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Book Review: Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to its Background, Theology, and Themes. Volume II: The Pauline Letters.

Philip Church —

MARK J. KEOWN BELLINGHAM, WA: LEXHAM, 2021. XX + 615 pp. ISBN. 978-1-683-59382-09. Hardback edition, $119.00; Logos edition $35.99.

This book is the second of a three-volume introduction to the New Testament that has emerged from Mark Keown’s more than fifteen years of teaching the New Testament at Laidlaw College. The first volume covers the Gospels and Acts (reviewed in Stimulus 27, no. 4, December 2020) and the third volume, yet to be published in hard copy although already available in a digital edition in Logos Bible software, covers Hebrews to Revelation. This volume covers Paul’s letters, Keown’s area of specialisation. The reader soon becomes aware that it has been written by someone who has lived and breathed Paul and his letters for many years.

The book has a Preface, a Table of Abbreviations, fifteen chapters, a Bibliography, a Subject Index (masquerading as an Author Index), a Scripture Index; and six illustrations, all in chapter one, showing Paul’s various journeys through the Graeco-Roman world. It begins with a brief biography of Paul and an introduction to Paul's letters (chapters one and two), followed by a chapter on each letter with the Pastorals combined into one chapter. It concludes with two chapters on Paul’s thought and theology and on Paul’s missionary strategy. Each chapter is about twenty to thirty pages, apart from chapter one (biographical) which is seventy pages and chapters fourteen and fifteen (Paul’s thought and theology, and his missionary strategy) which are about fifty pages each. The Bibliography and Indexes extend to over one hundred pages.

The chapters covering Paul’s letters follow a discernible pattern. They begin with the usual introductory questions, including (but not limited to) such matters as authorship, date, recipients, purpose, genre and structure. This is followed by a section on key themes in the letter, and each chapter ends with a list of questions to consider. Philemon is dealt with in a longer chapter containing a brief exegesis of the entire book, and the Pastoral Epistles have a briefer chapter covering these three books, with the section on key themes absent. I have a lingering question over the necessity for all the detail in the sections on genre. In each chapter, Keown gives a few examples of the way various scholars have applied aspects of ancient Graeco-Roman rhetoric to Paul’s letters, only to discount them and conclude (rightly to my mind) that the letters are not carefully constructed rhetorical speeches, but pastoral letters from an apostle to a church with which he was connected. He could have spared us some of this detail on genre.

According to the blurb on the back cover the volume is “[i]deal for college or seminary students”, and I agree that this is where it should be situated. Nevertheless, although I am neither, I learned here a lot about Paul and his letters, as it covers a part of the New Testament that I have not concentrated on in my own work. It is an excellent repository of good background information on this part of the New Testament. Particularly valuable are the brief biography of Paul in chapter one and the chapters on Paul’s thought and theology (14) and his missionary strategy (15). In this final chapter there is much wise advice for people engaging in mission and evangelism today. We can learn from the way Paul took the gospel to the centre of the Graeco-Roman world, restricting himself to major population centres, beginning in synagogues and then moving to people’s homes, to public places (the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus) and the workplace as Paul engaged in his tent-making business.

I have one caveat with the book and one objection. Keown advocates mirror-reading, and while he advocates “careful consideration”, I am not sure that his warnings of the dangers involved are quite strong enough. He cites former Bible College of New Zealand New Testament lecturer Chris Marshall, who correctly noted that “reading New Testament letters can be likened to listening briefly to one end of a telephone conversation” (72), hence, says Keown, mirror reading is necessary. Another of his predecessors at BCNZ, Murray J. Harris notes at one point in his commentary on 2 Corinthians that he had “resisted the temptation to engage in ‘mirror reading’ [because of its] limitations and dangers.”[1] There are indeed limitations and dangers in this approach, and the students for whom this volume has been written need to be aware of them. (And as an aside, I note that the Index reference on page 554 to “Mirrors” should really read “Mirror-reading”)

My objection relates to the references to Paul’s “conversion” that appear in a few places. The first chapter is headed “Paul’s Life and Conversion” (it would be better “Paul’s Life and Letters”), and on pages 17–20 Keown discusses Paul’s “conversion from monotheist Judaism to a believer in Christ” (20). Contrast this with the language used in discussion of the Jerusalem Council: “[f]aith in Yahweh was now reconstituted around the person of Jesus the Messiah” (28). There were not two religions “Christianity and Judaism” between the forties and the sixties of the first century, and Paul would not have considered himself to have “converted” from the latter to the former. He considered himself a faithful Israelite, and a member of the remnant chosen by God’s grace (Rom 11:1–5)–a follower of Jesus around whom faith in Yahweh had been reconstituted, not a convert to Christianity. Some of the language of conversion could have been tightened up a little.

And finally, as with Volume One in the series, this volume could have done with more robust editing. These minor issues aside, this is a valuable book, well-suited to the audience for which is has been written. Keown is to be congratulated for producing another fine volume in his series.

Philip Church is a Senior Research Fellow of Laidlaw College (formerly the Bible College of New Zealand).

[1] Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 67. On these limitations and dangers see e.g., Nijay Gupta, “Mirror-Reading Moral Issues in Paul’s Letters,” JSOT 34 (2012): 361-81.