My first exposure to Paul’s life, thought, and letters came in my second year of Bible College when I was assigned F. F. Bruce’s magisterial Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free for a Pauline Literature class. One could view Stanley E. Porter’s Apostle Paul as a necessary update to Bruce’s work (xi). Porter begins with Paul’s background and reconstructs a chronology of his life and writing before analyzing the thirteen Pauline letters.
Porter is a specialist in the Greek language—a strength that shines through on almost every page. His knowledge of Greek allows him to situate Paul’s writing within broader Greek cultural norms, shining light on various details of Paul’s letters.
Particularly interesting was Porter’s section on pseudonymity. It is frequently argued that some of Paul’s letters are pseudonymous (written by someone other than Paul). Porter forces the reader to confront the implications of this view. First, it is fundamentally deceitful. The church from the start viewed the thirteen letters as Pauline which led to their canonical status. To believe that someone other than Paul wrote in the apostle’s name means the other person wrote deceptively. Second, there is the issue of double-pseudonymity. If you believe someone other than Paul wrote the letter, then the recipient is also in question, adding another layer of confusion. Porter repeatedly emphasizes textual evidence (or the lack thereof) over speculation and questionable hypotheses. The problem of pseudonymity, “combined with the evidence available, points to the Pauline letters being actually authentic” (168).
The New Perspective on Paul (led chiefly in various forms by Sanders, Dunn, and Wright) is another major area of debate in Pauline theology. Porter holds the traditional view against the New Perspective. For Porter, the New Perspective is not supported by Jewish evidence. Furthermore, the New Perspective misunderstands Paul’s use of language, especially the way that Paul understands “law.”
A major strength of this book is Porter’s balanced handling of the evidence for every Pauline question and debate. While he is never shy about stating his preferred option, the reader has unprejudiced evidence at hand to pursue a different reading.
I suspect The Apostle Paul will inspire a new generation of Pauline students to dig deep into the thirteen letters that bear his name.
Porter, Stanley E. The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought, and Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.