Paul and His Letters
A review of John Polhill's, "Paul and His Letters," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999). Viii + 485 pp. $29.99. ISBN 080541097-X.
When Broadman and Holman issued the contract for my Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (1997), they decided to seek an author for a comparable volume on Acts and Paul. Who better to approach than the Southern Baptist Seminary’s New Testament Professor John Polhill, who had already written the New American Commentary series volume on Acts? The book is now out and it was well worth the wait!
This work contains an extraordinary amount of information with relatively small print and small margins on each page. Despite beginning by claiming that he is not writing a life of Paul, Polhill does that and more. We learn of Paul’s pre-Christian life, of the influence of his tri-cultural upbringing (Jewish, Greek and Roman), his conversion and the early ministry not described in Acts. Then the relevant material in Acts is integrated with an introduction and survey to each of the Pauline letters. Brief sections on key theological issues are interspersed throughout, along with an introduction to letter writing in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day.
Polhill proves innovative in dealing with Galatians and Philippians in the context of the establishment of the churches in those areas rather than in the chronological sequence of their composition. He dates Galatians after the apostolic council and believes it addressed North Galatia. The chapter between the discussions of Romans and Colossians has an unusually extensive but welcome section on Paul’s collection. After the treatment of 2 Timothy, we read of the various early church traditions about Paul’s last years, and a brief section sums up some of his “legacy.”
All thirteen letters ascribed to Paul in the original Greek manuscripts (thus not including Hebrews) are defended as authentic. With several recent evangelical commentators, the unity of 2 Corinthians is also maintained. The only possible additional topic on which one could have wished for a full chapter is a synthesis of Paul’s theology under its major thematic headings. If the book was becoming too long for this, the very detailed historical background information on each major city of Paul’s travels could have been abbreviated somewhat.
In addition to the controversy surrounding the date and provenance of Galatians, the only other really controversial issues on which Polhill takes a minority stance, at least among evangelicals, are his tentative conclusions that Paul wrote Philippians from an Ephesian imprisonment and Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon from a Caesarean cell. On many potentially divisive issues, especially in recent Southern Baptist life, Polhill simply presents the options without clearly taking a stand. I would guess from reading between the lines that Polhill is not a cessationist with respect to the charismatic gifts and is an egalitarian with respect to gender roles, but he certainly leaves his discussions open. As for his views on the timing of the tribulation or criteria for divorce and/or remarriage, he is so non-committal that I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to his own views!
One can always quibble with this or that exegetical detail in a work that covers such vast terrain as this. But what stunned me as I worked through the volume was how exactly our views matched on virtually every issue. Each chapter ends with a judicious bibliography, while detailed end-notes demonstrate familiarity with a broad swath of secondary literature, most of it quite recent. I sincerely hope that the book receives as encouraging a response as my companion volume has and that it is widely adopted by at many colleges, universities and seminaries as a textbook. While probably no one among today’s evangelical scholars will produce a rival quite as comparable in felicitous style and learned depth as F. F. Bruce’s magisterial Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), Polhill’s is clearly the closest equivalent subsequently produced, and his updating of the issues in light of the last quarter-century of scholarship should make his work preferrable to Bruce’s in the eyes of many.
The book is relatively free from typographical errors; gratefully, in light of Broadman and Holman’s rather spotty recent track record in this arena. The only glaring one I noted was on p. 153 where two lines of text were drastically curtailed; all the rest are very minor.
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament