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Paul and the Uprising of the Dead

[Well, what little time I get to write these days has been devoted to working on my thesis.  However, for those who might be interested, I thought I would provide a glimpse of what I’ve been working on.]

Paul and the Uprising of the Dead: Eschatology, Ethics, and Empires


1. Introduction

Paul and the Anastasis of the Dead


Of all the voices found within the Christian Scriptures, Paul’s is, perhaps, the most contested. Therefore, despite the observation that the presentation of Paul as a ‘Conservative’ and ‘Spiritual’ voice was dominant in much of Western scholarship for the latter two-thirds of the 20th century, this understanding of Paul has always been challenged and is increasingly called into question today. Indeed, this recent emphasis upon Paul as ‘Conservative’ and ‘Spiritual’ was, in part, a reaction to Pauline scholarship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which presented influential Marxist readings of Paul (which, in turn, were reacting against the reading of Paul that became dominant in post-Reformation Protestantism and Roman Catholicism).1 Thus, over the last one hundred years, the pendulum has swung from viewing Paul as a leader of the revolutionary proletariat, to viewing Paul as the Apostle of bourgeois morals and respectability. Today, however, the pendulum is swinging back from a ‘Conservative’ extreme, and a presentation of Paul as an Apostle who embodied the proclamation of a counter-imperial and subversive way of structuring life together (under the ever watchful eye of the Empire) is gaining increasing prominence.


Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the ‘Conservative’ understanding of Paul was dominant while Christianity itself was a dominant (and Conservative – despite a brief popular flirtation with Marxism) political force in the West. However, now that the sociopolitical influence of Christianity has waned (as in most of Western Europe) or is rapidly waning (as in North America) it is interesting to note that Paul is being reread in more ‘counter-cultural’ ways. The question then is this: are we continually allowing our understanding of Paul to be shaped by our own sociopolitical contexts, or are we just now becoming resensitized to elements of Paul’s writings that we have previously overlooked, due to our rootedness within places of power and dominance? The answer, I suspect, contains at least a bit of both, although the emphasis of what follows will fall on the latter.


In this work, I will explore some of the diverse and contradictory ways in which Paul’s theopolitical actions and writings have been understood, and I will assert that Paul presents us with a particularly creative and subversive combination of eschatology and political ethics — one that explodes the eschatology and political ethics favoured by empires, both then and now. I believe that it is crucial to engage in a detailed exploration of Paul in this way, both because Paul is a valuable resource for countering the oppressive imperial ideologies of our day, and because Paul himself has so often been co-opted by these imperial ideologies. Too often Paul has been appropriated by oppressive Powers who have placed him, and his message, in the service of Death.2 Therefore, I am hoping to contribute to the recovery of the Paul who anticipated the resurrection (Gk: anastasis) of the dead, and did so by leading an uprising (Gk: anastasis) amongst those who were left for dead within the society of his day.3 Paul is the Apostle of Jesus – the crucified Lord who has triumphed over Death – and Paul spreads the good news of Jesus by developing communities of new life, whose corporate existence reveals that Death in all of its socioeconomic, political, and imperial manifestations, no longer holds sway. Behold, the dead are rising, Death is being swallowed up in victory, and the new creation of all things has begun – even here, even now!


1Cf. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (New and Completely Revised Edition; translated by Lionel R. M. Strachan; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978 [1910]); Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity (Translated by Henry F. Mins; New York: S. A. Russell, 1953 [1908]). Of course, Deissmann is not a ‘Marxist’ scholar, but his conclusions fit well with Marxist analysis and objectives.

2Cf. Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994), 3-24.

3I am indebted to Alain Badiou for translating anastasis not simply as ‘resurrection’ but also as ‘uprising’ and using this with intentionally political overtones (cf. St. Paul: The Foundations of Universalism. Trans. by Ray Brassier. Cultural Memory in the Present [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003], 68). However, what Badiou does not realize is that this translation of anastasis precisely captures the way in which eschatology and politics are intertwined, both in Paul’s writings and in the ideologies of empires (as we shall see in what follows).

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  1. “The question then is this: are we continually allowing our understanding of Paul to be shaped by our own sociopolitical contexts, or are we just now becoming resensitized to elements of Paul’s writings that we have previously overlooked, due to our rootedness within places of power and dominance?”
    I think thats a pretty important question. Seems to me, (in my totally non academic understanding) that much of the Churches history is shaped by the sociopolitical contexts it inhabits.

  2. oooh, looks fascinating. I am at the begining of research (MTh) on Paul’s use of Body as a metaphor for the church in 1 Corinthians. And the whole context issue is really the most important and most complicated one to work out. Judaism, Empire, Hellenism, etc. I’ve found Troel’s Engberg Pedersen’s discussion of the etic and emic to be quite useful.

  3. The use of the word “uprising” ( of the dead)in your title, is an intentional play on the revolutionary quality of this word? instead of “resurrection” in the physical sense as it has been traditionally understood? Are the two opposed?