Latest Update

Added Paula Gooder’s book Phoebe: A Story to the Bibliography of the New Perspective on Paul section.

Phoebe: A Story

Book Review

Paula Gooder, IVP Academic, 2018. 316 pp.

Review by Reta Finger.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you my welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Romans 16:1-2.

It was not until the early 1980s, as the “new perspective on Paul” was developing, that scholars paid much attention to Phoebe and the other 28 names mentioned in Romans 16. Since then, Pauline scholars have used these names, along with additional socio-cultural and historical data, to reconstruct the events that would have caused Paul to write this lengthy theological letter from his location at Corinth to Jesus-believers in Rome, a city Paul had not yet visited. It is now generally accepted that Paul sent Phoebe, his highly-praised co-worker from Corinth’s port city of Cenchreae, to Rome bearing his letter and charged with having it read in all the house churches of Rome.

But Dr. Paula Gooder, a British writer and lecturer in biblical studies, wants to bring the Bible to life even more for contemporary readers. To this end, she builds on the latest scholarship to imagine what happened after the letter arrived and was read. Gooder’s narrative weaves together Phoebe’s life story with her relationships primarily within the house church led by Prisca and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5). Besides this couple, whom Paul first met in Corinth (Acts 18:1-2), we meet Mary (Rom. 16:6), the apostles Junia and Andronicus (v. 7), Aristobulus (v. 10), Herodion (v. 11), “my beloved Stachys (v. 9), and other fictional characters with Latin, Greek, or Jewish names appropriate for that time and place.

Careful readers of Romans know that, though primarily theological, the letter also includes Paul’s future plans to visit Rome and, from there, take the gospel to Spain (15:22-32). Written some years later, Acts 21-28 recounts a different outcome, but Phoebe and the Roman believers know nothing of that future. They gather supplies for Paul’s mission to Spain and anticipate him coming within a month or two.

But the story centers on Phoebe herself. As she converses with Prisca and Aquila in their tentmaking shop, along with Junia and Andronicus, we learn that Phoebe also has a personal reason to visit Rome.

I must confess that, almost from the beginning, my skeptical antennae were out. In 1991, I had begun a doctoral program with Pauline scholar Robert Jewett, who had introduced me to the New Perspective on Romans, adding his own contributions to Phoebe’s story, Paul’s Spanish mission, and the character of the five house churches suggested in Romans 16. I had continued my research, which produced a book providing background for a sustained role-play of these house churches and their reactions to Paul’s letter. I had generally accepted Jewett’s characterization of Phoebe as a noblewoman, patron to Paul, and perhaps even running a shipping company at the port of Cenchreae.

Gooder’s Phoebe is indeed wealthy, but Gooder probes beneath the surface to find a woman torn with deep, unresolved pain and guilt going back to her childhood growing up in Rome. She has come to deal with these issues, as well as bringing Paul’s letter and helping to prepare for his mission to Spain. Each of the two couples—Prisca and Aquila, Junia and Andronicus—express their own very human personalities. Somehow, their conversation sounded a bit too psychological and contemporary.

I had read nearly 100 pages before realizing that the second half of the book contained Gooder’s extensive background notes undergirding her engaging plot. Notes for nearly every chapter explain different aspects of ancient Roman life, such as slavery, meals, infant exposure, patronage, the history of Jews in Rome, and hundreds of other details. Recognizing almost all of Gooder’s scholarly sources (including Jewett!), here I was on familiar ground. She has indeed integrated the research of many current Pauline scholars into Phoebe’s story so that its context in first-century Rome rings true to what we can know today.

Another feature of Phoebe’s story involves the way these early believers absorb the teachings and stories of Jesus either through what they have heard before from Jewish believers, from Paul’s previous letters or sermons, or from the letter Paul has just sent. This material is used to help believers deal with their own issues, such as the Roman nobleman who wants a private baptism so his acquaintances won’t know he is a Christian. It is a good reminder that these early believers were hearing and learning bit by bit what is now gathered into one canonical book.

My one disappointment was the lack of serious debate among these characters about the Romans letter itself.  If Paul wanted the Roman believers to “send him on his way to Spain” (Rom. 15:24), he was equally concerned about a major obstacle towards that goal:  lack of unity between the law-observant Jewish believers and their Gentile counterparts who viewed Mosaic law as irrelevant. Only Herodion made a fuss about Jewish law, and he was tolerated but often ignored. I recognize that the story of Phoebe, a Gentile, controlled the plot, and her struggles were not directly related to this issue. Nevertheless, if Paul was correct about tensions between Jews and Gentiles in the early churches, it seems like a rather large lacuna in the story.

There are a few other loose ends, but Phoebe: A Story kept me reading to the very end. I will not spoil the plot for other readers—but just say that Phoebe’s connections to Prisca and Aquila’s house church helped her resolve past issues in her life and provide an exciting challenge for her future.

Current readers of Paula Gooder’s story will, like me, cross historical boundaries to receive the gift of friendship with Christian believers much like us—but from the very dawn of our faith.

Reta Finger, a retired New Testament professor, writes a Bible study blog at, the website of Christian Feminism Today. Her book referred to above is Roman House Churches for Today (Eerdmans, 2007, 2nd ed.).

Latest Update

Review Essay of “Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation” by Tom Holland

Tom Holland, Tom Wright and the Search for Truth: A Theological Evaluation (London: Apiary Publishing), 2017. Pp. 495.

by Don Garlington

This full-sized volume consists of thirteen chapters: (1) “Probing the Contours of Recent Research;” (2) “Probing Saul and His Political Identity;” (3) “Probing Paul and His Theological Identity;” (4) “Probing Paul and His Intellectual Identity;” (5) “Probing Further Use of Hellenistic Language and Imagery;” (6) “Probing Paul’s Use of Second Temple Literature;” (7) “Probing Paul’s Understanding of the Person of Christ (Christology);” (8) “Probing Paul’s Doctrine of the Atonement;” (9) “Probing Wright’s Doctrine of Justification;” (10) “Probing the Doctrine of Justification” (11) “Probing the Doctrine of Justification in Romans and Galatians;” (12) “Probing Justification in the Remainder of Paul’s Letters;” (13) “Reconciling Conflict and Review.” As is readily evident, the book is an extended exercise in probing.[i]

In the Preface, Holland outlines his initial contacts with Wright and sketches out his concerns. Mainly, Holland takes issue with Wright’s historical reading of Paul in the light of Second Temple Judaism (2TJ). The author does not deny that these texts have value in shedding light on the cultural backdrop of the day, but he is concerned that “this relatively new method of reading the New Testament through this lens has inadvertently opened the door for this literature to have an undue influence on Tom Wright’s interpretation of the New Testament” (p. 16). Consequently, “I believe. . .that by using these extra-biblical sources, Tom Wright has added extraneous thoughts and concepts to Paul’s theology resulting in a loss of clarity regarding the apostle’s teaching” (p. 16). So, we are not surprised to read that, according to Holland, Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said should have been What Saint Paul Ought to Have Said (p. 17).

As Holland continues, the reason for opening this discussion is that Wright’s methodology has had such an influence on hundreds of other scholars. While Holland supports Wright’s desire to show that Paul taught a Jewish message, he also believes the way Wright uses intertestamental literature has unwittingly produced an inaccurate version of Paul’s teaching (pp. 17–18). Another reason for this undertaking is the interest the two authors share regarding the New Exodus motif. Holland relates that he has a “deep commitment” to the model, but has reached different conclusions than those of Wright. Thus, “The fact that our work shares a common emphasis on the New Exodus theme give me the opportunity of showing the benefits of my methodology against his” (p. 18). In a nutshell, it all boils down to a matter of methodology. If, writes Holland, Wright’s research had been “properly controlled then his contribution would be of far greater value than it has been” (pp. 19–20).

Chapter One is a sketch of some of the work done since the arrival on the scene of E. P. Sanders and Wright (James Dunn is curiously absent). Holland reminds us of the well-know rise of the historical-critical method, originating actually at the turn of the seventeenth century into the eighteen, not the nineteenth.[ii] No doubt, he is correct that the tendencies of the Enlightenment contributed massively to the erosion of the trustworthiness of the Bible as a whole. It is also accurate that certain Jewish documents had been known for centuries before the discovery of the Qumran texts, and it was the unearthing of these materials that spearheaded the current fascination with the historical setting of the NT itself. It is also factual that Wright, despite some reservations, aligned himself with Sanders’ contention that 2TJ was not legalistic and that “covenantal nomism” is an accurate depiction of the Judaism of the era. Additionally, it is true enough that Wright has offered a reassessment of the place of justification in Paul’s theology. For him, justification is not about soteriology, but rather has to do with the identity of the people of God. Elsewhere, I have addressed this aspect of Wright’s understanding of justification. If I may relay that observation:

. . . Wright has constructed a seemingly false dichotomy between the identity of the people of God and salvation. It is closer to the mark to say that Galatians does have to do with entrance into the body of the saved, meaning that to belong to the new covenant is to belong to the community of the saved.[iii]

Holland does acknowledge that Wright’s research into the Jewishness of Paul’s theology has opened up many interesting and valuable insights, which have resulted in an appreciation of his work by the scholarly community. Indeed, “Much of what Wright has written is excellent. He has helped Christians to see the importance of the OT for interpreting the NT” (p. 34). The bulk of Wright’s work, as Holland concedes, has assured many that he is a trustworthy teacher of the church and that the early suspicions respecting justification have evaporated. It would seem, however, that there is a downside to all this: “The consequence of this theological movement is that many no longer think that the Reformers are reliable authorities for guiding the 21st century church” (p. 35).

Chapter Two endeavors to probe Paul and his political identity. The gist of the chapter is that Holland thinks that Wright has overblown Paul’s relationship to the likes of Elijah and Phinehas, “zealots” for the cause of Israel. “Wright’s claim that Saul was a zealot significantly impacts the way in which he interprets Paul and his spiritual journey; it is the foundation of much of what Wright thinks explains the apostle’s motives and message” (p. 42).

The question is posed whether Paul would have chosen a “liberal” mentor, Gamaliel, if he were himself were of a much more “conservative” disposition. “Would a zealot deliberately put himself under such a teacher when their theologies would have been so very difference” (p. 43). The comeback, I would say, is provided by Wright, as acknowledge by Holland. The former cites the example of Rabbi Akiba, who broke with his teacher, Nehunya, over his pacifistic commitment. Holland, however, avers that the analogy is invalid because Akiba broke with his teacher only after leaving his school and that, for Wright, Paul became a disciple of Gamaliel whilst disagreeing with him (p. 44). Yet Holland himself, in citing correspondence with David Instone-Brewer, has to acknowledge that there is a dearth of information relating to how ancient Jewish students chose their teachers—“the answer is far from decisive” (p. 46). Be that as it may, it does not follow that Saul was a “practising zealot” at the time of his attachment to Gamaliel (p. 49); the break could have occurred later. Given the rise of a theology of zeal at this juncture in Jewish history,[iv] it would not at all be surprising that Paul was caught up in the movement and chose to discontinue some of his former associations. On the contemporary scene, students can (and do) chose teachers or thesis supervisors who can be quite at variance with their personal convictions. In the modern era, the likes of Käsemann and Bornkamm broke radically with their teacher, Bultmann, over the question of the historical Jesus. In brief, the appeal to the manner in which students would have selected a teacher proves nothing in itself. If I may draw on personal experience, I chose to study with James Dunn at Durham, even though our positions on Scripture and Christology vary appreciably.

Holland seems especially concerned to deny that Saul of Tarsus was a “zealot” in any meaningful sense. “Of course, Saul would have held political views, but they were most unlikely to have been the views of the zealots.” Not only does this line of reasoning beg the question, it simply disregards the “theology of zeal” that commenced with OT persons such as Elijah and Jehu. Phinehas (Num 25:7–8 = Ps 106:30–31) is mentioned, but it is completely overlooked that Mattathias, in the Second Temple Period, was modeled on Phinehas. According to 1 Macc 2:19–26:

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.” When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, be burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, as Phinehas did against Zimri the son of Salu.

The sons of Mattathias, not surprisingly, perpetuated this tradition of zeal, as related by 1 and 2 Maccabees.[v] It was the first-century Zealots who modeled themselves on the likes of Elijah, Phinehas, Jehu and Mattathias.[vi]

Because Holland refuses to read Paul historically in his own Sitz im Leben, effectively he has constructed a “Docetic” Paul, one who effectively had very little contact with the actual world in which he lived. Moreover, the assertion that Palestinian Judaism was pacifistic (p. 50) is contradicted, among others, by Hengel’s Zealots and Jacob Neusner’s study.[vii] As both demonstrate, Josephus considered the Pharisees to be a political party with some clout in the first century, although later they evolved into a pietistic movement. The Pharisees, as confirmed by Acts 9:1–2, would have been entirely sympathetic with the Zealot resistance of anything considered to be Anti-Judaism.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

It was just the Pharisees who likened Jesus to the reprobate son of Deut 21:18–21 (Matt 11:17–19), who was to be put to death and whose body was to be affixed to a tree, to which we may add that the mob demanding his crucifixion was hardly pacifistic.

It is demonstrable from the Gospels that the Pharisees (and other groups) exerted as much pressure as feasible on the Roman authorities; and it is virtually inconceivable that Saul would have been unaffected by the turbulent times in which he lived. Such considerations lead Hengel to conclude that although the Pharisaic Jew was not necessarily closely connected with the Zealot movement of Judas of Galilee, nevertheless for God’s cause and the hallowing of the law, he was prepared to use force, if necessary, even to the point of killing the lawbreaker. This was an attitude that was “very popular in contemporary Judaism.” As he continues, “The best modern paradigm for this atmosphere is present-day Islamic fundamentalism with its theocratic ideals, which causes us so much concern today.” In a nutshell, “Paul’s ‘zeal,’ which made him a persecutor, is thus directed against what in his eyes were severe transgressions of the law, of which Stephen, too, was accused.”[viii]

Next in the chapter comes another specious argument, viz., that a “zealous” Saul would never have done the bidding of a high priest who was “a notorious stooge of the Roman Emperor” (p. 51). But the answer is obvious enough. Whether a zealot or not, Saul was still obliged to work within the system of the Jewish State and of necessity had to cooperate with its authorities. His compliance with the high priest simply reflects the necessity of working through the appropriate channels. The high priest’s approval and/or commissioning was standard procedure in such cases.

In pursuing “Zealot Claims and Roman Citizenship,” Holland postulates that a “zealous” Paul would have been obliged to renounce his status as a Roman citizen. In so doing, he constructs the proverbial “straw man” that turns out to be a caricature of Wright, not a fair representation. “To say that a zealot, jealous for his country, and fanatical about the independence of Israel, would turn up meekly every five years to ensure that he continued to enjoy the benefits of being a Roman citizen is to ask us to accept something that is several steps beyond credibility!” But again, a response is readily at hand. In order to be zealous for Israel, it was not at all necessary for Saul to forego his Roman citizenship and later take it up again. He could well have registered with the government every five years and still have harbored antagonism toward Roman oppression and worked toward an eventual end to Roman rule. As a contemporary example, citizens of any given country can (and do) take umbrage at the government without renouncing their citizenship. So, this is hardly a serious problem for Wright’s “construction” (p. 52). Holland’s entire line of reasoning is a non sequitur.

Finally in this chapter, Holland is at pains to establish that Saul the Pharisee was not a Zealot in the technical sense of an insurrectionists against Rome. In point of fact, it makes very little difference whether the pre-Christian Paul was formally a member of any anti-Roman faction. Given the entire atmosphere of first-century Palestine, one stemming from the Maccabean era, he would have fit right into mindset of resistance. Holland’s own problems are compounded by the distinction entailed in the phrase “political zealot” (p. 56). There simply was no hard-and-fast distinction between “religion” and “politics” in the ancient world generally and certainly not in ancient Palestine; the two always went hand-in-hand. Additionally, the citation of Gal 1:13–14, if anything, places Paul squarely in the tradition of Maccabean zeal for the law, in spite of Holland’s simple assertion that such was not the case (p. 57). That “Paul links his esteemed status in Judaism with his persecution of the church” (p. 57) fits hand-in-glove with the Zealot agenda of eliminating any and all opposition to “the traditions of the fathers.” It falls flat to maintain that Paul’s persecution of the church consisted not in killing but in bringing Christians to stand trial. One wonders what would have been the penalty imposed on those who were perceived to have betrayed Israel. If I bring to the fore something submitted earlier:

With the passage of time, particularly given the Syrian and Roman conquests of Palestine, “Judaism” became synonymous with “zeal for the law” and an implacable nationalism that was prepared to deal harshly with even an apparent usurpation of power over the law and the temple. For this reason, Paul’s subsequent struggle against circumcision and the law was not least a “betrayal of Judaism” in the eyes of his Judaistic opponents because of its “ethnic political consequences” (Hengel, Judaism, 1.307–8).[ix]

If I may put it bluntly, Holland’s resistance of such phenomena as these is a denial of the obvious.

Chapter Three endeavors to probe Paul and his theological Identity. In so doing, Holland delves into one of Paul’s theological antecedents, viz., Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Holland shows how the OT understanding of the role of the servant is thoroughly embedded in the concept of covenant, and thus it should not be confused with a Greco-Roman concept of servant or slave. Holland proceeds from a narrative substructure guided by OT motifs. He demonstrates clearly enough how Paul alludes to Isa 49:8 and 52:11 in 2 Cor 6:1–2, thus making it evident that “Paul saw his own ministry as that of a servant of the new covenant, just as Moses, Isaiah, and the nation of Israel were servants in the old covenant” (p. 68). Furthermore, Paul never saw his sufferings as unique to his apostolic calling; rather, they were part of his life as a Christian, as one who fills up “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Col 1:24).

Holland concludes the chapter with a treatment of Christ’s sufferings and that of Christians. Since the NT church understood itself as the servant of God, as Christ is the servant of God, the early church wanted to ensure that Christ’s vicarious suffering was unique to him. In this regard, Holland maintains that the servant motif challenges Wright’s claim that Paul was a zealot: “We need to ask if Saul saw himself as a zealot in the way that Wright has claimed. Is it possible that a man burning with such anger and hatred could change in a matter of hours and without any theological instruction to help him see how wrong he had been in his previous understanding?” (p. 76). My comeback is that indeed a man burning with such anger and hatred could change in a matter of hours and see how wrong he had been previously, if he was knocked on the ground, blinded and left in the darkness to contemplate his life and beliefs in view of these events and all the other events to which he had been witness. Holland’s reasoning in this regard is tenuous, to say the least, and entirely rooted in presuppositions.

In Chapter Four, Holland challenges the notion that Paul’s Judaism had already been thoroughly Hellenized, engaging with Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (London: SCM, 1974). Holland states that Hengel’s widely accepted proposal should not go unchallenged. He admits that first-century Judaism had been Hellenized but claims that there could still be individuals who resisted the widespread cultural influence. Therefore, he maintains, Paul’s writings come from an exclusively Hebraic perspective. It is conceded that Paul draws on some elements Hellenistic culture: he writes in the Greek language and in keeping with Greco-Roman epistolary structure and current writing style. But, Holland argues, there is a enormous difference between making use of cultural norms of the prevailing culture and using the literature and its presupposition in various disciplines to build his theological models.

Holland goes on to illustrate the implications of his claim, starting with a description of Paul’s “new exodus theology.” For him, this theme is a key substructure for Paul, and it is a theme that is often obscured by references to Greco-Roman rather than Jewish culture. Holland claims that Wright “has failed to see just how pervasive the paradigm is” (p. 103). He goes on to show how a key subtheme in the exodus narrative is the marital theme: the exodus is the occasion where Yahweh is joined covenantally with his people, much like a marriage. Holland then shows how the combination of these two motifs allows for a deeper understanding of the role of the law for the believer. For Holland, the law was a wedding gift given to Israel (p. 131). The role of the Torah was to bring Israel to her bridegroom. In and of itself, this conclusion is sound enough:

This was the antitype of the great exodus type, the fulfillment of the Passover type, the time of Israel’s marriage to Yahweh and the feast when Israel was united with Moses and he became their representative. In this antitype that Paul has followed, the entire remnant community, which included all believing Jews and gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, were united with Christ as he died. This was not only the moment of unity through death but also through marriage for she was being cleansed to become Christ’s bride. (p. 130).

On balance, I would agree with Holland in this assessment. Paul’s actual theological milieu was informed by “classic Judaism,” not Greco-Roman Hellenism. No doubt, this Hellenism had made inroads into first-century Palestine, as witnessed by the fact that the high priestly cast (mainly identified with the Sadducees) was in the “hip pocket” of Rome. The qualification, however, is that such a consideration hardly does any real damage to Wright’s overall model.

Chapter Five endeavors to further support to Holland’s general claims in chapter 4. In essence, What would it look like to read the New Testament being thoroughly convinced that Paul was indeed a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5)? Holland proceeds to provide a systematic investigation of the Pauline themes or metaphors that seem the most Greco-Roman: military procession imagery (2 Cor 2:14–17), Christian armor imagery (Eph 6:10–20), anthropological tripartite language (1 Thess 5:23–24), and the Greek games (1 Cor 9:24–27). For every supposed reference to Greco-Roman culture, Holland provides counterarguments for potential OT references. Especially in 2 Corinthians, the exodus/pilgrimage imagery makes much more sense in the structure of the letter. In this regard, he correctly cautions against an uncritical acceptance of Greco-Roman antecedents in Paul.

In chapter Six, Holland attempts a broadside against the current use of Second Temple literature in biblical studies. He begins with a reference to Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), drawing on Hays’ seven criteria for recognizing intertextuality between the OT and NT. These seven criteria provide guidelines for determining echoes and allusions of the OT in the NT, with the caution that students should avoid “parallelomania” (Samuel Sandmel). Holland then observes that there are no corresponding criteria for detecting echoes or allusions to Second Temple literature. As it relates to Wright, Holland notes that the presence of one word, or even a string of words, found in both the intertestamental literature and Paul is insufficient to allow Wright to utilize these texts as supporting evidence for his views concerning the teachings of the primitive apostolic church. Holland is clear that some engagement with Second Temple literature is legitimate, but his concern is that Wright and others tend to use it as a “theological Rosetta stone” rather than an occasional cultural resource.

Holland forwards two major considerations to support his case. First, the date, occasion, authorship and overall culture details behind Second Temple documents are quite ambiguous. There is great danger in ascribing similarity between texts that could be proved to be erroneous in the next generation, as per Bultmann’s connection between the NT and Gnosticism. Second, as John Barclay has demonstrated, Second Temple literature is extremely diverse, and any alleged connection between themes needs significant nuance to produce any kind of theological fruit (Paul and the Gift [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015]).[x] By way of qualification, he does make clear that his problem is not that Second Temple literature is used in biblical studies but rather the way in which it is used. He maintains that this literature is helpful in providing a context for broader cultural issues but contends that the help they offer is limited. The complaint is that Wright does not just glean from Second Temple documents from time to time. Rather, he weaves ideas from extra-biblical literature into the biblical story line.”

Again, legitimate hermeneutical issues are raised. It is true enough that Second Temple literature has to be sifted through and that conclusions must be drawn with care. However, to assert that Wright and others have used these sources as a “theological Rosetta stone” misunderstands the methodology at stake and, once more, constructs a “Docetic Paul” who had very little contact with his own history and current place with the Judaism of this era. Holland’s Paul is simply out of touch with his own world.

Chapter Seven applies the same overall critique to Wright’s Christology. For Holland, Wright’s Christology is wrongfully (mis)informed by 4 Maccabees. Holland rightly points out that the primary festal tradition of the book of 4 Maccabees is Hanukkah, which is rather absent from the Gospels: “If [Hanukkah] is the key to understanding Jesus’ mindset, then it has to be asked why this feast was not chosen by Jesus to illustrate the meaning of his coming death? Instead, he explained his death and its significance right in the centre of the Passover celebration” (p. 241).

Furthermore, continues Holland, Wright’s Christology looks too similar to that of the secular historians who adopt an evolutionary model of Jesus’ self-awareness. In Wright’s own words, “Jesus did not . . . ‘know that he was God’ in the same way that one knows one is male or female, hungry or thirsty, or that one ate an orange an hour ago. His ‘knowledge’ was of a more risky, but perhaps more significant, sort: like knowing that one is loved.”[xi] Upon read this myself some years ago, I was struck with the manner of expression, and certainly I would have phrased it otherwise. Nevertheless, Jesus’ knowledge was limited in certain regards (e.g., Mark 5:31; 13:32), and such considerations should have tempered Holland’s appraisal. Additionally, Holland concedes that Wright is “a committed Trinitarian” (p. 193), which should have taken into account before pronouncing that the latter has adopted an evolutionary model of Jesus’ self-awareness.

In pursuing the connection between Jesus as “firstborn” and “redeemer,” Holland is on solid enough ground. His analysis is supported by the four “hymns” in the NT: Col 1:13–20; Phil 2:6–10; Heb 1:3–6; Rev 1:5–18. Holland’s contention that the Passover contains an atoning element through the connection of “firstborn” and “redeemer” is plausible enough. However, as before, none of this militates against Wright’s essential premises.

Chapter Eight embraces Paul’s doctrine of the atonement. Holland begins with a summary of Wright’s view as well as briefly touching on the work of others, such as Leon Morris. As before Holland is at pains to pin Wright’s position of the atonement to 4 Maccabees. It is fair enough that there are differences between the Gospels and documents such as 4 Maccabees, and that Jesus’ death is represented by the former as an atonement for sin. It is also true that in 2TJ there was no notion that the Messiah would die as a substitute for the sins of Israel. However, Holland has belabored the connection with 4 Maccabees in particular, while glossing over the martyr passages of 1 and 2 Maccabees. That said, it is also true, as Holland contends, there is an atoning aspect to the exodus or Passover. I would agree that there is a clear echo of the original Passover in Rom 3:25. The chapter concludes with a discussion of OT antecedents to the theme of resurrection on the third day.

Chapter Nine centers on the NPP debate and the controversy surrounding Wright. Holland primarily critiques Wright for his covenantal definition of justification, which he summarizes in three parts. First, justification is not about how one was made right with God, but about being declared to be in the right with God because of being in the covenant. Second, God the Judge acquits the guilty not because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness but because of the believer’s right standing in the covenant. Third, there is an eschatological dimension to justification, when Israel will be declared to be God’s people before all the nations of the earth. To sum up, Wright views justification as an ecclesiological, not a soteriological, doctrine; it is about recognizing who is acceptable within the covenant, not about how to get into the covenant.

Holland lodges three major critiques of Wright’s view of justification. First, he has either misunderstood or misrepresented the Reformers’ arguments. Second, Holland claims that Wright has suggested a false dichotomy between Paul’s focus on the corporate body of Christ and individual benefits given to the believer. Wright frequently complains that Pauline scholars are too prone to focus on the individual, where Paul focused on the collective. For Wright, the corporate nature of Paul’s theology eliminates the possibility of a soteriologically focused justification. In contrast, Holland points out that Wright sometimes misses some elements of Paul’s corporate focus. Yet, for Holland, none of this focus eliminates individual blessings of salvation. Third, Holland believes that Wright has placed far too much emphasis on 4QMMT in his understanding of justification. He argues that Wright has committed a major transgression of hermeneutic practice by allowing the phrases common to both 4QMMT and Galatians to shape Wright’s understanding of justification.

In principle, one may agree with Holland that Second Temple sources are to be employed with discretion. But in the case of 4QMMT, Paul’s famous phrase “works of the law” is enlightened considerably by this document from the Scrolls. Holland’s denial of its significance betrays a myopic reading of NT texts, as though they could isolated from the milieu of 2TJ. Moreover, and perhaps not surprisingly, Holland has ignored Dunn’s treatment of 4QMMT in The New Perspective on Paul (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 339–45.

Thereafter, Holland turns to his own positive construction of Paul’s doctrine of justification. In so doing, he proposes nine meanings for the term “justify:” (1) the acquittal of sin; (2) the imputation of righteousness; (3) the declaration that a person is in the covenant; (4) the creation of a covenant; (5) justification ratification; (6) the deliverance and justification of Israel; (7) the justification of the Gentiles; (8) the justification of God; and (9) the justification of the divine marriage.

All of this is fair enough—apart from imputation, which, of course, is a mainstay of Puritan/Reformed theology. Whether such a category is actually present in the Hebrew Bible or the NT is certainly open to challenge. I have addressed the issue elsewhere and have drawn contrary conclusions.[xii] A review of this sort can hardly engage the debate in any detail. However, it should be pointed out that the Heidelberg Catechism purposely took issue with the Westminster Confession on the matter of imputation. We are led to ask, Which one is Reformed: Heidelberg or Westminster? The answer, I should think, is that the category “Reformed” is broad enough to allow for divergence of conviction. I might add that Wesley rejected imputation because of its cold and impersonal nature. With that I would concur.

Holland devotes the next two chapters endeavoring to showcase his methodology, in which he takes conceptual approach. He examines not only at texts that include the word “justification” but also at texts that include related themes. Once again, one may agree with a great deal of the presentation, but, at the same time, there is hardly anything in it devastating to Wright.

The conclusion of the book returns to Wright’s methodology and, among other things, weighs the invective that Wright’s historical realism is nothing other than a rewritten history in which Jesus has been deeply influenced by the Maccabean exploits and claims, which, Holland maintains, is not critical realism but historical surrender. Moreover, Wright’s version of critical realism is only possible by closing one’s mind to the issues that have been raised in his book. Those who follow Wright’s methodology, without having his confessional underpinning, will be in danger of even more fanciful exegesis than that which he has followed, one which will lead them away from their intended theological home. In leveling these criticisms, Holland simply resorts to sniping from an entrenched position. The tone is aggressive and the comebacks to Wright stem from a set of presuppositions that, to some of us at least, are exegetically unfounded.



[i] A very similar volume appeared the same year as Holland’s: Robert J. Cara, Cracking the Foundation of The New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Theology (Reformed, Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies; London: Mentor [Christian Focus Publications], 2017. I have reviewed Cara at Many of the criticisms of Cara pertain to Holland as well.

[ii] Among many, see Werner Geog Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970).

[iii] Don Garlington, An Exposition of Galatians: A Reading From the New Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 9.

[iv] Cf. my ‘The Obedience of Faith’: A Pauline Phrase in Historical Context (WUNT 2/38; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991) [rep. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009]), 46–47, 112–14, 119–20, 145–46, 248–49. Holland, for some reason, ignores Martin Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A.D. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), and only twice does he even mention Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (London: SCM, 1974).

[v] See my Obedience of Faith, 111–14. Holland does not even interact with basic sources like W. F. Farmer, IDB 4.936–39, let alone Hengel, Zealots.

[vi] See, among many, Hengel, Zealots; Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987); Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985); Andrea M. Berlin and J. Andrew Overman, eds., The First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology (London: Routledge, 2002).

[vii] Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973). Both volumes are among the numerous omissions in Holland’s book. Though noted in the index, Holland could have devoted at least some attention to Stephen Anthony Cummins, Paul and the Crucified Christ in Antioch: Maccabean Martyrdom and Galatians 1 and 2 (SNTSMS 114; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[viii] Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul (London: SCM, 1991), 71. Relevant also are Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997).

[ix] Garlington, Galatians, 81. See the entire discussion of pp. 79–85.

[x] I have reviewed Barclay in Bulletin for Biblical Research 26 (2016): 606–8.

[xi] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 653.

[xii] Garlington, Studies in the New Perspective on Paul: Essays and Reviews (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 137-227.

Latest Update

Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology, 2nd ed.

Book Review

David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards, editors, IVP Academic, 2017.

According to the Introduction, the work is intended as a student textbook that covers, in a manageable size, several aspects of Paul: his background, an introduction to his letters, a survey of his ministry surrounding his letters, and an integrated survey of his theology and spirituality. This second edition expands the 350 pages of the first edition into 462. The authors accept the Pauline authorship of the thirteen canonical letters and endeavor to understand the apostle within his own life setting, not that which has been imposed on him. In most chapters, boxes entitled “So What” and “What’s More . . .” take up matters of the relevance of Paul’s epistles and offer supplemental information. Additionally, most chapters end with “Read More About It,” with brief lists of recommended literature. The title Rediscovering Paul is intended to say that the apostle has been misunderstood when his readers assume an interpretive framework that reads into his letters notions that reflect their own perceptions rather than his actual teaching.

The book consists of twelve chapters covering contextual, exegetical, and synthetic questions. Chapter One proposes that “Paul did not think like a twenty-first century Western Christian. His ways were not our ways. His priorities were quite different.” Consequently, “Rather the trying to understand Paul on our terms, we should try to figure out what he meant on his terms” (p. 13). Paul lived in a multicultural world around the Mediterranean basin, which means that his culture was as diversified as ours. But despite the diversity, these peoples, nonetheless, shared similar religious convictions, social customs, and possessed a common Mediterranean worldview (“symbolic universe”). As much as anything, there was the belief that all things come from God/the gods. In such a world, honor stood out as “the only game in town.” “For Mediterranean peoples, boasting was the surest way to keep social order. Everyone had their place; everyone knew their role” (p. 26). In this milieu, Paul was obliged to defend his honor against his numerous detractors. The final section of the chapter is devoted to “Living in the Greco-Roman world.” The authors outline such matters as Greek language, Greek living, and Jewish holiness. In so doing, they anticipate Paul’s view of the law.

Chapter 2 is entitled “The Christophany.” The chapter begins with a review of Paul and Zeal. “Zeal” is not passion or enthusiasm, but rather a “firm resolve and forceful resistance against anyone who in any way acts to compromise Israel’s relationship with God” (p. 58). In this sense, the pre-Christian Paul was a “zealot,” who followed the precedents set by the likes of Phineas and Mattathias. “Paul considered himself a key player in Israel’s unfulfilled story. He had a part to play in readying Israel for God’s visitation and judgment. Zeal compelled the pre-Christophany Paul to protect the covenant by punishing the disobedient in order that the path to Israel’s glorious future could be realized and the covenantal blessings restored” (p. 59). In this light, Saul the Pharisee could not have embraced one who was considered to be under God’s curse as an apostate from the covenant, who so often took a stance over against the Torah and was worshipped by his followers.

At the heart of the chapter lies the discussion of the “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul. The former stems from Luther, who posited that Paul became a Christian because of his sense of guilt and inability to keep the law. By contrast, the “New Perspective” sees the pre-Christian Paul as one who was entirely content with his life under the law. Although far from being a perfect man, this Paul understood that God had made provision for sin by means of the sacrificial system. “When the pre-Christophany Paul sinned, the law prescribe a course of action for the forgiveness of sin. This is why Paul could say he was blameless before the law, not because he never sinned, but because when he sinned, he followed the directives to maintain his right relationship with God” (p. 68). When Paul became a Christian, he continued to identify himself as a Jew, but with one profound difference—now he believed Jesus to be Israel’s Messiah and Lord. Christianity itself was not a new religion but the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and the completion of Israel’s destiny. Next in the chapter ensues an overview of the “apocalyptic” Paul. The authors correctly set Paul within the framework of an apocalyptic/prophetic world view and rightly, in my view, argue that Paul’s turning to Christ was a genuine conversion, not simply a call to go to the Gentiles.

Chapter 3 takes up the matter of letter writing in the ancient world. The discussion is both interesting and informative. It begins with the standard treatment found in most introductions to Paul’s letters: ancient letter format, the modifications Paul made to this format, and discussion of different rhetorical styles and devices. What distinguishes this chapter is the detailed treatment of the mechanics of ancient letter writing, specifically the use of secretaries, whom authors used for various reasons. Letter writing in antiquity was a costly and time consuming enterprise. It entailed not only the writing of the document but also the preparation of materials. Moreover, the ancients valued skillful handwriting, and the craft of the secretary was more akin to calligraphy than to simple writing. In addition, the manner in which authors employed secretaries ranged from word-by-word dictation to giving the secretary a general idea of what one wanted in the letter and letting the scribe worry about the details. Such freedom may account for stylistic differences across the Pauline letters and undermine arguments about authorship based solely on style, as would the authors’ suggestion that many letters were communal rather than individual enterprises. The chapter ends with sections on the cost and mailing of letters. Most readers of Paul’s letters would be surprised at the cost of what postal services were available. Finally, there is the notation that letters could be corrected or added to even after the final draft had been written. Such practice could account for some puzzling features in several of Paul’s letters, e.g. the “finally” of Phil 3:1 and the abrupt change in tone in 2 Cor 10:1.

Chapter 3 further takes on Pauline chronology, after first addressing the question of Paul’s call and conversion. Acknowledging that Paul continued to consider himself a Jew, the authors nonetheless describe the change in his life as a “conversion,” albeit a conversion “from one kind of Judaism to another—from a Judaism of Torah and temple to a Judaism centered in the crucified and risen Christ.” Following this conclusion, the book provides a brief overview of the evidence used to determine the chronology of Paul’s life, outlining in turn the time references in the letters and in Acts and correlating them to the little external evidence that is available. A brief chronology follows, opting for some minority positions (e.g., Paul’s meeting with the Jerusalem apostles in Galatians 2 corresponds to the narrative of Acts 11) and ascribing credibility to the evidence of Acts, as well as leaving open the possibility of further ministry beyond Acts 28.

The middle six chapters are devoted to a discussion of the letters roughly in chronological sequence as submitted by the authors and according to the circumstances of Paul’s writing (itinerant ministry or imprisonment). Opting for an early date Galatians, the authors begin with this letter, addressing the north and south Galatia debate only in brief. Another chapter carries on with the Thessalonian correspondence. While conceding that the titles “1 Thessalonians” and “2 Thessalonians” need not reflect chronological sequence, they argue, nevertheless, for the canonical order as well as the chronological order. A discussion of the Corinthian correspondence follows, once again affirming the canonical order as also the chronological and treating 2 Corinthians as one integral letter rather than as composite. An entire chapter is devoted to Romans, the last of the letters written during Paul’s itinerant ministry. Two chapters on the prison letters, one for those addressed to churches (Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians) and one for those addressed to individuals (Philemon and the Pastorals), round out the treatment of the letters.

The final three chapters seek to amalgamate and apply Paul’s theology, legacy, and relevance for the contemporary church. The first half of chapter 10 discusses the Jewish roots of Paul’s theology (monotheism, election, eschatology, Torah, and temple), as well as the influence of early Christian traditions on his thought. The second half of the chapter addresses the difficulty and desirability of determining a “center” to Paul’s thought, concluding that the center is Christological monotheism constructed in narrative form in the presuppositions, traditions, arguments, and parenesis of the letters.

Chapter 11 provides an overview of various theories about how Paul’s letters came to be collected and the process of canonization. The authors conclude that the authority of the letters depends on their authenticity, including the influence of secretaries and co-writers. Chapter 12 seeks to connect the “rediscovered” Paul with contemporary Christians, giving a short outline of Paul’ reception by subsequent readers, followed by a discussion of issues on which Paul would challenge contemporary culture: race, division, poverty, politics, and sexuality. The end of the book includes a glossary, maps, bibliography, and indices.

As an undergraduate textbook, there is much to commend this volume. The “What’s More…” and “So What?” sections are welcomed features. Some of these boxes offer genuinely helpful information, such as the discussion of the importance of contemporary culture in understanding a text  like 1 Cor 11:2–34. In sum, Capes, Reeves, and Richards have managed in a single volume to provide a readable introduction to a number of important dimensions of Pauline scholarship.

Don Garlington

Latest Update

Added Paula Fredriksen’s latest book Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle to the Bibliography of the Paul Within Judaism section.

Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle

Book Review

Paula Fredriksen, Yale University Press, 2017, 336 pp.

Widely recognized for her works on Augustine and Christian origins, in her latest book Paula Fredriksen turns her full attention to the apostle Paul. She impressively develops a solid and sustained argument, starting from well-known points of consensus and carefully building on them to lead the reader through the essential points of her portrait of Paul, which is effectively encapsulated by the subtitle: “The Pagans’ Apostle.”

Why describe Paul as “apostle to the pagans” as opposed to the much more familiar “apostle to the gentiles”? Whereas she admits the anachronism of the term “pagan” in the context of the first century (p. 192, n. 6), she amply justifies her use of it, since the “distinction between ethnicity and religion is not native to Mediterranean antiquity, where gods and humans formed family groups. In Paul’s period, there was no such thing as a religiously ‘neutral’ ethnicity. For this reason – namely, that ancient people(s) were intrinsically in relation with their gods,” she writes, “I will often use the (religion-specific) ethnic term ‘pagan’ rather than the (religion-neutral) ethnic term ‘gentile’ when speaking of first-century ethnē, that is, of non-Jews” (p. 34).

This starting-point, effectively articulated in her essay in Paul within Judaism, is the touchstone that shapes her entire reconstruction of the historical Paul. Advancing the work of her colleagues (both Jewish and Christian) who are pioneering the perspective of Paul within Judaism, Fredriksen emphasizes the fact that Paul never ceased being Jewish:

Therefore, when Paul speaks against Law observance, he speaks against non-Pauline construals of gentile Judaizing, not against Jewish Torah observance; and when he speaks against circumcision, he speaks against the circumcision of gentiles, not of Jews. In short, and in this specific way, Paul rejects (some forms of) Judaizing, not (all forms of) Judaism (p. 130).

Key to supporting this interpretation is the argument that the rhetorical audience of Paul’s letters is primarily (if not exclusively) gentile, which Fredriksen persuasively demonstrates (cf. pp. 122, 155). These ex-pagans / ex-gentiles were neither “converts” (to Judaism) nor “Christians” (a label that hadn’t yet been invented; p. 117), leaving them in a “social and religious no-man’s land” in the ancient world (p. 91). Convincing gentiles to forsake their native gods and worship only the God of Israel without becoming Jews threatened the entire social order, since disrupting “relations between gods and their humans … risked divine wrath; and for this reason, both Roman magistrates and pagan populations actively resisted the apostles’ activities,” as did diaspora synagogue communities, effectively explaining Paul’s persecution (p. 168).

Fredriksen works through key passages in all the undisputed Pauline letters, from Galatians to Romans, in articulating and supporting the coherence of her reconstruction. In the process she also effectively addresses the inadequacy of the Sonderweg (“two-covenant”) proposal of earlier pioneers of this approach, recognizing that Paul’s expectations for gentiles didn’t imply two separate “paths” to salvation – Torah for Jews and Jesus for gentiles (cf. p. 231, n. 52; p. 234, n. 64). Paul believed that Jesus was the cosmic Messiah for all, and therefore was the goal of the Law for Israel, most of whom did not yet recognize it (cf. p. 166); but that doesn’t mean Paul thought Jews needed to abandon the Law or “convert” to a new “religion” the way he believed that gentiles needed to disavow idols and turn to the God of Israel (a point nicely elaborated on pp. 250,251, n. 84).

Traditional interpreters of Paul will quickly think of numerous verses to cite in contradistinction to much of what’s described above, but since it would be too laborious to walk through all Fredriksen’s treatments of these texts, I urge readers to go straight to Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle and carefully work through it cover-to-cover.

What I can say with deep appreciation is that Fredriksen has effectively addressed and resolved my own remaining exegetical concerns about the perspective of Paul within Judaism, and that it should be widely consulted as the latest in a growing number of key works (many of which have already been reviewed on The Paul Page) establishing this historically plausible reconstruction.

Mark M. Mattison

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