Biographies of Paul the Apostle

Posted in Bible, Books, Christianity by Alex L. on February 8, 2013

Close-up of a painting by Etienne Parrocel of the Apostle PaulA few days ago, I started reading a book that I bought about a year ago in a bookstore’s bargain aisle. The book is Paul by E.P. Sanders from the “A Brief Insight” series. The letters of the Apostle Paul form a big chunk of the New Testament. In those letters, his unique way of addressing problems in religious communities have had an enormous influence on the development of Christianity.

But Sanders’s 200-page work is the first book I’ve ever read focused specifically on Paul. Before I even finished reading the first chapter, I already started thinking about what the next book would be that I would read about Paul. I do this often: whenever I get interested in a new topic, I go on Amazon.com and try to find the most authoritative book on that subject. It’s handy information. Sometimes I even make a short bibliography of what the first books would be that I would read if I were to study the topic more closely.

It’s always satisfying to find the one definitive book on a subject: a recently-published and comprehensive resource you can turn to that will bring you up to speed on a subject in one fell swoop. Interested in Johannes Brahms? A quick search on Amazon.com will reveal that Jan Swafford’s biography, a 752-page tome decorated with 33 reviews averaging 4.5/5 stars, is beyond a shadow of a doubt the place to turn for all your Brahms needs.

No such definitive biography currently exists for Paul the Apostle. I was looking for a biography written by a scholar that focuses on the facts of his life and the historical context of his work: something objective that would give insights into Paul’s often-confusing letters. I found three works that kind of fit the bill. But none of these seems outstanding and can be called the current “definitive” biography. They are:

  1. Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity by James D. Tabor, a professor of religious studies (Simon & Schuster, 320 pgs, 2012)
  2. Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F.F. Bruce, a professor of biblical criticism and exegesis (reprint: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 522 pgs, 2000)
  3. Paul: A Critical Life by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor O.P., a professor of New Testament studies (Oxford UP, 432 pgs, 1996)

The first work is the most recent, a big plus. It also focuses on the Pauline interpretation of the original teachings of Jesus, which for me is still an enigmatic chapter in the history of Christianity.

The second book was first published decades ago but remains a sort of classical work in the field. It’s outdated but seems to be written well and worth a read.

The third work is interesting because it takes a critical look at the main source that we have about Paul’s life, the book of Acts (not actually written by Paul himself) and seeks to correct many inaccuracies in that biographical account. Paul’s letters themselves often contradict Acts so it’s worth knowing why the truth is stretched in the latter work and for what purposes.

Other books about Paul either (a) provide a more imaginative narrative account of the saint’s life, (b) describe his missionary strategies and interpersonal skills for the benefit of today’s churches in a style similar to management self-help books, or (c) summarize a scholarly debate that has been going on known as the New Perspective on Paul.

Well, that’s what my Amazon search has revealed about the current bibliography on Paul. I’m sure there are some (or many) books out there that Amazon.com has failed to retrieve for me about the apostle. . . maybe even the “definitive” one. Or maybe it’s yet to be written.


3 Responses

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  1. Loving Language said, on February 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I think writing a biography of Paul must be hard. To say how he interpreted the teachings of Jesus means they would have to look at the “original” teachings of Jesus. Of course, the canonical gospels were written after Paul’s letters, and probably by members of communities Paul founded. You have to make so many assumptions just to lay out the data for your biography of Paul.

  2. Alex L. said, on February 17, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Much of the data for a complete biography of Paul is indeed scarce. I was thinking that a biographer may address that difficult by giving the reader a vivid idea of the cultural context of that place in time based on all of the current literary and archaeological evidence available to us. Then maybe the reader would get a sense of at least the probabilities of whether the different assumptions about Paul are true or not. I guess what I’m interested in reading is an absorbing account of all of the events and trends going on around Paul as he went about his travels.

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