Lisa Bowens on African-American Readings of Paul

Lisa Bowens on African-American Readings of Paul November 15, 2020

Lisa M. Bowens
African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance & Transformation
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
Available from Eerdmans

Okay, easily one of the best reads in biblical studies for 2021 has to be Lisa Bowen’s book on the reception of Paul in African-American interpretation.

After the first two pages I was hooked.

Due to the Pauline household codes, i.e. slaves obey your masters, you would expect or understand why African-Americans in the 19th century might not be a fan of Paul. However, Bowens shows that the picture is far more complex and diverse than that. The Pauline household codes were negotiated and even re-tooled as arguments against slavery. Beyond that, Acts 17:26 (from one blood he has made every nation of people) and Gal 3:28 (In Christ there is neither slave nor free) loom large as favourite texts. Paul was very important for how African-Americans told their conversion stories, he figured prominently among African-Americans abolitionists and among the first African-Americans women preachers, and of course you can find many quotations and allusions to Paul in the writings of Frederick Douglas in the letters and sermons of Martin Luther King.

There’s some harrowing stuff that is hard to read. Courts acquitted slave owners over raping their slaves. The brutality of slave owners and the misery of slaves. How religion was used to justify the evils of and even the evils in slavery. But, as Bowens points out, “African-Americans engaged in a reclamation or resistance hermeneutic in which they reclaimed Paul for themselves in their fight and struggle against injustice and asserted their use of him in their resistance of racism” (p. 6).

I knew some of this stuff, I saw the movie Roots, I’ve read a few MLK sermons, I’ve picked up stuff from history and the odd lecture here and there, but it really was an eye-opening book to see how Paul shaped the diverse expressions of African-Americans Churches in light of the American practice of slavery. Bowens narrates short biographies of so many individual figures you’ve probably never heard of but have great stories to tell, like Maria Stewart, the first American-born woman of any race to lecture on politics; Daniel Payne, America’s first African-Americans college president; and Harriet Jacobs, the first African-American woman to write an autobiography.

This is a book that is very readable, quite stirring and convicting, and could certainly be used in courses on the Apostle Paul, it’d be great for an assigned book review or a special seminar.

If you like this, you will also like Esau Macaully’s book Reading While Black, and  Anthony Bradley’s volume Why Black Lives Matter.

Here’s a summary of Bowen’s book from the website


The letters of Paul—especially the verse in Ephesians directing slaves to obey their masters—played an enormous role in promoting slavery and justifying it as a Christian practice. Yet despite this reality African Americans throughout history still utilized Paul extensively in their own work to protest and resist oppression, responding to his theology and teachings in numerous—often starkly divergent and liberative—ways.

In the first book of its kind, Lisa Bowens takes a historical, theological, and biblical approach to explore interpretations of Paul within African American communities over the past few centuries. She surveys a wealth of primary sources from the early 1700s to the mid-twentieth century, including sermons, conversion stories, slave petitions, and autobiographies of ex-slaves, many of which introduce readers to previously unknown names in the history of New Testament interpretation. Along with their hermeneutical value, these texts also provide fresh documentation of Black religious life through wide swaths of American history. African American Readings of Paul promises to change the landscape of Pauline studies and fill an important gap in the rising field of reception history.

Table of Contents

Introduction: African American Pauline Hermeneutics
Chapter 1: Early Eighteenth Century to Early Nineteenth Century
Chapter 2: Mid-Nineteenth Century to Late Nineteenth Century
Chapter 3: Late Nineteenth Century to First Half of Twentieth Century
Chapter 4: Pauline Language in Enslaved Conversion Experiences and Call Narratives
Chapter 5: African American Pauline Hermeneutics and the Art of Biblical Interpretation

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