‘Not a male chauvinist pig’

2008-08-20 00:00

Oh, St Paul - isn't he horrid to women and doesn't he have old-fashioned views on sex? Not really, says Oxford theologian and former St Joseph's Theological Institute scholar Father Nicholas King. He says a lot of people have this view of Paul, the saint at the focus of Catholic celebrations this year.

King, who led a South African summer school series on "Paul on women", "Paul on sex" and "Paul and human respect", links Paul's scripture to our current life and says it is important for people to read the theologian carefully to appreciate his work fully. "Paul is often thought to be a male chauvinist pig," King says. "He says women are not allowed to speak in church, they are not allowed to have authority over men and they must have veils on their head. But I don't think he is a chauvinist at all."

"He definitely believes that women and men are equal and I think the odd remarks he makes are simply reflecting particular circumstances that he had to deal with in churches. He certainly had great reverence for women and I even think he may have been married."

The focus on Paul is because we are in the year of St Paul. "The Pope and the patriarch of Constantinople agreed to make this year (June 29, 2008 to June 29, 2009) the year of St Paul," he says. "But, it's a slightly artificial thing, really."

On sex, King says that Paul was "brought up as a good Jew".

"And, like a good Jew, he thinks that sex is too important to be messed around with, except in marriage. So, he would see homosexuality as absolutely out of court. He did not know the kind of things we now know about homosexuality; that some people do seem to be born that way and don't feel called to living a celibate lifestyle. I think if he had known that then he would have taken a slightly different line.

"He was horrified at the kind of sexual self-indulgence that he saw in the Greek cities where he preached the gospel; he thought it a trivialisation of the precious gift of sex.

"I have translated all of Paul's letters, I have taught Paul at university and the more I get to know him the more like him," King says. "Although, I notice that with some other scholars, the more they get to know him, the less they like him. It must be a matter of different temperament. But, I really do like Paul."

Living according to the Christian code is not an easy task, especially when living it along with other Christians who interpret the Bible differently. I ask King to comment on this: "I think the best thing for people to do is read the Bible. But, read it reflectively, read it carefully, read it with an attentive ear, and be careful of our tendency to read our own prejudices into the scripture, because if you listen carefully enough, you will always find yourself being challenged by the scripture," he says.

"I think the worst thing you can do with the Bible is just take particular versus and say, 'right, that's it, that's the end of the story and there's no need to reflect or think any more.' We have to read the Bible in its context, but then into our context."

Saint Paul on human respect - a speech by Father Nicholas King:

Radio Veritas cc 2008. Recorded at the Glenmore Pastoral Centre.

The King, Nicholas version

Nicholas King, a Jesuit priest, is well known internationally for his book The New Testament, which is a personal translation of the Greek version of the New Testament, and nationally for his weekly contributions to the Catholic newsletter, The Southern Cross. But, fhe is also known locally as an inspirational lecturer and scholar on the scripture of the New Testament at Cedara-based St Joseph's.

Now based at Campion Hall at Oxford University, King has just finished a month-long summer school tour of South Africa.

King was asked by American publisher Kevin Mayhew to translate the New Testament in December 2001, when he was holding a summer school on the gospels of Mark and John in the United States. He had spare time when he returned to Oxford and had translated those two gospels as part of his preparation for his lectures. After much persuasion, King decided to undertake the enormous task. "It was just a wonderful thing to have done, even if no one read a single copy of it," King says. "But, as it turned out, it sold several thousand copies and it has been reissued in paperback."

King said he had no intention of translating the Old Testament, "but Kevin pulled a bit of a fast one because on the blurb of the book he gave a little biography of me and said, 'he is currently working on a translation of the Old Testament,' which I certainly wasn't," he says. "However, after a couple of years of thought I decided - and after talking to my Jesuit superiors - to attempt a translation of the Old Testament.

"I told the publisher that it would take the rest of my life, but I am not sure about that. So that is one of the things that I am currently working on, apart from my teaching and lecturing at Oxford University," he says. "I am also, I think, going to produce a book out of these lectures, which will probably be called St Paul for those who don't like St Paul, but I haven't finally decided."

King said he hopes the new translations make the Bible more accessible to the average reader. "What I tried to do with the New Testament was to give it the freshness that all the New Testament documents originally had, which I think committee translations don't manage to do. I mean, there are advantages in committee translations: they avoid mistakes in a way that a person working on his or her own can't avoid. There are disadvantages in that the authors tends to get done as a pureed sludge. So every author in the New Testament tends to sound like every other author.

"I hope what I am doing is not changing the Bible in any way, but just bringing out what is there. If there was life in what I was saying in my speech last night, I think it is because the life is there in the scriptures. I think the energy is there and needs to be brought out. People go to church and think 'I need to go to sleep now, I can't laugh or come alive because you're not allowed to do that in church', and so when the readings start they go to sleep. Then they wake up when the reading comes to an end. That's all the wrong way round.

"It has been wonderful to be back in South Africa," he concludes. "I loved my 12 years in this country and became a citizen of the country in the course of that time. I was able to watch the transition from apartheid to the present democratic arrangement. I made many friends here and I think I owe South Africa an enormous debt for what it gave me."

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