Elijah and Elisha (The Origins of the Bible, Part Xa)

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 4 November 2010 0 Comments
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Our book group is reading "The First Paul" by Borg and Crossan. Their explanation of Paul's "illness/burden" as malaria seems probable. The symptoms of malaria with its periods of fever and headaches certainly could place limits on Paul that he would like to be rid of. What do you think of that possibility and their arguments for it?


Dear George,

Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan are brilliant New Testament scholars and I think you might do well to pay close attention to any theory that they present. They are also good friends and admired colleagues and I have read most everything they have written, both individually and together.

Over the years, many theories have been offered to explain Paul's mysterious "thorn in the flesh," which he prays for God to remove. Paul's assumption is that this is something akin to a chronic and non–curable affliction. Among these various theories offered through the ages are such things as a chronic draining eye affliction, epilepsy, malaria and a deeply feared and repressed homosexuality.

In my book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, I speculated that a deeply feared and repressed homosexuality was the reality to which Paul referred. I went through the writings of Paul to gather the autobiographical evidence that Paul himself seems to provide. He argues in Romans that the attraction of a person to his own gender was punishment for not worshiping God properly. In other parts of the genuine Pauline corpus, he goes to great pains to demonstrate that he had made a lifetime effort to be one who worships properly. With all his heart Paul tried to be faithful to the traditions of his "Fathers." I cited his own writings to portray him as a deeply conflicted human being. His body, he said, did not follow the law of his mind. I noted that Paul never married, that he was filled with a sense of self–loathing, quoting such things as his cry: "O, wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death." I looked at his transformation in which he says that now, nothing, not even my own nakedness, which I interpret to mean not even the secrets of my own body, when fully exposed, can separate me from the love of God that he has met in Christ Jesus.

Repressed homosexuality in a world that thought that to be a homosexual was to be evil, seems to me to fit all the data better than malaria or any other malady. Am I certain? No, my suggestion is a theory just like Marcus and Dom's suggestion of malaria is a theory. We will never know for sure until we interview Paul in the Kingdom of heaven. Until then I recommend that each of us listen to and consider all of the theories that are abroad, examine the evidence that is available and come to the conclusion that best fits the evidence. I do not believe that salvation depends on any of us having everything correct.

~John Shelby Spong



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