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Aiming for completeness on Paul  

27 May 2016

Anthony Harvey on apostolic argument


Paul: The Apostle’s life, letters and thought
E. P. Sanders
SCM Press £40
Church Times Bookshop £36


The Paul Debate: Critical questions for understanding the Apostle
N. T. Wright
SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

IN RECENT years there has been a spate of very large books on St Paul. None of these has been in any sense a textbook; all have advanced a particular viewpoint or perspective from which the corpus of Paul’s writings can be surveyed, yielding different estimations of his stature, his consistency, and his place in the development of the Christian religion.

A serious debate was fuelled in the 1970s by the publication of E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism, in which he attacked the assumption, dating back to Luther, that Paul was mainly concerned with the conflict between “works of the Law” (represented by Jewish “legalism”) and Christian “faith”: when impartially examined, Judaism turns out to be only occasionally legalistic, and the accepted conclusion that the Law was a burden on the conscience, impossible for any individual to fulfil, was always open to challenge in the light of Paul’s own claim that he had been, “according to the Law, blameless” (Philippians 3.6).

The debate was still very much alive when Douglas Campbell published his 1200-page “Rereading” of Paul (The Deliverance of God, 2009), which was followed by N. T. Wright’s still-more-massive two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013). Now we have another, running to more than 800 pages, by E. P. Sanders, four decades after his initial contribution to the debate.

Was there still so much to say? To be fair, Sanders’s new book is generously printed, and its length is less daunting than it seems at first sight (although he admits it may be a hard challenge for some of his readers to get through it all). Also, its intended audience is not primarily the scholarly world (though he hopes they might be listening in) so much as university undergraduates beginning their study of Paul. “Ordinary readers” are also welcomed. Within these limits, it aims to be “the complete Paul”. Is it successful?

Certainly it covers the ground, in some places intensively. But the “ground” is very strictly defined. Only the seven letters normally regarded as indubitably by Paul are considered: Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon; others — including even 2 Thessalonians — are simply disregarded, even when the Pauline imitators might have thrown some light on Paul’s meaning.

Little value is attached to Acts as a source of historical material about Paul (although its evidence is accepted uncritically with regard to other apostles). And, whereas other significant studies are predominantly occupied with discussions of Paul’s theological concepts and arguments, Sanders prefers to give space to questions of background and circumstances — ten out of the 40 pages devoted to Philippians discuss the admittedly disputed but hardly crucial question of the whereabouts of the praetorion where Paul was imprisoned; whereas the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2 — half a dozen verses that have notoriously given rise to a whole shelf of books, monographs, and articles — is dealt with in a few paragraphs.

In the chapter or chapters devoted to each of the letters, Sanders provides important background material, in which indeed he is expert, particularly, of course, from Judaism, on which he has already written two books, but also from the pagan world, where his touch is perhaps a little less sure. He takes each letter in its presumed order and offers, not so much a commentary, as a detailed interpretation of its principal themes.

To this extent, the book may be used by students for help with particular texts and problems. The Greek is transliterated and always translated, the style is accessible, and the student is frequently reassured that the author is aware of the difficulties sometimes presented by the text being studied.

It is with the Corinthian correspondence, in which he identifies five separate letters, (arranged by an editor in what was not the original chronological order), that Sanders has most opportunity to bring to bear his knowledge of Judaism and the culture of Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora.

On Greek and Jewish attitudes to homosexuality, for example, he devotes more than 20 pages of the main text, and another 20 of an appendix, to setting the scene for Paul’s brief references to the subject (for which, indeed, many may be grateful in the light of current controversies); he insists that the entire ancient world was far more preoccupied than we generally realise with questions and rituals of “purity” — an area in which he has done much research (particularly on Jewish sources and archaeological sites) — and this certainly sheds light on Paul’s advice on these matters to his Corinthian converts.

But in a book claiming to offer “the complete Paul”, we look also for a more comprehensive theme; and the basic question for him, as for all the authors of the studies mentioned above, is whether Paul’s “theology” is the systematic creation of a powerful and consistent mind, or whether it shows signs of development over the few years of his surviving correspondence, and of occasional self-contradiction, or even incoherence.

Sanders’s contribution to this debate is distinctive. He argues that it is important not to confuse the conclusion of an argument with the reasons given to support it. Thus, Paul usually knew what his conclusion would be; but he used arguments appropriate to his readers in their various situations, arguments that were not always totally consistent with ones he used elsewhere for different purposes and in different circumstances.

This, Sanders argues, accounts for what have often been regarded as inconsistencies; where that explanation fails, he is quite ready to suggest that Paul may have overplayed his hand “out of pique” or “in the heat of the moment”. But do such explanations really meet the case? Sanders’s impressive study may, in a sense, be “complete”; but it certainly will not be the last word.

N. T. Wright’s very much shorter book was written as a response to the many reviews he has received of his own substantial study; but rather than enter a technical debate with other scholars, Wright selects five main themes (such as “Apocalyptic” or “The Justified People of God”) and uses them to set out his principal convictions about the Apostle’s thought which have been called into question.

The result is a discursive treatment, written in Wright’s characteristically lucid and persuasive style, that can be commended as an admirable introduction for a wide readership — even if some may be left wondering quite what the “debate” is to which the title refers.


Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.

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