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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 58, 2010

STEPHEN FINLAN, The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition (Collegeville MN: Liturgical/Michael Glazier, 2008). Pp. xiv + 229. Paperback. $US29.95.

There is no shortage of introductory books on Paul. Teachers and students can often feel bewildered when faced with several volumes, each of which purports to do the same work of introduction (perhaps as an intended accompaniment to an introductory level course on Paul) but seems to approach the apostle and his writings in a different way. Stephen Finlan’s volume will prove most helpful to those who need an accessible introduction to each of the letters, rather than to Paul’s life, mission or theological convictions. Following three fairly perfunctory chapters covering the nature of the Pauline epistles, their social and literary setting and an outline of the life of Paul, the bulk of the book consists of nine chapters covering the Pauline correspondence in purported chronological order. Given the book’s title, it is only right and helpful that the treatment extends beyond the authentic letters to include not only the Pastoral epistles but also Hebrews and aspects of the non-canonical Pauline tradition.

The focus in each of these chapters is expositional. Finlan tries, and often succeeds, in setting out the main content, argument, background to and purpose of each letter in relatively short compass. Decisions about introductory matters are largely made at the outset and work as assumptions for the textual analysis. Thus, for example the literary history of 2 Corinthians is discussed in a few sentences. While this keeps the focus clearly on the text of the letters, it does tend to give the impression that such questions are relatively easily answered or, worse, that there is a degree of consensus in relation to them. Finlan’s discussion of scholarly debates seems to focus on those issues that he finds most interesting (notions of theosis or the cultic and sacrificial dimensions of Pauline atonement language), rather than on those that might best help the student to understand the rich and diverse world of Pauline interpretation. This is only exacerbated by the lack of any attempt to draw the textual data together into some kind of summary of Paul’s theology. The result is a work that offers helpful and often insightful discussions of each letter, but in which the reader will struggle to find any account of—to choose just three examples—the insights of the New Perspective on Paul, the nature of Paul’s interpretative work in relation to Israel’s scriptures or the likely contextual factors that generated the rhetoric of letters. The book ends with a two page reflection on “Paul in the Twenty-First Century,” but there is little here that will help the reader to see why the apostle to the Gentiles has been and continues to be such a contested figure.

I do teach an introductory course on Paul, but have chosen to take a very different approach to the one taken here and as a result will not be using this as a course text. For those who want a succinct introduction to the content of each of the letters, however, this volume forms a helpful starting point.

Review by
Sean Winter
Centre for Theology and Ministry
Parkville VIC 3052