The Least of These
Paul and the Marginalized
- ISBN: 9780802874467
- Published By: Eerdmans
- Published: January 2020
Some scholars claim that Paul the Apostle sounds nothing like Jesus in the Gospels. This argument has led Carla Swafford Works to pay close attention to the congruity between Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s mission. In The Least of These: Paul and the Marginalized, Works argues that Paul’s mission is consistent with Jesus’ mission to the poor, marginalized, and the powerless.
Works explains that her book is influenced by conversations with theology students. Some of these students, Works observes, hate Paul because his letters are full of controversial topics. Works does not necessarily blame the students for their negative perceptions of Paul. Nor does Works blame Paul and the lack of sayings attributed to Jesus in his Epistles for the disconnect students and scholars often perceive between the Pauline ministry and ministry of Jesus. In fact, Works observes that the disconnect between Paul and Jesus is a result of multiple interrelated factors. However, the chief contributor, Works points out, is Protestant scholarship exhibited in the work of William Wrede, who viewed Paul as a “second founder” of Christianity. In Works’ view, minimizing the perceived gulf between Paul and Jesus requires a fresh investigation, one that seeks to reframe our thinking on Paul and reconnect his ministry to the teachings of Jesus.
Works organizes the book in two parts. The first part focuses on the marginalized people in the Pauline mission: the poor, slaves, and women. The second part of the book considers the theological and ethical implications of metaphors and teachings about marginalized people in the Pauline Epistles. In the introduction of the book, Works exhorts both students and scholars to find more than just theological jargon in Paul’s Epistles. Indeed, Works hopes to convince students and scholars that Paul’s theology focuses on “what God is doing in the real world with real people who have real problems” (11).
The first part of the book is composed of the introduction and three chapters. The first chapter argues that most of the Pauline communities consisted of people who lived at, near, or slightly above the subsistence level. Works concludes that Paul could easily build rapport with those who engaged in what the Roman nobles considered demeaning labor because he likewise participated in this sort of work. The second chapter explores slave life and manumission practices in the 1st century. In particular, Works examines Paul’s advice in Philemon, 1 Cor. 7:17-24, and 1 Tim 2. Works concludes that slaves were not simply considered property but heirs of the promises of God. In chapter 3, Works argues that Paul understood the need for the church to make some exceptions to traditional 1st-century societal practices to ensure its survival and accordingly, women played an important role in the Pauline mission. Although the lay reader may think these chapters spend excessive time introducing scholarly debates about Paul’s Epistles and referencing classical Roman texts, Work’s approach has a clear and valuable purpose: to demonstrate that understanding the scholarly interpretation of Paul’s Epistles and analyzing texts in a 1st-century context help us clearly discern Paul’s concern for the marginalized people, who Jesus considered “the least of these” (e.g., Matt 5:3-11;11:2-6; Luke 4:17-21;6:20-23;7:18-23).
The second part of the book is comprised of four chapters. In chapter 4, Works investigates how Paul treated the Galatians, who the Romans stereotyped as “war-mad” barbarians. Chapter 4 is especially interesting because Works’ extensive descriptions of Roman stereotypes of the Galatians reveals appalling negative caricatures. This chapter reveals, perhaps more so than any other chapter, the extent of Paul’s ministry among a marginalized people. Works investigation in chapter 5 focuses on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul uses metaphors like “babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1) to reframe the way the Corinthians think about themselves. Instead of exploring how Paul treated a specific group of people like the Galatians or Corinthians in previous chapters, Works focuses on how Paul perceives himself as the “least” in chapter 6. Works examines the way Paul describes himself in his Epistles by several different types of imagery: he likens himself to a slave to all, an orphan, a premature infant, and a laborer, and describes himself as impoverished, indebted, hungry, naked, and thirsty. The final chapter not only summarizes the findings of all the chapters, but also explores how the “least” in Paul’s theology (found in Phil 2:5-11) originates in the Christological paradigm of self-lowering, which eschews self-promotion and selfishness. Instead, this paradigm encourages a mindset that is focused on the love Christ displayed in his love for humanity. The final chapter provides a sense of closure for this book while also emphasizing the theological significance of Works’ study. Works concludes that Paul’s theology encourages us to show the same kind of love for the “least of these” as God has shown us in Jesus.
This book will appeal to a variety of audiences. Students of theology, scholars, and lay readers will find Works’ investigation of the marginalized in the Pauline mission interesting. Works skillfully draws attention to the congruity between Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s mission. The analysis of the Pauline mission also advances a novel argument in the existing scholarship since previous research by scholars has generally emphasized the disconnect between Paul and Jesus.
Steven Shisley is an independent scholar.Steven ShisleyDate Of Review:October 24, 2022