Monday 12 December 2005

The Road from Damascus Edited by: Richard N. Longnecker

The Road from Damascus Edited By: Richard N. Longnecker

This book is an almost ideal start to a selected reading course on Pauline Theology. However, with all of its inherent strength, it does have some weaknesses. In the paper that follows, I will examine some of the strengths and weaknesses. The book’s focus on the theological issues in Pauline writings is well rounded and sagely approached. It does have the problem of being intended as an “introduction to concerns of Christians today” (Back Cover) while it is seemingly written more for the academic than for your common theologian. Some of the articles are superbly written and are self-contained papers on individual topics. Others make too many references to other articles or books by the authors, thus leaving gaps in their arguments or presuppositions.

One of the major issues I have with the book is that it is published and/or marketed for the average Christian today. The book is many things, but this is not one of them. As an undergraduate student and lay theologian, I struggled to work through this text the first time, and even the second read still required hard work. The back cover states that the book is “Written in a style easily accessible to ministers, students and lay people … while also speaking directly to the pastoral needs of people in today’s church.” A student in the MTS program at McMaster where the papers were given at a symposium stated: “I was about the only graduate student in attendance, and there were never any undergraduates.” This series was focused on the academic at the doctoral or post-doctoral level. The result is a book that generally will be out of reach of the intended market as stated on the book itself. Though it is an excellent book, it is not an introduction to Paul, His thought, and his theology, or the effects of his conversion on his thought and his theology.

The book is subtitled The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on His Life, Thought and Ministry and therefore focuses on the results of the Damascus experience. Some of the contributors offer a strong, well-balanced examination their topics within that framework. Others over stretch the boundaries, and take too much license in the interpretation of events, or in establishing Paul’s pre-conversion beliefs.

Judith M. Gundry-Volf writes one of the weaker articles in this book, from my perspective, on “Women.” Much can be said about Paul and his views on women, however Gundry-Volf bases her thoughts on those changes on comparisons to other Jewish authors, in particular Sirach, and Philo. To do a comparison of Jewish writings, and suppose that Paul’s pre-conversion views would be similar sounds reasonable, but it is speculation. She looks primarily at the Jewish background, yet Paul would have also been strongly influenced by Hellenistic ideas. We cannot know with complete certainty where in the range of Jewish or Hellenistic thought Paul’s views would fall. While the topic of Paul and women is a valid and important pursuit in Pauline studies, in my opinion, this article does not fit within the boundaries of this work.

The strongest article, in my opinion, is Bruce Corley’s “History of Interpretation.” His strong use of a broad historical impact is what intrigued me most. He uses a very wide scope of vision to include literature, plays, sermons, and artwork, as interpretations of the work of Paul. Corley uses modern psychology to analyze both Paul and the Damascus experience. This allows him to present a broad range of opinion in the field of the history of interpretation. His use of archetypes in interpreting and relating to Paul resonates with my own wide range of interests.

In his paper on ‘Christology,’ from my perspective, Richard Longnecker raises some of the most important questions in Pauline studies at this time. I appreciate his strong concentration on Paul’s focus on Jesus the Messiah as well as his clear outlining of Paul’s rejection of Jesus based on preconceived pre-conversion Christology. Longnecker states: “That what Paul experienced in that event was a change of commitment, values, and identity that was sudden and unexpected” (p.26). This launches us into the whole area of “From Damascus.” Paul’s writings and actions were thus shaped by his changed attitudes. This premise forms the basis for the whole series of lectures on the results of the Damascus experience. Longnecker, as the organizer and coordinator of the series, sets the tempo and mood for the rest of the papers that follow. Longnecker touches on each of the topics in this collection except the issue of women. It is a masterful essay, showing the strength of a true wordsmith. It is unfortunate he does not write a second to tie the book back together at the conclusion.

What I appreciate most about Marshall’s contribution is its conservative bent, and the premise that while Paul’s theology did grow and change, the basic framework is there from the beginning: “So of the key elements of Paul’s thinking are already present in his earliest writings (p.44).” I strongly agree with his opinion that while the Damascus experience had a strong and immediate impact on Paul’s thought that took time to process and develop, the initial change was large, quick and the direct result of having met the risen Jesus. Marshall’s view is best summed up by: “To the extent that there was a change in emphasis as we move chronologically through the letters of Paul. That is to say, the prominence given to the parousa is 1st Thessalonians is not found in later letters. There is, therefore, development but not transformation” (p.51). An idea with which I agree most wholeheartedly and have observed from my own readings. (Steve, unless for some reason you feel you really need to include this quote I would leave it out. The line of thought is stronger without it even with the longer version. If you still want to include a comment that makes reference to your own other readings, you could revise the sentence before it to say: My own readings lead me to strongly agree with his opinion that while the Damascus … etc.)

In the area of omissions, I believe the biggest gap in this series is dealing with Paul’s perception of self in light of the Damascus event. I believe that the issues of conversion, transformation, alteration, calling, apostleship, mission and ministry are all key issues in Pauline theology and thought. However, this collection barely touches any of these topics. If the book was written as an introduction to Paul meant for laity as well as clergy and academics, than this is a great omission. The idea that many believe Paul left the Jewish faith at Damascus while just as many argue He remained a Pharisee till his death leave us with ‘blanks’ in relation to understanding these articles. It is the necessary framework that allows the other articles to become the flesh in creating our view of Paul.

In conclusion, I offer the title of this review: ‘Introduction & Insight, or Overload & Overlooked.’ Each of these four words represents a portion of my view of this work. It is a great introduction for a selected readings course on Paul but, in most cases, it will be overload for the average undergraduate or lay theologian who picks it up to get a grasp of current issues in Pauline theology and thought. It does however provide great insight into many of these issues from a more academic perspective. It is well thought out and well rounded in the issues it presents, and in the interpretations of the individual authors, but there are some items that have been overlooked. In order to make this work more accessible to the larger audience for which it is supposed to be intended, I would recommend a new introduction dealing with the issue of “What was the Damascus Experience?” as well as a concluding paper that brings together the academic issues with the reality of daily Christian living.

(First written for RS393 Selected Reading’s Paul’s Life and Letters Winter Term 2001)

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