Arthur J. Droge’s “Did Paul Commit Suicide?” BR 05:06, argues that, in the ancient world before Augustine, suicide was commonly justified as a deliverance from evil, a triumph over fate, an ultimate act of freedom and an immediate opening to salvation. With examples taken from biblical and post—biblical Jewish literature and from Greek, Roman and Christian writings, Dr. Droge documents his thesis that suicide was regarded as an acceptable, noble and even a religious alternative to continued earthly life. In considering the possibility of Paul’s suicide as reasonable, we are urged to do so in the context of “Paul’s time, not from our own perspective and not from the perspective of the post-Augustine period.”
I am willing to entertain this possibility, but I am somewhat puzzled. If suicide is such a worthy, even heroic option for a reflective or religious person, then why must. Droge contend, regarding Paul’s alleged suicide, that perhaps Luke “deliberately suppressed the information,” and that the later writers, too, had “something they were trying to conceal.”
If Paul could have committed suicide “with a clear conscience and with the expectation that he would pass into immortality, united with Christ,” then why would early Christians have hidden this wonderful act as if it were some shameful secret? Why not bruit it about and regale us with narrative details the way the Stoics, rabbis and Maccabeans did of their martyred saints? Luke would have loved the opportunity!
Department of Religious Studies
College of Notre Dame
Droge’s Suggestion Merits Serious Consideration
Arthur J. Droge’s “Did Paul Commit Suicide?” BR 05:06, was more of the provocative—not to say, sensational—fare I have come to expect from Bible Review. While it is admittedly speculative, it is certainly titillating and supported with just enough evidence to merit serious consideration.
There was, however, one serious flaw in logic. Droge begins the article by demonstrating that a negative view of suicide within Christendom is a post-Augustinian development. He marshals evidence from Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha, the Mishnah and Talmuds, the Stoics and the early Church Fathers to make his case. He then gives a new slant to some passages in the Pauline epistles which he believes demonstrate Paul considered suicide. So far, so good.
But Droge concludes the article with the suggestion that the New Testament suppressed or concealed the means of Paul’s death, with the implication that this suppression is further evidence of suicide. But there was no negative view of suicide within Christendom prior to Augustine, why suppress anything? At the very least, we might expect to be treated to a soliloquy, a la Socrates.
I am not offended by the idea that Paul might have committed suicide. I am thankful for Droge’s scholarship. But the New Testament silence cannot be construed as evidence of suicide, unless there was some negative opinion of suicide among Christians in the New Testament period, which Droge denies. The silence does not speak as loudly as he thinks.
New Enterprise, Pennsylvania
I am deeply disappointed in your magazine, especially the article, “Did Paul Commit Suicide?” BR 05:06, by Arthur J. Droge. What a lot of drivel. He misinterprets texts to fit his fanciful arguments, for example, the Philippians 1:23 passage (“My desire is to depart and be with Christ… ”). To say Paul probably committed suicide because he used such language is not only terrible exegesis in light of the context, it also tells a little about how “lost” a man the author really is.
Maybe this is a joke. If it is, I don’t get it. Take my name off your subscription list immediately. I will not send a penny, and I will throw the magazines away if you send any more.
God have mercy upon people who handle the Bible with such flippancy.
West Springfield Covenant Community Church
West Springfield, Massachusetts
After reading the recent article on suicide, I have determined that it would be a poor investment to contribute to this nonsense masked as scholarship.
My parting suggestion is that you consolidate BAR, BAS and BR and call it B.S.
Raleigh, Nonh Carolina
Audacious or Pompous?
Your magazine manages to encompass the full range of modern thought, from audacity to pomposity.
“Did Paul Commit Suicide?” BR 05:06. Of course not! But would things have been different if he had to rely on Bible Review for his source of scriptural knowledge?
Arthur J. Droge replies:
I should like to clarify a point I made in my article. When I suggested that the authors of Acts and 2 Peter may have suppressed or concealed the Circumstances of Paul’s death, I did not mean to imply (pace Messrs. Benedict and Maxwell) that this would be further evidence that Paul, in fact, took his own life. Rather, what I meant was: if these New Testament authors knew (or thought they knew) how Paul died, they evidently decided to keep silent about it, either because this information was inappropriate to their concerns or perhaps even too embarrassing to relate.
As for Mr. Cookman’s suggestion that BR be changed to BS, I assume by that he means “Biblical Studies.”
Nine or Ten Sins?—Editor Writes Letter to Himself
This may be the first time the editor of a magazine wrote a letter to himself, but I believe the editor should be accorded the same rights as any other reader of the magazine—some believe he has more—and besides I have the permission of David Noel Freedman, about whose brilliant article (“The Nine Commandments—The Secret Progress of Israel’s Sins,” BR 05:06) I wish to comment.
With his customary uncanny ability to see patterns in biblical literature that the rest of us can see only after he points them out, Freedman identifies Israel’s sequential violation of each of the first nine of the Ten Commandments in each of the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible; some adjustments are required, but not many. Thus, we see the violation of the first two commandments in Exodus (when Israel’s national existence begins), rather than in Genesis and Exodus; the third commandment is violated in Leviticus; the fourth in Numbers; the fifth in Deuteronomy; the sixth, seventh and eighth in Joshua, Judges and Samuel; and the ninth in Kings. Having broken all the commandments seriatim, Israel is sent into exile.
What about the tenth—coveting? Freedman is aware he hasn’t covered this; that is why he calls his article “The Nine Commandments” instead of “The Ten Commandments.” In the text of his article, Freedman explains that the tenth commandment is different—involving motivation and attitude, rather than action. And 009besides, he says, coveting was involved in several of the preceding commandments—stealing, murder, adultery and false swearing—so the tenth commandment has also been violated.
It seems to me there is a more explicit violation of the tenth commandment—that fits right into the pattern Freedman discovered. The incident involving Naboth’s orchard (which illustrates the violation of the ninth commandment, false swearing) also involves coveting (the tenth commandment), and it does so quite explicitly. In the episode of Naboth’s orchard we have the detailed description par excellence of covetousness.
Here is Ahab, with wealth beyond dreaming, surrounded by the prerogatives that attach to royalty, yet he desires his neighbor’s vineyard. The text elaborates: Ahab goes into his palace vexed and sullen; he lies down on his bed; he turns away his face; he refuses food (l Kings 21:4). His wife Jezebel implores him: After all, you are a king, she tells him. Be cheerful; I will get you the vineyard. Thus she relieves his condition.
Nowhere else in the Bible do we find such a description of covetousness.
Freedman says that covetousness is also involved in the incidents illustrating stealing, murder and adultery. But in the case of Achan, we have only a single statement that he desired the booty from Jericho which he stole (Joshua 7:21), unlike the full description of Ahab’s covetousness. The men who raped and murdered the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) apparently wanted to have sex With the Levite, but that desire is not ever made explicit. The case. of David and Bathsheba offers a special opportunity to depict desire, but we are told only that she was very beautiful; David’s desire for Uriah’s wife remains expressed only implicitly (2 Samuel 11:2–4).
Only in the case of Ahab, the last violation in what Freedman calls Israel’s Primary History (Genesis through Kings), does the text give us a detailed description of covetousness. Moreover, we also have a double violation in this episode—false swearing and covetousness. Just as we opened the sequence in Exodus with a double violation—the golden calf involved both apostasy and the making of a graven image—so we have a double violation at the end. Beginning and ending with a double violation creates a classic “envelope” structure. And with the violation of tenth commandment the sequence is complete. Not nine commandments, but ten commandments.
I suggested this to Freedman before we published his article, but he rejected it. In the Achan episode, the word for covet is actually used, he said, but not in the other episodes, not even in Ahab. This may detract somewhat from my argument, but, I submit, not much. As Freedman himself wrote, “Because the [biblical] editor [redactor] is working with existing literary works and not just a collection of bits and pieces he is naturally limited in the degree and extent to which he can arrange or rearrange, organize and reorganize, or manipulate his material. Hence we can expect certain deviations and adjustments.”
On Red, Pink, Gray and Black
Bible Review provides an invaluable portal into the exhilarating world of biblical scholarship. Its intellectually stimulating articles and news items have contributed significantly to my family’s understanding and appreciation of the Bible. Regardless of whether or not you agree with all the ideas expressed between its covers, just being updated and informed on the “cutting edge” of current biblical studies makes reading it worthwhile.
I was particularly intrigued by Marcus Borg’s article on the historical authenticity of the sayings of Jesus (“What Did Jesus, Really Say?” BR 05:05). Three questions come to mind:
1. Who are the approximately 40 scholars participating in the Jesus Seminar?
2. Will a detailed study be published explaining the method of arbitrating extreme disagreements? (If 20 of the participants, for instance, believe a saying to be authentic, while the others do not, how would this appear in the New Red Letter Edition? And, as a corollary, how would the reader know how many voted in which direction?
3. Is it possible to find out the verdict on a certain pericope prior to the book’s publication? (I am interested In the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, generally, but especially in the decisions on Matthew 5:6//Luke 6:21a [25a]//Gospel of Thomas 69b; and Matthew 5:39–41//Luke 6:29.)
With the continued success of Bible Review, my family and I look forward to many years of enjoyable reading.
Marcus Borg replies:
1. A listing of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar may be found on pages 96–97 of The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition, ed. R. Funk, B. B. Scott and J. R. Butts (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1988).
2. Each saying has a “weighted average,” calculated in the following manner: each red vote counts as 3, pink as 2, gray as 1, black as 0. The total number of points for each saying is divided by the number of Fellows voting, thus producing a weighted average somewhere between 3 and 0. Sayings with a weighted average of 2.251 or more will be in red, 1.501 to 2.25 in pink, 0.751 to 1.50 in gray and 0 to 0.75 in black. Thus a saying about which there was an almost even division of opinion would be at the low end of the pink spectrum or the high end of the gray spectrum. Weighted averages and vote totals will be published.
3. Weighted averages and vote totals for the parables of Jesus and for the sayings of Jesus in Mark are available in the first two installments of the multicolored version of the Gospels: The Parables of Jesus, referred to above, and Red Letter Mark, scheduled for early 1990. Most of the sayings you ask about have a high authenticity rating. Weighted averages follow: Matthew 5:6–1.76 (pink); Luke 6:21–2.36 (red); Luke 6:25a–.533 (black); Thomas 69b–1.60 (pink); Matthew 5:39b–40 – 2.63 (red); Matthew 5:41–2.50 (red); Luke 6:29a–2.63 (red); Luke 6:29b–2.43 (red).