Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality

By Campbell, Barth L. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality


Campbell, Barth L., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality. By Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996, xv + 271 pp., n.p.

Another book on Paul? Why should one spend more time (and money) on yet an additional book on the apostle? The reason is this: The book is a successful blending of two recent critical approaches (social-scientific criticism and rhetorical criticism) that produces a new approach to understanding Paul-a "social psychology" (p. 16).

Malina and Neyrey have distinguished themselves as interpreters who utilize the findings of the social sciences in order to understand Biblical texts more fully (cf. their "Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts: Pivotal Values of the Mediterranean World" in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Biblical Interpretation [1991], edited by Neyrey). Portraits of Paul "aims to explain how ancient Mediterraneans perceived and described each other" (p. 4). Paul is chosen as a test case by which one can learn to configure and analyze appropriate data. The authors hypothesize and conclude that a social-psychological study of Paul demonstrates that "first-century Mediterranean persons were strongly group-embedded, collectivist persons" (p. 16), and that Paul, as a typical Mediterranean person, is group-oriented and collectivist in personality (pp. 98-99, 151-152). "For all the 'independence' claimed for Paul by modern Western readers, he presents himself as utterly dependent on group expectations and the controlling hand of forces greater than he: ancestors, groups, God... In fact, 'independence' of any group authorization would have been a major liability to him" (p. 217). Rather than the rugged individualist that Paul seems to be, he is one who defends his honor and his actions as honorable before the tribunal of collectivist opinion. Paul's group orientation is evident in three mediums of ancient discourse: the encomium, the public defense speech and physiognomics.

In a brilliantly succinct and lucid overview of Hellenistic rhetorical education and practice (pp. 21-23). the encomium (a speech of praise) is extensively described. This particular kind of rhetorical composition praises the subject's origin and birth, nurture and training, accomplishments, and gives a comparison with others that is favorable to the subject (pp. 23-33). Paul's self-descriptions in Galatians, Philippians and 2 Corinthians evince characteristics of a group-oriented person who stresses his honorable behavior. His is not a pursuit of individualistic success that is not in correspondence with prevailing social expectations for his group. Rather, Paul's piously loyal conduct toward God benefits the group.

Greco-Roman forensic rhetoric gives us a window on how the ancients perceived and described persons. Public defense speeches concern the same aspects of human designation as encomia. The discussion of such speeches by Malina and Neyrey is an excellent introduction to standard rhetorical composition. Their treatment of the speeches in Acts 22:1-30 and 26:1-32 explains the function of the basic parts of rhetorical arrangement: exordium, statement of facts, proof, refutation and peroration. The discourses of Acts serve as lenses through which to examine "how Paul is perceived and described according to the ancient native categories set forth in the forensic defense speech" (p. 77). Once again, Paul describes himself as a collectivist (not individualist) personality who has acted honorably. …

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