Constructing Paul

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Luke Timothy Johnson
The Canonical Paul, Vol. 1
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , March
     375 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Luke Timothy Johnson’s Constructing Paul: The Canonical Paul is the first of a two-volume set which lays the scaffolding for a “polymorphic” rather than “static” portrait of Paul, using the whole of traditional Pauline canon (rather than primarily Paul’s undisputed writings, usually thought to be seven). As the title suggests, readers are constructors of Paul or have understood him through the constructions of others. And these constructions are fashioned from incomplete sources of information (6). Johnson’s objective is to lay out an approach for arriving at an authentic and rich understanding of Paul’s person and thought in its own context, which then leads to a rich appropriation for Christian churches today. Johnson’s goal then is “not to fix Paul in the past” but to “liberate his letters for the present” (12–14).

Acknowledging his own construction, Johnson admits his influences, including being a cradle Roman Catholic and former priest who has appropriated some of the rich resources of that tradition. Consequently, his reading is more Catholic than Protestant, but Johnson says he consciously sees Paul as neither Catholic nor Protestant. Rather he seeks to understand him in his own time and within the elements that most influenced him (12). The book is divided into three major sections, preliminary scaffolding, materials, and elements. Among the topics of the first include his assessment of the sources, Paul’s ministry, and correspondence. Moving to the second section of the book he assesses what kind of Jew Paul was, Paul’s use of scripture, and his Greco-Roman context. In the third part, Johnson analyzes Paul’s claims of experience—whether his or believers—his use of myths, symbols and metaphors, and Paul’s voice in Philemon, before addressing the contemporary question of whether Paul is to be viewed as a liberator or oppressor.

The book’s subtitle, The Canonical Paul. points to Johnson’s approach that includes the entire New Testament corpus of Paul’s writings. The first thing one notices is that he resists the tide of modern scholarship by adhering to the traditional thirteen Pauline epistles as being authentically produced by the apostle, and not attributing some to a ‘Pauline school’ or later writers using Paul’s name (92). Is Johnson right in adopting the traditional view of the ‘canonical Paul’ rather than that of many modern biblical critics?  This reviewer thinks so and mostly agrees with that the burden of proof for showing in-authenticity rests with the critics. However, the assertions and very general arguments in Constructing Paul over authenticity are likely not enough to convince a scholar who accepts fewer Pauline letters as genuinely from Paul. For that one is advised to read Johnson’s Writings of the New Testament (Fortress, 2010), and compare his treatment on specific questions of authenticity with other historical introductions to the New Testament.

In the section On Paul and Scripture, Johnson argues that a way of characterizing the relation of Paul and Old Testament Scripture might be best understood as Paul inhabiting a scripturally defined world, that his use of scriptural symbols their meanings reflect their use in Jewish Scriptures (149). Paul then sees in Christ’s life of faithful obedience, death, and resurrection both the Messiah and suffering servant of Isaiah and other scripture (145,153). Though the latter is in discontinuity with much Jewish interpretation, Johnson’s point is that for Paul, Jewish Scripture needs to be read through a Messianic lens as there’s a fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture through Christ (158). Nothing here in the author appears particularly original, but it is helpful to receive his seasoned understanding.

Of the chapter on the “Claims of Experience” (ch 8) he affirms the charismatic experience of the early church while recognizing that the scholarly community has often been averse to religious experience, especially the miraculous. The centerpiece of Paul’s experience is identification with the resurrected Lord in both his death and the power of the resurrection applied to the Christian life and church (203–205). This is in recognition of the hope that at the end of the age Christ will return to raise the dead (202).

His last chapter, Paul Oppressor or Liberator (11) should be of particular interest because he addresses how to read Paul responsibly regarding some current issues in Pauline studies and the church. After a cursory history of Pauline interpretation, Johnson examines more recent issues that include those of cultured despisers (those on disagree with Paul based on ideological grounds), Jewish detractors, feminist and womanist critics, and other “oppressed objectors” such as the LGBT community (those who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) (288). He emphasizes first reading Paul in his own context before reading him through one’s own. A fair reading of Paul does not ask him to solve problems he was not addressing (292).

This book represents a lifetime of devoted and critical scholarship beginning with the New Testament Gospels and the Epistles and is preliminary for the next volume on interpreting Paul. Its most major contribution may be the author’s insistence on the entire Pauline corpus of the New Testament as being authentically from Paul. It should not be surprising for readers to find things with which they do not agree. Johnson’s background and sensibilities are more Catholic than Protestant. His argument in support of traditional view of authorship of all thirteen Pauline letters lacks the specific engagement needed over individual letters. In the chapter on Paul as an oppressor and liberator, the author does not reflect the ideological commitments of all readers, However, all should agree that any serious ‘construction’ of Paul involves inhabiting Paul and his world, his scriptures, his own life and thought in both their Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts, considering his expansive missionary effort. Luke Timothy Johnson has inhabited these intersectional worlds about as well as any New Testament scholar today. Constructing Paul also involves ascertaining the relevancy of Pauline correspondence as scripture for Christians today. The author challenges us to inhabit Paul with him, that in so doing we may inhabit Paul’s Christ with him.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Mauger is a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Luke Timothy Johnson is Candler School of Theology's Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus. He won the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Johnson's many other books include The Revelatory Body, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God, and The Writings of the New Testament.


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