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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

KARL OLAV SANDNES, Paul Perceived: An Interactionist Perspective on Paul and the Law (WUNT 412; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018). Pp.ix + 260. Cloth. €124.00.

In Paul Perceived, Sandnes considers how Paul and his theology was received by “his earliest respondents”—primarily relating to Paul’s engagement with the Jewish law. Through an exploration of passages that explicitly and implicitly imply a polemic against Paul’s teaching regarding the law, Sandnes seeks to identify “the responses that Paul and his theology received” (18, emphasis added). Employing Barclay’s methodology of mirror-reading, Sandnes discusses a number of Pauline passages that represent opposition to Paul and polemic against his teaching and ethic, identified through the dicta of Paul’s opponents embedded within his letters. Sandnes argues that because “some of these critics were [Paul’s] first interpreters, they serve, if not to make the picture of Paul more complete, at least to call Pauline scholarship to account for the complexity, which aside—voices do represent” (22) (on mirror-reading, see further John M. G. Barclay, “Mirror-Reading a Polemic Letter: Galatians as a Test Case,” JSNT 31 (1987) 73–93). A key to understanding Paul’s polemic against the Jewish law, therefore, is “to see how others saw him in regard to the Torah and related questions” (23). These other voices are found in passages which include: texts referring to ‘some’ (τινὲς); passages where Paul makes use of a diatribe-style of rhetoric (e.g. Rom 2–3); places where “Paul cites maximums or slogans probably coined by fellow believers” (such as in 1 Cor); and, “mirror-reading Paul when he engages opponents polemically” (16–17)—most especially seen in Galatians. As Sandnes notes, “these voices are important if we are to ask what and who Paul became” (23).

While many of these voices are recognised through polemic from Paul, identifying and recognising the contextual nature of Paul’s argument helps identify something of who these opponents were. In order to achieve this Sandness identifies “five layers of Pauline legacy … [that] are, in principle, possible sources to gain knowledge about Paul and how he was remembered” (19). These layers include: 1. the undisputed letters; 2. currently contested letters ascribed to Paul; 3. potential dicta of others embedded in Pauline passages; 4. the book of Acts; and 5. other NT books including James, Hebrews and the Gospel of Matthew.

While Sandnes suggests the target of the study “is limited and specified to matters pertaining to the law” (19), much of his critique of current scholarship is aimed at advocates of both the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and Paul-within-Judaism (PWJ) schools. Although Sandnes accepts that Paul‘s Jewishness and his place within Judaism is important, he argues that the emphasis of recent scholarship has overlooked some of the polemic and challenge that Paul brings to the Judaism of his time. This is explicitly presented in Chapter 2 where Sandnes outlines his core concerns with PWJ. While Paul addresses his letters to his Gentile communities, Sandnes argues that Paul also has his Jewish audience in mind. And although Paul calls himself an ‘apostle to the Gentiles,’ “the horizon of Paul’s theology surpasses that of his intended addressees” (27). According to Sandnes, Romans, Corinthians and Galatians highlight the inclusive and universal scope of Paul’s challenge to both Gentile and Jewish audiences. Furthermore, the Damascus Road event had a major impact on Paul, shifting his theological focus from a narrow Jewish perspective to a universal, cosmic perspective of all humanity before God. The Damascus Road event shifts Paul from a zealous Torah observer who viewed Messiah and law in tandem with each other, to someone who now views Messiah and law as somehow opposing each other. For Paul, “the Damascus event was disruptive to this tandem, as it drove a wedge between the law and the Messiah … The two were not supposed to work against each other, but this was precisely the option that the Damascus experience conveyed to Paul …” (43). Sandnes argues that Paul, through further reflection, “negotiated the relationship between the Torah and Christ, a relationship traditionally seen as a harmonious tandem in which the Messiah embodied the ideal of faithful Torah observance.” As a result, “a decentering of the law is at play in Paul’s theology” (44). This negotiation is especially evident in Galatians and Romans. Damascus therefore, becomes the pardigm through which “the story of grace and faith is played out in a way that is relevant to Jews and Gentiles alike” (45).

For Sandnes, therefore, Paul’s engagement with the Jewish law has greater implications than PWJ accepts. Paul’s theology is not just merely a manifestation of first century Judaism; it “was probably more polarising than” PWJ admit (50). Sandnes stresses that Paul’s letters do not present a rejection of his Jewish identity, “Paul did not cease to be a Jew, nor did he abandon that identity, but the importance he attached to it was now subordinate to his in-Christ identity” (51).

Chapters 3–7 proceed from this basis and explore various passages that Sandnes suggests present potential responses and reactions to Paul’s theology—especially reactions from his Jewish peers. Chapter 3 considers the Galatian situation and Chapter 4 explores Romans. Starting with Romans 3:8 as a key interpretive verse for the letter, Sandnes explores Paul’s argument through the lens of diatribe and counter-argument. He engages with the debate about who the so-called “Jew” is in Rom 2:17. Rather than it supporting an argument for a ‘Paul-within-Judaism,’ the verse is in fact “caught up in an argument which drives towards universality” (101). Chapter 5, explores how others contemporary to Paul viewed obedience to Torah—especially concerning circumcision. Sandnes discusses the Adinene situation, Philo and intertestamental literature such as Maccabees, 2 Baruch and Jubilees. The importance of these passages lie in the way they engage the Genesis narrative concerning Abraham. Sandnes’ discussion on this point is unfortunately rather brief and adds little to the aim of the book.

In Chapter 6 Sadnes considers the punishments Paul experienced, as outlined in 2 Corinthians. A major strength of this chapter is that it highlights the way in which Paul was perceived by his own Jewish contemporaries, and the Jewish nature of the discipline he received. For Sandnes, this supports his contention that Paul was a polarising figure throughout his letters (176). Chapter 7, provides an overview of some key passages throughout Acts that present evidence of polemic against Paul’s thought. The subtitle of the chapter, “An Ambiguous Picture,” emphasises current scholarly suspicion when employing Acts to interpret Paul. Given that Paul Perceived is exploring the perspective of others, the engagement with Acts here is valid.

Overall, Sandnes provides excellent and interaction with other scholarship. His argumentation is consistent, albeit at times circular and narrow in scope. His bias against the NPP and PWJ schools is evident throughout. Unfortunately, this bias often drives his exegesis and interpretation to a point where his conclusions appear more speculative than can be definitively gleaned from his exegesis. Consequently, some of his conclusions speak more to his own bias than to the text itself.

Adopting mirror-reading as a methodology provides Sandnes with a framework through which to explore possible theological, religious and social aspects of thought of Paul’s responders. Unfortunately, adopting such a methodology has its own weaknesses with highly speculative conclusions. Paul Perceived is an important contribution to Pauline studies, especially with respect to reception criticism of Paul’s theology, in the area of Paul and Torah, and Paul within Judaism. Irrespective of whether one agrees with his conclusions, the scholarship and skill with which Sandnes develops his argument and draws his readers through the various dicta and passages is excellent, highlighting the depth and insight that a such mature scholar brings to such the conversation. Although his argument is dense and ambiguous at times, Paul Perceived will be remain an important text for future research into Pauline thought.

Review by
Alphacrucis College