TO PICTURE the Pauline churches, Professor Wayne
Meeks has drawn on findings of earlier scholars, his own expertise in New Testament criticism, and considerable acquaintance with sociology, anthropology, and Greco-Roman society. His book is a learned, but readable attempt to describe what it was like "to become and be an ordinary Christian."
The introduction defends the project and delimits the material--the seven "indubitable" letters of Paul, Colossians (by a close disciple), Ephesians and I Thessalonians (by disciples' disciples). These are thought evidence of "an extended group of associates" of which "Pauline Christianity" was "the work." Of this Christianity Meeks describes first the environment-- the cities of Greece and Asia Minor--then the social level of the converts, the social structure of the local churches, their relation to the (universal) Church, and their governance, rituals, and patterns of belief and life. An index of biblical references makes the book useful as sociological commentary on the later chapters of Acts and the Pauline epistles. Fifty pages of notes, 35 of bibliography, and seven of subject index are also useful. Finally, the work is outstanding because of Meeks' common sense and fairness. He often tries to avoid dogmatizing, indicates disputed points, and presents arguments on both sides and the reasons for his positions.
Unfortunately these virtues serve a common-sense conception of Christianity about 1,800 years removed from the passionate, primitive sects that spread like herpes through the Roman Empire. Common sense is not a good guide for interpretation of an author who thought God set him apart from birth "to reveal his son in me" (Gal. 1:15 ff.) and who boasted that he spoke in tongues (hysterical gibberish) more than any of his converts (who gibbered so wildly that outsiders might think them mad, I Cor. 14:18,23). Nevertheless, what the literate pious now want is not the raw, original stuff, but the bland, synthetic substitute (no undesirable side effects except a little drowsiness), so this book will become a classic and generations of students will extrapolate from its errors.
In fact "the first urban Christians" were not those of the Pauline letters, but those of Jerusalem and the other cities of Palestine and Syria. Even in Asia Minor and Greece Paul was only one of many missionaries with widely differing gospels. Some competitors he described as servants of Satan; he wished that others would castrate themselves (II Cor. 11:15; Gal. 5:12)--grudging tributes to their success. The Christianity of Paul's churches was perhaps as much his competitors' work as his, for his gospel did not always prevail. He probably lost Galatia; no Corinthians accompanied him to Jerusalem to deliver his contribution for the poor (Acts 20:4). Nevertheless Meeks assumes that Paul's teachings and adherents constituted "Christianity."
The contribution for Jerusalem and Paul's anxiety lest it be rejected (Rom. 15:31) indicate (although Meeks denies) that Paul was subordinate to the Jerusalem leaders. He feared their decision might make his work vain (Gal. 2:2), and was happy to report that they added nothing to his gospel (Gal. 2:6)--ergo they could have added. In fact they did add the requirement that he take care of the poor. Paul says he was careful to do so (Gal. 2:10), but the only poor he cared for were those of Jerusalem. Those of his own congregations he almost never mentions. (This goes to confirm Meeks' conjecture that his converts were mainly lower middle class, and to authenticate II Thess. 3:10: "If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.") Hence Paul's embarrassed fund-raising for the poor of Jerusalem was probably to conciliate the authorities there, because of their power over him.
What that power was, Paul does not say, but he says much of his own power over his converts, "to subject every mind to obedience to Christ and promptly punish every disobedience" (II Cor. 10:4 ff.)--presumably an important element in Pauline society. From what Paul says, it seems to have been an enormous power of suggestion. We may credit to it the miracles he occasionally claims (as "signs of an apostle," II Cor. 12:12) and also the punishments he repeatedly threatens and at least once reports--he handed a Corinthian over "to Satan, for the destruction of his flesh" (I Cor. 5:5; Meeks' translation makes this a future congregational action, but the verb form makes it Paul's and past). When Paul came "with a rod" (I Cor. 4:21) there might be arguments and witnesses, but the disputes would be settled by, "not the argument, but the power. For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of argument . . . but of power" (I Cor. 4:19 ff.). Meeks tries to reduce this power to a gift for negotiation; he actually speaks of the rod as "only" a "rhetorical foil" and thinks Paul hoped to win "the consensus of the assembly." Paul, however, thought the central element in his churches the power of God revealed in Christ revealed in Paul (II Cor. 13:3; Gal. 1:16; 2:20; etc.).
This power was also the power of the Spirit (Rom. 15:13), so the Spirit is also minimized. Its "gifts" are listed, but the only one well discussed as such is "speaking with tongues" (with modern anthropological data, but no reference to the ancient parallels in magical texts and Christian use of magical formulas in spiritual prayer). Of the other gifts, those connected with spirits go almost unmentioned, appeal to miracles appears "inconsistent with . . . (Paul's) profounder theology," prophecy is mainly "apocalyptic tradition." No reader of the chapterron "Ritual" would suspect that Pauline prayer meetings were really s,eances for the invocation of spirits (Rom. 8:26 ff.; I Cor. 12:1-11; 14:12-32). Apostles, teachers, etc. are dumped into "governance." Not even the Spirit itself got into the subject index.
Besides "the Spirit" (namely, God/Christ), a swarm of spirits good and bad surrounded Paul's converts. Paul refers to them often. Meeks almost never. (He dismisses the works of Satan as "trivial.") The invisible society, in which Paul and his converts thought they lived, is all but ignored by this account of their "social world."
Neglect of the Spirit also falsifies Meeks' understanding of the Church as a "body." To Paul it was the body of Christ because Christ, the Spirit, lived in all its members (II Cor. 3:17; Rom. 12:4 ff.; I Cor. 6:15,17; 12:12-27; etc.); to Meeks the body is merely "a metaphor." The sacraments are similarly reduced to "images" and the like, the miracles that Paul thought the Spirit worked in them being ignored or dismissed as rhetoric. About the eucharist, for instance, although it is admitted that "Paul declares that the Supper has certain magical effects, including physical illness or even death, on people who violate the norms," yet these effects are not explained. There is no notice of the magical parallels to the sacrament (for the closest parallels known, see M. Smith, Jesus the Magician,), and we are assured without evidence that, "these violations are not ritual errors in the narrow sense, but offenses against the social cohesion of the group caused by tensions between people of higher and lower social and economic positions." Anyone familiar with Paul will at once recognize that such language and thoughts are not Paul's. Paul defined the violation succinctly; "Not recognizing the (Lord's) body" (I Cor. 11:29). Meeks doesn't.
In sum, Meeks' exegesis is that of a conscientious, commonsense, modern man, who has blundered into this world of ancient magic, as Goethe's Wagner might into Walpurgisnacht, and does not understand what's going on. More details might be discussed, but the principles arthe ae clear. I wish there were space to praise the book's many fine passages and observations on the Greco-Roman and Jewish backgrounds and the day-to-day practices of Christianity. However, there will be no lack of praises.