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Finding Paul’s Biography in Josephus: Interview with Felix Asiedu

The following is an extended interview with Felix Asiedu regarding his new book, Paul and His Letters: Thinking with Josephus (Lexington Books/Fortress Press Academic). The book can be purchased here.

Given the long history of Christian thought and the expansive nature of contemporary Christian scholarship, what is so different about your project on Paul and Josephus?

Asiedu: There is indeed a great deal that has been written in the last half-century on Paul alone, not to mention the wider field of Christian thought or Christian studies. And in the last forty years, Pauline studies has been shaped by E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) and reactions to that work by James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, and many others. Much of this is attested in the disputes surrounding the so-called Old Perspective on Paul and the New Perspective on Paul. My work is not directly concerned with engaging that controversy and its most recent variations. However, everything that I have written in Paul and His Letters: Thinking with Josephus has a bearing on how we assess Paul’s place in first-century Jewish life.

I have done it in a very specific way, as you can tell from the title. I am using Josephus’s life—his biography, as much as we can know it—as a way of reading Paul’s biography. The project rests on a simple premise. There is no other person in the historical record from first-century Jerusalem about whom we know so much as Josephus. He also happens to fit Paul’s profile. Josephus was affiliated with the Pharisees in Jerusalem and belonged to the generation after Paul. If we want to understand what it must have been like to be a Pharisee in Jerusalem, like Paul, there is much we can learn from Josephus’ life and from that of his father, who was a contemporary of Paul’s in Jerusalem.

Beyond this, I should also mention that Paul and His Letters is the second volume of a five-volume project on early Christian history from about 30 CE to 180 CE. The first volume appeared last year as Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity: History and Silence in the First Century.

The goal of the project is to provide the details of a basic history for the period in question. Why? Because in general, the foundations of the early history of Christianity, especially in the latter part of the first century and in the early decades of the second century, are not as secure as we think. Much of the scholarship on the last three to four decades of the first century is full of speculation about so many dates, most of which are guesses based on theories about what could have or must have happened. I hope to be able to provide a more secure foundation in this respect.

It also involves some new discoveries, among them my claim that the author of the Third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is not Luke the physician but rather Titus the Greek, the friend and coworker of Barnabas and Paul.

I mention basic history for a reason: the bit about Titus being the author of Acts is a matter of basic history. If we do not get such basic history right, a lot follows from it badly. But, of course, not all historical errors are of major consequence. In this case, it is of major significance and consequence.

So is your book project trying to start a dialogue with New Testament scholars about Paul or to serve as a catalyst for a conversation with New Testament scholars to do history, and to do it right?

Asiedu: There are differences in historical scholarship and the writing of history and claims to that effect between what we find in New Testament scholarship and historical scholarship in general. If you have a lot of documented evidence, the writing of history is not given too much speculation. I am not saying that there is nothing like interpretation or conjecture or supposition in historical writing. You make judgments based on the available evidence, and people will disagree as to what the best judgment is about a particular event, its causes, its outcomes, and the like. But that is not what I am getting at when I speak of speculation in New Testament scholarship.

The situation here has to do with writing history when you do not have much evidence, or very little, in fact. Or writing history when you have determined that the evidentiary sources cannot be trusted, simply because you believe they are biased and should not be trusted. Now, everyone writes from a point of view. But having a point of view is not by itself grounds for discounting what is said or claimed. The point of view has to be part of what we consider when we are assessing the evidence. We have to place the evidence before us next to other evidence that also has a point of view to judge them. However, if you have no evidence to work with and almost all you have are imaginative reconstructions, then you cannot present those as the facts of history, postulate dates on them, and upon those dates exclude other things that are better documented. That is what sometimes happens in New Testament scholarship.

Let me give one example from Josephus. And mind you, there are problems with some of Josephus’ evidence too. But take the example of his account of the death of a certain James, the brother of Jesus, in the year 62 CE. If it is agreed that this is authentic (to date, I know of only one Josephus scholar who expresses doubts) and that, in fact, Josephus gives us the documentation of the judicial murder of James the brother of Jesus, then we have a fixed data point supplied by someone who did not have any particularly devious motive or self-interest in concocting that date. If this is the case, then this event, especially the date, ought to have a controlling effect on any number of dates in New Testament studies, especially as they relate to the writings in the canonical New Testament. Why? Well, is it not curious that none of the writings in the New Testament make any reference to the death of James, the brother of Jesus? Not even the book of Acts, where he is described as a leading member of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. And yet you can read a lot about the dating of respective works in the New Testament without coming across a discussion as to whether this event makes any difference at all. Should it not? It must be taken seriously. It was not a minor event. The fact that it is not mentioned in Acts, for example, must have some bearing on the dating of Acts. This is basic history. It cannot and should not be ignored. It is still possible to discount it in the end, but the fact that the argument for the dating of Acts can be made without reference to it seems to me highly problematic. If I remember correctly, Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), the German theologian and historian of the Church, wrote extensively on the dating of Acts without reference to the death of James, the brother of Jesus, which I find very curious. From my standpoint, that should not happen.

As far as what I have done in Paul and His Letters, I have only appealed to evidence that is documented. Any reconstruction I suggest is based on what evidence we have; not on anything I have imagined to be the case. My readers will have to judge if and when I violate this norm.

Take the following example. Very few people realize that on his last fateful visit to Jerusalem, Paul would have been coming into a city where Josephus was also present and making his first forays into political life. You can read many commentaries on Romans 15 on Paul’s anxieties about his impending visit to Jerusalem, you can read many commentaries on Acts dealing with that visit, and you will never read anything about the fact that Josephus had entered public life in Jerusalem among the Pharisees a year before. This is not a minor event in the life of Josephus. The coincidence with Paul’s visit the following year or so should be part of any discussion we have about what Josephus or his father and his contemporaries may have known about Paul, given that Josephus nowhere mentions Paul in his writings. Am I speculating here? No. It is Josephus himself who tells us in his autobiography that when he was nineteen years old, he entered public life in Jerusalem among the Pharisees. Josephus was born in 37 CE, so he was nineteen in 56 CE. We can surmise that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans c. 57 CE from Corinth and then headed for Jerusalem, where he was arrested and subsequently sent to Caesarea and incarcerated for two years. What is most revealing is that Josephus is deliberately silent about the period between 56 and 63 CE. He says nothing about this seven-year period: who he knew, what he did, what he learned in public life, what events he participated in, etc. And guess what? This is the period that coincides with Paul’s arrest and the ending of Acts. These are facts, not speculation.

As it is, I spend some time exploring the implications of this coincidence for our understanding of Paul’s anxieties about his contemporaries in Jerusalem who knew of his past. This is relevant to his claim that he was one of the most promising young men in Jerusalem before he was converted and called as an apostle of the gospel of Jesus.

What is the takeaway of Paul and His Letters for a first-year seminarian or layperson?

Asiedu: The literature on Paul is extensive. You may already have learned a lot about Paul from commentaries, specialized studies on his letters, and so on. Work on his theology abounds in many books. However, there are not a lot of studies about Paul’s biography, in particular, the part of his life before he was converted and called to be an apostle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are very few studies that probe Paul’s life before his call as an apostle and how this past contributed to what he became as a missionary and theologian of the Jesus movement. We cannot overlook the fact that there is a biography behind the theology. And his past as a Pharisee in Jerusalem is not incidental to what he became as a follower of Jesus Christ. What I have tried to do is to fill out some of this past so as to provide a better understanding of Paul. While the book is not about Paul’s theology, there are many aspects of my project that illuminate his theology. You will find one such instance in my discussion of Romans 9–11.

And speaking of Romans, Paul mentions a number of people at the end of the letter, including a husband and wife pair, Andronicus and Junia. The scholarship on this pair has concentrated on two things. First, that Paul speaks about them as apostles or as people reputed among the apostles. And second, the status of Junia has been a matter of dispute, some of it based on a translation that turned the feminine Junia into the masculine Junias. This focus all too often skirts over three important things that Paul says about them: they there were his relatives (some commentators contend they were simply fellow Jews), they were in Christ before him (meaning they were followers of Jesus before Paul’s conversion and call), and they had shared Paul’s imprisonment with him.

The reference to imprisonment is peculiar because there is no other reference in Paul’s extant letters to suggest where this happened, and there is nothing in Acts about Andronicus and Junia. But, then again, Acts does not mention a good many of the people listed in Romans 16. It has Priscilla and Aquila but not Phoebe, the deacon of the church in Cenchreae who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. And, of course, Acts does not mention Paul writing any letters to any churches as such. So perhaps we should not make too much of the absence of Andronicus and Junia from Acts.

What cannot be understated, however, is what is meant for Paul to have two relatives as followers of Jesus before Paul himself became a follower of Jesus. We are so used to Paul’s own language about the origin of his gospel in letters like Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, and Romans, that we can easily overlook the simple, basic fact that he also had some knowledge of Jesus and the Jesus movement before his conversion and call. He could not have been harassing the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem if he did not know anything about them and the said Jesus whose life and death were central to the movment. What his comments about his relatives Andronicus and Junia also suggest is that Paul most likely learned about certain traditions about Jesus from them. After all, they were part of the movement before he joined, and by his own words, they were reputed among the apostles. My discussion of Andronicus and Junia tries to draw out these implications, which are almost never considered in works on Paul and the Jesus tradition.

Back to Josephus. You may notice that while E. P. Sanders mentions Josephus in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, there is no comparative framework offered there that sets Josephus’ life in relation to Paul’s in any way relevant to understanding Paul’s place in Palestinian Judaism. In fact, there is not much about Josephus in Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Also, if you have had the opportunity to listen to some of N. T. Wright’s recent interviews in relation to the book he coauthored with Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World, you will hear Wright mentioning how important it is that we read Josephus to better understand the first-century context of the New Testament. So let us just say that I have done what Wright is calling attention to, not only in Paul and His Letters: Thinking with Josephus but also in its companion volume that preceded it, Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity: History and Silence in the First Century. I have provided a lot of details, not just by reading Josephus as background for the New Testament but by showing that any number of themes in Josephus’ biography help to explain certain aspects of Paul’s life.

There are other things in the book as well, including my interpretation of the Allegory of Hagar and Sarah that departs from standard readings of the passage. I also present a reading of Paul in relation to Josephus and the Wisdom of Ben Sira and an account of what it would have been like for a reader of Josephus to encounter Paul’s Letter to the Romans. And last but not least, I have a chapter on the authenticity of the Pauline letters in the canonical New Testament that offers an alternative to prevailing scholarly opinion, including the work of Bart Ehrman, who tends to see forgeries all over the place in the New Testament corpus.

I hope this gives some sense of what is in the book and that readers will find it worthwhile.

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger