Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology, 2nd ed.

Book Review

David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards, editors, IVP Academic, 2017.

According to the Introduction, the work is intended as a student textbook that covers, in a manageable size, several aspects of Paul: his background, an introduction to his letters, a survey of his ministry surrounding his letters, and an integrated survey of his theology and spirituality. This second edition expands the 350 pages of the first edition into 462. The authors accept the Pauline authorship of the thirteen canonical letters and endeavor to understand the apostle within his own life setting, not that which has been imposed on him. In most chapters, boxes entitled “So What” and “What’s More . . .” take up matters of the relevance of Paul’s epistles and offer supplemental information. Additionally, most chapters end with “Read More About It,” with brief lists of recommended literature. The title Rediscovering Paul is intended to say that the apostle has been misunderstood when his readers assume an interpretive framework that reads into his letters notions that reflect their own perceptions rather than his actual teaching.

The book consists of twelve chapters covering contextual, exegetical, and synthetic questions. Chapter One proposes that “Paul did not think like a twenty-first century Western Christian. His ways were not our ways. His priorities were quite different.” Consequently, “Rather the trying to understand Paul on our terms, we should try to figure out what he meant on his terms” (p. 13). Paul lived in a multicultural world around the Mediterranean basin, which means that his culture was as diversified as ours. But despite the diversity, these peoples, nonetheless, shared similar religious convictions, social customs, and possessed a common Mediterranean worldview (“symbolic universe”). As much as anything, there was the belief that all things come from God/the gods. In such a world, honor stood out as “the only game in town.” “For Mediterranean peoples, boasting was the surest way to keep social order. Everyone had their place; everyone knew their role” (p. 26). In this milieu, Paul was obliged to defend his honor against his numerous detractors. The final section of the chapter is devoted to “Living in the Greco-Roman world.” The authors outline such matters as Greek language, Greek living, and Jewish holiness. In so doing, they anticipate Paul’s view of the law.

Chapter 2 is entitled “The Christophany.” The chapter begins with a review of Paul and Zeal. “Zeal” is not passion or enthusiasm, but rather a “firm resolve and forceful resistance against anyone who in any way acts to compromise Israel’s relationship with God” (p. 58). In this sense, the pre-Christian Paul was a “zealot,” who followed the precedents set by the likes of Phineas and Mattathias. “Paul considered himself a key player in Israel’s unfulfilled story. He had a part to play in readying Israel for God’s visitation and judgment. Zeal compelled the pre-Christophany Paul to protect the covenant by punishing the disobedient in order that the path to Israel’s glorious future could be realized and the covenantal blessings restored” (p. 59). In this light, Saul the Pharisee could not have embraced one who was considered to be under God’s curse as an apostate from the covenant, who so often took a stance over against the Torah and was worshipped by his followers.

At the heart of the chapter lies the discussion of the “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul. The former stems from Luther, who posited that Paul became a Christian because of his sense of guilt and inability to keep the law. By contrast, the “New Perspective” sees the pre-Christian Paul as one who was entirely content with his life under the law. Although far from being a perfect man, this Paul understood that God had made provision for sin by means of the sacrificial system. “When the pre-Christophany Paul sinned, the law prescribe a course of action for the forgiveness of sin. This is why Paul could say he was blameless before the law, not because he never sinned, but because when he sinned, he followed the directives to maintain his right relationship with God” (p. 68). When Paul became a Christian, he continued to identify himself as a Jew, but with one profound difference—now he believed Jesus to be Israel’s Messiah and Lord. Christianity itself was not a new religion but the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and the completion of Israel’s destiny. Next in the chapter ensues an overview of the “apocalyptic” Paul. The authors correctly set Paul within the framework of an apocalyptic/prophetic world view and rightly, in my view, argue that Paul’s turning to Christ was a genuine conversion, not simply a call to go to the Gentiles.

Chapter 3 takes up the matter of letter writing in the ancient world. The discussion is both interesting and informative. It begins with the standard treatment found in most introductions to Paul’s letters: ancient letter format, the modifications Paul made to this format, and discussion of different rhetorical styles and devices. What distinguishes this chapter is the detailed treatment of the mechanics of ancient letter writing, specifically the use of secretaries, whom authors used for various reasons. Letter writing in antiquity was a costly and time consuming enterprise. It entailed not only the writing of the document but also the preparation of materials. Moreover, the ancients valued skillful handwriting, and the craft of the secretary was more akin to calligraphy than to simple writing. In addition, the manner in which authors employed secretaries ranged from word-by-word dictation to giving the secretary a general idea of what one wanted in the letter and letting the scribe worry about the details. Such freedom may account for stylistic differences across the Pauline letters and undermine arguments about authorship based solely on style, as would the authors’ suggestion that many letters were communal rather than individual enterprises. The chapter ends with sections on the cost and mailing of letters. Most readers of Paul’s letters would be surprised at the cost of what postal services were available. Finally, there is the notation that letters could be corrected or added to even after the final draft had been written. Such practice could account for some puzzling features in several of Paul’s letters, e.g. the “finally” of Phil 3:1 and the abrupt change in tone in 2 Cor 10:1.

Chapter 3 further takes on Pauline chronology, after first addressing the question of Paul’s call and conversion. Acknowledging that Paul continued to consider himself a Jew, the authors nonetheless describe the change in his life as a “conversion,” albeit a conversion “from one kind of Judaism to another—from a Judaism of Torah and temple to a Judaism centered in the crucified and risen Christ.” Following this conclusion, the book provides a brief overview of the evidence used to determine the chronology of Paul’s life, outlining in turn the time references in the letters and in Acts and correlating them to the little external evidence that is available. A brief chronology follows, opting for some minority positions (e.g., Paul’s meeting with the Jerusalem apostles in Galatians 2 corresponds to the narrative of Acts 11) and ascribing credibility to the evidence of Acts, as well as leaving open the possibility of further ministry beyond Acts 28.

The middle six chapters are devoted to a discussion of the letters roughly in chronological sequence as submitted by the authors and according to the circumstances of Paul’s writing (itinerant ministry or imprisonment). Opting for an early date Galatians, the authors begin with this letter, addressing the north and south Galatia debate only in brief. Another chapter carries on with the Thessalonian correspondence. While conceding that the titles “1 Thessalonians” and “2 Thessalonians” need not reflect chronological sequence, they argue, nevertheless, for the canonical order as well as the chronological order. A discussion of the Corinthian correspondence follows, once again affirming the canonical order as also the chronological and treating 2 Corinthians as one integral letter rather than as composite. An entire chapter is devoted to Romans, the last of the letters written during Paul’s itinerant ministry. Two chapters on the prison letters, one for those addressed to churches (Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians) and one for those addressed to individuals (Philemon and the Pastorals), round out the treatment of the letters.

The final three chapters seek to amalgamate and apply Paul’s theology, legacy, and relevance for the contemporary church. The first half of chapter 10 discusses the Jewish roots of Paul’s theology (monotheism, election, eschatology, Torah, and temple), as well as the influence of early Christian traditions on his thought. The second half of the chapter addresses the difficulty and desirability of determining a “center” to Paul’s thought, concluding that the center is Christological monotheism constructed in narrative form in the presuppositions, traditions, arguments, and parenesis of the letters.

Chapter 11 provides an overview of various theories about how Paul’s letters came to be collected and the process of canonization. The authors conclude that the authority of the letters depends on their authenticity, including the influence of secretaries and co-writers. Chapter 12 seeks to connect the “rediscovered” Paul with contemporary Christians, giving a short outline of Paul’ reception by subsequent readers, followed by a discussion of issues on which Paul would challenge contemporary culture: race, division, poverty, politics, and sexuality. The end of the book includes a glossary, maps, bibliography, and indices.

As an undergraduate textbook, there is much to commend this volume. The “What’s More…” and “So What?” sections are welcomed features. Some of these boxes offer genuinely helpful information, such as the discussion of the importance of contemporary culture in understanding a text  like 1 Cor 11:2–34. In sum, Capes, Reeves, and Richards have managed in a single volume to provide a readable introduction to a number of important dimensions of Pauline scholarship.

Don Garlington

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