Book Review: Paul: An Apostles Journey
“The apostle Paul is the most influential political philosopher in the USA today, and arguably in the rest of the world as well, and this surely makes him one of the most important figures in human history” (1). With this arresting sentence, Douglas Campbell begins his survey of Paul’s life and his letters. It is, in many ways, a quite different and unusual account of Paul’s life and thought, centred on the idea of tracing Paul’s physical, missionary journeys, married with the development of his theological understanding. For one thing, all Paul’s letters and his main missionary journey’s (before his final journey to Rome) are completed by 52 CE.
In his “Introduction”, Campbell establishes that we have two sources for Paul’s life: “(1) his authentic letters; and (2) the book of Acts” (3). The letters must take precedence, in terms of reliability and for determining the outline of Paul’s life. Acts, Campbell judges to be “99 percent accurate” in its individual stories (5), but the author has rearranged some of the chronology, and also information about the key characters. Acts provides “echoes” of some of Paul’s three visits to Jerusalem, which skews the sense of the number of visits made (6). As for Paul’s authentic letters, Campbell accepts all but the Pastoral Epistles as being by Paul. He does not argue the case for this, but rather implies it by his reference to, and use of, all ten. In a footnote at the outset of chapter fourteen, he states his opinion on the authorship of the Pastorals (fn. 1, p. 197).
Paul’s life may be likened to a two-act opera. In Act One, Paul (then Saul) is seen hunting down blasphemous members of the Jesus movement before a dramatic “conversion” on the road to Damascus. There follows “eight years of revolutionary missionary work”, in which Paul establishes a chain of Christian communities as far as Corinth (7–8). The work stalls for a while, Paul works in various places without much success, until a very successful mission in Ephesus, Letter-writing, delegations, and finally a personal visit deal with fractures at Corinth. Tracing this represents Part A of the book. Act Two (Part B) has Paul facing enemies, trying to deal with the fall-out from their destructive activity in his Christian communities, before heading to Jerusalem to try and sort things out with the leadership there. He is arrested after a riot breaks out, and is, thereafter, a prisoner, finally ending up in Rome where he is executed.
Rather than provide here a chapter by chapter summary of the book, I will present the material more impressionistically, by dealing with what I see as three main movements within the book. First, chapters two to four, deal with Paul’s conversion, the impetus for his missionary activity, and his modus operandi. Paul’s conversion (34CE) was such because it was a dramatic turn-around in his opinion of Jesus (but not to a new religion), but Paul also understood himself to receive a “call” or “commission” to take his gospel to a particular constituency: pagan nations (23 -24). Accordingly, he travelled up and down the King’s Highway, in the region of the Decapolis and Nabataea (“Arabia” as Paul calls in in Galatians 1:17), preaching to “god-fearers”, until in 36 CE he had to escape from the governor of Damascus. Paul makes a brief visit to Jerusalem, staying only a fortnight, before leaving and landing up in Antioch.
Antioch is where Paul develops his radical missionary approach, as he observes that the Spirit moves upon pagan God-fearers without them adopting the practices of the Jews. This theory is advanced without much evidence, beyond the fact that these believers were first called “Christians” there (a necessary move, according to Campbell, as they needed to be distinguished from messianic Jews). One wonders why neither Paul nor Acts says anything about this: although possibly something of this might lie behind Gal. 2:11 (and the “Cornelius episode” especially, Acts 10:44–48 fits the type of scenario Campbell paints). Campbell, however, places Paul’s confrontation of Peter at Antioch later, as a catalyst for Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem (see below).
Paul’s methods are to engage in “networking”, forming “strange friendships” (e.g. with Lydia) which gives Paul an entrée into a wider network of family members, retainers and slaves, business and other friends. He also supports himself, working alongside other artisans and “handworkers”, thus providing further opportunities to share his gospel.
Paul’s gospel, deriving from his encounter with Christ, when he realises that Jesus is God, is expressed in Trinitarian terms. This annoys his Jewish compatriots and puts him “outside the pale” with many. Over time, as Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Corinthians show, Paul understands the heart of God’s being as relational, and so the life of Christian communities must be relational, and leadership must model this type of living. So, for instance, Paul opposes the failure of leadership in Corinth, its intellectual arrogance, and the tendency to act in ways expected of Greco-Roman elites. Much else of Paul’s theology is covered in chapters six to nine (the second main movement of the book): a strong theme being the fact that Paul promotes a “Christian city”, which operates under different values from the pagan city, and, among other things, calls for restorative justice.
Paul fades from view for several years from 42 CE until 49 CE, when he decides to go to Ephesus. Then he returns to Jerusalem “for a critical meeting” (75; “the Jerusalem Council” one assumes). He travels back to Pisidian Antioch in Galatia to deliver the decision, then heads back to Ephesus. However, enroute he is arrested and imprisoned for several months in Apamea (on the border between Galatian and Asia) . Here Campbell frustrates the reader by simply referring to his book Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (Eerdmans, 2014). One feels that some brief account for having Paul imprisoned at this unknown location is required. It is an important imprisonment as Paul writes Colossians, Ephesians (originally directed to the Laodiceans) and Philemon here.
Act 2 (Part B; the third main movement) of Paul’s journeys begins in 49 CE when Paul learns that a major problem has broken out in Syrian Antioch where Paul had first come to understand God’s plan included pagan Gentiles. Peter, Barnabas and emissaries from Jerusalem were now insisting that pagans had to fully convert to Judaism. Paul heads back to Antioch to confront these leaders and they all conclude that they must go back to Jerusalem to thrash the matter out. The end result is a recognition that the early church is, and can be, a radically and fundamentally diverse body.
In this section, basing his analysis on the letters to the Romans, Galatians and Philippians, Campbell outlines Paul’s gospel in opposition to those he opposes (“the Enemies”, or militant “messianic Jews”). Fundamentally, Paul understands God’s love for humans in “covenantal” terms, and the Enemies in “contractual” terms. Paul’s gospel, in a sense, can be understood in terms of two mantras that Campbell cites several times: “[God’s] love never gives up, never lets go” (167), and “God really is love all the way across and all the way down” (165). This is fleshed out in chapters ten to thirteen, where Campbell writes of Paul’s understanding of Scripture (which he recognises can be used for wrong, “fleshly” purposes as well as good), and which leads Paul to adopt (Campbell avers but will not insist) a “universalist” position – everyone and all will be saved.
Campbell thinks that for Paul’s life after 52 CE, the book of Acts has it accurately. Paul and companions head to Jerusalem to deliver the money collected for the poor there, looping through Macedonia and the eastern coast of the Aegean to visit his churches on the way (173). In Jerusalem, Paul is arrested after a riot breaks out when he visits the temple, and for the next few years he is virtually a prisoner, arriving in Rome in 57 CE, where Acts leaves him preaching unhindered. We may assume that he was executed later that year or in 58 CE.
The reader may find some of Campbell’s dating (particularly for the period 49 to 52) difficult to follow, as it must be gleaned from statements made across several chapters. One feels that a chart showing the chronology would be useful. Difficulties with dating aside, this book will stimulate and intrigue with its many interesting, and quite different exegetical insights into Paul’s letters. It may send readers back to the letters to see if what Campbell writes truly captures the sense of Paul. He has a very good way of bringing in contemporary illustrations to illuminate the ancient context. Whether one agrees or not, there is much here to inform and challenge one’s thinking about Paul and his gospel. He writes particularly cogently about the covenantal versus contractual approaches to understanding the gospel.
Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.