?

Humanists believe so.  The Humanist Society of Western New York puts it this way:

“We owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet. A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world’s problems. An appreciation of the art, literature, music and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life.”

Isn’t that a statement we can all agree with?

I also just want to point out the many secular societies that are doing good without any religious impetus: The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy, and you know I’m going to go ahead and list Planned Parenthood, too.

Getting back to Christianity…

This is quickly turning into a defense of Humanism, so let me tie it back into my own beliefs. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to “do good.”  Not because I will be “saved” for doing so, but because I want to show my gratitude to my God, who has given me so many beautiful gifts: this earth and all its wonders; art in the form of music, painting, and dance; the promise of a life hereafter.  I believe that everyone on earth is my sibling in Christ, and as part of my family it is my responsibility to help them, just as one would do for their flesh-and-blood family.  I act – or at least, I try to act – out of love. My underlying motivations might be slightly different than that of an atheist or agnostic, but the end result is the same: the ability to care about and for humanity without needing to be scared into it by the idea of damnation or bribed into it by the idea of salvation.

A follow-up question might be, “so why keep reading the Bible?”  I do believe it was divinely inspired.  That does not mean I think it is infallible, or a perfect recording of history.  The key word is inspired here, people.  And it continues to provide inspiration, today. I view the Bible as a guide – something that can be read over and over to reveal new truths, help us meditate upon ourselves and society, and give us an idea of what is important to God.  Is it the only way to know God? No.  I think prayer is important, too (even though I’m terrible at it), and honestly just going outside and marveling at nature is probably the best way to be humbled and awed before God.

“Human decency” is a phrase for a reason: It’s something we’re all capable of, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  Honestly, if you are only good because somebody is making you be good – whether it’s God, a parent, a parole officer, or whoever, then you’ve got some serious soul searching to do.  So why be good? If for no other reason, be good because a rising tide lifts all boats.  Gratitude to a higher power is optional.

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Romans 02 – Casting the First Stone on the Patriarchy

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Read the rest of today’s Bible Chapter here!)

I was going to write about circumcision today, but given that Paul talks about that a lot, I’ll talk about it another time.  I am doubling down on the blog in 2020, because I believe that I am sharing a message that needs to be heard: and that is a message of radical love.  I suppose most Christians claim to be doing that, and many of them are.  What I am saying on this platform is probably not all that unique, and I dare to hope there are a lot of Christians out there that hold my same views. But there are other so-called Christians who spew vitriol and hate, using Bible passages out of textual and historical context to back up their selfish lies.  And there are lots of them.  So even if this blog is just one of many other progressive Christians saying basically the same thing, at least I am adding my voice to the fight.

I worry a lot. I worry that some people may dismiss the message of “radical love” as an easy one.  It’s easy to profess that you love your neighbor when nothing is required of you other than to say the words.  And really, that’s all a blog is: a bunch of words.  I also worry that other people will dismiss my writings as deliberately controversial in an effort to get attention, that I’m out here seeking alternative interpretations just to be contrary and rock the boat.

But radical love is not easy, and it should rock the boat.  It means putting everyone on an even playing field.  While that more often than not means lifting someone up, it can also mean tearing someone down.  This is why this blog has been renamed from A Liberal Christian Reads the Bible to God Vs. The Patriarchy.  The mission remains the same: I will still be reading the Bible one chapter at a time, in an order that has not been pre-determined, to find evidence of God’s radical love of all humanity.  I am here to counter-act racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia; economic, ecological, and social injustice.  I am here to help tear down the patriarchy.  If that wasn’t perfectly clear before, I hope the re-branding makes it so.

In today’s chapter, Paul tells us not to judge another because in doing so we condemn ourselves.  Well, guess what? I’m here to cast the first stone, anyway.  I stand guilty in just about any way you could charge me:  I eat at McDonalds and do not live a plastic-free life.  I have an iPhone and don’t know who made all my clothes.  I apathetically follow main-line news and therefore only hear about global calamities that effect white people -and then only the “big ones.”  I only sort of go to church, and have real doubts about a lot of the historicity and originality of the Bible.

But even with all my faults and all my doubts, I still believe in the message of radical love, and truly believe God wants us to dismantle any society that has become unjust. As unglamorous as it sounds, the best way to effect that sort of change is to do it small: brick by brick, or chapter by chapter.  Nature, society, and the economy all abhor a vacuum.  If I could snap my fingers and instantly end corn subsidies; outlaw gas-powered vehicles, and establish a universal basic income of $24,000 per person, the cascading effects of those changes would cause millions to starve, ignite a global war like you’ve never seen, and probably destroy the world. But that doesn’t make these ideas worthwhile goals, anyway, if we work towards them steadily and responsibly.  Asking – demanding – more power, resources, and respect from the people who have more and giving said things to those who have less.

I know I’m in a position of privilege and I’ll have to change, too.  Perhaps pay more in taxes, consume a little less or a little lower on the food and supply chains, make more room at the table for new voices to be heard.  But time and again it’s been proven that the more diverse an organization is, the better is survives.  Different ideas and problem solving skills can be put to work when they are allowed to exist, allowing for more innovation, responsiveness, organizational gain and overall satisfaction.  Isn’t that what we should want that for Christianity? Our country? Humanity?  It seems worth the trade-off.  Today I re-invite you to join me as I use the Bible to think about ways to make the changes the world so desperately needs.