Brandon O’Brien on Paul Behaving Badly
Date: October 9th, 2016

The Apostle Paul (née Saul) was a central figure in early Christianity, with his adventures being written about in Acts and his many writings making their way into the New Testament, earning him the title of Saint Paul in some Christian circles.  But a careful reading of Paul’s writings through 21st century eyes would give the appearance that he was a racist, chauvinistic jerk.  Prof. Brandon O’Brien, an assistant professor of Christian theology at Ouachita Baptist University and co-author with Randolph Richards of Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? joins us to talk about who Paul was and what he represented in the culture of his time.  He also helps us understand Paul in our own contemporary terms.  The conversation begins with Brandon’s rationale for writing the book, which is a response to other popular titles such as God Behaving Badly and Jesus Behaving Badly.  We review Paul’s history, including his pre-Christian life, his conversion, his proselytism, and his time in prison.  Tony asks what his Roman captors were thinking when they allowed him to write letters while incarcerated, and Prof. O’Brien explains a bit of what Paul’s imprisonment entailed — from wallowing in a cistern to being under house arrest.  Brandon then goes over the case for Paul being a jerk, with the principle reason being his brash arrogance that is contrasted with Jesus’s softer style.  Paul’s tenor undoubtedly rubbed some of the original disciples the wrong way.  Brandon also notes that Paul was an “occasional writer,” meaning not that he wrote here and there, but that he wrote to individuals and groups under very specific occasions.  Indeed, Prof. O’Brien points out that we really only have one side of the conversation when we look at the various epistles in the New Testament; it is likely that there was much more context and give-and-take dialogue that formed the basis for his communications with the Galatians or Ephesians, to name a few.  We then go through point-by-point some of the harsher criticisms that could be levied on Paul, including that he was a puritanical killjoy, that he was racist, that he didn’t denounce slavery, and that he was a male chauvinist pig.  Brandon gives each of these critiques their full due, but also places them into context.  Along the way, we learn about how race/ethnicity/religion were often combined in regional stereotypes in the first century after Christ, what slavery entailed in those early years, and what the life of women was like.  We also learn why Brandon didn’t drink ginger ale as a kid!  Brandon points out that while we might see Paul as being very culturally backwards in our day, he was indeed very progressive in his views for the era in which he lived.  Along the way, we discuss how our cultural context can affect the way we view the historical record.  Prof. O’Brien finishes the discussion with some reflection on what he learned by studying Paul more closely, and how pastors might approach the writings of Paul as they preach in the cultural ethos of our modern era.  Recorded: September 30, 2016.



Prof. Brandon O’Brien’s bio at Ouachita Baptist University.

Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien.

The Strategically Small Church, by Brandon O’Brien.

Small Church, Big Impact, by Brandon O’Brien (an e-book short).

God Behaving Badly, by David Lamb (mentioned in podcast).

Jesus Behaving Badly, by Mark Strauss (mentioned in podcast).


Jim Papandrea on the Church Fathers & Patristic Exegesis.

Jim Papandrea on the End of the World and Revelation.

Jim Papandrea on Christianity’s Seven Revolutions.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part I.

Tim Kelleher on the Nicene Creed and Hollywood.

Sarah Bond on the Church and Funerals in Late Antiquity.

Adam English on the Real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra.

Brian O’Neel on Saint Who? Some Holy Unknowns.

John Sweeney on the Pope Who Quit.

Jeff Rose on Street Preaching.

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