Book Plunge: Portraits of Paul

What was Paul really like as a person? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Portraits of Paul (POP) is a book by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, both of them NT scholars. The idea of the work is to help us get to learn what Paul was like. How can we really get to know Paul the man?

Or maybe that’s not really the idea.

People getting the book wanting to get a psychological profile on the apostle Paul will be disappointed. POP instead makes the case that a POP of the apostle makes no sense in the society he lived in. Paul lived in a collectivist society where persons were not known as individuals (It would be known that they existed of course, but you would not know one person on an intimate level) and not even to themselves! Your identity came from your group that you identified with. If anything, being an individualist standing out from the crowd would be seen as deviancy and a threat.

At this point, many readers are thinking “That makes no sense to me.” If so, that is because you are already thoroughly soaked in individualistic thinking without realizing that 70% of the world thinks differently. For those of us who live in America, we are tempted constantly to see our culture as the model and think that every culture must be like ours. (That having been said, politically, I do hold to American exceptionalism.)

Yet when we enter the world of the Bible, that world is not just like ours. Persons were not seen as individuals and when we try to look at them that way, we develop problems. We can too often throw the ideas of our own culture back onto the text. As with studying any text from another culture, we should seek to know that culture first.

At this point, the fundamental atheist reader is saying “Shouldn’t God have made it easier if He wanted us all to know His truth?” Yet the charge is just an example of what POP is writing about. It is the assumption today that study should be simple and plain and great truth and rewards should not require much effort. It doesn’t work with dieting. It doesn’t work with exercise. It doesn’t work with college. It doesn’t work with romance. It doesn’t work with a career. Yet somehow, we think it should work with religion.

The reader of POP will not learn necessarily much about Paul as an individual, but they will learn how someone like Paul would have been seen based on his group identifications. They will learn why he wrote what little he did write about himself and how he wrote appealing to his audience and how they would have seen it. They will learn about such truths as the word pistis, translated faith, really is used for a means of forensic proof (P. 87) and that saying “Let your conscience be your guide” would have mad no sense to the people back then. (P. 187)

Hopefully as well, they’ll emerge with a greater understanding of the NT.

In conclusion, this is another book I highly recommend. One of the greatest barriers to understanding the NT is the cultural one and this book will be a great addition to any library.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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