Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years

  • Martin Hengel, Anna Maria Schwemer
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years. London: SCM; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997. xiv + 530 pp. Pb. $32.00. ISBN 0-664-25736-4.

Some might consider Martin Hengel, emeritus professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tubingen, the most prolific and erudite New Testament scholar in the world today. At least his mastery of the requisite background literature (both primary and secondary) for engaging in serious historical study of the Scriptures seems unparalleled. This book, authored with some help from a fellow Tubingen resident (and teacher at the Melanchthon Foundation) does nothing to diminish Hengel's reputation. The English text is a translation by John Bowden from an as yet unpublished German manuscript, comprising 313 closely-reasoned pages of text and 181 of end notes. In many ways, this is a continuation of Hengel's briefer work on The Pre-Christian Paul (SCM; TPI, 1991).

As readers of Hengel have come to expect, he sets high standards for himself and others and does not hesitate to witheringly criticize scholars who substitute theological dogma or literary speculation for credible historical hypotheses. As in previous works on Acts and Paul, he finds Luke's writings to be more historically trustworthy than do most critical scholars but still prefers Paul's first-hand testimony and does not flinch from occasionally labeling Acts as wrong or exaggerated.

This book traces what we can know or plausibly infer from A. D. 33-50 in the life of Paul. Hengel believes all of the major contours of Pauline theology were developed extremely quickly, as necessary corollaries of his conversion experience and earliest instruction by other Christians. Paul's core beliefs were in fundamental agreement with those of the Palestinian Hebrew Christians before him.

A strong Jewish community in Damascus and an already existing group of God-fearers give historical credibility to the mission of Saul the Pharisee to that community and to his subsequent preaching in the synagogues after his conversion. Luke's "after many days" (Acts 9:23) leaves room for Paul's "after three years" (Gal. 1:19), a period of time which is not to be envisioned as a time of meditation or private growth but of mission. The problem with dating Paul's flight from Aretas as early as A.D. 36 (Hengel places Paul's conversion in 33) dissipates once it is recognized that Aretas is acting in a less official capacity at this point and that he may not have even ruled more formally later.

Paul's ever-widening circles of ministry to Nabatea, Syria and Cilicia form part of his theologico-geographical strategy of moving ever outward, linguistically and culturally, from Jerusalem, as the uniquely commissioned apostle to the Gentiles. Paul's relative silence concerning this early period, however, may be due to the extent of opposition and hostility he faced, including a number of the sufferings he enumerates in 2 Corinthians 11:23b-27, otherwise unattested in Acts.

Paul's visit to Peter three years after his conversion was as private, secretive and limited as it was probably also for security purposes. But we must not underestimate how much of the kerygma and information about the life of Christ and the early church Peter could have communicated during an intensive two-week stay or how much Paul may have influenced Peter, too.

Paul's subsequent time in Tarsus may have lasted up to three or four years, putting us now in 39/40, although Hengel is never as clear here as usual as to why he chooses this terminus. Barnabas brings Paul to Antioch and ministers there with him for at least one year. Again one must not underestimate the formative role Barnabas had with Paul or in the development fo early Christianity more generally. A maximum of half of the decade of the 40s is actually spent in Antioch; Paul will otherwise be ministering in neighboring areas. And Antioch must not be seen as the home of all sorts of creative theology.

Hengel frequently finds Caligula's stormy reign and demise (37-41) influential in heightening Jew-Gentile tensions in the empire and thus making life more difficult for Paul on numerous fronts. Hengel regularly composes excursuses (and other sections that could have been labeled excursuses) that deal only tangentially with the avowed subject matter of the book but provide enormous illumination into the historical and religious background of various parts of the ancient Roman empire. An appendix compares the chronology of Paul with that of Luther's life, showing that parallels are more significant after the conversions of these two men than before.

It is impossible to do justice to the wealth of detail in this volume in a short review. Even if individual conclusions can be challenged (while insisting on a South Galatian hypothesis, he refuses to acknowledge the equally strong case for not equating Gal. 2:1-10 with Acts 15), Hengel's overall methodology and results remain stellar. The depth of his research offers a model for scholars of all theological persuasions and one that few can ever actually hope to match.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary