I could have been quite content to have become an academic researching and teaching about ancient history, religion, and philosophy. As it happened, I didn’t get that opportunity. My first job out of graduate school was to become a part-time pastor of a Quaker meeting in Massachusetts while working full-time as a computer services manager at the kinko’s in Newport. When I did land a career position, it was at a theological seminary working mainly with a distance education program and also getting to hold an appointment as a New Testament Studies assistant professor. I was forced to pose the question about my academic research, “What does it all mean?” What difference does research make on the majority of the population who can’t and won’t read books written by scholars for other scholars? I have yet to come across a book written for the average, college-educated, church-goer that puts into practical perspective the results of scholarly research in the two areas that I think are crucial for a fresh understanding of the origins of Christian thought and practice.
One area is the impact of Hellenistic philosophy on the way Paul formed assemblies and guided them in their growth and transformation. I’ve been waiting for years to find a book on Christian practice that engages with Greco-Roman moral philosophy. Even those who seem to be the most knowledgeable perpetuate a Christian life that focuses on prayer, Bible reading, Church attendance, and living up to the moral standards the Church has inherited from its Victorian and Puritan history. Meanwhile, people are leaving their churches in droves because they are not getting what they need for a meaningful and purposeful life.
The other primary area is a new view about Paul as an “apostolic Jew” who brings gentiles to God apart from becoming Jewish proselytes. For me, that is inextricable tied to the Hellenistic context. This goes “hand-in-glove” with the philosophical context of the letters of Paul. Some (or many, or maybe even all) will find I press the Hellenistic context way too far. But the development of Christianity makes no sense to me otherwise. What I have discovered is that Paul and other NT authors thought that both Jews and gentile peoples benefitted from the death of Jesus in two separate but overlapping ways. Jewish followers of Jesus were anticipating that God will view the death of Jesus in a similar way as the death of Eleazar in the Maccabean period. According to 4 Maccabees, God considered the death of Eleazar as atoning and redeeming and saved the people by removing the foreign invader and oppressor. In the case of Jesus, they were hoping God would consider the death of Jesus as atoning and redeeming (and their baptism into the Jewish sect as a suitable act of repentance) and free the land from the Roman occupation. As to the gentile peoples, Paul believed the faithfulness of Jesus in death had caused God to forgive the sins of the gentile peoples and include them in a covenant to join the universal people of God apart from the requirements of the covenant with Israel. This was Paul’s good news he spread throughout the Roman empire. This was a first step for gentile peoples. Recognize that the one God is your God and know that God is the one who gives to humans the fecundity of life (fertility, food, rains, etc.) and security of living at peace. I think this is what Paul meant by the concise expression “grace and peace.” The second step was for them to be good people but apart from adhering to Torah. For Paul, this was the implementation of philosophical practices which would form gentile peoples in assemblies of followers of Jesus into humans who attain a divine sort of existence in the world and who, just as Jesus did and Eleazar did, experience an afterlife of immortality in the presence of God.
I felt I had to create new translations of the letters of Paul in order to show how this research makes sense when reading the letters of Paul. That’s why I included interpretive phrases like a paraphrase to elucidate Paul’s writing. It is put into italics so readers are able to skip over those additions. People don’t need to accept all of my way of understanding Paul in order to benefit from my translations.
The outcome of my research is the APeX website and podcast. The question remains what does a Christian life look like that takes seriously the research I’ve done. One thing it doesn’t look like is a disparate group of people living in an area meeting for an hour or two once a week to sing some old songs and listen to someone make them feel good with sad or humorous stories that encourage them to continue to maintain the standards of Christian living: keep a good reputation and be respectable, watch your language, don’t smoke or drink, make sure you don’t think about sex too much and only have sex with the “right” person for the “right” reasons.
I’m hoping to find people who find value in the work I’ve done and who are willing to help promote these ideas and shape how it develops.