Peter or Paul

This review of St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions by Michael Goulder (Westminister John Knox Press) was contributed by Alan Goss. It originally appeared in Newsletter 24.

This modest book (196pp) is worth its weight in gold. Bishop John Spong acknowledges his great debt to Michael Goulder in his latest book Liberating the Gospels. Goulder is Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK and like Don Cupitt, is an "atheist priest". As a biblical scholar, Goulder is worthy of Spong's accolades and presents a compelling case. His findings are based on a careful examination of the biblical texts along with the gift of an acute and sensitive theological nose. The claim on the cover -- that Goulder writes "with wit, force and clarity" -- is thoroughly justified.

In opposition to views that the New Testament writings are a sign of an existing harmonious unity, Goulder maintains -- as many are aware -- that from the earliest times (40AD approx.) there never was a simple united church. There were two missions, one operating from Jerusalem under the leadership of Peter and the sons of Zebedee, and later James the brother of Jesus, and other members of his family. The other mission was run by Paul, from various centres.

The two missions were agreed about the supreme significance of Jesus, but little else. On most other matters -- the validity of the bible, whether or not the Kingdom had arrived, sex (Paul's liberal and commonsense views prevailed against the nobility of Petrine ideas of celebacy), money, work, tongues, healing, Jesus' divinity (The Jerusalem mission taught that the human Jesus was possessed by a spirit from his baptism to his passion [wheras the Pauline view was that] Jesus Christ was an eternal unity -- both a spirit and, in some way human). There were deep disagreements.

The New Testament gives the impression of a united developing body of belief for two reasons. First, because it is simply a selection of writings. Secondly, it was selected by the mission which won: the Pauline mission. [That] is why the New Testament consists of the Epistles of Paul (and his followers) and four Gospels, three of which are Pauline (though Luke is friendly to both sides), supplemented by "bridge" writings to Jerusalem (Matthew, James, The Apocalypse).

Precisely how the Paulines won -- and that wasn't finalised until relatively late, perhaps around 190AD -- is uncertain and would make fascinating reading.

The primary source for the "two missions" theory which Goulder developed over twenty years, is [the book of the] Acts and [the writings of] Paul -- but especially the latter. Acts is a doubtful asset because Luke -- who invented the theory of a virginal and united church -- did a masterful job of papering over the cracks. It is the epistles which help us to see what was going on in the churches in the fifties.

Paul had been successful in converting some Gentiles to Christianity, and the question had arisen as to how much of the Jewish Law in the bible those Gentiles needed to keep. They had to keep the moral commandments, but Paul -- the liberal! -- turned a blind eye over the ceremonial commandments such as circumcision and the eating of kosher meat. Paul dug in his heals (Gal.2:1-4) and, in the end, his party won the day after a great deal of tension (Gal 2:11-14).

Today, Christians do not have to eat kosher meat or be circumcised, and we can be grateful to Paul for that. At the same time Goulder exhorts us to be fair to Paul's opponents James and Peter. If you accept the bible as the word of God (as both sides did) then God's word must be honoured, especially when the issue of Jewish identity was at stake. As Goulder points out, "you have issues for which men will die, and kill. It is probable that both Paul and Ignatius died in partial consequence of the hatred of Jewish Christians (those loyal to Peter and James); and we shall see that the Pauline Christians, especially St. John, hated the Jewish Christians with equal ferocity".

This, then, was the basic tension between the two factions and it is the only one for which there is direct support in the New Testament text. Goulder explores the other tensions mentioned above and acutely remarks that "to understand what those differences were, and why they arose, is to understand the New Testament."

In a fascinating section on Jesus' resurrection Goulder gives a convincing explanation for the conversion-visions of Peter and other Christians at Pentecost. Prior to Pentecost all of them were beaten men, especially Peter who must have seen himself as a total spiritual failure. It is not uncommon for spiritual crises to find their resolution through visions and voices -- or a saint, a dead partner, a Joseph Smith, or the founder of a religious tradition such as Jesus. Today, psychologists collect such experiences -- and they are not rare -- some people even identifying themselves in their crisis with God of Jesus. Peter, after Easter, didn't come to his conversion-experience "cold" and nor did the other disciples. They knew from Daniel about the resurrection of the dead at the end of history and their vision of Jesus alive follows naturally from this. It was, as it were, "pressed upon them". Yet, as Goulder wittily explains, the spreading of an experience does not mean its confirmation. When a few people reported seeing flying saucers, thousands followed suit. "Such stories quickly gain credence, and sightings multiply, in small communities with limited education and under threat -- like the early church -- especially when there is a psychological payoff. So it does not add anything important to Peter's experience to hear that 500 Christians later saw the risen Lord. Under other circumstances they might have seen UFOs, or Bigfoot".

Goulder ends his chapter on the resurrection by stating categorically, after much reasoned and sensible argument, "that Jesus did not really rise from the dead, either physically or spiritually. Rather, his followers had conversion-vision experiences which they interpreted in line with the biblical categories of their time". That's one more giant step towards developing "a religion for grownups" (Noel Cheer, National Radio, October '97).

This very readable book is a vision experience in itself. It is not a lightweight read and demands time and study, so much so that I'm returning for a second helping.

Alan Goss