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The New Cambridge Companion to St Paul, edited by Bruce W. Longenecker

19 March 2021

Changed priorities in a new guide to Paul, says Robin Griffith-Jones

IN 2003, Cambridge University Press issued its Companion to St Paul, a lapidary volume edited by J. D. G. Dunn. Here is its worthy and welcome successor, under Bruce Longenecker, “primarily meant to service introductory explorations of the theological discourse of Paul’s letters”.

Scholarly emphasis has moved on: the social setting and sociology of Paul’s thought and communities are now to the fore, in the three introductory chapters (by Longenecker, Paula Fredriksen, and Richard Ascough) and throughout the book. There follow five chapters on the letters themselves, by a similarly distinguished series of scholars.

The book’s last and longest section then confronts, in a refreshingly direct and jargon-free style, eight of the abiding questions to which Paul gives rise: “What did Paul think was wrong in God’s world?” (Longenecker again); “What did Paul think God was doing about what’s wrong?” (Michael Gorman); and so on, through “Did Paul abandon either Judaism or Monotheism?” (Matthew Novenson) and “Why were people attracted to Paul’s good news?” (David Horrell) to a final, nuanced review of “What makes Paul challenging today?” (John Barclay).

Valuable material for “Further Reading” is recommended at the end of each chapter. A consolidated bibliography and indexes of scholars and of passages (but not of subjects) end the book.

There are riches on every page. It may seem churlish, then, to mention what is not here. The likely readers of such a Companion might have valued some introduction to Paul’s personal as well as his social setting. Theological discourse, as we now know, is embodied in the theologian’s own life. Gone is any straightforward “biography” or timeline of Paul, or any practical details (or maps) of his journeys’ routes, their winds and major roads. Such an outline offers the structural scaffolding on which readers of an introduction can hang the complicated progression of letters.

This may seem to imply a naïve request, and Margaret Mitchell’s dazzling survey of Paul’s reception introduces the reader to problems confronting any historian of Paul; but the vagaries of Cicero, Lucan, Plutarch, and Suetonius do not prevent scholars’ writing lives of Julius Caesar.

We will never know what (if anything) happened on the road to Damascus, and it is hardly mentioned here. Readers might have been grateful for some guidance through the stories in Acts. Here, again, theology as much as biography is at issue: Paul’s mysticism — and the merkavah mystics’ pre-mortem admission to post-mortem glory — may inform and illumine all his thought. (Dunn’s Companion had on its cover the Conversion of Paul; Longenecker’s has a solitary and scholarly Paul, immersed in scripture.)

The arrangement of the central chapters compresses the letters’ treatment. Margaret MacDonald, covering 1 Thessalonians and 1 and 2 Corinthians in one chapter, shows how they are shot through with challenges to Paul’s authority, and with his — impassioned, loving, sarcastic, threatened, and threatening — responses. This is central to his apostolic self-understanding, and, with more space, MacDonald would have been perfectly placed to explore this self-understanding, central to Paul’s theological discourse, in depth.

Peter Oakes deals with both Galatians and Romans in a single tour de force, aligning the argument of each to the other’s. (This is hardly an introduction, but is immensely stimulating.) Since there is, however, no parallel in Galatians to Romans 5-8, these seminal chapters are seemingly ignored.

The book’s final section is a further delight. But an anthropologist of religion (at one remove from the sociologists) might wonder whether one bright, stark thread in Paul’s thought is not followed through. Paul writes theology on the threshold. Here is a liminal exchange of life for death and life again, the drastic re-reading of much present life as a form of death, the crossing into this life of after-death and eschatological blessings.

This strange porosity was, of course, represented and realised ritually and communally. It was inseparable from — but cannot without further ado be collapsed into — re-socialisation. What was wrong with God’s world? Perhaps, at root, death: not a power in general, but our own mortality and our visceral, inescapable awareness of it.

All readers will value this new Companion. Some, with sociological interests, will relish it from beginning to end; others, looking for an introduction to all aspects of Paul and to all the bases of his thought, may at times be puzzled. Which of Cambridge’s two Companions will most readers go for? Ideally, both: a double vade-mecum to enrich any encounter with this “resolute, daring and audacious” apostle.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple Church, in London.


The New Cambridge Companion to St Paul
Bruce W. Longenecker, editor
CUP £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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