Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography
New York: Doubleday, 2004, 352 pp.
$19.96 (hardcover), $13.49 (softcover)
In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006, 432 pp.
Paul: His Life and Teaching
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003, 480 pp.
(hardcover), $29.99 (softcover)
Paul: His Story
Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004, 276 pp.
$24.95 (hardcover), $16.95 (softcover)
Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005
Paul: In Fresh Perspective
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, 176 pp.
Reviewed by Craig A. Evans
Although the spotlight usually centers on Jesus, never far away, waiting in the wings and sometimes dashing across the stage, is his most influential apostle Paul—the one who didn’t follow him and was not one of the original Twelve, but the one who wrote half of the New Testament.
Paul has always loomed large on Christianity’s theological landscape. His unflagging commitment to evangelization throughout the Roman empire—to the Jew first and then to the pagan—and his ad hoc letters written along the way provide the matrix out of which the Christian faith could understand itself and develop its theology and sense of community. Paul’s experience and his interpretation of that experience made it possible for Jesus’ Jewish movement, centered on the rule of God and the restoration of Israel, to become relevant and attractive to non-Jews. This was a remarkable achievement.
These books address this accomplishment by using different strategies and with diverse areas of expertise. Three books emphasize archaeological aspects of Paul and his world. The first half of John McRay’s Paul: His Life and Teaching is devoted to the life and travels of Paul. McRay calls on his many years of study, as well as his participation in several major digs in the cities Paul visited. The second half of McRay’s book less successfully grapples with Paul’s theology. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has authored Paul: His Story, which presupposes its prequel Paul: A Critical Life (1996). Following their successful Excavating Jesus (2001), John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed have again skillfully blended together their respective archaeological, exegetical and theological insights to produce In Search of Paul.
Murphy-O’Connor, who for years has been on the faculty of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, is well traveled in the world of Paul. His book brings to life with vivid imagery what that world looked like in Paul’s time and what it looks like today. Murphy-O’Connor is not interested in giving readers a sanitized, synthesized Paul. On the contrary, we are presented with an evangelist and theologian who wrote with passion and vigorously defended himself and his understanding of the Christian message. To his credit Murphy-O’Connor does not overstate or sensationalize the archaeological data (in contrast to some of the appalling books on Jesus). These data are helpful, to be sure, but they mostly tell us what was typical in the world of Paul, not something particular about the apostle himself. But Murphy-O’Connor gives readers a few surprises: He suggests that Paul was born in Galilee, was a widower who lost his children in a tragic mishap and referred to Christian opponents (!) when he spoke of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
Crossan’s and Reed’s book rightly perceives something that most Pauline scholars overlook: “Without seeing the archaeology of Roman imperial theology, you cannot understand any exegesis of Pauline Christian theology.” Crossan and Reed are referring to the numerous inscriptions and works of art that declare the divinity of Caesar and the divine order of the empire itself. Herein I believe is the book’s greatest insight and contribution. In essence, Crossan and Reed have given us “an illustrated theology” of Paul, thanks to insightful engagement with geography and archaeology.
Crossan’s and Reed’s book advances three theses: (1) Paul did not simply oppose the Roman imperial cult, by which Caesar was understood as “son of god” and “savior” of the world; he opposed Roman civilization itself and its ideological underpinnings. (2) Paul went to synagogues not to convert Jews, but to “unconvert” the god-fearers (that is, the non-Jews who attended synagogue and observed some of the Jewish customs). (3) The authentic and historical Paul believed that in Christ and in Christian community all were equal, whether Jew or pagan, powerful or powerless, male or female. It is the “pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline” elements, as expressed in the Pastoral (non-Pauline) Letters and in other contexts that oppose Paul’s egalitarian convictions.
No doubt many readers will disagree with this interpretation or that reconstruction of Paul’s thought, but all readers will profit from the comparisons made between Paul’s bold statements and the material remains of Rome’s imperial theology. I confess to having reservations about Crossan’s and Reed’s second thesis. Even if one dismisses the portrait of Paul’s activities and preaching as depicted in the Book of Acts (and I don’t think that is wise), does Paul in his letters suggest that the Jewish people themselves need not embrace Messiah Jesus? Surely pagan god-fearers, who were familiar with Israel’s story and scriptures, were not the only ones for whom the apostle’s letters were intended.
Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Paul exhibits erudition and profound appreciation of the Judaic world of Paul—as Saul of Tarsus before conversion and as Paul the Christian apostle after conversion. Part of Chilton’s burden is to steer readers away from distorted readings of “the Apostle,” in which Paul is understood as the primary, perhaps only, theologian of nascent Christianity. Chilton succeeds. What emerges is a balanced portrait of this innovative, engaging Jew, a portrait informed by a critical reading of primary literature and judicious weighing of the secondary literature (though some will complain that chronological issues were given short shrift). Chilton’s insightful interpretation of the rapprochement between Paul and James (Jesus’ brother who led the post-crucifixion Jerusalem church), in the context of the Jerusalem temple, is especially intriguing and shows that Paul had no intention of breaking away from his Judaic matrix. Indeed, Paul’s willingness to suffer five times the 39 lashes (2 Corinthians 11:24), Chilton observes, demonstrates not only contact with the synagogue but submission to its authority.
Bruce Malina’s and John Pilch’s Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul is eminently practical and focuses on how the social dimension of Paul’s world comes to expression in his letters. Malina and Pilch attempt to take into account the economic and political systems, the social structures and the cultural values of the first-century Mediterranean world and how Paul took them into account, as he affirmed the story of Israel and of Israel’s Messiah as having saving significance outside of Israel and outside the ethnic boundary of the Jewish people.
And finally, we have two recent theological treatments of Paul: one thick and one thin. Udo Schnelle has produced the proverbial doorstop. His Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology is a comprehensive introduction, divided into two parts: (1) Paul’s life and the development of his thought and (2) a systematic treatment of Paul’s theology. Schnelle’s work wisely exhibits discipline and restraint, lest innovation and speculation move us too far away from terra firma.
Paul by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, re-examines how the apostle redefined the essentials of Jewish faith in the light of his experience of the risen Christ. The book, whose thinness is no measure of its importance or distinctive contribution, contains two parts. In part one Wright describes the “three worlds of Paul”: (1) creation and covenant, (2) Messiah and apocalyptic and (3) gospel and empire. In part two Wright examines how Paul works through his theology and worldview, by rethinking God, reworking God’s people and reimagining God’s future. Another chapter considers “the task of the church.” Wright’s book offers an unabashed defense of the genius of Paul: “Despite the long-standing English tendency to sneer at Paul and to press him for answers to questions he didn’t ask, I persist in regarding him as the intellectual equal of Plato, Aristotle or Seneca.”
These brief reviews hardly scratch the surface. After rereading all of them, my impression is that we have entered what might be called a Pauline spring. The authors have been stimulated by ongoing archaeological work, analyses of newly discovered or recently published primary literature, and new ways of understanding an older, bygone era that has had lasting impact on our world.
Craig A. Evans is Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is co-editor of Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006) and author of Fabricating Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.