Review of Paul: Life, Setting, Work, Letters, edited by Oda Wischmeyer

Wischmeyer, Oda, ed. Paul: Life, Setting, Work, Letters. Translated by Helen S. Heron. London: T&T Clark, 2012. $35.73

81+CKOOGLPLFor many English speakers interested in Biblical Studies, it takes . . . longer . . . to read German scholarship, but it is crucial. So, English translations of good German New Testament scholarship, like this volume, are especially welcome.

This self-styled “textbook,” edited by Oda Wischmeyer, Professor Emeritus in the Institut für Neues Testament at the Friedrich-Alexander Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg, introduces students to Paul in three main sections: his setting (Part I), his letters and theology (Part II), and the reception of his legacy and letters (Part III). Each Part is introduced briefly by Wischmeyer, who situates the essays that follow in their critical contexts and summarizes the general presuppositions under which the essays approach Paul.

Part I contains six essays on the contexts of Paul’s life and missionary activity, the first two focusing on the broader cultural contexts within which Paul worked. Andreas Mehl’s contribution summarizes the status of the government and the makeup of the Roman Principate during Paul’s life—from Augustus to Nero. Mehl, a classicist, paints a nuanced picture of an expanding, changing social and political situation in the first century BCE, with the nascent Roman “Empire” just beginning to form the structures and institutions that would sustain it for at least four more centuries.

Bernhard Heininger’s essay focuses on the religious and philosophical contexts of the Gentile world Paul encountered. Heininger describes the popular public worship, various mystery cults, and oracular and magical practices present in the empire, then turning to examine in more detail the imperial cult and the various philosophical schools contemporary with Paul. Heininger helpfully casts the cult of the emperor as a functional “foil” (45) for Paul’s preaching, which rightly acknowledges the importance of this context but avoids overstatement of Paul’s intentions to oppose the imperial cult specifically. Both essays are learned and useful introductions to research on their topics, but Heininger’s contribution does a better job of interacting with key primary sources and pointing students to further discussion. Heininger also makes more explicit connections with Paul, while Mehl’s essay leaves it to readers to assess the relevance of his discussion to the interpretation of Paul. Neither essay, though very informative, provides enough of the synthetic summary statements that would contextualize the information for students interacting with it for the first time.

Jörg Frey approaches Paul as a diaspora Pharisee, standing well within the Judaism of his day. He offers an especially fair and useful summary of the debate over the “New Perspective(s) on Paul,” acknowledging the contribution of sociological readings of Pauline justification without jettisoning the theological dimension. Following her short essay outlining sources and chronology for Paul’s life, Eva Ebel examines the logistics of travel that would have faced Paul and his companions and briefly assesses Paul’s missionary achievements. She rightly understands his Spanish ambitions to indicate that a pragmatic restriction of his missionary activity to Greek-speaking areas with a Jewish presence was not at the core of Paul’s missionary strategy. Eve-Marie Becker rounds out Part I with her essay on the “Person of Paul,” which takes a fascinating look at our evidence for Paul’s physical and personality features as well as his self-understanding and his understanding of personal physicality, particularly the effect of the latter on his eschatology.

Part II features introductory essays on each of the seven commonly-accepted Pauline letters in their posited chronological order: 1 Thessalonians (Ebel), 1 Corinthians (Wischmeyer), 2 Corinthians (Becker), Galatians (Frey), Philippians (Lukas Bormann), Philemon (Bormann), and Romans (Wischmeyer). Each contribution covers standard introductory issues, summarized in a series of useful tables. The essays address a broad range of issues very economically, if densely, including, in addition to standard introduction, sections on “semantic fields” that give students an idea of the concepts emphasized in a given letter, various partition theories, and consideration of the rhetorical forms discernible in the letters.

Ebel emphasizes that despite the absence of “cross” and “righteous/ness” terminology in 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s mature thought on the broad lines of soteriology, particularly with reference to judgment, is already present. Wischmeyer highlights the two “poles” of the Christian life that Paul presents in 1 Corinthians: agapē and an awareness of living in the eschaton. Becker sees in (a composite) 2 Corinthians a unique window into Paul’s self-understanding and the early development of Christian theology from epistolary correspondence. The Galatian situation, for Frey, was essentially theological, though sociological concerns should not be discounted. Bormann emphasizes the core of Philippians in the imitatio Christi, both in the community and in Paul’s own (suffering) life, and he finds in Philemon a case study in the effect of the gospel on social relationships. Wischmeyer is skeptical of attempts to divide or even classify Romans according to classical rhetoric, and his extended summary of Paul’s argument falls along largely traditional “vertical” lines, and he considers the classic theological emphases on, e.g., justification, law, atonement, and eschatology to be properly placed.

The final chapter of Part II concerns “themes” of Pauline theology. Wischmeyer analyzes Paul’s theologizing in this chapter more than his theology, a decision the author explains as necessary because of the inappropriateness of taking a “theological position” in a textbook (284 n. 22). Accordingly, Wischmeyer includes a brief history of the discipline of “Pauline theology” and considers the key sources and presuppositions of Paul’s theologizing, but attempts no synthesis. Using classic systematic-theological loci, the author then identifies the theological topics addressed in each letter individually and finally four key tensions in Paul’s thought: eschatology, law-free Gentile inclusion, “in-Christ” ecclesiology, and pneumatic ethics.

Part III deals with the reception of Paul in the First Century (Heininger), in the Second (Andreas Lindemann), and beyond (Wolfgang Wischmeyer). Heininger’s chapter covers the “Deutero- and Trito-Pauline” letters and the presentation of Paul in Acts. Heininger approaches these documents with a view to how they interact with Paul’s legacy (Paul is cast as a prototypical believer and leader) and as a window into the early understanding of Paul within believing communities (applying his theology to changing situations). Lindemann treats the reception of Paul in the literature known as the “Apostolic Fathers” and other literature associated with Paul from the second century. He highlights the widespread influence of Paul’s legacy and the clues these letters give us regarding the early collection and circulation of Pauline letters. Finally, Wolfgang Wischmeyer completes Part III with a broad survey of the history of reception of Paul after the Second Century, emphasizing the massive influence Paul and his letter collection had on the self-definition of the Christian church, from Augustine to the Middle Ages and the Reformation to the Enlightenment and historical criticism.

The book’s interaction with major issues in Pauline studies, though it makes for quite dense prose at times, is impressive indeed. The volume is well-organized and consistent in the quality of the contributions, from both New Testament scholars and classicists, but the biggest benefit of this work is certainly its exposure of German scholarship to a wider English-speaking audience. Both the essays themselves and their documentation are a great resource for students seeking to venture into what might be a “strange new world” of German scholarship on Paul, where the New Perspective has had a less profound effect, for good or ill, and where they will often find a different set of emphases than are present in Pauline studies in the UK and US.

It is hard, though, to imagine this volume being used widely as it was intended, i.e., as a textbook. It is too detailed for most undergraduate courses, where its lack of synthesis and summary statements would demand too much of the reader, a bit too critical for the likelihood of wide adoption in Evangelical seminaries, and probably too broad for use as a main textbook in graduate courses on Paul. However, the book would be a useful supplementary reference resource in any of these settings.

While some readers may not share many of this collection’s consistently critical conclusions regarding Pauline chronology and authorship, its tone is consistently irenic, its authors’ reasoning is clearly presented, and I am glad to have the book on my shelf.

I am thankful for the opportunity to read and review this volume—many thanks to T&T Clark for the review copy.


About Paul Cable

I'm a PhD student in New Testament at Wheaton College. My dissertation, supervised by Doug Moo, deals with participatory soteriology in Paul's letter to the Philippians. I hold the BA in English from the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) and the MDiv from Southern Seminary. My amazing wife Ashley and I have three kids: Graeme, Eleanor, and Silas, and we attend Sojourn Community Church in Woodstock, GA.
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