Review: The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (Craig A Evans)

TOM HOLLAND, Contours of Pauline Theology: A Radical New Survey of the Influence on Paul’s Biblical Writings (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor/Christian Focus, 2004). Pp. 382. £14.99.

In Contours of Pauline Theology, Tom Holland challenges head-on the frequent claims that Paul introduced significant new elements into Christian theology. Moreover he vigorously criticizes the assertion, made from time to time, that Paul is the founder of Christianity. The author concludes that Pauline theology (centered on ideas about the Passover) derives from the OT, on the one hand, and from the Jesus tradition, on the other.

Along the way Holland also argues for the reliability of the Gospels and for strong continuity between the teaching of Jesus and the OT. In a nutshell, this is the burden of the book.

Although not without merit, the book is deeply flawed at many points. Major complicated questions of interpretation and criticism are treated too simply, with the author frequently lapsing into the logical fallacy of excluded middle. For example, NT interpreters err, H. says, in appealing to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, because the theological perspectives of these writings are not the same as the perspectives of the NT authors. Of course, H. is not wrong in complaining that scholars sometimes uncritically synthesize disparate materials and create homogenized ideas that are not time reflections of reality. But appeals to literature such as the Scrolls and Pseudepigrapha have clarified in significant ways important NT teachings.

Holland does acknowledge that some of these parallels are helpful, but their value is primarily apologetic. For example, the Scrolls demonstrate that the epithet “Son of God” was in circulation in Jewish Palestine, in reference to a Jewish (and probably messianic) redeemer. True enough, but parallels such as these many times play an important role in clarifying the meaning of passages, not just the authenticity of this or that tradition. In 4Q521, the allusions to words and phrases from Isaiah, in connection with the appearance of the Messiah, is surely relevant to Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned John, where Jesus alludes to similar prophetic vocabulary. The reference to “works of the law” in 4QMMT clarifies Paul’s discussion in Galatians 2-3 and Romans 4. Of course the perspectives of Jesus and the author of 4Q521 are not the same; they do not need to be, in order for one to clarify the other.

Holland’s talk of the problem of “the growing dependence on Intertestamental Literature as the key into the mindset of Judaism” and the need, instead, to “recognise the unquestionable influence of the Old Testament on the New Testament” (p. 288) is highly problematic and reflects the aforementioned fallacy of excluded middle. What he identifies as a “growing dependence” is the ongoing effort to flesh out and contextualize as much as possible the exegetical and theological discussions of late antiquity, out of which the writings of the NT emerged. Often it is this extracanonical literature that helps the interpreter understand how a given OT passage quoted by a NT writer was understood. Failure to take into account the parallels in the Scrolls, Pseudepigrapha, and other writings from late antiquity may well result in faulty interpretation and dubious theological inferences.

Despite these shortcomings, H.’s book does make a useful contribution to the discussion of the importance of the OT in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. I am also sympathetic with H.’s efforts to underscore the lines of continuity between Jesus and Paul—lines that I think are sometimes obfuscated in current scholarship.

Most critical readers will disagree with much that H. says, not least with his assumptions, methods, and sweeping generalizations. But H.’s book deserves attention, and his arguments, even if strained, are worth consideration.

Craig A. Evans, Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, NS B4P 2R6, Canada

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