What Was Paul Thinking? A Study Text Introducing the New Perspective on Paul and Paul’s Thoughts on Women and Homosexuality

Book Review

Richard A. Brown, Blue Springs, Missouri: Isaac’s Press, 2010, 130 pp.

Considering the fact that the new perspective on Paul is not so “new” anymore, the lack of popular study material on the topic is perplexing. Richard A. Brown’s What Was Paul Thinking? (Blue Springs, Missouri: Isaac’s Press), 2010, is therefore a welcome attempt at the effort.

Though thoughtful and provocative, Brown sometimes moves too quickly through his material, sometimes packing thoughts too densely or insufficiently explaining his points. Subtitled A Study Text Introducing the New Perspective on Paul and Attitudes about Women and Homosexuality, this thin volume almost promises more than it can deliver. At just 130 pages, this eight-lesson adult Bible study text occasionally comes across more like an eclectic collection of random points than a theological study that carefully builds a well-organized argument.

The new perspective on Paul is essentially addressed in the first two chapters (“First the Forest, Later on the Trees” and “Call Not Conversion”). Only after articulating an overall position does Brown address “Paul’s Authentic Letters” (chapter 3) and “Paul’s Disputed Letters and Acts” (chapter 4). This reviewer at least would have liked to see these topics addressed in the opposite order: first the sources, then the theses. Having said that, this reviewer was pleased to note that Brown didn’t settle on the reductionist argument that “if Paul didn’t write it, it just doesn’t count.” Brown notes that (in a way characteristic of this study) in an all-too-brief statement on page 61:

The question arises, naturally, whether these authentication issues might disqualify any letter from being accepted as a reliable source of scripture. The answer to that is no, but they can help us to understand more fully possible meanings within these letters.

However, insufficient space is given to considering the more broad questions of canon and authority. For instance, the canonical approach of the above-referenced statement is apparently contradicted by the following statement on page 117:

Keep in mind, too, that the letters of Paul were addressed to specific believers, places, and times. He didn’t write them to become canonized scripture, much less set-in-stone commandments.

Both observations are pertinent: Pseudonymity does not necessarily mitigate scriptural authority; Paul did not intend to articulate systematic doctrinal truths for multiple generations. However, these statements deserve to be reconciled in a compelling hermeneutic. A working hermeneutic does not actually emerge until the final two chapters, the chapter on “Women’s Roles & Marriage” (chapter 7) and “Homosexuality Then & Now” (chapter 8). Only in these chapters does Brown specifically locate spiritual authority within the conjunction of “scripture, experience, and tradition” (cf. p. 108). Though this reviewer agrees with that model of authority, nevertheless it seems insufficiently articulated.

With respect to the new perspective on Paul, Brown presents a blend of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, among others. Brown follows Sanders’ distinction between “getting in” and “staying in” the covenant (p. 16), Dunn’s articulation of “identity markers” (pp. 22, 23), and Wright’s emphasis on the “fulfilled-family-of-Abraham” (p. 68). This stands in some tension with Brown’s tendency toward the “two-covenant” approach of Gaston, Stendahl, etc. (pp. 14,15,21), however.

At any rate, despite its shortcomings, What Was Paul Thinking? nevertheless represents a laudable first attempt at lay adult Bible study and provides church leaders several tools to address these numerous issues.

Mark M. Mattison

Invitation to help form a new Society of Biblical Literature Seminar

The Transformation and Weaving of Scripture in 1 Corinthians

In view of work already done on biblical use of older texts, including Paul’s use of Scripture, it seems appropriate that further exploration of Paul be especially attentive to two possibilities: (1) ways of using Scripture that transform the text and are difficult to notice—ways with precedents in ancient writing, but, for their detection, in need of rigorous application of clear criteria; (2) the process, reflected in many ancient authors, of weaving older writings together and thus forming them into something new. It is also  appropriate to concentrate energy on one epistle. It maximizes mutual learning and in-depth study. First Corinthians is particularly suitable because within the NT it is Paul’s earliest extensive writing. Furthermore, First Corinthians has seminal elements, and among Paul’s epistles, “it deal[s] with the greatest variety of subjects” (J. Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, OUP, 2009, v). If the search is for roots, this is a promising place to start. Work already done on 1 Corinthians confirms this promising character. Further work on this early document, if done well, can make a significant contribution to NT studies.

If interested please contact thomasbrodie@eircom.net and, as well as communicating by email, we can meet briefly in Atlanta on November 20, at the end of the first session of the Paul and Scripture Seminar (S20-328, Saturday, 4.00-6.30).

 Thomas Brodie, Dominican Biblical Institute, Limerick, Ireland

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