The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus
Witherington III, Ben. The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus. Downers Grove and Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1998. 347 pp. $22.99. ISBN 0-8308-1503-1.
The title and cover art of this book lead one to expect that it will be a sequel to Witherington's outstanding survey of contemporary portraits of the historical Jesus in his Jesus Quest, first published by IVP in 1995. In fact, it is somewhat different, in part due to the nature of Pauline studies. There are not competing "lives of Paul" among the scholarly literature so much as specialized studies of various facets of his life, ministry and thought. Further, The Paul Quest, much more so than its predecessor, is a synthesis of Witherington's own views on numerous facets of Paul, though written from a detailed knowledge of and often extensively summarizing the state of scholarship more generally. In fact, the numerous commentaries Witherington has already written on Acts and various epistles, along with his compendium of Pauline theology (Paul's Narrative Thought World [Westminster John Knox, 1994]) enable him at numerous points simply to re-present in detail his previously published views.
Notwithstanding all of these surprises, this is a very worthwhile book. Someone who wants a plausible evangelical perspective on almost every major topic in the scholarly study of Paul, accompanied by significant interaction with the best of the broader world of scholarship, can scarcely do better than to start here. We learn about Paul's social world--far more community-centered than individualistic--about cultural values of honor and shame, reciprocity and identity and about how Paul would have been viewed as deviant in a number of these respects. We survey the factors that make Paul a unique blend of Roman citizen, ethnic Jew and regenerated Christian. We recall how Paul's background made him part of a relatively small, highly educated, and probably middle-class group of people, whose rhetorical skills shine through almost every page of the epistles. We scan the little-discussed role of Paul as a prophet, especially with respect to the role of apocalyptic in his thought, and we traverse the more well-traveled road of Paul as apostle and the ways he chose to wield (or more commonly, not to wield) the authority that came with that office.
With respect to social ethics, Witherington balances Paul the realist with Paul the radical. On such issues as slavery and gender roles, Paul does not wave the liberationist banner to the degree that many moderns would have liked but, understood against the increasing Roman patriarchalism of the day, what he does say and do is countercultural and plants the seeds for significant further Christian development. Paul is neither chauvinist nor feminist, neither "love patriarchalist" nor consistently "egalitarian," and most modern studies promoting one or another of these portraits have read in anachronistic concepts into their pictures of Paul and his world.
Paul is also a master storyteller. One must understand the Old Testament and Christian stories, particularly of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the end of the age on which he builds. Even explicit quotes of single scriptural texts regularly presuppose the broader story lines of salvation history in which they are embedded. In both ethics and theology, one must avoid false dichotomies like the coherent center vs. the contingent periphery (a la J. Beker) but recognize the occasional nature of all of Paul's epistolary literature and relate it to the large narratives of salvation history that are assumed. The result is a Paul who was (and often is) either loved or hated, who scandally boasted in the cross and saw Christ as the center of everything that mattered. A lengthy appendix treats chronological issues in the life of Paul with judicious conclusions.
About the only major places I found myself disagreeing with Witherington, as indeed I expected to from his previous writings, can both be attributed to his Wesleyan-Arminian perspective and to my Reformed-Baptist convictions. I still am unpersuaded that Romans 7:14-25 describes the pre-Christian Paul; in fact Witherington's attempts to differentiate the indisputably Christian context of Galatians 5:17 simply reinforced in my mind the parallels between the two texts. Neither do I find him doing any exegesis to refute the classic Calvinist understanding of the perseverance of the saints from those texts in Paul that point in this direction, save to affirm the Arminian understanding of the possibility of apostasy from the other texts that at first glance seem more naturally to point in that direction. But these minor caveats should scarcely deter anyone from scrutizing the work and benefitting immensely from it.
The text is remarkably free from typographical mistakes, except in the occasional foreign-language entries in the bibliography, a majority of which have errors in them. There is also the odd glitch of attributing an article by Wayne Grudem to a certain W. Ziesel!