‘Paul the Apostle’ by J. Albert Harrill: A Brief Review

In J. Albert Harrill’s 2012 volume Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (Cambridge University Press), the professor of classics brings to life one of history’s most enigmatic characters. Situating him in his ancient Jewish and, fundamentally, Roman contexts, Harrill offers readers a glimpse of a man who commitments to apocalypticism ran deep. And with this apocalyptic outlook, Paul employed his rhetorical training to convince non-Jews to follow the Jewish messiah. The work covers six main topics: Paul’s journey from a Pharisee who persecuted Christ followers to an apostle of the risen Lord (ch. 1), the formation of Christ-following communities in the Mediterranean (ch. 2), Paul as influenced by his Roman context (ch. 3), Paul’s reception among early Christians following his death (ch. 4), the tug of war over the apostle’s legacy in the second century and beyond (ch. 5), and, in a chapter entitled “How the West Got Paul Wrong,” a conversation about appropriation of Paul by people like Augustine and Luther and how they distorted the apostle’s words. At the end of the volume, readers will find appendices covering the order in which Pauline and Deutero-Pauline material was composed, a reconstruction of the Corinthian correspondence, and a list of ancient Christian works that offer stories about the apostle.

Harrill’s work is informative in several ways. As already noted above, it places Paul within his Roman context, not as an anti-imperialism apostle but as one at home with Roman forms of rhetoric and ideals. Harrill writes, “We need to move beyond thinking about Romanness as a bounded entity against which the ‘opposing’ cultural identity of Paul can then be contrasted or otherwise measured. Paul’s experience of Roman culture, his way of ‘being Roman,’ involved various subcultures, including Jewish ones” (p. 79). Take, for example, “Paul’s language of authority” (p. 80) in which he used his clout (auctoritas) to influence his readers. That is, Paul didn’t attempt to sway his readers on the grounds he was an apostle imbued with authority but instead sought to persuade them because of his deeds. To Christ-followers in Thessalonica, Paul describes the events of the initial mission and his work with them, writing, “Though able to throw our weight around as Christ’s apostles, we instead came into your midst with gentleness, as a nurse who cares for her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, my translation). Elsewhere, Paul rejects the rights he possesses an apostle, preferring instead to what he has done rather than who he is (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:1-6, 12-18). This use of auctoritas, Harrill observes, “resembles [the emperor] Augustine’s refusal of honors in the Res Gestae” (p. 83). Paul, in other words, argued like a Roman.

Though only a little more than 200 pages in length, Paul the Apostle should prove to be an invaluable introduction to one of Christianity’s most eccentric and perplexing personas. Coupled with works like Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle by Paula Fredriksen, Paul and the Gentile Problem by Matthew Thiessen, Reading Paul within Judaism by Mark Nanos, and others within the Paul-within-Judaism camp, this book will give its readers the opportunity to see a Paul that is more in tune with his historical context.

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