Book Review: Jerry L. Sumney, Steward of God’s Mysteries

Sumney, Jerry L. Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 209 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

In recent years a number of books have been published making the claim Paul “invented Christianity.” For example, Hyam Maccoby’s The Mythmaker (Harper & Row, 1987), Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian (2010), Robert Orlando, Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe (Cascade, 2014) or Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian (St. Martins, 2008). These books argue for a strong contrast between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles, suggesting it is impossible Paul knew Jesus or his teachings. These claims are usually answered by examining theological connections between Jesus and Paul or answering the negative critiques directly. See, for example, Todd Still’s Jesus and Paul Reconnected (Eerdmans, 2007) or David Wenham’s Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? (Lion Hudson, 2011).

Jerry Sumney surveys this discussion in his first chapter (“Thinking about Paul’s Place in the Early Church”) and suggests a different method for connecting Paul to Jesus. Rather than finding connections between Jesus and Paul, his goal in this book is to “explore the relationship between the teachings of the earliest church and Paul’s thought” (15). Sumney defines “pre-Pauline tradition” as material which comes from “a time before Paul was influential in the church” (19). The book argues Paul “remained dependent on the theological ideas and developments that were in the church” (19). Paul was therefore not an independent voice creating doctrines no one in the church had ever considered before and he continued to stay connected to the wider church as he developed his theology. Yet there is some creativity in the way Paul developed the traditions he received.

To achieve this goal, Sumney will examine citations of “preformed tradition” in the undisputed Pauline letters. He recognizes the problems of confidently identifying preexisting tradition, so he proposes a fourteen-point criteria for identifying a particular text as pre-Pauline. These criteria and not unlike Hays’s famous seven criteria for detecting allusions to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament and have the same strengths and weaknesses. Some of these are clear and should not be controversial. For example, the presence of an introductory formula explicitly identifying a tradition or terminology which is absent elsewhere in Paul’s letters may indicate the use of a preformed tradition. If Paul shifts from first person plural to second or third person, especially with verbs of confession or praise he may be alluding to a tradition.

Other criteria are more open to debate. For example, Sumney includes the use of relative pronouns and participial phrases as an important indication Paul is alluding to a tradition. However, the use of relative clauses may be due to Paul’s writing style rather than a preformed tradition. He also sees statements which are not “fully congruent with the author’s theology seen elsewhere” (18) or is an interruption of the flow of a text as an indication of the presence of a tradition. This assumes Paul could not himself compose a one-off saying that is different than what appears in the rest of Romans or Galatians. It also assumes we understand “congruency of Pauline Theology” the same way Paul did. Since the database of Pauline letters is so small, unusual sayings or interruptions are to be expected.

Even with these objections, Sumney’s criteria are important since they control parallelomania. Outside of a few places in which Paul directly claims to be handing along a tradition (1 Cor 15:3-5, for example), Sumney recognizes his argument for any given text as a pre-Pauline tradition is inductive. The fourteen criteria are listed in order of significance, so that “parallels in rhythm of lines” does not carry the same weight as “presence of a citation formula.”

He applies this method in a series of thematic chapters: the meaning of Christ’s death (ch. 2); the identity of Jesus (ch. 3); “understandings of salvation” (ch. 4); the “The Coming of the Lord” (ch. 5); the Lord’s Supper (ch. 6). In each chapter he offers few paragraphs on each of the clearest allusions to pre-Pauline material, often interacting with the major commentaries.

Sumney begins with one of the clearest examples of Paul’s use of a tradition handed down to him, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. This text is a “confessional piece” which demonstrates the earliest church interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus through the lens of Scripture” (22). That Paul would consider Jesus as Lord (Phil 2:6-11) is certainly grounded in earliest Christian worship, since the church “had already assigned Jesus an exalted position as a messianic and eschatological figure” (55). This runs counter to some readings of Paul (James Tabor, for example). Sumney’s conclusions are in line with Richard Bauckham and Gordon Fee who also argue the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is akin to a creedal statement.

In his final chapter (“I Handed On to You . . . What I Received”), Sumney concludes that Paul was not the originator of the early church’s theology. “He seldom develops new assertions about Christ’s nature or word or other theological doctrine beyond what is found in the traditions he cites” (173).  If Paul cited (or alluded) to traditions, he expected his readers to recognize these statements For Sumney, Paul part of the mainstream of the early church (169) and he is the leading interpreter of the beliefs expressed in the church’s earliest traditions (174). Although it is clear Paul did often cite traditions handed down to him and likely used traditional language just as calling Jesus “Lord,” there is at least some evidence he stood outside the mainstream of the early church in some ways. A fair reading of Galatians 1-2 would indicate there was some tension between Paul and Peter, Barnabas, and the “men from James.”

Is it the case Paul always develops the traditions he received? Since his goal was to study the pre-Pauline material, Sumney does not attempt to examine the material which is unique in Paul. Despite the laudable goal of keeping Paul and Jesus as close as possible, there are theological points which do seem at odds with the rest of the earliest church. For example, Paul’s view of the role of the Law in the present age was controversial in the early church (Acts 15, Galatians). It is unlikely any Jewish Christian would have considered the guardianship of the Law was at an end “now that this faith has come” (Galatians 3:23-4:7). There are a few texts in which Paul claims to be speaking the words of the Lord as if he is a prophet (1 Cor 7:10 and perhaps 1 Thess 4:15). In proving Paul was not a “Lone Ranger” who was creating theology no one had ever considered before, is possible to flatten the distinctions and miss what is unique in Paul.

Nevertheless, Sumney succeeds in his goal of identifying many examples of Paul’s use of traditions which were in some sense handed down to him before he began to write his letters. By developing a clear method, Sumney is able to make a compelling case in nearly every example he offers in this book.

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

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Jerry L. Sumney, Steward of God’s Mysteries

  1. You mention that Galatians witnesses exceptions to Sumney’s findings, on the traditional understanding of the letter. But this all goes to show that the traditional understanding of Galatians is wrong! Everything is consistent when we realise that Paul wrote Galatians to refute the rumour: “Paul now approves of circumcision, but preaches gentile liberty to us to please the Jerusalem apostles”. With this understanding, Paul distances himself from the Jerusalem apostle because he agrees with them, not because he disagrees with them. The men “from James” had not been instructed by James or the other apostles (see Acts 15:24).

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    • Good comment, thanks Richard. My specific thought was Paul’s belief the time of the Law had both a beginning and an end. I am not sure any Jewish thinker (whether Christian or not) would have suggested the Law would cease to be authoritative. Even the language of “new covenant” does not replace the Torah with something else.

      I almost always saw “men allegedly from James.”

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  2. Thanks. Sounds like an interesting book (which I doubt I’ll have good opportunity to read, so this is good!) I hope to come back and comment further later, but as a blogger myself, I know it’s encouraging to hear from readers who get something from your work. So… till later!

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    • I think you would like his argument, but he support unity in the earliest church as well as congruence between Paul and Jerusalem. I sense you are more comfortable with the differences.

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      • Thanks, Phillip. It IS intriguing to note and try to decipher the “traditions”… of earliest beliefs and practices upon which Paul built. Also where he seems to have continued to have differences. It seems clear that James and his colleagues (Peter being perhaps somewhat an outlier by then?) did NOT just take Paul as having theological truth via “revelation” for whatever he might teach. Rather, they remained, at the least, suspicious (cf. end of Acts, the important book “A Polite Bribe”, by Orlando, which you reference, etc.).

        In the push-pull of congruence vs. difference, as you refer to, I suppose I AM “more comfortable with the differences” than conservative scholars are, though not necessarily weighting them over the congruence. (And I don’t pretend to be anything close to a specialist on Paul, but I think it important for ANY thinking Christian to pay some close attention to these issues.) Will we weight the emphases of Jesus at least as heavily, and seek to act on them, as we will those of Paul? They definitely differ some, and can’t be automatically taken as only complementary.

        In that vein, I think it only logical and evidenced by both Luke and Paul, that the Jerusalem group remained closer to the core aspects of Judaism as apparently Jesus had NOT taught them to depart from. (That would include the reported 40-day period between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, though Luke says he did teach and answer their questions, and Paul definitely was not there, if there even was such a teaching period.)

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