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Garry Wills - Paul as Faultless Jew

In What Paul Meant, Garry Wills doesn’t come right out and say that Paul was perfect, but he comes pretty close. One of the few imperfections he acknowledges involves Paul’s knowledge of Scripture. While claiming that Paul essentially memorized the Bible, he notes Paul “is often slightly ‘off’ the precise wording” (p. 27). Mr. Wills failed to notice that Paul regularly misrepresents Scripture. I present examples below.

Paul is Faultless

Mr. Wills never questions any of Paul’s claims, no matter how far-fetched. For example, Wills not only accepts Paul’s claim that he was “faultless under the Law” (Phil 3.6), he adds, “there is no more Semitic a Jew than Paul” (p. 129).

In fact, it is impossible to be faultless in obeying the Law or Torah. That’s why the Bible has several ways to atone for the inevitable sins, and why God created the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on which He more-or-less automatically forgives the sins of all Jews except apostates every year. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to ask God to forgive their sins, as they forgive those who sin against them. Behave yourself, Jesus says, and God will forgive you. God is merciful, and does not expect perfection.

Mr. Wills knows all this this, but he is quite adept at suppressing inconvenient facts. He even suppresses Paul’s own writings when they become inconvenient. For example, in Romans 3.10-18 Paul argues at length that “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” In other words, Paul told his Philippian church that he was faultless under the Law, while he told the Romans that no one is faultless.

Paul’s Scriptural Citations more than ‘slightly off’

Paul claimed that this passage in Romans was a quotation from the Bible, and introduced it with “as it is written.” This is doubly false. First it is a catena or mashup of many different verses from different parts of the Bible. Second, Paul misrepresents those passages in order to make his point that “no one is righteous.”

Paul says, “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness” (3.14), referring to Psalm 10:7: “The wicked person’s mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and violence.” Paul simply omitted “the wicked person” and pretended it was true of everyone.

Similarly, Paul said “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:18), referring to Psalm 46.1: “A wicked person’s talk is prompted by sin in his heart; he sees no need to fear God.” Again, Paul simple omits “the wicked person” and pretends it is true of everyone.

The catena contains about a dozen scriptural snippets pasted together. Paul plays the same kind of tricks in all of them. I’m sure Mr. Wills knew that Paul’s scriptural references were more than “slightly off.” Commentators he cites say so. But commentators never present the actual scriptural passage alongside Paul’s misrepresentation of it. That would make it obvious that Paul deliberately attempted to deceive his audience. Rather than acknowledging this, New Testament scholars try to cover up the evidence. Thus I am not sure if Wills knew just how outrageously Paul misrepresented scripture.

How “faultless” is misrepresenting Scripture?

According to the Bible, God is quite sensitive about His holy words, and condemns those who change them. Here are a few examples:

  • Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you. (Prov 30.5f)
  • You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. (Deut 4.2)
  • Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. (Deut 12.32)

And a variant from the New Testament:

  • I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev 22.18f)

Misrepresenting the Bible is damnable. But Paul goes beyond that. Only two verses after boasting to the Philippians of his faultlessness, Paul said of the Bible and his faultless practices, “I do count them but dung” (3.8, King James Version). Modern translations censor the words of Saint Paul. In the original Greek, Paul said the Bible and its practices were “worth shit.” This is apostasy, for which the Bible prescribes death by stoning. Yet Mr. Wills thinks Paul faultless and the most Semitic of Jews. He also ignores Paul’s approval of eating meat sacrificed to pagan gods, another damnable crime.

Postscript

I have never seen New Testament scholars, priests, or pastors address this blatant evidence of Paul’s misconduct. See if you have any luck, and please share the results.