Paul Books

Introductory Books

Cousar, Charles B. The Letters of Paul. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996. This short text (180 pages) is more topical than survey-like. A major portion is devoted to the theology of Paul’s ‘undisputed’ letters, and a shorter section covers the ‘deutero-Pauline’ letters. The vignettes are helpful and cover topics like the Christ event, ‘the old life and the new’, and ’embodying the gospel’. All the major areas you would expect are covered at least on a basic level. He seems to be balanced in his views with no particular bent towards a group of scholars. From his notes he seems to appreciate S. Stowers, R. Hays, L. Keck and J.D.G. Dunn. Cousar teaches at Columbia Theological Seminary (Georgia).

Capes, D., R. Reeves, and E.R. Richards. Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology. There are two important things you should know about this textbook. It is written for beginners (i.e. undergrads) and it is unabashedly evangelical. Thus, as a textbook, it is meant to serve a particular kind of professor and student. Insofar as its purpose involves the above issues, it is quite a good option for use in the classroom. It engages in most of the relevant background issues for Paul and goes through each of the letters of the pauline corpus. Probably the best information is front-loaded in the introductory chapters on Paul’s social world, the hypothetical chronology of his work and writings, and a basic orientation towards his letters. I think the most valuable part of the book is the chapter on ‘Paul, the Letter Writer’ which really draws out how letters were written and the complexity of the whole process. I actually learned quite a lot from this. Unfortunately, that is not enough to warrant using it as a textbook. Personally, I would stick with Gorman’s book, but, to my shock, Gorman actually endorses this textbook! Well, I guess he presumed that his book aimed at a different audience.

Something I found a bit odd was that the ‘original’ take on how to approach was that our view of Paul today is mundane one that has de-radicalized him. So, Capes et al. wish for the church to ‘rediscover Paul’ and instead of finding the Paul they want to find. What is strange (or perhaps predictable) is that the authors of this books want an evangelical Paul and….they found him! Now, don’t get me wrong – I am an evangelical. But, this approach seemed a bit odd.

A second concern I found with the book is the organization of the chapters that work through Paul’s letters themselves. In a chapter on, let’s say, Galatians, there did not seem to be a pattern of how they walked through the epistle. It seemed a bit haphazard where they point out an interesting theme or issue here or there. I would have liked a more consistent approach that is used in each chapter dealing with the epistles – whether thematic, historical or going section-by-section through the epistle (Howard Marshall’s NT Theology does pretty well on this). Overall, students and lecturers may find it useful and informative especially on background issues, but I probably will not use it in class.

Dunn, James D.G. The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Cambridge: University Press, 2003. The ‘Cambridge companion’ series has come to hold a place of high respect in academia for consistently choosing experts in the field to edit and contribute to the particular topic at hand whether it be biblical interpretation, Karl Barth, medieval Jewish thought or Islamic theology (not to mention contributions to philosophy, history and classics). This collection of essays from various contributors is organized into four parts. The first part, Paul’s Life and Work, aims at backgrounding and contextualizing the Apostle with essays by Klaus Haacker (known for work on Romans) and Stephen C. Barton (known for social-scientific criticism, gospels study [and my doctoral supervisor!]).

The second part covers Paul’s letters with contributions by Margaret Mitchell (U. of Chicago) on 1/2 Thessalonians, Bruce Longenecker (Univ. of St. Andrews) on Galatians, Jeromy Murphy-O’Connor (Jerusalem) on 1/2 Corinthians, Robert Jewett (?) on Romans, Morna Hooker (Cambridge) on Philippians, Loren Stuckenbruck (Durham) on Colossians/Philemon, Andrew Lincoln (Gloucestershire) on Ephesians and Arland Hultgren (Luther Sem, Minnesota) on the ‘Pastoral epistles’. This as good of a profile of Pauline scholars as one could hope to collect with several writing in their speciality area.

In part three, the matter of Paul’s theology is taken up cover Jewish backgrounds (A. Segal), the nature and meaning of Paul’s ‘gospel’ (G. Stanton), his christology (L. Hurtado), ecclesiology (L.T. Johnson), and ethics (B. Rosner). Once again, one could not find essayists more suitable to their topics. The bigger problem is wishing the chapters were longer!

Part four covers the interpretation and meaning of Paul’s life, letters and theology throughout history. Calvin Roetzel studies Paul seen through the second century, Robert Morgan tackles the legacy of Paul, and Ben Witherington III sketches out contemporary perspectives on Paul.

As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed engaging in this work, and I return to it in my own doctoral studies for perspective and to learn especially from the last section’s discussion of the various interpreters of Paul throughout history. I think this would make an excellent text book for a class on Paul’s life and letters – especially in a secular environment where these authors offer simple explanations. But, in a seminary it would complement a more ‘survey-like’ book, because here you have the perspective of multiple authors. I think this is a must-have for any Paulinist. I think if the book of conceived of just a few years later, a chapter would be included on Paul and the Roman world (politics, empire, etc…). But, that is a small matter in comparison to its great strengths.

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. This book claims to be a ‘theological’ introduction to Paul because Gorman is interested in more than just description. This acts a survey of Paul’s letters and an attempt at finding out what drives Paul’s mission and ministry. In the first couple of chapters he covers Paul’s greco-roman context as well as his Jewish foundations as a Pharisee. He covers many key historical and cultural matters succintly including ‘honor and shame’, ‘pax romana’, ‘imperial cult’, Jewish apocalypticism, and important issues related to Paul’s call/conversion and apostlic self-understanding. At the end of each chapter he offers lists of relevant literature for further reading – annotated and organized into ‘general’ and ‘technical’ categories. In my opinion, the bibliographies are judicious and retain only the most influential and useful works (For instance, covering Paul’s apostleship we find in the bibliographies books by F.F. Bruce, Stendahl, Witherington, T. Donaldson, M. Hengel, R. Longenecker, Malina & Neyrey, Murphy-O’Connor, R. Reisner, Segal, and B. Winter).

A third introductory chapter relates to ancient letter writing and rhetoric. Given the heated issue of ‘authorship’ of the Pauline letters, there is sufficient grounds for the inclusion of such material.

Chapters 4-6 relate to the Apostle’s ‘gospel’ (treated narratively and apparently influenced by Wright), his ‘spirituality’ (a key word for Gorman, who prefers this term over the word ‘ethics’), and his theology. It is quite a challenge to attempt to distill Paul’s theology into one short chapter, so Gorman focuses on ‘a dozen fundamental convictions’ including topics such as: covenant, sin & law, righteousness/faithfulness of God (another Wright-ian influence), inaugurated eschatology, and cruciformity (similar to ‘interchange’; but focuses on the ethical element of conformity to Christ’s suffering).

The final chapters are a ‘chronological’ approach to each of Paul’s letters beginning with 1 Thessalonians. He backgrounds each epistle, gives a brief summative commentary on the major sections, and finishes each chapter with short snipits from modern commentaries.

One of my favorite parts of the this book is that Gorman attempts to give a short phrase to capture the essence of the epistle. For instance, Philemon is ‘the cross and the status quo’ and 1 Corinthians is ‘Chaos and the Cross in Corinth’. Some may argue against Gorman’s summary of any particular epistle – but it is a very challenging and rewarding thing to attempt and I commend him for that. When I taught a survey course on Paul, I had my students memorize a phrase for each epistle and many were based on Gorman’s. However, the idea of ‘cruciformity’ is central to his reading of Paul and thus it can be found in most of his phrases – something that I felt was a bit too repetitive for my taste. At the end of his 600 page textbook, he includes a brief epilogue.

One may think that introductions to Paul are plentiful – but they are not. It is hard to find a book that is broad enough in perspective that it can be freed from a particular person’s dogmatic theological perspective, and yet specific enough to say something substantial about Paul, his mission and his thinking. Gorman’s book is a decent length, covers all the major issues necessary, handles the epistles briefly but attempting to capture their essence, and does it in an unassuming way.

As a final note, some will inevitably disagree with him on authorship, but he keeps an open mind and it does not detract from his overall message. I think more scholars need to be more open-minded about issues of authorship which continues to prove more and more complex.

This book is really good as a textbook for seminary students and for those who need a light introduction to Paul (light meaning non-technical). Highly recommended!

Wright, N.T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. Given the impact that Wright has had on the ‘New Perspective on Paul’, he has focused relatively little attention to Paul in book form. This intoductory book seems to serve as a prelude to a more substantial volume that will appear in his acclaimed ‘Christian origins’ series. The book is separated into two major parts: themes and structures. Wright addresses introductory issues in his first ‘themes’ chapter and then moves on to discussing the theme of covenant (and sin; the ‘plight’), Jewish backgrounds of ‘Messiah and Apocalyptic’, and his more recent interest in anti-Imperial laguage in Paul. In the second section on ‘structures’, Wright takes up matters such as theology (proper, the understanding of God), the new understanding of the people of God, the ‘reimagining’ of eschatology, and the mission of the church. These chapters are a product of his participation in the Huslean Lectures in Cambridge – it is an honour for any biblical scholar to receive an invitation.

This book, because it derives from lectures, is light on footnotes and bibliographical information. However, if one wants to get a clear grasp of where Wright stands on a number of key Pauline issues, here is the place to look. He certainly repeats, but sometimes subtly re-works, his views that are articulated in other books or articles. For students or pastors who are relatively new to the whole realm of Pauline studies, this is a clear, well-written introduction, though Wright does not represent a particular interpretive group (though many want to simply lump him together with the ‘New Perspective School’). For those who have read extensively in Paul, this still offers a chance to step back and look at the forest. Either way, if you end of agreeing with Wright or not, he is a good historian, a thoughtful biblical theologian, a committed clergyman (bishop of Durham), an ethicist in some right, and an evangelist to the world (especially through his Simply Christian book on the Christian faith). Well worth a look!