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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Introduction to the Pauline Corpus

Terence L. Donaldson

A. Overview.


No less than thirteen of the twenty-seven writings of the New Testament are letters attributed to the Apostle Paul. They constitute fully one-quarter of the New Testament's bulk; if one adds to this the portion of the Acts of the Apostles where Paul is the main character, Paul's proportion of the New Testament climbs to almost a third. The proportion devoted to the life and ministry of Jesus (i.e. the four gospels) is higher, but not by much.


The significance of Paul's literary legacy, of course, is not simply a matter of its quantity. His letters (at least those that can be attributed to him with some certainty) represent the earliest extant writings of the Christian movement. Further, they are real letters, written to actual congregations whose life circumstances are reflected, albeit with some ambiguity, in the texts themselves. In addition, they are at times highly personal letters, at least in the sense that the desires, emotions, thinking processes, and very personality of their author are vividly portrayed. Moreover, their author was no marginal figure. While his place within the early Christian movement needs to be determined with care, it is clear on any reading of Christian origins that, by virtue of the groundbreaking nature of his missionary activity among the Gentiles and the intellectual vitality that he brought to bear on the defence and nurture of his young congregations, Paul was a major player in the first, formative generation of the movement. In sum, then, Paul's letters represent a window into nascent Christianity of inestimable value.


The significance of the Pauline corpus is not restricted to its value as source material for the reconstruction of Christian origins, however. The letters not only play a passive role, providing a window into the circumstances lying behind them; they have also been agents in their own right, affecting the lives of their readers—both the original readers and those who subsequently read, as it were, over their shoulders—and thereby helping to shape the history of Christianity and of Western culture as a whole. The Epistle to the Romans, for instance, has had a striking chain of influence—from the unknown early readers who, for whatever reason, preserved the letter in the first place; to Augustine's conversion, precipitated by the random reading in a moment of crisis of a particularly pertinent passage ( 13:13–14 ); to Martin Luther's rediscovery of Augustine and his own experience of spiritual release while wrestling with the phrase, ‘the just shall live by faith’ ( 1:17 ) as he prepared lectures on the epistle; to John Wesley's experience of a heart ‘strangely warmed’ while listening to a reading of the Preface to Luther's commentary; to Karl Barth and his own commentary on the epistle, which represented a dramatic break with the sunny liberalism in which he had been nurtured and a rediscovery and reworking of Reformation themes. This chain of influence, of course, represents a particular strand of Christianity, one in which Paul has been especially revered. But Paul's influence has by no means been limited to the Reformed segment of Christendom. Hymnody, homilies, iconography and other forms of aesthetic representation, across the Christian spectrum and down through the centuries; the nineteenth-century missionary movement; the ‘introspective conscience of the west’ (Stendahl 1976: 78–96); popular idiom (‘all things to all people’; ‘thorn in the flesh’; ‘charisma’); contemporary Jewish–Christian dialogue; social-scientific models of conversion—the influence of Paul has been pervasive and far-reaching.


For these reasons and more, Paul's letters are significant and deserve the careful attention not only of Christian readers but also of all who aspire to an informed perspective on the Western cultural inheritance. But the very things that make for Paul's significance also bring with them various problems that feed into and affect the experience of reading him.


For one thing, the sheer bulk of Pauline material in the NT can easily lead readers to overestimate his place and significance in early Christianity. Evidence even from his own letters indicates that Paul was somewhat of a maverick, operating for the most part outside the main circle of earliest Christianity and relating only awkwardly to its original leaders. He may well have represented the wave of the future: since the middle of the second century those characteristic elements that it took all his formidable resources to establish and defend—full and equal membership for Gentile believers, no obligation to adhere to the law of Moses, and so on—have simply been taken for granted as basic elements of the Christian faith. But the very success of Gentile Christianity can serve to obscure the degree to which Paul's mission represented radical innovation in his own day, and this in turn can result in misperceptions of the nature of his thought and rhetoric.


In addition, and partly for this reason, Paul has not always fared well at the hands of his interpreters—admirers and champions included. To cite one particular example, the Reformation reading of Paul, in which the theme of justification by faith is identified as the heart of his gospel and the interpretative centre of his thought, is increasingly being seen as a misreading; to approach Paul with the assumption that his concerns and contentions were analogous to those of a Luther or a Calvin is to look at him through a distorting lens that skews some aspects of his theological discourse and leaves others in obscurity. Further, the interpretation of a normative text in a religious culture inevitably has social effects. Thus Paul's name has come to be associated with developments in Western society that many have found undesirable: for example, the treatment of Jews and Judaism as a people rejected by God; the institution of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the colonialization of Africa and the Far East, to which the activity of Christian missionaries was a contributing factor; patriarchal structures and the exclusion of women from full participation in church and society; intolerant attitudes towards those of homosexual orientation. Also, Paul has sometimes been blamed for constructing a complex religion centred on sin, guilt, and death, far removed from the life-affirming message of Jesus (cf. Muggeridge and Vidler 1972: 11–16).


The very factors making for Paul's significance, then, also serve to condition our perception of his writings, interposing between the modern reader and the letters themselves a set of lenses and filters that shape the reading process. These interposed optical paraphernalia should not be seen simply as an obstruction; the history of the effects of Paul's letters in the centuries between their time of writing and our own day is an important part of the overall significance of the letters themselves. Still, the first step in coming to terms with the letters is to try to bridge the intervening distance and to read the letters directly and on their own terms; put differently, to bracket out the particularities of our own contemporary perspectives and attempt to read the letters as they would have been understood by their original intended readers.


This is a laudable goal, towards which a formidable array of Pauline scholars have bent their collective energies over the past two centuries of historical-critical investigation. But here we encounter a second set of problems, arising from the letters themselves: as the author of 2 Peter observed long ago, many aspects of Paul's letters are ‘difficult to understand’ (2 Pet 3:16 ). In part, the difficulties are due to the fact that we are dealing with letters per se; in part, they derive from the particular way in which Paul writes letters. But in each case, the nature of these writings means that in order to understand them we need to go beyond them, to interpret them in the framework of at least three hypothetical scholarly reconstructions.


First, there are the individual contexts presupposed by the letters themselves. As Roetzel (1998 ) has reminded us, Paul's letters are ‘conversations in context’; more to the point, in reading these letters we are hearing only one side of the conversation, with no clear indication of the context. As in any conversation, the epistolary author as conversation partner can simply take for granted a whole set of details crucial to the meaning of the letter but so well known to the intended readers that they require no explicit mention. Who, to take one simple example, was the ‘famous brother’ (2 Cor 8:17 ) who accompanied Titus in the delivery of 2 Corinthians 8 and so could remain unnamed in the letter? Or with what strand of early Christianity can we identify those who were ‘unsettling’ the Galatians (Gal 5:12 ), and what were their motives? Later readers like ourselves, who are not privy to the whole conversation and its context, are forced to draw out from whatever slender clues the text affords a sense of these contextual taken-for-granteds, as an essential first step in the determination of meaning.


Such reconstruction of provenance and life setting forms part of the interpretative task for any individual letter from antiquity (and—mutatis mutandis—for any ancient text at all). But in the case of Paul we are dealing not simply with one individual letter, but with a whole series of letters that evidently had an integral role to play in an extended missionary agenda. A proper understanding of any one of them, then, will depend to a certain extent on a second scholarly reconstruction, namely, the larger sequential framework of Paul's own life and activity within which the individual letter finds its place. Here the reconstructive task is both aided and complicated by the existence of the Acts of the Apostles, with its connected narrative of Paul's missionary activity. Aided, in that Acts deliberately sets out to provide us with the kind of sequential account that is glimpsed only occasionally, and with difficulty, in the letters. Complicated, in that the Acts account, partly because of the author's own purposes and partly because of the limitations within which the author did his work, is not infrequently at variance with the picture emerging from the letters themselves. Perhaps this is the place to mention the additional fact that several of the letters bearing Paul's name also bear characteristics that make it difficult to understand them as written by Paul himself. In at least some of these cases it is best to understand them as the product of a Pauline school carrying on his legacy into a subsequent generation. Further, a tradition going back as far as the second century sees the epistle to the Hebrews as written by Paul as well. While there is no scholarly justification for the attribution, the reference to ‘our brother Timothy’ in Heb 13:23 serves to situate this epistle somewhere in the larger Pauline circle. In any case, the reconstruction of the nature, modus operandi, sequence, chronology, and aftermath of Paul's missionary enterprise is another requisite element of the interpretative task.


Thirdly, there is an inherently theological dimension to the rhetoric of these letters. To be sure, the letters are not to be read as if they were theological treatises; a recognition of the essentially occasional and situational nature of the letters was a decisive step forward in Pauline scholarship. Nevertheless, while the letters must be seen as responses to particular circumstances in the life of Paul and his communities, it is also evident that to deal with these various contingent situations Paul engaged in a style of theological argumentation that drew on already-existing vocabulary, structures, and patterns of thought. As Dunn (1998: 15) has observed with reference to the search for the theology of Paul, ‘the letters themselves indicate the need to go behind the letters themselves’. Again, however, the interpreter is faced with a difficult task. Partly because of the sheer fecundity of Paul's agile mind, and partly because the letters use and allude to his ‘theology’ without ever laying it out in any systematic way, it has been notoriously difficult to discern the central element or essential structure of his theological thought.


A proper understanding of Paul's letters, then, necessarily involves us in substantial projects of contextual reconstruction. In turn, these projects depend for their success on a larger engineering project, that of bridging the social and cultural gap between the modern reader and the first-century Graeco-Roman world. To a modern reader, for example, Paul's language of ‘bewitchment’ in Gal 3:1 may seem quaintly metaphorical. But in a culture where the power of the evil eye was widely feared, the text would have had quite a different impact (Elliott 1990 ). Likewise, ancient and modern readers would bring distinctly different cultural assumptions to a reading of 2 Cor 8–9 , in which Paul is encouraging the Corinthian Christians to contribute to his collection for the Jerusalem church. In contrast to modern readers in the Western world, who tend to see charitable giving as a universal obligation, Paul's Corinthian converts would have understood benefaction to be the domain of the wealthy, who themselves would assume the role of benefactor less out of a sense of moral obligation than in expectation of public honour. What we think we know is often a greater barrier to understanding than what we do not know, and this is as true of the cultural assumptions we bring to a reading of the NT as of any other area of life.


The foregoing is not meant to discourage the casual or novice reader from reading Paul, as if one has to acquire a massive body of background and contextual knowledge before being able to approach the letters themselves. The process is spiral: initial familiarization with the text raises questions of interpretation and meaning that can be answered only on the basis of further information about the text's original context; increasing awareness of contextual background precipitates further questions that can be answered only on the basis of a more careful and critical reading of the text; and so on. Further, the process is ongoing and open-ended. It is not as if the range of questions diminishes as knowledge increases. As will become apparent not only in this introductory essay but also in the commentaries on the individual letters to follow, there is a great deal of disagreement and debate among Pauline scholars at almost every point. One enters this interpretative spiral, then, not so much to arrive at a definitive interpretation as to become a participant in an ongoing process of discussion, debate, and new insight.


The process may be ongoing, but it is not without its key moments and fresh phases. Indeed, this is a particularly exciting time to be engaged in the discussion of Paul and his letters. The final quarter of the twentieth century saw some significant developments: richer descriptions of Paul's cultural environment, both Jewish and Graeco-Roman; fundamental shifts in the way his thought is perceived and put together, especially with reference to his Jewish upbringing and ‘conversion’; fruitful application of methods and insights drawn from the social sciences; increased appreciation of the rhetorical and epistolary conventions at work in the letters; and so on.

The purpose of this introductory essay is to lead readers into the interpretative spiral described above and to convey some sense of the current state of the discussion. To do this, the material will be organized as follows.

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