Latest Update

Updated the link to Paul’s Contradictions — Can They Be Resolved? by John G. Gager under the Articles section of Paul Wthin Judaism.

Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 221 pp.

The back cover promotes this book as a “compact theological primer,” a description that could be improved in accuracy as “compact biblical theological primer.” This monograph is a compilation and adaptation of lectures that were delivered to Catholic and Jewish audiences in Europe and Israel. If a reader is looking for an accessible avenue into Prof. James Dunn’s thoughts, this book is a good place to start. The book has a clear connection to these oral texts, maintaining its focus on audiences across the Christian and Jewish faiths. Prof. Dunn admits that the bulk of his work to prepare the lectures for printed publication was accessorizing it with footnotes (p. xi). This reviewer believes that it would be useful to college students, pastors, and lay church leaders.

Chapters 1-2 are a distillation of his lengthy treatment of the prehistory and character of the Gospels, which he has articulated in Jesus Remembered. Dunn continues to promote his criterion of looking for the “characteristic Jesus” rather than just the “distinctive Jesus.” This criterion issues from his presupposition that Jesus’ work, even in his own day, was influential on many people, inspiring their trust and hope. Dunn’s conviction is that the variety of Jesus-traditions, which are evident in the NT, are testimony to Jesus’ legacy and that they cannot be attributed primarily to the theological musings of the early Church. The result of his study is a basic outline of Jesus’ life (p. 20), a tracing of his life through eight essential parts from his baptism through his proclamation of the promise of the Kingdom of God and miraculous exorcisms.            

Chapters 3-4 trace the core Jesus traditions along a chronological line from Paul through the Synoptic Gospels and lastly to John. This survey begins by linking Paul’s early adaptation of euangelion  to the passion of Christ. Dunn argues that while the meaning and function of “gospel” may have some connection with the promulgation of imperial news, Paul chiefly found inspiration from Isaiah 57 and 61. Mark, who wrote after Paul, also told his gospel with a focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew and Luke, however, both made adaptations to the “gospel of Jesus” in the later decades of the first century CE and these adaptations began to focus on the life of Jesus as gospel (pp. 63-66). The Fourth Gospel again focuses on the suffering, death, and resurrection, and in fact heightens this, for example by re-positioning the cleansing of the Temple to the beginning of book (pp. 73-79).

In chapter 5, Dunn explores the questions about continuity between Jesus’ message and Paul’s. He argues here that discussions of their differences have too long dominated NT discourse and thus obscured their critical similarities. Paul’s message of realized eschatology was presaged by Jesus’ own emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God. Likewise, Jesus’ promise of a future coming of the kingdom and emphasis on the repentance of sins comports with and inspired Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles, according to Dunn. On the topic of the law, Dunn again draws a line of continuity between them, now through the use of Lev 19:18, the command of Love. While both Jesus and Paul drew lines of discrimination in their use of the Law, both saw in this elegant summary the ongoing relevance of the Law for their audiences.

Having transitioned from Jesus to Paul, the book now focuses in chs. 6-7 on identifying Paul, who it must be admitted is the most influential founder of the Christianity after Jesus. Paul lived in a transitional period in the history of Christianity, as Dunn points out. He moved the faith from a messianic Jewish sect towards a global religion. Both Paul’s work and his person have understandably ignited much controversy. That is to say that Paul himself had to transition from Pharisaic zealousness for the Torah, to one who was “dead to the Law” (Gal 2:19-20, p. 129) and was “in Christ.” Nevertheless, Dunn rightfully reminds us that Paul did not wholly forsake his Israelite identity. Dunn concludes that Paul would have resisted the charge of apostasy, because Paul believed he was fulfilling “Israel’s own apostolic mission—to be a light to the nations” (p. 146).

Dunn argues in ch. 8 that the trajectory of Paul’s work, including his conviction that the Holy Spirit’s presence confirmed his work, should be seen as an ongoing call to constructive dialogue between Jews and Christian as well as compassionate ecumenism within Christianity (pp. 162-164). On the latter count, Dunn is particularly poignant: “For Christians today are all in one degree or another in a position similar to that of Peter and the other Jewish Christians…. And in effect they make their traditions and distinctive beliefs as important as the gospel itself…” (p. 164, emphasis his).

The concluding chapter is a brief description of Paul’s legacy, the churches which he founded. Some of this discussion is historical in nature, but the author’s chief the aim here is on the theological character of the body of Christ. One must admire Prof. Dunn’s ability to make relevant the historical context of the texts to understanding better these ancient documents. In ch. 9 we see him depict how Paul’s language (ekklesia and soma) brushed the shoulders of typical political discourse, yet nonetheless parted company with it too in important practical and theological ways (see e.g. p. 172). Paul saw these new assemblies as part of the historic assembly (qahal) of YHWH God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit. Dunn’s impassioned plea, then, to his oral and written audiences is to remember the historic foundations, the gracious inclusiveness, and the Spirit led dynamism of Paul’s vision of the Church.

Again, this is an accessible and helpful book that will help many students and pastors revisit the New Testament and re-grasp the significance of the Christian faith’s two greatest founders, Jesus and Paul.

Douglas Mohrmann, Cornerstone University

New Documentary on Paul

Earlier today The Huffington Post published an article by filmmaker Robert Orlando titled A Polite Bribe: A New Narrative for Paul and the Early Church? For more information about Orlando’s documentary and a list of scholars featured in the film, see The Paul Story.

Latest Updates

Added James S. Hanson’s review of Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed by Timothy G. Gombis to the Book Reviews section under The New Perspective on Paul: Around the Web and added the book to the Bibliography.

Latest Upate

Added a link to An Offstage Perspective on the NPP by John G. Krivak in the category Around the Web: On The New Perspective.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary

Book Review

Arland J. Hultgren, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 834 pp.

Many New Testament scholars could be pressured to write a commentary on Paul’s epistle to Rome “because,” to paraphrase George Mallory, “it’s there.” For a noted scholar like Arland Hultgren, more than 50 years dedicated to interpreting, teaching, and ministry might find the primary Pauline text as more of a base-camp for a career that could not help but have Paul’s epistle ever in view, just over the horizon. For some scholars, writing a commentary on the text of Romans might be a task that is simply “there,” next in a logical progression of published work that views the epistle as a text to be “conquered.” Some attempt to write commentaries on Romans without the aid of oxygen, so to speak, in order to make theological sense out of Paul’s work without the aid of systematics. Others are committed, perhaps justifiably, to deconstructing Paul because, as prominent as Romans is — for them, it is simply “there,” waiting to be dismantled.

Hultgren indicates that, though the epistle itself presents a challenge that many scholars have taken upon themselves to master and have succeeded, he does not believe mastery indicates an end to the task. Hultgren writes his commentary from the perspective that Paul was writing with something beyond Rome, and his Epistle to the Romans, in mind. “The letter projects a theological vision for his [Paul’s] future work as he arrives in Rome… and goes on from there to Spain.” As he sees Paul writing with an eye toward the future, so Hultgren identifies both Romans, and his commentary, as more “forward thinking than retrospective” (x).

Quickly evidenced is Hultgren’s decision to organize content in a manner that favors the reader who intends to make the most of their time with the Epistle. The commentary gives ample attention to segments of the text, but does not overwhelm the readers who may be dedicating themselves to exegesis for the first time. Hultgren successfully organizes Romans into tightly packed segments full of information, appropriately brief enough to allow for a reader to be immersed in study without potentially drowning in waves of attending theological premises that often take too much attention away from the task at hand. This is accomplished in a significant, yet simple style, and one that should set an example for systematic theologians . Hultgren lays down the hermeneutical foundations for his exegesis after the fact, with eight appendices that give full attention to matters of theological significance that might otherwise distract the reader from simply sitting with the text.

Hultgren’s appendices are well-chosen. Those which are specifically of interest to readers engaged in the “New Perspective” conversations are the first, The “Righteousness of God” in Paul, and the third, which details Hultgren’s thinking on the “Pistis Christou” debate. He also dedicates a chapter to Romans 5:1. Other appendices tackle the well-worn issues of Paul and Homosexuality and “The identity of ‘I’ in Romans 7.” When I say “well-worn” it is meant to bolster the advantages of Hultgren’s after-the-fact approach. Readers who are already aware of the ink spilled over Paul and homosexuality or Paul and the subjective-objective debates will not be weighed down with an author’s need to commit space to defending an argument. Hultgren simply interprets, and a seasoned reader will readily identify where the author is coming from, or may be going to. Readers who want to know more can first get an unfettered idea of how Hultgren reads and teaches Paul. If questions exist afterwards, or if after reading the student wants to see how Hultgren arrives at his exegetical decision, the appendices offer a look at the issue with depth and attention given to the varied nuances of Pauline scholarship as related to some verses or pericopes.

Hultgren’s work would serve most any seminary student well, and should have a place made ready on the bookshelves of those individuals who are committed to thorough understandings of Romans. The author makes use of the entire spectrum of scholarly Pauline work, and it is difficult to find a perspective that is not at least referenced. As a stand- alone work, Hultgrens’ Romans is an ample overview of how Paul has come to be understood in a large segment of scholarly circles, though updated to consider more recent understandings. That being said, the commentary reads as being fully informed through Hultgren’s dedicated Lutheran lenses, and will probably be digested best with this particularity in mind (cf. 72,75).

The following are minor points of the commentary that I believe are representative of Hultgren’s overall understanding of Paul’s theology. I interpret many of his statements concerning the divine work through Jesus as being coated with a shell of future or final eschatological understandings (49-50). A few details assumed by Hultgren left me wanting to cross-reference, which space does not allow for this review. Discussing 1:15, he suggests that “there is no hint” that Paul “considers the church in Rome as in need of transformation” (67). This may be a way for Hultgren to support his view that Paul is more interested in moving beyond Rome than in ministering to a particular need of the Roman community. Hultgren infers that the apostle is not seeking to “transform the church into a Pauline church” (67). This may raise a question for some readers that might wonder why Romans takes on such pastoral overtones in so many parts of the text.

Hultgren provides a brief and well-constructed overview of the nuances of euangelion (the commentary uses Teknia font and Hultgren’s English translation). However, there is no mention of a more nuanced eschatology or soteriology that might be attributed to first-century Christian texts. The author states with certainty that “the primary way that [Paul] uses the language of salvation is to signify being saved from wrath on the day of final judgment” (73). The concern is not whether Paul believed that way, but where Paul’s thinking “as it stands” in Romans fits into the greater scheme of Hebraic, Greco-Roman, and messianic soteriology. At times, I longed for Hultgren to simply disagree with Paul. He points out once that 3:31 has “been particularly vexing to interpreters” but then appears to state that Paul should not be understood as “simply inconsistent.” On another note, Hultgren characterizes Paul as being “willing to accommodate himself to [the Roman community’s] distinct expression of faith.” For some scholars, the collected works that are attributed to Paul seem inconsistent. Yet Paul’s theology is not only inconsistent in places, even the authentic epistles can be hard to make sense of if one is looking for theological, if not simply pastoral, continuity in the Apostle’s thinking. The question remains as to whether Paul was accommodating. Of course, it is systematics that allows for sense to be made out of Paul, especially when dissecting Romans, and that, perhaps, is what Hultgren’s ultimate task is, beyond what is stated early on.

For traditionalists, Hultgren draws from his significant work on the pistis Christou debate and provides a solid, fully articulated commentary on 3:21-26 (150-166). Despite my decidedly skewed view toward the subjective genitive, Hultgren’s appendix (623-661) provides an analysis that does not allow any detail to escape and is a good resource if one is looking for a bibliography from which to start. In fact, throughout the commentary, Hultgren’s interpretative skills are displayed as being thorough, well informed by classical texts, and dedicated to guiding a reader through the process of coming to terms with the author’s perspective. He delves further into the importance of the pericope by detailing 3:25 in a separate appendix (662-675), which deals with the various understandings of hilastērion (“mercy seat”). Blood atonement is clearly the crux of Hultgren’s soteriology, and he gives significantly less time to 3:25 than to the pistis Christou issue. One of the most identifying measures of his treatment of hilastērion is his brief dismissal of the potential influence of 4 Maccabees upon Paul’s own thinking about the potential for the cross to be an articulation of suffering on behalf of righteousness (663).

One of my flaws is a tendency to go straight to a commentator’s grasp of Romans 12. Hultgren seems to have anticipated that there would be more interest in chapter 12 than he was inspired to give attention to, so he added an appendix that addresses the “Body of Christ” themes of verses 3-8. In the appendix, he mentions the existence of an ethic of mutual aid by early Christian communities, and suggests that Romans, as opposed, to, say I Corinthians 11:29 (695) is more concerned with the universal Church, or the collection of early Christian communities that are not only localized worship groups, but additionally, representatives of the church as a whole.

Hultgren quietly dismisses the prospect of Romans 12 being a unique pericope intended to deal with ethics apart from the rest of the text (435-36). He rightly states that much of the theological concern of chapters 1 – 11 includes ethical instruction, but does not see Romans 12 as adding much more than an introduction of, or transition to, a sort of wrap-up to the major part of the work. While Hultgren identifies the chapter as a piece of hortatory, it does not seem as though Paul has had much influence on his enthusiasm. Somewhat surprisingly, he introduces Chapter 12 with a comment on Paul’s ethics and their relationship to the Law. The introduction intends to inform the content of all four of the last chapters, so the nuances of the Jewish identity in opposition to gentile Christians as treated in the last parts of the letter is the subject. While this is a real concern of Paul’s, the introduction specifically deals only with Chapter 12, and that might confuse some laypersons. It left me wondering what new things Hultgren might have to say about Chapter 12. His comments did not add anything new.

The author appears to have little use for the “New Perspective” apart from acknowledging that important work has been done by others in bringing new understandings of Paul to the table of discourse. During his treatments of soteriology, my notes reveal no real identification of the correlation between Paul’s claims about Jesus and emperor cults or the exuberant and all-encompassing claims made by Caesar and the empire itself. The author makes mention of Torah observance as being much more than an identity marker, but at various places indicates that the “Law” was a vehicle which all of Judaism taught provided salvation from the wrath of the deity.

Overall, Hultgren’s work shows how thoroughly familiar he is with Romans, and that he is familiar with many of the concerns that interpreters have had for centuries. Also, he recognizes how new scholarship has added much to consider when reading and interpreting Pauline texts. Hultgren has considered the assumptions of recent scholarship. He does not appear, however, to have much use for them. Thoroughly Lutheran, Hultgren has provided Pauline scholarship with an important reference volume that will serve pastors well and provide a view of Paul that reinforces the traditions of Protestantism. I believe he would have it no other way.

Scot Miller

Latest Update

Added Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels by James D.G. Dunn to the Bibliography.

Rediscovering the Apostle Paul

Book Review

Bernard Brandon Scott, editor, Polebridge Press, 2011, 94 pp.

As the Jesus Seminar now begins to engage the questions of the historical Paul, the Polebridge Press Jesus Seminar Guides study series has published its first collection of essays committed to the subject. Those who think highly of the Seminar’s work will find this to be a helpful introduction to the diversity which exists in Pauline studies.  For interested laypersons and others who appreciate the candor of Seminar writers, the collection will facilitate discussion with easily digested material that lends itself to challenging many assumptions that a study group or religion class brings to the table of Pauline discourse. Toward this end, the guides provide a series of questions at the end meant to stimulate conversation relevant to each essay. If this is the primary purpose, the guide is a useful tool for ministers, congregations, or study groups who are looking to get beyond what contributor James Veitch identifies as the assumed saintliness of Saint Paul.

As Veitch points out, the church has too often resisted historical research due to its fear that it has too much to lose. Veitch writes, “So much of what the church had become was regularly traced back to the influence of Saint Paul… if this were found to be historically suspect then the church’s power and influence would be undermined.” (39) As such, Rediscovering the Apostle Paul explores the diversity of approaches to understanding the man, and making sense of his often conflicted writing, exhortation, and understanding of what occurred in the wake of Jesus’ ministry and execution.

While Gerd Lüdemann may be engaging in foreshadowing when he entitles his essay “Paul – An obituary,” the title does not prepare unfamiliar lay readers for Lüdemann’s Paul.  Lüdemann’s introductory biographical notes indicate that many German Protestants were unprepared for Lüdemann’s Paul, and they targeted the scholar, facilitating a dismissal from his chair at Georg-August University. If a reader is picking out Jesus Seminar materials for scholarly alternatives to the Paul of faith, however, Lüdemann’s Obituary is a good start. Identifying Paul’s transformative experience as a “radical about-face,” he indicates how radically Paul’s understanding had to change – that “Paul had never heard of a suffering messiah.” The” Damascus” experience had forced Paul to co-opt (reviewer’s words) and Christianize key passages from Isaiah to make sense of Jesus’ execution – and subsequent following – despite that fact (13). Such understandings are key to the aims of Jesus Seminar projects. Many readers interested in a new understanding of Paul do not often perceive that early messianics were forced to manipulate or re-contextualize Hebrew texts to support their claims about Jesus. Lüdemann’s essay provides an early exercise in directing readers to jettison some of their Christian assumptions if they want to add depth to their epistolary reading experience.

Lüdemann is most perceptive when he reflects on understanding the necessary nuances to reading Paul. He challenges the reader to consider that Paul is as conflicted as he or she might be, and that Paul’s diverse communities of messianic contemporaries must have often been “perplexed” by some aspects of his letters. He rightly concludes that “as [Paul’s] accomplishment’s attest, this adaptability [or “tendency toward vacillation” in a prior comment] was a good way to succeed” (19).

The fruits borne by Lüdemann’s Pauline tree are bitter. He notes the “tragic outcome of [Paul’s] work” is “Christian anti-Judaism” and he places the responsibility for anti-Semitism squarely upon Paul’s preserved body of work, if not Paul’s own shoulders. Lüdemann  challenges readers to confirm the foolishness of Paul’s first-century religious claims, and continues that such “dangerous” claims are still being made by theologians, and, in some cases, academics, that are founded in the attempt to historicize magical thinking about resurrection and add cosmic significance to such events that intend to validate the church’s teachings (21).

Heikki Räisänen’s “A controversial Jew” follows, and while the above essay deems Christian interpretations of Paul as an instigator of violence, Räisänen’s essay suggests that Paul’s evangelical success corrupted the message of Jesus (23). He suggests that the messianic Paul was an antithesis to the concept of a “good Jew” and actually displayed “animosity” toward mosaic law, as opposed to the simple “laxity” in attitudes toward Torah attributed to Hellenistic Judaism. Räisänen is most startling when he writes, “Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage was ambiguous at best” (27). Though many will identify with his assertion that it takes “resorting to tortuous interpretations of Paul” in attempting to develop a systematic Pauline theology, Räisänen stresses that it takes similar interpretive gymnastics if one is to identify Paul as a faithful Jew (27). At times, it seems Räisänen erects straw men to support his thesis that Paul is ambivalent about his Judaic heritage, such as suggesting that the lashings Paul received for messianic preaching were indicative of a monolithic “bad Jew” (29) without reference to the often assumed diversity of first-century Judaism that perpetuated a consistent interfaith argument concerning which kind of Judean was faithful, and which kind of Galilean or rabbinic “school” was not. Perhaps the concept of “Judaisms” is outdated and no longer applies to the discussion of tensions between religious authorities in historical Judaic faith.

Räisänen’s treatment of continuity and discontinuity (within the context of Hebraic texts) in Pauline understandings of messiahship is interesting, and a clearly stated definition of a working Pauline soteriology would add welcome support to his assumptions. A valuable observation about Paul is found in a statement that informs Räisänen’s  final comments.  He writes, “Paul’s arguments fluctuate back and forth, as if he is desperately trying to resolve a problem that proves too difficult” (33). This statement may reveal an important aspect of Räisänen’s hermeneutical lens. Of course, making sense of transformative “supernatural” experience is often “too difficult.”  Räisänen writes earlier (31) that Paul is “wrestling with the burning issue that Israel is not accepting his message.” Indeed, how difficult is it to sell the idea of a failed messiah as a vindicated savior? Perhaps unintentionally, Räisänen provides pastoral insight that should lighten the burden of his thesis.  Rather than taking Paul’s epistles as direct answers to specific questions, he writes, it is “helpful to look at [Paul’s] struggle as an example of our own situation as well, when embracing cultural pluralism is imperative even if the outcome…may not seem intellectually successful” (35-36).

In his essay “Spotlight on Paul,” James Veitch might be viewed as further attempting to “deconstruct” Paul’s canonization and the baggage it brings to any attempt to interpret Paul with historical integrity. As stated above, Veitch challenges the usefulness of viewing Paul’s work through a lens of centuries of Christian cultural dominance. He affirms the advances in scholarly understandings of Paul when thinkers began to recontextualize Paul within a more historically legitimate first-century Judaic setting. He credits W.D. Davies for de-christianizing Paul (47), and recognizes the importance of reading the authentic Paulines with an eye toward a narrative understanding of the apostle’s struggles to articulate a consistent gospel that makes sense of the ancient texts relative to the reality of his contemporary culture (43).

In reading John White’s “The second founder of Christianity,” even those who fully embrace the twists and turns of Jesus Seminar scholarship will find themselves reading about a more familiar Paul. He asks the important question – Is it Paul that divinized Jesus? Does White’s title assume that Jesus is the founder of a new religion? Interestingly, he asserts that Paul is a “convert” to a “Hellenistic-Christian” perspective which is further identified simply as the Greek-speaking Jewish church (51). While such assumptions will be most familiar to many readers, they might not be the most popular. Also, the question remains as to whether Paul was a “convert” to a Hellenized “church” or whether the linguistic realities of evangelism and the rejection of his gospel by Palestinian messianic communities necessitated Paul’s considerable use of Greek cultural cues.

That aside, White does an excellent job, and grasps what may be the most important aspect of connecting Paul’s evangelism directly to Jesus’ teachings, a link some find less than direct. White writes that he is “convinced that Paul’s root idea of God was fundamentally like that of Jesus. The conception that God called both to be radicals” (50). He brings an important eschatological understanding that is familiar to New Perspective students, especially those of N.T. Wright, who would agree that “Jesus did not announce the world’s cataclysmic end, yet his counter-cultural ideas about God were nonetheless ‘earth shattering’.” He recognizes that Paul’s messianic understandings are equally “striking” (53).

Of course, suggesting that Jesus and Paul were both radicals with earth shattering ideas about God does not necessarily indicate that Paul was simply affirming what Jesus and the earliest messianics were stating. It also does not indicate whether or not one can deny Räisänen’s question as to whether Paul’s striking messianic beliefs were very “Jewish.” The reader, however, should not assume these questions regarding White’s Paul indicate weaknesses in his portrait. The observations simply place his essay into an academic context that includes such critical scholarship.

Particularly attractive in White’s work is evidence of familiarity with the concept of the potential for a “non-violent” atoning work of Jesus and the potential for Pauline reflections to be interpreted as such (54, 60). He provides an astute interpretation of Galatians 5:2ff and Philippians 3:2-3, refusing to identify Paul’s anti-circumcision polemic as “anti-jewish,” but affirming that it is more likely an attack on the idolatrous nature of Hellenist Christians following the example of popular mystery religions that tended to mystify identity markers and ritual as a means of facilitating socializing instead of obedience or faithfulness to the Abrahamic God (58). More attractive is the way in which White pulls together the conflicted nuances of Pauline “theology” by tying them together as part of an overarching narrative that centered around the God of Abraham and Sarah, an almost fully realized eschatology, and Paul’s ability to see a continuity between God, the covenant with Abraham, the radical work of Jesus, and his rather “strikingly” transformed messianic understandings.

While Veitch and White write with evidence of an understanding of Paul that does not indict him as the initiating force of continuing morally criminal acts on behalf of a failed messiah, they do affirm that Paul believed he was acting within a belief that the God of Israel had acted in history and changed the balance of power between good and evil, and that he was personally chosen as an envoy of salvation. Critical readers without a relationship to traditional beliefs may have a hard time wrapping their heads around such thinking and still taking Paul seriously as a thinker.

Both Veitch and White, along with the other contributors to this Jesus Seminar guide, wholly ignore those aspects of Pauline studies that deal with the reality of Rome and imperial economics (traditionally conflicting truth claims that were ever-present engines for Judean anti-occupation insurgencies) and the liberating aspects of Israelite narratives in the face of consistent challenges to Palestinian Judaism and its attending assumptions of self-determination. Whether future Jesus Seminar works concerning Paul will include this perspective remains to be seen. However, this collection of essays is sure to get discussions of Paul rolling in church lounges, college libraries, and “Free-Thought” societies everywhere.

 Scot Miller

The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning

Book Review

Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, Polebridge Press, 2010, 270 pp.

Those who appreciated the fresh and edgy translation of the Scholars Version of the Gospels will be thrilled with the Westar Institute’s latest published translation, The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Four of the translators of the SV Gospels collaborated to produce this latest work: Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover (co-author of The Five Gospels), Lane C. McGaughy, and the late Daryl D. Schmidt, one of the general editors of the Scholars Version for The Complete Gospels and coordinator for the present translation. Their work on Paul is easily as bold and innovative as the earlier work on the Gospels.

Though not as attractively presented as The Complete Gospels, The Authentic Letters of Paul is nevertheless well designed and ideally suited for a more broad public audience — though scholars will enjoy it as well. The accessibility of the volume is a key asset, providing interested readers with the necessary tools to reimagine better how Paul’s words may have been received in their original context. The translators have worked hard to distance “the authentic Paul” from subsequent layers of tradition, from canonical layers (including the deutero-Paulines, the Pastoral Epistles, and Acts) to the later church councils and even the Reformation. In doing so they present the widely agreed-upon genuine Pauline texts in chronological order and even reorganize the texts of 2 Corinthians and Philippians to demonstrate how they might have been read as collections of letters prior to their consolidation in their current form. Texts suspected of being later, non-Pauline interpolations are removed from their canonical context and included as appendices to the letters, better illustrating how Paul’s letters would originally have looked assuming the conclusions of many biblical scholars. Informative introductory essays, cameo essays, annotations, and a helpful glossary explaining key terms nicely round out the volume, making it a worthy sequel to the SV Gospels.

Many conventions of the SV Gospels have been retained. For instance, the translators have continued to use the more literal and descriptive “Anointed” instead of “Christ.” However, there are some noteworthy changes. For example, what was “God’s imperial rule” in the SV Gospels has become more eloquently “the Empire of God” in SV Paul. The SV Paul translators have also abandoned the SV Gospels’ substitution of “Judean” for “Jew.” The SV Gospels had originally intended the substitution as a corrective to anti-semitism, but critics of that type of substitution (like A.-J. Levine) have argued that it de-Judaizes the New Testament and inadvertently fuels anti-semitism anyway. The move to “Jew” and “Jewish” will doubtless be welcome among many.

Another notable shift is the move away from the term “Father” for God. Occasionally “Father” has simply been left untranslated (as in Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:4), but it is otherwise rendered as “benefactor” (Rom. 15:6), “Benefactor” (2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31), “great benefactor” (Phil. 1:2; 2:11), “Great Benefactor” (Rom. 1:7; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 4:20), “creator and benefactor” (Philem. 3), and “Creator and Benefactor” (1 Cor. 1:3; 8:6; 15:24; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1,3; 3:11,13). The word “Father” is still used with “Abba” in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, however, and is also retained in 2 Corinthians 6:18, which is part of a passage that has been set aside as a non-Pauline interpolation. By using terms like “Benefactor” instead of “Father” in the majority of cases, the SV Paul translators have managed to accomplish two things simultaneously. These terms not only provide non-gender-specific references for contemporary readers, they accurately reflect the concept of the paterfamilias in Greco-Roman culture as well. “Benefactor,” then, is both accurate to the intent of the original and effective as a contemporary term.

As in the Synoptics of the SV Gospels, the SV Paul translators continue to render pistis as “trust” rather than “faith,” but with some additional rhetorical flourishes intended to draw out the fuller significance of Paul’s usage, like “confidence in and total reliance upon God” (Rom. 4:5) and “complete confidence and unconditional trust in God” (Rom. 10:8). Whereas in general the shift in emphasis is laudable, nevertheless these lengthy phrases seem slightly awkward as translations of a single Greek term.

In a cameo essay on Galatians 2:16, the SV translators also describe what has become the consensus understanding of the genitive in pistis christou as subjective rather than objective (contra nearly every Bible version since 1881). However, they shift from a christological focus of pistis back to an anthropological focus by rendering phrases like “the faith of Jesus” and “the faith of Christ” (Gal. 2:16) with translations like “a confidence in God like that of Jesus” and “a confidence like that of God’s Anointed” (emphasis mine). In other words, instead of emphasizing the efficacy of Jesus’ faithfulness in the divine act of justification, the translators still emphasize the efficacy of the individual’s faith (trust). What distinguishes their interpretation from the objective genitive interpretation is that the individual’s trust is not directed toward Christ but toward God in the same way that Christ trusted God.

The SV Paul translators distance Paul from the Reformation’s later interpretation in other concrete ways, most notably in their articulation of the new perspective on Paul. A cameo essay (pp. 149,150) explains Paul’s Damascus Road experience in terms of a prophetic calling as opposed to a religious conversion, and the term “the works of the law” is rendered as “traditional religious practices,” reflecting the portrayal of “works” as sociological “boundary markers” like circumcision, food laws, and holy days.

The translators have also labored hard to illustrate the distance between Paul and Nicene orthodoxy. In the case of the Holy Spirit, this has resulted in a wide variety of alternative phrases intended to convey the idea of God’s Spirit as a power or principle as opposed to a “person” in the Nicene sense. Occasionally “Spirit” is left untranslated (as in 1 Cor. 2:12; Gal. 3:5) or rendered something like “spirit of goodness” (1 Thess. 4:8), “God-empowered life” (Gal. 6:8), or even “charismatic fervor” (1 Thess. 5:19), but many other phrases have loosely been used to translate “Spirit” or “Holy Spirit,” including “God’s presence and power” (Rom. 5:5; 8:5; 14:7; 1 Cor. 2:4,10,13; 3:16; 2 Cor. 3:17,18; 5:5; Gal. 3:2,3,14), “God’s power and presence” (Rom. 8:16,27; Gal. 5:17,18), “presence and power of God” (Rom. 15:13,30; 1 Cor. 6:11,19; Phil. 1:19), “power and presence of God” (Rom. 8:11; 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:22; 1 Thess. 1:5,6), “God’s power and purpose” (Rom. 8:6,9), “power and purpose of God” (Rom. 8:14), “God’s purity and power” (Rom. 15:16), “God’s power” (Rom. 8:23,26; 1 Cor. 12:7,8; Gal. 4:29; 5:22,25), “power of God” (Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 12:4,11,13; 2 Cor. 3:3; Gal. 5:5), “the authentic power of God” (1 Cor. 12:3), “the presence of God’s power” (Rom. 15:19; Gal. 5:16), “God’s powerful presence” (2 Cor. 13:13), “divine power” (1 Cor. 12:8,9,13), and even “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 7:40) and “the hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 2:14; 6:16).

With respect to christology, the SV Paul translators have also endeavored to illustrate the distance between Paul and Nicea in a variety of ways. The Philippians hymn (Phil. 2:6ff) is interpreted in terms of “Adam Christology” (i.e., comparing Jesus to Adam), not in terms of divine preexistence. Although not necessarily reflecting the consensus view on the Philippians hymn, the SV Paul translators have provided a thoughtful cameo essay arguing their case (which interestingly doesn’t reference the work of James D.G. Dunn). Romans 9:5b is translated as an independent doxology to God rather than an ascription of deity to Jesus, and 2 Corinthians 8:9 is flagged as a possible non-Pauline interpolation. SV Paul doesn’t capitalize the word “lord,” and “son of God” is included in quotation marks to set it off as “a title of honor given upon the enthronement of Jesus in the heavens” (p. 30). Their overall depiction of Paul’s christology is therefore consistently adoptionist instead of incarnational.

A project as ambitious as this one deserves close scrutiny and consideration. New questions and intriguing suggestions emerge from nearly every page. Nevertheless, the translation has some distracting inconsistencies. The translators are not consistent, for example, in using inclusive language over generic masculine language. More often than not, the translation favors the generic masculine (as in Rom. 4:8; 8:24; 10:16; 12:20; 1 Cor. 8:2,11; 10:12,28b,29,34) but sometimes uses inclusive language instead (as in Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 8:12,13; 11:28a,29). In Romans 14:10 the word adelphon is first rendered as “brother” and then as “sister”: “Why do you criticize your brother (adelphon)? Or why do you look down on your sister (adelphon)?” By contrast, the NRSV renders it, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?” SV Paul arguably accomplishes the same gender balance in this verse with more elegance. By contrast, it’s distracting to see adelphos rendered as “brother” in 1 Corinthians 8:11 and then as “brothers and sisters” immediately thereafter in vv. 12 and 13. A choice to do one or the other may have been preferable.

This ambiguity interestingly extends to language about God. Whereas the vast majority of Bible translations favor masculine pronouns for God, SV Paul usually avoids gendered pronouns for God altogether (as in Rom. 4:21; 9:18,19,23-25; 11:2,21,22,32,33-36; 1 Cor. 8:3; 1 Thess. 1:10), but inconsistently lapses into masculine pronouns for God on occasion (as in 1 Cor. 2:9,16; Gal. 1:15; 1 Thess. 2:12). It’s particularly distracting when the divine pronoun is conspicuously avoided in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and then used just across the page in 2:12. Again, it would seem preferable to choose one convention or the other rather than to switch back and forth.

The documentation of sources is also inconsistent. Several essays are amply annotated whereas others aren’t annotated at all. The lack is particularly glaring in the otherwise helpful introductory essay to 2 Corinthians, where the translators articulate the partition theory of Günther Bornkamm, but the reader wouldn’t know that or even what other partition theories are on offer since the only academic references in the essay are vague appeals to “many scholars.” This is not to say that their partition theory is wrong or even implausible, only that it would seem prudent to mention other theories.

It also seems awkward to read on several occasions that the Acts of the Apostles does not provide any reliable biographical information about the life of Paul (pp. 2,3,9-13,71,72), and then to read that “After a stay [in Corinth] of about eighteen months, Paul went to Ephesus where he stayed for about three years” (p. 73) – data found only in the book of Acts.

Despite these oversights and inconsistencies, however, the reader is guaranteed to be enlightened and challenged. The Authentic Letters of Paul is an easy and pleasant read as well as an educational one. Even readers who don’t accept all of the provocative conclusions of the SV Paul translators will find themselves much better informed about what critical biblical scholarship has often concluded about Paul – and why. Consequently, this stimulating volume should be considered a must-read.

Mark M. Mattison

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