Thursday, February 11, 2010

On "Rabbi Paul" by Bruce Chilton *

This "intellectual biography" attempts to place Paul in the context of the thinking of his day and of the education that Paul would have received. Unlike Paul between Damascus and Antioch, this one is written squarely for a mass audience. The writing is clear and easy, quite beautiful really. The author relies heavily on Pauline scholarship and on dominant Protestant views of the theology, and in that is, for me, the book's downfall. Where Chilton sees Paul as at virtual war with Peter and James over preaching to Gentiles, I see no such thing. Where Chilton sees Paul as a virtual antinomionist, ridding the world of the law, putting faith in Jesus alone at Christianity's core, I see Paul as very much a lawkeeper and one who admonishes others to keep the law (Paul's claim was not that Christ replaced the law but that he replaced the punishment one earns for disobedience to the law).

What's more, in taking the typical scholarly line of dismissing large chunks of Paul's writing as being by others and Acts as being an often inaccurate listing of the events that occurred in the early church, the author has little to draw on in terms of creating a narrative beyond his own conjecture. Giving reasons why such primary writings aren't realiable and providing reasonable conjecture as to what really occurred, however, might be acceptable if the author actually posed his writing as conjecture--that is, used the conditional mood (Paul may have done). Instead, his own conjecture is stated as fact. A particularly interesting passage, in this regard, involves Acts' claim that Paul returned after a missionary journey through Asia Minor to go through Asia Minor again. The author dismisses this as impossible and says that Paul was really in Tarsus at this time and that only Barnabus went on the return journey. Neither Paul nor Acts speaks of this trip to Tarsus, the author states, which leaves me wondering how--if no primary source recounts this trip--the author can proclaim so assuredly what Paul was actually doing. Ferreting out what is the author's own conjecture is enough if one knows the primary materials, but it makes one question what is really fact and what is conjecture where one doesn't know the primary materials. Thus the book becomes a dangerously untrustworthy text. Fine reading, but much of it may be fiction--it's just hard to tell where.

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