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Current scholarship on Paul’s letters, for a preacher

12 March 2021

Revd Dr Robert Evans is Honorary Senior Lecturer in New Testament Theology at the University of Chester, and author of Reception History, Biblical Interpretation and Tradition, and of Judge for Yourselves: Reading 1 Corinthians.

<strong>Current scholarship on Paul’s letters, for a preacher</strong>

This article is an attempt to help preachers navigate in the sea of resources on Paul’s letters, and in the competing theological winds that blow through recent publications. (That metaphor ends here!)

It assumes, and advocates, that our task in preaching involves some prior investigation of a) historical factors and b) theological teaching in and behind our texts. We therefore value publications that clarify historical factors relevant to the first readers of the letters (the congregations meeting to hear what Paul had written to them). We want to know what the text meant to them in their context, so that we can see how the teaching applies in our own congregations. We also value publications that identify the theological imperatives that drive Paul’s message, then, now and forever. This is a very short guide to what scholarship has been doing on these fronts in recent decades.



There are many commentaries published today that see socio-historical investigation of Paul’s world, as central to the commentary’s purpose, illuminating context and situation (though there are unresolved and competing interpretations). Several major scholarly contributions of the late 1970s and early 1980s have influenced how this is done.

New sociological investigation of Paul’s world and the circumstances of his congregations was pioneered by Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians (1983); also by Gerd Theissen in essays published in English as The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (1982). They describe Paul’s congregations with a socio-historical attention that transformed what we thought we knew – or what we had simply assumed. A lot of historical and archaeological investigation has followed, helping to give us the social and religious context in which Paul founded and pastored Christian communities.

A contentious but important aspect of this sort of investigation adds to evidence that 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus reflect a religious and social context later than Paul and were written in Paul’s name more than a couple of decades after his death. (This is the conclusion of most scholars, though not all). Pseudonymous writing was common in the ancient world but faces us with parts of holy scripture making an authorship claim that we think is a (legitimate) literary fiction. Not all preachers would share this in a sermon. However, because either Paul or ‘Paul’ wrote exhortations in the Pastorals at a time and place where a development of ministries was hierarchical and male, and where there was no charismatic authority within the congregation, we should certainly not conclude that this was the same in his other communities and earlier letters. The structures and practices of the earliest churches were not uniform.

The socio-historical focus has also revised our understanding of Second-Temple Judaism, including the Jewish diaspora. Ed Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) reassessed first-century Judaism and Paul’s theology in relation to it. Though Sanders is challenged on whether he got either of these right, this marks a turning point. Some Jewish scholars have participated in these discussions too. Previously scholarship had tended to separate Paul from Jewish ideas. Most of us now see Paul thoroughly in the context of his Judaism; and John Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (2011), compares the experience of Paul’s churches with that of Diaspora Jewish communities.

A high proportion of the believers in the Pauline congregations were women. If our new socio-historical view of the communities does not investigate this, we remain partially blind to the context of those communities, their experience, and what Paul means. The pioneer publication of an exegetical feminist challenge to male-centred reading of Paul’s letters was made by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (1983). A lot of current commentators are aware, but to a greater or lesser degree, how women’s experience is influential or integral to the context of the texts and to the ways that we read them.



For interpretation informed by socio-historical investigation, a preacher can now select from many good commentaries. Even where two scholars disagree on circumstances impacting some part of Paul’s teaching, you’ll be able to find ways to see how Paul applies his theology in context. The variety and contestations concerning the principles and emphases of that theology may give us more systemic conflict or confusion. What do we need to know?

Did you see the review in The Preacher (Issue 175, October 2019) of a book of essays called Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives? Those ‘four perspectives’ are doctrinal constructions (sometimes refuting each other) of Paul’s theology. Here is my account of the issues and emphases. (It is oversimplified, and I am not impartial.)

1) The ‘Traditional’ or ‘Lutheran’ interpretation of Paul’s theology privileges the legal metaphor of ‘justification’. ‘Good works’ cannot achieve ‘righteousness’; Jesus’ death provides atonement for sin; ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’ are the gift of God ‘by grace’ ‘through faith’. What’s wrong with any of that, you ask? We are most unlikely to want to jettison the elements; but the thing to be aware of is that this construct as a whole – the way the elements are put together – is based on the view that works of the Jewish Law are in opposition to grace in Christ. It was Luther’s own historical experience that religious ‘works’ in pre-reformation Catholicism should be countered and replaced by ‘grace’. Arguably, he imposed that dichotomy onto Paul’s teaching.

Subsequent German Protestant scholarship, very influentially, held ‘justification’ to be the centre of Paul’s theology. There are revisions of this in Reformed traditions (for example Herman Ridderbos, 1975) but also from within Lutheran traditions: Ernst Käsemann (1971) argued that God’s cosmic eschatological victory is the governing idea in Paul’s theology, and personal ‘justification’ is subsidiary. (See ‘Apocalyptic’ reading below.)

2) The ‘New Perspective on Paul’ challenges the ‘Lutheran’ tradition and sees Paul’s view of Judaism as positive and God-given, and as a covenant. Torah-observance is central to this for Jews, but is not to be imposed on Gentile believers. The ‘works of the law’ are not moral works done in order to gain merit or salvation, as they are in Luther’s reading, but covenant-actions that distinguish Jew from Gentile. Atonement doctrine cannot be structured as opposition of ‘works’ to ‘grace’, or of Judaism to Christianity. Rather, Paul stands within Jewish tradition that trusts in the fulfilment of God’s promises. It is possible to ask within the Judaism of Paul’s day, ‘How will God do this?’, and ‘Who will be the people of God?’; and Paul gives his answers as a transforming fulfilment of this covenant, not a rejection of it. The ‘New Perspective’ began with Sanders (above) and has James Dunn and N.T. Wright among its many proponents. (They all disagree with each other on various points.)

3) The ‘Participationist’ perspective is an important focus within or alongside the ‘New Perspective’. Without calling it ‘Participationism’, this has been taught by many authors, ancient as well as modern. In the 20th century, Schweitzer and Sanders have versions of it; a recent proponent is Michael Gorman (2019). Where the Lutheran interpretation privileges the law-court language of ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’, the Participationist focus is on Paul’s language of dying and rising ‘with Christ’, and of being ‘in Christ’. This is tremendous stuff for a preacher because Paul’s theology is both mystical (‘We are the body of Christ’) and, for Paul himself, intensely practical (‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’). The focus can help a preacher do what Paul does, which is to proclaim a Messiah who was crucified, and apply the ethics of ‘power made perfect in weakness’ in our contexts. ‘Let each of you look … to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’

4) In ‘Apocalyptic’ reading, the focus is on the fresh revelation in God’s eschatological acts: the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of God’s future victory that these reveal. I am conflicted by what its proponents draw from this. I too think that eschatological promise and fulfilment are huge in Paul: ‘Jesus is Lord’, sovereign of the End-time, present and future. However, key proponents of this trend see God’s fresh revelation as sweeping away the expectations of Jewish covenant; where, as with the ‘New Perspective’, I read Paul as proclaiming fulfilment as well as transformation. Douglas Campbell (2009) has tried to combine this ‘apocalyptic’ reading with ‘participation’ theology.

What does all this offer you? It may be the scholars’ job to refute each other, reinterpret and redefine what Paul meant in the circumstances and polemics of his ministry. The preachers’ job may be to see what any part of Paul’s teaching may offer us in new contexts. In this task, the plurality of theological accounts can surely help us: the gospel of grace and faith; the proclamation of Christ crucified and our participation in his self-giving; and the Sovereignty of Jesus in the dawning victory of God. Such riches.

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