Paul: His Life and Teaching
A review of John McRay's, "Paul: His Life and Teaching," by Dr. Craig Blomberg
McRay, John. Paul: His Life and Teaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. $23.99. 479 pp. ISBN 0-8010-2403-X
F. F. Bruce's Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free remains a classic textbook on the life and thought of Paul. John Polhill's Paul and His Letters covers similar material well and is more up-to-date. Besides these two works, there are no comprehensive recent evangelical textbooks on Paul, so each new offering raises great interest. When Baker advertised that John McRay, one of evangelicalism's premier New Testament archeologists and long- time professor at Wheaton College was producing such a book, I began to think Bruce and Polhill might have a rival. As it turns out, I was mistaken.
The book divides into two main Parts. Part 1 treats Paul's life, progressing chronologically through the various stages of his upbringing, conversion and ministry. Along the way, the relevant texts from Acts and Paul's letters are introduced and discussed. Not surprisingly, the strength of this section lies in the descriptions of each Pauline site. The weakest and briefest sections are those summarizing and discussing the various epistles. (There is triple the treatment of Paul's ports of call between Miletus and Jerusalem than of the entire book of Romans.) Acts gets reasonably good coverage and good commentary, especially in light of the five volume Tyndale House project edited by Bruce Winter on The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting.
In addition to the predictable material, there are extra insights or suggestions not always included in treatments of this kind. McRay speculates that Paul's full Roman name might have been Gaius Julius Paulus, based on an inscription in Naples of another Paul from Cilicia who received his citizenship about the time Paul's family might have received theirs. McRay also reminds us that “the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17) that Paul bore might have considerably defaced his upper body if he had already received his five ordeals with the thirty-nine lashes (2 Cor. 11:24) when coining that phrase. He suspects that “Greeks” in Acts means “God-fearers,” since normally Luke uses “Gentiles” for complete pagans. He deals with the thorny problem of correlating the Jerusalem visits of Paul in Acts and Galatians by suggesting that both the famine visit of Acts 11 and the council of Galatians 2 are separate, unparalleled visits. He wonders if Mark's abandoning Paul and Barnabas after their time together on Cyprus had to do with his unwillingness to move beyond primarily Jewish to evangelize primarily Gentile communities. He notes that the term neaniskos, used in Scripture first for Paul and later for Timothy, in an inscription in a Beroean gymnasium referred to young men from ages 18-22. He wonders if Paul used some of the collection money to pay for the sacrifices of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 21:23-26). And he paints a stark portrait of the conditions of life in the various imprisonments Paul endured. McRay accepts all of the canonical letters attributed to Paul as Pauline, and even suggests a detailed itinerary for Paul in between his two imprisonments in Rome, based on information from the Pastoral Epistles.
The only real anomaly in this first part of the book is McRay's detailed chronology of Paul's life, at least the latter portions, based on his changing the date of Festus' accession as prefect in Judea from 59 to 56. He does this solely on the basis of supposed micrographic lettering on a coin discovered by fellow-archeologist, Jerry Vardaman, communicated to him privately. But even though Vardaman has never published this information and scholars are thus unable to evaluate its validity, McRay proceeds to berate several other recent studies of Pauline chronology for not taking Vardaman's evidence into account!
It is when one turns to Part 2 on Paul's teaching, however, that one realizes McRay is out of his depth. Expert archeologist though he is, he utterly fails in this half of the book to present anything like a balanced or thorough survey of the major themes of Paul's writings. Absent are all but passing mention of the grand themes of revelation, justification, sanctification and glorification. There is little or nothing of Paul's central contrasts of Spirit and flesh, of new and old natures, of new and old Adams, or of godly and worldly wisdom, or any significant pneumatology or anthropology for that matter. There is no discrete treatment of Pauline ethics, notwithstanding the large exhortational segments in Paul's letters.
What is discussed is frequently given idiosyncratic treatment, to say the least. A chapter on “form, function and canonicity,” is most interested in the varying orders of Paul's letters in early collections. A chapter on “Paul's world of apocalyptic and demonology” ably surveys background literature on those topics but draws no conclusions for the interpreter of Paul's writings. “Paul and the Incarnation of Christ” is a short chapter focusing on the important but meager texts ascribing deity to Jesus, with significant attention to debates surrounding Philippians 2:5-11, but with no clear conclusions. “Atonement in Pauline literature” spends 26 of 32 pages dealing with everything in the Bible and church history on the topic except Paul. Even Hebrews commands more attention than Paul does in this chapter, because McRay considers it “sufficiently Pauline” (p. 320) to merit such coverage. “The Heart of Paul: The Theology of Ephesians” sounds promising, as if it might show how this letter really is what Bruce called “the quintessence of Paulinism.” Instead, McRay attempts to defend the reverse of Paul's true emphasis in this letter on unity, namely, that Jewish and Gentile Christians have distinct roles in God's economy, that Paul's use of pronouns demonstrates this, and that Eph. 2:3 is the transition point in the letter where Paul begins to talk about what Jews and Gentiles do share in Christ. This latter view requires the co-resurrection, co-seating, and co-exaltation of believers with Christ to be reinterpreted as the sharing of Jew and Gentile together in Christ.
With many recent specialized studies but against the majority of recent evangelical commentators, McRay takes the pistis Iesou or Christou constructions to mean the faithfulness of Christ rather than believers' faith in Christ. In a chapter on Paul's view of the Law, McRay surveys a variety of perspectives somewhat haphazardly and offers no clear comparison between the Reformation and Sanders-Dunn-Wright trajectories (the so-called “New Look on Paul”). His assessment is that everyone has missed the main point, which is the distinct roles of Jewish Christians obeying the moral law of the Old Testament unchanged and Gentile Christians being entirely free from the Law, per se. In “The Composition of Paul's Churches: Organization, Lord's Supper, and Baptism,” McRay assumes apostles and prophets no longer exist because they formed the one-time foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20)–but did they have no other functions? He argues that the seven of Acts 6 were not forerunners of the deacons but fellow elders with the apostles. He helpfully summarizes recent sociological research that should inform our understanding of the Lord's Supper–taken as part of the love feast either in the courtyards of the rich villas of the handful of well-to-do believers or in cramped tenement apartments which housed upward of 90% of city dwellers in the Roman empire. But he declares as an “absolute qualification” for being an elder that he “be the husband of one wife and have believing children” (p. 389–despite the fact that this would disqualify both Paul and Jesus!). And five-sixths of his treatment of baptism again ranges throughout Scripture and Jewish backgrounds to cover material that has nothing directly to do with Paul.
The final chapter that treats a coherent theme in Paul deals primarily with eschatology. McRay spends considerable time on the intermediate state, again without coming to any clear conclusion other than it seems he cannot accept a period of disembodiment. In his sequence of eschatological events, the rapture comes after Christ has returned to earth and then ascended to heaven again! “The perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 receives extended treatment and must be interpreted in light of the (later!) fourth chapter of Ephesians (1 Cor. 1:7 notwithstanding, which receives no treatement), so that Paul is thinking neither of a closed canon nor the end of the age but of the full and equal inclusion of the Gentiles into the Jewish roots of the church! The final chapter of the book supposedly deals with, “Paul in Recent Study,” but that includes the periods before, during and after Schweitzer, and with respect to truly recent works, McRay has but a few pages, primarily dealing with the role of Jews in Paul's thought.
Perhaps it was because I allowed my hopes to get as high as I did that I was as disappointed as I was with this second half of the book. But I cannot imagine any of my colleagues at a representative cross-section of Christian colleges and seminaries thinking this is at all close to what they would want covered in a treatment of Paul's theology. Bruce and Polhill continue to brook no rivals.
Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament