Review: European Journal of Theology (Dr. Anthony Bash)

Contours of Pauline Theology
A Radical Survey of the Influences on Paul’s
Biblical Writings
Tom Holland
Genies House, Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2004, 384 pp., £14.99, hb ISBN 1- 85792-469-X

SUMMARY

The thesis of this book is that two important axioms have been missing from the interpretation of Paul’s writing. The first is that the story of the Passover and the exodus are the interpretive keys to Paul’s thought and, in particular, to the interpretation of Jesus’ death. The second lens is that the Pauline writings should be read as being implicitly corporate and covenantal their approach. Holland excludes the literature of Second Temple Judaism and the pseudepigraphal writings from the interpretation of Paul’s writings. The strengths of the book are its robust challenge to many scholarly presuppositions and an impetus to new research on Paul’s debt to the Old Testament.

The thesis of this book is clear and well-expressed throughout. Stated simply it is that two important axioms or reference points (which the author calls ‘lenses’) have been missing from the interpretation of Paul’s writings. The first such lens is that the story of the Passover and the exodus are the interpretive keys to Paul’s thought and, in particular, to his interpretation of Jesus’ death. Allied to this – but not one of the ‘lenses’ – is that, in the author’s view, Paul’s thought can only be properly understood when we see him to be an exegete and theologian of the Old Testament. According to Holland, it is wrong to interpret Paul’s thought as containing the alloy of Hellenistic thinking. He did not, he says, ‘Hellenise’ the Christian message but he remained faithful both to the thought patterns and expectations of the Old Testament and also to what Jesus had proclaimed. The second lens is that the Pauline writings should be read as being implicitly corporate and covenantal in their approach.

The ‘rediscovery’ of these two axioms, claims the author, ‘bring [sic] a far more coherent understanding of the teaching of the apostle Paul in the areas of Christology, salvation and anthropology’ (p. 291).

This is a difficult book to review because it is good in part – indeed, sometimes very good but in other places, I am not so sure.

The strengths of the book are its robust challenge to many scholarly presuppositions and an impetus to new research on Paul’s debt to the Old Testament. In addition, Holland offers an impressive restatement of much in the Pauline corpus to demonstrate that Paul’s thought is paschal, new-Exodus, corporate and covenantal. For these reasons alone, this is a book that should be read by all who are interested in reading and understanding Paul.

That said, I have questions about aspects of Holland’s method, style and presuppositions.

Holland doubts the value of two sources for interpreting Paul: the literature of Second Temple Judaism and the pseudepigraphal writings. Rather, according to Holland, Paul stayed ‘within the framework of Old Testament theology’ (p. 43) – but this begs an important question: Which is Paul’s Old Testament interpretive framework of that theology? Is it ancient Israel’s, Paul’s own (however derived) or twenty-first century? At least Second Temple literature and the pseudepigraphal writings provide some clues as to how the Old Testament were being interpreted in Paul’s era within the many Judaisms’ that Holland, acknowledging Neusner, agrees existed. Paul clearly is an exegete and theologian of the Old Testament – but, we should note, of the Septuagintal version of it. To exclude from Paul’s thinking all other cultural influences – including the pervasive influence of Hellenistic thought – is an overstatement of a case.

In my view, there is too much accumulated evidence to say otherwise, and Holland does not go much beyond asserting this point, although I acknowledge it would take more than one book to prove his case.

I also wonder whether some of Holland’s conclusions may be overstated: for example, with Holland I would say that, of course, Paul interprets Jesus’ death as the fulfilment of the Passover – but, I would add, not only as the fulfilment of the Passover. What of 2 Corinthians 8:9, for example?

The author sometimes knocks down what I see to be ‘straw men’. For example, he demolishes the view that in his pre-Christian days, Paul persecuted fellow Jewish Christians because they proclaimed a law-free gospel to Gentiles. Some, including me, would argue that Paul persecuted Jewish Christians because the teaching they proclaimed to other Jews was heterodox in the view of the Jewish party Paul represented. Holland’s targets are (to mix a metaphor) more nuanced than he sometimes admits and, as a result, sometimes does not address other viewpoints.

Another example is on p. 11, the first page of Chapter One. Holland says that scholars claimed for generations that Paul changed Jesus’ message to such an extent that Jesus would not have recognised what Paul taught.

But a mainstream scholar such as Hooker has recently written most unexceptionally: Although Paul’s contribution to Christianity was enormous, his understanding of the gospel was not a distortion of Jesus’ own message and mission’ (M D Hooker, Paul. A Short Introduction [2003], p. 148).

There are some wider issues that Holland does not deal with. On the narrative substructure to Paul’s thought, much important work is being carried out and Holland does not engage with it. On the corporate nature of Paul’s thought – and of all thought in ‘the Mediterranean world – see, for example, chapter Two of B J Malina’s The New Testament World (2001).

There is much that is very good and stimulating in this book. My reservations aside, the book is an important contribution to the way we read Paul. Scholars will need to engage with it.

Anthony Bash, Durham, England

One thought on “Review: European Journal of Theology (Dr. Anthony Bash)

  1. I think my own PhD on Paul at Queens Uni in 2002 was gained on the basis of this call to look at Paul in ‘Panorama’ and not in such a narrow construed way as suggested by EP Sanders.

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