Reading the Bible Again...
for the First Time

Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally
by Marcus Borg, HarperCollins:
New York, NY. 2001. 

Canon Jim Irvine


the Bible
Again for the
First Time



Coffee and Discussion


Emmaus Paradigm

Scripture and Communion

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Reading Lenses: The Bible and God

Reading Lenses: History and Metaphor

The Hebrew Testament

Reading the
Creation Stories

Reading the Pentateuch

Reading the Prophets

Israel’s Wisdom

The New Testament

Reading the Gospels


Reading the Revelation

Borg Study Index
Home Study Resources

Paul Again

1. On the Damascus Road

Commonly called Paul’s conversion experience, it is and is not, depending upon what we mean by “conversion.” …

In an important sense, his conversion was his “call story” to the rest of his life‑work. All three accounts in Acts report Paul’s commissioning to his vocation as an apostle to the Gentiles. In his own words from Galatians:


God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through divine grace, was pleased to reveal God’s Son to me so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.

(p. 231)

 What is the core of Paul’s “call story”?

Paul says that God “had set me apart before I was born.”  In what tradition had he placed himself?


2. Jewish Christ-mystic

2 Corinthians 3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we?  2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 3 and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?  9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!  10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!  12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.  14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.  15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 

New Revised Standard Version

Thus Paul was not just a Jewish mystic, but a Jewish Christ-mystic. In my judgment, his mystical experience was the source of everything he became as a follower of Jesus. It was the ground of his conviction that Jesus was not a dangerously misleading and cursed figure of the past but a living reality of the present who had been raised by God; it was the basis of his identity and of his call to be an apostle; and, as we will see, it was the foundation of his message. (p. 237)

“For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!”

Condemnation is acknowledged but eclipsed – where do we see the Lord’s “glory”?

“What once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!”

Paul talks about the “greater glory” and the “permanent”.  How is this foundational to Paul’s gospel?


3. Conversations in Context 

Paul’s letters are “conversations in context” – conversations with communities he founded in the context of his life as an apostle of Jesus. Indeed, they are only one‑half of a conversation, for in them Paul is most often responding to a letter he has received from a community or to news of that community he has heard by other means.

This recognition is essential to reading the letters, and it has more than one implication. It means that we should not see Paul's letters as a summary of his message. With one exception (Romans), Paul does not use his letters for that purpose, since he is writing to people who have already heard his message in person. Thus the content of his letters has little to do with what he thinks most important and more to do with specific issues arising within his communities. The agenda for Paul’s letters is set not by him but by them. This helps us to understand why his letters often treat issues that seem obscure or relatively unimportant to us – why, for example, he spends more time writing about whether women should be veiled in Christian gatherings, or whether one may cat food that has been sacrificed to idols, than he does writing about the teaching of Jesus.

Moreover, as Paul responds to a letter he has received, he sometimes quotes or echoes words from it. When we do not realize this, serious misunderstanding can result. A classic example occurs in 1 Corinthians:


Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.


How much of this is Paul’s point of view? In particular, does the second sentence – “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” – express Paul’s position, or is it a point of view expressed in the letter to which he is responding? Ancient Greek does not use quotation marks, so the text does not tell us.

If we see it as Paul’s point of view, then it follows that Paul sees sexuality as less desirable than abstinence and his acceptance of sexual behavior as a concession to human weakness. Through most of the Christian centuries, the passage has been read this way (no wonder, then, that Paul has been thought of as anti‑sex and that Christians have often struggled with sexuality). But if Paul is quoting from a letter sent to him, then he is countering the statement rather than affirming it. (Try it; note the difference it makes to put quotation marks around the second sentence.) Modern scholars are virtually unanimous that this is the correct way to read it. (p. 240f.)


4. Paul’s pattern of Witness

As I try to imagine what Paul most likely said, three things occur to me. First, Paul would have told her that Jesus was the messiah. But for this to mean anything to her, he would also have had to tell her about the kind of person Jesus was. Otherwise, the claim that Jesus was the messiah would have been a cipher, a claim without content. Thus I assume that what Jesus was like – his subversive wisdom, his healings, his passion for social justice for the poor and marginalized, his indictment of the domination system, his goodness – mattered to Paul and would have been central to his message.

Second, after telling her about Jesus, Paul would have said, “And then the rulers crucified him.” As Paul emphasized in his writings, and I will emphasize later, “Christ crucified” was utterly central to Paul. And third, I imagine Paul would have told her his own conversion story: that he had been hostile to Jesus and the Jesus movement; that Jesus had then appeared to him in a vision, just as he had appeared to others; and that this meant that God had vindicated Jesus as messiah and Lord.

There would be more, of course, especially that the community of Jesus was open to both Jew and Gentile: that one could become part of this Jewish community without observing the sharp boundaries that separated Jews from Gentiles. This was certainly part of the appeal of Paul's message. (p. 242) 

Recognizing Paul’s witness, what would we tell others about Jesus?


“Jesus is Lord”

For Paul, the central meaning of his experience of the risen Christ was “Jesus is Lord.” Both affirmations – Jesus lives, and Jesus is Lord – were immediate inferences from his Damascus Road experience; indeed, perhaps one should say that they were given with the experience. Thus for Paul the resurrection of Jesus was not primarily about an afterlife through the defeat of death. Nor was its central meaning that we also will be raised someday; as a Pharisee, the pre‑Damascus Paul had already believed that. Rather, Easter meant, in an affirmation that Paul shared with the Jesus movement as a whole, “Jesus is Lord.” (p. 243f.)

Easter meant, in an affirmation that Paul shared with the Jesus movement as a whole, “Jesus is Lord.”  Reflect and discuss.


Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

(p. 244)

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”  By what name did Paul know Jesus?

By what name do we know Jesus?

How does this name reflect Easter faith?


5. “In Christ”

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

“Life ‘in Christ’ involved an egalitarian social vision. In the context of Paul’s world, it was a new social reality.”  How do we see a “new social reality” in our world?


6. House Church

The Christ community in Corinth, which included some wealthy people, was a villa house church that met in the home of a wealthy patron. Paul learned that the rich had been eating their own meal separate from the poor (or before the poor could arrive from work). His indictment in 1 Corinthians is harsh:

When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.... When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?

[Paul] warns them of eating the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner – that is, “without discerning the body” (meaning the community). The issue is not the centuries’ later Christian concern with discerning the “real presence” of Jesus in the elements of the Eucharist, but the betrayal of “the body” – namely, the egalitarian social reality of life “in Christ.” (p. 250f.)

As a home study group we emulate Paul’s pattern for the faith community.  How do we experience/demonstrate “the body” – namely, the egalitarian social reality of life “in Christ.”?


7. “Justification by Grace”

Paul’s other central metaphor for speaking of the Christian life is drawn from the legal world. The literal meaning of “justification” is found in a court of law: to be “justified” is a legal verdict that means “to be found in the right” or “to be acquitted.” It is the verdict one would want to hear if one were on trial.  (p. 252) and

Justification by grace is radical. Though the language has been domesticated by familiarity, it is extraordinary: “God justifies the ungodly,” Paul says. A few verses later: “Christ died for the ungodly.” Then: “While we were yet sinners” and “enemies” of God, “Christ died for us.” God’s love for us is prior to our worthiness. It need not be earned – indeed,  cannot be earned.  (p. 253) 

Justification by grace is radical.  Reflect and comment.


8. “Christ Crucified”

For Paul, the death of Jesus was utterly central. When he wrote to the community in Corinth and reminded its members of what he had preached to them, he said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and, even more compactly, “We proclaim Christ crucified.”  …

“Christ crucified” also discloses the wisdom of God and coun­ters the wisdom of this world. How does the cross expose the wisdom of this world? Through paradox: the notion of a crucified messiah is an oxymoron, a Christian koan that shatters conventional ways of thinking and expectations. In Paul’s words, it is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (p. 256f.) 


What “good news” is hidden in a “crucified messiah”?

Jesus, for Paul, is both crucified and messiah.  To what degree is Jesus, for us both crucified and messiah?

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