A Revolution in Paradigm Shifts

When Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions more than 50 years ago, it caused quite a stir. Kuhn complained of people misinterpreting it, and occasionally confessed that he wished he never wrote it. But the “anti-science” misinterpretations that Kuhn complained about are trivial compared to what New Testament have done to his concept.

 

What are paradigms and how did Kuhn use them?

Here’s how Wikipedia defines paradigms:

“In science and philosophy, a paradigm is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field.”

Kuhn focused on theories. But the key point is that a paradigm is a set of concepts, usually explanatory in nature. While scientific facts increase smoothly and rapidly, the theories used to explain those facts progress in a very different fashion. When all goes well, the theory needs no alteration to account for new facts. When new facts pose a problem, the theory generally gets tweaked to handle them. After a while, the cumulative tweaks make it complex and inelegant – kludgy – and scientists look for a better way to handle the facts. Kuhn noted that the process of replacing an old theory is discontinuous – a paradigm shift. At first most scientists work to preserve the old theory, but at some point, most switch over to a new one. Max Planck said a new theory advances one death at a time. The main point is that the new theory wins without truly dominating the old one; the old theory still explains some facts better, and may actually be better for some purposes. (People still use Newtonian physics for most purposes, and over-simplified Keynesian economic models can outperform more complex modern models.)

New Testament Scholars meet Paradigm Shifts

New Testament scholars, especially Pauline scholars, spend a great deal of time trying to explain away Paul’s contradictions. These contradictions are especially embarrassing because Paul claims he is passing on the teachings of the resurrected Christ, and one doesn’t expect all-perfect deities to contradict themselves on fundamental points of theology.

Recently, New Testament scholars have discovered Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts, and placed it in their bag of tricks for bailing out Paul. John T Fitzgerald wrote “Paul and Paradigm Shifts,” which appeared in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenistic Divide, edited by Troels Engberg-Pederson. This is a scholarly book, not for the general public. Nearly all attempts to bail out Paul appear only in the scholarly literature. Rank-and-file Christians are unaware of Paul’s problems. Professional Christians suppress them and few laymen actually read Paul’s letters; virtually none read them critically.

Fitzgerald claims that “when Paul makes use of an existing conceptual paradigm, he creatively transforms it. The result is a paradigm shift, as is seen in his treatments of two traditional paradigms – once concerning freedom, slavery, and the Torah, and the other involving sacrifice for sin” (p. 242). Here he makes two serious errors. First, when he claims the Paul uses “an existing conceptual paradigm,” he misuses the term ‘paradigm’ by referring to something which is obviously nothing like a theory, set of postulates, etc. He is actually talking about a set of Bible stories. I will address the first item he mentions - the one about ‘freedom, slavery, and the Torah.’ Second, when he says that Paul ‘creatively transforms it,’ he is actually referring to Paul’s fraudulent misrepresentation of Holy Scripture.

Paul’s discusses ‘freedom, slavery, and the Torah’ in Galatians 4.22ff. It is a gross misrepresentation of the Book of Exodus and the Book of Genesis:

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children” (Galatians 4:22-26).

In case you have forgotten your Bible stories, Abraham’s wife was Sarah, and their slave woman with whom he had a child was Hagar. (Hagar’s son was Ishmael, who was the ancestor of the Muslims and was not involved in either the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt, nor in the receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai.) Abraham later had a son with Sarah - Isaac, who gave birth to Jacob, who was later called Israel.

Paul fraudulently associated Hagar with Mount Sinai, even though her descendants had nothing to do with it. Conversely, Paul denies the fact that it was the children of Jacob/Israel who received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Paul compounds his misrepresentation by associating Hagar with Jerusalem. Ishmael and his descendants had nothing to do with Israel. They settled ‘in the region of Moriah’ in Arabia. Muslim tradition has him buried in Mecca. Similarly, Paul associates Mount Sinai with “children who are to be slaves.” But in fact Mount Sinai was associated with freedom following the Jews’ long enslavement in Egypt, and was also associated with the Jews subsequently claiming the land of Israel.

Background - Paul wrote to the Galatians because they were rebelling against his teaching, and instead following the Torah. Some were even getting circumcised. Paul went to fantastic lengths to put a wedge between the Galatians and the Torah. He vilified the Torah, and in the passage above associated it with slavery while associating Hagar with ‘the divine promise.’ This is a ludicrous fraud. The Galatians evidently realized it, and rejected Paul. Unlike all his other churches, Paul never even tried to collect any money from them.

New Testament Scholars and Pauline Embarrassments

Chances are you never were told about this outrageous misrepresentation by Paul. Suppression is the first response of professional Christians to Paul’s misconduct. But they themselves can’t handle the truth, and try to find some way of excusing and even glorifying their hero. Furthermore, Paul did this kind of thing surprisingly often. New Testament scholars keep inventing new ways to bail him out, as the old tricks never really worked.

Fitzgerald’s misuse of the term ‘paradigm’ is one of the newest tricks in their toolkit. Here’s how he described Paul’s misrepresentation:

“As … the biblical narrative makes clear, slavery is conceptually aligned with Egypt and freedom with Mt. Sinai. For ancient Israelite tradition, there is liberation into law. Freedom and Torah go hand-in-hand; they are corollaries, not antithetical concepts….. With Paul, of course, there is an almost incredible paradigm shift. By equating Mt. Sinai with slavery (Gal 4.22-25), Paul shifts the paradigm, so that freedom now entails liberation from the law (Gal 5.1; Rom 7.6).

Paul’s gross misrepresentation of Holy Scripture becomes “an almost incredible paradigm shift.” This not only sounds harmless, but might even pass for one of Paul’s wondrous miracles. To the best of my knowledge, none of his colleagues have criticized his defense of Paul’s misconduct. All’s fair in this holy war.

New Testament scholars have recently embraced another, similar subterfuge for handling this sort of misconduct. When Paul contradicts himself, they call it a variation. This way they can pretend that Paul’s contradictions, even in fundamental theological doctrines, are no different than slight misquotations of scripture – just minor, trivial variations, perhaps not even errors at all. After all, only God knows the Truth. Mortals can only possess greater or lesser variations of it.

 

Conclusions

This kind of misconduct goes on all the time. New Testament scholars only talk to other New Testament scholars, and they reward behavior which burnishes Paul’s reputation and buries his faults. My guess is that very few are aware of their misconduct. Furthermore, no outsiders ever examine their work. In this field, multi-disciplinary research is unidirectional. New Testament scholars borrow something from other, more respectable disciplines. And, as in the present case of paradigm shifts, they often mangle and corrupt it in the process.

About fifty years ago, The King and I was a popular play and subsequent movie. In one of its most popular songs, Whistle a Happy Tune, the narrator says that when she’s afraid, she whistles a happy tune, and then no one knows she is afraid. Furthermore, “the results of this deception are very strange to tell. For when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well…. the happiness in that tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.” New Testament scholars delude themselves in a similar fashion, although their output is far less pleasant and acceptable than a happy tune.

 

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