Book Review: Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers, Voices and Views on Paul

Witherington III, Ben and Jason A. Myers. Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly Trends. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2020. 233 pp. Pb; $30.  Link to IVP Academic

As the promotional material for this new book from IVP Academic indicates, there have been several major works published on Paul and his theology since Witherington’s The Paul Quest (InterVarsity, 1998).  Both James Dunn and N. T. Wright published massive theologies of Paul. E. P. Sanders published a book on Paul and his Letters in 2015. John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is widely regarded as a major contribution to Pauline studies. The goal of this book is to summarize the “latest developments” in Pauline studies beginning with a New Perspective on Paul.

Witherington, Voices and Views on PaulAccording to the preface, Witherington’s contribution to this book includes the chapter on N. T. Wright and the section on John Barclay and Stephen Chester; everything else was written by Myers. Both of Witherington’s contributions contain material which originally appeared on his blog.

The first chapter offers on overview on the New Perspective on Paul beginning with Krister Stendahl. This “retrospective” is a preview of the next three chapters which each deal with a major writer associated with the New Perspective, E. P. Sanders (“The Sanders Revolution”), N. T. Wright (“Climbing the Wright Mountain”) and James Dunn (“with Paul and the Boundary Markers”). Each of these chapters describes some of the influences which led to the scholar’s major contributions on Paul. Ths is followed by a fair summary of the details of the view and some critique. Occasionally this critique is quite pointed. For example, in discussing N. T. Wright’s view of the law of Christ, Witherington declares that Wright is simply wrong (p. 75). Later he offers his opinion that Stephen Chester’s view of Romans 7 “founders on the rocks of Philippians 3:6” (198).

The fifth chapter sketches the origins and current state of the apocalyptic reading of Paul. After defining apocalyptic, the chapter begins with Johannes Weiss who focused attention on the apocalyptic elements in Jesus’s teaching and Albert Schweitzer who argued Paul was a thoroughgoing apocalyptic thinker. However, Myers sees Ernst Käsemann’s challenge to Bultmann as the bedrock of the modern apocalyptic Paul view. He summarizes, “Käsemann put forth a radical vision of Paul captured and enraptured his students as well as subsequent interpreters of Paul” (150). These subsequent interpreters include J. Christiaan Beker, J. Louis Martyn, Martinus de Boer, and Beverly Gaventa. Martyn’s commentary on Galatians (AB, 1997) is perhaps the fullest statement of the apocalyptic view, although he published an article as early as 1967 which laid the foundation for his later work. Although Käsemann saw the parousia as the main apocalyptic event, Martyn focused his attention on the cross as the key example of Paul’s apocalyptic thought. For Martyn, it is the cross the divides the ages and represents God’s invasion of this word to defeat the dark forces. Following Jorge Frey, Myers finds this proposal of an invasion to be “deeply flawed and to be a seeming modern attempt to make sense of an ancient world” (160).

The final chapter covers two “Other Voices, Other Views,” John Barclay and Stephen Chester. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2017) studies grace in an ancient context in order to create a broad taxonomy (“perfections”). One contribution of Barclay’s study is to point out how Grace functions differently an ancient benefaction culture (we are a gift often implied some responsibility or expectation of a return gift) than it does in a modern context (which usually emphasizes a gift given with no thought of return). Although this conclusion does not appear until the final chapter, the writers suggest that Barclay’s view on grace could really change the understanding of some aspects of Paul’s thought (222).

The second half of this chapter focuses on Stephen Chester’s Reading with the Reformers: Reconciling the Old and New Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2017). Chester argues later Lutheran and Reformed traditions do not always engage with the reformers themselves and do not always do justice to their views on Paul. The New Perspective challenged some classic reformation formulations of justification by faith or imputation of sin. What Chester just is that the new perspective is challenging Lutheran and Reformed descendants of Luther and Calvin rather than the reformers themselves.

In a final chapter, Witherington and Myers ask if there is an “Appalling Amount of Paul” in New Testament scholarship today. As it turns out, there may not be enough. They offer three examples. The views covered in this book do not focus on how radical Paul was from a Jewish perspective. Certainly “Paul the Jew” is more prominent since E. P. Sanders, but this is not the central focus of most Pauline studies.  Second, the writers complain most of these studies “truncate Paul” by ignoring books like 2 Thessalonians or Colossians (they do not even mention Ephesians or the Pastorals). Third, another serious omission in most Pauline studies is an account of Paul the missionary. Part of the problem is suspicion of the historical value of the book of Acts in scholarship. Yet Paul presents himself as a preacher of the gospel in his letters. How might Paul’s role as a missionary affect his theology?

Conclusion. I have a few minor quibbles regarding the content. Rather than four chapters on the New Perspective on Paul (the retrospective and one chapter each on Sanders, Dunn, and Wright), this book could be improved by devoting at least a full chapter to the so-called “Paul within Judaism” approach, probably featuring Mark Nanos (which would provide at least one more bad pun in a chapter title). Nanos (and similar scholars) are relegated to a footnote in the concluding chapter. In the chapter on the apocalyptic Paul, they only mention Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans 2009) in a footnote. Given his weighty contribution, Campbell deserved more attention. However, given the goals for this short book, decisions needed to be made and not everyone’s favorite Pauline interpreter will make the cut.

This book will make an excellent textbook for a Pauline literature course at the undergraduate or graduate level. In fact, seminaries should require this book to give a quick overview of Pauline studies over the last 30 years. The authors have clearly and concisely summarized massive quantities of Pauline theology and made it accessible to those who don’t have the time to wade through a 1700-page book on Pauline Theology.

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

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