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Denver Journal - 2:0206 - The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus

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Denver Journal
An Online Review of Current Biblical and Theological Studies.



Volume 2 - 1999
Editor: Richard S. Hess

Witherington III, Ben. The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus. Downers Grove and Leicester:
InterVarsity Press, 1998. 347 pp. $22.99. ISBN 0-8308-1503-1.
The title and cover art of this book lead one to expect that it will be a sequel to Witherington's outstanding survey of
contemporary portraits of the historical Jesus in his Jesus Quest, first published by IVP in 1995. In fact, it is somewhat
different, in part due to the nature of Pauline studies. There are not competing "lives of Paul" among the scholarly literature
so much as specialized studies of various facets of his life, ministry and thought. Further, The Paul Quest, much more so
than its predecessor, is a synthesis of Witherington's own views on numerous facets of Paul, though written from a detailed
knowledge of and often extensively summarizing the state of scholarship more generally. In fact, the numerous
commentaries Witherington has already written on Acts and various epistles, along with his compendium of Pauline
theology (Paul's Narrative Thought World [Westminster John Knox, 1994]) enable him at numerous points simply to represent in detail his previously published views.
Notwithstanding all of these surprises, this is a very worthwhile book. Someone who wants a plausible evangelical
perspective on almost every major topic in the scholarly study of Paul, accompanied by significant interaction with the best
of the broader world of scholarship, can scarcely do better than to start here. We learn about Paul's social world--far more
community-centered than individualistic--about cultural values of honor and shame, reciprocity and identity and about how
Paul would have been viewed as deviant in a number of these respects. We survey the factors that make Paul a unique
blend of Roman citizen, ethnic Jew and regenerated Christian. We recall how Paul's background made him part of a
relatively small, highly educated, and probably middle-class group of people, whose rhetorical skills shine through almost
every page of the epistles. We scan the little-discussed role of Paul as a prophet, especially with respect to the role of
apocalyptic in his thought, and we traverse the more well-traveled road of Paul as apostle and the ways he chose to wield
(or more commonly, not to wield) the authority that came with that office.
With respect to social ethics, Witherington balances Paul the realist with Paul the radical. On such issues as slavery
and gender roles, Paul does not wave the liberationist banner to the degree that many moderns would have liked but,
understood against the increasing Roman patriarchalism of the day, what he does say and do is countercultural and plants
the seeds for significant further Christian development. Paul is neither chauvinist nor feminist, neither "love patriarchalist"
nor consistently "egalitarian," and most modern studies promoting one or another of these portraits have read in
anachronistic concepts into their pictures of Paul and his world.
Paul is also a master storyteller. One must understand the Old Testament and Christian stories, particularly of Adam,
Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the end of the age on which he builds. Even explicit quotes of single scriptural texts regularly
presuppose the broader story lines of salvation history in which they are embedded. In both ethics and theology, one must
avoid false dichotomies like the coherent center vs. the contingent periphery (a la J. Beker) but recognize the occasional
nature of all of Paul's epistolary literature and relate it to the large narratives of salvation history that are assumed. The
result is a Paul who was (and often is) either loved or hated, who scandally boasted in the cross and saw Christ as the
center of everything that mattered. A lengthy appendix treats chronological issues in the life of Paul with judicious
About the only major places I found myself disagreeing with Witherington, as indeed I expected to from his previous
writings, can both be attributed to his Wesleyan-Arminian perspective and to my Reformed-Baptist convictions. I still am
unpersuaded that Romans 7:14-25 describes the pre-Christian Paul; in fact Witherington's attempts to differentiate the
indisputably Christian context of Galatians 5:17 simply reinforced in my mind the parallels between the two texts. Neither do
I find him doing any exegesis to refute the classic Calvinist understanding of the perseverance of the saints from those
texts in Paul that point in this direction, save to affirm the Arminian understanding of the possibility of apostasy from the
other texts that at first glance seem more naturally to point in that direction. But these minor caveats should scarcely deter
anyone from scrutizing the work and benefitting immensely from it.

09.03.2007 16:57:15

Denver Journal - 2:0206 - The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus

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The text is remarkably free from typographical mistakes, except in the occasional foreign-language entries in the
bibliography, a majority of which have errors in them. There is also the odd glitch of attributing an article by Wayne Grudem
to a certain W. Ziesel!
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
March 1999

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09.03.2007 16:57:15