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Paul: A Critical Life Paperback – 3 Sep 1998
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fascinating reading (Financial Times)
offers many refreshingly new insights (Church Times)
About the Author
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor is Professor of New Testament at the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise, Jerusalem.
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While obviously completely sympathetic to St Paul's place in the Christian tradition, the author aims to examine the setting of Paul's activities within the real political geography of the ancient world. In particular he draws on Paul's autobiographical accounts as expressed in the Epistles (for argument's sake), to re-evaluate the evidence of Acts. He shows that although Luke is often taken as the primary source for Paul's biography, there are many instances where his later and non-Judaic viewpoint colours his evidence. A truly fascinating read.
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There are many decent `biographies' of the Apostle Paul, hundreds of books on various aspects of his doctrines, and thousands of commentaries, monographs, and articles on his genuine and attributed letters. Among all these, of which I can say I have barely scratched the surface, I strongly suggest that this volume is one you should read first, before you read anything else.
Since the amount of reliable biographical information on Paul is slim, and since the two primary sources, Paul's letters and Luke's book of Acts, do not always agree, it is not surprising to find the author doing quite a bit of hypothesizing on the evidence. To a great extent, this book is to Paul what the many books on the `historical Jesus' are to the Christ. It is also a very nice introduction to the lifestyle of the Greco-Roman world in the time of Paul and Jesus.
One of the first conclusions which surprised me is that the author adduces the claim that Paul and Jesus were of approximately the same age. This means that while there is no evidence that Paul met Jesus in Jerusalem, that event was not impossible. It certainly means Paul had first hand contact with those who did meet Jesus face to face.
Another interesting conclusion is the author's finding that while Paul did know and practice a manual craft, either tent-making or leather working, or both, Murphy-O'Connor concludes that Paul was not happy about having to resort to that craft to make ends meet. On the other hand, it was a very portable craft. The raw materials, canvas and hides, could be found in any larger city. All the practitioner had to do was to carry a few simple tools, an awl, a heavy curved needle, moon-shaped knife, and waxed thread. Tents and awnings were in constant demand in cities and in all seasons, not just among nomadic tribes while they were migrating.
In order to adduce as much historical material as he can out of Paul's letters, Professor Murphy-O'Connor elicits many facts about the letters which one may not notice, or even find in the commentaries on the letters. For example, he points out that Paul's first letter, 1 Thessalonians, is actually a composite of two different letters, sent at two different times. He also offers what sound like good reasons for believing that 2 Thessalonians was written by Paul and not by one of his disciples.
The author spends a fair amount of time on the letter to the Galatians, about which there are a fair number of mysteries. For example, who were the teachers who were coming in behind Paul and trying to lure the Galatians away from Paul's teaching. The answer is that it was probably missionaries from Antioch. The book gives a surprising conclusion on the church in Antioch. The author reaches the conclusion that rather than being a center for gentile Christians, the city, relatively early, was turned over to being a center for Jewish Christians, who believed in retaining circumcision, dietary laws, and other traditional Jewish practices.
Another problem with Galatians was the matter of where, in Galatia, were Paul's churches. The author reaches the conclusion that they were in the northern part of Galatia, in a region settled by Celts. This conclusion was astonishing. Not the geographical conclusion, but the social and ethnic one. This means that each and every one of Paul's churches was based in a city with a strong Gentile population sympathetic to the Roman government. Corinth and Philippi were established as `retirement communities' for Roman soldiers. Ephesus was a center of a Greco-Roman cult in Asia. Colossae was an important Gentile trading center. Thessalonica was a major Greek port in Macedonia right on the Roman road running from the Adriatic to the Bosporus.
Most of us are familiar with the importance of Galatians in shaping the doctrines of the Reformation. It was one of Martin Luther's favorite books. But how did it get that way? Once you read this, it makes all the sense in the world, but it is not something you which may occur to you on your own. It is also not something which a commentary may be inclined to cover, as it deals with the `sociology' of Paul's theology. The issue is this. By being faced with preachers of a `Jewish' flavor of Christianity to his Galatians, Paul is forced to hone his position to a finer point in order to argue it to his Galatians. In considering this point, it suddenly dawns on us that from a doctrinal point of view, one must really question whether the `Jewish Christians' really understood what this new faith was all about. If a `Christian' was firm in the belief that Jesus' sacrifice replaced the law, then why are the Jewish Christians so intent on maintaining all those signs of the covenant and the law?
The author lays out the practicality behind Paul's travels and bases of operation. His two bases, Corinth and Ephesus, were both seaports, and in most cases, travel by sea was far easier and faster than travel by land.
This book is eminently readable, and eminently scholarly at the same time. I have read other biographies of Paul which are either too arcane to speak to the layman or too simplistic to handle the details. This one does both tasks in marvelous fashion. I strongly recommend this as an introduction to understanding Paul's letters.
corpus for many years. This is a scholarly book with the appropriate footnotes that
show that Murphy O'Connor has consulted the community of scholars, but develops
his own explanations and scenarios as needed. One cannot help but come to know
Paul and his theology anew after reading his excellent and comprehensive presentation.