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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Acts 09 – Here comes Paul

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Paul: From Persecutor of Christians to Author of most of the New Testament

I’ve made it over a year in this project and have only mentioned Paul – aka the Saul of this passage – three times in passing.  It’s time to remedy that.  Paul’s importance cannot be overstated.  He has been definitively named as the author of seven out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.  Traditions over the centuries have linked him to thirteen out of the twenty-seven books.  Even in some of the letters where his authorship is highly doubtful, it is often accepted that the actual author was a follower of Paul, influenced by Paul’s teachings.  Like I said, it’s time we gave the guy some attention.

As as alluded to here in the beginning of today’s chapter (and directly described in chapter seven of Acts), Paul actively persecuted early Christians before this divine intervention on the road to Damascus.  Remember, saying that Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah was radical to the point of heretical, a threat to not only Jewish but also Roman authority, and therefore a punishable offense through multiple avenues.  Paul was a man quashing rebellion and upholding the society of which he was a part, yet he became God’s chosen instrument.

God’s Chosen Instruments are often new and strange people.

God’s chosen instruments are some interesting people.  Abraham was a 100 year old man with a ninety year old wife, promised descendants more numerous than the stars after decades of being unable to conceive.  Jacob was a trickster who cheated his brother out of his rightful inheritance.  Jesus chose the socially undesirables of the time – tax collectors and prostitutes – to be among his closest friends and carry on his message. Now here comes Paul, hater of all things Jesus becoming one of the biggest missionaries in Jesus’ name.  Despite their shortcomings, maybe because of their shortcomings, God chose all of them.

I think that’s an important message to remember when we see something going on in Jesus’ name that isn’t appropriately “church-y” enough for us.  I’m not saying throw out all your beliefs and traditions every time something new and strange comes along, but do pay attention to it.  Social changes only come when the status-quo is challenged.  Sometimes that is uncomfortable to the point that we fight against it.  For example, Paul, as a Hellenized Jew, was protecting the societies of which he was a part (Roman and Jewish both) when he persecuted early Christians.

Perhaps we should be actively seeking the “new and strange” messengers.  If God chose David as a favorite son when he was just a young musician, what right do we have to dismiss Autumn Peltier, a fifteen-year-old Indigenous clean-water activist (and others like her)?  Maybe we shouldn’t even write Kanye off, yet, either.  I honestly don’t know what to think about Kanye and am inclined to believe he just needs some help…but there have been crazier people cannonized:  St. Vladimir performed human sacrifice and had so many kids he lost count before converting to Christianity, and everyone’s favorite St. Francis literally tried to get himself martyred by going on a quest to convert an Islamic Sultan.  But they all challenged the societies of their – and in the case of Autumn and Kanye, our – time.

Regardless of our opinion of Paul, he pushes us forward in Spiritual Learning

So really, Paul is just one in a long line of strange converts, strange messengers within Christianity.  It took Jesus literally smiting Paul off his horse, yelling at him, and striking him blind to get it to happen, but it happened.  Jesus shook Paul out of his complacency with the social status quo Paul had been a part of.  I think you would have to be open to new ideas after that experience, right?  Hopefully it won’t take the same amount of intervention for the rest of us.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to discern what is done out of love and compassion and what is done out of greed and fear.  If we approach people with an open but discerning heart, we will be able to make that judgment call when presented with something that isn’t part of our current set of beliefs and values, and possibly presented by someone new and strange to us.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Paul  as we dive into the book of Romans next post.  He was a controversial figure in his own day, and continues to be so today.  Perhaps you don’t like – or even agree with – all of his writings.  In all honesty, I think some of the most abused passages from the Bible come from Paul.  All that shit about women being subservient to men and not being able to lead in the church etc etc?  That’s all Paul. But maybe that makes listening to him extra important.  Even if we don’t agree with everything Paul says, (or everything that has been written about what Paul says), perhaps it has pushed us to examine our beliefs, come to a deeper understanding of them and of Jesus’ message, and taught us to do the same the next time we hear something new and strange.