Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology
A review of Rainer Riesner's, "Paul's Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Riesner, Rainer. Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology. Trans. Doug Stott. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998. xvi + 535 pp. $50.00 pap.
To receive a permanent post in a German university, professorial candidates need not only have successfully defended a doctoral dissertation that is generally massive in scope compared to American equivalents but also researched and written a similarly technically rigorous (though often a little shorter) second book in an area of their discipline unrelated to their dissertation. It is a rare occasion when in the field of biblical studies this Habilitationschrift, as it is called, (a) merits translation into English, and actually does get translated; (b) is written by an evangelical scholar; and (c) deserves to be read by anyone who wishes to remain fully abreast of the study of a field as wite as the whole of Acts and Paul! Riesner’s volume, however, passes all three tests with flying colors.
The three parts of the book correspond to the three items in the subtitle. After an exhaustive survey of modern approaches to Pauline chronology, Riesner delves into the dates of the crucifixion, Stephen’s stoning, Paul’s conversion and all the other major events in Acts and the epistles that we stand any chance of being able to date. While focusing in minute details on the earliest years of Paul’s life and ministry, he does ultimately cover all the events and summarizes his findings in helpful tabular form (p. 322). The results very closely mirror the oft-used outline defended in F. F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (1977) but establish the dates with a methodological rigor that Bruce’s work did not permit and supplies a detailed refutation of numerous more recent revisionist chronologies (esp. those of R. Jewett and G. Ludemann). Some of Riesner’s key dates include Jesus’ crucifixion in 30, Paul’s conversion in 31/32, Paul first visit to Jerusalem as a Christian in 33/34; the first “missionary journey” in 45-47, the letter to the Galatians and the Apostolic Council in 48, Paul in Corinth in 50-51, in Ephesus 52-55, arrested in Jerusalem in 57, sent to Rome in 59 and left in house-arrest there from 60-62.
The most creative part of the book is the second. Here Riesner believes he can explain the basic geographical strategy of Paul (proceeding from Tarsus ever westward) in light of the locations identified in Isaiah 66:19, specifically as each was frequently interpreted by the Judaism of Paul’s day. In sum, Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meschech, Tubal, Javan and the farthest islands correspond to Tarsus, Cilicia, Lydia, Cappadocia or Mysia, Bithynia, Macedonia and the farthest west, respectively. If all the pieces in this puzzle fall into place somewhat less easily or convincingly than the chronology of part one, the results are at least well worth pondering. Riesner himself is clearly aware of other factors that need to be taken into account and discusses them en route.
Part three turns to the theology of Paul in the Thessalonians and the claims that “development” in Pauline thought requires his first epistle to this church to be significantly separated in time from others he wrote (especially 1 Corinthians, Romans and/or Galatians). Riesner finds little support for such claims, discusses the supposed absence of “justification” from the Thessalonian correspondence and en route introduces us in detail to the archaeology and geography of Thessalonica, the chronology of Paul’s stay there and the uniquely Thessalonian forms of idolatry from which its fledgling Christians turned.
Three excursuses punctuate Riesner’s volume with discussions of Paul’s Roman citizenship (the historicity of this Lukan motif is entirely plausible), Acts and world history (the vast majority of all the explicit and implicit synchronisms readily correlate), and the unity of 1 Thessalonians (composite letter theories fail to convince). An appendix provides family trees and archeological maps, the bibliography extends to eighty pages (!), and ample indexes round out the work.
Had Riesner never written another book-length work after his revised dissertation, Jesus als Lehrer (sadly plans to translate it into English never materialized), his contribution to evangelical scholarship would have remained secure. Now he threatens to become a real “superstar.” Let us hope that not only his writing but also his ministry as lecturer in New Testament studies in the University of Tubingen will have a widespread positive impact in further demonstrating the intellectual credibility and respectability of a whole host of “traditional” perspectives on the historicity and interpretation of Scripture, particularly in a land that has had so little exposure to these perspectives at the highest levels of scholarship in the past century and a half.
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament