Book Review: Mark Harding and Alanna Nobbs, All Things to All Cultures

Harding, Mark and Alanna Nobbs. All Things to All Cultures: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 426 pp. Pb; $50.00. Link to Eerdmans

This collection of essays was sponsored by the Australian College of Theology and all the contributors have some connection to that institution or Macquarie University. The book is a companion to The Content and the Setting of the Gospel Tradition (Eerdmans, 2010). Like that earlier volume, All Things to All Cultures sets Pauline literature into a Greco-Roman context in order to illuminate the letters and theology of Paul. This is not intended to be comprehensive, nor do the authors agree on all aspects of Pauline studies. Each essay is a self-contained unit and includes a very helpful “recommended reading” list. There are two short appendices by Paul Barnett: “Paul and the Book of Acts” and “A Tabular Analysis of Paul’s Asian Epistles.”

The first four essays focus on introductory issues. Murray Smith provides an overview of recent developments in Pauline studies in “Paul in the Twenty-first Century.” Since there is an avalanche of scholarly interest in Paul in the last 30 years, Smith must work very hard to provide an overview of main contours of the current “debates” in a mere 33 pages (including 212 footnotes)!  The largest section of the essay is of course dedicated to the development of the New Perspective on Paul and the subsequent responses to Sanders, Dunn, Wright and others.

Harding and NobbsComparing the Letters of Paul and the book of Acts, David Eastman presents a basic chronology of Paul’s life (“Paul: An Outline of His Life”). This is always a controversial topic since there are a limited number of “fixed dates” from which to develop a chronology. Eastman dates the Damascus Road experience to 33/34 and the Jerusalem Council to 50/51. He takes Gal 2:1-10 as the same events of Acts 15. Eastman gives a wide range (62-68) for the death of Paul since the traditions concerning his death are unclear. He provides a chart comparing his chronology to other recent scholars (p. 52).

In some ways Cavan Concannon’s essay, “The Archaeology of the Pauline Mission” is unmanageably broad. The archaeology of Corinth or Ephesus would fill a much larger monograph. He therefore focuses his attention on brief surveys the four “Pauline” cities and then to specific topics for each city that specifically illuminate the letters of Paul. For Thessalonica, Concannon examines associations and sacred laws, for Philippi he focuses on Romanatis of the city. For Ephesus he limits his discussion to slavery and cultic practices. Finally, for Corinth he examines the place of women and the poor. This is an excellent strategy, although in each case there is little more than a sketch. Concannon does provide copious footnotes to relevant literature.

Finally in the first section of the book, Brent Nongbri examines the “Pauline Letter Manuscripts.” This is perhaps the least controversial element of Pauline studies, although Nongbri does comment on several competing theories for the development of collections of Pauline letters. The order and content of these collections vary and may have some bearing on current developments in “canonical” interpretation.

The next three essays unpack the Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts of Paul’s mission. Since the work of Stendahl and Sanders in the late 1970s, the Jewish context of Paul’s theology has become one of the most intensely examined areas in Pauline Studies. Paul McKechnie’s “Paul among the Jews” offers a survey of the life of Paul that deals with the problem of Saul’s conversion. Did Paul “reject Judaism” and turn to Christianity? Relying primarily on Acts, McKechnie lays out the evidence that Paul remained more or less Jewish throughout his career. I found that this chapter lacked a strong conclusion, although the thesis seems clear (Paul remained a Jewish Pharisee). Some will find his presentation problematic since he relies so heavily on Acts, with very little reference to Paul’s letters.

While Christopher Forbes examines “Paul among the Greeks,” he is not concerned with the common question of influence (“was Paul a Stoic?” or “did Paul get baptism from the Greeks?”). Paul must have had some sort of “secondary education” that might be described as “Greek” and his “broad engagement with Greek culture is obvious in his letters” (p. 135). The chapter argues that Paul’s engagement of the Gentiles resonates with the view from the Hebrew Bible that Gentiles would become a part of Israel in the eschatological age.

James R. Harrison’s “Paul among the Romans” engages the issue of anti-imperialism in Paul’s thought. After a short introduction to the current debate Harrison focuses primarily on Romans. While Paul does recommend submission to the government, he does not give any sort of accolades to the Emperor typically found in Roman literature. In addition, local churches are “benefactor communities” that do not accept the benefaction of the Empire. He concludes that Paul was “anti-imperial” when he counters the Augustan claim on peace by pointing out that the peace comes only through the sword (p. 174).

The third set of essays in the book cover the Pauline Letters in canonical order. Each chapter offers some basic background material and an overview of the letter, usually with some sketch of the contribution of the specific letters to Pauline Theology. For example, Michael Bird’s concise summary in “The Letter to the Romans” is an excellent overview of the letter. If there is some classic introductory problem, the author of the chapter briefly summarizes it and offers an opinion. L. L. Welborn sorts out the various problems associated with the two letters to the Corinthians, identifying letters A-H (“The Corinthians Correspondence”).  Greg Forbes (“The Letter to the Galatians”), for example, argues for an early date for Galatians (A.D. 48, before the Jerusalem Council). Murray Smith leans toward 2 Thess being the earlier of the two letters (“The Thessalonian Correspondence”).

Ian Smith has the formidable task of covering the four Prison Epistles (“The Later Pauline Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon”). Authorship and provenance for these letters are notorious problems. After surveying the options, he concludes that all four are written by Paul during the Roman imprisonment. Mark Harding sees the Pastoral letters are pseudegraphical and are designed “to actualize living tradition and cause it to speak to a new situation not originally envisioned” (p. 349, “The Pastoral Epistles”).

In the final chapter of the book Timothy J. Harris writes a short Pauline Theology. As Harris confesses, to write anything on Paul’s theology is “ambitious” and even “perilous,” but to attempt it in a mere 38 pages will leave most readers looking for more. After a short orientation on method and sources, Harris describes Paul’s theology as a “conversion of a worldview” (p.360), but a conversion that is thoroughly Christocentric. It is through Jesus and the cross that God has chosen to deal with the problem of sin. Harris summarized the “Pauline Meta-narrative” as “creation, redemption, and the fullness of time” (p. 369). He briefly interacts with the New Perspective as well as Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God. His summary of Paul’s theology certainly resonates with the New Perspective (especially N. T. Wright), but every writer on Paul must deal with the challenges stemming from that perspective.

Conclusion. I find this to be a very helpful overview of the main issues current under discussion in the world of Pauline Studies. As with all books that attempt to survey a huge area of study, this book is occasionally too much of a sketch to satisfy. A similar sized text could be produced on Pauline Theology and a second volume on the literature. Nevertheless, I would recommend the book for use in a seminary class on Pauline literature and theology because it provides an overview of the landscape without getting distracted by the details.

One problem for this book is that it was published about the same time as N. T. Wright’s massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God. There are many themes in Wright’s book that find expressing in All Things to All Cultures for two reasons. First, the writers have interacted with Wright’s earlier views, but this is to be expected in any book dealing with Paul written in the twenty-first century. Wright’s emphasis on reading Paul’s worldview, for example, is well-known and appears several times in this book simply because that is an excellent way to read Paul. Second, the theological portions of this book often cite the same secondary literature that Wright has read;  they are all reading the same sorts of writers, so there is some similarity. In short, this book should not be overlooked as an introduction to the literature and theology of Paul in the rush to read and dissect Wright’s work.

One Additional Note:  This book appears as part of a collection of books in a sixteen-book Pauline Studies Collection on offer from Logos Bible Software. The collection is in “pre-order” status at the moment. Every book in this collection is worth reading; highlights include Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Reading of Justification in Paul, Richard Hayes, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture, Brevard Childs, The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus, and Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. The whole set is 5300+ pages and works out on pre-order to less than $17 a book. I have most of them on my shelf already!

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

Basics of the New Perspective: Was Paul “Converted” to Christianity?

Critics of the traditional view of Paul’s theology often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s struggle against the Roman church.  Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt.  This traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual an psychological conversion.  If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion.  Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law.   His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

The New Perspective on Paul calls this traditional view into question.  James Dunn has built on the work of Krister Stendhal to argue that Paul did not experience a conversion from one religion to another.  Rather, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Hebrew Bible, especially that of Jeremiah. The Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6.  Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.  Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah.  (Not all scholars who are associated with the New Perspective agree, N. T. Wright still talks about “Paul’s Conversion” in What Saint Paul Really Said.)

Dunn points out that Paul stayed “zealous,” but instead of zealous for the Law, he because zealous as the “light to the Gentiles” (“Paul’s Conversion,” 90).  This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “found a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law.  His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.  Paul may  not changed have even parties within Judaism: he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key.  Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul.

Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely.  He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology.  While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are significant radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.  While it is possible Paul thought he was staying within Judaism, his contemporaries disagreed. (I suspect that includes not a few Christians Jews who disagreed with his view of the Law for Gentiles.)

But it is also problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus.  He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians, in Ephesians 3 he is quite clear that he has a special commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul never joins the Jerusalem church nor does he receive his commission from them (again, Gal 2) .  He seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel.  Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory.  Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call.  I agree that Luther  and others hear their own conversion in Paul’s Damascus Road experience.  But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.

Bibliography:  There is a huge bibliography of essays and monographs on this issue; the critical articles include: J. D. G. Dunn, “‘A Light To the Gentiles’ or ‘The End of the Law’? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul” in Dunn, Paul, Jesus, and the Law, 89-107.  See also  Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982); After Kim was critiqued by J. D. G. Dunn and others, he responded in a number of articles that are collected in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).