Deissmann on Paul
St. Paul. A Study in Social and Religious History.
As some of my visitors know, I am a writing a doctorate on the Christology of the Apostle Paul. 'Boring', I hear you yawn. But did you know that Paul's letters are the earliest extant Christian writings? Yes, earlier than the gospels. In fact, any reconstruction of how the early Church came to believe what they did about Jesus, and thus how most of us did, must engage with the evidence in Paul's letters. Especially given the modern debates, this 'Paul-wrestling' remains an absolutely crucial task.
I am a little surprised, therefore, that the image of Paul I read in many modern monographs is one that I suspect Paul himself would have difficulty recognising. As much as I love recent debate concerning 'justification', 'baptism', 'Israel' etc., I have a nagging suspicion that we are falling back into a version of the dry 'Paulinism' that plagued much of Pauline scholarship at the end of the 19th century.
At least this is how I want to appreciatively introduce Deissmann (1866-1937), whose words are, I feel once again very much 'in season'.
In a book that at time sounds like poetry, Deissmann 'waxes lyrical' against the sort of scholarship that has turned Paul 'into a western scholastic philosopher', an 'aristocratised, conventionalised, and modernised Paul now suffering his eight imprisonment in the paper bondage of "Paulinism"' (xi). And while things aren't, anymore, how Deissmann found them, his words, I think, still ring with prophetic relevance for our present day. Have many of us once again delivered Paul into a 'paper bondage'? I suspect so.
When others were reducing Paul to various and familiar '-ologies', Deissmann wrote in an altogether different language. In relation to christological inquiry, he writes:
'The attempt is usually made under the heading, "the Christology" of St. Paul. But it would be more accurate, because more historical, to inquire concerning the apostle's 'knowledge of Christ', or 'experience of Christ' … Anything that tends to petrify the fellowship with Christ, which was felt at the beginning and felt so vividly, into a doctrine about Christ, is mischievous' (124)
While I cannot, as with much of the 1st and 2nd generation publications of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, drive a clear wedge between Paul's 'religion' and 'theology', I deeply understand the attempt of Deissmann to once again put colour and religious fervour back into our picture of the Apostle. I think we ought to heed the 'spirit' of Deissmann, and make sure our Paul doesn't become a 'Paulinism', and our Christology, an anathema to Paul's Christ-devotion.
'But this is only important to you because your specific field is Pauline Christology', perhaps you may think? And while I admit my favourite questions are those christologically shaped, I am of the conviction that Paul, and his thinking, cannot be understood without the most profound reference to his risen Lord. That may sound obvious, but under the skin of much 'New Perspective' discussion, and certain 'Israelologies' being generated in Paul's name, is, I suspect, an underlying inability to grasp the importance of the Apostle's Christ-soaked, nay, Christ-obsessed life and thinking. Though I'm not yet claiming that the 'New Perspective' is therefore wrong (my internal jury is 'out' on that one still), I feel that many of our hermeneutical approaches to Paul could do with a bit of a 'haul over'. And in this sense, Deissmann could teach us all a lot.