Luke Timothy Johnson
Constructing Paul: The Canonical Paul – Volume 1
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
Available at Amazon.com
Luke Timothy Johnson’s two-volume The Canonical Paul has its first installation with Constructing Paul. LTJ writes as a critical admirer and advocate of Paul and he regards Paul as “personally the true heart of the New Testament and [giving] the framework for my self-understanding as a Christian” (2). But Paul and his letters are not self-interpreting or self-describing, they must be constructed, and then playfully deconstructed. One of the problems with studying Paul says LTJ as it is driven by a division of the letters into authentic and inauthentic, or else people simply hyper-canonize a special portion of Paul like Romans and Galatians. But the supposedly authentic letters are hardly monolithic in things like eschatology. Johnson believes that there is no center to Paul’s letters, but certain clusters, clusters that are diverse and defy any kind of reductionism. Those clusters are: Thessalonians, Galatians/Romans, Corinthians, Colossians/Ephesians, Pastoral Epistles; Philippians/Philemon. Johnson aims to expound in this first volume Paul’s life and thought with a view to playfully deconstructing his framework in a subsequent volume. The first section covers the issue of sources and history like letters, Acts, chronology, early life, persecution of the church, conversion, opponents, patterns of ministry, Pauline apocrypha, epistolary context and structures, and place in early Christianity. The second section is about Paul’s symbolic world including Paul’s identity as a “prophetic” Jew, his use of Scripture, his relation to rhetoric and philosophy, education and ethics. The third section covers topics arising from Paul’s letters such as religious experience, metaphors for salvation and the church, using Philemon as a test case for Paul’s voice, then finally (and the true highlight the work) discussing whether Paul is an oppressor or liberator! LTJ provides a book that is uniquely critical while religiously conservative and resolutely canonical in its approach to Paul. It has a lot of things that LTJ is known for, knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, penetrating analysis of difficult questions, an eye for detail, theological depth, and is written in a straight forward style. Well worth the time to read.