Luke Timothy Johnson wrote Constructing Paul with the expertise of one who has spent much of his life studying Paul and his world. In this first of two volumes, Johnson lays out his vision for constructing Paul.
Johnson explains, “In this work I propose a third sort of construction, not of the life and thought of the ‘historical Paul,’ nor Paul’s thought as understood or used by later ecclesiastical commentators and theologians, but of the elements required for a responsible reading of the letters ascribed to Paul in the New Testament canon” (12–13).
He continues: “The essays in this first volume undertake an assessment of all the elements needed for a reader to do serious study of these letters” (13).
In essence, volume one provides the framework to hear Paul’s voice, which Johnson hopes to convey (or hear) in the second volume (15). The first volume of Constructing Paul thus provides the scaffolding to undertake serious study of Paul’s letters, which Johnson will illustrate in volume 2.
Rather than defining Paul through the lens of a united or central point of view, he argues that Paul defies easy definition. The diversity in Paul does not allow for a simple, single statement that sums up his life and thought.
Other notable emphases include Johnson’s engagement with all thirteen letters attributed to Paul. he understands each letter to be Pauline. While it is not exactly clear how Johnson sees each letter’s composition, he spends time detailing the material means of writing a letter in the ancient world.
Paul in particular notes in eight of his letters that he writes with a cosponsor (Timothy, Silvanus, etc.). He almost certainly uses a secretary (amanuensis) since Paul sometimes notes when he writes with his own hand. Elements of schoolroom teaching as well as midrashic elements in Paul’s writing further suggest a collaborative effort.
And perhaps most importantly, letter writing in the ancient world took considerable time and effort. It would not be feasible for Paul to write a letter quickly as in a flourish. Instead, Paul’s letters, due to material constraints, would have been the result of a slow and demanding process.
All of this to say, Paul likely wrote letters with cosponsors and a secretary according to a slow and thoughtful process. Elements of rhetoric throughout his letters then show, as Johnson argues, that Paul wrote thoughtful rhetorical works to persuade—one cannot find an accidentally passionate Paul. Both the internal evidence (e.g., cosponsors) and the material means (letter writing in the ancient world) really demand this.
Near the end of his work, Johnson offers a foretaste of volume two. He interprets or attempts to hear the voice of Paul in the book of Philemon. Uniquely, he asks about the material means of the book’s delivery. He wonders why Philemon, a personal letter, should be included in the canon at all!
He suggests that due to internal evidence in Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians that these letters were originally delivered together in Colossae. And that may explain why Philemon was included in the canon.
Johnson’s insight, whether one agrees or not, provides new ways of looking at Paul that at the same time feel fair, given the evidence. It is thus a good and useful book on Paul. Before concluding strongly about the book’s merit, I feel as though I need to read volume two.
As it stands, however, Johnson offers a helpful introduction to Paul’s compositions. He does not assume too much from the reader. He explains simply and helpfully even matters like the material composition of letters in the ancient world. So very little prevents one from fruitfully reading Constructing Paul.
I recommend Constructing Paul to pastors, students, and those who want greater insight into Paul’s compositions. I could have wished for Johson to pursue further what lies at the heart of Paul’s theology, although that would cut against his purpose. Johnson does not see a centre to Paul’s thoughtlife—but various emphases.
Yet for an introduction of this sort, this lack of centering might make the volume even more helpful to readers. It will lead readers of Paul to make up their own minds through a responsible reading of Paul. That, afterall, is Johnson’s purpose for writing Constructing Paul.
The publisher provided me with a review copy.