Book review: Constructing Paul

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Luke Timothy Johnson, Constructing Paul: The Canonical Paul Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), Interpreting Paul: The Canonical Paul Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021)

by Tom Wilson, St Philip’s Centre, Leicester


I have always enjoyed reading the work of biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. When commencing postgraduate New Testament studies, I found it useful – and comforting – to read his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles because he holds firm to his conviction that they actually were authored by the apostle Paul, a controversial opinion in some academic circles. More recently, reading about the history of Jewish–Christian relations, his article on first-century polemic is an often-cited – if not always agreed with – defence of what appear to modern ears to be the some of the more shocking words on the lips of Jesus (notably in Matthew 23 and John 8). I was therefore very interested to read his two-volume study The Canonical Paul. The first volume is a modest 385 pages, and the second a somewhat heftier 598. I will not be able to do these excellent works of scholarship full justice in a review, but my headline recommendation is simple: these are volumes any serious student of the New Testament would do well to read.

Constructing Paul

Volume one focuses on Constructing Paul. At the outset it is important to note that Johnson’s focus is on the canonical Paul, not the historical or intellectual figure. Constructing Paul engages in the foundational work of establishing Johnson’s views on the critical questions for the academic study of Paul. It is divided into three parts: preliminary scaffolding, the materials and the elements. In the first part, Johnson assesses the sources, both canonical and apocryphal, for details of Paul’s life. He then examines Paul’s life and apostolic ministry. There follows an overview of Paul’s writings. For Johnson, Paul is the author, although not necessarily the writer, of all the letters that bear his name (some were, Johnson proposes, written by an amanuensis). Finally, Johnson defends his view of Paul as a “creative thinker within a broader movement” rather than the sole founder of Christianity (p.99).

There are three chapters in part two. Johnson considers the nature of Paul’s Jewish faith and identity, arguing Paul is both a Hellenistic Jew of the Diaspora, but also someone clearly invested in, and shaped by, both Palestinian Pharisaic thought and the Essenes in Qumran. Johnson describes Paul as a prophetic Jew, who considered “the spirit of prophecy to be active and powerful in himself and in others because of the resurrection of Jesus” (p.143). Paul is also someone whose thoughts and worldview are rooted within the scriptural narrative, albeit one that is being redefined and reinterpreted in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Johnson plays down the influence of Greco-Roman culture on Paul, as well as rejecting the use of post-colonial theory in New Testament studies, arguing that it anachronistically imposes practices common in the eighteenth and nineteenth century European (especially British) empires onto the firstcentury Roman empire.

The third part of Constructing Paul, “the Elements”, has four chapters. Johnson argues that Paul writes at length about his experience, particularly his encounter with the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in each of his letters. Chapter nine discusses four further elements: convictions, myths, symbols and metaphors. Chapter ten examines Paul’s letter to Philemon, “a fine vantage point for viewing Paul,” in detail (p.248). Johnson proposes there is a close connection between Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, suggesting all three were delivered by Tychicus when he returned the slave Onesimus to the household of Philemon in Colossae. By reading these three texts together, Johnson argues we can appreciate both Paul’s theological and pastoral ministry, while Philemon provides a more personal touch. Chapter eleven, the final chapter of volume one, is a spirited defence of Paul, whom Johnson argues should be seen as a liberator, sharing a message that is radical and challenging, but neither oppressive nor dominating. It is the nature of that message which part two examines in great detail.

Interpreting Paul

The second volume of Johnson’s project consists of 23 essays, some of which are written specifically for this book, while others have been published previously. It is a deliberately eclectic collection, based on Johnson’s view that any study of Paul should produce not a neat and tidy codified system, but a “deconstruction” that treats the letters as texts in their own right, while also exploring the connections between them and their relationship to contemporary concerns. Johnson has not set out to write a “theology of Paul” because he believes to do so is a flawed enterprise that seeks to control and reduce what should be left free and full. Therefore his “deconstruction” is not after the way of Derrida or the postmodernists. Rather it is a resistance of any single way of reading Paul, combining breadth of enquiry with attention to detail. Ultimately, Johnson’s aim in writing is to free the Pauline corpus from the constraints of academia and encourage pastors and teachers of the faithful to engage with all the texts as spiritual food for the church.

The subjects of the essays follow the broad sweep of how Paul’s letters are arranged in the New Testament, beginning with Romans and ending with Titus (Philemon is discussed in volume one). They range far and wide: for example, the first essay is a discussion of how pistis is used in Romans 3:21–26, understanding Paul’s argument to be primarily about the faith of Jesus rather than faith in Jesus. For Johnson, the Christian’s faith, by the gift of the Spirit, can become like (one with) the faith of Jesus. Two essays engage with specific scholars: NT Wright’s argument that the NT writers understood salvation as the restoration of God’s people here on earth and Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament (which Johnson finds a highly problematic piece of scholarship, shaped more by assertion than argument). The topic of glossolalia is explored in chapter six, beginning with the Corinthian context and ending in the modern day. Elsewhere, in an essay focused on Ephesians, Johnson discusses issues of sex and gender. Johnson’s two convictions are to take both ancient and modern voices seriously and second, that the primary issue should be not matters of sexuality and gender, but whether we are growing in maturity in Christ. Johnson argues that Paul was conservative on matters of sexuality, but for his day liberal in his attitude to women. He examines the case for a revised reading of Paul (and other biblical texts) on the issues, arguing that if homosexuality is innate, not chosen, then the prohibitions of Scripture have less cogency. Johnson’s primary concern is for holiness and purity whatever one’s sexuality or gender.

Limitations of space preclude a detailed discussion of each essay; I will instead make five general observations about Interpreting Paul as a whole. First, Johnson follows where he believes the evidence leads, not where scholarly consensus resides. A clear example is found in chapter 20, which discusses the divine ordering of creation as expressed in 1 Timothy. Johnson begins with some orientation regarding his views on authorship and provenance before turning to his main focus, the theology of the letter. This chapter began as a paper for an SBL seminar on Pauline theology in 1996. It was critiqued by Professor Margaret Mitchell, and in this revised version, Johnson provides a response to Mitchell, both in defending his view that Paul was the author of 1 Timothy and also his translation of 1 Timothy 1:4. His continued insistence in other essays that the whole corpus is genuinely Pauline further emphasises this point.

Second, Johnson’s main concern is to read the letters as letters – his description of Romans as primarily a fundraising letter rather than a systematic theological treatise is an insight I will consider at length. Third, Johnson is writing primarily for the church, not the academy. He says as much in the introduction and the conclusion, and his conservative take on academic issues supports this approach as well. Fourth, there is an impressive range of topics and levels of focus; between them, the 23 essays move from detailed analysis of a single word to a grand sweeping overview of the Pauline corpus in its entirety. This is also deliberate – Johnson wants to encourage up-and-coming scholars to be similarly versatile. Fifth, this book is an easy read, at least by the standards of hefty tomes on Paul. Johnson is clearly a master of his material, and although his writing is technical at times, it is never obtuse.

In his conclusion Johnson states he feels his task has only just begun. He reaffirms his commitment to read Paul’s letters as letters and to avoid constructing a systematic theology of Paul. His main concern is the gap that has appeared between the academy and the church since the rise of critical biblical scholarship. His argument is that just as the Gospels, not the results of an academic quest for the historical Jesus, nurture the church, so the “canonical letters ascribed to Paul shape the character of Christian identity” (p.500). His hope is that other scholars might follow his lead and read the whole of Paul’s corpus, not just a selection of it.

The two-volume series The Canonical Paul is essential reading for serious students of the New Testament. It will be particularly valued by those, such as myself, who have always been sceptical of the “scholarly consensus” that has rejected Pauline authorship for a significant portion of the Pauline corpus. But even if you disagree with either his foundational premises or the details of his arguments, Johnson’s work is an outstanding piece of scholarship that deserves thorough reading and evaluation.

More from this issue

Book review: How do you know it’s God?

Susann Haehnel follows Lynn McChlery into the tricky area of discerning vocation.

Mission and disabled people

Tim Rourke shares research on how attitudes, access and agency are often missing when the church talks about mission and the disabled community.

Book review: Do Small Groups Work?

James Butler finds Anna Creedon’s book to be an important text for those teaching and training small group leaders.