Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2006

These notes are about why I was reading Paul's EPISTLES. For my more developed comments on the epistles themselves, seem my comments themselves.


The most immediate motivation was a May 20, 2006 visit to Ephesus in Turkey. I was stunned and moved by Ephesus, and thinking about it as I sat in the stands of the 20,000 seat ancient theater, I remembered that Paul the Apostle had one of his epistles addressed to the Ephesians.

It was that visit and my curiosity which got me interested. Later on in the trip I read a novel set in Turkey, BLOOD TIE by Mary Lee Settle. Some character in that book talked about Ephesus and Paul’s having been there and his doctrine (claimed the character) that it was deeds and not acts that counted. That simply grabbed me. My own “faith,” which includes no transcendental beings nor any afterlife, is nonetheless one deeply influenced by Existential philosophy and holds as a central tenet that one is what one DOES. Acts make us what we are not our words or beliefs.

I decided then I wanted to read Paul when I got home both to see what I could learn about his Ephesus work and to see about his position on the role of action in moral life.

This last theme was elevated to a major concern after I got home and my travel partner mentioned my desire to read Paul and why I wanted to read him to one of our mutual friends. The friend called to say I had it all wrong, Paul’s message was that it was faith than mattered not actions. Now I was utterly intrigued. Had I misread the character’s position in Blood Tie? Did the author of Blood Tie get Paul wrong? Did my friend have Paul correct? A new mystery was taking shape.

There was yet another force at work and this one nearly 30 years old. Sometime in the 1970s I had taught a seminar for a handful of philosophy majors on Emmanuel Kant. In that course, which focused primarily on The Critique of Pure Reason, we also read his Religion Within The Bounds of Reason Alone.

At the end of that course the students were interested in what that approach (reading from the point of view of reason alone) would mean in reading the basic story of the gospels of the New Testament. They asked for a course on just that topic and I offered it to just 9 marvelous students in the fall term. We decided we could just read the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s gospel is such a different sort of book it wouldn’t work well with the other three and our sixteen week time limit.

We approached these three gospels, as I approached Paul, with no assumption that this was any “special” text and certainly not one whose truth or sense was guaranteed somehow by a god. We were primarily interested in the moral message contained in the synoptic gospels, and could we make sense of the moral message and flush out the meanings using reason alone, not faith nor creeds beforehand.

It was a simply marvelous course and we had such vehement discussions and debates over what to make of the very slim pickings from which to begin to build any moral theory of human behavior.

It was then in that spirit, with a special eye toward this question of whether Paul was concerned with faith or acts (which, on my viewed turned out to be a misguided wording of the problem such that one couldn’t make sense of Paul -- the QUESTION itself was malformed – it wasn’t an either / or.

In the end I was delighted those various influences converged and led me to a fascinating and useful read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett