Paul the Deceiver: A Sketch of the Apostle's "True Rhetoric"

In Paul's True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome, Mark Given argues that the apostle was deceptively sophistic, saying things he really didn't mean, insulting people "politely", making rules and breaking them, patronizing the Jewish people, and masquerading like a chameleon according to the company he was in. This is an important work, if at times one-sided, offering new ways to understand the various tensions and contradictions in Paul's letters. It also forces interesting questions about the nature of one's "gospel truth".

Given examines Paul's rhetoric in three places, cleverly calling his chapters, "Ambiguity in Athens", "Cunning in Corinth", and "Deception in Rome". I'll briefly sketch his findings.


Given calls Acts 17:16-34 "the most sophisticated speech composed by the most accomplished narrator and speech writer in the New Testament" (p 68), for Luke presents Paul as using double-entendres left and right when addressing the Athenians. Paul continually insults the crowd but in a way that can be construed as either positive (or at least neutral) for purposes of saving face. He tells the Athenians that they are "in every way daimon-fearing” (17:22), which can mean that they are either "thoroughly religious" or "thoroughly superstitious" (p 69). Paul may be saying the former, in effect, while obviously meaning the latter since (in Luke's eyes) the Athenians are idolaters. Paul then calls attention to the fact they "worship a god as unknown" (17:23), which can mean that they either "worship unknowingly" or "worship improperly/shamefully" (p 71), again perhaps saying the former but really meaning the latter. When he says that "God has overlooked their ignorance" (17:30), the Greek word for "overlook" can also mean "despise". Paul may be saying, face-value, that God has overlooked their misconception, while really meaning that God has despised their errors for which they will pay (p 73). Given persuasively argues that the Areopagus speech shows Paul insulting his pagan audience, but ambiguously enough so that he can get away with saying what he really thinks. How genteel.

I have serious doubts, however, about how historical this is. Luke has the tendency to tone down (or make ambiguous) insults in general. We see this by comparing his gospel to the two he used. Jesus' rivals are "malicious hypocrites" in Mt 22:18/Mk 12:15, but they are "crafty" in Lk 20:23, a more ambiguous term. The Jesus of Mark and Matthew tells the Sadducees, point blank, that they are wrong (Mk 12:18-27/Mt 22:23-33), but the Jesus of Luke is more circumspect (Lk 20:27-40). Luke tones (way) down Matthew's catalog of insults (Mt 23:1-36) against the Pharisees (assuming, as I do, that Luke knew Matthew); vicious insults like "brood of vipers" (Mt 23:33) are censored in Lk 20:45-47.

Given declares that "although Luke's portrait of a sophistic Paul may be fanciful, it is not necessarily fantastic" (p 82), based on what he then proceeds to demonstrate from the letters themselves. But the deceptions we are about to see in Corinth and Rome don't involve the rhetoric of insulting -- about which Paul was usually anything but ambiguous. The sophist Paul of Acts 17, while fascinating, is probably more a product of Luke than Given wants him to be.


Turning to I Corinthians, Given finds Paul to be cunning in two particular places, I Cor 1-4 and 9:19-23. In the former, he tells his addressees that the only wisdom that matters is God's wisdom rather than human wisdom (I Cor 1:18-25), only then to present himself as the conduit of true spiritual wisdom which they can't hope to attain without him (I Cor 2:6-3:4). Given suggests that Paul is claiming to have a "secret and hidden wisdom of God" (I Cor 2:7) available only to the privileged -- which would make him as bad as the gnostics he just finished bashing (in I Cor 1:18-25). Paul thus makes the rules and breaks them (see pp 95-103).

Paul's more infamous deception is the one he candidly admits to: that he "becomes like a Jew in order to win Jews" to the gospel (I Cor 19:20) and "becomes like the lawless in order to win the lawless" (I Cor 19:21). Despite scholarly attempts to avoid the obvious implications (or treat as hyperbole), the apostle is admitting that he temporarily, and cunningly, practices Torah in order to win Jews, and then behaves like an immoral pagan in order to win Gentiles. Paul's real view, of course, squares with neither behavior, for he insists that while the Torah is obsolete, the best of its requirements are fulfilled on the avenue of the spirit. It's as if a Southern Baptist were to try converting a group of Jews by observing Torah in their presence, and then later mix with heathens by drinking, dancing, and smoking pot.

People were incensed by Paul's chameleon behavior -- in II Cor 12:16 he responds to charges of "taking people in by deceit" -- and rightfully so. While it's perfectly acceptable to lie and deceive in the honor-shame Mediterranean, especially against enemies, it's not acceptable to beguile one's potential converts like this. Given locates the rationale for Paul's deception in an apocalyptic world-view: because he believed people were so blinded by the heathen gods of the present world -- and too easily taken in by pagan deceptions -- they needed to be deceived in turn for their own good. (see pp 115-117). Paul's strategy, in this sense, mimics those of Socrates and Aristotle:

"Just as Plato's Socrates feels free to break the rules of dialectic if necessary in order to win an argument, and Aristotle can counsel the use of sophistic elenchus to defeat sophists on their own terms, so Paul feels free to leave the world of being for that of seeming, 'to become all things to everyone,' in order to propagate the truth, his gospel truth... In a Platonic-Socratic world-view, the ignorance from which humanity suffers results from the elusive and changing nature of the sphere of becoming, but in Paul's apocalyptic worldview, the deceptive character of existence in 'this world' is even more acute because 'the god of this world' is himself a diabolically clever sophist...[In either case], the deceived must first be deceived for their own good." (pp 117, 176-177, 117)

This is an interesting way of looking at it, but I wonder if Paul really ever thought about justifying his deceptions this way. Is Given perhaps trying too hard to find a rationale here? The idea that people need to be deceived for their own good is fairly common, and one we practice all the time, if without realizing it. Paul's masquerades may simply reflect normal human behavior more than anything.


According to Given, if Paul was ambiguously insulting in Athens, cunningly self-serving in Corinth, he was deceptively patronizing in Romans. Scholars have tried accounting for Romans' more positive estimation of the Torah and Israel in various ways: Sanders thinks Paul changed his mind over time -- that after struggling through certain theological dilemmas, he came to a more positive view of God's purpose in giving the law and Israel's salvation (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People). Tobin thinks Paul revised his arguments for more expeditious reasons -- out of concern for the bad reputation he had acquired by this time (Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts). Esler thinks the situation in Rome provides the answer -- that Paul was trying to resolve ethnic conflict in the Roman church, and the success of his strategy depended on acknowledging the value of each group's ethnicity; i.e. there had to be something good about being Jewish (Conflict and Identity in Romans).

In contrast to these approaches (though in a way similar to Tobin's), Given thinks Paul's views didn't change one bit since Galatia and Corinth. He "hasn't really softened his view of the law at all" (p 157), only his scandalous rhetoric. His true position on the law and the Jewish people remained exactly the same. The law may be holy (Rom 7:12), and God may have given it for the best of reasons (for "life" in Rom 7:10), but it's still entirely useless and unable to do the job God gave it; the best it had to offer can be fulfilled only by a radically different route (the spirit) (Rom 8:1-4). The only difference between Galatians and Romans in terms of the law's purpose is that in one the law (and thus God) is an active agent in confining Israel under the power of sin (Gal 3:19-26), while in the other sin itself is the agent (Rom 7:7-25) -- thus absolving God of the blame. But "subtract the sin scapegoat in Rom 7, and what remains?" asks Given (p 157). Exactly the same as before: an ineffective and completely useless law, unable to save people.

Likewise, even though Paul now credits the Jewish people with having "adoption", "the covenant/law", "worship", "the promises", and "the patriarchs" (Rom 9:4-5), that's empty credit, because we know what he really thinks: that real adoption comes from being liberated from the law (Gal 4:5) and being led by the spirit (Rom 8:14-15); that there are two covenants, an old and a new, the former of which has been superseded by the latter (II Cor 3:6-14); that real worship takes place "in Christ" (the temple of one's body) rather than the Jerusalem temple (I Cor 3:16-17); that the real heirs to God's promises are Jews and Gentiles in Christ rather than Israel under the law (Gal 3:19,22,29; Rom 4:13-14; Rom 9:6-24); that the only patriarch who means anything is a revisionist Abraham, the father of those who have faith regardless of their ethnicity (Gal 3:6-9; Rom 4:1-17), and the root of a tree from which natural branches (Jews) broke off in order to make room for unnatural branches (Gentiles) (Rom 11:17-24). What Paul really thinks, says Given, isn't hard to figure out (see pp 159-168).

I agree that Paul is deceptive in Romans, but I'm also confident that he has changed his mind about a few things. It's difficult to ascribe the passionate arguments of Rom 7:7-25 and 11:1-36 to pure deception. Paul was human enough to deceive, but he was also human enough to care. And Sanders is right: Rom 7 & 11 show a deep concern about God's perversity and inconsistency. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that Paul wants to have it both ways. He wants to improve his theology without admitting that he's doing so, or that he was ever wrong. In that sense he's indeed a deceiver, and more than likely, a self-deceiver.

Concluding Observations

Given is most persuasive about Corinth. That's where Paul is aggressively deceptive, in more ways than one. I like his treatment of Romans too, though would insist that at least some of Paul's opinions about the law and Israel have truly changed. With regards to his speech before the Athenians, the ambiguously-insulting rhetoric probably owes more to Luke than Paul, who had less tact.

I don't want my criticisms of Paul's True Rhetoric to suggest an ambiguous enthusiasm on my part for the book. That would be deceptive indeed. This is a fantastic book for asking all the right questions, and trying to understand Paul in terms that western people are inclined to distrust. I hope to see more work that builds on Given's approach. 


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