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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In this Amazon Kindle book you can read about how Paul:

  • Justified the margins of his handwritten scrolls by faith
  • Pursued his financial strategy by investing first in “the stock of Israel” (Phil. 3:5, KJV) then in “bonds in Christ” (Phil. 1:13, KJV)
  • Approached the Jew first and then the computer Geek

Perfect for church bulletins, newsletters, Sunday School classes, or even (if you dare) sermon anecdotes, this book comes complete with an extensive Scripture index. If you like jokes that are so bad they’re good, then order your copy today!

Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World

Book Review

Bruce W. Longenecker, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010, 400 pp.

It is widely agreed that the apostle Paul’s theological reflections had little to do with social structures and economic issues. This consensus, however, is increasingly being subjected to closer scrutiny.  More recently, Bruce W. Longenecker’s monumental book, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World challenges long-held assumptions about Paul’s attitudes toward poverty and wealth, demonstrating convincingly that contrary to popular opinion, legitimate concern for the poor was integral to Paul’s understanding of the good news. Chapter 1, “Paul’s Alleged Disregard for the Poor,” articulates the consensus view and sets the stage for the arguments of the following sections.

The book is divided into two sections. Chapters 2 through 5 comprise the first section, “The Poor in their Ancient Places,” an analysis of poverty and charitable initiatives in the Greco-Roman world. The remaining chapters, 6 through 13, “The Poor in Pauline Places,” explores every relevant aspect of poverty in Paul’s conception and ministry. These are followed by three appendices, “An Early Critique of Steven J. Freisen’s 2004 Poverty Scale,” “Non-Pauline Configurations of Generosity and the Mosaic Law,” and “Dating the Origin of Paul’s Collection.”

Chapter 2, “Advanced Agrarianism and Elite Acquisitiveness,” summarizes familiar territory, including Gerhard E. Lenski’s outline of advanced agrarian cultures in his 1966 book Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this section, chapter 3, “Scaling Poverty in the Greco-Roman World,” together with the additional argumentation of Appendix 1, models a foundational metric for studying economic stratification in the Roman empire. His concern is to avoid simplistic binary conceptions of the distribution of wealth. He does this by building on Steven J. Friesen’s seven-point poverty scale (relabeled “economy scale” by Longenecker). However, since Friesen’s proposed distribution of the population along that scale is indebted to Moses Finley, Longenecker proposes modifications that take into account the growing evidence (including the archaeological record) that technological innovation drove some economic growth in the first two centuries, meaning the empire’s economy wasn’t as stagnant as a binary scale would imply.

Though suggesting more of a spread across the economic stratification of the empire, however, Longenecker rightly avoids the anachronism of an ancient “middle class,” “since the notion of ‘class’ itself is a relatively modern construct, grounded in Marxist analysis – at least in the sense of a ‘class’ consisting of an identifiable stratum of society with a relatively stable shared profile and common socio-economic interests in relation to wealth production. As Thomas Francis Carney notes well, the Roman world was generally founded on the principles of patronage, not class stratification” (p. 55). Instead of a hypothetical “middle class,” Longenecker writes more realistically of “middling groups.” Based on his discussion on pp. 44-53,317-332, Longenecker develops an economy scale (again, a modified version of Friesen’s poverty scale) that looks like this:

Scale Description Includes %
ES1 Imperial elites imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families, a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons 3
ES2 Regional or provincial elites equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers
ES3 Municipal elites most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants
ES4 Moderate surplus some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans 15
ES5 Stable near subsistence level (with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum level to sustain life) many merchants and traders, regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, some farm families 27
ES6 At subsistence level (and often below minimum level to sustain life) small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (esp. those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small shop/tavern owners 30
ES7 Below sustenance level some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day laborers, prisoners 25


This model is intended to provide biblical scholars with a more precise tool and greater clarity in studies of wealth and poverty with respect to early Christianity, and throughout the book Longenecker consistently demonstrates its usefulness.

Chapter 4, “Charitable Initiatives in the Greco-Roman World,” examines the consensus that “care for the poor was virtually absent in the ancient world prior to the rise of Christianity” (p. 60). Though largely confirming the consensus, he nuances it by demonstrating that charitable practices, however negligible, nevertheless did exist in Greco-Roman society apart from Judaism and Christianity. If anything, some concern for the poor would explain the attractiveness of Christian values. Chapter 5, “Judeo-Christian Theological Traditions,” turns to the scriptural record, particularly the Jewish and non-Pauline Christian traditions which strongly affirm care for the poor as an integral part of service to Israel’s deity.

The second section of the book is even more interesting. Chapter 6, “Care for the Poor in Paul’s Communities,” is central in demonstrating Paul’s concern for the poor, particularly (though not exclusively) as exhibited in 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, as well as in early traditions about Paul (including the deutero-Paulines, the Pastoral Epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla). This chapter in particular invites close attention.

The middle of the book, chapters 7 through 9, deals almost exclusively with the key text of Galatians 2:10, wherein Paul relates that James, Cephas, and John, the “acknowledged pillars” of the Jerusalem church, “asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (NRSV). This is perhaps the most compelling and innovative contribution of Longenecker’s book, and the most thorough deconstruction of a widespread consensus in biblical scholarship. In chapter 7, “Interpretive Paradigms in Conflict,” he meticulously describes the ubiquitous belief, virtually unquestioned by most, that “the poor” in the agreement of Galatians 2:10 were specifically the Jerusalem poor, and that this was the basis for Paul’s collection among the gentile churches for the Jerusalem church. He traces this consensus all the way back to the fourth century, to Ephrem the Syrian (306-73), Jerome (329-420), and John Chrysostom (347-407 CE). However, he notes that writers prior to the fourth century, including Tertullian, Origen, and Athanasius (and even Aphrahat in the early fourth century) appear unaware of the consensus view, interpreting “the poor” of Galatians 2:10 as the poor in general, not simply the poor of Jerusalem. This chapter includes a careful consideration of the proposed identification of “the poor” with the Ebionites, which Longenecker persuasively deconstructs (following Leander Keck). “It is noteworthy,” he writes, “and arguably more than a simple coincidence, that the earliest extant identification of ‘the poor’ of Gal 2:10 with Jerusalem Jesus-followers arises only in the second half of the fourth century and the early fifth century (in the works of Ephrem, Jerome and Chrysostom), who were writing in the wake of the spurious linking of Ebionism with early Jewish Jesus-followers in Jerusalem” (p. 172).

Chapter 8, “The Poor in the Mission of the Early Jesus-movement,” is centrally concerned with a close analysis of the syntax and structure of Galatians 2:10 in its rhetorical context, and chapter 9, “The Poor in the Rhetoric of Galatians,” fleshes out the implications of a broader application in the context of Paul’s overarching argument in the epistle. The combined effect of chapters 7 through 9 is a devastating critique of the consensus view and a strong affirmation of Paul’s commitment to alleviating poverty as a central concern, not simply a reluctant concession to the Jerusalem apostles for a one-time collection to smooth over relations between gentiles and Jews in the Jesus movement.

Having firmly established his main concern, Longenecker turns his attention to broader questions of the social and economic profiles of Paul and the early church. Chapter 10, “Economic Profiles within Paul’s Communities,” interacts with Wayne Meeks’ landmark study The First Urban Christians (as well as others) and proceeds towards a prosopographic survey of individuals named in Paul’s letters – an almost obligatory task in any study of economic profiles in early Christianity. Using the economy scale detailed above, he tentatively places Erastus, Gaius, and Phoebe in ES4. This section includes a compelling argument against identifying the Erastus of Romans 16:23 with the individual named on the inscription discovered at Corinth dating to the first or second century, an individual who was clearly a member of the civic elite (pp. 236ff). He proposes an ES4 or ES5 status for Stephanas, Philemon, and Crispus, and an ES5 or ES6 status for Prisca and Aquila. This chapter concludes with a consideration of Paul’s rhetorical construct of his communities’ economic level.

Chapter 11, “The Economic Attractions of Paul’s Communities,” compares and contrasts the general economic levels of Jesus groups and collegia in general, and chapter 12, “Care for the Poor in Paul’s Theology,” addresses additional important questions, such as Paul’s expectations regarding the interrelationships between people of different economic levels within his communities (cf. “Not Communism, Not Charity, but Community,” pp. 287-291) and whether Paul expected the members of his communities to care only for poor among their numbers (“Care for Poor Insiders Exclusively?,” pp. 291-294). Here he judiciously argues that “Paul seems to have imagined that, while alleviating the needs of the poor within communities of Jesus-followers was never to be compromised, neither was that practice to be set in opposition to caring for those beyond Jesus-communities” (p. 292).

It is also in this chapter that Longenecker tentatively proposes an economic profile of a typical Pauline community, on p. 295:

  Economy Scale Percentages Percentages for this Urban Jesus-Group Numbers in this Urban Jesus-Group
ES1-ES3 3 0 0
ES4 15 10 5
ES5 27 25 12
ES6-ES7 55 (30;25) 65 (35;30) 33


Chapter 13, “The Poor in the Life of Paul,” summarizes the main arguments of the book and goes on to consider Paul’s own socio-economic location. Based on several criteria – including Paul’s Roman citizenship (for which he argues in the affirmative), Paul’s characterization of his manual labor as a personal sacrifice, and the level of education evidenced by his rhetorical skills, Longenecker proposes an economic profile of ES4 prior to Paul’s christophany, dropping to ES5 and perhaps occasionally ES6 as a result of his labor as an apostle.

In the concluding appendices, one of Longenecker’s more interesting proposals is a reconstruction of the origins of the Jerusalem collection in the thinking of Paul (a necessary consideration if in fact the Jerusalem collection did not stem from the apostolic agreement of Galatians 2:10). Instead of reporting his conclusion, however, I’ll suggest that you buy the book to see for yourself – I’m sure you’ll find it’s a worthwhile investment.

While concluding that there is more continuity between Jesus’ proclamation of “good news to the poor” and Paul’s “remembrance” of the poor than is generally recognized (cf. p. 316), however, Longenecker is careful to qualify the extent to which his conclusions can be taken. For instance, he recognizes the complexity in applying his findings to “contemporary Christian theological reflection on issues of poverty and wealth in the globalized context of the twenty-first century” (p. 301). As another example, he acknowledges the larger question of how his findings relate to the current studies of Paul and empire, but notes that although they are certainly consistent with these studies, they do not presuppose them either (pp. 300,301). In fact, elsewhere he tips his hand in favor of an early Christian “malleable hybridity with regard to the Roman imperial order,” writing that “one could be critical of aspects of Roman rule without necessarily being anti-Roman” (p. 270, n. 28). The flip side of these careful qualifications, however, is that Longenecker’s study is disciplined and focused on specific, well-defined questions.

This book is so well argued and carefully nuanced that I have few constructive criticisms. One minor criticism may be noted with respect to Longenecker’s frequent use of the ambiguous term “Judeo-Christian,” which is nowhere defined or discussed. The closest he comes to indicating his meaning may be on page 272, n. 33, where he writes that “Reference to ‘Judeo-Christian’ is necessary at this point, since concern for the poor among Jesus-groups is ultimately rooted in Jewish scripture and tradition, with the Jesus-movement being one of various species within the overarching genus of ‘Judaism’.” By “Judeo-Christian,” then, he appears to mean “rooted in Jewish scripture and tradition.” But the term arguably carries so much baggage today that it is perhaps best left unused. To some engaged in Christian-Jewish dialogue, it smacks of supersessionism; in some political contexts, it serves as a cipher for conservative Western “family” values. However, Longenecker’s usage of this term is only a minor distraction since his meaning seems clear.

My other constructive criticism involves his brief discussion of the difference between charity and social justice, particularly on pp. 106,107. While rightly acknowledging the significance of the distinction, his explanation of why structural reform did not appear likely in the ancient world seems lacking. He writes that “anything that might qualify as a structural strategy for offsetting poverty in the ancient world was out of reach of all but the tiniest minority of people in the ES1 through ES3 economic levels – i.e., those who controlled economic structures (to the extent that those structures could be controlled)” (p. 107). But privileged elites have almost never been agents of real change. One may recall Dr. King’s famous comments in his well-known Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Furthermore, one need look no further than Josephus for examples of widespread popular campaigns – such as the successful Jewish nonviolent protest against Pilate in Caesarea over the Roman standards in Jerusalem, or the work stoppage with which thousands of Jews threatened Petronius if he persisted in carrying out his imperial orders to erect a statue of Caligula in the temple. Arguably what was lacking for social and economic change was not the tools but rather the evolution of a class consciousness built on values like egalitarianism which simply did not exist in the first two centuries CE.

Though one may quibble over points like these, nevertheless no one concerned about economics and early Christianity can afford to neglect this important and compelling book. Longenecker’s comprehensive analysis is simply too thorough and too well-argued to ignore.

Mark M. Mattison

Latest Updates

Eliminated some dead links and updated the links to Apocalypsis and Polis: Pauline Reflections on the Theological Politics of Yoder, Hauerwas, and Milbank by Douglas Harink, N.T. Wright and New Insights on Paul by Jerry Bowyer, and Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire by N.T. Wright on the Articles page of Paul and Empire. Thanks to Bruce Lai for pointing out the broken links.

Latest Update

Added Bruce W. Longenecker’s Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World to the Bibliography page under Paul and Empire. Hope to put up a book review soon.

The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction

Book Review

Kent L. Yinger, Cascade Books, 2011, 120 pp.

Kent L. Yinger’s The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction is as accessible as it is academically sound. In only 120 pages he outlines and illustrates nearly every aspect of the new perspective; it is in fact almost too brief at points, but generally strikes a good balance between erudition and conciseness. Don Garlington sums up the volume well in his afterword:

Professor Kent Yinger has favored us with the finest introduction to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) to date. Within the scope of relatively few pages, he has outlined the arguments pro and con in a fair and balanced manner and in a style that makes for easy reading for the non-specialist in the field (p. 101).

Yinger approaches the topic in eight chapters by considering four basic questions about the new perspective, outlined in the first chapter:

  • What is it?
  • Where did it come from?
  • What are the potential dangers?
  • What good is it?

The second chapter explains E.P. Sanders’ work regarding covenantal nomism, articulating the current consensus that Second Temple Judaism was not a religion of legalism. The third chapter follows naturally with a description of J.D.G. Dunn’s articulation of the new perspective.

The fourth chapter is particularly interesting in its description of variations since Dunn; it begins with a description of N.T. Wright’s position (pp. 27-30), outlines in clear detail the Sanders-Dunn-Wright trajectory (pp. 30,31), and touches briefly on the works of others, including Don Garlington and himself (pp. 31,32), Francis Watson’s earlier sociological approach (pp. 32,33), and Heikki Räisänen’s non-systematic approach (pp. 33,34).  It goes on to describe the later trend of Paul and Empire (pp. 34,35) and even the approach of Paul within Judaism (pp. 35,36). These last two categories reflect distinctions that are currently made on The Paul Page as well.

Perhaps the biggest oversight in the general category of Paul within Judaism is the focus on only the Christian scholars John Gager and Lloyd Gaston and a “two covenant” approach; some mention of Jewish scholars, such as Pamela Eisenbaum and Mark Nanos, would have been appropriate. Neither is there any mention in this chapter of the more recent Leuven approach which relies more heavily on Sanders’ proposed discontinuity between Judaism and Paul, but it may perhaps be unfair to expect a more thorough treatment from such a brief volume. The chapter ends by setting the stage for a discussion of controversies surrounding the new perspective.

Chapter five describes the challenge which more traditional interpreters of Paul have mounted against Sanders’ description of covenantal nomism. Chapter six details points of exegetical (interpretative) debate, chapter seven details points of theological debate, and chapter eight helpfully ties together the remaining loose ends in a generally positive assessment of the new perspective. This is not to say that Yinger’s description of the controversies is one-sided; he does a masterful job of describing the positions of both critics and proponents while pointing the reader to additional reading material for further study. Of some note is the fact that the criticisms detailed are generally from the more conservative Christian side; criticisms of the new perspective from other angles, such as those posed by Nanos, go unmentioned.

Within the boundaries that are explored in chapters five through eight, however, the book is surprisingly thorough, touching not only on Christian debates about covenantal nomism (pp. 39-46) but a wide variety of issues: works of law (pp. 48-50), call vs. conversion (pp. 50-54), the question of Paul’s introspective conscience (pp. 56-58), the description of Paul as a sinner (pp. 59,60), the debate about whether pistis christou should be rendered “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ” (pp. 69,70), and of course several key texts (Gal. 3:10-13, pp. 54-56; Phil. 3:6, pp. 58,59; Rom. 7, pp. 60-63; Rom. 10:3, pp. 63-65; Rom. 4:1-5, pp. 65-67; and disputed Pauline texts, pp. 67-69, with a helpful citation from this reviewer).

When Yinger turns to theological considerations, he clearly and concisely articulates the issues between new perspective scholars and their conservative Reformed critics. Recognizing the diversity of viewpoints within the new perspective, for instance, Yinger writes that “Some NPP writers do, in fact, see their stance as challenging, or even overturning, the central insights of the Protestant Reformation. Others most definitely do not” (p. 72). In articulating the concerns of critics and the responses of new perspective scholars, Yinger is very fair. Describing concerns over legalism:

Critics fear that the NPP slips in legalism through a side door; NPP writers do not typically approve of legalism, but contend that particular passages in Paul deal with something else (p. 50).

According to critics:

The NPP makes Paul soft on legalism. Not so fast, protest NPP proponents. True, Paul is not opposing good deeds in the verses normally cited on this point. But that certainly does not mean he now favors salvation by works. … Even if Paul does not polemicize against legalism in the verses normally cited, this does not mean he wouldn’t have done so given the opportunity. Legalism simply wasn’t the issue confronting him in his churches, and thus we find little opposition to it in his letters (p. 80; cp. pp. 57,58).

But Yinger doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe a key reason for some of the misunderstandings:

The concerns of critics arise largely from the realms of church history and systematic theology, not directly from biblical studies. But NPP writers usually see themselves as biblical scholars, and less as theologians (p. 84).

It is also worth reminding readers that the NPP is primarily a matter of NT interpretation, of biblical studies. The concerns of its proponents are first of all, and sometimes solely, issues of “What did Paul say and mean?” rather than pastoral questions (“How will this affect ministry and Christian experience today?”, p. 78).

Yinger considers arguments surrounding justification by faith alone (pp. 73,74), forensic justification (pp. 74,75), imputed righteousness (pp. 75-77), legalism (pp. 77-79,80), assurance (pp. 79-80), ecumenism (pp. 81,82), synergism (pp. 82,83), and individual salvation (pp. 83,84).

In Yinger’s concluding chapter, he details positive effects of the new perspective: A better understanding of Paul’s letters (pp. 87,88), a reduction of western individualism (p. 88), a concern over anti-semitism (wherein he grapples honestly with the problem of supersessionism, i.e., the replacement of Israel by the church, pp. 88,89), continuity between the testaments (pp. 89,90), continuity between Jesus and Paul (pp. 90-92), and finally ecumenism (pp. 92,93).  This is followed by two responses: A more traditional criticism by Donald A. Hagner (pp. 95-100) and a very articulate afterword by Don Garlington (pp. 101-105). A bibliographic listing of works cited, an annotated bibliography for further study, and a subject index help to flesh out this extremely useful little book.

One final constructive criticism is in order. In 1986, Francis Watson’s book Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach was published. This book clearly reflected the new perspective on Paul. However, Watson later changed his mind and wrote another book with the same title, but a different subtitle: Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective. This book was published in 2007. Both books are cited in the bibliography. However, in the text of the book, the two titles are not distinguished, which may create some confusion for the reader. The first reference to Watson is to the earlier volume (p. 33, n.10). The second reference comes twelve pages later with the term “idem,” meaning the same volume (p. 45, n. 13), but in fact the reference is to the later volume. The remaining references (p. 49, n. 2; p. 72, n. 4) are to the earlier volume. Perhaps this discrepancy can be remedied in the next edition.

On the whole, however, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction is an extremely useful reference tool which should help to clarify complex issues for countless readers for years to come.

Mark M. Mattison

Latest Updates

Added The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction by Kent L. Yinger and Paul Unbound: Other Perspectives on the Apostle by Mark D. Given to the bibliographies. Thanks to Mark Nanos for the tip.

Latest Updates

Updated the link to God, Israel, and the Gentiles: Rhetoric and Situation in Romans 9-11 by Johann D. Kim as reviewed by Mark D. Nanos in Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

In addition, we have finally broken out a new category labeled Paul Within Judaism to reflect the increasing distinction between those scholars working out of the new perspective on Paul and  those scholars working out of the perspective that Paul never ceased to be a Torah-observant Jew.

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