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We are grateful for Ben DeVan’s review. He offers two major critiques of Paul Behaving Badly and three smaller, more granular critiques. We will begin with the simplest issues and work up to the more complex.

Early in the essay, DeVan notes that the series could be improved by—or at least would benefit from—contributions by women, people of color, or writers from the global South. We could not agree more. He notes, too, that we failed to include a source connecting Luther to Hitler. This was an unfortunate oversight. We are not aware of a place where Hitler quotes Luther. We implied causation where the most we can prove is correlation. We humbly repent.

The last relatively simple critique was a warning about the occasional “semi-adult humor” in the Behaving Badly series. He cites as an example from Paul Behaving Badly our comment about Timothy’s being old enough to remember his circumcision. We certainly did not mean offense, but we have no remorse. A light tone invites readers to ask questions, hopefully find humor in the text of the Bible itself, and generally find the Scriptures more contemporary and engaging. This seems an especially important strategy for skeptical readers, many of whom approach the text assuming the Bible is essentially an outdated reference book.

This issue dovetails with one of the more serious critiques DeVan puts forward. He writes, “In at least two locations Richards and O’Brien mislead selective readers or browsers.” In chapter 4 about Paul’s view of slavery and chapter 5 about Paul’s treatment of women, “Richards and O’Brien write at first as though they endorse their opening salvo against Paul.” Ultimately, DeVan admits our agreement with Paul’s accusers is only apparent: “Reading the chapter to the end will amend this perception.” Nevertheless, his justifiable concern is that casual readers may stop reading after the charges are leveled against Paul and leave the courtroom before he is vindicated.

These chapters follow the same format as every other chapter in the volume. In each chapter, we first make the case against Paul before reassessing the evidence in light of Paul’s cultural and literary context. DeVan notes that we handled this format more tactfully in other chapters, and he is probably right. We anticipated that readers would be most interested in three topics: slavery, chauvinism, and homosexuality. It was important to us that we give clear and full voice to the concerns modern readers of Paul have regarding these issues. It seemed to us that we risked being accused either of failing to come fully to Paul’s defense, on the one hand, or failing to address honestly and courageously the real questions readers ask, on the other. Ultimately, we decided it was important to make an aggressive case against Paul in these chapters especially. One hopes that even the casual reader will recognize the recurring pattern in each chapter and anticipate that we make the case for Paul in the second half of every chapter.

The most serious critique of Paul Behaving Badly involves “lack of clarity about the authors’ theory of scriptural inspiration.” The charge of a lack of clarity results from our argument in chapter 1 that Paul believed the Holy Spirit commanded him to visit Jerusalem in Acts 21, while many other believers were convinced the Holy Spirit wanted to prevent Paul from traveling to Jerusalem. “If Paul as a Christian misheard the Holy Spirit in Acts 21,” DeVan asks, “why should readers have confidence that Paul’s canonical writings communicate the Holy Spirit accurately?” This is indeed a challenging situation. We are convinced, though, that this complexity was not created by our lack of clarity on the matter. Rather, it is a real tension in the text, a tension that Luke intentionally presents in Acts.

Readers face a conundrum whichever way they interpret Acts 21. If Paul heard the Holy Spirit correctly in Acts 21, then all the other believers misheard the Spirit. While this may not create problems for our view of divine inspiration, it conceivably could raise the question, “Just how sensitive were the earliest Christians to the voice of the Holy Spirit?” Or, “Was the early church as a movement submissive to and empowered by the Spirit?” As the story unfolds in Acts 21, someone misinterpreted what the Spirit was saying to the church. We would argue the solution to this problem is a more nuanced reading of Acts: Paul “said to them … And now compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” (Acts 20:18-22) and “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Paul’s words are stated as Paul’s understanding; the other is presented as fact. We think Acts portrays both Peter (in Acts 2) and Paul (in Acts 20-21) as godly men but not Divine Men. They make mistakes. They are not to be worshipped.

We would argue that our view of inspiration is clear, plainly stated in the book’s preface. Our proposed interpretation of Acts 21 is based on the assumption that the Scriptures are true and authoritative. We conclude Paul was wrong in Acts 21 because we believe Luke composed this section of Acts, by divine inspiration, to communicate that Paul was wrong. We are not choosing which of Paul’s writings are inspired. A high view of Scripture does not require the authors be perfect humans. To cite another example, Paul says Peter is wrong about a central application of the Gospel, when he chooses to stop eating with Gentile Christians in order to appease some men from the mother church (Galatians 2:11-16). Peter, of all people, should have known better. God gave him a vision and a charge not to call unclean what God has declared clean (Acts 10:15). If Peter can get the Gospel wrong in this situation, should we be concerned about how he articulates the Gospel in his epistles?

It is certainly possible that our interpretation of Acts 21 is mistaken. But it is a stretch to suggest that our conclusions leave open the possibility that “God did not inspire some or any of Paul’s teachings.” DeVan implies we would have solved the problem if we had simply asserted our belief in inspiration (quote II Timothy 3:15-16). We did in the preface, and we could have repeated it here. But we wanted to offer a nuanced view of particular texts without wading into broader systematic discussions.

In all, DeVan’s tone and the content of his treatment are constructive. Authors do their best to correct as many mistakes and address as many deficiencies as possible before a manuscript enters the world. He is gracious about the deficiencies that remain in Paul Behaving Badly.

Cite this article
Brandon J. O’Brien and E. Randolph Richards, “Response to Ben DeVan’s Review of Paul Behaving Badly”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 199–202

Brandon J. O’Brien

Redeemer City to City
Brandon J. O’Brien is Director of Content Development and Distribution for Redeemer City to City in New York City.

E. Randolph Richards

Palm Beach Atlantic University
E. Randolph Richards is Provost and Professor of Biblical Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University.