What Was Paul Thinking? A Study Text Introducing the New Perspective on Paul and Paul’s Thoughts on Women and Homosexuality

Book Review

Richard A. Brown, Blue Springs, Missouri: Isaac’s Press, 2010, 130 pp.

Considering the fact that the new perspective on Paul is not so “new” anymore, the lack of popular study material on the topic is perplexing. Richard A. Brown’s What Was Paul Thinking? (Blue Springs, Missouri: Isaac’s Press), 2010, is therefore a welcome attempt at the effort.

Though thoughtful and provocative, Brown sometimes moves too quickly through his material, sometimes packing thoughts too densely or insufficiently explaining his points. Subtitled A Study Text Introducing the New Perspective on Paul and Attitudes about Women and Homosexuality, this thin volume almost promises more than it can deliver. At just 130 pages, this eight-lesson adult Bible study text occasionally comes across more like an eclectic collection of random points than a theological study that carefully builds a well-organized argument.

The new perspective on Paul is essentially addressed in the first two chapters (“First the Forest, Later on the Trees” and “Call Not Conversion”). Only after articulating an overall position does Brown address “Paul’s Authentic Letters” (chapter 3) and “Paul’s Disputed Letters and Acts” (chapter 4). This reviewer at least would have liked to see these topics addressed in the opposite order: first the sources, then the theses. Having said that, this reviewer was pleased to note that Brown didn’t settle on the reductionist argument that “if Paul didn’t write it, it just doesn’t count.” Brown notes that (in a way characteristic of this study) in an all-too-brief statement on page 61:

The question arises, naturally, whether these authentication issues might disqualify any letter from being accepted as a reliable source of scripture. The answer to that is no, but they can help us to understand more fully possible meanings within these letters.

However, insufficient space is given to considering the more broad questions of canon and authority. For instance, the canonical approach of the above-referenced statement is apparently contradicted by the following statement on page 117:

Keep in mind, too, that the letters of Paul were addressed to specific believers, places, and times. He didn’t write them to become canonized scripture, much less set-in-stone commandments.

Both observations are pertinent: Pseudonymity does not necessarily mitigate scriptural authority; Paul did not intend to articulate systematic doctrinal truths for multiple generations. However, these statements deserve to be reconciled in a compelling hermeneutic. A working hermeneutic does not actually emerge until the final two chapters, the chapter on “Women’s Roles & Marriage” (chapter 7) and “Homosexuality Then & Now” (chapter 8). Only in these chapters does Brown specifically locate spiritual authority within the conjunction of “scripture, experience, and tradition” (cf. p. 108). Though this reviewer agrees with that model of authority, nevertheless it seems insufficiently articulated.

With respect to the new perspective on Paul, Brown presents a blend of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, among others. Brown follows Sanders’ distinction between “getting in” and “staying in” the covenant (p. 16), Dunn’s articulation of “identity markers” (pp. 22, 23), and Wright’s emphasis on the “fulfilled-family-of-Abraham” (p. 68). This stands in some tension with Brown’s tendency toward the “two-covenant” approach of Gaston, Stendahl, etc. (pp. 14,15,21), however.

At any rate, despite its shortcomings, What Was Paul Thinking? nevertheless represents a laudable first attempt at lay adult Bible study and provides church leaders several tools to address these numerous issues.

Mark M. Mattison

Invitation to help form a new Society of Biblical Literature Seminar

The Transformation and Weaving of Scripture in 1 Corinthians

In view of work already done on biblical use of older texts, including Paul’s use of Scripture, it seems appropriate that further exploration of Paul be especially attentive to two possibilities: (1) ways of using Scripture that transform the text and are difficult to notice—ways with precedents in ancient writing, but, for their detection, in need of rigorous application of clear criteria; (2) the process, reflected in many ancient authors, of weaving older writings together and thus forming them into something new. It is also  appropriate to concentrate energy on one epistle. It maximizes mutual learning and in-depth study. First Corinthians is particularly suitable because within the NT it is Paul’s earliest extensive writing. Furthermore, First Corinthians has seminal elements, and among Paul’s epistles, “it deal[s] with the greatest variety of subjects” (J. Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, OUP, 2009, v). If the search is for roots, this is a promising place to start. Work already done on 1 Corinthians confirms this promising character. Further work on this early document, if done well, can make a significant contribution to NT studies.

If interested please contact thomasbrodie@eircom.net and, as well as communicating by email, we can meet briefly in Atlanta on November 20, at the end of the first session of the Paul and Scripture Seminar (S20-328, Saturday, 4.00-6.30).

 Thomas Brodie, Dominican Biblical Institute, Limerick, Ireland

Latest Updates

Added links to the following papers by Mark D. Nanos under the category From the New Perspective (thanks to Mark for providing the links):

‘Broken Branches’: A Pauline Metaphor Gone Awry? (Romans 11:11-24)

‘Callused,’ Not ‘Hardened’: Paul’s Revelation of Temporary Protection Until All Israel Can Be Healed

Have Paul and His Communities Left Judaism for Christianity?: A Review of the Paul-Related Chapters in ‘Jewish Believers in Jesus and Jewish Christianity Revisited’

Paul and the Jewish Tradition: The Ideology of the Shema (also available on YouTube)

Paul’s Relationship to Torah in Light of His Strategy ‘to Become Everything to Everyone’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Review of ‘The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century’

Romans 9-11 from a Jewish Perspective on Christian-Jewish Relations

Romans: To the Churches of the Synagogues of Rome

The Myth of the ‘Law-Free’ Paul Standing Between Christians and Jews

The Polytheist Identity of the ‘Weak,’ And Paul’s Strategy to ‘Gain’ Them: A New Reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 

What Does “Present Jerusalem” (Gal 4:25) in Paul’s Allegory Have to Do with the Jerusalem of Paul’s Time, or the Concerns of the Galatians?

While sharing much in common with scholars working out of the new perspective, scholars like Mark Nanos, Pamela Eisenbaum, and others are critical of other aspects of the new perspective as articulated by scholars like Dunn and Wright. The term “radical new perspective” has been suggested by some, but for the time being the current category on The Paul Page seems the closest “fit.”

Latest Update

Updated the link to Michael B. Thompson’s The New Perspective on Paul.

Latest Updates

Updated the links to Mark D. Nanos’ A Rejoinder to Robert A.J. Gagnon’s “Why the ‘Weak’ at Rome Cannot Be Non-Christian Jews”, Paul and JudaismThe Local Contexts of the Galatians: Toward Resolving A Catch-22, and The Social Context and Message of Galatians in View of Paul’s Evil Eye Warning (Gal. 3:1). Also added a link to Rethinking the ‘Paul and Judaism’ Paradigm: Why Not ‘Paul’s Judaism’? Thanks to John Inglis for catching one of the broken links, and to Mark for providing the updated addresses. I plan to add more links to Mark’s papers in the near future.

Latest Update

Second Corinthians by Thomas D. Stegman has been added to the Bibliography. A link has also been added to a review by Raymond F. Collins in the Review of Biblical Literature in the category Around the Web: Book Reviews.

Latest Update

My New Science Fiction Novel

Commander Chris and the Mystical Orb

Normally I post only information on Pauline studies here, but I’d like to let everyone know about my new young adult sci fi novel, Commander Chris and the Mystical Orb. It’s being printed right now and will be available in bookstores soon.

However, you can pre-order it from Amazon, or just call your local bookstore and ask if they plan to carry it.

Here’s a brief summary from the back cover:

Chris Morinas is not the most popular student at school. He spends much of his spare time practicing tricks on his skateboard and honing his video-game skills–skills that he soon puts to good use. First, he’s accidentally transformed by a lab experiment, then he’s warped to a distant galaxy and embroiled in an epic power struggle.

After evading lunar militia thugs called “Slarmans,” he becomes the commander of a spaceship with an unlikely crew: Ava, a tenacious female space pirate; Pi, the ship’s android; a four-foot-tall talking insect nicknamed “Zach”; and a mysterious cleric named Majubar with a mystical orb staff.

Together they take on a space station in a daring rescue mission before tackling a system-wide civil war and a fateful showdown with an invasion force of intergalactic cyborgs known as “Galaxicops.”

I should mention up front that although this story does contain some implied criticism of institutional religion per se, nevertheless this is not an allegory and shouldn’t be read as such. Like any good story, it does touch on ethical, religious, and philosophical questions, but it’s primarily a fun light read. If you like adventure and sci fi, I’d love to hear your feedback!

And we can have some fun with this: I have strategically planted some “Easter eggs” in the book. Look for the allusion to a New Testament verse in the second half. (Hint: It isn’t from Paul.)

Follow-up Interview

An Interview about The Paul Page

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