How to Read the Apostle Paul in the New Testament

How to Read the Apostle Paul in the New Testament December 15, 2022

How to Read the Apostle Paul in the New Testament

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Only a few books other than the Bible have transformed me. Some have been fiction (The Count of Monte Cristo) and some have been non-fiction (I and Thou). When I entered my PhD studies in Religious Studies at Rice University I still had a rather naive approach to reading the Bible, including the New Testament. I had no idea, for example, about things like redaction criticism.

I took three seminars in New Testament by scholars Werner Kelber and Etienne Trocme. I also met and had lengthy and stimulating conversations after lectures by E. P. Sanders and Robert Jewett—two notable New Testament scholars. Later, in Germany, I heard lectures by other New Testament scholars including Helmut Koester and Martin Henkel.

One book that I read for a seminar taught by Kelber especially changed my whole perspective on reading and understanding the Apostle Paul’s genuine and debated epistles. We spent two semesters studying “Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence.” (Trocme led his seminar about the redaction theme of early Christians versus synagogue leaders among first century Jews.)

The book was “Paul’s Anthropological Terms: A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings” (E. J. Brill, 1971) by New Testament scholar Robert Jewett who went on after that book to write many, many more books of Christian scholarship on different topics. I spent part of an afternoon in one-on-one conversation with Jewett. I asked him, for example, if he believed in the miracles reported in the New Testament and he said he did. So that told me he was not an out-and-out liberal (theologically).

Unfortunately, “Paul’s Anthropological Terms” is out of print and, when it was in print, it cost what was for me a fortune. But it was worth it. I read it at least twice, taking copious notes. In Kelber’s seminar we slogged through it for weeks.

What did I learn from Jewett’s book? Very succinctly, that Paul, especially in his “Corinthian correspondence,” often used his opponents’ terms, turning them against them, and often quoted from his opponents. “My Bible” didn’t put those quotations from Paul’s opponents in quotation marks! But I had often wondered why Paul would say “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food….” Jewett, as I recall, argued that in this case and many others Paul was quoting from something his opponents said and that was repeated to him in a letter from the Corinthian Christians.

Jewett also taught me that Paul wrote three letters to the Corinthians—that we have! 1 Corinthians is one letter, but 2 Corinthians is two letters. Also, he taught me that Paul’s opponents were of two kinds. The opponents to whom he was responding in 1 Corinthians were proto-gnostics while the opponents in 2 Corinthians were false apostles claiming to be “divine men.”

That immediately opened my eyes to a relevance of both (or three) letters I had never before fully recognized. When I was growing up Pentecostal we had among us semi- or quasi-gnostics and people who claimed that a truly Spirit-filled person could become so much like God as to be in two places at once or be transported through space from one location to another—by the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I saw and read the Corinthian correspondence in a whole new light—as responding to particular issues among the Corinthian “Christians” that were issues among Pentecostals and some other Christians now.

I was taught, growing up, that the Bible was kind of a “manuscript from heaven”—not necessarily dictated by God but verbally inspired and not situated historically or theologically. It was all a “flat surface” to be interpreted as applying to all people in the same way at all times and in all places. Suddenly I realized that Paul wrote his epistles to specific people with specific problems and issues with particular controversies in mind. I began to read the whole New Testament that way as I was introduced to redaction criticism.

Now, no doubt someone will object to my use of redaction criticism in reading and interpreting the New Testament. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to teach theology at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in St. Paul, Minnesota to find that one of my colleagues, Robert Stein, was an expert in redaction criticism of the New Testament! (Bethel is a well-known evangelical institution with conservative leanings.) Reading his scholarly articles about the use of redaction criticism in reading and interpreting the New Testament continued my enlightened reading of the New Testament and gave me assurance that it was not necessarily contrary to belief in the inspiration and authority of the New Testament! (Stein went on to teach New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under President Al Mohler!)

Now, when I read the New Testament (and to a lesser extent the Old Testament) I ask myself questions like “To whom was this written and why?” And “What particular theological questions is this answering?” And “What controversy was going on in the first century churches that occasioned this book or passage to be written?”

If you are interested in this, I urge you to beg, borrow, buy or steal (not really) a copy of “Paul’s Anthropological Terms….” And find copies of Stein’s articles.

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