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An unconventional biography of Saint Paul, Apostle
on December 28, 2012
This book provides a biography of the Apostle Paul. It's decidedly secular (though not antireligious), so if you're looking for devotional literature you should move on right now. Harrill clearly intends it as an undergraduate text, and it's drawn from his own experiences teaching a course on Paul for many years. It has many text boxes, figures and maps to break up the text - and, I suspect, to provide discussion points in seminar.
Harrill has divided the book in two major parts, the story of Paul himself and the story of how Paul was received by other Roman and Christian thinkers. Simply put, I liked the first part but not the second.
In the first part, Harrill is very careful about selecting his primary sources, and very explicit about excluding secondary sources. He's too dogmatic on this point for my taste, but he lays out his standards for any reader to evaluate, modify or reject. He rejects about half the Pauline letters and all of Acts as primary sources, discussing them only as early interpretations of Paul and evidence of some differences among Paul's followers after his death.
In the first part, Harrill puts Paul solidly in his Roman context. He lays out how Paul's rhetoric follows common models from antiquity, suggesting a fair amount of classical education at the gymnasium. He also provides a consistent biography of Paul that is at odds with the story in Acts. Harrill emphasizes the break between Paul and the other apostles, and his position as one of several rival traveling apostles in the Aegean. Paul's conceptions of both political and moral authority play key roles here.
The second half is just too sprawling. We meet some Gnostics, Irenaeus, Origen, John Chrysostom, Mani, Pelagius, and many others. Harrill shares some of the legends of Paul that cast him in various improbable ways. Augustine gets a few pages and Martin Luther gets about a page. The bottom line is that everyone uses Paul for their own purposes, and so does Harrill.
There is much in this part to provoke people who like reading classical philosophy more than I do. However, I was struck by the way that Harrill's reading undermines the received story about "faith" versus "works" that is familiar to both Catholics and Protestants; I'll say merely that the Jewish and Roman context for Paul's distinctions make his intentions here different than what you think they are.
The book is admirably short, and accessible to a college audience. Presumably when it's used as a college text, the instructor can explain unfamiliar material; if you're reading this on your own, it assumes moderate familiarity with the New Testament and with major figures of the Mediterranean world in the first few centuries of our era.