Paul’s Jewish Heritage (Philippians 3:4-6)

One of the most important starting points for the study of Paul is the simple recognition that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora, yet received training in Jerusalem from the prominent teacher Gamaliel.  While this seems to be a rather obvious observation, scholarship has drifted between two poles, Paul the Greek and Paul the Jew. By describing Paul as a “Hellenistic Jew who was born in the Diaspora,” I hope to avoid either extreme.

Paul’s claim in Philippians 3:4-6 is that he is a proper Jew: circumcised on the eighth day indicates that he comes from a family that is keeping the Jewish traditions despite living in Tarsus. It is possible there were Diaspora Jews who did not keep this tradition or even did not circumcise their sons. The reference to being a member of Israel connects Paul to the covenant as a member of Abraham’s family. Paul was not a Jew pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.

Paul also boasts about his heritage as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. This is significant since not every Jew in the first century could claim to know they were from a particular tribe. Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, Gamaliel, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.

The phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3:4-6 can be taken in several ways. This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home. If there is an increasing specificity in the list of descriptions, then Paul is claiming to have come from a conservative Jewish family who maintained their Jewish distinctives even though they lived in Tarsus, far from Jerusalem.

As J. B. Lightfoot once observed, Paul is making a progressive argument. A convert to Judaism may be circumcised. A few proselytes might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew! Paul is clear this heritage is of no value now that he is “in Christ,” but it seems obvious Paul’s Jewish heritage is one of the major factors behind his successful evangelism.

Pamela Eisenbaum provocatively titled here 2009 book Paul was not a Christian (Harper One, 2009). She argues Paul is best understood in a Jewish context. As her book argues, Paul’s letters are only Christian because Christians chose to canonize them. According to Eisenbaum, there are not many distinctly “Christian” elements in the books, he is a Jew concerned with how other Jews understand a particular messianic claim (namely, that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah). On the one hand, I am not at all persuaded by the book (obviously Paul was a Christian!), but she does make the point well that Paul is not a Christian in the sense that a post-Reformation follower of Jesus is a Christian. I doubt Paul would fit in at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society or the Southern Baptist Convention.

But Paul is certainly cannot be described as a traditional Jewish teacher following in the footsteps of his mentor Gamaliel. By following Jesus, Paul in some sense departs from Second Temple Judaism as we know it. Ye how far does Paul depart from his heritage? In some ways his theology is certainly radical, but perhaps not as radical as often assumed.

Book Giveaway – Charles Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount (Baker Academic)

Cover ArtOnce again, to celebrate the end of the summer and beginning of the new academic year, I am giving away a few books. In this case, it is another book I purchase and then discovered I already had it on the shelf. Since I am planning to teach through the Sermon on the Mount in my Sunday School class this fall, I went to Baker Book House in Grand Rapids picked up several classic books on the Sermon. I grabbed a copy of Talbert’s Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5–7 and did not realize I already had it until I put it on the shelf. The good news is I am now offering a copy to a reader of this blog.

In his back-of-the-book endorsement, Dale C. Allison Jr. said “Charles H. Talbert’s expertise regarding the relevant ancient sources, whether Greco-Roman or Jewish, is matched by his thorough familiarity with recent critical study of the Sermon on the Mount. He is also theologically sensitive and hermeneutically sophisticated. The result is a lucid and sure guide to the minefield that is the Sermon on the Mount.”

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment with your name so I can contact you if you win. I will randomize the names from the comments and select one winner at random.

I will announce the winner picked at random on September 8, 2017 (one week from now). Good Luck!

Book Giveaway Winner! – Paul Borgman’s The Way according to Luke (Eerdmans)

Last week I announced I would celebrate the new school year by giving away a copy of First up is Paul Borgman’s The Way according to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts (Eerdmans, 2006). This is my own copy of the book, which I purchased twice (which I assume is a sign of impending old age).

There were 22 people signed up (I allowed only one entry per person). I took each of your names, sorted randomly and then pasted them into Excel. gave me a number between 1-22, and the winner is….

Brian (who “Always enjoy reading this blog”) 

Congrats to Brian. Please contact me via email (plong42 at gmail .com) or a DM on twitter (@Plong42) with your mailing address and I will pop this book in the mail ASAP. I will launch the next give away this afternoon, so be sure to check back soon.


New Fall Series: Thinking through Paul

Since this is an odd-numbered Fall, I am teaching Pauline Literature. For a textbook I will be I will be using Longenecker and Still, Thinking through Paul (Zondervan, 2014). This will be my second time using this this book for the class. Although some of my undergraduates found it challenging the first time I used it, the general consensus from student evaluations was that the book was very user-friendly and helpful a supplement for the class lectures.

Both Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still are top-notch Pauline scholars and the book is designed as college textbook with plenty of photographs, charts and sidebars. As far as I know there is no name for this textbook series, but I have used the New Testament volumes several times each (Mark Strauss, Four Portraits and Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church). All three are very good undergraduate or graduate level textbooks and have been popular with the students. If I was teaching at the graduate level, I would supplement the textbooks with additional monographs on specific issues.

What I have appreciated about this book in preparing for class this summer is the balance between the theology of Paul’s letters and the kind of introductory material these kind of textbooks usually are required to cover. It is easy to get bogged down in the details of authorship, destination and chronology and give less emphasis to Paul’s thoughts. Thinking through Paul emphasizes Paul’s theology over the more controversial (and tedious) aspects of Paul’s letters. That is not to say I will not dwell on the tedious from time to time as we move through the semester, but the textbook at least avoids the dismal swamp of typical New Testament introductions.

For the next few months on this blog I plan on “thinking through Paul” with Longenecker and Still. Although I will not always be interacting with them, I want to work my way through Paul’s letters, both in terms of content and theology. I recently finished Barclay’s Paul and the Gift as well as the second edition of his Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews. Both were very stimulating as I prepared lectures this summer. I also read Michael Bird’s collection of essays Paul: An Anomalous Jew in preparation for this class and will integrate some of this articles as I work through the Pauline Letters.

One of the more fascinating books I read this summer was Bruce Winter’s Divine Honours for the Caesars. I have always been interested in so-called “anti-imperial” readings of Paul, and this book provides a great deal of fodder for how Gentile Christians dealt with the Roman Imperial cult. Material from this book will certainly turn up when we get to Corinthians, Romans 13, and likely as not Ephesians. I also have just about finished the collection of essays edited by Boccaccini and Segovia, Paul the Jew. There is much in this book which I need to integrate into my Pauline Literature class and will turn up with some regularity in future blogs.

I plan on full reviews of each of these books in the near future.

I am curious what regular readers of Reading Acts would like to see covered within this overall framework? Are there any elements of Paul’s theology are overlooked or under-emphasized? What about application of Pauline theology to mission? While I know a few regular commentators well enough that I can guess their response, I am curious to hear what others have to say as well.

Book Review: Laansma and Gauthier, The Handy Guide to Difficult and Irregular Greek Verbs

Laansma, Jon C. and Randall X. Gauthier. The Handy Guide to Difficult and Irregular Greek Verbs. Aids for Readers of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel Academic, 2017. 80 pgs; Pb. $13.99 Link to Kregel

Kregel Academic recently sent me a copy of their latest volume in the “Handy Guide” series of New Testament Greek tools. The first in the series was Douglas S. Huffman, The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek (reviewed here). Like this previous handbook, Laansma and Gauthier provide a user-friendly quick reference which will be an important supplement to any New Testament Greek course.

The Handy Guide to Difficult and Irregular Greek VerbsThe goal of The Handy Guide to Difficult and Irregular Greek Verbs is to provide a set of vocabulary aids not found in other vocabulary lists. Most beginning Greek students tend to think of the present active first singular forms as a kind of “default” for a Greek verb, but this is often an unfortunate assumption. The authors therefore define a “difficult or irregular verb” from the perspective of that first year Greek student: these are the verbs which have unusual principle parts and are therefore the most difficult to recognize while reading the New Testament.

My typical approach to principle parts has been to have students memorize the 25 most common irregular verbs in the second semester of Greek, and then another 15 in the third semester (reviewing the original 25). The problem with this method is some principle parts are so rare in the Greek New Testament it is not profitable to memorize them. Laansma and Gauthier point out that φέρω occurs 192x in various compound forms, but the second principle part οἴσω only appears three times. It is probably a waste of student effort to memorize the rare form, but it is important to memorize the third principle part, the aorist form ἤνεγκα since it more common and used in compound forms.

The best thing about this book is the four page list of irregular verbs ordered by frequency in the New Testament. Each block of 10-12 forms are assigned a letter (a-j). The list begins with δόντος (the aorist active participle, masculine genitive singular of δίδωμι). Although δίδωμι itself only appears 415x in the Greek New Testament, compound forms run that number closer to 600x. By learning this form, the student will recognize forms of παραδίδωμι and ἀποδίδωμι, for example.

Part 2 of the book is an alphabetical list of verbs with their compound forms. Taking φέρω as an example, they list the six principle parts, printing the most common in bold and indicating which of the lists in part 1 the form appeared. Only the aorist and aorist passive forms are common enough to appear on the lists in part 1, the future active appears online three times and the perfect middle/passive does not appear at all in the Greek New Testament.

The book has two appendices. The first prints the full paradigms of εἰμί and ἵημι in present and imperfect forms. The first is the extremely common to-be verb and appears in numerous compound forms and must be memorized if one is going to read Greek. This second form is not found in the New Testament, but compound forms are common (ἀφίημι for example). The second appendix deals with perfect and pluperfect middle/passive forms as well as the optative mood. Although many of these are formed regularly, they are rare enough to qualify as “difficult” forms in this handbook.

Conclusion. This book should be in the hands of every Greek student as they struggle to read the New Testament. This handbook should be a go-to reference for difficult verbal forms.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Preview: Douglas Campbell, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey (Eerdmans, 2018)

Eerdmans recently sent me an uncorrected advanced copy of Douglas Campbell’s Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. The book will not be released until January 2018, so consider this a sneak peek at what I think will be a popular textbook for a Pauline Literature or Pauline Theology class at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

Campbell, Paul, an apostle's journeyAt slightly less than 200 pages book is brief and it is written with the layperson in mind. There are no long, drawn out discussions of the New Perspective on Paul or highly technical theological language in the book, nor does Campbell engage the Greek text except on rare occasions. The book uses endnotes, which I do not like, but they do make the book read much more smoothly. The book has a number of personal insights which draw the ancient text forward to contemporary issues. Chapters conclude with a series of questions designed for group discussions or perhaps even short writing prompts for papers.

As he does in detail in Framing Paul (Eerdmans, 2014), Campbell tells the story of Paul’s life based on the Epistles first, and then uses the book of Acts. Since there are so many questions surrounding the authorship and genre of Acts, many scholars consider the story of Paul in Acts to be a hagiography written to support the unity of the early church and highlight the successes of the Pauline mission. For example, Campbell suggests Paul’s visit to Athens is intentionally modeled after Socrates, a wise man who was unjustly arrested and executed. Although Campbell things Acts is “99 percent accurate” (p. 5), he still argues a sound historical methodology should use the authentic letters of Paul to “frame” the contours of Paul’s life before turning to the book of Acts.

Framing Paul’s story with the Epistles rather than Acts results in two detailed periods in Paul’s life. First, the events around the time of his conversion are clear from the epistles, especially Galatians, from A.D. 31-41. Second, the events of A.D. 49-52 are very detailed based on the Corinthian letters and Paul’s anxious comments at the end of Romans concerning his plans to return to Jerusalem with the collection. Acts is the only source for Paul’s life after this time (his arrest in Jerusalem, house arrest in Caesarea, journey to Rome and house arrest in Rome). For the most part, this “last journey” (Acts 20-28) is the subject of the final chapter of the book.

This book is more than the story of Paul’s missionary journeys. Campbell suggests Paul makes a theological journey as well. Clearly his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus changed his thinking considerably, but as he encountered new challenges as the apostle to the Gentiles Paul was forced to think and rethink how the Gospel challenges the culture of the first century. For example, Campbell has two chapters on the Corinthian church: “Culture Wars at Corinth” and “Navigating Sex and Gender.” Both of these chapters concern how the Gospel ought to change the way Corinthian Gentiles think about common cultural practices.

The second part of the book covers several theological topics. Campbell deals with “enemies” of Paul, the covenant vs. contract, the status of Israel, and eschatology. The title of the chapter on Paul’s view of the future for Israel is entitled “God wins” and deals in part with the difficult text in Romans 11 that “all Israel will be saved.” He points out Paul’s argument is based on the Old Testament motif of the remnant, God never lets go of Israel. What is more, God is a covenantal God who always faithful to his promises. Therefore, “all Israel will be saved” means just that. It is a kind of “Pauline universalism” based on the character of God. Campbell says “the covenant is unbreakable, and ultimately enwraps us all in the gracious purpose of God that was established with us through his son before the foundation of the world” (169). The following few paragraphs unpack tentatively a sort of universalism, “I expect everyone to be raised in glory, although some more shamefacedly than others.” In an endnote, Campbell points out his view here is not far from C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Intriguing, but I suspect this controversial conclusion will draw attention away from the rest of the book.

I am looking forward to seeing the final form of this introduction to the life of Paul.



Book Review: Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline

Kimble, Jeremy M. 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2017. Pb. 272 pp. $23.99.   Link to Kregel

If recent studies are accurate, both church attendance and church membership in America are in decline. This is true for mainline denominations as well as Evangelical churches. While there are any number of reasons for this decline, an often unaddressed factor is simply that people no longer see church membership as important and many find any talk of church discipline distasteful. American Christians are especially independent and see any intrusion on their private life as a violation, even if this comes their voluntary association with a local church.

40 Questions About Church Membership and DisciplineJeremy Kimble’s contribution to the growing 40 Questions series from Kregel Academic covers the two related topics of church membership and discipline both as an academic issue and a pastoral problem. Each are examined through the lens of a biblical theology, but Kimble devotes large sections of the book to how membership and discipline ought to operate in the local church.

The first four chapters form an introduction defining church, church membership and church discipline. Kimble defines the “universal church” as “the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit” (21) who then gather locally to “worship, hear the Word of God preached, observe the ordinances, affirm and oversee one another’s membership, exercise discipline when needed, and encourage one another to live faithfully as a Christian” (22). This book is more interested in the local church, so he quickly moves to what membership in a local might look like.

Beginning with Jonathan Leeman’s definition of church membership, Kimble argues membership is a voluntary relationship in which an individual submit themselves to the authority of a local church in order to live out their Christian life. This relationship includes submission to church discipline in order to correct persistent sin. Discipline can be both formative (part of the discipleship process) and corrective of a particular sin. Corrective discipline may include removal from membership and excommunication (36).

The second section of the book covers sixteen questions on church membership divided into three sub-categories (theological, ministry and practical questions). Kimble must deal with the theological problem of grounding modern church membership to the biblical data. In order to do this, he outlines a pattern from covenant relationship of the Old Testament people of God. To be a member of the Covenant people carried rights and responsibilities, which establish a pattern found in the New Testament. Kimble says New Testament church membership is a “formal commitment or covenant between an individual and a local church” (47), citing several passages describing the responsibility we have toward one another in the church. A potential problem for Kimble is many of these texts are universal (love one another in John 13:34-35).

The third section of the book covers another eighteen questions on church discipline divided into the same three categories. After a chapter on Old Testament patterns of disciple, Kimble discusses the two most significant texts for church discipline in the New Testament, Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Live several chapters in this book, most of this material is taken from Kimble’s monograph That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Kimble argues Paul’s command to corporately discipline the young man in 1 Corinthians 5 is based on the Old Testament pattern (citing Lev 24:14, Num 15:35 and Deut 19-10). Because of the style of the Forty Questions series, these chapters are frustratingly brief, although Kimble provides excellent references to other literature in the footnotes for those wishing to pursue the exegesis of these two important texts.

Since Paul quoted the Old Testament in 1 Corinthians 5:13 in the context of dealing with heinous sin in the Christian community, Kimble sees the Old Testament pattern of expelling an unrepentant sinner from the community of Israel as a pattern for church discipline. His motivation is his insistence on one “people of God” on both the Old and New Testament. But there are some potential problems with this use of the Law as a pattern or trajectory for church matters. In Deuteronomy 13:5 or 17:7, the verses Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 5:13, the unrepentant sinner was not simply excluded from the camp, he was to be executed! Although he fails to mention it in his brief chapter on disciple in Church history, Calvin had the heretic Servetus executed.

Kimble obviously does not think church discipline ought to culminate in execution, but he needs to explain more completely how this method for applying the Jewish Law to Church practice works on an exegetical level. Kimble would not (I assume) use the ritual for determining the guilt of a woman accused of adultery in Numbers 5:11-31 as a “pattern” for dealing with adultery in the church today. He does mention several views on the continuity between the Testaments in his introductory chapters, but this is not a very detailed discussion of how the Law ought to function (or not) in the church. Since the book is designed to only briefly answer particular questions, there is little room for a fully nuanced discussion of how to apply the Law in the contemporary church, so Kimble cannot be faulted for this lack of clarity.

The final two chapters treat the significance of church membership and discipline for both theology and the Christian life. Here Kimble argues both church membership and church discipline are necessary for a more pure church, a spotless bride prepared presented to Christ (262). By voluntarily submitting to the authority of a church body, the believer in Christ is recognizing that their life (both doctrine and behavior) have eternal significance.

A potential problem for any book on these issues is reading the New Testament anachronistically. Church membership as described by Kimble is rather modern, and perhaps could be describes as American Evangelical church membership and discipline. I happen to think he gets most of the details right, but can these details be established from the text of the New Testament? The book of Acts describes the first thirty years of the church, and even when supplemented by the Pauline letters, it hard to develop a clear biblical theology of church membership as it appears in contemporary culture. Nevertheless Kimble avoids pushing too many modern church practices into the world of the New Testament.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.