Latest Updates

Added N.T. Wright’s latest three books to the Bibliography under The New Perspective on Paul: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, and Pauline Perspectives. Also added Douglas J. Moo’s review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to the Book Reviews section.

Latest Update

Added a link to 1 Corinthians Bible Study Index – Reta’s Reflections by Reta Halteman Finger on the Articles page under Paul and Empire. This collection of articles from Christian Feminism Today situates Paul’s Corinthian correspondence in its cultural context.

West Michigan Academic Consortium Conference: Religious Polemics and Religious Fairness

Calvin Theological Seminary

3233 Burton Street SE Grand Rapids MI 49546

Tuesday October 15, 2013

This day-long conference will feature Dean Margaret Mitchell, Ph.D. as the keynote speaker. Dr. Mitchell is the Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a literary historian of ancient Christianity. Her research and teaching span a range of topics in New Testament and early Christian writings up through the end of the 4th century, with a special interest in the Pauline letters, the poetics and politics of ancient biblical interpretation, and the intersection of text, image, and artifact in the fashioning of early Christian culture.

Dean Mitchell is the author of four books: Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation (1991), The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (2000), The “Belly-Myther” of Endor: Interpretations of 1 Kingdoms 28 in the Early Church (2007), and Paul, the Corinthians and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (2010).

Recent articles include “The Poetics and Politics of Christian Baptism in the Abercius Monument” (2011), “The Continuing Problem of Particularity and Universality within the corpus Paulinum: Chrysostom on Romans 16:3″ (2011) and “Peter’s ‘Hypocrisy’ and Paul’s: Two ‘Hypocrites’ at the Foundation of Earliest Christianity?”(2012).

2013 Consortium Conference Schedule

9:30am Registration and Coffee

10:30am – 12:30pm Morning Keynote Lecture “Pauline Polemics in Galatians and Their After Effects”

12:30pm – 1:45pm Lunch Break (Optional $10 Lunch Available)

2:00pm-3:00pm Breakout Session I

3:00pm – 3:30pm Refreshment Break

3:30pm – 4:30pm Breakout Session II

4:30pm – 6:30pm Dinner Break (Optional $20 Dinner Available)

6:30pm – 7:00pm Coffee and Mini-Dessert Buffet

7:00pm – 8:30pm Evening Lecture “Playing with Fire – Talking About Religion in Public”

Click here to register for the 2013 Academic Consortium Conference

Latest Updates

Added David G. Horrell’s review of Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context an Coherence of Pauline Ethics by James W. Thompson to the Book Reviews section under The New Perspective on Paul: Around the Web and added the book to the Bibliography.

Latest Update

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

Book Review

Ben Witherington III, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 341 pp.

Ben Witherington shares a special insight in the introduction to his 2011 commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. He writes: “Words such as grace, faith, and believe occur rarely, and the verbs for salvation or the terms for hope occur not at all,” whereas “the singularly most frequent word group involves the nouns and verbs for joy” (2). It cannot be lost on a reader that the letter is believed to be authored by Paul while he is imprisoned. Additionally, Witherington makes the reader well aware that sacrifice, whether it be risking prison, risking social status, or accepting a measure of humility is counterculture to the themes of power and status in Greco-Roman communities. Perhaps the most important element of his commentary is his consistent reminder to the reader that to be Christ-like is to suffer, and to suffer on behalf of the Christ is to be considered a joy – and an ethic that allows the church to fulfill its mission in the world.

Witherington identifies Philippi as an important place to start a church. Though we see some evidence of tension in his thinking throughout the book, he states that Philippi was established as sort of Rome in microcosm (5). All laws and customs were thoroughly Roman, as were the customs. Roman citizenship was normative, and these citizens were protected by a significant number of Roman soldiers. Witherington comments that citizenship may have created a distraction for many of the members of the local church who may have spent an ample amount of time resolving differences between the ethics of Christ and the obligations of Roman citizenship.

He begins with an overview of Greco-Roman letter-writing form. By considering the content of Paul’s letter firmly within the social context of the church in Philippi, a reader can begin to participate in the author’s examination of what is undoubtedly an overview of Christian ethics founded in the kenotic behaviors of not only Jesus but Paul himself (76). Witherington’s first evidence of the nature in which Paul identifies himself as relating his own ethical choices to those of Jesus is the manner of letter which Paul writes. It is not a letter between friends, writes Witherington, but a familial letter in which the Apostle is offering parental guidance to a church that is finding its members at odds with one another, with much of the concern centering on status issues. Notably, there is not much of the Paul of Corinthians in this epistle, but a Paul that finds it most useful to use positive images of discipleship (citizenship in heaven) and the joy that arises from being both humble and faithful, or should, all because it is an ethic that will be vindicated. Negative circumstances will ultimately lead to the widespread dissemination of the gospel (74).

Witherington provides readers with a well-written, readable, and informative commentary on Philippians, and most importantly, it may offer some fresh – and refreshing – insights to readers who have tended to shy away from social and  literary commentaries due to what some might deem controversial conclusions of other social/rhetorical commentators. Two aspects of the commentary might make this evident to readers who are familiar with the New Perspective, favor such an understanding of Paul, or are invested in progressive theological outcomes that are perceived to be facilitated through the New Perspective.

One thing that stands out, or should, is the high Christology that undergirds Witherington’s understanding of Paul and the Pauline corpus, authentic or otherwise. He writes with an assumption that Trinitarian thinking is at the center of Paul’s thinking (85, 120, 136), and that Christ has not only a literal “Father – Son” kinship tie but that Jesus as Messiah, in Paul’s mind, means a deified Jesus. A reader who has some interest in Christological variety might identify the next concern for New Perspective thinkers. There is some evidence in the commentary that Witherington will show ambivalence or outright conflict with New Perspective approaches since some such understandings of Paul may conflict with what seems to be a necessarily high Christology if his Trinitarian assumptions are to be maintained with integrity.

This is most apparent in Witherington’s view of Pauline anti-imperialism, a view that ultimately declares that Paul is exhorting the Philippians to be better Roman citizens through the same kenosis that he suggests for healthy church relationships.  In light of the authentic Pauline epistles, it is rather difficult to conclude that Paul felt model citizenship would trump Christian faithfulness. There is no record of Paul’s concern for the health of Rome outside of its being successfully evangelized to accept its new relegated status under Christ. Witherington challenges the trajectory of New Perspective studies of Christ and empire by suggesting that the tensions between the two realms is not properly balanced by many scholars. In fact, he affirms the worth of Roman culture by stating that “there are some things in that culture that are noble, true, and of good repute” and suggests that Paul is indicating such (107).

He consistently vacillates between rightly identifying Paul’s concern for the claims of Caesar, only to be followed by a toning down of the importance of that theme (cf. e.g., 106, 167). In numerous places he seems to identify an anti-imperial strain in Paul’s writing, only to diminish its overall importance to any understanding of the social context in Philippi – even though Paul is communicating from prison for crimes thought to be representative of Christian conflict with the imperial cult. It appears as though Witherington resolves his own tensions by calling the church to an ethic of kenotic relationships within its own community as a means of being  better Roman citizens, a citizenship which will soon become irrelevant upon Christ’s return. At that point, citizenship in heaven will realize its full potential.

Witherington writes best when discussing themes of kenosis as a church ethic, allowing for nuances of the never-ending pistis christou conversations to inform his understandings of the text, though he does not recognize the related contributions of the New Perspective. Witherington reflects the subjective strain of thought when discussing New Testament soteriology within the text (107) and importantly summarizes a theology of suffering that is reminiscent of Yoder when he writes that suffering that is expected of Christians is suffering for the truth of the gospel, and this suffering results in joy. Not only does the nature of the gospel involve suffering; an ethic of kenosis makes such suffering a voluntary notion that is undertaken with a measure of joy (108-9).

There is never a problem in identifying moments and substantial measures of good theology within Witherington’s commentary, and there is always value in scholarship that properly reflects on the matter of “Christ in culture” during the first century of the church. A notable moment in Witherington’s commentary is the manner in which he offers a sort of summation of kenotic understandings among early Christians. He writes: “It would not have been shocking to Gentiles to hear that their god had taken on human form. They had heard such stories about Zeus… But to be told that their God had chosen to become a slave among humans – that was a very different story, a shocking story because it deconstructed everything they thought was written in stone about the hierarchical nature of reality and relationships” (148).

Scot Miller

Latest Update

Added Arthur J. Dewey’s review of Four Views on the Apostle Paul ed. by Michael F. Bird to the Book Reviews section of The New Perspective on Paul: Around the Web.

Latest Updates

Minor maintenance — fixed some broken links.

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity

Book Review

James D. Tabor, Simon & Schuster, 2012, 320 pp.

Books that challenge conventional wisdom and provoke spirited dialogue can be much more valuable than books that simply reiterate popular opinion or buttress our own personal convictions. James D. Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty, has provided just such a book in his latest Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity. Although this book is intended for the general public instead of scholars, nevertheless anyone invested in the question of Paul and Christian origins should find this book to be particularly stimulating.

Tabor’s argument seems most compelling in its historical depiction of Paul in stark contrast with James and the Jerusalem apostles. He persuasively demonstrates the degree to which the author of the Acts of the Apostles champions Paul over against James; although Luke clearly knew about James the brother of Jesus from his sources (cp. Mark 6:3 with Luke 4:22; Mark 15:47 with Luke 23:55), nevertheless he never even mentions James until he inexplicably introduces him as the undisputed leader of the Christian movement at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:13-21 (p. 33). This discussion effectively sets the stage for a serious reconsideration of Paul’s strained relationship with Jesus’ immediate disciples in the struggle over apostolic legitimacy and authority within nascent Christianity.

In the pages that follow, Tabor succinctly articulates the difference between the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul and the Hebrew concept of the resurrection of the dead, taking particular issue with N.T. Wright’s concept of the “spiritual” resurrection body (cf. particularly p. 250, n. 18). Tabor’s acute distinction between spiritual resurrection and physical resurrection in chapter 2 paves the way for an extended discussion of the trajectory of the New Testament’s resurrection accounts in chapter 3. After extensively arguing for the late provenance of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, Tabor reiterates his uncomfortably convenient theory that the empty tomb can best be explained by a lack of coordination between the women who visited Jesus’ temporary resting place early Sunday morning, and Joseph of Arimathea, who had moved Jesus’ body the previous evening (p. 77). On the other hand, Tabor’s argument that Jesus’ resurrection appearances were experienced by his disciples in Galilee (following the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Peter) rather than Jerusalem (following the Gospels of Luke and John) does seem plausible.

Paul’s experience of the risen Christ is then described in spiritual terms analogous to that of the original apostles (pp. 84,87,88), but emphasizing the uniqueness of Paul’s self-understanding (chapter 4). In the central chapters that follow, Tabor articulates Paul’s gospel in spiritualizing terms without engaging the new perspective on Paul or the more recent studies firmly locating Paul within the context of Judaism. He does briefly mention the argument that Paul’s negative language about Torah is to be understood with reference to Gentiles, but all too summarily dismisses it by citing Paul’s use of first person plural pronouns (p. 211). Tabor’s approach to Paul is very much at home with the language of 2 Corinthians 3, with particular emphasis on discontinuity between the “old covenant” and the “new covenant” (cf. pp. 17, 96, 97, 210). “Simply put, the implication of what Paul teaches is no less than the demise of Judaism” (p. 183). He seems particularly keen to portray Paul as a supersessionist (cf. pp. 180, 182, 201) over against a more original Christianity discernible in Q, the New Testament letter of James, and the Didache of the Twelve Apostles, and reflected in the later fourth-century Pseudo-Clementines (cf. pp. 224,225).

Though Tabor clearly subscribes to the view that Paul was the “second” founder of Christianity (p. 178), however, this reviewer nevertheless appreciates the nuance with which that perspective is described. Although Tabor writes that “Christianity, as we came to know it, is Paul and Paul is Christianity” (p. 24), he is nevertheless just as comfortable writing about a “Christianity before Paul” (p. 9) and a non-Pauline Christianity (p. 25), describing the voice of James the brother of Jesus as “every bit as ‘Christian’ as that of Paul” (p. 39). The language of multiple diverse “Christianities” is arguably more helpful than language implying a monolithic Pauline “Christianity” as over against “Judaism.”

Unfortunately, this book does contain some errors that should have been corrected before going to print. The most glaring include the statement on page 29 that the Acts of the Apostles has 24 chapters (it has 28) and the statement on page 34 that the Nag Hammadi library dates to the third century (it dates to the fourth). Other typos include missing commas on page 32, ostensibly turning a list of eleven apostles into a list of nine. These types of oversights are, fortunately, few and far between. Otherwise, Paul and Jesus is a welcome and spirited contribution to the ongoing debate about the place of Paul in the development of the religion of Christianity as we know it today.

Mark M. Mattison

Initial Reflections on “A Polite Bribe”

On November 18, during the 2012 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, I finally got the chance to view the long-awaited documentary by filmmaker Robert Orlando, A Polite Bribe, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Orlando has proven to be a vigorous dialogue partner over the last ten years, since the time of his submission of his book review of John Gager’s Reinventing Paul to The Paul Page in 2002. I interviewed him about his preliminary work on his Paul documentary in 2005 and have described his progress periodically on The Paul Page ever since. Over the years we’ve discussed everything from Pauline studies to editing screenplays to writing science fiction.

Perhaps the most salient thing I can say about Robert is that he exudes a nearly unparalleled enthusiasm for his work and intensity for the integrity of his project, which successfully achieves a unique and seamless blend of cutting-edge Pauline scholarship and narrative storytelling that’s unsurpassed in both the academy and the studio. In my personal opinion, A Polite Bribe is a singular triumph that has the potential to appeal to the broadest possible audience, from committed evangelical Christians to critical biblical scholars to followers of different faiths and even no faith at all. It’s a human story that works for all of us precisely because it doesn’t preach to any choir or tell us what to think about faith or dogma, but rather focuses with laser-like precision on the paradoxical story of Paul the man and his famously ambivalent relationship with the Judean apostles which was largely obscured by later generations of Christians.

Much of the narrative is driven by over thirty of the most prestigious Christian and Jewish academics in the field, drawn from over fifty hours of interviews conducted since 2005. The voices represented are notably diverse, ranging from evangelicals like Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright to liberals like Gerd Lüdemann and a host of widely recognized scholars in between. The extensive cast of commentators includes other luminaries like John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, Elaine Pagels, and Alan Segal, among many others. The most compelling plot points of the film have been stitched together from these variegated perspectives to propel the storyline through Paul’s many struggles and conflicts toward the inevitable tragic conclusion, Paul’s fateful and ambiguous demise.  The multi-media experience is nicely rounded out by a haunting but graceful soundtrack, impressive special effects, and graphic illustrations which mitigate the need for the corny types of dramatizations with which historical documentaries like this are too often saddled.

Several of the scholars included in the film were also present at the Chicago screening, including Neil Elliott, Victor Paul Furnish, Larry Hurtado, and Robert Jewett, some of whom contributed to additional discussion which was moderated by Robert himself after the film. I look forward to spending more time with the DVD and the forthcoming book to dig further into the storyline and interact with the narrative, but my initial impression is that this narrative accurately dramatizes the scholarly consensus in a way never seen before.

I think the overall story is solid, though I may differ with respect to some of the details, the most notable of which is the point that Robert has identified as the crux of Paul’s story – the Jerusalem agreement. Personally I’ve been persuaded by Bruce Longenecker’s argument against the consensus view that the agreement reflected in Galatians 2:10 formed the basis of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church among the Gentile churches. Another point of difference that stands out to me involves Paul’s work among the Corinthians. Most scholars recognize the problematic composition of 2 Corinthians, though there’s less consensus on how to unravel the Corinthian correspondence. However, I’m personally confident that the highly polemical chapters of 2 Corinthians 10-13 historically preceded at least 2 Corinthians 1:1-2:13; 7:5-9:15, if not all of 1:1-9:15; in short, I agree with the widespread view that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is part of the “letter of tears” described in 2 Corinthians 2:1-4; 7:12. As I recall, the film depicts Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians ending on a sour note, which not only follows the canonical sequence but also feeds into the film’s larger narrative. On the other hand, Robert did warn in advance that some of the narrative detail needed to be simplified in order to keep the film to a manageable length, so it may be premature to raise questions such as these.

Regardless of these more detailed questions, however, the film is unquestionably dead-on with respect to the most crucial events, such as the Antioch incident and what is widely believed to be James’ rejection of Paul’s Gentile collection (a conclusion fueled in part by Luke’s deafening silence about the collection in Acts, a silence which is otherwise inconceivable given the emphatic importance accorded to the collection in Paul’s own letters). The reaction of the Judean believers toward Paul described in Acts 21:20ff becomes all the more acutely pronounced as a result, and through its narrative approach A Polite Bribe manages to epitomize the essence of that conflict in a unique way. This is perhaps the signature achievement of Robert’s documentary with respect to telling Paul’s story in a fresh light, and the most likely to open up larger social questions.

Ultimately, however, the greatest value of this film is that unlike other popular biblical films (like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), A Polite Bribe isn’t likely to shut down dialogue but rather to inspire it, both within Christian churches and across social and religious boundaries. The reflection and conversation certain to be generated by this film will undoubtedly inform and enrich everyone who encounters it, regardless of the issues and concerns they may (or may not) bring to it.

Mark M. Mattison

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