Book Notice: Constructing Paul

Luke Timothy Johnson. Constructing Paul. Vol. 1 of The Canonical Paul. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020. 375 pages. $50.00 (hardcover).

Luke Timothy Johnson, who serves as Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University, has written a unique work entitled Constructing Paul, the first installment of a two-volume work covering the life and letters of the apostle Paul. This first volume focuses on the sources for the study of Paul. Johnson asserts that “the figure we call Paul is not simply there for our analysis in an obvious and indisputable fashion. He must be fashioned from the far-from-complete bits of evidence offered from ancient sources, thus ‘constructed’” (6). Johnson’s “quest for the historical Paul” differs from any other such quest in that he immediately dismisses the minimalistic approaches to Pauline constructions and argues that the “canonical Paul” authored all of the thirteen letters attributed to the apostle. He further organizes these letters into five “clusters” (1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians/Romans, Colossians/Ephesians, Pastorals) with Philippians and Philemon as “outliers” (i.e. letters that do not share common themes or vocabulary with the others) (10). For Johnson, there is no “explanatory key” by which all other themes are organized; rather, he takes a “polythetic” approach—an approach that unfortunately allows for varying and even incompatible scenarios in the letters (8). While his attention to diversity can prove fruitful, evangelicals will not agree that Paul’s letters are truly incompatible with one another.

Johnson proposes a nuanced “model of authorship.” He doesn’t buy into the “individual author” vs. “later school” mentality, but the differences represented in each Pauline “cluster” lead Johnson to believe there was a “Pauline ‘school’ at work in all of his letters, albeit in varying degrees” (91). For Johnson, Paul’s letters are like the U.S. President’s address to Congress: many advisors and experts craft the words, but the President is answerable for everything the speech contains, “even if his contribution of actual words may have been minimal” (92). Chapter 5 asks a particularly engaging question: What kind of Jew is Paul? Because of his unique view of Pauline “authorship,” he is really asking, “What kind of Jew do Paul’s letters show him to be?” (134). With this question, Johnson openly admits that his version of authorship allows for “a variety of ‘Pauls’ addressing a variety of distinct rhetorical situations” (127). Based on this presupposition, the scope of Johnson’s historical enterprise is quite limited; nevertheless, Johnson concludes that Paul is a “prophetic Jew,” a label that highlights the present activity of the Spirit in the life of the apostle.

Overall, Johnson’s view of Scripture is problematic. His allusion to “incompatible scenarios” between Pauline letters does not align with Scripture’s attestation of its own veracity (2 Tim 3:16–17) or the truth-telling character of God himself (Titus 1:2). Furthermore, his belief in the presence of many “Pauline schools” compromises the robust historicity behind the apostle Paul and his letters. Nevertheless, if one reads it with discernment, Johnson’s unique approach will consistently bring you back to Paul’s letters themselves, allowing you to see his writings with fresh eyes and with fresh appreciation.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. CBS book notices are not full academic book reviews. The present book notice was written by Mark Baker (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), Professor and Assistant Director of the Scarborough College Darrington Campus in Houston, TX.


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