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Clues in the correspondence

03 July 2015

John Court assesses a biography of St Paul based on his letters

Framing Paul: An epistolary biography
Douglas A. Campbell
Eerdmans £25.99
Church Times Bookshop £23.40


FOR centuries, the religious history of Christianity's early days was derived from the Acts of the Apostles. From the later chapters, this supplied the account of St Paul's missionary journeys and the framework for his life. Essentially, Acts provided the primary source for Paul's biography, and his attributed letters were very much a secondary source, to be fitted into the chronological life with no shortage of controversy.

The majority of Pauline scholars continued "to work with either an Acts-based chronology that had serious problems, or with a muddled approach that switched between Acts-based and epistolary systems, essentially opportunistically and hence unjustifiably".

It was an American professor, John Knox, who, in two articles of 1939, and more fully in the modestly entitled Chapters in a Life of Paul (1950), revolutionised the distinction between the two kinds of source material. Paul's letters are the primary and internal source (revealing the thought, character, and religious experience of the Apostle), while Acts provides a secondary and external source of biographical data (assembled at a later date from historical accounts that may well be fragmentary).

Within this radically different perspective, it is interesting to compare the more recent studies Paul: A critical life (1996) by Jerome Murphy O'Connor, and Apostle Paul: His life and theology (2005) by Udo Schnelle. Douglas Campbell is critical of Schnelle for his dependence on a doctrinal criterion of justification by faith. For an example of datable evidence from Paul himself, look at the Aretas incident in 2 Corinthians 11.32-33, which can be linked to a specific escape in 36/37 CE.

While Campbell builds on Knox's work, the keyword in his magisterial study is "framing". This is no casual term, but a technical reference to literary context, as in the thought of Jacques Derrida. What we see is controlled by the way we look, and so we need to be explicit about presuppositions and bias. Context is examined in a highly inclusive way that learns from modern methodologies while remaining aware of the dangers of anachronism.

Campbell pays a special attention to the context of imprisonment and its conditioning of thought, as applied to five of the 13 canonical letters of Paul. In a major synthesis of his work on Pauline chronology over decades, he sets out his framework on the evidence of the letters alone, ten of which are judged authentic. Romans and the Corinthian correspondence provide the backbone, augmented by Philippians and Galatians.

He then discusses in considerable detail the respective locations of the Thessalonian correspondence (at the start of the sequence); Philemon, Colossians, and "Ephesians"/Laodiceans (belonging as a cluster to incarceration in mid-50 CE in Apamea); and Titus with 1 and 2 Timothy (fairly decisively labelled as pseudepigraphic).

There is still plenty of scope for the reader to dissent from details in the supporting arguments, while appreciating the skill and dedication of this synthesis.

I myself was surprised to see the revival of a thesis by Edgar Goodspeed which dated the Pauline letter collection as providing a model for the letters to the seven churches collected in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation.


Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in New Testament Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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