Paul: The Man and the Myth

By Richardson, Peter | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Paul: The Man and the Myth


Richardson, Peter, Journal of Biblical Literature


Paul. The Man and the Myth, by Calvin J. Roetzel. Studies on Personalities of the New Testament. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. xiv + 269. $34.95.

The vigorous debates of the past century and a half make a general study of Paul's "personality" a daunting task. Calvin Roetzel (Macalester College), a veteran interpreter of Paul, constructs a lively and reliable-though not uncontroversial-portrait that dovetails with his widely used textbook on the letters of Paul. His extensive familiarity with scholarly, especially German, views is reflected in sensible evaluations of recent studies and relevant older views. He balances competing approaches to Paul in an effective tension: a Pharisaic Jewish and Hellenist Paul, Paul of the letters and of tradition, the social and the theological Paul. Roetzel embraces enthusiastically Paul the celibate (pp. 145-51, 157-63) and miracle worker (pp. 163-70). In two of the four central chapters Paul is characterized as "the model ascetic" (chapter 5, using Wayne Meeks's phrase) and as "the theologizer" (chapter 4).

Roetzel sketches a critical basis succinctly in chapter 1 ("the early Paul"), beginning with the relation between Paul's letters and Acts (he "relies more heavily on information from Paul's letters," but accepts Acts where its "material does not reflect Lucan theology. . . [or] contradict Paul's letters" [p. 10]). The (Acts) tradition that Paul was born and grew up in Tarsus is likely correct; since he gives no sign that he knew Aramaic, he probably did not study or live in Jerusalem for long. In cosmopolitan Roman Tarsus, Paul was influenced by rich Hellenistic rhetorical and philosophical traditions; like other Diaspora Jews, he was formatively shaped by the Septuagint, though his outlook was modulated by isolation, minority status, and vulnerability. He was probably not a Roman citizen-though perhaps a member of a Diaspora politeuea or association-and so not from the upper classes. Yet his education balanced immersion in Israel's traditions with Hellenistic schooling in literary skills, letter writing, and argumentation; he would have learned leatherworking from his father.

What kind of Pharisee was Paul? He was like other Pharisees in spiritualizing cultic language and ideas and in attitudes to holiness, resurrection, and human freedom. But he was unlike Pharisees in matters of purity, messiahship, Gentiles, and eschatology: "Paul reevaluated [Pharisaic] traditions in light of the eschatological significance of Jesus' cross and resurrection" (p. 37). On the vexed matter of Paul as persecutor of the church, Roetzel stresses what the persecution was not: neither solely theological nor solely political, neither for admitting Gentile males without circumcision nor for speaking against the temple. It was not aimed at Gentile believers and did not include capital punishment; perhaps it was prompted partly from fear of Roman retaliation and partly because the movement was dangerous.

Roetzel is most engaging in chapters 4 and 5. "The Theologizer" (chapter 4) is a tour de force that exposes the interactive and emergent character of Paul's theology, making the "rather simple point that is widely acknowledged in theory but denied in practice" that Paul's theology was not fixed or systematic. Roetzel uncovers "the vitality and dynamism of the theologizing" (p. 93), selecting two motifs crucial to Paul (election of converts and participation in Christ), which he pursues through 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans, with excursuses on 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and the collection. …

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