The Man From Tarsus: Some books on St. Paul

Pope Benedict XVI’s designation of 2008-9 as the Pauline Year has inspired the publication of many fine books on Paul and his writings. The volumes included in this survey may help to reinvigorate interest in Paul during the few months that remain and beyond.

A good entry point to the reading of Paul’s letters (and Scripture in general) is the collection of short essays by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., entitled The Gospel According to St. Paul (The Word Among Us). The first three essays consider Paul’s conversion and call to be an apostle, his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel and his personal transformation in the service of the Gospel. The remaining six chapters illustrate the method of lectio divina with reference to themes and specific passages in the Pauline letters: the mystery of the church, love for the community, suffering and consolation, the mystery of evil, the word of the cross (1 Cor 1:18) and the ministry of reconciliation. What emerges especially from these essays is Martini’s love and respect for Scripture and his humility before the word of God.


Drawing primarily on Luke’s account of Paul’s life in Acts, Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P., emeritus professor of Sacred Scripture at the Washington Theological Union and president and publisher of Paulist Press, provides in The Life of St. Paul (Paulist Press) relevant historical and geographical information along with a lively retelling of the biblical narrative and treatment of Paul’s letters in their context in Paul’s apostolic career. Boadt has distinguished himself especially as an Old Testament scholar but is also quite conversant with current New Testament scholarship. The topics treated in the book’s 30 short chapters include Paul’s conversion, the Council of Jerusalem, Paul’s stay in Athens, Paul’s letters, his arrest in Jerusalem and his arrival in Rome. Also included are a prologue on why we should know Paul, an epilogue on later traditions about Paul, a chronology of his life and maps of his journeys. For each chapter there is an “icon-like” painting by Linda Schapper that seeks to capture the essence of the scene. This introduction to Paul’s life and times can be used profitably by all kinds of readers, including children.

Entering His World

Because of its location and prestige, Ephesus (a port city on the western coast of present-day Turkey) offered Paul and his co-workers an excellent center for their apostolic activities. In St. Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology (Liturgical Press), Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., who has taught for more than 40 years at the école Biblique de Jérusalem, provides materials for entering the world in which Paul worked and wrote. In the first and longest part, he presents a catalogue of what ancient historians, poets and novelists wrote about Ephesus. In most cases there are references to the Temple of Artemis, thus offering background for the “riot of the silversmiths” in Acts 19:23-41. Then on the basis of almost a century of archaeological research, he gives a reconstruction of what Ephesus looked like when Paul arrived there. Finally he develops a lively (if somewhat imaginative) narrative about Paul’s stay in Ephesus and the various crises to which he responded by letters and visits. This volume is the twin to Murphy-O’Connor’s St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Liturgical Press, 2002). His extraordinary knowledge of the ancient world, his sense of Paul’s place within it and his ability to tell a story effectively make him one of the best representatives of the great tradition of Dominican biblical scholarship based in Jerusalem.

Paul has often been portrayed as the individual who by himself brought Christianity out of Palestine into the wider Mediterranean world. However, from his letters it is clear that Paul was very much a “team player,” who developed a network of co-workers and who provides a model for collaborative ministry today. One of those co-workers was a man named Epaphras (see Philemon 23 and Col 1:7; 4:13). In a series devoted to various figures in Paul’s social network, Michael Trainor, who teaches at Adelaide College of Divinity in the School of Theology at Flinders University in South Australia, seeks to show in Epaphras: Paul’s Educator at Colossae (Liturgical Press) that Epaphras was a central figure in the growth of Jesus movement groups in the Lycus Valley in the Roman province of Asia (in present-day Turkey). He develops his portrait of Epaphras not only on the basis of literary, geographical and archaeological evidence but also with the help of social network analysis. Trainor concludes that Epaphras was a cardinal figure or symbolic hinge who ensured the liberating and authentic transition of Paul’s Gospel of God from one generation to the next at a time of potential crisis brought about by Paul’s death and in the face of the unsettling teaching of other Jesus followers who were influenced by astrology, mystical practice and folk philosophies of Israelite bent.

In writing his letters, Paul uses images from many different areas of life: kinship, the body, the senses, life-cycles, walking and stumbling and so on. In The Power of Images in Paul (Liturgical Press), Raymond F. Collins, emeritus professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of America, describes Paul as a master of metaphors and shows how he drew images from his own experience, his Jewish background and his Greco-Roman culture. These images allowed him to connect with his first readers, to shape their Christian consciousness and to develop a rich theological vocabulary. For a full review of this scholarly work that is also accessible to the general public, see America 11/10/08.

Theologian and Preacher

It has often been said that most of the problems and scandals facing the church of our own time can be found treated in some form by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. For those in search of a solid and up-to-date guide to this very important letter, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., is the perfect source. From among his many areas of scholarly interest and expertise, Fitzmyer—emeritus professor of biblical studies at The Catholic University of America—has given special attention over the years to the Pauline writings. Following his earlier contributions to the Anchor Bible on Romans and Philemon (as well as Luke and Acts), this new volume, entitled First Corinthians: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary (Yale) offers what the author describes as “a commentary of classic proportions.” He notes that 1 Corinthians reveals Paul at his best, since it shows him coping with problems that arose in a community in Greece that Paul had founded and kept in contact with by letters and reports from co-workers. This volume also reveals Fitzmyer at his best. It is full of reliable philological and historical information, sensitive to the literary conventions of Paul’s letters and concerned with the theological and pastoral implications of Paul’s statements.

Paul’s views on marriage and sexuality have long been controversial. In his classic study The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, now published in a 20th-anniversary paperback edition with a new 47-page introduction (Columbia Univ. Press), Peter Brown describes Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 7 as determining “all Christian thought on marriage for well over a millennium.” Paul is only one of many important figures in Brown’s brilliant survey covering the period from Jesus to Augustine. Despite what Brown characterizes as Paul’s “rearguard” and even “lopsided” approach, he regards Paul’s role as pivotal in the story that he tells so well. The great merit of Brown’s book is that it places Paul’s views on sexuality, celibacy and related matters in the wider context of the Greco-Roman world and late antiquity. Moreover, he is eager to explore both objectively and sympathetically why Paul and the other ancient authors expressed themselves on these matters as they did, and what were and are the personal and social implications of their attitudes toward the body.

Among the major Pauline epistles, 2 Corinthians is generally recognized as the most “personal.” Michael P. Knowles is an Anglican priest, biblical scholar and professor of preaching at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. In We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation (Brazos), he explores Paul’s identity as an apostle and a preacher in 2 Cor 1:1–6:13. He shows how in defending himself and his ministry of reconciliation Paul articulated a Jesus-centered spirituality that can best be described as “cruciform,” that is, a spiritual vision essentially shaped by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Paul was convinced that the Christ-event provides the conceptual framework for interpreting the situation of the believer and all humankind. What Paul was best at was setting forth the real Jesus with power and clarity, and leading others into the presence of the one true Lord. With 2 Corinthians as his guide, Knowles develops a profound and challenging Pauline theology of preaching, based squarely on the paschal mystery.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is often viewed as a theological treatise about justification by faith. But Neil Elliott, in The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Fortress), contends that from its very first lines Paul’s letter burns with the incendiary proclamation of God’s justice and with a searing critique of those who smother and suppress the truth. He regards the letter as a “Judean” critique of an incipient non-Judean Roman Christianity, in which the pressures of Roman imperial ideology were a decisive factor. Elliott’s approach to Romans is historical and political, with frequent applications to the present American “empire” from the perspective of Marxist analysis. Viewing the letter as written in the Roman empire of Nero’s reign, he contrasts the reigns of the emperor and of God’s Messiah, imperial and divine justice, imperial and divine mercy, the pietas of Aeneas/Augustus and the faithfulness of Abraham, and the place of virtue and fortune in the imperial and apocalyptic visions of the future. His approach of “political” reading of Pauline texts, which has become popular in certain academic circles today, coincides in some respects with liberation theology. He tries to take seriously the social and historical circumstances in which Paul lived, to show how different Paul looks when placed in the context of Roman imperial propaganda and to suggest some of the challenges that Paul poses not only to the Roman Empire but also to the American “empire” today.

Apostle and Teacher

The Pastoral Epistles tend to be among the more neglected parts of the Pauline corpus. In one of the inaugural volumes of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, George T. Montague, S.M., professor of New Testament at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, in First and Second Timothy, Titus (Baker Academic) defends their Pauline authorship and interprets them as Paul’s directives to his subordinates (mandata principis). He offers a lively, well-informed and accessible exposition of these historically influential and (sometimes) theologically problematic texts. For each passage he provides a running commentary along with a section devoted to reflection and application. Also included are many sidebars (biblical background, quotations from patristic texts and modern church documents), cross-references to biblical texts and to the Catholic Catechism andthe Lectionary, and occasional photographs illustrating some features in the text. An experienced and well-published biblical scholar, Montague presents a balanced, sympathetic and attractive reading of the Pastorals. His volume, along with Mary Healy’s work on Mark’s Gospel, gives the series a good start (disclosure: I am a consulting editor). Especially noteworthy as a remarkable development in ecumenism is the fact that this explicitly Catholic project is being published by a traditionally conservative Protestant publisher.

A reliable and readily accessible synthesis of the great themes of Paul’s theology is Michael J. Gorman’s Reading Paul (Cascade Books). Gorman, who is professor of Sacred Scripture and dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, suggests that we read Paul best when we read him as speaking to us and for God. After three preliminary chapters on Paul, his letters and his Gospel, he considers eight themes that lie in and behind his letters: apocalyptic crossroads; covenant faithfulness and surprising grace; the meaning(s) of Christ’s death; Jesus as Son of God and Lord; reconciliation with God through participation in Christ; countercultural and multicultural community in the Spirit; cruciform faith, hope and love; and return, resurrection and renewal. For those who have been working through Paul’s letters during the Pauline year, this book would be a fine synthesis. For others who want to renew their acquaintance with Paul and his theological significance, this may be the perfect instrument. Gorman’s one-sentence (which covers one page) summary of Paul’s theology, his expositions of key texts, many connections with modern life and incisive questions for reflection are among the book’s many highlights.

Much in Paul’s writings concerns what we today call “ethical” matters. But how to interpret and apply Paul’s teachings on these issues remains problematic. Are they rules? Or is love the answer to every ethical dilemma? With particular attention to the Pauline letters, Claire Disbrey, in Wrestling With Life’s Tough Issues: What Should a Christian Do? (Hendrickson), contends that the insights of virtue ethics and Christian character formation can help us get beyond a state of moral confusion and conflict and move toward a way of seeing the ethical teaching of the New Testament as a coherent and eminently practical whole. After explaining what virtue ethics is and how it can be applied in biblical studies, she discusses case studies (considering a second marriage, contemplating suicide, dealing with unplanned pregnancy, among others) and related biblical themes (righteousness, freedom, wisdom, love, peace and grace) in which the insights of virtue ethics might be applied along with insights from Pauline and other biblical texts. Then she evaluates virtue ethics with regard to its political and ecclesial usefulness. Disbrey concludes that Paul’s “ethical” teaching can inspire Christians to see the need for repentance, mercy and grace, and for attentiveness and openness to the work of the Holy Spirit as we grow in the Christian virtues of sensitivity, flexibility, kindness and wisdom.

These are all fine books written by distinguished scholars and accessible to the general public. The three that I would especially recommend (in ascending order of difficulty) are those by Gorman (a fine synthesis of Pauline theological themes), Collins (how Paul communicates) and Fitzmyer (how a master exegete interprets a Pauline text). Many beginners in biblical study without much exposure to Paul and his writings have also found helpful my own Meeting St. Paul Today (Loyola Press). This book provides an introduction to Paul’s life and missionary activity, discussions of each Pauline letter (context, content, major themes), an example of how to interpret a Pauline text (Romans 8:26-27) and a brief reflection on what we can learn from Paul today.

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10 years ago
Thanks for Dan Harrington´s wonderful commentary on the books on St. Paul. I am preparing a course for future deacons and his comments have given me many helpful new lights on Paul and his letters. I have also found Murphy-O´Connor´s "Paul, his story" excellent. Rev. John Henry, S.J.


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