A Very Brief History

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
John M. G. Barclay
Very Brief Histories
  • London, England: 
    Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
    , October
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Barclay’s introduction to Paul is a delightful read for the novice meeting Paul for the first time. Paul: A Very Brief History features crisp prose, a narrative style that is entertaining, and adequately introduces the modern scholarship on Paul, his place in the canon, and his role in both early and modern Christianity. While too brief for a college course devoted to Paul, the volume would be useful as supplemental reading in an introduction to the New Testament, for a church class, or for those for whom reading Paul without any help seems a briar patch that threatens to entangle the novice reader. The knowledge that one is leaning on the insights of an expert in modern Pauline scholarship reassures those readers who are making early efforts to understand and appreciate Paul.

The volume begins with a chronology and proceeds with a clear, two-fold organization. Part 1 is entitled “The History” and covers much of the understanding of the Pauline corpus. Part 2—entitled “The Legacy,”—considers receptions of Paul in the early church, by Augustine, by the Protestant Reformation, issues the reception of Paul raises for Jewish-Christian relations, and Paul as a social and cultural critic. The opening chronology could have been eliminated as there is too little information to make it worth the effort—for instance, one entry simply gives Paul’s possible birth and death dates—and no dates are given for the letters or other events such as the Jerusalem Conference. 

Part 1 begins with a chapter entitled “Paul in the Early Christian Movement.” Barclay establishes the basics: Paul’s initial rejection of the Jesus movement, Paul’s conversion, the portrayals of Paul in the early church and the canonical scriptures, the probable historical contexts of Paul’s letters, and the distinction between Pauline and deutero-Pauline writings. In the second chapter, “Paul’s Letters and their Historical Situations,” Barclay assists his audience, giving clear explanations for why some of Paul’s letters survived, how the pseudonymous letters arose, and how scholars make these distinctions, all while keeping jargon to a minimum. The third chapter, “Paul and the Jewish Tradition,” considers Paul’s relationship to Judaism, his belief that he could be Jewish and a part of the Jesus movement, and Paul’s interpretation of Judaism and its scripture. “Paul’s Churches in the Roman World” describes how the early churches that Paul founded existed in a Roman world, and the choices that both Paul and these churches made to survive. Part 1 concludes with “Early Images of Paul”—a chapter that notes how, even in the early church, Paul inspired a number of receptions, from the ascetic in of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, to the dualist in Marcion, to the gnostic Paul of Valentinus, and orthodox efforts to recover Paul in Irenaeus and Tertullian.

Part 2 begins with “Paul as Scripture,” setting out some of Paul’s theology. The next chapter is “Augustine and the Western Church,” in which the author examines the close relationship that the North African bishop had with Paul and his particular reading of him—one that made grace the center of the gospel message. In “Paul in the Protestant Tradition,” Barclay presents the Reformation as strongly Pauline, working through possible Augustinian models, and considering such figures as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Barclay then traces Paul’s history of Protestantism, concluding with the modern evangelical movement and its selective readings. Barclay’s penultimate chapter, entitled “Paul in Jewish-Christian Relations,” argues that while the patristic writers set up a model of supercessionism that was problematic, it was Protestant figures such as Luther who planted the seeds that were watered by the Enlightenment figures and that would break out into the horrors of the Holocaust. Barclay views the “new perspective on Paul” as a corrective that is helpful in moving away from Reformation readings to a more historical context appropriate of Paul that allows for better Christian-Jewish relations. The final chapter is “Paul as Social and Cultural Critic,” in which the author considers the difficulty of “applying” Paul to present situations, and notes that while Paul’s words criticize some modern excesses, he seems to accept other modern problems (such as slavery), and this makes Paul—or any biblical writer—a hermeneutical problem for application in the modern world.

As stated, this is an excellent book for the novice coming to Paul. Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. The most significant is it’s tacit Protestantism. While Augustine receives a chapter, it emphasizes his ideals of grace, while the next chapter seems to accept the Reformer’s sense of Augustine as being “on their side.”  There is no chapter on Paul in Catholicism, ignoring the consideration of the Catholic appropriations of Paul published by David Steinmetz, Irena Backus, Riemer Faber, Jared Wicks, and Wim François, among others. The chapter on Paul and Judaism jumps directly from Augustine to Luther, as if the forced migrations and forced conversions of the Middle Ages had not happened. This is a flaw that could have been easily addressed. Having said that, this is still a valuable book for those who are coming to the New Testament and Paul with very little background. This volume gives them a solid footing, and an appreciation of the difficulty—yet importance—of understanding Paul.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Ward Holder is Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John M. G. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.