Paul Then and Now— Part One

Paul Then and Now— Part One January 13, 2023

(Eerdmans,  2022, 264 pages, $30.00 hardcover)

The cover photo is a Rembrandt, depicting himself as, or as like St. Paul.  Doubtless since the Protestant Reformation many persons have seen themself in light of St. Paul, and conversely seen St. Paul through the lens of themselves— looking down the well of history and seeing their own reflection.  Protestants love to see themselves as on the same side and wavelength as St. Paul and vice versa.  And this includes not only Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Zwingli, John Knox, John Wesley and many others since the various Protestant reformations.   This new collection of essays by Matthew Novenson is important, not least for its insistence that a historical critical study of Paul is crucial for he was a man of his own day, and in various ways should and will seem strange to any of us in the 21rst century if we really do our best to avoid anachronism in the interpretation of his letters.  And certainly Novenson, who is now in the position Larry Hurtado of blessed memory used to hold at Edinburgh, helps us in seeing Paul as a man of his own time, and indeed of continuing relevance for our own disjointed and chaotic times.   I regularly remind my students that. Christianity was a tiny minority religion even late in the first century A.D. with lots of competition in the Greco-Roman world.  His world was no less daunting for Gospel proclamation than ours, indeed a good case can be made it is more daunting.

Sometimes a collection of mostly already published essays on some subject doesn’t really much forward the discussion on a topic as complex as Paul and his letters, but this collection definitely moves the needle in various important ways.  It raises the question, just how radical a Jew was Paul in his post Damascus Road encounter phase of life.  Was he really a convert, and if so— to what?  A new religion?  Or a new more radical version of Judaism?  Inquiring minds want to know.   In the posts that follow this one, we will probe some of the more salient points that Matthew makes in his book, and you can see what you think.  One thing I can promise you— the discussion is far from just a rehash of previous discussions about Paul, and it sheds light in various ways on how we should or shouldn’t interpret the man, his beliefs, and his behaviors. Stay tuned.

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