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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 53, 2005

BRUCE CHILTON, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2004). Pp. xvi+335. $US24.95.

This is a refreshing new biography of Paul, which focuses on his intellectual development. It serves as a sequel to Chilton’s earlier work, Rabbi Jesus.

It is, above all, a ‘warts-and-all’ biography. In Chilton’s view, in offering advice to the Corinthians on marital matters in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gets in a real tangle. In 1 Cor 11:2–16, “All Paul really manages to show is that he has no argument, and that he has let his own preferences run rampant” (p. 215). As for 1 Cor 14:33b–35, Chilton rejects the view held by many scholars—including the present reviewer—that these verses are not from the hand of Paul: “The phrasing is Paul’s, the sentiment typically Pauline, the arrogance unmistakable.” And then, after quoting the verses in question: “So much for Chloe, for Priscilla, for Lydia—however valuable they were to Paul, however equal to him in Christ” (p. 215).

At many points, Chilton displays sound historical judgement. He thus dissents from the view that priority should always be given to Paul’s letters over against Acts, wherever there is conflict. “Sometimes there is good reason to infer that Paul keeps a self-interested silence that Acts breaks, while sometimes Acts’ myth of peace and unanimity in the early Church is simply implausible” (p. xv). One point where Chilton finds Luke’s account more convincing than Paul’s is in their descriptions of Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. Acts bluntly admits that “everybody feared him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26), whereas Paul tries to gild the truth.

In several places, Chilton probes behind a known fact and draws a convincing conclusion. If, as Paul says in 2 Cor 11:24, he suffered the thirty-nine lashes at the hands of Jewish authorities no fewer than five times, that surely does show that “whatever he said about Gentiles and the Torah, he was an Israelite and he accepted the authority of synagogues and its physical cost” (p. 85).

A major contention of the book is that some time elapsed between Paul’s conversion and his radical criticism of the Torah. During his first missionary journey, Paul begins to insist that faith in Jesus totally redefines who the people of God are. From then on, this becomes his major theme, namely, that the chosen people are defined, not by kinship and not by obedience to the Torah, but by their belief that the risen Jesus, the Christ, is the Son of God. This central conviction represents a different position from that of Peter and, still more, James. In their view, Gentiles baptised into the name of Jesus were not Israelites but rather a people called by God to support and sustain Israel (see Acts 15:15–18). Furthermore, while remaining uncircumcised, they needed to abide by the minimum requirements of Torah, as outlined in the decree of Acts 15:20. This decree was composed by James and his supporters without Paul’s participation or knowledge. Its effect was to require pagans to become God-fearers in order to be baptised. Paul, however, never accepted it.

Chilton advances some further hypotheses that I find at least plausible. One is that the ‘we-sections’ in Acts derive from Timothy; another such hypothesis is that Paul was released from house-arrest in Rome and could have resumed his travels, but chose not to.

I have outlined Chilton’s account of the development of Paul’s understanding of the relationship of believers in Jesus to Israel. In general, I find this convincing, but there are a number of points where he leaves me unconvinced. We begin with two exegetical judgements. First, in discussing Paul’s vision of the risen Christ, Chilton remarks that this vision was not one of personal acceptance by God. Not primarily, perhaps, but rather a matter of commission and call, but to be addressed as Christ’s chosen instrument to bring his name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel-surely that amounts to a profound act of acceptance by God?

Again, Chilton writes, “the commanding theme of Galatians-becoming righteous by faith alone, apart from ‘works’—finds no development in 1 Corinthians” (p. 259). By contrast, I would argue that, in his treatment of wisdom in 1 Cor 1–4, Paul asserts as forcefully as he ever does in Romans that ‘salvation is of the Lord.’ In both letters he begins by demolishing a false self-reliance. Believers may not boast before God of their wisdom any more than of their works. In the same way as the cross is the condemnation of the righteousness of humanity, so it is the condemnation of the wisdom of the world. As it is through the renunciation of righteousness that humanity attains righteousness, so it is through the surrender of its own wisdom that it receives wisdom. Whoever wishes to be wise in this world must become a fool and thus find wisdom (1 Cor 3:18).

There are several other conclusions that Chilton reaches which I find at least questionable. I list them briefly: that, when Paul met in conference with the ‘pillar apostles’ in Jerusalem, his position on the status of believing Gentiles was not even discussed; he stood in such awe of Jesus’ brother that he maintained a diplomatic silence; that Silas was appointed by James as Paul’s new companion, to take the place of Barnabas; that, when Luke records in Acts 16:6 that Paul and Silas were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, the real agent of this interdict was Silas; and that when Paul went from Beroea to Athens alone, it was because his companions had cut him loose; that Paul never went to Corinth for the final visit foreshadowed at the end of 2 Corinthians 13:1ff—a thesis made especially unlikely by the evidence that Paul wrote Romans from Corinth or its vicinity (see Rom 16:1); and, finally, that Paul’s confinement in custody in Jerusalem forced him to draw upon the offering from the Gentile churches that he had brought with him, so that it was never presented to the church in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, Chilton’s book is lively and readable and contains many memorable turns of phrase. Altogether, this is an eminently readable and stimulating book.

Review by
Nigel M. Watson
10 Chatham Street
Flemington VIC, Australia