An Apostle's Journey

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Douglas A. Campbell
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , January
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, Douglas Campbell offers a lively introduction to the life and writings of the apostle Paul. Campbell’s approach is to trace the story of Paul through the narrative of Acts, introducing issues of context and the Pauline epistles when their provenance or content make them relevant. The result is an engaging and accessible introduction to Paul that demonstrates the intersection between the first century Roman world and the missionary work that produced much of the New Testament (3). Such an approach allows Campbell to highlight the influence of Paul’s changing contexts on the letters that he wrote and the theological concepts they contain. Considering that Campbell primarily has non-scholars in mind as the audience for this introduction (ix), he largely succeeds in achieving this objective. That said, I think there are two significant issues with the book that I hope will be addressed in future editions.  

As one of the more prolific contemporary scholars on Paul, Campbell brings significant academic weight to his engagement with Paul’s life and teaching yet does not mire his text with details. Such is evident as Campbell works to locate that difficult balance between historical background, methodological concerns, and a non-scholarly audience. The discussion of the socio-political tensions surrounding Emperor Gaius, especially the attempted installation of his statue in the Jewish temple and the cataclysmic language of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, offers a prime example of this (53-54). Campbell also does a fantastic job of discussing the importance of Paul’s friends and fellow travelers, particularly for those times when he found himself in prison (79-84). Campbell’s discussions of prisons and their influence on Paul are especially powerful since Campbell interweaves stories of his own experiences with the judicial system. At these moments, Campbell combines academic, social, and pastoral concerns in a way that will likely be impactful for his intended audience, and for this he should be congratulated. It is no small accomplishment.  

For the majority of the book, Campbell also nicely balances the narrative of Acts with issues of methodological and critical interest. Such discussions can take the form of a paragraph, a subsection, or an entire chapter, and Campbell judicially chooses the amount of space given to a topic in ways that a non-academic reader will likely appreciate. For example, Campbell treats textual and manuscript issues surrounding the audience of Ephesians in a paragraph (76). In the midst of discussing Paul’s work in Philippi, Campbell introduces a subsection on Rodney Stark’s work on network theory to explain Paul’s use of relationships, both friendship and familial (44-47). A discussion of sex and gender, however, receives its own chapter as part of the material covering the Corinthian Correspondence (104-111). Such sections not only continue Campbell’s goal of illuminating key aspects of Paul’s life and writing but do so in a way that introduces key methodological issues to an audience that might never have thought of applying such areas of learning to the reading of religious texts. At other points, Campbell is less successful in achieving this balance. In a chapter titled “Covenant versus Contract,” Campbell contrasts Paul’s unconditional (i.e., covenantal) relationship to a conditional (i.e., contractual) religion, which clearly emphasizes the Jewishness of Paul’s opponents without ever balancing this with Paul’s own Jewishness. 

This brings me to the book’s main weakness: Campbell’s presentation of Judaism and, related to it, Paul’s Jewish identity. Although Campbell rightly observes that Paul expects believing Jews to maintain their Jewish identity, describing them as messianic Jews who are definitely “not Christians” (152), this terminology is not used consistently or accurately throughout the book. For example, based on the previous statement, the term Christian should only refer to a believing Gentile. However, Campbell refers to Paul’s “persecution of the Christian community prior to his call” (156), a reference to Acts 7:58-8:3. By Campbell’s own definition, those women and men could not be Christians because, at this point, the believing community was entirely Jewish. This might appear as a rather minor quibble, but such confusion can lead to problematic ethical and theological reasoning. Although Campbell clearly wants to avoid Christian supersessionism, devoting a full chapter to God’s preservation of Israel (162-70), it is not difficult to imagine Campbell’s non-scholarly audience doing just that. The ending of the first chapter includes a lengthy comparison of Paul’s former life in Judaism to a debilitating drug addiction (19-22; cf. Phil 3:4b-9a). Such a comparison seems to distort Paul’s own words and is needlessly problematic given the anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition. 

The problems with Campbell’s use of Judaism result in some startling difficulties in the presentation of Paul’s own identity. The idea of conversion sits at the center of this discussion, to which Campbell devotes an entire chapter (13-24). Campbell rightly acknowledges the problems of using conversion to describe Paul’s experience, yet these nuanced comments are relegated to a footnote and appear to make a negligible impact on the rest of the book which consistently relies on a conversion narrative (183, n4). In fact, the discussion of Paul’s reasoning and identity elsewhere point to a man moving beyond his Jewish identity (e.g., 39, 100). For example, Campbell refers to Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 as having “a traditional Jewish framework” but with a “big Christian twist…[of] singleness” (108-109), a statement that fails to account for the Therapeutae, ascetic Jews who practiced male and female celibacy. Elsewhere, the movement away from Judaism to a distinctly Christian identity seems to locate Paul with later writers who view Christianity as a third race, neither Jewish nor pagan. While later texts like Diognetus clearly make such an argument, attributing such a view to Paul is anachronistic and distorts the way that Paul welcomes gentiles into the Jewish family (e.g., Rom 11:16-18 and 1 Cor 11:1-4). 

Ultimately, Campbell’s work is an engaging and helpful introduction to Paul’s life and theology that represents both the strengths and the weaknesses of the “New Perspective on Paul.” Despite the shortcomings mentioned, it will serve many readers well in encouraging the critical study of the New Testament.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Robertson is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas A. Campbell is Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School who is known for studies of Paul's writings that command the respect of scholars worldwide, including Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography and The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.


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